Alpha Lillstrom Portrait Garden

Chinese ink, various plants

Public artwork for Nonuments

Washington, DC

September 6 - December, 2014

Upon arriving at Nonuments Park, visitors enter a garden that takes the form of personal portraiture on a magnified scale to celebrate the unsung heroes of daily life, at an unspecific moment, and without a prescribed value system. Community members nominated their peers, and an individual was chosen by lottery, paying homage to citizens whose deeds are not grand in the scheme of human history, but whose challenges are still heroic in the arduous struggles of daily life. 

The garden is named after the lottery winner, Alpha Lillstrom, who represents the community and guards the entryway of the park. An aerial view shows the true rendered form but the essence of it can be felt from the ground, turning the focus from macro to micro. This shift away from having a vertically erect portrait that is visible from afar, to the form being laid out on the ground that must be experienced by a closer encounter, is another important quality that addresses the concept of Nonument. 

This portrait is further articulated by painting the grass black with Chinese ink, creating a landscape painting in the four-dimensional realm, as it allows the plants to grow and change during the course of the exhibition. While the black coverage slows the plants' growth, it does not terminate life. The tender green shoots break out from the black, giving evidence of the perseverance and resilience of life. Under the stress of the black ink, these plants serve as a metaphor for people experiencing the strain of contemporary living; it is up to the individual to respond to the situation and thrive or succumb. The transformation from black to green speaks to the dichotomies that exist and become social, cultural, and economic separators–and the simple power that can break these divides. 

Final thoughts:

The complexities and struggles of the community surrounding Nonuments Park provide a challenging context for creating public art that is meaningful both artistically and socially for this location and its people. I approached it with openness and simplicity, addressing each person with respect, and being receptive to the responses. The wisdoms gained from these exchanges are still being felt and processed, and will be for some time to come. I realized that the goal of the work was not so much about changing a community through its physical, social or psychological landscape, but about having encounters with individuals that could somehow offer a shift of perspective or enrichment for both the viewers and the makers.

About Alpha Lillstrom, the lottery winner for the Portrait Garden:

I drew a name out of a hat, it read Alpha Lillstrom. Out of the nominations that came from all over DC, the winner lives only one block from Nonuments Park. She has been a city resident for 14 years, and uses her law degree to work as an advocate for civil equality issues through political campaigns and policy. While on Capital Hill she focused on healthcare, education and judiciary issues. Being a cancer survivor has strengthened her resolve to be a champion for equal access to medical care. Alpha has a humble but defiant spirit, and one of her most striking features is her radiant and beautiful smile. It was a pleasure to be immersed in it and bringing it out in the form of this garden.

The system of choosing our portrait subject was deliberately by random selection, and not based on an assigned merit system. However, it still delivered us an exemplary person to represent our nation of heroes who, on a daily basis, make modest but difficult choices that result in small acts of kindness, compassion,humility, honesty, courage, joy, wisdom, and decency, to form the basis for a life that we call good.

Individual acknowledgments:

Marianna Peragallo • Alpha Lillstrom • Albert Ting • Samantha May • Goulda Downer • Kael Anderson • Coy McKinney • Pam Daley • Gabriel Soares • Celine Heckel-Jones • Kevin Yen • Julia Thayne • Sean Vitka • Ben Piwowar • Michael Koliner • Tom Rennhack • Ms. Ruby • David Lee • Andrew, Chloe, and Kate Newmyer • Fabiola and Michael Rodriguez-Ciampoli • India Fuller • Sasha Simpson • Taiwon Simpson • Nesya Ulmer • Christine Ulmer • Jerome • LyMyshia and sisters • Keith • Shannon • Sharon • Abe • Zair • Maria • And everyone who walked by our garden, smiled, said hello, asked a question or paused to look.


Partners: 

Southwest Community Garden
Washington Projects for the Arts
Southwest Neighborhood Association
Howard University College of Medicine AETC Capitol Region Telehealth Center
Chapel Valley Landscape Company
Denison Landscaping

© 2019 Jennifer Wen Ma

Jennifer Wen Ma

Littlemeat Productions

New York, NY

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