By Kelly McDonnell
This article was first published April 30, 2021 in The DC Line here.
Capital Fringe’s new digital, audio and video project “Down to Earth” highlights local artists as they explore the intersections of climate, sustainability, history, culture and community in Ward 7’s Kenilworth neighborhood.
Capital Fringe, a DC-based arts nonprofit, is partnering with Candoor Labs, a creative media organization, and Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens to produce a web series, a podcast and eventually a magazine about the initiative. The project documents different artists across four seasons as they depict life in Ward 7 and participate in efforts to clean and renovate Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens.
This is a “new type of storytelling,” says Capital Fringe’s founding director Julianne Brienza. While Capital Fringe is most known for its annual Fringe Festival highlighting live performing arts, “Down to Earth” is entirely digital and focuses on an array of art forms like painting, fashion design and music production. The series will feature a different local artist (or artistic collective) each season who will work on pieces intersecting climate change, race, the Kenilworth neighborhood and DC history.
“We wanted to make sure [each] artist was doing something that was new, that hadn’t been done before, and wasn’t a recycling of a previous project,” Brienza said. “Everything that we’re doing really does require a specific focus and the ability to change from season to season.”
Brienza, who founded Capital Fringe in 2005 and currently lives in Southwest DC, said she has always been passionate about issues relating to climate change and environmentalism. The project’s name comes from a 2018 book of that title written by French climate justice philosopher Bruno Latour, and its website includes a bibliography with links to information on the subjects being discussed.
“There’s so much history of community,” Brienza said. “Humans have been here, and humans have moved the [Anacostia River] around. And we’re going to keep this conversation going because, in eight years, Kenilworth is going to be underwater,” referring to an online mapping tool that shows a large swath of the park is expected to face annual flood risks by 2030.
“This project is a little bit about bringing awareness to climate while also honoring the bad and the good about the communities that have used the land,” she added.
The first artist featured as part of the project’s winter season was Rik Freeman, a 64-year-old narrative painter who has lived in Washington since 1985. Freeman is best known for his murals that can be found around DC, like one at the Benning (Dorothy I. Height) Neighborhood Library.
Freeman lives in the Kenilworth area and often takes his dog on walks through the aquatic gardens.
Freeman’s three-part mural is called “Breakfast on the Anacostia,” and it depicts natural life from 1200 B.C. to the present day.
“I’ve done pieces with this community before, and even before I lived here [in Ward 7] I did a mural in 1992,” Freeman said. “I’m very interested in the history. History isn’t just about what’s in the book you learn from at school. History is our own personal histories. I just looked at this project and thought, ‘What hadn’t I depicted?’ I looked at what nature in and of itself means to me. I listen and look to nature a lot — the beauty and the horror, and how do I depict it.”
Freeman worked with Brienza to research the Kenilworth neighborhood and found that humans have been living and impacting the land for tens of thousands of years. One end of his new mural depicts animal life from the prehistoric age, while the other end shows the Anacostia River as it is now, with beautiful walking trails as well as piles of trash.
“I hope viewers get the appreciation for what the world is going through,” Freeman said. “This planet, it’s one home, and they can put whatever they want on Mars, the moon, but you know what? I’m here. I want to explore this. I just hope it goes through to where there can be that appreciation of this planet, and some eyes open.”
“Down to Earth” is featuring Nikki Hendricks for its spring season. Hendricks was born and raised in Takoma Park, and her parents were very involved in the Congressional Black Caucus. Now she owns a DC-based small business focused on sustainable fashion. Hendricks said as a Black designer her fashion unites different influences, like her family’s ties to the cultures of Japan and hip-hop.
“I think it is much more meaningful and powerful when the conception of the garment was rooted in bringing people together,” Hendricks said. “I try to make my clothing more meaningful so the wearer wants to keep it, to maybe pass it down to your children.”
For “Down To Earth,” Hendricks has also been researching the Indigenous populations who used to live in the Kenilworth area, like the Algonquin-speaking tribes. She is using their symbols and culture to inspire her sustainable designs, to highlight Native American history, and to represent the land that has been used and misused.
“It’s a lot about people not being treated equally here, the land not being treated equally,” Hendricks said.
The first episode of the “Down to Earth” web series, featuring Freeman, premiered on March 22. New episodes will be released throughout the year.
“Artists, advocates, they want to express, they want to have a mode of expression — and that’s Capital Fringe’s mission, to give a mode,” Brienza said. “We’re getting into how the people in our community tell stories. We’re getting into the issues of how these things affect any person who will ever live here. The cleanup of Kenilworth will affect everyone here, and we have to document that.”