10 Brilliant Dallas Women: Lauren Woods Uses Art to Tell the People’s History of Dallas

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When she moved to North Texas to work on A Dallas Drinking Fountain Project in 2009, Lauren Woods had been living in San Francisco for 10 years and was 7 months pregnant. But she accepted a Centraltrak residency and moved back to the city where she was raised to do the project. Leaving the city she had come to know as home so far along in her pregnancy was an incredible sacrifice for art. But it was also part of an effort to preserve public history.

“That monument really is a people’s monument,” Woods says. It did not come from an official institution; Woods created it with collaborators and supporters. Woods was actually visiting Dallas when the segregated fountain was rediscovered and immediately felt that it shouldn’t be hidden. Shortly after that she started graduate school at the San Francisco Art Institute and became interested in monument making and contested public history.

In the Bay Area, she conceived the idea for A Dallas Drinking Fountain Project, which has three parts. The segregated drinking fountain became a public monument, educational programs to accompany it will activate the space, along with a cartographic map of other sites of contested public history in the United States. Executing this plan takes a lot of patience because of the way it has to be carried out.

"The shifting role of artists is that you have to become a shape shifting artist,” says Woods. “Especially with social and public practice. You have to become so many things in the span of one day." These types of projects require artists to collaborate with all sorts of community representatives. It's not the traditional idea of an artist alone in a studio.

The site of the drinking fountain is in a county building, so it was not something she could work with the Office of Cultural Affairs on. But Woods found her way to the Commissioners Court for approval. When Woods brought her proposal to the court in 2005, they were debating a huge budget issue. It was quite a shift for the court to consider her proposal, but Woods said everyone was very supportive.
In January, Woods also had a solo show at Zhulong Gallery, featuring film, sound, and video installations that covered history while contemplating the socio-politics of the present. The Nasher Sculpture Center just acquired a piece from this exhibit, “Looking Down on My Soul.” The two-foot tall video installation shows a man doing the twist on loop. He is in the Birmingham riots of 1963 in front of police officers spraying a fire hose.

The sound installations included vinyl records that played the last words of African Americans killed by police. Woods remembers playing those records while installing the show late one night. Someone started banging on the gallery door and she was terrified. But she didn’t realize that the speakers were playing those sounds on the external speakers, sending the words out into the street.

For the past year she has been working on a new public art project, Dallas Historical Parks, intending to start by honoring several historically segregated Black parks in Dallas. Woods has been fascinated by the research. “The typical story of the South—that’s not researched—is that segregated spaces, particularly public spaces like parks, were created out of Jim Crow laws to give Black people their own space,” Woods says. “But Dallas’ history didn’t actually go like that. These spaces were actually created by the Black communities of Dallas. They advocated for them, they were very politically active.”

With this project, Woods is trying to tell the history of these parks by marking them with historical plaques. Collaborating with artist and curator Cynthia Mulcahy, Woods says the history may cover segregation and racism, but that’s not exactly why telling this story is so important to her. “The fact that these parks were created by organized Black communities,” she says. “That’s the gem.” Woods is concerned with preserving the histories of these parks and their neighborhoods. The name of the project also leaves the door open to cover any parks with interesting histories.

There is also talk of a smart phone app that would provide audio accounts of the parks, similar to what is available at some art museums. For instance, T-Bone Walker came from the area near Eloise Lundy Park. The neighborhood and the park were flooded before the levees were built. For the Eloise Lundy Park audio tour, one may hear Walker’s song, “Trinity River Blues,” while hearing the history of this park and its surrounding community.

This sort of project challenges official records and recovers lost history. “This is what’s happening all over the country,” Woods says. “If we can complete this project we would be at the forefront of challenging the official public record. Other things need to be honored.” Some of the research was even collected by knocking on the doors of people who live near these parks. Family archives did help gather new information for a project focused on the people’s history of Dallas.

“There’s always something political and historical in my work,” says Woods. “This needs to be a public discussion. It should be recorded somehow.” Now that Confederate Flags are disappearing, some are revisiting public project proposals for removing them that date back 20 years ago. Some of these people are now being called and asked if they still want to do those proposals. Woods wants this project proposal to be a matter of public record. She plans to remain in Dallas until the Dallas Historical Parks Project project is fully realized. But if it doesn’t happen now, someone can pick up where she left off later.

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Jeremy Hallock