ARTIST and designer Lisa D. Watson has nothing but love for Savannah’s bridges.
Some of you may remember her City Transversed exhibit in the rotunda gallery at City Hall, which was on view from July of last year until December. The show featured Watson’s artistic renditions of the Savannah River Bridge, the Houlihan Bridge, Factor’s Walk and several others.
Unsurprisingly, the piece that people reacted most to was a painting of the Talmadge Memorial Bridge, one of our city’s most iconic images.
“The piece was really colorful and optimistic,” Watson says, “because I thought, ‘My god. That beautiful bridge is named after somebody whose whole platform was about hatred of a certain race.’ I wanted the colorful bridge, but not a bridge that was based on hatred.”
In April, Jessica Leigh Lebos wrote an article for Connect titled “Name shaming the Talmadge Bridge”, which took an in-depth look at the history behind the Talmadge Memorial Bridge and its namesake, former Democratic Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge.
Lebos took the time to break down the bridge’s history, its re-building in 1991, and the two previous attempts to change its name. She also offered a concise, but thoroughly convincing, argument for why the re-naming conversation is being justly re-awakened: Savannah has no need to continue to memorialize Eugene Talmadge’s thoroughly disgusting, unapologetic legacy of hatred, social injustice and racism.
For those who remain unsure that another re-naming campaign is worth the effort, Talmadge is the same guy who, after forcing the dismissal of two professors attempting to integrate the Georgia Teacher’s College in Statesboro in 1942, explained by saying, “I’m not going to put up with social equality. We don’t need no n*****s and white people taught together.”
During his three terms as governor, Talmadge fought against every social reform possible and gained a reputation for being a bully and a demagogue. Assertions that he was a populist champion of the common man can be promptly dismissed when we remember he protested the New Deal’s proposed daily wage for farm laborers and opposed a pension for retired workers.
In 2007, the FBI released documents which reveal Talmadge almost certainly sanctioned the murders of four black people to sway rural white voters during his 1946 campaign. Is that really the kind of legacy we want to impose on one of our city’s most recognizable landmarks?
As the bridge celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, Lisa Watson has decided to lead the charge on a project she calls “Span the Gap” which includes an art exhibition (opening at Oglethorpe Gallery on Friday, June 10 at 6pm) and a public survey.
The survey (www.surveymonkey.com/r/savbridge) asks respondents what new name they favor over the current one, with the option to recommend no change. “The Tomochichi Bridge” is in the lead according to Watson’s last count – it’s also what the re-built 1991 version of the bridge was supposed to be named before a last minute change by the Georgia General Assembly.
Watson will present the results of the survey to the city after the exhibit closes on June 24.
For Watson, these two complementary components amount to a form of protest.
“Last year, with a lot of the gun violence and protests, I just don’t know if they were very proactive. I feel like we have to think of trying to get things done – fixing social injustices – in a really positive way. Using art was the best possible way I could think of doing it.”
Despite taking an evenhanded approach (the exhibition comprises works from 24 artists, refrains from political commentary, and focuses purely on the bridge’s aesthetic and experiential merits), the backlash has been brutal.
“When the survey first went up, I got some nasty stuff. I got rants, not names of bridges,” she told me. “I understand it. Personally, I am non-partisan. I always listen to both sides.”
“I want people to come look at the artwork and say, ‘Oh my gosh. It really is a beautiful bridge,’” she continues. “There are so many different ways to look at it – from under, above, while you’re on it. How can something that lovely be named after somebody who was an awful person?”
Much of the dissent comes from people who insist that energy directed toward the re-naming would be better used elsewhere.
One commenter on Lebos’ piece said, “This is such a bullshit waste of time. There are REAL issues facing this town that efforts and energy should be put into... The crime in this city and the corruption...but nobody cares about that...it doesn’t involve the names of dead white guys.”
Lisa’s response is simple: “There are so many problems. But I’m not a crime fighter, I’m not involved in the educational system here. I’m not involved in how people eat or health. But I’m an artist. And I’d say at least 75 people approached me about the name of the bridge, asking , ‘What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do?’ That’s why I’m doing it.”
Interest generated will hopefully inspire more residents to take the survey and let their voice be heard. And – should the city, county and state approve a name change in the future – Watson has a plan to use art to preserve the Talmadge name in connection to the bridge via a new memorial.
She understands that Span the Gap is only the beginning, knowing how slowly change happens in Savannah. When I ask why previous re-naming attempts have withered, Lisa’s eyes become steely.
“I think it’s because there hasn’t been anybody to see it all the way through. I’ll keep working on it. If it takes three years, they’ll still see me showing up. If I have to go to the state legislature, I’ll have people standing there with me. [Dorothy R. Spradley] worked on the monument to African-Americans for years. I look at her picture and I think, ‘Okay. I might have to be working on this for years.’”
“And you’re willing to make that commitment?” I ask.
Without a second’s hesitation she says: “Yes.”