In April 2022, Huston-Tillotson University (HT), a historically Black university in Austin, Texas, was selected as the inaugural Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) Higher Education awardee. Their project, “Harlem Renaissance Meets Huston-Tillotson University” allowed HT student artists-in-residence to remix and reuse Library of Congress collections regarding the Harlem Renaissance to tell stories about themselves and their local community. Students were encouraged to fuse contemporary scenes and environments with those of the 1920’s and 1930’s Harlem Renaissance.
The Project Team
The project team was headed by then-University Archivist Bree’ya Brown and Technical Services and Systems Librarian Katrina Ashton. Brown and Ashton led the grant management process and advertising the opportunity to faculty and students. Their colleagues Public Services Librarian Assistant David Sylvia and Public Services Librarian Ariel Radock worked closely with students. Through group and one-on-one sessions, the project team moved student artists-in-residence from ideation to exhibition. Sylvia assisted student artists like Liliana Benitez in crafting a digital mosaic triptych of Harlem Renaissance artists and activists.
Visiting the Library
While still in the early months of developing their projects, HT students and staff visited the Library twice, one group in December (led by Brown) and another in January (led by Sylvia and Radock). During each of their visits to the Library, they were able to meet with the CCDI team and draw deeper connections between their own projects and the Library of Congress collections. HT’s visits proved energizing for the CCDI team, as it offered them a rare occasion to provide in-person support and engagement to awardees.
Following a tour of the Prints and Photographs Reading Room Ariel Radock remarked, “Charles Alston’s Harlem Hospital Mural Drawing Study particularly captivated my attention. I am familiar with other WPA mural projects, but typically associate their locations within post offices or commercial buildings. It is wonderful to see this drawing study intended to be a part of a medical environment. Additionally, understanding the artist’s thinking and process compared to the finished piece of art is a wonderful occurrence to behold.”
Students, too, returned to campus invigorated by the collections items they engaged with, and the time spent at the Library of Congress touring the Jefferson building and meeting with OCIO staff.
The Final Months of the Project
Over the final months of the grant, the project team worked tirelessly to produce a final project with several digital components. Students sought to make use of digital materials at the Library of Congress and the HT project team wanted to offer several digital elements in both the production and dissemination of students’ artistic renderings. CCDI Senior Innovation Specialist Brian Foo provided technical support on the production end. Ashton built and curated student submissions to the website. While still in development, Ashton says that its final version will allow, “Physical and online visitors to explore the students’ development process and experience with the creative process as they explore the artwork.”
The exhibit consists of both a physical site and an online gallery. The physical display is located in the Huston-Tillotson University Downs-Jones Library.
Physical artwork will also contain QR codes that allow visitors to the exhibit to tour the website where the complete text or run time of the work will be available. The website displays gallery images and videos. Ultimately, all physical artworks will be photographed from multiple angles and uploaded to the gallery.
The gallery spotlights the work of seven student artists-in-residence.
Liliana Benitez is a freshman double majoring in music education and biology. Liliana created a visual timeline from the Harlem Renaissance to the present. Liliana’s digital mosaic paired images of notable figures like Langston Hughes with contemporary artists and scholars on the HT campus like Liliana’s own professor and slam poet Jennine Krueger.
Briaa Clausell, a freshman, produced a short story titled “My Star.” The work follows the life a young boy during the Harlem Renaissance. It opens with a breakfast scene Clausell hopes to expand upon in future exhibits of her work.
Jackson Jones, a sophomore and education major, was deeply moved by the work of Countee Cullen. Much like the Harlem Renaissance poet, Jones sought to create a book of poetry while still a college student. The finished collection of 24 poems is sectioned into 8 themes.
Brandon Madyun, a sophomore and education major, was influenced by articles and images he viewed in the Library of Congress collections. Brandon created a vibrant portrait of his own family with his family’s help. They provided some of the artwork featured on the back of the hand-painted jacket Madyun made to symbolize his connection to his family. For Maydun the jacket is a symbol that “family has your back.”
Tyneisha Quarterman is a senior and a sociology major. Tyneisha initially chose to represent the Harlem Renaissance through poetry. Inspired both by what she found in the Library of Congress collections and other sites visited during her time in Washington, D.C., she chose to stitch together several canvases to create a moving tapestry of her poetry.
Michela Walker pays homage to women singers from the Harlem Renaissance to the present. Michela arranged, produced, and performs in a music video titled “Women’s Medley.”
Laela Estus, a senior, used kiln glass created by her mother to produce a bridge in her mixed media piece. The artwork fuses poetry and images from artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Ethel Waters with artists from Laela’s own family. Laela’s father, who recently passed away, was featured. A singer and musician, Deon Estus was best known as the bass player of Wham!.
The Closeout Celebration
On April 20, 2023 HT project staff and students joined other CCDI awardees, Library staff, the CCDI team, and CCDI Advisory Board members in its close-out event. It provided an opportunity to reflect on the many accomplishments HT staff and students experienced over the grant year.
When asked to describe her experience as an artist-in-residence Laela Estus shared, “The artist-in-residence program was such an amazing opportunity to look at African American history from the Harlem Renaissance time frame and bring those stories into this present time and help to build bridges from the past into the present using my artistic vision. Looking through the archives and researching the different people that I chose to showcase gave me insight, perspective and taught me how important it is to preserve and continue revisiting history. My future goal is to continue to bring art to my community that is meaningful and uplifting and this project was hopefully the first of many to come.”
For each of the student artists-in-residence the “Harlem Renaissance Meets Huston-Tillotson” project proved to be a deeply transformative experience. Both students and staff plan to stay connected with the Library and to continue the work began during their grant year.
To view the gallery of art and find out more about each artist please visit their project website.
For the latest information on CCDI’s next round of Libraries, Archives, Museums opportunities, subscribe to the Of the People: Widening the Path blog.
CCDI is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path program with support from the Mellon Foundation. This four-year program provides financial and technical support to individuals, institutions and organizations to create imaginative projects using the Library’s digital collections and centering one or more of the following groups: Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color from any of the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and its territories and commonwealths (Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands). Learn more about CCDI here.