Madison Heights

Medical District umbrella-share project debuts as usable public art for all

Rain or Shine debuts August 28 as part of the Madison Heights Community Celebration hosted by the Memphis Medical District Collaborative, Wonder / Cowork / Create and High Ground News. Join us from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at 1310 Madison Avenue for free food, entertainment and a second line jazz parade through the neighborhood led by the Mighty Souls Brass Band. Click here for more info and to let us know you're coming!

A new public art project is debuting in Madison Heights on August 28 but it’s far from the typical mural or sculpture.

Rain or Shine is public art made usable and inspired by three months of community engagement to ensure it truly serves the whole of this diverse community. 

“This is a community-shared umbrella system,” said Cat Pena, co-founder of Wonder / Cowork / Create creative co-working hub in the Medical District and project manager for the four-person Creatives in Research team that researched and developed Rain or Shine.

Madison Heights is one of several distinct communities in the larger Medical District and sits at the district's eastern edge. It's centered on the intersection of Madison Avenue and Cleveland Street and bordered roughly by Union and Poplar avenues, Interstate 240 and McNeil Street. 

“We're installing 35 umbrella stands around the neighborhood to offer temporary shelter for people traveling,” Pena explained. “You use the umbrellas when you need them and then put them back for the next person.”

The umbrella stands will be decorated as public art installations by the CiR team and hold 135 pink and white umbrellas that can be used and moved throughout the system, which Pena said will be focused along major bus and pedestrian routes and in residential areas.

The community is pedestrian-friendly, which lends itself to an umbrella-sharing project like Rain or Shine.

Nearby professionals and college students often walk to lunch at Mot & Ed's, Riko's Kickin Chicken, Los Comales, Vietnam Restaurant and others. There are a number of major mass transportation routes and transfer points in the neighborhood with bus and trolley riders moving between stops and walking to nearby destinations.

Related: "Riko's Kickin Chicken brings the heat to Madison Heights"

There are also many people experiencing homeless who walk between the various services clustered in the area that serve their needs. 

Related: "Newly opened health clinic provides free services to the homeless population of Memphis"

“Despite how much money you have or what background you come from, we all need shelter. Right now we need shelter from the sun and from rain,” said Pena.

“We felt that the need for shelter was common among people who visit the neighborhood as well as those who call it their home,” said CiR team member Alex Williams. “There is an extreme lack of shade and shelter for walkers and transit commuters that needed to be addressed," he continued. "Umbrellas are great, cheap, transportable shelter.”

White tubing waits to be decorated by the Creatives in Research team and lashed together to become umbrella stands for the Rain or Shine umbrella-share public art project in Madison Heights. (Wonder / Cowork / Create)

Funding Research, Not Art 

The Memphis Medical District Collaborative, a nonprofit community and economic development organization focused on the entire Medical District, wanted to fund deep community engagement so that their public art strategy going forward was informed by the community it would serve.

The creative researchers have backgrounds in storytelling, acting, sculpture and printmaking. 

“We are an organization that strives to work collaboratively in everything that we do, and this has been a great opportunity to do that with local creative professionals in a neighborhood that encompasses many different uses, from residential to commercial to public space,” said Susannah Barton, a program manager for MMDC's public space initiatives.

MMDC hired Wonder / Cowork / Create to manage the CiR project and the four-person CiR team — Stacy Early, Kaleob Elkins, Princeton James, and Alex Williams.

The CiR team was tasked with spending three months listening to a wide variety of neighborhood stakeholders and their broad vision for their community. They would then use what they learned to form some sort of public art project that would serve all members of the community. 

“The idea was that by the end of the research, we would use that information to come up with a prototype that would address a need for the community,” explained Pena.

“We went into this with the mindset that it was truly a test," said Barton. "As with most of our work, we test ideas before making larger, longer-term investments. With that in mind, I think this has been a success.”

The CiR team also partnered with High Ground News' On the Ground journalism team, which was embedded in Madison Heights during CiR's three-month engagement. 

"High Ground News has a proven track record of embedding in neighborhoods to generate quality news pieces," said Barton. "Our hope was to enhance this with the inclusion of local creatives that come at storytelling from a different angle."

Related: “Memphis Medical District Collaborative hires artists as researchers to guide development”

The Road to Umbrellas

The CiR team began their research in mid-April and wrapped in mid-July.

During that time, the group investigated the history of the area and met with business owners, service organizations and people on the streets. They hosted listening sessions and participated in community events like the Sacred Heart Church community festival, as well as High Ground engagement activities like pop-up lemonade stands. 

Related: "Video: One church, three cultures, one awesome party"

“Madison Heights is an incredible resource for people in need in Memphis. Many services are located there. It also has a burgeoning small business section. This potential is great to see,” said Alex Williams, whose creative focus is screen printing and illustration. 

“This part of town is so easily overlooked,” added Princeton James, whose creative focus is film, directing and screenwriting. “There are businesses and cultures there that people don't know about. It's one of the most valuable and overlooked places in the city."

The researchers noted a lack of interaction between groups of different cultural status and backgrounds, despite them all traversing the sidewalks of Madison Heights side by side. 

“We were most struck by the fact that there was a lot going on in the neighborhood, but everything is isolated,” said Pena. “There are different kinds of groups around the area like churches, education, and businesses, but it doesn't seem to be a cohesive community feel.”

“There's a lot of low-income housing places. There is also a large Vietnamese population and a really large homeless population," said Kaleob Elkins, whose creative focus is public art, painting, design, fabrication and collaborative art. "All of these groups tend to stick to themselves." 

Elkins has lived in Memphis for 10 years and has noticed the growth of the area. He remarked how the different groups are not hostile to each other but distant.

The CiR team noted that the large homeless population in Madison Heights generates different responses from people in the area. Some businesses invite people experiencing homelessness inside or serve them food on a regular basis, but there's still a pervasive fear of perception. 

“There were some business owners who were afraid that the homeless people would scare people from their businesses,” said Stacy Early, whose creative focus is storytelling and social practice.

But the CiR team and High Ground both found that most community members were sympathetic towards people experiencing homelessness and wanted to see better solutions for the entire neighborhood, including those members. 

Early noted that even though there are clear divides, there is true potential for the people to unite.

“People weren't shy when we started to talk to them, and they liked sharing their opinions and were interested in our project,” said Early. “I remember talking to some senior citizens that said they wanted what the community felt like in the past, but didn't know how to go about doing it.”

To accomplish their goal of a project that served all members of the community and helped solve for a need — create community cohesion they observed was wanted but lacking — the CiR team developed the Rain or Shine umbrella-sharing installation. 

“When you live in any area, you have to get from point A to point B," said Pena. "We wanted to find ways to connect people in a playful way and offer a place for interactions for people you may not generally talk to."
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Read more articles by A.J Dugger III and Cole Bradley.

A.J. Dugger III is an award-winning journalist and native Memphian who joined High Ground as lead writer for its signature series, On the Ground, in August 2019. Previously, he wrote for numerous publications in West Tennessee and authored two books, “Southern Terror” and “The Dealers: Then and Now.” He has also appeared as a guest expert on the true-crime series, “For My Man.” For more information, visit (Photo by April Stilwell) Cole Bradley is a native Memphian, graduate of the University of Memphis and High Ground's managing editor. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and joined the High Ground in Jan 2017. Cole's is passionate about solutions journalism and anthro-journalism, fusing anthropological methods for deep community engagement with people-centered, sidewalk-level journalism.