Video Chat with Kelley Lemon
BILL: Tell me a little bit about your education here at Illinois and how it prepared you to be the success that you’ve been and to reach towards your own dreams.
KELLEY: I only had one school in mind and that was the University of Illinois. I remember looking at the College of Fine and Applied Arts application and there was architecture and landscape architecture. I didn’t know what to do–those are both really interesting, so maybe I’ll choose one and I’ll do the other one later. That was literally my thought process, and so I chose landscape architecture.
I’m really thankful that I chose landscape architecture first because Illinois had an incredible faculty that supported me and allowed me to start to develop my voice. It also allowed me to do other extracurricular activities as part of my education there. I was very involved with the College of Fine and Applied Arts, specifically the music department, because that was also one of my passions. I was able to have that flexibility while there.
When I took LA 101, I had no idea what Landscape Architecture was. I thought it was simply architecture with plant material, but LA 101 and the William White Public Spaces documentary was probably the most enlightening and most memorable part. It convinced me that I was in the right program and that I could take this further as I move through my career. I was fascinated by it, the sociology of gathering spaces in the built environment and moving through these spaces and really understanding them. LA 101 was my immersion into landscape architecture at the University of Illinois.
Being a black woman in a field that’s largely dominated by white men has been really hard. I found over the years as I continue to teach, that students, particularly students of color and women, have been reaching out and telling me that I’ve inspired them. I’m just struggling on my own to get through this profession and trying to navigate these waters, but to hear that I’ve inspired them–wow, I never thought of myself in that way.
I have these debates a lot of time that the built environment, particularly architecture, is mostly available for those who can afford it, and that primarily leaves out people who are disadvantaged economically, socially, and that also leads to race and gender. Having an opportunity to give a voice and to be able to show my face in this discipline has been really, really powerful.
BILL: Well it’s no surprise to me that people would find you inspirational and that they would tell you that. Can you tell us a little bit about one of the projects that you’ve designed that you feel particularly delighted with, proud of, or inspired by?
KELLEY: Yeah, I talk about this project daily. It’s this mashup of community empowerment, professional practice, history, archaeology, landscape design, architecture, and race. This is a project that I worked on in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and it first started out as a design competition for this small landscape next to the new Penguins arena. We had an opportunity to go in and develop a proposal about this neighborhood that had been constantly overlooked in the name of future development in sports. Sports development is huge–it’s a huge money generator and essentially, they can steamroll everything. So this park space that they had given to sports development was essentially given back to the community. We wanted to make it super colorful.
This project was called “Curtain Call,” and it was a throwback to August Wilson who is a native Pittsburgher. He lived in this neighborhood where the new Penguins stadium was. It was really about celebrating the neighborhood and the community. It literally transformed into a celebration, a landscape made up of photos. It was made up of structures that were a collection of photos from people in the community. There was an incredible archive of photos from their famous photographer, ‘Teenie Harris,’ that he had taken over his entire career there. We engaged the community, got them excited about this process, and told them that we want you to be a part of this by coming out and bringing your photos from your attics and your basements.
There were people that had boxes of photos they hadn’t looked at for maybe decades. They bring these photos out and instantly they would remember what was happening in this photo or what their life was like at the time the photo was taken. Just to hear their stories and to see their faces light up and talk about what this means to them and their excitement about this project inspired me every moment that we were there. Even during the moments that we weren’t there, I still thought about it. How can we make this detail or how can you protect this project literally? How can we use the photo project to protect the life of this neighborhood? How can we make it in a way that really anchors this community?
The project speaks to the history of community, the people of the community. It reaches out to the University into downtown Pittsburgh and explores how we engage people that live here to help build it. This landscape design project took a form that was unique to this neighborhood. I thought it was a wonderful case study in how we can begin to engage communities and really focus landscape architecture in a way that involves communities and people and empowers particularly people of color to celebrate their heritage, their life and their neighborhood in this concrete way.
The tragedy about this is that it never quite got built, but I loved the whole process behind it, and I talked about it daily. If we ever find the funds to get it built again, I would be there in a minute. I hope that gets built one day. I’m still working on details. We’d love to have an opportunity to bring it to a studio a design studio and start to fabricate a lot of these pieces, to start to talk about the overall conceptual design and bring it down to the scale of the detail. It was my favorite project by far of all the projects I’ve ever done in my career.
BILL: Kelly it’s been my pleasure and delight to talk to you again and to hear more about your work and to have this opportunity to share your story with the larger community of landscape architects connected to the University of Illinois. You’re an inspiration and I can’t wait for other people to be able to watch this video and hear about your good work.
KELLEY: Thank you so much. I appreciate having the opportunity to talk about my growth and development and how it all started, especially at the University of Illinois, so thank you so much.
BILL: You’re welcome and thanks very much.