Site Specific Narrative: Johnny Coleman

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The night white nationalists marched with tiki torches, shouting racist slogans in Charlottesville, Virginia Johnny Coleman was capturing a different atmosphere, after midnight in a plantation cemetery about 100 miles south, near the Dismal swamp. Driven to fill in the details of a story his grandmother told, Coleman had been searching geneological records and county land records dating to the 19th century. He had been talking to property owners and people he met in North Carolina towns. He had jumped a fence.


The Oberlin College professor—who divides his time between the Studio Art and Africana Studies departments—was recently chosen to be a part of FRONT International as one of the Madison residencies supported through the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion program. As an ongoing project, Coleman has been looking for Jim Burke, a man he learned of through a story his grandmother, Beulah Harrison Coleman, told him when he was 12 years old. Burke would have been his grandmother’s great, great, great great grandfather–a “maroon,”  taken from West Africa as a child and enslaved until he liberated himself, and lived in a community of other self-liberated former slaves, isolated in the  Dismal Swamp in North Carolina. The hazards of the swamp were an asset to maroon communities. You wouldn’t want to trek through the muddy, water-moccasin-infested terrain unless your life depended on it. And it was crippling to horse-drawn wagons.


Searching records, Coleman found Thomas Burke, the long-deceased owner of a plantation near the Dismal Swamp. In his will, Thomas Burke left a slave, Jim Burke, to his wife and daughter—meaning that piece of property might have a place in his own family’s story. According to his grandmother, the enslaved Jim Burke tried to escape the plantation three times before succeeding. When he finally escaped, he dug a hole and built a home underground.


Coleman found the plantation, and the current owner of the land, who directed him to a family cemetery on the property, where the slave owner Thomas Burke would have been buried. He got permission to visit at midnight—the occasion for jumping the fence. He took recording equipment to capture the moment—a clear night with low lying fog, and the sound of frogs and crickets, which would eventually accompany a recorded, spoken-word piece. If all his research is correct, his ancestor Jim Burke would have heard the ancestors of these same crickets and frogs.


This is Coleman’s longstanding practice: to research a situation—its people, places, and events–and then to connect with all that viscerally in the service of his stories. His work often creates connections across generations or centuries, and often results in sculptural installations that represent compelling events, from heartbreak to heroic endurance.  He doesn’t yet have an idea about what he will make or do during the Madison Residency, or how that will fit into FRONT next summer. But he’ll begin by spending time in Glenville—several weekends each in November and December–during which he plans to walk the streets and talk to people.


He muses about creating space where kids can come and ask questions of elders, creating a dialog across generations. He also considers the prospect of a garden as a representation of continuity. His grandmother Beulah always kept a garden, and since her passing in 1993, he has too. And of course the cultural gardens of Rockefeller Park, which winds through Glenville along the banks of Doan Brook, are themselves a living thread that connects to the neighborhood’s past.


“I’m very interested in the site-specificity,” Coleman says.