Park beauty

Dear President Biden,

You could probably shoehorn it into your schedule since you’re right there, but unfortunately I’m not going to get to visit the National Museum of Women’s Art there in DC before it closes for renovations for two years starting August 9th. The WP had a nice piece about the museum the other day and it prompted me to add the NMWA to my list of “must sees” when I’m back in DC – obviously some time in the latter part of 2023, or later.

One of the pieces highlighted in the article is a 1967 painting by Georgia Mills Jessup called Rainy Night Downtown. It’s really quite something – it’s lush and vibrant and somewhat chaotic but the center is dominated by an elongated grid-like depiction of the streetscape receding into the distance grounding the piece with some solidity. The painting is of the scene at Trans Lux and St. H N.W. in downtown DC with the street signs prominently positioned in the upper center-left. At first I mistook “St.” to mean “Saint” and even though I knew that was probably off (and it is), I still like how Saint H NW sounds in my head more than Street H NW.

I’ve tried to find out more about the painting and what critics or art historians might have to say about it, but so far have only come up with the same bland recitations about both Mills Jessup and the painting. It was cool to learn that Mills Jessup was descended from the Pamunkey Tribe and also was of African American and European descent, taught art, and was the 13th of 18 children (I hope there were a bunch of multiples in that mix!). But the material available online about her as an artist or anything digging into this piece doesn’t seem to exist.

Very frustrating.

The real reasons to tell you about Mills Jessup and this piece, though, are the other words included in the painting. From the center out to the right are the words “CASINO,” “BEAUTY,” and “PARK”. Maybe there really was a casino there, but for some reason I’ve got the sense that this was an artistic intervention and that she wanted to convey a sense of risk and uncertainty, like the street scene embodied a “you never know what could happen” gamble if one were to enter it. And then there’s “BEAUTY” and “PARK.”

If they’re read like usual you get “BEAUTY PARK,” which maybe conjures a particularly lovely park. Maybe.

However, the letters in the word “PARK” are much larger than the letters in “BEAUTY” and are arrayed horizontally while the “BEAUTY” letters are stacked vertically, so one’s eye, or at least my eye, is drawn first to “PARK” and then “BEAUTY.” Thus, my brain reads “PARK BEAUTY,” which in the late 1960’s for a woman painter has all sorts of different connotations – right?

Unfortunately Mills Jessup died in 2016 so I can’t reach out and ask her whether she intended to convey the idea that maybe we should park the concept of beauty and if so, whether she was thinking about parking stereotypic ways of construing feminine beauty. Maybe I’ll unearth an interview with her about all this down the road, but in the meantime I’m going to assume that Mills Jessup was not only sharing her take on the intersection of Trans Lux and St. (Saint?) H N.W., but that she was also suggesting we take a chance and park beauty.

May we be safe to see what there is to be seen.
May we ponder the implications of parking stultifying and toxic notions of beauty.
May we lean into healthier, stronger, more inclusive notions of beauty.
May we accept that we would all be much happier and freer to be ourselves if we did.

Tracy Simpson

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