Smile Politely

Brief Encounters with Art: Chief Shemauger Park

Inspired by the ways in which COVID-19 has limited and transformed our in-person access to and experience of galleries, festivals, museums, and other designated art spaces, Brief Encounters with Art investigates the power, potential, and complexities of encountering art in passing moments and unexpected locations. If you have suggestions, ideas, or feedback, feel free to contact us at [email protected].

Recently, after what felt like years of quarantine without a breath of fresh air, I decided to take my chances and venture out into the land of trees and bugs and birds. But as an “indoor person”, I must admit that I had another motive as well. When I heard about the Mother & Child sculpture that had been installed for The Great ARTdoors project, I knew it would be worth the trip if my writing convinced just one more person to explore this artistic expression of Black motherhood.

Location: Chief Shemauger Park. You can’t miss it.

Installation format: Reused and repurposed wood

Artist: Kinsey Fitzgerald

©Kinsey Fitzgerald, Mother & Child, 2020. Photo by Claire Katz-Mariani.

Artist statement:

“My vision for The Great ARTdoors is to create a sculpture depicting a beautiful image of a Black Mother holding her Baby. The goals of this piece are beauty, peace, and to combat the stereotype of the absent mother in the Black community, which was created as a means to control enslaved humans for the purpose of justifying the act of ripping children from their mothers and then forcing mothers to be wet nurses to the slave owner’s offspring. This took place in the US as well as in Brazil. This stereotype still exists and is dangerous. Today in the US, a Black Woman is three times more likely than a White Woman to die in Childbirth. I believe this is due to the systematic oppression of Black people in the health care system which is inaccurately justified by stereotypical archetypes such as this one. In São Paulo, they have Black imagery in many of the parks. I am especially inspired by a sculpture there called “Monumento da Mãe Preta ” translated to “The Black Mother Monument”. This spectacular sculpture honors women from their horrific history. The idea and history of the “Black Mother” is known throughout Brazil. I would like to start the same way of honoring and educating with sculptures here in Urbana, and hopefully continue this movement through the rest of the United States.

I was influenced to do a sculpture based off of the surroundings but I also think that due to today’s social climate, especially in terms of statues, this piece sparks this conversation and stands as an example of Public Art that represents the people of today and tomorrow.”

©Kinsey Fitzgerald, Mother & Child, 2020. Photo by Claire Katz-Mariani.

My brief encounter, in brief:

I arrived at the park via car. My friend (who had generously agreed to drive me to the site) and I were cruising slowly down a side road, having absent-minded conversation, when I perked up- “There it is!”

My friend, who had her eyes on the road, almost completely passed it. But anyone else, including myself, could never mistake it for anything else. I knew that had to be it. Perfectly poised amongst the trees just beginning to turn to red and orange hues, as if it were part of the earth- yet unmistakably something separate and whole unto itself. A moment frozen in time.

Yet when I approached the structure, I realized that it was not so much frozen as it was inside a living and breathing bubble. The trees encased it and kept it safe from outside forces, but inside it was very much alive. I could sense the mother’s protectiveness and infinite love for her child in the way she cradled it so close to her body. Almost as though they were one being.

And it was so quiet. It felt like one of those fall days where you want to lie down and hear the crunch of the leaves beneath you, and feel the crisp air nip at your ears and your nose. I can’t explain it any other way. The whole experience just felt so… alive, and present.

I also felt a deep, confounding sadness looking at this piece. Sort of like any bittersweet moment you know you’re going to have to snap out of. Not that I had any impression that the mother in this sculpture was carefree, or that her life is perfect. The mere knowledge that injustice is always around the corner becomes so painfully acute when in the depths of rich, lifegiving, unapologetic Blackness.

©Kinsey Fitzgerald, Mother & Child, 2020. Photo by Claire Katz-Mariani.

Closing thoughts:

If the artist’s goal was indeed to honor Black mothers, I believe that they were remarkably successful. The brilliant placement of this piece in a setting where it blends in perfectly, yet stands out so boldly, gives it the presence of someone who can silence a room without having to utter a word. And now, more than ever, it is important to acknowledge and honor that presence.

All additional photos by Claire Katz-Mariani 

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