Destination Crenshaw announces first cohort of artists

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By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

CRENSHAW — A who’s who of the Los Angeles arts community has been named by Destination Crenshaw as the first seven cohort of artists for the South Los Angeles-based project.

Charles Dickson, Melvin Edwards, Maren Hassinger, Artis Lane, Alison Saar, Kehinde Wiley and Brenna Youngblood, all familiar names to art enthusiasts, have been commissioned to create artworks for the highly anticipated Destination Crenshaw development.

The group is the first of 100 artists who will create works for Destination Crenshaw, reportedly making the $100 million public-private project the largest commissioned initiative ever undertaken by and for Black artists.

The group will create sculptures, including a monument by Wiley for Sankofa Park, the northernmost public gathering place being created by the project, as well as for various sites along the route. The project is bordered by Vernon Avenue on the north and Slauson Avenue on the south.

Each artist’s works will be situated along the boulevard according to themes: improvisation, firsts, dreams and togetherness.

Charles Dickson, who in 1992 commemorated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with a 14-foot bronze and concrete sculpture in Watts, beating out 35 other artists in a competition sponsored by the city Community Redevelopment Agency to create the memorial, will develop new artwork for Destination Crenshaw.

Dickson, 73, an artist in residence at the famous Watts Towers Arts Center, is creating a piece that features three, 10-foot-high, highly-polished stainless steel Senufo sculpture pieces highlighting low-rider cars with a bumper-like finish.

“I’m creating a new paradigm in public art,” said Dickson who became inspired with sculpture at the age of 5 after watching a neighbor sculpt with a penknife. “It was a real collaboration with Perkins + Wills (project designers). I wanted to focus my attention on the car culture that cruises down Crenshaw Boulevard.

“We wanted to magnify that expression of custom cars and being motivated by the individualism that comes out of that. My plan was to take cars and make a cluster that looks like a tree. On top will be the crown that holds the cars and a morphed engine that represents all aspects of the engine itself.”

Dickson said he made the initial figures from Senufo wood, foam and Bondo, which “is how cars were made in the 20s.” He said the cars’ lights “will be illuminated by fiber optic cable.”

“My expression for that is the spiritual connections from the past to the future,” Dickson said. “We can’t see spirit but we do see the expression of light in terms of spirits — like an aura. The best way to show it was to show light coming from African objects. It was important to have that representation.”

Dickson said it was important for him to build a language through his art that spoke of culture.  

“Part of what I do is filling in the dots,” said Dickson, who feels honored to represent the community the way he knows he’s able to. “I have made it my life’s career to fill in those dots with cultural icons to represent this Black community and culture. I’ve built a vocabulary so that the community can read it and understand their position in it.”

Dickson said he wants to empower the community “to reach high.”

“I want us to leave examples for people in the community to gather around and say we are a part of this and say and recognize that it’s important,” he said.

Dickson applauds Destination Crenshaw’s efforts.

“I think it’s a good innovative thought for the community to express art openly along a corridor,” Dickson said. “People will visit the corridor and acknowledge the art and the community. This is progressive. It needed to happen a long time ago.

“It’s important that we leave our mark and cultural expressions,” he added. I feel comfortable that the piece I created will do just that. I’m very excited about the next possibilities.”

Dickson, along with the other six artists are considered outstanding in their fields and widely known for engaging the Black community by building connections through their art. Their contributions will bring to life a stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard being redesigned into an economically thriving business, art and cultural corridor for Black L.A.

The innovative and grand Destination Crenshaw project, which began construction in early 2019, is a 1.3-mile cultural corridor on Crenshaw Boulevard that celebrates the historic and contemporary contributions to Black Los Angeles.

When completed, the unapologetically Black open-air museum will consist of a stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard from 48th to 60th streets that will be transformed into a commercial corridor linked by green community spaces, parklets, hundreds of newly planted trees and more than 100 commissioned works of art by local and renowned artists.

The iconic Crenshaw Wall, an 800-foot-long mural featuring Black activists and performers along Crenshaw Boulevard, will be rebuilt and restored as part of the overall project.

Spearheaded by City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, the project is designed by Perkins + Will, known for its design of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Landscape design is by Studio-MLA. Jason Foster is the chief operating officer and president of Destination Crenshaw.

The idea for Destination Crenshaw was created in response to the construction of the Crenshaw/LAX Rail Line on the ground level instead of underground.

Considered the main street of Black Los Angeles, Crenshaw Boulevard runs through historic neighborhoods, including Leimert Park, and is lined by some of the region’s essential businesses, including the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall, which was recently sold.

In a recent statement, Destination Crenshaw officials said they expect to submit designs for each of the sculptural works in October for review and approval by the city of Los Angeles’s Cultural Affairs Commission.

In addition to Dickson, all of the participating artists have connections to South Los Angeles.

Wiley was born in Los Angeles and grew up in South Central. When he was 17, he was chosen to participate in the Metro Young Artists program. He is the first Black artist to paint a presidential portrait.

Melvin Edwards attended high school in Los Angeles and then studied at USC and the Otis College of Art and Design. He started his studio in Crenshaw in 1963 and has had his work exhibited around the world for more than 50 years.

Maren Hassinger grew up in Leimert Park and has worked with sculputure, performance and installation alongside other Black Los Angeles artists like Senga Nengudi, Ulysses Jenkins, Houston Conwill and David Hammons.

Artis Lane was born in Canada but has lived and worked in South Los Angeles for more than three decades. She has a sculpture of Sojourner Truth, which was commissioned by the National Congress of Black Women, displayed at the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington and a sculpture of Rosa Parks is in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

Alison Saar was born in Los Angeles and studied at Scripps College and the Otis College of Art and Design. She is best known for her sculptures, which are part of the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Brenna Youngblood lives in the Crenshaw District and was born in Riverside in 1979. She studied at Cal State Long Beach and UCLA. Her works are part of collections at the Hammer, LACMA, the Museum of Contemporary Art LA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Seattle Art Museum, Fundacion/Coleccion Jumex in Mexico City and The Studio Museum in Harlem and more.

Destination Crenshaw is being funded by individual donors, philanthropic organization and corporate entities along with state, local and federal government dollars. California’s 2021-22 fiscal year budget included $6.5 million for the project.

City News Service contributed to this article.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.

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