The Hamilton Hill Arts Center is not only celebrating Juneteenth this weekend but also the opening of its sculpture park, which has been several years in the making.
Called the Sankofa Sculpture Park and located at 412 Schenectady St., the space pays homage to the arts center’s 50-plus years of history — and makes way for its future.
“The meaning of the symbol of ‘Sankofa’ is that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward,” said Rachel Conn, the center’s executive director and granddaughter of its founder, Margaret Cunningham.
The half-acre park features a stunning sculpture designed by Jerome Meadows, an artist based in Savannah, Georgia, known for designing and creating public art throughout the country. Early in his career, after studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, Meadows worked as the city sculptor for Albany and designed two sculptures in the Arbor Hill area.
His work at the Sankofa Sculpture Park was inspired by Ogun, the Yoruba god of blacksmithing, considered the foundation of civilization. The sculpture was partially constructed locally by Leroy Nelson.
Meadows was commissioned by the arts center to work on the piece about a year and a half ago, and he took a deep dive into researching Ogun before even designing a clay model of the sculpture.
“What I try to do whenever I’m dealing with a representational rendering of a person, figure or spirit, is to first and foremost try to get a deeper understanding of who that person is, what that character is, how they’re defined,” Meadows said.
In most paintings and depictions of Ogun, the figure is seen only from the front, usually holding a sword or piece of iron, which made it challenging for Meadows to create a three-dimensional interpretation of the figure and make sure its spirit carried through in all directions from which viewers might see it.
“If you’re true to your craft, it’s supposed to work, and in this case . . . carry forth that energy,” Meadows said. “Some of these depictions [and] paintings were hugely elaborate, which I think is something you can get away with . . . with respect to a painting. When it comes to three-dimensionality, there’s the practical [question] of how do you render these actual objects? And it seemed to me that what Ogun was asking of me was to keep it simple and make it forceful.”
In Meadows’ work, Ogun is depicted in bronze, one arm slung across his abdomen and a hammer in his hand. His other arm is extended down to metal discs, which cascade around him. While the piece is powerful, it stands just a few feet tall.
“That’s really important to me in terms of the average person, or even child for that matter, being able to have a sense of a comfortable and intimate relationship with the figure. So if it’s up too high, which happens more often than not with monuments, there’s a sense of . . . that person being removed,” Meadows said.
Instead, Ogun is at an approachable height and is found at the center of a circle of greenery.
Also on display is vibrant sidewalk art by local artist Bianca DiLella. Featured at the entrance, it represents Maafa, a Swahili word for great disaster or tragedy, which is often used to refer to the slave trade. In rich hues of blue and black, the mural depicts slave ships crossing the ocean with the associated ancestral spirits.
Throughout the year, the arts center will hold educational programs about the themes seen in DiLella’s and Meadows’ work. Each year, new works and themes will be added.
Room to grow
The sculpture park marks a significant expansion for the arts center, which is located on Schenectady Street and serves more than 200 children a year through its Artreach Afterschool program, and approximately 10,000 community members through other programs and events.
“We have understood that we would need to expand for a while now,” Conn said. “The lot across the street was filled with abandoned and dilapidated buildings, and we saw a way to clean up and beautify our neighborhood that would allow us to provide education while also holding the space for our future needs.”
The park was supported by a $38,500 grant from the Schenectady Foundation’s Thriving Neighborhoods Challenge program, which funds collaborative, grassroots projects. Jean and Louis Venditti donated land for the park, and the city of Schenectady assisted with sidewalks and demolition, according to the arts center. City workers and volunteers helped clean up the park as well.
“The park has really turned into this beautiful collaboration between the funders, community organizations and community members. I’ve been in the park every day this week and as families walk by, over and over again I hear how grateful and excited they are for the work we are doing,” Conn said. “They see it as a gift for them, [and] that really is one of the best outcomes that I could ask for. Community members offer to join in and help with planting, painting or carrying bags of cement.”
“The creation of the sculpture park is transformational for this neighborhood,” said Robert Carreau, executive director of the Schenectady Foundation. “This was one of the first projects the Foundation embraced as part of our Thriving Neighborhoods Challenge and we’re proud to see it come to life.”
More to do
The sculpture park marks the completion of the first phase in a series of renovations the center is undergoing.
“The current building has been an oasis for many and has served us well during the 50-plus years that we have served the community,” Conn said. “Its time has come to an end. The building is failing and can no longer house our growing programs.”
In the past few years, pipes burst and flooded the basement as well as the bathrooms, and the roof in the library space fell in.
“While we had some contractors in we became aware of plumbing heating and electrical problems, and I began applying for grants for a comprehensive renovation,” Conn said.
In 2021, the state Assembly awarded the arts center $300,000 toward building renovations.
“We decided that it was time to step back and get a full evaluation of the building and our programmatic needs in order to assess our next moves,” Conn said. “This evaluation was completed by Hamlin Design[and] it gave us a lot to think about. We have a clear vision for the future and are committed to its creation.”
They plan to create a cultural campus dedicated to the arts and culture of the African Diaspora. The sculpture park was the first phase of that plan.
As part of the next phase, the arts center is focused on campaigning to build a gallery and performance space at the sculpture park that can accommodate more of the arts center’s programs. So far, the center has raised $370,000 of the needed $1.5 million and set up a GoFundMe campaign to accept donations from community members.
“It will expand our gallery space and separate it from the dance studio that it currently shares space with. The space will also have retractable seating so that it can be used as performance or lecture space as needed,” Conn said.
This weekend, the arts center will celebrate its roots — and its future.
“It’s interesting . . . we start off on Friday in the cemetery honoring those who have come before us, and then on Saturday we have a day of celebration in Central Park, and [on Sunday] we’re really speaking to the future of the arts,” Conn said.
For Juneteenth, which marks the day in 1865 that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned they were emancipated, the center is hosting a weekend of events. At 6 p.m. Friday, there will be an honoring of the ancestors at Vale Cemetery, followed by an ice cream social at 7 p.m.
Programming continues Saturday in Central Park, starting at 1 p.m. with workshops on head wrapping, Zumba, drumming, soul line dance and more. At 2 p.m. there will be an opening program on the Music Haven stage, with an invocation by Pastor Nicole Harris, African drumming and more, followed by a gospel extravaganza at 3 p.m. and a spoken word performance at 4. A variety show will take place at 5 p.m., and the evening will wrap up with a performance by the George Boone Blues Band.
Then, starting at 10 a.m. Sunday, in conjunction with the Community Fathers Inc. annual Father’s Day picnic, the arts center will officially open the Sankofa Sculpture Park.
“With a lot of the violence and racial issues that we’ve had these past years, I’ve heard people asking why do we celebrate our freedom when we’re not free? I think it’s important to celebrate that we’re still here to fight for another day, to celebrate the accomplishments that we have made,” Conn said.
For information on the Hamilton Hill Arts Center and the Juneteenth celebrations, visit hamiltonhillartscenter.org.