Creating Uncommon Commons: Public Practice and Civic Needs in the Southeastern Quarter

9.1 / Public Sense

Creating Uncommon Commons: Public Practice and Civic Needs in the Southeastern Quarter

By Jordan Amirkhani April 3, 2018

Situated as an arena of equitable citizen participation and communal association, “the public” is a place where collective identity and belonging is assumed to be inhabited and expressed by all in equal measure. Yet, despite the sensibility of “public” as open and inclusive, this is far from the case.1 Often, the actual making and practice of a public (its spaces, places, and services) reflects and rests upon a diverse constellation of privileges and exclusions based on gender, class, race, geography, ability, age, and sexual orientation. This balancing act means that one’s relative proximity to sites of power keeps those without (equal) access to the public from fully participating in it.2 These issues of where and what is a public have caused many public practice artists and organizations to rethink the ethical claims for “what can be done” and “what should be done” for their intended communities. While there are incredible examples of this kind of questioning and work happening in every corner of the art world in small and big ways, two particular projects in my geographical region of the Southeast stand out for the rigor and honesty of their encounters with their communities—their publics: The Coleman Center for the Arts in York, Alabama and Auburn University’s Rural Studio in Newbern, Alabama. Though their strategies and spaces differ, they share a guiding mission to interact with their communities in a way that creates new possibilities for their publics.

Image from the American Geological Survey “Cretaceous Deposits of the Eastern Gulf Region”, Selma, AL, c. 1914. Image from public domain.  

Both organizations are located in the Black Belt, a historical-geographical region of the Southern United States characterized by the dark, fertile, cotton-growing soils of northeast Mississippi and central Alabama, which transformed the area into one of the richest areas in America in the 19th century due to  African American enslavement and free labor on cotton plantations.3 In the continuing aftermath of the Civil War, the region remains a geographically and economically disenfranchised one, marked by the subsequent legacies of The Great Migration population exodus, Jim Crow Era racial repression, and the Civil Rights Movement, as well as more recent inadequacies in household income, healthcare, education, urban development and housing, social services, and employment, which have disproportionately affected African Americans.4 As institutions situated within communities where the health and sustenance of the community (both literally and figuratively) are urgent public issues, these two organizations provide new models for arts organizations within rural populations and asks serious questions of the role art can and should play in disenfranchised areas.   


Founded in 1985, the contemporary arts organization Coleman Center for the Arts in York, Alabama has evolved to address needs and problems in this rural community through creative, educational, civic, and collaborative work. In a community of just over 2,300 people with a low population density and a fraught history of racial and class divisions, the Coleman Center exists as one of the few nearby public spaces (other than church) where people can interact and share space for a common purpose.5 Coleman’s programming includes long-term and short-term projects, including year-round education programs that include free art classes and summer camps, exhibitions featuring regional and national artists (including recent presentations of Mary Jane Everett and printmaker Boo Gilder), as well as in-gallery screenings, workshops, meals, and performances. In addition, the Coleman Center’s recurring Artist-in-Residence program offers a unique opportunity for artists from outside York to engage in a project of their own design by utilizing socially engaged participatory forms of creating that incorporate meaningful collaborations with the community. Thoughtful strategies of inclusion—such as extended site visits, consensus-based organizing methods, community exposure and feedback, and regular events that necessitate (not just invite) the community's involvement—permeate visiting artists' projects at all levels of making.6

In an area where the average resident has little to no art education or access to the visual arts, the Coleman Center’s commitment (under the recent leadership of Executive Director Jackie Clay)7 to bringing contemporary visual practices to York not only aims to increase the community’s visual literacy, but involves a constant questioning and tweaking of projects. In order to remain conscious of the role of art and spaces designated for it in a community with immediate social needs, the organization must be attuned to its realistic context.8 In a city without an accessible grocery store and a low frequency for community organizing and communal exchange (Clay stated that “[just] getting twelve people in the room is exciting”), the Coleman Center as a secular space serves an important purpose in providing both a site and context for a public to appear.9

Image of artist Darius Hill and a visitor interacting with Hill’s socially engaged sculpture Throne (2017) at the “Throne and Thank-You Potluck” at the Coleman Center for the Arts, York, AL, July 22, 2017. Courtesy of the Coleman Center for the Arts. 

Throne, a 2017 exhibition of Birmingham-based artist Darius Hill’s socially engaged sculptures at the Coleman Center, unearthed the significance of communal space and public engagement for York residents in shaping a sense of community and solidarity with one another. Reminiscent of the thrones used by chieftains of the Ashanti tribe to assert their power and position, one of Hill’s sculptures also titled Throne (2017) adapts the armature and aesthetics of this ancient seat to invoke a history and aesthetics of Black power and identity. Made of weathered wood seared and blackened by fire and time, Hill’s additions of contemporary motifs—such as an Afro pick and a Black power fist—encourage visitors to sit on the throne and explore what it means to take a seat in a position of (Black) power in the present. In doing so, Hill creates space for visitors—the public—to celebrate the creative legacies and power of their ancestors, and subsequently link themselves to a rich tradition of cultural significance and continuous struggle. Clay told me that while Hill’s project was incredibly successful, the related events and experiences surrounding the exhibition were where the most honest and rich notions of a “public” were felt. One such experience was the good-bye potluck dinner for the former co-directors of the Coleman Center. Amidst the crowds of visitors and supporters interacting with Hill’s work, more informal moments where community, space, and art intersected (people eating cake, talking, and sharing in the celebration of this space and its role in the community, for instance) resounded in a more casual but no less impactful way.

Active, embodied, and intentional situations of community and togetherness are, unfortunately, rare in the programming of rural art institutions, which are too often structured by a business-friendly vocabulary and tinged with the ideologies of consumption, gentrification, and community beautification. In this instance, the Coleman Center’s potluck underscores a quiet resistance to so many of the other models of community activation brought to areas with low population density (a Netflix-sponsored film night, for example). Eager to inscribe a space where no purchase or religious affiliation is necessary, Clay’s vision for the Coleman Center is to create accessible engagements with visual art that produce the conditions for/of a public that York needs and deserves, and thereby renders art as the locus and catalyst for that work.

Public screening of Tameka Norris’s film Meka Jean: How She Got Good (2015) at the Coleman Center for the Arts’ downtown Pop Start Space on October 6, 2015. Courtesy of the Coleman Center for the Arts.


Located in Hale County, Alabama, the Rural Studio is a design-build architecture studio run by Auburn University. The program aims to teach undergraduate students about the social responsibilities of architecture and the role that design can play in the betterment of one’s community by harnessing traditional representational strategies, labor-intensive practices, and interactive community-engaged methods simultaneously. Founded by D.K. Ruth and the late Sam Mockbee in 1993, Rural Studio speaks back to Mockbee’s admiration for the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s and the architecture school’s history of student service to the community. In recent years, the studio has developed into a world-renowned program that engages advanced architecture students to design and implement projects in service to the 15,388 citizens of Hale County, 31.2% of which live under the poverty line.10 Mockbee’s death in 2001 did not shift the ethical orientations of Rural Studio, nor the program's commitment to the underprivileged; however, the higher profile of its work and the transition of its output from small projects (such as single-family homes) to large-scale commissions from Hale County and the international design community have altered the size and scope of its mission, earning it both praise and criticism for its engagement with the public.11

Rural Studio’s commitment to humanitarian design via aesthetic strategies has been a fulcrum of the program’s provocative measures, placing its mission in contrast to that of other organizations, like Habitat for Humanity, which build in standardized ways; Mockbee felt these models rarely avowed the egalitarian political capacities of good vernacular design. The Rural Studio’s sleek modernist sensibility and repurposing of recycled materials (often culled from the county’s landscape) collapse the binary between high modernism and low-cost utilitarianism that remains so palpable in architectural discourse. Additionally, the studio requires that students communicate and problem-solve with their clients as well as test out and occupy their creations before constructing them. Steps like these ask designers to seriously consider the human behind the project in a new way.

Rural Studio is currently prototyping a new project—the 20K Home, a design initiative to build a small, efficient abode that would “appreciate in value while accommodating residents who are unable to qualify for credit.”12 This project’s potential points to an ethic of solving an urgent social need in West Alabama through an aesthetically pleasing and collaborative ethos. Art—and design—stands poised to create a new kind of public space and service. However, while a participatory aesthetic politics and encouragement of empathy towards the public are significant traits in an industry that frequently works without a moral code, it leaves Rural Studio’s leaders and designers in the position of all-powerful interpreter of the Other13—a sentiment that has a history as long as colonialism, and is visible in much of Mockbee’s rhetoric: “If architecture is going to inspire community, or stimulate the status quo in making responsible environmental and social structural changes now and in the future, it will take what I call 'subversive leadership' of academicians and practitioners to remind the student...(of) the responsibility of shaping the environment, of breaking up complacency, and challenging the power of the status quo.”14 As public-facing and community-oriented as the Rural Studio seems to be, it risks its own undoing through its savior complex.

Exterior image of Rural Studio’s $20,000 House: A Rural Studio Project (Version 12, “Eddie’s House”), Faunsdale, AL, 2013. Courtesy of Rural Studio. Photo: Timothy Hursley.   

In addition, Rural Studio’s attachment to a research university in a conservative state renders visible the institutional paradoxes and political compromises that can befall a publically oriented practice. The 20K Home is a start, but the idea that this initiative will create systematic dissemination of quality housing in the area is dubious. In addition, the $20,000 budget to build these homes has increased, while the original loan program has not funded any of these homes due to blocks from land tenure organizations, credit bureaus, and other infrastructural issues.15 Frustrated with the organization’s focus on capitalization as opposed to the realities that those on government assistance face, one instructor has stated that the “20K houses are Band-Aids. They’re Band-Aids on like a head wound…which is not the answer.”16 Without a commitment to placing socially engaged and public practices in conversation with the constellation of socioeconomic and environmental conditions that impact the communities concerned, these initiatives obscure or contribute, however unwillingly, to the problems they seek to mend.   

This article was supported in part by the Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.


  1. I would like to thank artist and friend Katie Hargrave for her generous dialogue and engagement as I prepared this piece for publication, Jackie Clay for her willingness to talk with me about her vision and experiences at the Coleman Center for the Arts, and Natalie Butts-Ball from Rural Studio for answering all of my questions. 
  2. Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” Social Text, No. 25-26, 1990: 59.
  3. Allen Tullos, “The Black Belt,” Emory University’s Southern Spaces: A Journal About the Real and Imagined Spaces of the South and Their Global Connections, April 19, 2004. Link:
  4. Hasan Kwame Jefferies, Bloody Lownes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York: New York University Press, 2009).
  5. Paraphrased from a phone interview with the Coleman Center for the Arts’ Executive Director Jackie Clay, March 14, 2018. According to the US States Census Bureau in 2010, 85.3% of York’s population was African American, the median income for a household was $19,000, and 42.7% of all citizens were living under the poverty line.
  6. For more information on Artist Opportunities at the Coleman Center for the Arts, see:
  7. Full disclosure: Jackie Clay was previously an Art Practical staff member.
  8. See Clay’s comments in Michael Neary’s article “Fertile Ground in York, Alabama,” in The Meridian Star, December 30, 2017. Link:
  9. Paraphrased from an interview with Clay on March 14, 2018.
  10. Anna G. Goodman, “The Paradox of Representation and Practice in the Auburn University Rural Studio,” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2014: 39-52.
  11. See Sam Mockbee’s interview “Samuel Mockbee Scavenger Architect” at Southern California Institute of Architecture, September 11, 1996, Link:
  12. Andrew Freear, Elena Barthel, and Andrea Oppenheimer Dean, “20K House” in Rural Studio at Twenty: Designing and Building in Hale County, (Alabama, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2014), 202-203.
  13. A 2013 television advertisement for Rural Studio during the Auburn-Alabama football game featured the current Director Andrew Freear embracing a Black woman on a porch of a 20K Home stating: “This is affordable, innovative and beautiful housing for families in rural communities.” See Goodman, 50.
  14. L.R. Peattie, “Aesthetic Politics: Shantytown or New Vernacular?,” in Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1992: 23-32.
  15. Goodman, 49.
  16. P. Jones and K. Card, “Constructing ‘Social Architecture’: The Politics of Representing Practice,” Architectural Theory Review, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2011: 228-244.

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