How Nekisha Durrett’s Airshaft turns the everyday sacred

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Nekisha Durrett about her centennial commission, Airshaft. 

Nekisha Durrett stands in front of her centennial commission installation Airshaft

“Whenever I come to The Phillips Collection, I think about the first time I came here,” said Nekisha Durrett as she walked me through her initial proposal for her centennial commission Airshaft.

The immersive installation converts the two bridges joining the Goh Annex and the original Phillips House into a sacred place as light floods through the large windows, changing to different colors as they pass through the colored film giving the effect of stained glass in patterned geometric shapes lining the nearly floor to ceiling windows.

In high school, one of Durrett’s dear friends invited her to tag along after school to an event at the Phillips. Without knowing the details, Durrett agreed. As she walks through the front door, an older gentleman greeted the then teenagers. She shook his hand. The event was a book signing for Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration catalogue. She had learned about Jacob Lawrence in school, and shook his hand.

“When I came to visit all of the proposed sites for the centennial commissions, that memory was always running through my mind,” Durrett said. “Every time I come to the Phillips, I think about this. So I was like, why not make this central to the piece? You know, why not create a piece that springs from that memory?”

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel 31: The migrants found improved housing when they arrived north., 1940-41, Casein tempura on hardboard, 12 x 16 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1942

Jacob Lawrence’s Panel 31 in The Migration Series inspired the designs on the windows. His work depicts the outside of a Harlem tenement where so many Black newcomers from the South settled into their new lives. The airshafts in these buildings captured all the most intimate and mundanely routine moments of life. Smells and sounds permeated through the vents and the building, transporting intimate moments in the households as whispers for others to catch. The tenements were full of life and the airshafts captured that life.

“I think all your life people tell you what’s supposed to be sacred,” Durrett shared as she considered the sacrality of the bridges. The stained glass effect her work has is reminiscent of what some of us are accustomed to seeing on the windows of churches and cathedrals. But it’s not the sacredness of religion that Durrett is concerned with. She is concerned with the sacredness of those tenements and the lives we live. “To make something sacred in this regard is sort of this revolutionary act where you’re saying, no, I’m sacred. I create my sacred space. My people, my family, the space that we build together is also sacred. Everyday life is sacred,” said Durrett. Just like the everyday lives celebrated in Lawrence’s work.

Nekisha Durrett, Airshaft, 2021

Phillips@THEARC Summer Camp: Meet our junior artists

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley interviews some of our youngest artists about the work they made at Art Investigators: Phillips@THEARC Summer Camp.

Our investigators hard at work at District Clay Center during their field trip

In August, The Phillips Collection hosted Art Investigators Summer Camp, offering the 8-12-year-old participants the opportunity to ask questions, make art, and take fun field trips to The Phillips Collection and District Clay Center free of cost with two sessions available, one each week.

The investigators participated in art activities, exposing them to a variety of mediums while at the Phillips@THEARC. The activities ranged from making paint to organizing their work for a show at the end of the week. Many of the pieces the kids made built on each other as they drew inspiration from still lifes for sculptures and then created photographs and paintings from those sculptures. On field trip days, our young artists toured The Phillips Collection and learned different ways of working with clay in partnership with Community Clay! by the District Clay Center, which brings clay and ceramics to the youth of DC, with a focus on Wards 7 and 8.

We caught up with some of the artists to ask them about their favorite investigations.

Meet Chioma!

Chioma exhibiting her work at Phillips@THEARC

Q: Of all the pieces you made, can you show me which one is your favorite? Can you describe it to me?

A: I like the sculptures, and the one I’m making right now is a collage about my sculptures.

Chioma works on a painting alongside her sculptures

Q: This camp is called Art Investigators. Can you think of anything you have investigated? What is something new that you have discovered?

A: The clay that you bake in the oven and how they mold the clay on the spinning wheel. When I was working with the baked clay, I saw that it had to dry for longer and you had to paint it a different way than regular clay.



Meet Neveah!

Neveah holds up a photograph she took

Q: Of all the pieces you made, can you show me which one is your favorite? Can you describe it to me?

Neveah rolls out her clay at District Clay Center

A: My favorite is the coil. You have to roll out the coil. I like the teapot thing, so you roll it up in a circle and then you put your thumb into it and you gotta put both of your thumbs in to flatten it out and push your thumb down to the bottom. Then, you gotta put the teacup holder thing, and then it’s a teacup.

Q: Why is it your favorite?

A: Because it looks like it’s real, and it looks like I really want to drink out of it!



Meet Our Art Investigator!

Our Art Investigator displays her painting connected to her sculptures

Q: Of all the pieces you made, can you show me which one is your favorite? Can you describe it to me?

A: We went to the clay center. We got to make our own sculptures like a still life so I decided to make a pitcher, that was on one of my images and that was my favorite. First, it was pretty hard to do it, but there are these things called coils that you roll and that’s what I used to make the pitcher. I made a bunch of texture on it to give it a pretty old look because in the image I was looking at, the picture was not like a modern picture, it was very old. So I tried to make it like that… I think it’s my favorite because I really like working with clay.

Photograph of our art investigator’s pitcher and mugs

Q: How are your works of art connected? Do they have anything in common?

A: Yes, so I ended up making two more items which were a coil pot and a pinch pot that were just like practice. But when I made the pitcher, I kind of understood that could be connected because it was a little mug (the pinch pot), and I could use it for the pitcher to pour a drink in the mug so I made this little strip of water out of clay to make it look like it was pouring out water and the coil pot actually did the same thing. I painted the inside of the mug and coil pot like a blue and dark blue to be able to look like it was pouring water into it.

The Phillips Collects: Aaron Maier-Carretero

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Inside Outside, Upside Down artist Aaron Maier-Carretero. The Phillips Collection is proud to announce the acquisition of his work, not in front of the kids. 

Aaron Maier-Carretero, not in front of the kids, Oil on canvas, 55 x 72 in., Courtesy of the artist

In fifth grade, Aaron Maier-Carretero got in trouble at school. He got the punishment many of us are familiar with for minor offenses in the classroom—he wasn’t allowed to go to recess. But this time being stuck inside was a little different. One of the teachers egged him on to make a drawing and enter it into a contest in celebration of the upcoming fifth grade graduation. He didn’t think much of it. He spent his time inside drawing instead of basking in the sun with the other kids running on the playground that day. Later, he’d be named the winner of the school-wide competition.

Many of us start off approaching art with abandon as kids. We lose that sense of abandon as we get older, unwilling to be bold and more interested in pursuing a career with a steady income and dependable lifestyle. As Aaron navigated through his education, he found art still offered him something during his troublemaking years in high school. “It was an escape,” said Maier-Carretero. “It was something I was good at that I just liked doing because it was something people cared about and it gave me a sense of worth and acceptance, and I followed that.”

From inside the artist’s studio

Eventually, he rediscovered that sense of abandon, which led him to switch courses from following a pre-med track to pursuing his undergraduate degree in art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Fast forward nearly a decade and his painting, not in front of the kids, was selected for Inside Outside, Upside Down. The piece has now been acquired for the permanent collection.

Aaron’s narrative paintings dance between realism and caricature in their representation of the human form and condition. “When I started becoming more loose and cartoonish, I was able to get more emotion out of the characters I was drawing, the people, and that gave me more substance.” As he read more about comics, he understood the power and impact reducing a form could have and the control it could offer. He could eliminate some things and focus on others, drawing the viewer’s attention to the core crux of a moment in the work. Being able to execute tight renderings and simplified cartoonish drawings offered him a new tool to be used decisively and intentionally in his work.

“I wanted to be very intentional about some things and I found that cartoons and caricatures are more expressive in that way sometimes,” said Maier-Carretero. “It just depends on what fits the mood better.” Maier-Carretero taps into his own family as a source of motivation, interrogating the occurrences of his upbringing, tapping into memories, journals, and photographs. He paints what he knows or what he thinks he knows or maybe what he hopes to know—himself and how he makes sense of the world.

From inside the artist’s studio

His work serves as a gateway into understanding and questioning the common human condition. Painting has become a means of processing for Maier-Carretero that ultimately results in a greater sense of self-acceptance for the artist. “I’m able to accept my own experience as part of a human experience whether it’s fortunate or unfortunate,” said Maier-Carretero. “I want to tell the story of what I don’t . . . of what I guess I don’t know what to do with. Like I don’t know what to do with these feelings of seeing people suffer, seeing myself suffer, seeing my family suffer.”