James Little’s Democratic Experiment, Expanded, 2023, Tom Lee Park, Memphis

The city of Memphis stands atop a magnificent bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the scale of which cannot be underestimated. Since the early 19th century, its riverfront has served as a lively hub for industry and transportation. The area has been characterized by terminal buildings, grain elevators, and barges, creating obstacles that hindered direct public access to the river. Before this past fall, the only stretch of land for leisure was Tom Lee Park, a 30-acre windswept strip of grass with little shade for relief from the heavy, muggy temps.

In a city marked by profound racial divisions, Memphis stands at the crossroads of a predominantly Black and predominantly white population, fostering consistent tensions surrounding the right to assemble. Until a recent overhaul, the park was reserved for high-priced tents during a large portion of the summer, an integral part of Memphis in May and the Beale Street Music Festival.

The park is named after a local hero, an almost mythical man, Tom Lee. On May 8, 1925, Tom Lee started the outboard motor of his weathered wooden boat and set off downstream in the muddy Mississippi. On that day, he encountered the M.E. Norman, a 114-foot sternwheeler that, despite being a new boat with all of the modern, enhanced efficiencies, was struggling against the swift current. Under intense pressure, the rudder malfunctioned. In seconds, the Norman capsized in the middle of the river, entrapping numerous passengers in the enclosed main cabin and casting Seventy-two men, women, and children to the mercy of the murky waters. Displaying remarkable courage and selflessness, Lee swiftly maneuvered his boat back to the disaster, loading the ship with partially submerged passengers and running them to a sandbar before returning for additional rescues. That day, Tom Lee saved 32 lives. In 1942, the city “honored” Lee by naming a segregated public pool after him, which was ironic as despite saving so many from drowning, Lee never knew how to swim). In 1952, the year of Lee’s death, Mayor E.H. “Boss” Crump backed the plan to rename the waterfront Astor Park in his honor. The 30 acres of Tom Lee Park became a new “front door” for the city. 

This historical context is crucial to understanding the revitalization of this often-overlooked space. In September, the city revealed a $61 million redesign featuring vibrant, communal, eco-friendly, and architectural zones crafted by SCAPE and Studio Gang. The transformation is nothing short of amazing.

I explored its rejuvenated offerings during two consecutive trips to Tom Lee Park. One visit was dedicated to the sprawling playground designed by the Danish firm MONSTRUM, featuring custom-designed equipment inspired by Mississippi’s indigenous creatures (river otters, a caterpillar, a salamander, and sturgeon). The sight was enhanced by an early evening backdrop, with the setting sun painting the sky in warm hues as 200 players gathered on the new basketball courts, a work of art come to life. To see so many people assemble for pick-up basketball and all its beauty. Like the playground, the court’s neighbor, without the formal rules and regulations of an organized league, pick-up ball is unscripted and spontaneous; it allows for true creativity and improvisation, is open to all ages and backgrounds, and fosters this unique sense of community. And it was impossible to ignore that these guys were playing directly on top of a stunning work of art painted directly on the hardtop: James Little’s Democratic Experiment, Expanded, 2023.

Created as a collaboration between Memphis River Parks, Project Backboard, and 5 Star Basketball, they commissioned the Memphis-born, New York-based abstract painter James Little, known for his striking and geometric compositions. His adaptation of Democratic Experiment, 2017, featured slanting bars in blue-green tones, creating a mesmerizing interplay with subtly distinct shades of green-yellow or yellow-green. The 2023 version bursts with movement and energy when seeing the courts in action, echoing the game’s reminder to stay in the here and now. It was enthralling to witness the various sneakers and legs crossing the court, intersecting with the seemingly structured artwork. At night, the paint took on a thick surface, with sharp corners of color matching the intensity of play. The court became a focal point, drawing people from across the city and adding a layer of significance to the play as everyone reached deep into their bag of tricks.  

Returning a week later, the midday heat cast a different light on the mural. The court, bathed in shade with occasional bright light stripes seeping through the canopy above, looking at the mural during the day provided a wholly different optical sensation. A slow yet never static visual rhythm, informed by deep memories, emerged. Initially perceived as flat and exact, the painting now concealed a new sense of magic and mystery beneath an opaque fog of white clouds. The complexity confused perception, simultaneously feeling free and hemmed in. The unequal distribution of color, some bars overpowering others, served as a reminder of the incompleteness of any singular perspective, anyone looking at a painting or a place. To capture the full depth of reality in Memphis, on the banks of the Mississippi, one must return repeatedly to piece together the larger puzzle.