Jebney Lewis’ latest sculpture is a series of contiguous steel plates. But it’s also a map of the New Orleans ward system and a musical instrument that gives off an eerie, theremin-like hum.
The sculpture is part of a project called Songs of Home Songs of Change, created in collaboration with the composer Rick Snow and the writer Christopher Staudinger. For the project, the group asked area high school students to record sounds that remind them of home or that tell the story of the changing city. Using electronic transducers, the recordings are played through the ward-shaped plates to create resonant tones.
“They’re ordinary sounds, in some ways, or sounds that we’re familiar with, but these young people have a different way of looking at them,” Lewis says. “They’re pretty abstract when you play them through the plates, but they’re recognizable enough to be kind of evocative.”
The high school students working on the project came from several schools’ classes in a variety of subjects, including a housing and urban policy class, a digital arts class and a class of recent immigrants from Honduras. The students recorded atmospheric noises from their everyday lives, including sounds from Bourbon Street, pickup soccer games and their pets, then reflected on the sounds in writings displayed alongside the piece.
Lewis says the installation is more of a foil for the writings, which highlight the students’ creative associations and their insights into the evolving cityscape. For example, one student recorded the sound of her dog barking. She explained that the ability to have a home where she could keep a pet demonstrated her family’s upward mobility.
A recent transplant, Lewis was inspired to create something tied to local geography as he studied maps of his new home. He connected with Snow and Staudinger via the artist retreat A Studio in the Woods. In the past, he's worked on similar community-based art projects that engage students by exploring social histories and the way urban changes affect citizens.
“One of the things that’s really different about making that kind of work here [in New Orleans] is that 'who gets to speak' here, there’s a lot of contested power dynamics around that,” he says. “I really wanted to make something here that was very open, just a container for people to fill.”
Songs of Home Songs of Change opens May 20 at the Creative Alliance of New Orleans space in the Myrtle Banks Building (1307 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 504–218–4807). The installation will be displayed through June 26.