In the wake of widespread social and racial injustice and division, a local museum is shining a neon light on necessary conversations.
Despite closing its doors in June, the Matheson History Museum — located at 513 E. University Ave. — is still offering new exhibits for viewing in creative ways. The latest of which, installed Oct. 14, can be seen glowing by anyone who walks by for the next several months.
The outdoor exhibit, titled “Lights of Conversation” by St. Augustine-based artist Sylvi Herrick, consists of two neon panels: one hanging above the museum’s front door that reads “I fear you and although I do not know you I know your kind,” and another hanging across the street on the museum’s library and archives, reading “I come to you in kinship and longing.”
The lines are taken from two poems by poet Janessa Martin, who collaborated with Herrick on the piece.
Viewers are forced to be caught in the middle of the verses, which were purposely placed across the street from each other so that a conversation can be experienced, Herrick said in a Zoom presentation that can be viewed on the museum’s Facebook page.
Social justice was the main motivator for the piece, she said. It’s a direct response to “the gravity of the moment” and the Black Lives Matter movement, sprouting from social tensions and the need to talk about systemic race issues.
Herrick used neon because it’s “bubbly” and “enthusiastic.” Neon light can also overlap and create new colors, which Herrick said is representative of bridging an ideological gap. The signs are blue and red — when they’re close together, the light becomes purple.
The exhibit is an opportunity for the community to come together and have meaningful conversations, no matter their ideologies, in a public space free of charge.
“Within the illumination of nuances, we can connect,” she said in the presentation. “Words are still full of meaning and spoken words possess even more power.”
Herrick’s piece was ideal for showcasing because it’s an exterior exhibit that visitors can view safely from a distance, said Kaitlyn Hof-Mahoney, Matheson’s curator of collections. She said it is part of the museum’s fall speaker series, which focuses on social justice and Black experiences.
“This is a really good opportunity for us to share that with this community safely,” she said.
Herrick’s presentation is the second in the series, Hof-Mahoney said. Last month’s focused on Florida’s minority politicians, and Alachua County poet laureate E. Stanley Richardson will continue the series with a presentation in November.
Richardson is also a museum director and founder of the North Central Florida poetry organization ARTSPEAKSgnv. He hasn’t yet designated a topic for his presentation in November because he wants to respond to the presidential election results.
It has been difficult for the museum to adapt to the pandemic’s landscape, he said. The exhibit’s accessibility excites him because people have been sheltered in place and “cooped up,” unable to experience installations like it in-person.
Still, while exhibits like Herrick’s can’t treat a large live audience, they have the advantage of being able to interact with more people by being available online and in public.
Richardson aims to teach the community about writing and address social issues as Alachua County’s first poet laureate. He said the social and political commentary that ensues in response to pieces like Herrick’s is pivotal to that process.
As for other exhibits and presentations, he said he’s sure similar ones will be offered in the future.
"It's very important that we engage with the arts," Richardson said. "Especially in this time of pandemic and protests."