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January 18, 2021

Art at the Divide —Reckoning with Segregated History, Forging a Connected Future

Redlining is an age-old practice. A physical barrier was erected at the line between North Brentwood — Prince George’s County’s first African-American town and Brentwood — a sundown town. The two towns approached NDC to help understand how to publicize the history of the barrier while retaining the functional aspect of the barrier, which prevented thru traffic for patrons.

One of our writers, Grace Moon, had the opportunity to interview artists RL Martens (they/them), Bob Donahue (he/him), and Nehemiah Dixon III (he/him) who makeup the trio that is helping the two towns connect via interviews and deep listening, in order to create a unified narrative of the historic Prince George’s County barrier. The trio was selected by a committee of local artists, Town leadership, Historical Society Members, and Arts & Culture professionals to complete this project.  Their end goal? To create a design that bridges the divisive history of the barrier to forge a connected future. 

Do the artists have a personal connection to this project, the area, or the cause?

RL has the closest, most personal connection to the barrier. They grew up about half a mile from the barrier, which no one discussed was a KKK hotspot. They noted that no one ever told them about that portion of history regarding their hometown — it had to be uncovered via research.

Bob is an artist who has worked on monuments and served folks from a variety of cultures. He wants people to realize that the barrier was put up in the 50s — which is relatively recent!

As artists, the three have very strong feelings about monuments around Baltimore being torn down following the murder of George Floyd. Nehemiah was torn between respecting the craft of the creation and what these figures symbolize. He feels the same way about the barrier.

What about the project interested the artists to apply?

Nehemiah remarked, “it felt like it belonged to us” while Bob stated that the project was close to home for him. 

RL is a history buff who had working knowledge of the history of slavery and its interpretation in Maryland. They have a keen interest in who tells what stories, and how they are told. They remarked that even though the group was selected to do the project, that it is largely a “mission that we have been granted in service of the community.”

This project has been going on since 2016. When did the artists begin their collaboration with NDC?

The trio was interviewed and selected at the end of 2019. Their work was set to launch in early 2020, right as the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

What did the brainstorming process look like for the team?

Bob stated that the team does their “best thinking when we’re at the barrier.”

Nehemiah noted, “There are so many pieces that need to come to light. The world is changing right in front of our eyes and so are the perspectives of the people we are interviewing.”

They still have a few more interviews left to do in North Brentwood before the final design is chosen and have decided not to rush the process.

How did you all approach speaking to the divided past as well as shared future for the towns?

Nehemiah led by stating, “With honesty.”

When speaking with senior members of the community, the team’s main focus is to remain respectful to their thoughts and feelings. By remaining open, taking special care to not carry preconceived notions or biases into conversations, the team is able to take it one interview at a time.

As the project has progressed, they realize that everyone has a different story about the barrier — from where it came from to the events surrounding it. It’s clear that the barrier has been different things to different people over time. For this reason, the team is staying grounded in facts while addressing what the landmark means to people and how they share that story. Ninety-nine percent of what the team is doing is listening.

Nehemiah remarked, “The best solution reflects their stories.“ As the project has deepened, the barrier has been feeling more like a sculpture to the team. Nehemiah said, “We decide what is precious. The stories make it a sacred space now.”

How did you all engage with the community? Interviews, workshops, site walks, and/or performances?

Before the pandemic, the team planned to host a party and information session about reimagining the area. This was scheduled to take place two weeks after “the world shut down.” Bob even built a booth for the event!

The pandemic has made engaging the public difficult, but the team has been able to carefully conduct interviews with community members. As a community engagement director at the Phillips Collection, Nehemiah has been flexing his communication muscles in this process, as the personal touch is missing from this portion of the project.

To ensure that they are getting the information they need, the trio is taking special care to pace this project just right, taking into consideration what’s going on in the world, flexibly in scheduling interviews, and maneuvering through roadblocks. They are looking forward to the day when they can return to working in person.

What stage in the process are you currently in? Do you have any pictures you can share?

The trio is currently in the concept development stage and is gearing up to present the final design. NDC will share updates as they become available!

Having less than two years of experience, what struggles did the artists face during this project? Strengths?

The largest struggle that the team faces is not being in person to draft sketches with one another. A large portion of their interactions are over Zoom, and design is not something that they would prefer doing there. A few major strengths of their newly developed team include: the excitement to collaborate with new people and discovering their strengths, working with friends, and getting to know each other better.

Any additional information to note about you all as a group or about the project?

    • Through this collaboration, the group embarked on a professional venture and DMD (Donahue Martens and Dixon) LLC was formed.

What’s next for you all?

RL is currently applying for graduate school for the fall. They plan to study history or geography, which fits into the work that they are currently doing. Nehemiah is looking forward to completing this project and continuing his work at the Phillips Collection. Bob is letting the art lead the way, and is remaining open to opportunities as they present themselves.

RL, Nehemiah, and Bob are grateful for the opportunity and hope that everyone has the chance to see what they are working on. This is a big responsibility, but they are up for the challenge with some help from the community!