A New York Artist Creates Her Own “St. Louis Blues”

At the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis (CAM), the new exhibition “Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967–2017” features 24 artists responding to the impact of urban development in the United States, where one piece in particular grapples with the subject matter through a 12-foot tall replica of the dome atop St. Louis’ Old Courthouse, the historic landmark where the Dred Scott case was adjudicated. The dome’s wooden infrastructure is exposed, the spaces between left nakedly open. A white picket fence surrounds the circular structure, decorated with barbed wire and a smattering of found objects the artist gathered from thrift shops.

The piece, titled “St. Louis Blues,” was constructed in a corner gallery of the museum by New York City-based artist Abigail DeVille, who was invited by the museum to create the work for Urban Planning. DeVille is well-known for her large sculptural installations made from materials she finds on-site, which often speak to the soul about the horrors of racial oppression and gentrification, without words.

There are children’s dolls fastened to the fence, some plastic and some plush, the colors of their bodies intended to mimic black, white, and Asian human skin. There are a variety of trinkets and trophies: an old radio, a shiny pan, an alarm clock, a tea kettle, gold lampstands and teddy bears, a tiara with a pink fluffy boa and plastic gems, shiny tinsel, reflective pieces of mirrors and housewares, trappings and signs of life that are locked both in and out. A wooden door incorporated into the piece has been decorated with colorful stickers. A train track has been laid under it in the shape of a foreboding infinity sign, with a miniature train filled with bones.

We interviewed DeVille not long after CAM’s summer opening, and discussed her experience in the Midwest, racism and the power of art.

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What inspired you to create this piece and to use the Old Courthouse as a focal point?

When I was invited to participate, I didn’t know anything about St. Louis. I’d never been before. When I arrived, I spent several days here touring around. I happened to go to the Visitor Center, where I asked if there were any independently owned African-American history tours of the city. I was hoping there was an alternative history tour here, and the woman there directed me to go to the Old Courthouse. I knew it was important to the center of that conversation, about the injustices that the African-American population faced here. That really guided the whole process.

In the Old Courthouse, I was interested in the pictures with all this scaffolding about it, and how justice and democracy in the U.S. is an incomplete process. What it was like in ancient Greece, where the concept of democracy originated, doesn’t resemble what we actually have here.

In my research, I found a 2016 independent report about St. Louis’ hyper-segregation, disinvestment and poverty. In the details, it shows—neighborhood by neighborhood—how black populations have an almost zero percent rate of home ownership, because banks are continuing to deny them housing loans.

That prevents you from having a stable community, when there’s no economic investment. I wanted to specifically address that, because how can you have an urban planning exhibition and not talk about redlining? Working with CAM was also a really great experience. Staff members helped me scavenge for materials. I had to leave in the middle of preparing the exhibition to work on another piece and come back.

What are some of the personal and political influences that underlie the piece you ultimately came up with?

I have a brilliant artist friend who talks about how “Make America Great Again” really means, “Let’s take America back to 1953, before Brown v. Board of Education.” In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote Where Do We Go From Here Chaos or Community? In it he discusses the immediate white backlash after the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That white backlash really happened when it came to asking the hard questions, things like economic development and underfunded education for African Americans. Desegregating schools and bus lines and lunch counters didn’t cost anything. That was an emotional and psychological letting-go of the division of the races. But when it came to actually investing in improving quality of life in the black community, that’s when the America started the pumping the breaks on the equalizing of the races. I wanted to make something that engaged with that history.

For me, the piece is really my love letter to the African-American community in St. Louis, though it’s also for everyone. When I was invited to come and participate in the show, I was incredibly sensitive to what happened here in St. Louis and how I should treat it. It was a challenge to bring these types of injustices that people have endured for generations into the institutional setting and have it reflect my earnestness in honoring the lives of these St. Louisans. I learned that much of the current issues has a direct relationship to poor, racist urban planning. I was also hypersensitive to the space I was in and people who come to the museum. I was really impressed that it’s free and that there were so many families. I felt really blessed to see that.

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What do some of these found objects you’ve gathered together mean?

The 1950s embodied the epitome of the American dream, with things like the possibility of owning your own home. But groups of people have been intentionally kept outside of that through urban policy and city planning practices. Jim Crow was just the culture, the custom. With barbed-wire wrapped around a white picket fence, there’s this idea of suburbia and white utopia as a prison to keep people out, but it’s also a prison for the people in it. It keeps them from seeing what’s actually going on in their city, their county and country.

Many of the objects embedded in the piece came from the bins at Goodwill. That also helped reflect class differences, not just racial divides. It’s not like we were finding people’s Versace and Chanel castaways. We were finding Cabbage Patch Kids dolls. My guiding principle for the collecting of these objects came directly from the practice of African American Yard Work. Yard Work can be seen in front and backyards all throughout the south. Many are also household items that have flashy and reflective surfaces. Broken and inverted vessels, experienced objects, fences, objects wrapped and tied, stuffed animals, dolls, wheels, mirrors, roots and trees. There are lots of silver things and shiny things that reflect implications of glory, divinity, light of heaven on Earth, and how the material world masks the higher powers that comes to light intermittently. That’s why the room is painted silver to honor the ancestors whose brilliance shines on into the present.

The book I used as a reference, is called “No Space Hidden: The Spirit Of African American Yard Work,” by Grey Gundaker and Judith McWillie. In it there is a proposed lexicon of traditional material signs in African American cemeteries, homes and churches. The Diamond Star, or the all-seeing eye of God, is a sign of commitment to progressing wisdom. So the conversation happens within this makeshift Diamond Star that is in the form of the fences and encapsulates the dome structure. The stuffed animals and dolls also serve as watchers who remind all those who approach that you should behave as if the world is watching.

How can white people discuss and address racial issues in a more effective way?

There’s a massive denial as far as people not wanting to hear about other people’s pain. At the opening of this show, there was an older white woman who wanted to know what the piece was about. I started talking about redlining, and she got mad. If someone’s talking about racism and you get mad and deflect, you’re not willing to understand the other side.

People would be so up in arms if white kids were getting murdered by police officers for playing with a toy gun. Or when they dig up someone’s juvenile record to justify the fact that this person was gunned down. People all over the country would be horrified if that were happening to white kids. There’s something very honest about the racism of 60 years ago. They’d call you a nigger to your face, and you’d know where you stand. Now it’s become so covert that people don’t recognize it in themselves. They don’t think they’re racist. They see themselves as good people and good human beings. People need to become more aware of themselves and what their own handicaps are. To be self-reflective is difficult work.

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What is the power of art when it comes to broaching these more difficult topics?

I do believe that art has the power to change people’s minds, especially if it’s something they don’t like. Something about experiencing that object—it really does have the power to change lives, because you’re having that experience with an object and looking inward. It’s quicker than going to a class or reading a book. It might hit you, stay with you and force you to go down rabbit holes of further inquiry. Hopefully it makes you open and receptive to other kinds of experiences.

We frequently talk about the difficulties of fitting an artistic practice into the constraints of what’s required for day-to-day life: paying rent, bills, taxes, etc. How have you carved out a creative life that’s sustainable? 

I’ve had the blessing of being born and raised in New York City. My Dad’s family lived in a project apartment in the Bronx for more than 40 years. I lived with my grandmother from 2007 to 2012 before and after graduate school. Her rent was under $200 per month, which was amazing. I kicked up my feet, and I was like, “I’m going to ride this thing out.” And then she passed away six months after I finished grad school at Yale School of Art. It took 3 months before the building found out and evicted me. Simultaneously, I received a short-term residency for a studio program in Brooklyn and moved in there.

My strategy has really been massively applying for residencies, doing visiting artist gigs and making sure I have enough to get by, continuing to show and making the best possible piece I could make in the moment with whatever I had at hand. That’s what the model has been: to make the best possible thing I can at the moment I’m in. That’s helped propel me to this one.

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