Last summer, amidst the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery (among many others), recent MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism graduate Michelle Duncan found herself marching through SoHo. The usual designer boutiques were transformed into a kind of outdoor gallery, as original artworks by hundreds of artists covered the boarded-up storefronts. These plywood panels had become canvases for painters, illustrators and graffiti artists inspired by the movement to make vivid works that reflected the moment.
Duncan writes in her thesis, “The city felt like an empty movie set. I marveled at the silence. As I turned off Prince Street and onto Mercer Street in SoHo, I was greeted by a vibrant corridor of what looked like graffiti at first. However, on closer observation turned out to be a riotous mix of images painted onto the plywood protecting storefront windows and doors from potential looting. On the boards were images of hearts and flowers and peace signs and hope and many images of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, sometimes smiling, along with more imagery and text relating to other African Americans who had been murdered at the hands of police officers. I was curious about who did the paintings and particularly interested in the protest art; it was intense.”
As a writer with a passion for cities and architecture, Duncan felt pulled into investigating the stories behind these works of art. Who painted them? How long would they remain? What would become of them if removed? It wasn’t lost on her that in some strange way, SoHo had momentarily reverted back to what it once was, pre-gentrification before it became a luxury shopping destination: a kind of wild and lawless artist community. This fantastic example of repurposing public streets reminded her of her own experiences growing up in Trinidad and celebrating Carnival, and ultimately colored the lens through which she researched and developed her thesis, “Painting SoHo: A Study on the Appropriation of Urban Space.” The story she came away with tells one of a community’s motivation to come together and uplift each other in a time of great need, of art as a means of amplifying voices, and of the way people engage with the city they love amid the turmoil.
Speaking with the artists and longtime Soho residents and business owners and people marching in the streets alongside her, Duncan landed at a fascinating intersection of race, art, preservation and urban development. Through a podcast, “Heritage NYC,” exploring the history of zoning laws in SoHo and their impact on galleries and artists; a personal reflective essay connecting her personal history to the topic; plus countless interviews and in-depth research, Duncan’s work explores the history of a former arts enclave, the ways we adapt public space to suit our own needs, how city streets are affected by the architecture that surrounds them and, mainly, the healing power of these storefront murals, or the term used by theorists Duncan came across, “spontaneous memorials.” She also looks at the fleeting nature of public art, its value despite its impermanence (or because of it), and its power to challenge us through sometimes uncomfortable discourse.
“I started off this program wanting to be a powerful writer. I wanted to be able to write stories and opinion pieces that make people think deeper, laugh, and learn,” Duncan writes in her reflective essay. “Over the past seven months, I have learned that powerful writing isn’t just about well-placed commas and proper grammar. Storytelling involves vulnerability. My unique life experiences give me a particular perspective on every topic that I write about, and therein lies the power. I’ve learned that even when writing a news piece where I’m telling someone else’s story, it’s my lens that informs how I approach the story, and that’s when I’m truly able to touch others.”
Duncan’s project is one of many exciting thesis projects from this year’s group of 2021 MA Design Research graduates, which cover topics as diverse as accessible design, the culture of lottery scratch-off tickets and the misinterpretations of mid-century modern design, among others. Click here to explore all of the 2021 graduates’ work. Watch the video of Duncan's thesis project below for more.