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I Remember Birmingham

By LENNIE BENNETT
Published October 16, 2005


We interact with art at some level every time we look at it, usually trying to figure it out rather than feeling it on an emotional level. Sometimes, though, a work is so fully conceived, with a perfect balance between an idea and the materials used to realize the idea, that it evokes a powerful response that is both intellectual and spiritual.

When that happens, you know it.

The Work

I Remember Birmingham, seven hand-pigmented glass blocks and seven relief prints, 1997, is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.

THE ARTIST

John T. Scott (born 1940)

Scott is an internationally admired artist with work in numerous museum collections. He is a lifelong resident of New Orleans, where he has been a professor at Xavier University for 41 years. Scott is best known for colorful, kinetic sculptures, paintings and mixed-media works that reference African-American history and culture, especially as it is expressed through jazz and the blues.

THE BACKGROUND

I Remember Birmingham commemorates the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in which four young black girls, ages 10 to 14, were killed. Four men, at the time members of the Ku Klux Klan, were eventually charged, but only one had been convicted when Scott created the work in 1997. One man died untried, and the other two were convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2001 and 2002.

THE ARRANGEMENT

Seven architectural glass blocks etched with calligraphy and images are painted in vibrant colors and sit on lighted pillars. They are surrounded by stark black-and-white prints of the same images. The blocks' arrangement in a T-square suggests both a cross and the architectural design of a traditional cathedral, with a long nave leading to a perpendicular transept.

Four blocks represent the victims. The little girls, carved into the block, seem to fly through the clear glass into shattering slashes of flames and debris. The remaining three blocks represent the Trinity. Two are etched with flames. The central block is bare of images, containing only text.

ASSOCIATIONS

Scott is Catholic and says he once considered becoming a monk. Liturgical associations were part of his early art, and for this series he returned to them in a complex, multilayered way.

The blocks glow like stained glass windows in a church. Their colors and the calligraphy also recall old illuminated manuscripts, more so since much of the text is indecipherable, as the Latin and Greek of those manuscripts would be to most.

The black and white of the prints reference the racial conflict that led to the bombings. Their text is printed white-on-white like ghost images fading into nothingness.

The central text on each block deals with the loss of dreams. "No more dreams" is repeated on all of them like a Gregorian chant.

THE PROCESS

I Remember Birmingham was created at Graphicstudio at the University of South Florida in Tampa, which collaborates with artists on editions of prints and sculptures known as original multiples. The term sounds like a contradiction. But works from shops such as Graphicstudio only appear identical. Unlike mass-produced posters, they vary in many subtle ways, since each is made individually in a very limited series.

The glass blocks were created in Heliorelief, a photographic process developed at Graphicstudio to transfer images onto hard surfaces. Scott drew on clear Mylar sheets and transferred images to the blocks, which were coated with photosensitive film. With exposure to light, those images were burned onto the block the way a negative is printed onto paper to make a photograph. The images transfer as black, and when the blocks are sandblasted, the clear, nonblack parts are more resistant. The process creates an etched effect. When you look through the glass on the opposite side, it looks like a bas-relief. Four sets of I Remember Birmingham were created as installations and sold together. Others were created and sold as individual works to collectors who would not have space for the entire piece.

HOW TO LOOK AT IT

Installation art is different from a painting or sculpture, requiring more interaction. Walk around the glass blocks and look at them change with every angle. Think of the prints along the wall as a collection of silent witnesses. After studying the individual components, sit on the bench in the gallery and enjoy the entire work as a contemplative, meditative experience. It will move you, I promise.

If you want, turn around and add a comment to the chalkboard installed on the back wall. It's erased each week and becomes a clean slate, a chance to begin again.

IF YOU GO

Though I Remember Birmingham is part of the museum's permanent collection, it is not on view all the time because prints, which are part of the installation, are very susceptible to damage from light. After Oct. 23, the work will return to storage for at least a year.

- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com