Rikers Island, Public Art Piece at Central Property Storage
Commissioned by Percent for Art and New York City Department of Corrections in 2014, to be built by 2020
During the summer of 2008, I taught art at El Museo del Barrio in Manhattan, to a group of ex-convict teenagers. Ironically, my group of 10 kids reflected the current statistics in the racial population at Rikers Island: Five African Americans, four Latinos and one caucasian.
My experience working with those teens in the art shop served to confirm my understanding that art is an instrument of education, a tool for social change and a necessity in human life.
On my recent visit to the site at Rikers Island, I was taken back in time to that summer of 2008. As I shared the Q100 bus with the families on their way to visit their loved ones in prison, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that same importance of unconditional family support that I had seen at the final art show in El Museo’s art workshop. On the bus ride to Rikers Island, my conviction that art can promote the basic human values of hope, freedom and the search for oneself was further strengthened.
Tower of Light
A thirty-foot-high (eight-by-eight feet on each side) aluminum tower will be situated on the narrow end of the traffic island and serve as a Tower of Light. It will be a vertical element leaning forward, towards the prison exit, and will be made out of aluminum, a very shiny and clean material. A light in the top part will shine night and day, offering a symbol of hope. The light can be operated in the same way as a streetlight. Alternatively, it can be an independent wind-operated device that allows the light to shine as it rotates.
Bells of Freedom
Two bells made out of recycled oxygen tanks will hang inside the tower, separated from each other at the precise distance needed for a strong wind to swing them into each other. Rikers Island’s unique position surrounded by the waters of the East River, and the Flushing and Bowery Bays, make it a continually windy environment. Furthermore, its close proximity to La Guardia Airport means that the prison is invaded by the constant sound of airplanes taking off and landing. The wind will cause the chimes of the Bells of Freedom to reverberate through the monotony of the jet engines and sound as a call for freedom to come.
Fountain of Hope
A sixty-foot-long by six-foot-wide and three-foot tall mirror of water will lie behind the tower, along the south side of the pear-shaped traffic island. At the end of the mirror of water, a stream will flow into a lower recipient, thereby emitting a sound that will elicit a flux of hope.
Path of Justice and Righteousness
A labyrinth with a twenty-five-foot-wide diameter will be inlayed into the concrete ground beside the Fountain of Hope’s rivulet. Interspersed within the labyrinth will be four white magnolia trees. Two wooden benches will be located under the magnolia trees.
The labyrinth’s design, the trees, the benches and the stream of water will only be viewed from the distance by freed inmates and visitors. As stated by the Department of Corrections in its site guidelines, the traffic island can only be used by the staff and officers who work on Rikers Island. Besides what the image will offer the ex-prisoners, it will also serve as a significant element in the life of the officers. While they take a break from their duties, they can sit on the benches beneath the trees and reflect upon the Path to Justice and Righteousness, or they can walk through the labyrinth and ponder the symbolism inherent in finding the right path to oneself, a primordial goal not only for officers and inmates at Rikers Island, but for all human beings.