Memorializing Nashville’s Civil Rights Movement through a photo-embedded precast concrete public art installation.
By Bob Whitmore
It began with a student protest march after an attempted firebombing at the house of a prominent civil rights attorney. More than 3,000 college students assembled the next morning at Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State University and silently, peacefully walked 3.5 miles to the courthouse in downtown Nashville, according to an article in the city’s daily newspaper. It was April 19, 1960.
Like many Southern cities, Nashville had long been grappling with Jim Crow, and a nonviolent protest movement – incubated at the city’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) – had led to student sit-ins at lunch counters and other protests prior to the march.
Nashville Mayor Ben West met the marching students outside the courthouse. When one of them asked if the lunch counters should be desegregated, he replied with a simple, “Yes.” The mayor’s affirmation of the students continued Nashville’s push for racial equality and solidified its place at the forefront of the civil rights movement – a movement now memorialized by a public art installation anchored with four photo-embedded precast concrete structures known as the Witness Walls.
Dedicated in a public ceremony on April 21, 2017, in front of the courthouse and just steps from where the student protest ended, the Nashville Witness Walls multi-modal civil rights installation draws on the work of acclaimed artist Walter Hood, an internationally known landscape architect enlisted by the Metro Nashville Arts Commission (Metro Arts).
Anne-Leslie Owens, public art and placemaking project manager for the Metro Arts, said Hood’s concept of incorporating period images from the Nashville Banner newspaper archives into a set of precast concrete structures was the unanimous choice of the city’s citizen panel during the selection process.
“The concept of the Witness Walls came from Walter,” Owens said. “One of the reasons it was so exciting was his use of imagery. He thoroughly went through the archives and ended up with a concept that wasn’t necessarily highlighting key individuals or singular events. Instead he did it a little differently. He chose two narratives – a sitting narrative and a narrative of marching.”
Hood said he settled quickly on concrete as the medium for the wall.
“It’s a 20th century material,” he said. “I didn’t want something that was ‘precious,’ like stone. Concrete had a resonance with me as something of its time. I didn’t want to create images that felt precious, and the concrete seemed to have this ordinariness.” The ordinary nature of concrete fed into Hood’s plan to honor everyday people rather than historical icons in creating the tribute.
“When you look around the world, concrete is everywhere, but it’s almost like we never give any thought to the ways in which we can express it,” Hood said.
In researching a concrete manufacturer for the public art installation, Hood said he was drawn to Gate Precast’s work on large architectural pieces. While the scale for Witness Walls was small compared to most of Gate’s projects, Hood visited with the precasters and found, “people there who were interested in figuring things out.” Once engaged in the project, they quickly started to generate ideas. From Hood’s two basic concepts of a sitting narrative and a narrative of motion came two different approaches to the finished surfaces.
“There are two different sides to the piece,” Hood said. “And that’s the nice thing about precast. We were able to create two different surface conditions.”
The photo-realistic sides of the panels show the static images. The motion sides of the panels are more abstract and rely on contrasting colors between the aggregate and the finished concrete surface to reveal collage images created by the artist.
The literal and the abstract
Marshall Bassett, P.E., sales engineer, said the Gate team talked with Hood at the start of the process and began working through the possibilities.
“We settled on a form liner that had a photo-realistic imprint,” Bassett said. “As the project kind of morphed, there were two aspects to it. There was a photo interpretation – the more literal interpretation – and then there was more of a visionary.”
The literal and the abstract. Working with the artist, the Gate team proposed two distinct production processes to bring Hood’s two concepts to life. They settled on four walls – eight sides of graphics – 7-feet-6-inches tall. Two flat walls represent the literal interpretation. Gate’s team used a relief process, creating stencils to replicate the photos. The two curved walls were constructed from four radius panels for each wall to accomplish the narrative of motion. The curved panels reflect the light and play off the viewer’s angle of vision. At a distance and in certain light, the collages almost disappear. But as the visitor walks through the installation and sees the panels from different angles, the images come to life.
To create the curved panels, Gate used a very fine ribbed form liner.
“If you look at it in cross-section, the ribs are probably three-eighths to a quarter inch in amplitude,” Bassett said. “The manufacturer has a machine that mills down the ribs in the form liner to create the outline of the image. What they’re doing is playing with light. They’re playing with shadows and light.”
Finding the right mix design for both types of surfaces proved challenging.
“We wanted to have a very high contrast value between the aggregate and the cement matrix, which ultimately drove the mix design,” Bassett added. “Our aggregate was very dark, but from the outside the matrix was a light gray, so that gave us the contrast we were after. We went back and forth quite a bit on the finishes and the mix design.”
For the flat panels, Gate’s team used stencils to replicate the images by crafting wood forms, which proved both time-consuming and challenging. It involved a lot of manhours cutting and pasting wood pieces onto forms to accomplish each image.
“It was a very labor-intensive project,” said Bill Henderson, vice president and operations manager at the Ashland City plant. “One man was dedicated to each mold, which took several days to a week each to prepare for casting.”
The Gate team got a big assist from Hood, who provided detailed modeling and renderings, Henderson said.
The Metro Arts manages the installation, which hosts thousands of visitors every year.
“The site itself is very significant,” Owens said. “It is steps away from the site of the student-led protest. When we were offered this site, we just really knew that it was going to work out well.
“It’s a corner of the Public Square Park that we were able to activate in a really meaningful way.”
Two pedestals with slanted, mirrored tops are stationed along the path and include the words Witness Walls cut out and backlit by LEDs at night. Civil rights-inspired period music plays each hour, Owens said.
The Courthouse and Witness Walls are among six sites in Nashville on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which draws all types of visitors – folks on tours led by Nashville’s civil rights veterans, student groups and Nashville tourists who are just passing by.
“I think people are at first curious,” Owens said. “The abstract compositions with the aggregate – those are really the walls that you see first, because there’s such a contrast – the dark and light. Those are the ones that really pull you in and make you think, ‘What’s going on there?’
“And the shape of the walls themselves – the curved walls help to invite you in and beckon you to come in and explore. And so, I suspect that’s a lot of people’s first thoughts, just being curious about the artwork,” Owens added. “And then they come in and there’s probably surprise when they start walking around the shadow graphic walls – the curved walls – and see, oh, an image popped out. That’s a pleasant surprise to see the images emerging as they walk around the walls.”
Learotha Williams Jr., Ph.D., associate professor of African American and Public History from Tennessee State University, summed up his view of the public art installation in a presentation at the Tennessee State Museum earlier this year, calling it, “One of the most remarkable monuments I’ve seen to civil rights.”
Invested in the project
The meaning of the project did not go unnoticed at the Gate Precast plant. The production crew, including the carpenters and artisans who crafted the walls, were all invested in the project.
“All of our people were aware of the significance of the project and take great pride in whatever they create,” Henderson said. “Many of our employees have gone down to visit the site and are pleased with how it turned out.”
Some of Nashville’s veterans of that civil rights movement 60 years ago are still active. They were the citizens who talked to council members and started the conversation that led to the Witness Walls. And they were the guests of honor at the dedication. Many of those who were involved in the lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides of the period are now memorialized in this public art project.
“It was a unique experience,” Bassett noted. “When you work on a Class A building you don’t get any feedback, right? People just go in and out. You might get industry recognition for the quality and the uniqueness of the building, but something like this, where you get to see the community reaction, was spectacular.
“Especially during the reveal, just to see the folks and their reaction to it was pretty cool. It’s a great tribute. It was long overdue to have that acknowledgement, and we were just lucky to be a part of it. And you know, concrete is a perfect medium for that. We were able to accomplish just what the artist was looking for.”
For More Information