The final design from artist Tschabalala Self. Image courtesy John Dennis.
The wide, open eyes stretch across the court, nearly vibrating as they cluster in groups of five and six. Beneath them, neat blocks of red and green alternate, building a bright grid where hands and feet will soon dunk, dribble, wrap around and crossover in style. In the very center, the number “23” hovers inside the sclera and iris of a single eyeball, right where the pupil would otherwise be. The words In Loving Memory of John Williamson wrap around it.
Everything is still, and everything has a sense of movement.
That design—an homage to New Haven’s own “Super” John Williamson that is also a celebration of the city’s rich and deep Black history—is coming to DeGale Field next spring, as part of an effort from NXTHVN, Project Backboard, and the artist Tschabalala Self to beautify the park’s basketball courts. Last month, it received final approval from the city’s full Board of Alders, meaning that it can move ahead. It has already received approval from the New Haven Parks Commission.
Two generations of Williamsons: Kali Williamson, Brandi Marshall, Shareebah Williamson, Zanaiya "Nai" Williams and Zy’lee. Lucy Gellman File Photo.
“It’s exciting for us to be able to continue the conversation,” said John Dennis, creative director at NXTHVN and co-editor of Common Practice: Basketball & Contemporary Art. “I think there's power in the specificity [of the design]. As a social practice in a sense, it's important for us to create these conversations to be amplified in a certain way.”
It is on track for next May or June, Dennis added. As collaborators embark on the project, they hope to create a conversation between public art, basketball, and the neighbors who use the space every day.
The work on the project started last year, when the New York-based group Five Star Basketball awarded $500,000 to Project Backboard to refurbish 10 to 12 courts across the country. Of those 12, which range from New York City to Longwood, Florida, New Haven made the cut. In July, the Goffe Street court was the subject of a community meeting at NXTHVN for which roughly two dozen people came out.
The artist Tschabalala Self and John Dennis in July. Lucy Gellman File Photo.
They included Williamson’s daughters, Kali and Shareebah Williamson, who asked that their dad’s memory be honored in some way. While Williamson grew up not far from the court in the Ashmun Street Projects, there are very few reminders that the city was once his home. Today, the only nods to his legacy are a weathered memorial marker in DeGale Field and a John Williamson Drive near Front Street in the city’s Fair Haven neighborhood.
“I loved it. I loved it,” Kali Williamson said of the final design in a phone call earlier this month. “I thought she [Tschabalala Self] did a wonderful job, and to be able to incorporate my dad, it’s very meaningful. I love the eyes. A lot of times, people don't see the beauty in things that aren’t perfect. I think that eyes are the window to the soul and our city needs a lot of eyes on it.”
She added that she is very excited about the final design, which uses a repeating eyeball motif over the red and green of the Pan-African flag. In the center of the court, Self has included Williamson’s name and the number 23, representing the number 23 jersey that he wore for the New York Nets.
Williamson's daughters with City Landscape Architect Katherine Jacobs in DeGale Field earlier this year. Lucy Gellman File Photo.
With approval from the Board of Alders—the design is technically a donation from Project Backboard—and the New Haven Parks Commission, the only thing standing between that design and its installation are the winter months. After coordinating much of that work behind the scenes, City Landscape Architect Katherine Jacobs said she looks forward to seeing it come together.
“I'm excited!” she said in a phone call Thursday afternoon. “I think it's gonna be an awesome project and I'm excited for it to go in. We did all the work, we got all the approvals, and now we're waiting for spring.”
After multiple requests for comment, Tschabalala Self responded through her studio assistant, Gwyneth Giller, that she was too busy to make a comment. At a discussion earlier this year, she said that she was excited to work closely with the community throughout the process.
“The city has been a big part of my narrative and I would love to be able to contribute something to the architecture of the space,” she said.