School Spirits

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Dear Vance: Why are the ghosts of a dozen children painted on a high concrete wall along Chelsea close to downtown?
— G.Y., Memphis.


Dear G.Y.: I had no idea what you could mean by this curious query until I drove to 190 Chelsea, just east of North Third Street, and saw this for myself. I don’t know if they are supposed to be ghosts, exactly, but somebody has obviously painted the silhouettes of schoolchildren — I say this because they seem to be carrying books and satchels — on a wall running alongside the sidewalk, and several children are depicted actually climbing a wide flight of steps. At the top — nothing. Just a vacant lot and a patch of asphalt.

It didn’t take me very long to determine what once stood here. This was the site of the old Leroy Pope Elementary School, built in 1907, closed in the late 1980s, and demolished in the past decade or so. I have to be vague about certain dates because my search through old newspaper files at the library turned up very little about this school. And that’s a shame because I hoped to explain who Leroy Pope was and what he did to get a school named after him.

And if you think someone with the city school system could provide information about one of their own buildings, well, think again. They never return my calls. I guess they’re still upset because we took the family name off the old Lauderdale School in south Memphis, but don’t get me started on that.

Anyway, the next step in solving this mystery, of course, was to find out just who painted these figures, and why. My first impulse was to call the UrbanArts Commission, because this was the type of interesting civic project they have done all over town. To my surprise, they knew nothing about it. Neither did anyone at ArtsMemphis (formerly known as the Arts Council). And neither did any of my artist friends. Oh sure, some of them said they had noticed the paintings and were impressed by the work (especially the figures climbing the stairs, which took some skill), but that was the extent of it. So I was stumped.

And if you think someone with the city school system could provide information about one of their own buildings, well, think again. They never return my calls. I guess they're still upset because we took the family name off the old Lauderdale School in south Memphis, but don't get me started on that.

Finally, somebody suggested I call the art departments of local colleges, and that’s when I hit pay dirt. I spoke with Cara Sievers, the communications director at Memphis College of Art, who said she’d ask the faculty, and what do you know — the very next day Catherine “Cat” Peña called and told me everything I wanted to know.

Cat, the coordinator of public programs at MCA, knew all about the figures at the Pope School site because they were part of a class project completed in 2010. That surprised me because the paint looks so faded that I thought it had to be at least a decade old. Nope. It was done just two years ago, for a class called “Made Public.” 

As Cat explains it, this was “an advanced undergraduate course that focuses on the production of artwork for public places outside the gallery and museum context. The course involves work that will be inserted into a public space that reveals or draws attention to something overlooked, hidden, unseen, or absent or which bears witness to a past event.”

Well, it certainly accomplished that goal, by drawing attention to a neglected area of Chelsea that was once the center of activity for all the children in the neighborhood.

The artist was Marie Provence, who called this piece Transient. This is from her initial proposal: “Transient displays schoolchildren walking up two sets of stairs and filing into a nonexistent school building. Only shadows will be represented instead of an entire figure to symbolize the void that is left in a community when a school shuts down.”

Cat pointed out that the children are painted on the concrete with a type of chalk-based paint. Chalk is a perfect choice, since it’s associated with school blackboards and playground games like hopscotch, but it was also used because the work is supposed to be temporary — hence the name Transient. “The shadows are temporary,” wrote Marie, “and will wash away as suddenly as they appear, representing the impermanence of the time the space served as a city school, as well as an unfinished narrative of children walking to the entrance of a school that no longer exists.”

Finally, she mentioned what anyone encountered who bothered (as I did) to clamber up all those stairs: “The fact that the viewers will be greeted with nothing at the top of the stairs is anticlimactic and doubly reinforces the sense of loss for the community.”

Marie earned her degree from MCA last year and is currently working on a master’s degree in interior design at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland. I certainly hope she got an “A” for Cat’s “Made Public” class. 

By the way, here’s an old photo of a second-grade class at Leroy Pope School, taken in the 1920s. The kids could have served as models for some of the shadows painted by Marie.

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