Underground railroad 'quilts' to mark 28th/31st Connector

Thursday, September 22, 2011 at 5:26pm
Image courtesy of MNAC

Underground Railroad-inspired artwork that plays off African-American quilt-making –– and requiring an artist’s fee of $300,000 –– is slated for Nashville’s new 28th-31st Avenue Connector, the long-awaited road project bridging north and west Nashville together.

The Metro Nashville Arts Commission voted last week to hire Iowa-based artist David Dahlquist to oversee the first public art project for the new connector near Charlotte Pike and Centennial Park, awarding him a $300,000 contract. Construction on the new corridor began in May, with Metro officials eyeing an early 2013 opening. Installation of the public art project will follow the same timeframe.

“He was really inspired by the history of signal-making and quilt patterns, particularly during the Underground Railroad movement,” said Jen Cole, director of the arts commission, alluding to the network of secret routes that led many African-Americans to northern freedom during the era of slavery.

“Quilts, particularly those made by African-Americans, were hung out by windows, and the quilt patterns themselves and the stitching were used as signals in communication to connect people along the Underground Railroad,” she said.

Dahlquist’s design is an abstraction of six different quilt patterns and stitching that will go along fencing on both sides of a street bridge crossing a CSX railroad line. For now, renderings are just conceptual. The art will be made of metal and painted to appear copper.

“Basically, the idea is for him to work within the existing bridge with alternating quilt and thread patterns along the bridge,” she said.

Cole said the commission’s choice of Dahlquist came after members whittled proposals down to four finalists. She said the commission asked artists to incorporate their proposals into the “complete-streets” concept that the new connector upholds.

“It was important for us that the art, rather than be free standing, be integrated into the streetscape,” Cole said. 

Additionally, artists were asked to consider the history of the area and “the role of connection” in bridging the neighborhoods together. A cultural impetus behind the 28th connector is to bridge North Nashville, predominantly African-American, with the West End area.

Dollars to pay for the 28th Avenue connector’s public art come from the Percent for the Arts program, a law passed during Mayor Bill Purcell’s tenure that channels 1 percent of all net proceeds of general obligation bonds issued for construction projects to public art.

So far, projects paid through the Percent for the Arts program are “Ghost Ballet” on the East Bank of the Cumberland River, “Citizen” at the downtown public square and, most recently, a set of bronze statues called “Exploration and Discovery,” erected at the square.

In the months ahead, the arts commission is slated to hire an artist to work on projects at six transit shelters along the connector. 

13 Comments on this post:

By: quiltnsharron on 9/23/11 at 2:27

Please advise Jan Cole that Mr. Dahlquist's interest in the underground railroad is NOT based on historical FACTS. I certainly don't care what is artistically put on your walls in Nashville but please do not link it to quilts and the UGRR. The UGRR never used quilts or quilt blocks. The UGRR as it associates with quilts is not based on any historical facts.

Best wishes,
Sharron EVans

By: quiltsndogs on 9/24/11 at 3:39

As a quilt historian, you cannot imagine the frustration that I feel when I read about, yet another, instance of a reputable organization accepting the fictional "quilt code" story as fact. I wish that the Metro Nashville Arts Commission, Ms. Cole, and Mr. Dahlquist would consult with quilt experts and UGRR authorities before they spend $300,000 on a fable perpetuated in a poorly(if at all)-researched novel. This public art project cannot be " inspired by the history of signal-making and quilt patterns", because there IS NO HISTORY!
I respect and would defer to your knowledge of Art. But art involves, to a great degree, perception and not, necessarily, fact. Why, then, would you not seek input from those whose expertise lies in the study of history?
Does Nashville really want to invest that sum of money in a MYTH?

Roberta Benvin

By: FLeFew on 9/24/11 at 8:25

Fable or not, at least an American is the artist. So much better than outsourcing to China and making Dr. King to look oriental as in the disgusting new King memorial on the Washington Mall.

By: music8920 on 9/27/11 at 4:56

An American is the responsible for doing this magnificent art work. All the pieces create an enviroment that reflect peace. It shows that everybody enjoy different activities in the same place and that is a great example about living together. We are different with different toughs, different way of interpret things but looking at this art and the Idea behind it express that it doesn't matter who we are we can shared a lot of things and be good neighbours. As FleFew post it is not another stranger that create the art work, it is one of us and we have to be proud of it.

God Bless Americans and their talents!!

By: hjn on 9/27/11 at 5:17

Consider for a moment that a "thread" weaves throughout the entire project depicting, as the commission desired, the symbolism of connecting neighborhoods, people groups, and times in history. We are connected to the past through our history, and to the future by the choices we make today. This is art, and a great work of art at that.

To me, the quilts symbolize a non-offensive reminder of the Underground Railroad, and the peaceful way of life embraced by those with homes along the route & those helped to freedom in the North.

My opinion is that this is an excellent choice for the project installation. Great job, Metro Nashville Arts Commission!

By: sadrac on 9/27/11 at 6:49

I really loved it because I think that is very important to be connected as people with others

By: guest123 on 9/27/11 at 7:16

I would love to see this project become a reality. The design is contemporary with a historical illustration of significant value. Great art!

By: jc7 on 9/27/11 at 7:54

I think that even though there is diffrence of opinions between historians and scholars over the quilt code theory, and whether or not escaping slaves actually used codes concealed within quilt patterns to follow the escape routes of the Underground Railroad, it is known as a fact that most quilt patterns had their roots in the African traditions that slaves brought with them to North America when they were captured and forced to leave their homeland. The Africans’ method of recording their history and stories was by committing it to memory and passing it on orally to following generations. Quilt patterns were passed down the same way. I see this project as a great way of celebrating the African folklore and herritage in this city. Moreover, projects like this, not only present contemporary solutions that transcend generations but also serve as an expression of art and inspiration. Art not only inspires people but also empowers cities and their economies attracting residents, visitors and investments. Very exited to see the completion of this project.

By: mariop on 9/27/11 at 8:31

Art will always narrow down to art. The message that these designers were trying to bring was a positive but yet a powerful and beautiful way of expressing art. In my personal opinion, the design should stay as it is. The competition was won fare and square and giving priority to the people who won is the right way to go. If it is voted to not go with that design, then allow the firm that won the opportunity to make adjustments. That will be the fair way to treat this situation if you ask me.

By: isabeldi on 9/27/11 at 8:33

We as Americans have been very open minded to Arts and innovation it has been part of our evolution , prosperity and also of our culture. The essence of been creative and to envision new things have enriched our culture and society . The design captured the idea of the art history of quilting but it also has a profound meaning that I am sure that comes out of an American young designer that has passion, devotion and strong working ethical to design such a project We as Americans should empower, motivate and promote our men and women of this country that give the best of them to enrich our culture and society.

By: Josean3 on 9/28/11 at 11:38

I agree,
It is vital to support our own ideas, because it marks a time in history, and it offers the future generations the opportunity to learn from their past generation! Is that how "we"
As the new generation learned? If it wans't for their contribution, how "we" as a society would've learned to break through, obstacles, differences and even predict the future!
This art doesn't symbolize only estetics, it represents an important clue of our past and present, left behind for those in the future!

By: sister3603 on 9/28/11 at 3:58


By: sister3603 on 9/28/11 at 4:04

As regards the statement, "it is known as a fact that most quilt patterns had their roots in the African traditions that slaves brought with them to North America", I have been studying quilt history for many years and have never heard this theory mentioned once. As regards the use of quilts as signals on the Underground Railroad, quilt historians and historians of black history can find no persuasive arguments that this was done. Check out Giles Wright's rebuttal to the idea at http://historiccamdencounty.com/ccnews11_doc_01a.shtml . There are excellent books and other historical information about the black experience in Nashville. It is a shame that the artist took the easy way out and learned nothing about the real history of Nashville in order to develop his work.