Harlem Arcadia: Two-Block Radius
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Harlem Arcadia: Two-Block Radius is a suite of fourteen embroideries based on architectural motifs found in the brick and brownstone townhouses of the St. Nicholas Historic District, better known as Strivers’ Row, which is visible from my studio windows.
The title is a paean to the beauty of the neighborhood and its cultural history, as well as a slightly ironic comment on the idea of Arcadia as a mythical place of peaceful refuge. Neoclassical building types and ornamental details have often been used in architecture to signify democracy and harmony, even as they also carry a certain European patriarchal burden and extend its power into the future. Strivers’ Row was designed in the 1890s, originally as a whites-only enclave in what at the time was a kind of suburb of New York City. The development failed to attract buyers and remained mostly empty until 1919, when it was opened to African Americans and began to attract professionals, artists, and leaders in the black community—the “strivers” of the Harlem Renaissance. Residents included pianist Eubie Blake, bluesman W. C. Handy, congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and surgeon Louis T. Wright. This cultural flowering was cut short by the Great Depression. In any case, although the name “Strivers’ Row” has retained a kind of mythic aura, it is difficult to imagine any New York neighborhood as an Arcadia for long: in every generation, many different constituencies strive for their own versions of Arcadia, and their strivings take place under the shadow of the city’s volatile real estate market.
Harlem Arcadia was conceived as an installation, with the individual works hung like fragments from a classical ruin. Each piece began in a photograph of an architectural detail, which I simplified into two or three colors and printed on dyed linen. The colors reflect the original context of each motif—whether it appears in concrete, stone, or bronze, or has been painted over in interesting ways. Parts of each motif are emphasized with embroidery, which was executed with a sewing machine that sews the same loop stitch as its earliest predecessors, from the 1870s. Four works are further articulated with trapunto, a quilting technique that creates a raised dimension in fabric. This translation of the neighborhood’s neoclassical architectural motifs to sewn and quilted fabric brings exterior ornamentation into the realm of domestic decor, transposing masculine material into a feminine idiom.
In the second part of the installation, on the adjacent wall, an embroidery in wool yarn on gray burlap is installed over a late-eighteenth-century neoclassical American wallpaper pattern, called Hamilton Urns Stenciled. The embroidery quotes the last stanza of “Arcadian Winter,” a poem by Willa Cather that subverts the myth of Arcadian paradise by meditating on aging and the passage of time. The burlap’s coarse weave is slightly transparent, revealing the wallpaper pattern behind, as well as the embroidery’s wooden crossbar support. I also conceived of the text as an ironic commentary on the reality of buying and owning grand old buildings, which have often been neglected over many years. Cather’s lines imply a wonderful conflation between shepherd’s pipes and leaky pipes, with winter winds blowing through old brownstones.