Artist Melvin Freeman, AKA Fly Blind Guy, recently completed the installation of his new artwork, We Are Water, in Seattle’s Central District. The Central District was a predominately African American neighborhood since the 1970s as a result of red-lining and other forms of housing segregation. Since the 1990s the neighborhood has seen widespread displacement and gentrification that has reduced the neighborhood’s Black population from 70% down to 20%. The Central District is still a place that is a centralizing beacon for the black community. Art, music, food, and history are all things that keep the Central Area a vibrant neighborhood for Black community and culture. The Seattle Office of Arts & Culture (ARTS) and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) partnered to engage residents who have roots in the neighborhood to see how an art project can attempt to look at the entire fabric of this community.
ARTS and SPU worked with the community engagement team of Jill Freidberg (Shelf Life Community Stories), Rachel Kessler (Yesler Terrace Artist in Residence), Elisheba Johnson (artist, curator) and Inye Wokoma (Central Area photographer, journalist, and filmmaker), on a series of community engagement activities that asked people who have roots and/or relationships to the Central District, what they want to see in an artwork and how clean drinking water affects their lives.
Freeman was selected as a result of the community engagement to create a permanent artwork installation that honors the history and current experience of the African American community in the Central District through the idea that water connects the community to history, place and freedom. Located along a retaining wall on 23rd Ave S and S Massachusetts (adjacent to the Northwest African American Museum) We Are Water is a large-scale mixed media mural that features bold porcelain enamel letters that spell out CENTRAL DISTRICT. Within each letter are photographs of past and present Central District residents and businesses collected by Freeman from the community through engagement events, social media calls for images, and through a partnership with The Black Heritage Society of Washington, who allowed access to their historical archives. Freeman states, “It was important for me to create a public work that my beloved Central District community could identify and interact with. This one piece of art tells an infinite amount of our stories. This piece will be a history lesson for future generations to come. “
We Are Water also features a girl with a hose spraying water that flows through letters. The painted water mural portion was created by Seattle artist Perri Rhoden who collaborated with Freeman in the creation of the artwork.
We Are Water was commissioned with Seattle Public Utilities and Seattle Department of Transportation 1% for Art funds, and administered by the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture.