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.

Fellow Spotlight: Shiloah Symone Coley

Meet our 2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellows. As part of our institutional values and commitment to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, the Sherman Fairchild Fellowship is a comprehensive, yearlong paid program that includes hands-on experience, mentoring, and professional development. 

Shiloah Symone Coley by Nithin Charlly

Why are you interested in working at a museum?

From the time I was a little girl, I didn’t feel represented or seen in art museums. This ended up shaping the trajectory of my learning and pursuit of an artistic practice. I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside children’s museums in the capacity of facilitating art programming and have done smaller projects with larger art institutions. However, I felt that I never truly learned the ins and outs of an art museum. I want to understand how and why they function in addition to how and why they change as their relationship to the audiences they serve has come into question over the past decade.

What brought you to The Phillips Collection?

As an artist, researcher, and writer, I continuously feel compelled to use narratives in all of their complexity as a point of departure for conveying the complications that lie amongst our perceptions of the self and others, which is further complicated by the plethora of identities and positionalities we hold at the individual, familial, and communal level.

How does an institution engage in the complexity of the narratives perpetuated by the work in addition to considering the different narratives of the publics they serve? I think the Phillips is enduring a period of transition as it grapples with its past, present, and future as an institution. When I applied for the fellowship, I was particularly interested in the Community Exhibitions occurring through the work of the Community Engagement and Education departments with different communities in D.C. The particular work of attempting to expand the reach of a museum to not only be inclusive but responsible and accountable to the communities of DC motivated me to pursue a position here.

Please tell us about your work at the Phillips over the summer, and the projects that you will be working on during your fellowship. What do you hope to accomplish during your fellowship?

Over the summer, I focused on creating content for the Juried Invitational Inside Outside, Upside Down in celebration of the centennial. This meant connecting with the artists to create blog posts, social media content, and audio stops. Connecting with the artists has really offered me an opportunity to build my own community of artists working in and around DC, which was one of my biggest goals coming into the fellowship. As an MFA in Studio Art candidate at American University in my second year, I feel that I really missed out on community building during the first year of my program with covid restrictions in place, so it’s exciting to get to do studio visits with some of the artists working with the Phillips.

The focus of my fellowship is to bridge the Community Engagement and Marketing & Communications departments, while considering how we can be intentional about storytelling and engagement with our community. I hope to have a better understanding of museums as not only institutions but sites for civic engagement as I continue to work with artists and support programs at Phillips@THEARC.

What is your favorite painting/artist here?

Currently one of my favorite photographs in the collection is Man with Two Girls on Shoulders (East 100th Street Series) by Bruce Davidson.

If you were to describe the Phillips in one word, what would that word be?


What is a fun fact about you?

I was a very mediocre competitive swimmer from age 5 to 15 years old.