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I had the privilege of sitting down and getting to listen to insight from this year’s four Newell Flather Leadership in Public Art Awardees. Christa Brown, founder and executive director of Free Soil Arts Collective, shared her profound connection to the legacies of Black Lowellians, the skilled artists who reflect them, and building community processes that can hold them. I hope you enjoy a closer listen to my conversation with Christa.New England Foundation for the Arts · Public Art Spotlight: Christa Brown
Kamaria Carrington (KC): Well, I am so excited to be here with Christa Brown. Little intro, Christa Brown is a Black founder of Free Soil Arts Collective in Lowell. Yeah. So excited to just be honoring you as one of this year's Newell Flather Awardees for Leadership in Public Art. So thanks for being here with me.
Christa Brown (CB): Thank you. Thank you for having me.
KC: I'm going to ask you a ton of questions to start us off. And take them whatever direction you want, whatever comes to you. First, just what do you want us to know about you as a person? Not the résumé, but just as a person. What has shaped your understanding of what public art is or what it can be, and who has shaped your leadership style?
CB: First, I just love “public art,” the word, because I haven't really thought about it, but the fact of making art accessible and kind of so unavoidable that people have to experience it, whether they consciously want to or not, is just a beautiful thing to me.
Art, I was kind of first introduced with theater when I was twelve. So that was my main outlet - performing. But everything to do with it has just expanded: my view of the world and how I see people, how I have empathy for people that I may not know their life experiences directly. Everything I do today is to just make opportunities for people to see themselves reflected back at them.
And I think that's really what the mission of art is. It's this magical kind of energy that you can use to say stuff that is impossible to say with words and can hit you so deep. It's just crazy. The whole medium is crazy to me. And I feel like now using art as a way to make a living and providing jobs for other artists out there, I really want to be a leader—
I strive to be a leader that is energizing to people and has folks feeling that they don't have to conform to some sort of structure of leadership. Like I have worked for nothing but nonprofits since I graduated from college. And it might as well be a for-profit job, the hierarchy and you feel like you can't question too much. And there's definitely a power structure there, and you don't feel like you can question things. So I feel like a lot of my negative experiences in the workplace helped me to make these mental notes of if I was ever a leader, if I ever made my own thing, this is what I would not do. So yeah, I want everyone to feel like they have a say, that they can contribute, that they're valued. I want the decisions that we ultimately come up to, to feel a little consensus if we can. And I'm just very flexible. So I love projects taking shape, changing, coming against challenges and pivoting. I'm open to that whole process.
KC: That's awesome.
CB: Yeah. It's a journey.
KC: Yeah. Yeah. It's really important. It's really important. And I love that every time I have spoken with you all, all four of the awardees are really revealing these facets of leadership that I think are so important and also so relevant to this time that we're in right now. So much impacting us from the outside, the external, and so much changing in us and the internal.
And it's like, we can't meet those things in the same ways that we have before always. And certainly, where art comes in it's like, that's the beauty, the balm and the healing power of art that it is fluid. It's not like one of those practices that are linear. It's just not. It's so wild and so connected to so many things. So it's really beautiful that your leadership is to meet the process where it is, to really recognize when it's time for a pivot.
CB: Yeah. Yeah. I've heard the phrase “process over product” a lot. And I really try to hold onto that, to not obsess over the end result. I would love to refine just the way we do things and be really intentional about like, this is how Free Soil approaches a project, or this is how we work with artists. I'd love to have that as some sort of written methodology one day. The relationships that lead to, whatever the thing is, that to me is the most important thing in the world.
KC: Yeah. Wow. Who are your mentors or the leaders that most impacted you as a cultural curator for Public Art making or like someone who holds a lot of artists in process?
CB: Oh, gosh. So I have a lot of mentors. A lot of people I've worked with, a lot of folks on our advisory board that I literally will reach out to with anything. I remember the first Black director I ever had professionally was Summer Williams at Company One Theatre. And I was in my early 20s. And along my journey, she's been such a, just a support and someone to help me reaffirm who I am when those moments come where I'm questioning things and doubting things. And she's encouraged me to not lead from a fear-based place. Instead of going into things, immediately going through my list of what could go wrong. And questioning people's intentions and being like, da, da, da and being so just anxious and scared. Now when I'm being conscious of it, I try to take that time to be like, what is the best thing that could happen here? And then, what are my fears? And then, if I am scared of something, how can I address it? How can we literally put language in a contract or something that helps me?
Our advisory board, I'm grateful to have a lot - of specifically Black people in my corner who I can talk to because the nonprofit sector is still very much a white industry field, whatever you want to call it. And lot of stuff I buck up against, I can't tell if it's just the system or if it's me, or- So having that affirmation specifically from older people who've been there before, who can help me, has been so ugh! Because you're not alone. And even if somebody hasn't gone through what you've gone through exactly, they may have been through something similar. And I feel like we, think Viola Davis was talking to Oprah about this the other day, how a lot of times it's the not knowing what to do and being scared that you'll be judged by it that really holds us back. So when people let me know that that's normal and that nobody knows what they're doing, it's very helpful for me. So it's been a combination of professional support, but also spiritual, mental support. Like just knowing that I'm okay and I'm doing an okay job and a good job. I mean-
KC: I would say more than okay!
CB: I know, I'm like, why did I say that? But it just can be very lonely. We're a very small organization right now. We have two people on our staff and it's that outside affirmation and that space to just talk about the hard times, the good times, really helps me. I hope that answered what you were asking.
KC: Absolutely. And that's really wonderful to hear your relationship to your mentors are like surrounding you. And so I guess this is another relationship question: what's your relationship to Lowell the city?
CB: So it's kind of funny, because I'm not from Lowell originally. And when I was a kid, my dad was married to a woman that was living... She was working in Lowell at the time. So we would come for visitation and stuff almost every weekend, we would be coming to Lowell and we would be going to Eliot Presbyterian Church. And we would be going to the folk festival. And I danced with the Angkor Dance Troupe, which is this traditional Cambodian performance troop that's still here today. And I had these memories when I was a kid of being here. And my life was just very tumultuous, like moving around a lot, not a lot of stability, homeless majority of my life leading up to college.
And when I graduated, I honestly did not have a place to go. I was in Virginia and I'm like, okay, well, I can't stay with my mom. I can't stay with my dad. I didn't apply to grad school. I don't know what I'm going to do. Where am I going to go? My dad's now ex-wife who was still living in the area, I was just telling her what was going on because we still remained in touch even after they divorced. And she was like, "Why don't you just come up here and figure it out?" And my graduation day, she drove 12 hours down. I threw out everything. All of my belongings that did not fit in the car, threw it out. And graduation day, I said bye to all my friends. And I came up here. And that was in 2012.
And one of my first jobs after working at Dunkin' Donuts on Broadway Road in Dracut, which I will always shout out. My second job. Okay. I found out what a regular coffee was real quick. But my first job after that was working in Lowell at the Boott Cotton Mills as a museum teacher. And that job completely blew my mind.
I went to college for theater. I was going to be an actress full-time. That's what I was going to do. I was not going to work a 9:00 to 5:00. I'm like, I'm going to live for my art. Cubicles are death. And then I found myself in this job where these school groups are coming to Lowell all the time to learn about the history of this place, birthplace of the industrial revolution, all this history, the mill girls. So many mills are still here.
There's a boarding house that's still here. And I would be teaching these kids about this place and this land. And I had a complete, like - my brain melted. I remember being in a professional development course, we were learning how to be the best teachers we could be. And Cindy Vengroff, who was my boss, who's still my friend today. My mentor, my second mom. She would tell us how to ask questions in a certain way to help young people really feel engaged. And how to present photos of history in certain ways and all this stuff. And I remember crying because I felt like my passion had changed and I was really confused, but that job opened me up in so many ways.
And after that, I moved on to another job in Lowell Girls Inc. And then I got another job and I found out what nonprofit fundraising was. And so since 2012, it's just been a lot of community work. And in those roles, I was also trying to be an actor at the same time. And in Lowell, it wasn't possible. There was no opportunities for a non-union actor, an actor that looked like me. At the time, I just did not see that kind of community. So I was going to Boston. I was going to Newburyport. I was going to New York. I was going outside of my community for years, commuting, trying to find, where are my people?
And that is why Free Soil literally started, is because I said, "We need something in our own community. I don't see it. I don't understand. We have all these institutions here, what is going on?" And I just decided to do it myself, but it took me until 2019 to actually take action on that. But had I not lived here when I lived here, I think, and had I not been frustrated with the landscape here. I don't think I would've been on the path that I'm on now. And I think it all kind of led me to where I am today.
KC: Yeah. Absolutely. Can you tell me about the name Free Soil?
CB: When the idea first came to me, I knew I wanted something that was tied to Lowell, but maybe not outright. I just did some research and there's such rich Black history and Lowell and history of abolition and freedom seekers coming here and enslaved people... it's incredible. And I came across the story of Nathaniel Booth, who was a freedom seeker who came to Lowell in the 1800s. He opened a barbershop for a time while he was here. And man-stealers were looking for him in Lowell. And white people, Black people advocated for his safety. And there was this group called the Free Soil Party that really stuck their neck out to advocate for the end of slavery. And their motto was free soil, free labor, free men.
And I took that to mean for us as an arts' organization that they would expand upon and say free soil, free labor, free men. And that whoever worked the soil deserve to be free, because the soil is free, the land is free. So it's our belief that people who come from these grossly underrepresented communities in the arts, we can tell our own stories. We're free. We don't need to elevate to a certain level. We can tell our stories as they are right now. So what we do is an homage to Nathaniel's life, but also to this group. So I love, especially when some history buffs come up to me and they nudge me like, "Hey, I know what your name means. Hey." I love it when that happens!
KC: That's cute!
CB: Yeah. Yeah. And it makes me think about, even on a literal sense, just growth and freedom and the way nature should be, uninterrupted and just as it is. I want the stories we tell to have that same kind of vibe. This is how it is. It's not up for debate. This is what our people have to say. So thank you. Thank you so much.
KC: Yeah. I love it. I love it. And I love how deeply that echoes your story of where are my people? Like my people are already here, but how do we see ourselves and how do we come together? And how do we commune? Those are really important questions. And this is, I think really aligns with Public Art and spatial justice in the way that we understand that we are all already here. It's just a matter of, are we being supported? Are we being invested in? Are we given room? That I love Free Soil is just like, ooh, I'm just thinking about the nutrients in the soil. People turning it over, like the hands, the possibility. There's so much possibility in there. I love it. And I'm just wondering if you could share a moment in, yeah, your Public Art making, your creative art making, where there was an experience of community connection that really moved you.
CB: In 2020, I think, it's all a blur sometimes. I think it was 2020. We collaborated with a local organization called DIY Lowell that kind of crowd funds ideas from the community and makes them happen. And one of the ideas that came forth was, Visualize Lowell's Black History, which was just a way for us to highlight these stories that are just not told. And just to contextualize it for folks, it's like, we have a national park here. We have a university. We have a major community college. We have historical societies. And Black history is not told in tandem with the mill girl story, the immigrant story. We have 34 stops on the underground railroad in Lowell that are not marked. We have rich, rich, rich, rich stories. So this project allowed us to engage with Black identifying community members and was like, okay, if we could put up signs throughout Lowell on lamp posts and design them, what stories should we tell?
And it was a learning experience, I think for me, for the group, for DIY Lowell, for everybody because it was presented to us. The content was presented. It was like, these are the stories, let us know what you think. And in meeting with community members, we found out that the stories that were being told were not the stories that we wanted to say.
So we started digging and researching and figuring out like, what are the stories you want to tell? And we settled on the 16 stories. We did a call for Black artists, again, to submit artwork that was inspired by the theme of Black joy, that is now on Middlesex Street. You can see these five banners of beautiful art in an area that is often under-resourced. You can go down that street now and see this artwork down by Black artists. It's magical. We had walking tours. We had signage in the community for people to go on their own visit and learn about the history of Lowell under their feet.
And it was magical and it was hard. It involved corralling a lot of movers and shakers in the community pretty consistently and getting consensus on everything. Is the language okay? Do we like the colors? What about the font? Is the tone okay? And it was so rewarding for me. And now we find ourselves at a second phase of making that work permanent and involves advocacy with the city and following up. And we've had to make a couple motions at city hall to make sure that this work becomes permanent.
And it's not just a project that dies, that work of acknowledging stories that have already been here. It's beautiful and rewarding and all of that, but it can also be just gut-wrenching to have to fight for that fact. And it's not as easy breezy as you would think. But I think it allowed us as an organization to really engage deep, deeply with community members. And that level of involvement and say so, when I look at that project, I just think about how it was such a group effort and it was beautiful.
KC: On the other side of the group effort, can you imagine, like say your younger self walking through that -encountering that? And just quite an impact on the future and the future of, like maybe it won't be so hard for Black Lowellians to see themselves. It won't be so hard to imagine that there were people before imagining our freedom, before us. I just think about how much y'all are tending to, and healing our own histories. Like tending those histories. And I think how important that is for our ability to heal in the other direction, like heal the line in the other direction. And so I'm wondering, this is like, I've been so fortunate to be able to meet and talk to you all and hear all of your impactful work and vision and just care, like so much care. And I'm wondering, in this moment, if you step back, why is Public Art important to you?
CB: I think sometimes it can be a medium for due justice. It can be a way to tell the stories that aren't being told, to amplify the narratives that keep getting ignored. And I say that as not this, like all Public Art has to fit that niche. But I think as a person of color, it's almost unavoidable. It's given us such freedom to say what we want to say. Even with our Hidden in Plain Sight: Stories of Black Lowell project, which was this documentary of interviewing Black folks. And we published a book. And we have an art exhibit up at the National Park Visitor Center. And people will intentionally get the story of the resilience of Black people, the triumphs, the successes that we've had over the years. And they will at the same exact time get the stories of gentrification and the majority Black neighborhoods that were destroyed.
CB: We had to tell both those stories at the same time. We could never embark upon this like, "Look, Black smiling faces. How wonderful." No! And that was from the very beginning, what we do has to say something and it has to be truthful. It may not be - And it more than likely will not be the warm and fuzzy story. And we can do that with art, which is just pew! pew! pew!
You can look at pictures. You can look at a neighborhood pre and post. I don't have to say nothing to you. You get it. And I think Public Art makes for this just delicious way of telling stories that aren't being told.
KC: Yeah. Absolutely. And I love, in so much of what you shared, not just the product, but the process also sounds like there's a lot of beauty in there. Yeah, a lot of challenge. And then, but through the challenge, how does it feel to get to the other side? And get to the other side together. That seems like there's a lot of connection there.
CB: There's care. There's intention. There's consideration. There's the fact that at any point what you're doing, somebody may say, "I don't like this. We need to think about this in a different way." And you have to be open to that. And it takes the ego out for you because it's nothing to do with you or one person at all. It has everything to do with whatever group of people is putting this together. And sometimes it even involves the people that aren't. It's the community as a whole. They may not even have a say in the planning or implementation, but by virtue of living in this community, we have to factor in certain things.
And I think when you do it with a level of integrity like that, it's just indescribable. You can see it. When people feel truly valued, that's the goal. When an artist or somebody comes up to me and says something to that effect about feeling valued and heard, that will make me weep. Because that is what it's about to me.
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