Boutonniere on the A Train – Public Art & Robin Strayhorn

Here’s another embossed Metro Moment:

I saw a brother striding to exit the train. Just before he stepped through open doors, he stuffed a roll of U.S. currency into the hand of a Latina holding her baby. Could have been a dollar, could have been a thousand. Body language suggested they were strangers and that I’d just witnessed an act of generosity, which was the inference drawn by this Black man of happiness.

I do keep my eyes peeled for public beauty. While on Metro, I’m people-watching big time. And no doubt, riding the trains and buses of LA, I witness America’s pain [homeless riders, drunk individuals, bold individuals shouting, selling, bullying …].

Yet I stay bent on peeping ‘Joy Vignettes!’ And often I’m a witness to America’s kindness.

I love witnessing adolescents, hoodie-wearing, pants sagging, shouting, ‘Thanks bus driver,’ when they clamber out the back door.

I’ve witnessed old heads holding brown bags of wine, or a half-pint of liquor, cheerily giving accurate directions to a family of European tourists.

I once smiled witnessing a 20-something young cat look up from his drawing pad to patiently explain to a dude smelling like four or five yesterdays:

‘No, bruh, you on the wrong train; you need to get off and go back to 7th & Metro.’

And all riders, whether we notice or not, are surrounded by “innovative, award-winning visual and performing arts” integrated into Metro stations.

According to Metro’s website, “Metro Art … connects people, sites and neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles County… improving the visual quality of transit environments and creating a sense of place….” 

Unable to ride the Metro during the Covid 19 pandemic, I’ve missed entering the subtle fields of beauty that public art provides to stations.

I see public art as, like, boutonnieres and corsages, which I wear like I’m heading off to the prom as I move through Metro stations.

At Union Station, I actually walk with a dancer’s attitude, when I gaze up at Richard Wyatt’s eighty-foot long mural that contains images of Native Americans and settlers of the LA basin as well as contemporary Angelenos in a row of dignified faces. It’s part of City of Dreams/River of History that also includes an undulating aquarium by May Sun that holds 7,500 gallons of water and is populated with indigenous coastal fish.

Or I bop rhythmically to “Take the A Train” playing as part of artist Bill Bell’s installation featuring twelve vertical light sticks producing varying patterns of light and color beside the escalator to the red and purple lines.

“Take the A Train” was written by Billy Strayhorn, genius composer, arranger, and cultural icon. Duke Ellington said that Strayhorn was my “right arm, my left arm, all the eyes on the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head and his in mine,” according to an exhibition I swooned over at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City.

And in some wonderful way of the world, Mr. Strayhorn’s great niece, Robin Strayhorn, has been an artistic muse and colleague of mine since the early 2000’s, when we began working together in classrooms and on public art projects. Robin’s color-infused art, including her public art, keeps my senses alert to awe in my life.

Robin’s public art can be found all over Southern California. The Ontario International Airport features her Terrazzo Floor and Tile Mural. There’s her Central Avenue Jazz Park Mural and her Morningside Community Mural. You can find her work adorning the Hyde Park Branch Public Library and the Ascot Branch Public Library. Robin’s striking tile work is also featured at the Ted Watkins Park Flagpole and Pool House, Enterprise Park Pool House, and Gigante Supermarket.

And at Metro’s Imperial/Wilmington Station, she co-created with Michael Massenburg the marvelously elemental Pathways to Freedom, a tiled bench that evokes the bench bus seat Rosa Parks refused to relinquish in 1955.

Originally, I wanted to jump in a car with Robin and interview her when we stopped at each of her public art projects. During the pandemic, I had to settle for a telephone Q/A, which I’ve excerpted in closing below.

Q: Why do you make public art?

Strayhorn: I like the idea of working with the community to create something that’s uplifting for people and to enliven people’s daily experience…. [Her public art practice was inspired by a 2004 trip to Spain, where she was blown away by the “artistic adventure of public art” by architect Antoni Gaudi.]

How did you get started making public art?

Strayhorn: I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I became interested, however, I do remember I was exhibiting my work in Atlanta at the National Black Arts Festival. Varnette Honeywood inspired me to go. Showed me what to do, how to package my artwork, how to ship it. … I was there and remember running into Michael Massenburg,  and I mentioned that I had a strong desire to work in the public art realm. I wanted a wider audience. Michael said he’d just completed his first public art project. Within a year, I received a phone call from a friend who had purchased some of my artwork telling me she had given my phone number to Lydia Kennard, at the time the Executive Director of Los Angeles World Airports. I was an emerging artist at the time. We were all invited to create proposals for the Ontario International Airport. That is how I got started. And I was able to create couple of designs for the Ontario Airport.

I was nervous. It was a fast-track situation. Varnette again helped me. She said you need to look at something you’ve already done and expand on that. I had these mask-like images that I used to take into classes for kids to color. I ended up using those. I expanded upon them. Varnette encouraged me to look at what’s already there. ‘They already like your colors and your work,’ Varnette said, ‘so go with something you already have and that they’ve already shown interest in.’ She gave me so much other advice.

Recently, I saw a movie on Netflix that was filmed in Ontario airport, with Meryl Streep and Jeffery Wright. I saw my work, the terrazzo floor. I was, like, ‘Oh cool!’ I paused it and I took a screen shot. It was motivating to see it. A reminder to me of what’s possible.

What do you want your public art to accomplish?

Strayhorn: I want it to be inviting and to be aesthetically pleasing. I want it to aesthetically enhance the environment, to add to, and not take away, from the environment. I want it to be relevant to the community that it serves. In some cases, I want it to get people to think about something, or to inspire them. When I created the floor design at Ontario Airport, I wanted the art to be playful and welcoming, to give them, like, a blast of energy. One day I had to go there and get some better photographs of the floor. [I was told that a] lot of children are drawn to the mural. They like to jump on certain parts of the mural. Once it’s out there, it’s for everybody. It’s like giving birth to something, but it’s not for yourself. It’s for the whole community.

Yes yes yes … People get ready there’s a train a coming.

BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ WINNER, 2015 AMERICAN BOOK AWARD: “… HAPPINESS BURNS WITHIN: …One man’s life-affirming grito, shouted in the uncensored voice of a ‘long-distance runner’ for what’s refreshing and marvelous and courageous about being a man of witness and participation and conscience .…”

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