Nina Cooke John describes her practice as existing at the intersection of art, architecture, and public placemaking. Her forthcoming monument to Harriet Tubman in Washington Park in Newark, New Jersey, Shadow of a Face, perfectly exemplifies that approach. It is designed as both a larger-than-life figurative sculpture to honor Tubman’s legacy and a multisensory structure meant to be touched, seen, and heard. The Underground Railroad Conductor, Union Spy, and Suffragette will take the form of images both elevated and at eye level, to inspire and remind passersby that she was a human just like all of us—a human pushed to do incredible things. A portion of the work, which was imagined as a site for pilgrimage, connection, and contemplation, will also feature a mosaic of tiles designed by local residents.
The founder of Studio Cooke John, and recently named 2022 USA Fellow, has lately shifted her focus toward public projects that invite engagement, connection, and transformative experiences. Her “Point of Action” series of interactive sculptures is now installed at Crane Park in Montclair, New Jersey, having previously been activated at Flatiron Public Plaza in New York in 2020. Whitewall spoke with Cooke John about how she’s always been driven by the potential and impact of architecture in our lives.
WHITEWALL: You talk about how powerful a tool architecture can be in our lives. Was there a moment where that clicked for you?
NINA COOKE JOHN: It started with what was my undergraduate thesis, which is now almost 30 years old. That’s when I really started to think about the direct effects that the built environment has on how we see ourselves in public space, and as a result, as active citizens in community life. Once we see ourselves reflected, one way or another, that there is space being made available to us, we feel okay and that we are a part of this place and thus have some responsibility to it.
WW: You define your practice as the intersection of art, architecture, and public placemaking. What does public “placemaking” mean for you?
NCJ: Public placemaking is directly linked to that idea of belonging. That feeling of home. A place where it’s not just something you walk through, but something you feel connected to for one reason or another. Where you feel there is a direct extension of your community. You feel welcome to stay, hang out.
WW: Do you see the monument to Harriet Tubman you’ve created as a gathering space?
NCJ: We’re rethinking what monuments are, the role of monuments in public space. And I thought I could create a proposal that is as much about community building and public space engagement as it is about a monument. I definitely wanted it to be a place where people would want to come, a destination where maybe each time you come by, you experience it in a different way. It would be a place that activates the park as well as a place that has its own space in the park to engage people.
WW: You wanted to both honor her incredible legacy while recognizing that she was a person, and ultimately that we all are, too, capable of great things. How do you translate that into a built environment?
NCJ: That duality was really important to me. In the park, there are a bunch of other men sitting on pedestals, so she needed to claim space. She needed to take up the space that she deserved. But we also needed to understand the duality of our heroes, that yes, they do these amazing things, but by understanding them as everyday people, we can say, “Maybe I can do that, too.”
Oftentimes, if that pedestal seems too great, then we’re not connected; it feels like it’s totally otherworldly, totally disconnected from anything within our grasp. And so, if we really want these monuments to be directly inspiring, meaning it can actually bring about direct action from the people who are engaged with it, I think it might be a bit easier if they can see themselves in that person, even just a little bit. well as a place that has its own space in the park to engage people.
WW: Your practice has, in the past couple of years, shifted toward more public projects, like the Harriet Tubman monument and “Point of Action” in Flatiron. What was it like to see “Point of Action” evolve from idea to activation? To see people in it?
NCJ: That was commissioned in the middle of COVID, in June 2020. So really one of the biggest things that I was thinking about issues of visibility and invisibility. Some people only become visible when they seem to be in a place they are not supposed to be in. So how can we see and be seen? How can you claim a space where you can take the stage—even briefly—to be recognized, and at the same time, recognize your fellow New Yorkers?
It definitely was very powerful to see people engaging with it. That’s one thing about public art—once it’s up, it’s part of the landscape. People are going to do with it whatever they want. It was amazing, seeing people skateboarding through, dancing in one of them, children climbing on top. It’s not your thing anymore. You let it loose, release it, and just take it in.
WW: Children so intuitively approach public spaces like that. We were curious, given that you’re a parent, has having children changed your thinking of public spaces?
NCJ: I have three girls, and they are all really different. It’s really thinking about people’s personalities and how people, whether introverted or not, or whether they are more precious or not, how they relate to each other. And so, extending that into thinking about adults and how we carry that through, in terms of how we relate in public space. Observing people on a different level in terms of how we operate has been a big part of thinking through how people connect based on how they’re inherently wired.