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Refreshing the Memory Wall: Public Art Commission’s restoration of popular Trade Street artwork will be celebrated in early August
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Refreshing the Memory Wall: Public Art Commission’s restoration of popular Trade Street artwork will be celebrated in early August

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Two years after local officials and citizens began talks about restoring a popular public work of art in downtown Winston-Salem, the project is finished. A public unveiling and related events are set for the first week in August.

Winston-Salem's 'Memory Wall of Peace and Love'

The “Memory Wall of Peace and Love” faces the sidewalk on the east side of Trade Street between Fourth and Fifth streets, adjoining an uncovered parking lot behind the Campbell Public Transportation Center. It was created in 1999 by Gregory Warmack (1948-2012), an internationally acclaimed, African American artist most often known as Mr. Imagination. He made the piece on commission for the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art and the Winston-Salem Transit Authority.

During a five-week residency 22 years ago, Warmack elaborately embellished the 4-by-55-foot wall and surrounding surfaces on the back of a right-angular concrete bench designed as a taxi-stand. The site was chosen by the Winston-Salem Transit Authority.

Employing a technique he had used with other commissioned pieces in his native Chicago and other cities, the artist covered most of the structure with wet cement in which he embedded hundreds of keepsakes and artifacts donated by local citizens.

He completed the piece by adding figural reliefs on the outward-facing surfaces and in-the-round sculptures along the top, including handmade bowls, birds and a central, maternal angel. He painted these sculpted elements in gold or white, in the case of the birds.

Because it was a heavily trafficked pedestrian spot, hundreds of passersby were able to watch the work in progress, ask questions, offer suggestions and assist the artist while he worked on the piece through the hottest weeks of the summer. Possessed of a relentlessly sunny disposition, he welcomed input from anyone he happened to encounter at his work station or elsewhere in the community.

The wall reconsidered

In 2019 a confluence of factors brought new attention to the Memory Wall. Local public-art enthusiasts bemoaned its deterioration and damage from vandalism, while some proponents of downtown redevelopment talked of having it removed or chopped into pieces and redistributed to other parts of the city. Detractors tried to link the Memory Wall to social problems in the vicinity — drinking, drug use, fighting, loud arguments and public urination.

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These issues were discussed in a series of meetings organized by the city’s Public Art Commission (PAC) during 2019 and 2020. The arguments for removing the piece were overruled in the PAC’s decision to support its “gentle restoration,” in David Brown’s term.

Brown is a former SECCA curator who directs the locally based, nonprofit DENT Creative Reuse Center and Art Laboratory, which the PAC chose from among three groups that proposed restoration strategies for the wall. He explained that restoring it with complete fidelity to the original would have been unaffordable and practically impossible.

Performing the work

Local sculptor Duncan Lewis, a member of DENT’s board of directors, led a three-artist team that performed the restoration, which began in April. Working with Lewis were Aaron Gibbons, a sculptor from King; and Derrick Monk, a local sculptor who studied with Lewis at Winston-Salem State University.

First, they carefully power-washed the entire piece with an environmentally safe detergent product. They replaced some of the hubcaps embedded in the front of the wall, using identical ones bought online, and they restored damage to life-size, low-relief faces and hands on several surfaces.

Twelve expressionistically sculpted, nesting birds and other sculptural elements along the top of the wall had been extensively damaged and in some cases demolished. The restoration team worked from photographs of the originals to replace the forms with sturdier versions molded onto elaborate armatures made of steel rebar and wire mesh. Two badly damaged plaques containing printed information about the Memory Wall were replaced with etched-metal plaques attached with security screws. Finally, on July 12, the entire wall was sprayed with an acrylic sealer.

The total cost of the project was $22,000, shared by SECCA (which contributed $9,000) and the city, which contributed the balance, according to Kelly Bennett, a project planner with the city’s Planning & Development Services Department, who also serves as staff liaison for the PAC.

Cliff Dossell, SECCA’s director of exhibitions, is also a PAC member and was closely involved with the Memory Wall restoration. Noting that repair and upkeep are important but often overlooked aspects of public-art commissions, he said the Memory Wall “proves art can have a life of its own beyond its inception.”

A public unveiling

The newly restored “Memory Wall of Peace and Love” will be formally unveiled at noon Aug. 2. Later in the week, the wall will be the site of a meet-and-greet event with artists who worked on the project, in conjunction with gallery openings in the Arts District at 8 p.m. Aug. 6.

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