Hearing on the radio the sounds of peaceful protesters being hit with tear gas in Lafayette Square, amid the George Floyd protests in Washington on June 1, affected Sylvi Herrick deeply.
“I mean, I felt like I was there,” Herrick told a virtual audience brought together Thursday by the Matheson History Museum in Gainesville.
The next day, Herrick, a multifaceted artist based in St. Augustine, had a vision of how her work could be a medium for conversation and change. It led to her latest project, “Lights of Conversation – A Call and Response,” what she calls a response to the racial injustice concerns and Black Lives Matter movement that gripped the nation over the summer.
Intended for an outdoor space, “Lights of Conversation” consists of two neon verses facing each other and flashing as a call and response. Herrick is collaborating with poet Janessa Martin, using lines from two of her poems, “fear of crows (and blackness)” and “a crow’s message.”
Matheson will host the work for the next couple of months.
One piece – “I fear you and although I do not know you I know your kind” – calls out the fears people can have when they do not understand others’ perspectives outside their own. It is hanging above the front door of the museum’s main building on East University Avenue.
The other piece – “I come to you in kinship and longing” – is the response, as if creating an inclusive conversation in which passersby are caught in the middle. It is on the museum’s library and archives site across the avenue.
Matheson partnered with the city’s parks, recreation and cultural affairs department and the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center to bring Herrick’s work to Gainesville.
Dixie Neilson, Matheson’s executive director, said Herrick and her work were ideal for the museum’s current lecture series on matters involving social justice.
“I loved her work right off the bat,” Neilson told WUFT News.
About 30 people attended the virtual event, “Art As a Peacemaker,” through Zoom and Facebook livestream. Kaitlyn Hof-Mahoney, Matheson’s curator of collections, moderated the discussion.
Herrick briefly spoke to the audience about some of her past works, and said now is the time to build bridges with people and take big risks in the names of democracy of love.
“We need to realize that diversity is the prize,” she said.
Herrick said she aims to create art that brings people together and involves public spaces.
“The viewer’s experience and interpretation are really what the art is all about,” she said.
During a Q&A, Hof-Mahoney asked questions submitted by attendees, including how the arts and history can work together.
“I feel like artists can take more chances in telling different angles of what history might mean,” Herrick said.
Sarah Younger, 61, a software engineer and artist from High Springs, said after the event she was happy to see the museum supporting public art and spurring such conversations.
“A lot of people do not see art as speaking out about our present-day culture,” Younger said. “I think public art has a way of challenging us to look differently at our world, and informing us to engage in conversations that might be difficult.”
While Matheson remains closed to the public due to COVID-19, Neilson said the lecture series is a way to keep residents engaged and show the museum is still active.
“Just because we are closed does not mean we are not working,” she said.