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Smokehouse, 1968–70

Eric Booker

Guy Ciarcia, captured from above, paints a final section of wall at a mini-park off of E. 121st St. between 2nd and 3rd Aves. 

Artwork created by Smokehouse Associates. Courtesy William T. Williams Archives 

 

A vibrant triangular mural on a building's brick façade on the northeast corner of E. 121st St. and 3rd Ave. 

Photo: Robert Colton. Courtesy William T. Williams Archives 

 

Children pose against a vibrant mural at a mini-park off of E. 121st St. between 2nd and 3rd Aves. 

Artwork created by Smokehouse Associates. Courtesy William T. Williams Archives 

 

Detail of a multiform red sculpture, captured from above at a mini-park off of E. 121st St. between 2nd and 3rd Aves. 

Artwork created by Smokehouse Associates. Courtesy William T. Williams Archives 

Guy Ciarcia, captured from above, paints a final section of wall at a mini-park off of E. 121st St. between 2nd and 3rd Aves. 

Artwork created by Smokehouse Associates. Courtesy William T. Williams Archives 

 

A vibrant triangular mural on a building's brick façade on the northeast corner of E. 121st St. and 3rd Ave. 

Photo: Robert Colton. Courtesy William T. Williams Archives 

 

Children pose against a vibrant mural at a mini-park off of E. 121st St. between 2nd and 3rd Aves. 

Artwork created by Smokehouse Associates. Courtesy William T. Williams Archives 

 

Detail of a multiform red sculpture, captured from above at a mini-park off of E. 121st St. between 2nd and 3rd Aves. 

Artwork created by Smokehouse Associates. Courtesy William T. Williams Archives 

These images—photographed by Robert Colton, a Smokehouse Associate—depict the collective’s original members, William T. Williams, Melvin Edwards, Guy Ciarcia, and Billy Rose, at work in Harlem, as they cleaned up sites and painted murals on city walls. Conceived and established by Williams, the collective grew to encompass a diverse range of creative practitioners united behind the transformative potential of public art.

Reflecting the members’ Southern roots and their social mission, the collective borrowed its name from the Southern vernacular “smokehouse”—a storehouse where meats are smoked and kept for times of need. They rejected the social realist imagery used by other muralists at the time, and instead believed they could change people’s perceptions through changing the physical environment and making it “visually and aesthetically better and therefore more human . . . ” Referencing the artistic applications of African and pre-Columbian societies, as well as the European Renaissance, as well as more modern influences such as Constructivism and Mexican Muralism, Smokehouse believed that the historical use of public art and the visual power of abstraction could be applied to neighborhoods throughout Harlem to improve the quality of contemporary urban life.

The collective approached each project by engaging the community at every level, consulting neighborhood organizations and leaders prior to beginning work and employing local teenagers and elders during production. Murals were never painted above fifteen feet, reflecting the group’s practical nature—the height of their ladder—as well as their mission to physically and emotionally envelop the neighborhood through their work. In turn, Smokehouse’s collaborations created a sense of self-achievement and pride within the community. Children appear often in the photographs, indicating Smokehouse’s success in engaging and transforming the Harlem community. In some, they play among a series of outdoor sculptures also made by the group.

(From L to R) Billy Rose, Guy Ciarcia, and William T. Williams paint a mural from fifteen-foot ladders at a pocket park on Sylvan Place (E. 120th St. between Lexington and 3rd Aves.). Artwork created by Smokehouse Associates. Courtesy William T. Williams


The collective grew to encompass a diverse range of creative practitioners united behind the transformative potential of public art.


As the collective refined its skills, the murals became more dynamic and spatially complex. The designs drew directly from the surrounding landscape—colors were taken from people’s clothes, storefront displays and signs in the area, while the forms themselves reflected the architecture of each space. The collective alternated leadership of the design at each site, and then responded to the initial murals with additional compositions on adjacent walls that formed a visual rhythm across the space. Collaged mock-ups for large-scale works—originally presented to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development—reveal Smokehouse’s unrealized ambitions for murals that could be seen from a distance to draw curious viewers to Harlem to explore.

Smokehouse was a radical experiment in public art. Although it flourished for just a few years, the collective created an unprecedented artistic platform for the community and inspired change throughout Harlem.

 

—Eric Booker (Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2017/18 issue of Studio magazine)

Purchase the Studio Museums latest catalogue, Smokehouse Associates, edited by Eric Booker, at Studio Store.