'Embrace and Belonging' Sculpture Unveiled in Burlington's Old North End | Arts News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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'Embrace and Belonging' Sculpture Unveiled in Burlington's Old North End

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Published June 27, 2024 at 10:49 a.m.
Updated July 3, 2024 at 10:08 a.m.


"Embrace and Belonging" by Humanity Memorial - ALICE DODGE ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Alice Dodge ©️ Seven Days
  • "Embrace and Belonging" by Humanity Memorial

On Wednesday morning, the City of Burlington unveiled its newest piece of public art in a ceremony at Dewey Park: “Embrace and Belonging,” a monumental sculpture by West Virginia artists Ai Qiu Hopen and her son, Chen Hopen, who work as Humanity Memorial.

The project has been years in the making and was a collaboration of three city departments: the Office of Racial Equity, Inclusion & Belonging; Burlington City Arts; and Parks, Recreation & Waterfront. The idea was to replace Main Street’s temporary Black Lives Matter mural, painted in 2020, with a permanent artwork dedicated to racial equity and awareness of systemic and historical racism.

The city selected the Old North End site, and a committee of six community members working with Burlington City Arts reviewed applications and awarded the commission. But when plans were announced in 2022, many neighbors were not happy.

“The process of bringing the ‘Embrace and Belonging’ monument to Dewey Park has been fiery,” acknowledged Cindi Wight, director of parks, in her remarks at the event.

BCA had put out a not-to-scale project rendering in which the sculpture, shiny and gold, dwarfs the Integrated Arts Academy building across the street.

Chen Hopen working on "Embrace and Belonging" - ALICE DODGE ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Alice Dodge ©️ Seven Days
  • Chen Hopen working on "Embrace and Belonging"

Some in the community felt ignored and marginalized in the commission process, which they explained in a letter to city officials, prompting a tense December public meeting with the artist and organizers. Following that, the project was scaled down from 25 to 18 feet high in order to allay concerns without diminishing the work’s message of inclusion.

“It’s not meant to be a small thing,” Colin Storrs of BCA said. “There’s a reason that it’s a monument.”

In terms of monumentality, the project succeeds. Two curving sheets of steel sweep upward and almost meet at the top as stylized Sankofa birds, a Ghanaian symbol of remembrance. The birds seem to lean in to each other, conveying part of the sculpture’s meaning. As artist Ai Qiu Hopen said in her remarks on Wednesday, “We can’t stand up without each others’ support.”

"Embrace and Belonging" by Humanity Memorial - ALICE DODGE ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Alice Dodge ©️ Seven Days
  • "Embrace and Belonging" by Humanity Memorial

The sculpture’s stainless-steel surface, which is textured with a circular pattern from a grinder, glints in the sunshine. Cut-out birds in flight rise up its two halves, effectively spaced to look like a flock taking flight, with smaller, more numerous birds higher in the sky. Artist Chen Hopen spent 14 hours of his recent 22nd birthday cutting the forms. Asked how he feels about the piece, he said, “I am resonating!”

Although the project seemed in danger of doing dual duty as a climbing wall, the artists reattached the lowest birds, creating outlines instead of handholds. Bill Hopen, Ai Qiu’s husband and a key fabricator on the team, said they thought kids wouldn’t be able to reach the open spaces “until you’re tall enough and hopefully have enough sense” not to climb the 6,000-pound structure.

The monument’s goal is to inspire people not to forget history while moving past it: to look backward as well as forward, like the Sankofa birds. This includes introspection about Burlington’s history and how the project came to be.

From left: Mayor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak with artists Ai Qiu Hopen and Chen Hopen - ALICE DODGE ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Alice Dodge ©️ Seven Days
  • From left: Mayor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak with artists Ai Qiu Hopen and Chen Hopen

Parks Director Wight remarked, “We all know that systemic racism was part of how our parks were formed, and we don’t know all the backstories, but we are working on learning them.”

An information placard allows visitors to explore some of that history.

While the project took longer than expected and taught organizers some hard lessons in community engagement, the extra time “really did weave together all of the intentions we started with,” BCA executive director Doreen Kraft said. That’s apparent in how the artists and neighbors are beginning to engage with the sculpture on their own.

Old North End resident Kashka Orlow said she was driving by and had to stop when she saw Bill and Chen Hopen installing the piece on Tuesday. Orlow was a longtime friend of Joseph “Byrd” Allen, an eccentric artist known for pushing his colorful shopping-cart constructions around Burlington. Following his death in a hit-and-run accident in March, many residents put up their own memorials in Dewey Park. “Are you doing this for Byrdman?” Orlow asked the artists. “He would’ve loved it!”

Allen's story was new to the artists, but they said they were thrilled to find that connection and add another layer of meaning to the work.

“I think it’s very creative,” Burlington High School student Kali Ali said when asked about the sculpture. “And it came out of nowhere.”

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