A South Dallas artist residency aims to ‘capture the now before the future’

By Keri Mitchell - August 31, 2021

South Dallas

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“There are signs all over of the changes that are happening” in South Dallas, from highway construction and commercial development to the grand plans for Fair Park, says John Spriggins, manager of the South Dallas Cultural Center.

A “Keep South Dallas Sunny” mural on the vacant commercial building on Malcolm X Boulevard and Warren Avenue. Photo by Nitashia Johnson

South Dallas is a predominantly Black neighborhood and has been since the 1950s, but like other historically disinvested Black neighborhoods near city centers across the country, “its proximity makes it appealing for urban renewal and redevelopment” and threatens to displace longtime and current residents, who range from “working middle class to working poor,” a City press release states.

Spriggins is a South Dallas native, and four years ago took the helm of the cultural center, which the City of Dallas owns and operates. The arts and cultural institution’s mission to engage residents with Black creative culture, plus its location right on the edge of Fair Park, revealed an “opportunity to do something significant,” Spriggins says.

“I wanted to take a look at, what does South Dallas look like right now, this very moment, and where is it going? What is the potential?” Spriggins says.

“Where is the beauty in the neighborhood and community?”

To examine these questions, he launched the Juanita J. Craft House Artist in Residency — a way to provide artists with studio space they can use to create work that “capture[s] the immediacy of the moment where historical neighborhoods are rapidly changing due to socio-economic shifts,” the residency description notes.

The goal is for artists to “meaningfully connect” with South Dallas neighborhoods, and that their resulting work will impact future residents, developers and visionaries.

Spriggins knew exactly who should pilot the residency — Nitashia Johnson, a photographer who was encouraged to pursue an artistic career by her Pearl C. Anderson middle school teacher, and who is now pouring back into South Dallas with The Smart Project, an artistic nonprofit for creative teens. (Editor’s note: Johnson is Dallas Free Press’ primary freelance photographer.)

Johnson’s initial volume of “The Self Publication” exhibited at the South Dallas Cultural Center in 2019, and from that experience, Spriggins knew that “her eye is exceptional” and that Johnson “knows how to take whatever situation she’s in and work with it.” For the first residency project, he asked Johnson to focus her camera lens on the people and places in South Dallas, to listen to their stories and tell them with images.

“I didn’t want someone to come in overly creative, to do something otherworldly with a ‘high art’ approach,” Spriggins says. “I have an appreciation for that and it’s fine, but I didn’t want her to be a bull in a china shop.” Johnson had the “right level of care, concern and sensitivity” for the project, he says.

To get her started, “we went out and literally drive the boundaries of the areas I wanted her to focus on,” Spriggins says, to give her “a context in which to work.” They visited Frazier Courts, where Johnson grew up; traveled down Second Avenue to the old Pearl C. Anderson, since closed; drove by Lincoln High School and through the Bonton area; headed up Lamar (since renamed Botham Jean Boulevard) to Corinth, drove back to the new Billy Dade Middle School and then toward Fair Park.

Built in 1950, the Longhorn Ballroom on Corinth has hosted country music, blues and rock legends. Photo by Nitashia Johnson

Johnson used this drive to inform her online exhibit, “The Beauty of South Dallas: Capturing the Now, Before the Future.” From September to December 2020, she explored the neighborhood’s buildings, both iconic and run-of-the-mill, and talked to people she met on the streets, some of whom have been “harassed by investors trying to buy their homes,” Johnson says.

“I took my time with each and every individual because I don’t want them to feel exploited,” Johnson says. Her goal was to find neighborhood residents, and she says she “didn’t necessarily have a plan in mind. Some of those people, I will never see again.”

Even thought Spriggins says he didn’t know what she was going to shoot, the result is “exactly what I expected from her” because of “her talents and ability” and “her connection with people.”

“Some of the stuff I knew was there, but it took somebody to go pull those stories out,” Spriggins says, “the couple at Park South YMCA, a lady at the thrift store, people she encountered on the street — different places and different voices.”

Photographer Nitashia Johnson says that it “brought me joy spending my weekends and evenings meeting and photographing amazing people from sunny South Dallas,” such as Mr. Johnson, pictured here.

The website will remain live for at least three years, Spriggins says. Johnson plans to keep building it, and invites others to share their own images highlighting the neighborhood’s beauty.

Johnson’s residency has ended, but the South Dallas Cultural Center has welcomed four new perspectives into the 2021 Juanita J. Craft House Artist in Residency — Inyang Essien, Glyneisha Johnson, Adriane McCray and Laura Neal. They, too, will use their artistic talents to capture the current essence of South Dallas.

Their goal, Spriggins says, is to do what Johnson did — help South Dallas neighbors “see themselves and the beauty of what they already have in the area.

“She was just there to capture it.”


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