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At the Gardner Museum, an artist elevates family members who ‘held on to who they were’

Lorraine O'Grady's artist rendering for "The Strange Taxi, Stretched."Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Lorraine O’Grady’s mother grew roses when she lived in Jamaica. She moved to New York in 1917, and ended up in Boston where her friends were shortly after. When in the city, she took to sitting in the Back Bay Fens every Sunday, just soaking up the roses and other impressive flower gardens.

Now, O’Grady’s late mother overlooks the green space in front of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, not far at all from her beloved Fens. Unveiled Jan. 14, a new installation for the museum’s facade, “The Strange Taxi, Stretched” is adapted from O’Grady’s “The Strange Taxi,” an autobiographical photomontage originally constructed in 1991 that honors the Boston-born artist’s New England and Caribbean roots. Three of O’Grady’s aunts are also featured in the piece. “The Strange Taxi, Stretched” will be on view through May 19.


Reached by phone in New York, O’Grady, 86, discussed the inspiration for “The Strange Taxi” and the significance of displaying it for all of Boston. The conversation has been edited for length.

Artist Lorraine O'Grady created "The Strange Taxi, Stretched" for the Gardner Museum's facade.Ross Collab

Q. Your work deals with identity, diaspora, and cultural heritage. Can you talk about that?

A. The subtitle of [“The Strange Taxi”] ... is “From Africa to Jamaica to Boston in 200 years.” That’s really diaspora twice removed or twice over diaspora. I think that’s what the world really consists of at the moment.

Q. Could you tell me about the inspiration behind the original piece, “The Strange Taxi”?

A. I feel that it’s not just that the personal is political, the personal is also theoretical, and the personal is also art. I do make work out of the subject matter of the life I’ve lived. As a child growing up in Boston, I was the child of West Indian parents but also living in a world where I was completely surrounded by many different cultures — Irish, Greek, whatever. Boston, when I was there growing up, was never more than 2½ to 3 percent Black. The immigrations occurred much later, so I was trying to pull together what I was getting in my home, which was very West Indian and very class-based, with what I was getting outside.


Q. What is the significance of placing your family members in the piece?

A. [My mother] came so she could go to university to study mathematics, that was her dream. Things didn’t work out for her. She had a brother she thought was going to support her while she did that and that didn’t work, so she had to get a job. The only jobs that were available to Black women at that time were in domestic service. It didn’t matter who they were or what they were capable of, that was the only option for them. I wanted to make a piece about my mother and my aunts and dashed hopes and limited possibilities. ... What they did was they held on to who they were and what they understood about the world in spite of all that. ... I saw them as emerging from these houses where their identities were confined into a sky that enabled them to grow and develop.

Q. Tell me about adapting “The Strange Taxi” for the Gardner’s facade.

A. When I stretched the image, I discovered that to make it work, I would have to add sky. I doubled the amount of sky, so that made it possible not just for my mother and my aunts to develop but for me to develop, and for my child to develop, and my grandchildren to develop.


Q. You mentioned the personal being political. Even though this piece was originally made in the 1990s, how does it connect to today?

A. I think that many of the battles my family were fighting are still being fought on an everyday basis. I think much has changed and much has improved, but the battles are still there. When I made the original piece in 1991, my grandchildren were still in nursery school. Now one of them has children of her own. I see the piece as very much speaking to them and giving them the life lessons I’ve learned.

Grace Griffin can be reached at grace.griffin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GraceMGriffin.