Madison Heights

Memphis Medical District Collaborative hires artists as researchers to guide development

A new partnership of Memphis Medical District Collaborative and Wonder / Cowork / Create will center community members as stakeholders in the Medical District’s ongoing public art project.

The Memphis Medical District Collaborative has employed four creatives from diverse professional backgrounds to complete a neighborhood study and community engagement initiative to better understand the culture of Madison Heights, which is one of the many neighborhoods nested within the Memphis Medical District. 

At the end of the research period, the creatives, whose backgrounds lie in printmaking, sculpture, acting and storytelling, will create temporary art installations informed by their interactions with residents.

The research period runs April 15 to July 15 and is limited to Madison Heights, which is loosely bounded by Poplar and Union avenues, McNeil Street and Interstate-240

The creatives will explore the history and current state of the neighborhood and meet with residents, community leaders and business owners to understand the area’s assets, challenges and desires for public art.

MMDC, a nonprofit development agency focused on improvements to public space, safety, transportation, business and real estate across the Medical District, is funding the cohort.

“It is essentially to create a base of information for MMDC to use in all of their programming, but also for projects to come out of it,” said Cat Peña, the project’s lead facilitator and cofounder of WCC, a coworking space for creative professionals located at 340 Monroe Avenue.

WWC launched in 2018 with the help of MMDC and will be the base of operations for Creatives in Research.

Related: "Join High Ground News' coverage as a Creative in Research"

“We’re hoping that [the creatives] can be more documentarians and translators for the ideas and the inspirations coming from the community,” said Clausen, who is a WCC co-founder and facilitator for Creatives in Research. “They’re like a collection bucket for the voices of the neighborhood.”

Peña’s own work is rooted in social practiceor artmaking that focuses on the process of designing with diverse stakeholders, rather than the art itself. The genre isn't concerned with a specific medium or final form, only that the finished product reflects and benefits the participants. 

“I am not an expert on art or artists or creatives, and I’m not an expert on how to manage this process, but we have that expertise in our partners at Wonder / Cowork / Create,” said Susannah Barton, MMDC’s program manager coordinating its public space initiatives.

If Madison Heights sounds like an unfamiliar neighborhood, that’s because the official name is fairly new. The designation gained popularity during a community engagement process related to a MEMFix activation.

Related: “Team Better Block workshop maps fall MEMFix event

The work revealed stakeholders in Madison Heights wanted a unique identity to differentiate it from the surrounding Edge, Midtown and Crosstown areas. The partners hope Creatives in Research will help the neighborhood explore its new identity and build on that earlier community development work.

At the end of the Creatives in Research project, the creatives will collaborate on up to three temporary installations in Madison Heights. The installations could be anything — a film, a play, a festival, a sculpture, even a song or dance performance — that is arts-based and available to the public. The information gathered in the Creatives in Research program will inform future public art projects, as well as potential improvements to infrastructure, retail and services.

“In a way, we’re really paying to learn,” said Barton. “We’re paying for research and to learn so that it will inform work later on.”

Creatives in Research is also partnering with High Ground News’ On the Ground neighborhood reporting program to help guide research and engagement efforts.

On the Ground embeds a journalism team of reporters, photographers, editors and a community engagement manager in a Memphis neighborhood for four months of intensive coverage including articles, photo and video essays and daily social media content.

Madison Heights is our eleventh On The Ground neighborhood and is our focus area through July 2019.

On the Ground editorial content is generated in partnership with community members. The team hosts and attends neighborhood meetings and events, meets stakeholders one-on-one and spends time in the area each week for interviews, public newsroom hours, team lunches and more. Creatives in Research will dovetail with those efforts. The creatives will attend On the Ground engagements and partner on joint events. 

“It’s different than journalism, but [public art] is still storytelling,” said Barton. “It’s a different way to tell the story of this neighborhood outside of words. But also it’s telling the history, the current state and then the ideas and thoughts for the future.”

Ultimately, the partners hope Creatives in Research will help people who employ creatives recognize the importance of artists' input early in the design processes and help creatives see the value of including community voices in their work.

“It’s a top-down process where administrators usually decide where a project will be, how much it will be and roughly what kind of project they’re looking for,” said Peña. “I think that should be flipped on its back and the artist should be completely informed of the place in which they’re positioning a piece of artwork from a really holistic research base.”

“We want the creative community, even if they are a more tactile maker, to have a more socially conscious, engaged process when creating public art,” said Clausen.

High Ground’s On the Ground team sat down with the new creative researchers for their thoughts on the project, Madison Heights and Memphis’ larger creative community.

Stacy Early

Creative in Research Stacey Early. (Submitted)
Degree in graphic design | Currently studying art and community at the University of Memphis  | Current creative focus on storytelling and social practice

Stacy Early moved to Memphis 12 years ago, and since 2012 she’s worked for Literacy Mid-South. There she met many clients who said they couldn’t tell their stories due to literacy barriers or because they felt unheard or powerless. The experience inspired Early to focus her career on social practice and helping community members tell their story through any medium.

What do you hope the project achieves?
It’s a good opportunity to get to know Memphis a little bit more and get experience working with people [to] see what they wanted.

I hope it brings people together who may not have realized they had anything in common before. Maybe they walk by each other and see each other every day, but maybe through this, they talk and build relationships and connections for the neighborhood.

How might the project grow Memphis’ creative community?
I think people are realizing the more we can work together, the more difference we can make through art. I feel like it can be an example of people working together successfully. The businesses and development corporations, I hope that they would see it as well.

Kaleob Elkins

Creative in Research Kaelob Elkins. (Submitted) Degree in sculpture | Current creative focus on public art, painting, design, fabrication, and collaborative art

Kaleob Elkins moved to Memphis 10 years ago. He describes himself as a generalist who’s most interested in creating concepts and coordinating collaborations. For the last three years, he’s worked with MMDC, MEMFix and the Memphis 3.0 planning team on a handful of initiatives around public engagement, green spaces and art installations primarily in the Medical District.

What do you hope the project achieves?
I would love for the community to have a design study so that we can see what the problems are, see what the assets are, see what the community wants and having that all in some type of document that allows us to go into the next phase of the process.

How might the project grow Memphis’ creative community?
I’d love for a project like this to get enough visibility that people actually start seeing what they can do by collaborating.

It’d be cool if this project could change the mindsets of how we think of the roles of artists in society. A lot of times we are afterthoughts in the planning process. Projects with the MMDC and the DMC are kind of shifting that focus to where artists are thought of more as creative thinkers.

Princeton James

Creative in Research Princeton James. (Submitted)Trained with Memphis-based Indie Acting Studio and Hattiloo Theatre and similar companies in Atlanta, GA | Current creative focus on acting, directing, producing, playwriting and screenwriting

James grew up in Cold Water, Miss. He always wanted to be a creative, though he earned an accounting degree before discovering acting. His Memphis-based Princeton James Productions focuses on plays and short films and offers under-served youth a chance to learning acting, dance, costume and set design, hair, makeup and more.

What do you hope the project achieves?
What really drew me to the program was to be able to go into that community, do some studying, some research, and then create a piece that will pay homage to that community. I hope they’re able to use this experience and this experiment and just get hope from it. I hope we’re able to navigate in that neighborhood and bring awareness to the richness of that neighborhood.

Do you hope this project helps you grow as a creative and Memphian?
I hope to gain some new content, some new friends, new family, new people I didn’t know.

I want to leave this area inspired by the stories, aware of the situations that are going on so close to me and become an even bigger advocate for that area and Memphis as a whole.

Alex Williams

Creative in Research Alex Williams. (Submitted) Degree in printmaking and painting | Currently studying graphic design at University of Memphis | Current creative focus on screen printing and illustration

Williams moved to Memphis just six months ago. Originally from Pittsburgh, he’s lived in Seattle and elsewhere before settling in Memphis. He and his wife, a ceramicist and professor at the University of Memphis, plan to make Memphis their “forever home.”

What do you hope the project achieves?
I have a handful of ideas of what I would do, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what’s needed. So our initial goal is to go in and listen to the people in the neighborhood, see what’s happening and use that as a starting point.

Most of my creative projects are sort of doing for myself, and it’s a good time to start trying to help other people figure out their ideas.

You’re new to Memphis, but do you have thoughts on its creative community?
The big draw for [our choice] to move to Memphis was because we saw a lot of positive growth happening here. It’s a driving factor in why I wanted to do this project specifically because I’ve noticed a lot of public art initiatives that I haven’t necessarily seen on this level in other cities.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017. 
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