The Story of Mama Lula

Artist Shiloah Symone Coley shares her experience interviewing Parklands resident Miss Lula and creating Mama Lula, an animation now on view at Phillips@THEARC about Miss Lula’s story.

Roses fill Miss Lula’s living room when you peer in through the street-facing window. It’s July 12, 2022, just over a week since her 89th birthday on July 4. The flowers transform her intimate living room into looking much more like the garden just outside her window.

Miss Lula pictured just after her July 4th birthday. Photo: Shiloah Symone Coley

Her flowers thrive in the mid-summer heat and humidity. She wears a red, white, and blue Washington, DC Nationals baseball t-shirt with a matching hat that reads “LOVE.” It’s not the fourth of July anymore, but something feels quintessentially American in a different way–not just her outfit, but her, all 5 feet of a July 4th baby now in her elder years. She’s seen so many 4th of Julys.

I met Miss Lula earlier that year during the winter at one of the Creative Aging programs at Phillips@THEARC. An intimate program that day, Donna Jonte and I were joined by Miss Lula and her friend Miss Pam. We ate, talked, and made art. But one of the most memorable parts of that day were the stories Miss Lula told about the work. There was a story behind every piece. So when I had the idea to interview Black women who lived around THEARC in the Parklands community, she landed first on my list.

As I walked into THEARC with her for our first interview, people at the front desk and coming in and out of the building immediately knew who she was. Not only were pleasantries exchanged, but updates on life events were eagerly shared. She seemed to carry about her a unique mix of warmness and honesty that let people know it was okay to be themselves and say how they were really feeling with her. It helps that she’s lived in the community in the same apartment for 60 years. She’s watched some of these folks grow up.

As I interviewed Miss Lula, what I found most interesting about her story was her persistence to stay in the Parklands community. I think as a child I often dreamed of leaving home, moving, doing my own thing. Then, in my adulthood I have become accustomed to a semi-nomadic lifestyle where I move every couple of years. Both forced migration and chosen migration run rampant across all eras but seems particularly normalized with younger generations. On my block in Northwest DC my roommate and I have noted half the people who used to live on our block have moved within the past year. As we noticed how quickly and frequently the shift occurs, we began to wonder what it means for the community when people are able to stay.

Miss Lula knows migration well. She arrived in DC at Union Station as a little girl with her siblings after her maternal grandmother sent them up north from South Carolina to be reunited with their parents, an experience not uncommon to most children growing up during the Great Migration. She would spend the rest of her life in Maryland and DC, and most of her life in her current residence in Parklands. Mama Lula is about one woman who has been able to stay and has chosen to stay in her community despite the changing landscape around her.

I originally set out to tell a story about the community from various perspectives with insight from multiple women from different generations. And perhaps that project will still take shape one day. But it became clear after interviewing Miss Lula, that her voice was deserving of its own project. Maybe the countless cards and flowers she received on her birthday were indicative of not just the lives she’s touched, but the importance of her as an elder in the community with a life and story to share.

Meet Our 2022 Fall Interns

Meet our fall 2022 interns, who have recently completed their internships. Applications for spring 2023 paid internships in the DEAI, HR, and Curatorial departments are now open!

Abby Osborne, George Washington University

“My name is Abby Osborne, and I’m a junior at George Washington University, majoring in art history and political communication. During this cycle, I’ve helped the Marketing and Communications department with community outreach, our business partnerships, and a press release about an upcoming exhibition. During my internship I enjoyed helping strengthen The Phillips Collection’s relationship with local businesses and creating strong partnerships that will benefit museum-goers. I also helped promote upcoming exhibitions and events throughout the community and updated the mailing lists, adding local university newspapers and Italian/Italian-American organizations that might be interested in the exhibition about Giuseppe De Nittis.”

Claire Griffin, George Washington University

“I am Claire Griffin and I am an intern in the DEAI department under Horning Chair for Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Yuma Tomes. I am currently pursuing a master’s degree in Museum Studies from George Washington University and will be starting my last semester in January. Additionally, I have a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology with a minor in Sociology from Indiana University. Before joining the Phillips, I held positions at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Dumbarton House Museum, and Indiana University’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. Throughout my time here, I have had five major projects: Diversity in the Collection Project, Labor Acknowledgement Project, assistance with the Diversity Inter-Group Dialogue Series (DIDs) staff training session, writing an article for the next DEAI Staff Newsletter, and interviews with the department heads. I have been so grateful to learn more about DEAI work inside museums and looks forward to taking that knowledge with me throughout my career.”

Juliana Walsh, The Catholic University of America

“My name is Juliana and I have been the Community Engagement Intern. I have experienced tours given by Phillips Educators to grow my understanding of museum learning, as well as family programs that engage experiential learning. I spent a significant amount of time at our workshop at THEARC, where I helped The Phillips Collection win the best decorated car of THEARC partners at the annual Trunk & Treat event. I also supported some art-making workshops there. My main project this semester was research for the implementation of a mural-making summer camp at THEARC for students in Wards 7 and 8. This has been an absolute joy and I am very hopeful that the camp will become a reality, promoting initiatives of inclusivity and accessibility in historically underrepresented communities. I am so happy with all the work I did this semester and the great bonds that have been created between me and my department.”

Tina Fu, California State University Los Angeles

“My name is Tina Fu and I am an Education intern under Deputy Director for Education and Responsive Learning Spaces Anne Taylor Brittingham. I graduated from California State University Los Angeles this May with a BA in Art Education, which led me t interning at The Phillips Collection because I was interested in learning about art education beyond school classrooms. During my internship at the Phillips, I was able to be involved in different experiences and events, such as shadowing tours, interacting with visitors, creating lesson plans, helping set up events, and learning about the operations of a museum. I am very grateful for this opportunity which helped expand my understanding of art education.”

Leading The Phillips Collection Into Its Next Century

Dorothy Kosinski, Vradenburg Director and CEO of The Phillips Collection, will conclude her tenure at the end of 2022. Following 15 years of distinguished leadership, she will be named Director Emerita. Here, Dorothy reflects on her time at the Phillips.

Dorothy Kosinski at the Phillips’s 100th Birthday Party, November 2021. Photo: Ryan Maxwell

How do you think the Phillips has changed over the last 15 years?
During my tenure, the museum has moved outside its walls—it has become more engaged with and responsive to our communities, to the art of our time, and to the urgent issues that confront our society today. This is probably most apparent in our satellite space at THEARC in Southeast DC. But it is also clear in our growing collection that embraces diverse voices from across our nation and the world. We tell stories from Kinshasa, Congo; from Sitka, Alaska; from New Delhi, India; from Harlem; and from Washington, DC. We tell a more complex and global story about modern and contemporary art. Additionally, the Phillips is engaged in constructive conversation about migration, climate degradation, art and wellness, the threat of war, and women in the arts. At the same time, we model the most serious scholarship and conservation inquiry about our 19th- and 20th-century holdings to continuously advance new knowledge and new perspectives on our historic core collection. Of course (and greatly accelerated since the pandemic), our museum races to stay in advance of the demands for technological portals and digital assets in order to achieve immediate, transparent, and in-depth access.

The Phillips is not isolated and our work reflects the enormous changes in the field. I think I will paraphrase my esteemed colleague Lonnie Bunch who said that the museum is not a community center but must be at the center of the community. That pretty much sums up the thrust and direction of this change. Additionally I will point to a book that just came out Change is Required: Preparing for the Post-Pandemic Museum containing my own essay (among 47 others) entitled “Purpose Is the Only Thing.” I think that, too, captures the essence of our efforts.

Workshop at Phillips@THEARC led by artist Janet Taylor-Pickett, February 2020

What makes the Phillips special?
The Phillips has a very precious and distinct character—intimate and accessible because of its domestic scale; personal and idiosyncratic because of its genesis as a private collection; deeply rooted in the immediate community and yet acknowledged globally for its expansiveness and excellence.

What are your hopes for the Phillips’s next century?
The Phillips was out ahead in its focus on issues of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. My hope is that this work only deepens, and that these values continue to permeate and drive all of our work and initiatives across the museum as they do now. That is the responsibility of the next generation of leaders and trustees.

Installation view of Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century, featuring (left to right) Alfonso Ossorio, Excelsior (1960), Richard Pousette-Dart, Totemic Transcendental (1982), Aimé Mpane, Maman Calcule (2013), Photo: Lee Stalsworth

What exhibitions and programs are you most proud of?
It is so hard to choose a favorite exhibition. I think the exhibition that I co-curated with my dear colleague Dr. Klaus Ottmann on Jackson Pollock, Alfonso Ossorio, and Jean Dubuffet (2013) was groundbreaking in its scholarly framing of an artist who had been unknown and underappreciated for so long. More recently, the project conceived by my esteemed colleague Dr. Adrienne L. Childs, Riffs and Relations: African American Art and the European Modernist Tradition (2020), was visually and intellectually exhilarating in its presentation of a complex and multi-layered story. I am very proud of our annual Artists of Conscience series; that has been one of our primary platforms for exploring the tough and knotty ideas in the art world and society at large. Most importantly, it is the artists’ voice that we center. I am inspired by our Art and Wellness initiatives that bring us in meaningful and impactful dialogue with children, veterans, and older adults. Empathy and resilience are the values at the heart of this work.

What is your favorite work in the collection? A work that is not as well known?
That’s an impossible question for me! I adore Manet’s Spanish Ballet (1862). I also love Simone Leigh’s No Face (Crown Heights) (2018). A work you might not know? For that I’d choose Aaron Maier-Carretero’s Not In Front of the Kids (2020) that we purchased from our juried invitational exhibit during the Centennial.

What are your plans after the Phillips?
I plan to exhale! I serve on the boards of directors of two foundations as well as on the National Endowment for the Humanities National Council, so I am pretty busy as it is. I am in the midst of several conversations framing my role at other organizations that allow me to offer my knowledge and experience in impactful leadership. I am also investigating fellowships and residencies that will allow me to return to some long postponed as well as new curatorial and scholarly projects.