Picking Up Threads

Picking Up Threads

Ancient tools become works of art in sculptor Yvonne Shortt’s project Picks from the Soil: Harvesting Community Narratives

, currently based at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art. Its focus is afro picks—specifically, their handles, which Shortt is crafting this summer in local clay and ceramic to represent stories she’s “harvesting” from New Haveners. According to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, picks as old as 5,500 years have been found in Africa. Shortt’s picks give a nod to both that ancient history and current personal histories.

Shortt has been sitting down to sculpt in Wooster Square, where her mother lives, and on the Green, in order to “meet people where they’re at.” Her hope is that people will wander over to talk and tell her their stories. And they do. An easy conversationalist, Shortt met museumgoers on an Arts & Ideas tour at ECOCA one recent Sunday afternoon. Discussion began informally, in the gallery or on the street. One woman asked Shortt questions about her project and her work. Another talked about her neighborhood, Cedar Hill, and its summer vibrance. A third fell into the topic of conversation that most often arises when talking about the afro picks project.

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“I thought the stories would really be around New Haven, and some of them are,” Shortt says of the 22 narratives she’s collected here so far from residents of differing backgrounds. “But a lot of them, I guess because I’m doing afro picks and afros,” are “really around hair.” For example, one woman talked about the pressure to straighten her Black hair in order to look “professional” in a mostly white workplace and the “life or death” risk that entails. “If you perm your hair, use a relaxer, you have a much higher chance of getting fibroids and also breast cancer,” Shortt explains. “When she said that, it was like, ‘Whoa.’”

The audio from five New Haven stories plays in ECOCA’s Collision Room gallery. “I am absolutely in love with my hair now, but I would definitely say that was not the case my entire life,” one woman says. Shortt herself is wearing her hair in an afro, a choice that led to the project. Her daughter was helping her pick her new do when she noticed the pick’s handle—a raised fist. She thought about the pick’s cultural status in the 1970s and how she might revive that through her own work. “I kind of wanted to go back to when it was iconic,” she says.

Shortt hails from Queens and has a studio upstate in Wappingers Falls, New York, but her extended family lives in New Haven, and over time she’s developed an interest in the Elm City and its neighborhoods. As she “harvests” stories, she also harvests dirt and clay in small amounts to work into each pick handle. One depicts her grandfather, who literally hoarded back issues of The New York Times, reading a newspaper. Another portrays a child holding a pink ball, commemorating the story of a New Haven woman whose son was killed by a car when he chased a ball into the street. “It’s been really humbling and beautiful in thinking about… what to do with those stories,” Shortt says.

Not all of her afro picks are made to the usual size. Some are much larger works of public art, measuring five to six feet tall. “I like pieces that people can touch and go up to,” she says. So far, these larger works have been installed at Queens College and Marymount Manhattan College, where Shortt plans to harvest new stories each year and change out the pick handles to reflect them. She hopes to add New Haven to the list of installation sites.

The picks are part of a three-part series titled African American Marbleization: An Act of Civil Disobedience that includes objects (the picks), architecture (a meditation garden in Queens) and fragments (marble portraits, two of which can be seen on the ECOCA grounds). “I want to talk about what it is to be a person of color and have conversations around that,” Shortt says. But she also hopes to spur viewers to action, whether that be keeping the meditation garden clean and safe or initiating difficult cross-cultural dialogue. That said, Shortt is never sure where the work will lead: “I’m going along on the journey with it.”

Picks from the Soil: Harvesting Community Narratives by Yvonne Shortt
Collision Room at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art – 51 Trumbull St, New Haven (map)
Mon & Wed 1-4pm, Thurs 1-8pm, Sun 1-4pm

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 photographed by Maxim Schmidt and provided courtesy of ECOCA. Image 2, featuring Yvonne Shortt, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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