Known today as the site of community events like the Lexington Farmers’ Market and Thursday Night Live, Cheapside Park wasn’t always the all-inclusive, “come as you are” place it’s known as today. In the 19th century atop the Cheapside Auction Block, African Americans were sold as slaves in what was at the time one of the largest slave auctions in the country.
It was an image that artist Marjorie Guyon, whose studio overlooks Cheapside Park, could not shake.
“Day after day, I kept looking down at Cheapside Park and around the surrounding buildings. I’d have images of a mother and son appearing and disappearing in the windows of the buildings,” said Guyon, whose art is described as visual poetry or classical graffiti.
It was over the course of several meetings with Ashley Grigsby, executive committee chair for The Nest, that the two talked not only about the history of Cheapside Park and Public Square, but of the racial, ethnic and other fractures in our country today. The two also discussed the possibility to visually represent all they were discussing and feeling.
“Ashley brought her son in for a photo session. It wasn’t anything special. I just used my iPhone to take the photos, but what it ultimately created certainly was,” said Guyon.
Guyon played with the photos to give them a more raw, dated look that she felt began to tell the story, then showed them to photographer Patrick J. Mitchell and poet Nikky Finney, who were both immediately drawn to the idea.
Together, the trio has produced “I Was Here,” an art exhibit depicting the realities of slave trade. They have expanded beyond the broken bond between a mother and son to include men, and the “ancestral spirit portraits” look out to Cheapside block from the windows of the surrounding buildings and businesses.
Many of them include excerpts from one of Finney’s poems, Auction Block of Negro Weather, which paints a heartbreaking portrait of families being torn apart and spread across the country and likens it to the devastation a hurricane can cause, ripping apart homes and businesses and leaving the pieces broken and strewn about, never to be reconnected and made whole again.
“In recent years, the spirit of our country has shifted,” said Guyon. “We felt this was something we could do that could bring people together, to help them understand and appreciate what it’s like to be one of the ‘others.’”
The 21 portraits in the “I Am Here” exhibit will be installed in early October in windows and doorways that surround the Old Courthouse. Visit i-was-here.org for locations and more information. •