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Roxbury Branch: Public Art Project I

Artist Joe Wardwell is collaborating with poet Nakia Hill and youth from 826 Boston’s Youth Literary Advisory Board on this project.

The project will create a colorful, layered installation of poetry and Roxbury landscapes on three walls at the Roxbury Branch of the Boston Public Library. This will be visible from Warren Street.

This project is in the installation stage.

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Project details

Project Context

The total project budget is $250,000, including fabrication and installation. This project is the first of three site-specific projects by local artists that the City is commissioning for the branch and funding through the Percent for Art program. In addition to new commissions, the City also restored and reinstalled "The Word" by Vusumuzi Maduna and Obie Simonis onto the facade of the library.

This project complements the $17.2 million renovation of the branch, which included:

  • a new welcome area overlooking a redesigned plaza
  • improved visibility and openness
  • dedicated space for children, teens, and adults
  • a prominently featured African-American collection
  • a nutrition lab and learning lab, and
  • refreshed collections.

The Roxbury Branch, formerly the Dudley Branch, hosts a wide range of programs and activities for patrons of all ages. All of this was previously hidden behind glass block and concrete walls. The new large windows of the branch will now make this activity visible from the street. 

Roxbury branch rendering

A relocated entry and plaza improvements along Dudley Street will also improve the civic presence of the library. This will help connect the library to the neighborhood and make it more welcoming.

Project Site

The City identified a prominent clerestory site for the artwork. It is a large slanted concrete wall visible from many areas of the library, as well as from Warren Street at night. The clerestory is a distinct opportunity for public art in the space. This is due to its size and visibility throughout the first floor and from Warren Street. The project has since expanded to include two other adjacent wall panels in the main library space.

Roxbury Branch Library rendering courtesy of Utile
Renderings of renovated Roxbury Branch, courtesy of Utile, Inc.
Photo of new Roxbury Branch, courtesy of Anton Grassl
Photo of new Roxbury Branch, courtesy of Anton Grassl.

Commissioning Process

The commissioning process began with public meetings on what the neighborhood would like to see in the branch. From those meetings it was clear that there was a strong desire for public art that speaks directly to what it means to live in Roxbury. 

The City incorporated the community’s desires into a Call to Artists in May 2018. Through a competitive proposal process, local artist Joe Wardwell was selected to interview by an Artist Selection Committee made up of arts professionals, many from Roxbury. The Art Commission awarded him for the project.

Rendering of three panels

Design Phase

In thinking about how to approach the Roxbury Branch project, Joe Wardwell set out with some key goals for the design:

  • think about the neighborhood and surrounding community of the library
  • collaborate and engage with other artists and members of the community, and 
  • respond to the architecture and feel of the redesigned library.

The redesigned space and a desire to include more work from local poets like Nakia Hill in the piece led Joe to propose an expansion of the project. His project now extends across the two side panels adjacent to the central clerestory wall.

Artwork Details

The artwork is a combination of landscape, text, and abstraction combined through a layering process. The bottom layer will be a blend of colors with stenciled landscapes on top. Each image will be iconic viewpoints around the Roxbury neighborhood. 

The second layer is an abstract layer. It responds to the architectural elements of both the original and redesigned branch. A color spectrum of gradient throughout the piece will mirror the gradient across the back of the library stacks. The wood diagonal baffles throughout the ceiling show up in the abstract design. The vertical columns of the space are also reflected in the vertical “bands” in the design. 

The third layer is a layer of text. For this part of the project, Joe collaborated with poet, former City of Boston artist-in-residence (Boston AIR), and 826 Boston’s Writing Room Director Nakia Hill and the Youth Literary Advisory Board (YLAB). The collaboration will include: 

  • an excerpt of Nakia Hill’s poem "A Nubian Notion" in the large text of the artwork
  • poems about Roxbury by Asiyah Herrera and other youth writers in the smaller text of the artwork
  • a silkscreen portfolio for the Boston Public Library, 826 Boston, and the contributing writers, and
  • the cover for a book published by the YLAB writers.

“Pride wrapped around us like an emerald necklace

High upon a Mission Hill projecting a bright beam of light

clinging to the essence of our communities” 

-excerpt from A Nubian Notion by Nakia Hill

Photo of panel design for Roxbury Branch public art project
Photo of designed panel by Joe Wardwell. It features poems by Nakia Hill and YLAB youth writers.

Watch: Artist Talk and Poetry Reading
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