Artists who commemorate D.C. history, it seems, ain’t got a thing if they don’t include Duke Ellington’s swing. So it’s no surprise that Ellington will be honored with another monument next week, when local artist Zachary Oxman’s unconventional sculpture of the D.C.-bred jazz great is unveiled next Thursday in the 600 block of P Street NW.
This time, though, Ellington won’t be a solo act. His accompanists will be two other Washington historical luminaries: painter Alma Thomas and Civil War Col. Robert Gould Shaw.
The public sculpture involved the collaboration of Oxman, Long View Gallery, Shaw Main Streets, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and Roadside Development. The last organization was represented in the process by founding partner Richard Lake.
“There was a very specific intent of the sculpture,” Oxman said in May, during a reception at his Rockville studio to showcase the pieces. “It was to give back, to educate, to share with the community. That was Richard Lake’s real intent. Not to beautify in a vacuum, but to really . . . tell the story of Shaw.”
The three sculptures will fit into bays on the north side of Roadside’s CityMarket at O project, which opened in 2013 with 650 apartments, a 182-room hotel and a Giant supermarket. The complex incorporates the O Street Market, which dates to 1881. Nearby Long View Gallery will mark the dedication with a show of Oxman’s work through July 12.
This is not Oxman’s first rendering of Ellington, who often performed along U Street’s “Black Broadway,” beginning as a teenager in the 1910s. The artist did the sculpture of the musician that sits just a few blocks to the northeast.
“Richard was really drawn to the Duke Ellington sculpture that I’d done up the street at the Howard Theater,” Oxman said. “And Ellington does have such an iconic role to the neighborhood, but also broader than the neighborhood.”
Oxman didn’t worry about repeating himself, he said, because he took such a different approach this time. The three historical figures are represented indirectly, by such symbolic elements as a musical staff or a cluster of paint brushes. Their faces, painted on balls that reflect onto mirrored cones, can be recognized only from one specific vantage point.
“This is not like same style, different people,” Oxman said. “This is all new to me.”
The concept makes for a dynamic viewing experience, but the artist said it’s also metaphorical.
“Life is often these swirling points of distortion and lack of understanding,” he said. “It doesn’t take changing any one of those elements, but aligning those to a perfect point of context, and then it all makes perfect sense.”
The shifting images also encourage the viewers to make their own interpretation, the sculptor added. “Maybe they’ll hear what I’m saying, or maybe they’ll just find their own story in it.”
Oxman quickly decided on depicting historical personages, he recalled. “I like working with the figure. That is something I am always drawn toward. So I chose figures to tell that story, as opposed to periods of time. And then it was, who are those figures going to be?”
After Ellington, Oxman settled on Shaw, the man for which the neighborhood is named. A Massachusetts abolitionist who led the African American regiment depicted in the movie “Glory,” Shaw died in battle in 1863. He never lived in Washington, but his name is on many institutions in the neighborhood — including the junior high school where Alma Thomas taught for 36 years before establishing herself as a painter.
“The last one, it started getting more challenging,” Oxman said. “Not because it was hard to find someone, but how do you narrow it down? And Alma Thomas came up, and it was just like, ‘Boom! Perfect!’ All of us.”
The artist noted that Michelle Obama selected a Thomas painting for the White House permanent collection. As it happens, Oxman is also among the Obamas’ favored artists. He has made numerous artworks for the State Department Office of Protocol, and some of his works have been given as gifts by the president, first lady and secretary of state.
Although the three P Street sculptures are separate, Oxman said he and Lake “wanted it to be one experience. But on a pedestrian level, you never experience them all together. So it started looking like a film strip or a musical score.”
That analogy takes the artist back to his original affinity with Ellington as a musician. “It really fell into place,” Oxman said of his collaboration. “The whole thing between Richard and I and Long View Gallery, it was almost like this perfect jazz improv.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.