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Flag state

Tulsa Artist Fellow Molly Dilworth and perceiving the unperceivable

Molly Dilworth in her Cameron & Main Street Studio

Melissa Lukenbaugh

Tulsa Artist Fellow Molly Dilworth seems to always be thinking about the connections between things—especially those that are invisible but affect us nonetheless. 

In 2007, Dilworth began to consider what it means to be a physical body living in a digital space. 

“I thought, ‘I’m always online, on my cellphone, and how weird is that? To be living in a digital space and not considering what it feels like,’” said Dilworth. 

In order to insert herself, and her art, into that large digital world, Dilworth began to make paintings that were large enough to be seen on Google Earth.

Her first large painting was on top of an apartment building in Brooklyn. In 2010, her proposal to paint five blocks of Times Square was accepted by the Mayor’s Fund to Improve the City of New York. There, she painted water on the street.

“The project was about the hydrogeology there. There are springs that exist under Manhattan. So, the image speaks to ideas about our built environment.  We don’t feel the natural world at all in Times Square. I was thinking about what affects us in our daily lives that we can’t perceive. In that environment we can’t perceive natural springs, but they’re there.” 

In 2011 in New York, Dilworth painted a courtyard at the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral—thought to be a stop along the Underground Railroad. Her research led to a pattern painting inspired by quilts, which were said to have been used to secretly communicate in the Underground Railroad.

“They were thought to be used as maps and signals, washed and hung out on the lines so a pattern would mean one thing or the other.”

Though historians have debunked the legend, Dilworth was still enthralled by the story.

“Quilts are visually interesting and benign,” she said. “So, I can take this decorative tradition and put it into sites in public. I want to have a conversation about history and race and slavery. But if I put that sign up, I’m probably not going to … except with people who already want to talk about that.”

When Dilworth reflected on this project, as well as the Times Square commission, she saw them as tied together not only under the theme of things-hidden-in-plain-sight, but also as connected by labor exploitation.

Dilworth said the crew that helped her execute the hydrogeology piece in Times Square was not fairly compensated by its city-contracted employer, which was required to pay union wages but refused. 

“My crew wanted to walk off the job and report their employer,” she said. In the end, they didn’t, but Dilworth said she would have supported them.  

“Humans do terrible things to each other, and most of it doesn’t get recorded. [We] haven’t changed much, but the conditions and specifics have changed. So, I started looking at labor and ethics in global shipping.”

Her research led to disturbing discoveries, including exploitation of illegal immigrant laborers and human rights violations at sea in the global shipping industry. Shippers often operate under what is called a “Flag State,” which essentially allows shipping companies to fly and sail under the flag of another country, excusing themselves from certain labor laws, and making exploitation an easier feat.

Dilworth started making flags.

Each flag (there are fifty in total), made of rip-stop nylon and thread, is different. 

Dilworth will hang her flags around Greenwood Historical District this weekend for Juneteenth, which celebrates the end of slavery in the U.S. The flags will hang along Archer Street from Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. to Greenwood Ave., and—depending on logistics—possibly up Greenwood and through the district, where the 1921 race massacre occurred.

“There was so much wealth in Greenwood, and it was something that shouldn’t have happened in terms of power,” she said, recalling the success of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street before the massacre. “The destruction of Greenwood is connected to these global trade routes because it’s all about wealth, power, and resources—and who gets to have them.”

For more from Liz, read her interview with photographer and bike shop owner, Gaylord Oscar Herron.

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