April 15, 2022

New Salem Park Installation to Preserve the EcoCultural history of Naumkeag

by Felicia Cheney

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Featured image for “New Salem Park Installation to Preserve the EcoCultural history of Naumkeag”

by Joey Phoenix

Artist Team: Louis Chinn (He/Him) and Huameng Yu (She/They) to create splash pad and filter building facade at Forest River Outdoor Recreation & Nature Center which nods to historic Naumkeag’s topographical and climate history alongside its development into the anthropocene. 

In September 2020 The Salem Public Art Commission put out a national call for a new artist design of an interactive splash pad and filter building facade at Forest River Outdoor Recreation & Nature Center. After public comment and thorough reviews, the Jury selected a place-making artist team: Louis Chinn (he/him) iand Huameng Yu (she/they). 

The Forest River Park installation will feature ancient fossil brass inlays, glacial benches fabricated from locally sourced granite, and an elevated view from terraces representing geologic layers and growth over time. These terraces will serve as a platform and gathering space for public performances and engagement. 

“There is this nature, integration, and conservation aspect of it where the park is being renovated to protect it from rising oceans and other ecological factors. [The Public Art Commission] wants to preserve this historic part for future generations, and they really wanted this to have an educational element to it,” said Huameng Yu. “We were really drawn to that, because a lot of our work really draws from themes of nature and ecological thinking.”

“We observed the beauty of this area – how special this shoreline and coastal and forest areas are and learned more about the unique history and culture alongside that,” Louis Chinn said. “As artists we are particularly interested in how to consciously write narratives that work for what’s going on in the contemporary spaces.” 

Researching and Preserving the rich ecological and cultural history of Naumkeag

The Splash Pad 

The duo partnered with Salem State University geological department to dive deep into the history of Naumkeag, the original name for Salem, 500 million years ago, engaging with tectonic plates in the land, its connection to North Africa, and the Avalon bedrock that originally connected the two continents. 

They worked closely with professor Dr. Lindley Hanson who gave them a tour of the park and its significant geological features. 

“If you were to dig through, not only the actual bedrock, but if you were digging through layers of time, you could see these different transformations that happened, including a volcanic magmatic level, as well as this glacial level, and the erosion to that led to what you see today,” said Huameng. “All of this is directly embedded in our splash pad design.” 

“The educational element of this piece also focuses on how we’re now in the Anthropocene era, which is, of course, the human impact on geology. There are images depicted in the piece showing the broken down concrete of previous eras, and some human elements that are now actually strewn about the park,” added Louis Chinn, remarking that signage around the park will accompany the work to rule out any ambiguity of purpose or design. 

The Mural 

Complementing the splash pad will be a twenty foot long mural that depicts Salem Sound, Salem harbor, and all the different waterways that were present around 10,000 years ago during the glacial melt. According to the design, a different cultural pattern will be embedded in each river depicting a tapestry of the demographics that make up Salem today, with the central river honoring the indigenous population known as the Naumkeag band of the Massachusett Tribe, the first peoples to inhabit the space. 

Work in process: Louis Chinn creates the textural painting, based off a satellite image of the ocean.

For this, the duo partnered with the Massachusetts Tribal Council to determine which indigenous patterns would be featured in the final design. 

“They showed us this beautiful ceramic circular pattern originally used on a bowl. We laid that out linearly so that it could be mapped onto the central river of the mural,” Huameng Yu said.

Fresh perspective lifts lesser known stories in Salem 

The pair – who have been collaborating on public art installations around the world since 2015 – will return to Salem in April to begin crafting the larger pieces for the project. The date of installation is slotted for the end of May, pending weather and fabrication processes. 

Brass mural in the process of being patinated. Patination refers to the process of developing or forming a color upon a surface or sculpture.

The currently west coast-based artist team brings a rich multicultural perspective to the project both from their research but from their identities as well. Huameng Yu is a a Chinese-born, first-generation, queer-identified, multi-media artist and Louis Chinn is a multi-disciplinary artist with mixed race heritage and an upbringing in indigenous Alaska. 

“What’s special about this project for us is that it’s the east coast where we can enjoy the depth of history and preservation of culture that is a bit deeper and longer than what we know on the west coast,” Louis Chinn said. “Tradition is a complex topic because on the one hand it can be oppressive and cause issues, while on the other hand, it’s an important way of creating continuity. 

“But what I’m excited about is the fact that the city of Salem was willing to work with artists who want to tell less common, more marginalized stories that diversify perspectives,” he added. 

“There are a lot of layers to this, and we can really tell a story that is from a non-Eurocentric, as well as a non-human centric perspective to what is going on with this land,” said Huameng Yu. 

To learn more about the project, head to https://www.salemma.gov/public-art-commission/pages/forest-river-outdoor-recreation-nature-center or follow us @creativenorthshore on social media for ongoing updates as ground is broken in Forest River Park. 

You can also learn more about the artists directly at http://www.louischinn.com/ and http://www.misstangq.com/

Joey Phoenix (they/them) is an interdisciplinary artist and the Director of Brand Strategy and Innovation at Creative Collective. As the resident storyteller and town crier, they encourage you to send story ideas, inspiration, or pictures of adorable critters to joeyphoenix@creativecollectivema.com.

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