In the Neighborhood
Alonso Nichols, MFA '22 and Flor Delgadillo, MFA '22 will never forget being led on a walk to Carson Beach by a group of kids from the South Boston Neighborhood House, a local community center called “The Ollie” for short after its founder Olivia James.
Although the kids were unaware of the area’s turbulent past, The South Boston beach was the site of a violent clash in 1975 that coincided with the city’s controversial program of desegregation busing of public school students. The white beach residents fought for three weekends with Black beach goers, reaching a horrifying crescendo on August 10, 1975 when 800 police officers were dispatched to disperse a non-violent picnic protest and wade-in organized by the NAACP.
The event was the subject of Rights Along the Shore, an exhibition of work by SMFA faculty Mary Ellen Strom and Danielle Abrams* which was on view at Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts from April 22-May 28. The artwork was part of “Wade-Ins,” an ongoing series by Abrams and Strom.
Mapping out the exhibition, Strom said, “The exhibition included a two-channel video installation that addresses the Carson Beach rebellion, the desegregation of the Anacostia Pool in Washington, D.C., and looked at a segregated beach in New Orleans called Lincoln Beach.” And at the April 22 opening Abrams planned to perform a piece inspired by her father’s own memories of swimming in New York in the 1950’s as a Black child.
Nichols and Delgadillo acted as both research and production assistants for Rights Along the Shore, immersing themselves in participatory practice which included co-facilitating a series of four workshops with the Ollie kids as a way of getting to understand the present-day community and its roots in the 1975 events.
Abrams explained how they collaborated: “The four of us had weekly planning sessions prior to each workshop. We wanted the youth group to feel free to express their ideas using a range of art materials and genres and at the same time, we planned workshops that would incite an inquiry about the neighborhood of South Boston.”
Delgadillo isn’t from Boston and the first time she visited Carson Beach was with the kids. She says, “It was special, because as we made our way there, I got to ask the kids about the history of the place and get their take. Some of them have grandparents with houses there so it’s been in their families for generations.”
And although Nichols has lived in Boston for 17 years, he was not aware of the deeper layers of painful history sifting just below the waves.
Both SMFA students had taken classes with Strom and Abrams and were thrilled to be asked to collaborate on the show, especially in a way that put them in direct interaction with faculty and The Ollie at a time when COVID locked most people in Zoom rectangles.
Strom said she was moved by the perseverance and real belief in the subject that Delgadillo and Nichols demonstrated. “They have both learned how to work with different research methods to produce artworks, and they both have a commitment to in-depth production that looks at history and culture. They have a sensitivity and an ability to be complex thinkers around diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, and access.”
Nichols’ main project was to photograph the students as well as the community figures who guided the exhibition’s narrative including NAACP civil rights activist Leon Rock, who was the youth organizer for the 1975 rebellion. Nichols has a background as a photographer on staff at Tufts University and has been shooting portraits for years—both commercially and as a fine arts photographer.
Yet he really had to think on his feet to make this shoot possible in November, despite the cold weather. “We didn’t have a lot of space and these kids, at that time, could not be vaccinated. If we wanted to make pictures of students without masks on, we’d have to do that outside. Each time I’d find an open parking space where I could set up my lights and create an outdoor studio,” he says.
The portraits Nichols shot that appeared in the show, included Caitlyn Murphy (Education and Career Development Counselor of the “Ollie) and Alicia Baez, who grew up in South Boston and Roxbury. Murphy and Baez appeared in a video installation in which they are interviewed about their contrasting experiences in the Boston Public School system—including with the busing program. Strom explains, “They are both the same age. They have a very poignant and truthful conversation about being placed in cultural locations where they felt alienated and had to learn how to survive.”
Getting to be part of the interview production team handling the camera, sound, and lighting shifted Nichols’ perspective on his medium. “I’m around people who interview other people all the time, but it made me think about how I can use these same tools for different purposes. That’s what was great about being able to work closely with Mary Ellen and Danielle—a very practical way of seeing other possibilities, other approaches.”
And for Delgadillo, the interviews felt personal. “This is stuff that purposely gets erased and not talked about,” she says. “When Alicia talked about how she’s maintained a relationship with the people that helped her finish high school, and that she’s still in communication with them, I really related to that.”
She was struck by the responsibility and influence she had as a mentor to the Ollie kids and those she coaches through a Tufts program at the Malden YMCA. A performance artist, prior to facilitating the Ollie workshops, Delgadillo hadn’t considered incorporating arts education into her practice, but now that feels important moving forward.
*We are sad to share that Professor of the Practice Danielle Abrams passed away on April 21, 2022. Danielle was an integral part of our graduate program, so to honor her memory and wonderful mentorship of MFA students Alonso Nichols and Flor Delgadillo, and in consultation with her exhibition co-creator Professor of the Practice Mary Ellen Strom, we have decided to move forward with publishing this story as it was written prior to her passing.
Lead Image: Medford/Somerville, Mass. - Alonso Nichols, AG22 - MFA, and Flor Delgadillo, AG22-MFA, pose for a portrait on April 20, 2022. Alonso and Flor were graduate research assistants for Danielle Abrams and Mary Ellen Strom’s project “Rights Along The Shore." (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)