The unsung heroes who care for our city’s parks are getting their due acclaim in a new art installation at Bella Abzug Park that turns them into story-telling sculptures.
Shadows, is the work of mixed-media artist Fanny Allié and features 10 sculptures laid out around the park’s entrance to the 7 train and The Shops at Hudson Yards. The installation is presented by the Hudson Yards Hell’s Kitchen Alliance (HYHK), and each piece is based on a different park worker. The sculptures each feature a QR code that unlocks recordings of the subject telling their story through speech and sometimes song.
“I have an interest in the personal stories and experiences of people whose work is not really visible in the foreground,” said Allié. “At first, I wasn’t sure what I was going to focus on, but when I went for one of my visits, I saw a large group of gardeners working behind a fence. No one was paying any attention to them — and I realized that I wanted to focus on their stories.”
After park manager David Torres introduced the artist to the maintenance team, Allié sat down with each one. “I wanted to get to know them, so I asked a bunch of questions to break the ice: ‘What do you do outside work? What music are you into?’” she said. As each subject opened up, they worked together to establish the “pose” that Allié would recreate in their sculpture, and to choose a color to represent them.
To more fully represent each maintenance worker, Allié recorded them speaking, singing, whistling and laughing as they shared their stories with her. Team members told of how they made their way from places like Senegal, Togo, Puerto Rico and around the US to New York, frequently moving between languages and sometimes even conversing with Allié in her native French — “which brought us closer,” she said.
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The workers’ New York stories reminded Allié of her love for the city. She’s been a passionate observer of the human condition since moving here in 2005 after earning her master’s degree at France’s Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie. “It sounds like a cliché, but I love the energy and the people of New York — it’s very special,” she said. She’s inspired not only by materials she finds on the streets and everyday objects, but also by “the little things that people don’t see — there’s a lot to witness.”
Isabella Conway of HYHK said, “Fanny Allié’s work speaks specifically to what we hope public art can achieve: that it can bring the socio-economically diverse communities in this neighborhood together around the dynamic spaces it offers, that it can make people going about their everyday existences stop and consider the lives and experiences of those around them. We’re so happy to team with her to create this experience that we hope deepens people’s relationship to the park, and to the strangers that enjoy it and keep it alive.”
An aspect of New York life that Allié thought deserved more attention was the challenge of surviving without housing, leading her to focus one of her first public art exhibitions of her sculpture, The Glowing Homeless, on the stories of the city’s homeless population. “Representing the homeless person sound asleep amongst the park’s crowds, through a rendering of neon light, I created an alluring object for Bring to Light NYC. Through my implementation of attractive materials, I reversed the normal reaction of avoidance, and drew people towards the form on the bench,” said Allié. The 2011 piece was recently remounted in Munich, Germany.
Over a decade later, the artist, who works out of a studio in Hell’s Kitchen’s Elizabeth Street Foundation, is still focusing her lens on those too often relegated to the background of New York City life. As she prepares an upcoming series profiling the city’s sanitation workers, Allié reflected on what she hopes those who visit Shadows will come away with.
“The park needs to be cleaned and maintained all day long, and there’s this invisibility to the work,” said Allié. “There’s a human being doing this job, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that — and the funny thing is, the sculptures themselves are very subtle, and not everyone sees them, which is kind of ironic.
“I know it sounds a little naive, but I hope people come away with a different view of people who work these kinds of jobs,” said Allié, “and that they wonder who the person is behind the work.”