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Friday Conversation: Artist Lauren Woods Turns A Public Drinking Fountain Into a Civil Rights Memorial

by Anne Bothwell 15 Nov 2013 8:00 AM

A Dallas Drinking Fountain Project opens today at the County Records Building. Artist Lauren Woods tells KERA’s Anne Bothwell how a Jim Crow-era sign inspired her work.



lauren mockup

A Dallas Drinking Fountain Project. The fountain, the video activated, and a still from the video.

Lauren Woods’ piece  “A Dallas Drinking Fountain Project” got its start more than eight years ago, when traces of a “Whites Only” sign from the Jim Crow-era were discovered above a fountain in the County Records Building. The piece officially opens Friday. To create a video installation, Woods gathered footage from the era of the Civil Rights struggle. When a thirsty person presses the button on the water fountain, the footage displays in a recess behind the fountain before the water turns on.

I spoke with Woods for this week’s Friday Conversation on KERA FM.

You can listen to the radio piece here:

And here are some highlights:

lauren woods portrait photographer credit Kim Harrington

Lauren Woods. Photo: Kim Harrington.

“That’s why I find it so interesting,” Woods says. “It’s a place you wouldn’t expect to have this experience.

“What I found interesting is when I did my site visits to gauge how many people use the fountains in the beginning, and to figure out the culture of that space,  people would go to the fountain to drink, but they wouldn’t look up to see the artifact.  [The traces of “Whites Only” are visible on the marble above.]

Woods noticed that if she stood next to the fountain and started looking, others would notice, and start looking with her.

“All of a sudden you’re having this interesting conversation and maybe it’s five people around a drinking fountain talking about civil rights or their relationship to it.”

Woods doesn’t think these kind of interactions would necessarily happen at a museum.

“I don’t know if you have the diversity entering a museum the way you do in that space.  You have people getting married and getting their license, you have people coming in for the motor registration and paying their taxes.  It really does create this moment where diverse people can talk to each other.

There are two “official” traces of signs that have been uncovered and recognized by the County in the Records Building. But there are more in the building. 

The signs were wherever there was a water fountain in the building. So wherever you have original marble, most likely, you have a trace still there. They’re kind of all over the building, like ghosts haunting. It’s sort of like a scar in our body, it can fade and get smaller, but its still there, it’s part of our body. It’s part of our history.


The trace of a Jim Crow-era “White Only” sign.

“I think it’s interesting that the fountain is unveiling so close to the honoring of JFK and the 50th anniversary. Because Dallas history in civil rights isn’t necessarily talked about, it’s not as potent as, say, an Alabama, Georgia or Mississippi, I think that unveiling so close to JFK does bring the conversation of civil rights in Dallas, particularly, into play in a way that I haven’t seen quite yet happening.

What do you hope folks take away from the piece.

“The way the civil rights movement has traditionally been imaged is presenting the black body in a very violent context. Those images are really compelling and they evoke a certain emotion. They make you angry. I wanted to do something that didn’t violate the body and present the violence as much as it presented the spirit it took to not only endure, but to triumph.”

Because the images are moving pictures, not stills, they seem more real. And it makes it easier for those who experience the piece to realize “these were just everyday people who decided to do something.”