This Artist’s Death Should Be a Wake-Up Call for Everyone
On July 1, artist Devra Freelander was struck and killed while cycling in Brooklyn. Her body of work, which examined themes of environmentalism and capitalism, has become all too urgent as New York City grapples with an underdeveloped cycling infrastructure.
Artist Devra Freelander may not be a household name, but the circumstances surrounding her death are likely to have far-reaching consequences.
Freelander, 28, was an on-the-rise artist based in Bushwick, Brooklyn, who was struck and killed by a cement truck while cycling on July 1. Active in her community, the award-winning creative received her MFA in sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design and was a founding member of the collective MATERIAL GIRLS, which offers resources and programming to female artists. Freelander also participated in residencies with Sculpture Space, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace, and Socrates Sculpture Park, the latter of which culminated in her first major sculptural installation in 2017. Her death raises concerns about cyclist safety in New York City and beckons scrutiny of her work under a new lens.
Freelander’s body of work encompassed sculptures and videos that “explore climate change and geology from an ecofeminist and millennial lens.” Her first large-scale installation, Fluorescent Sunrise, debuted at Socrates Sculpture Park in 2017. Pairing the semicircular 3-D form of a setting sun with the sensation of staring at LCD screens, Fluorescent Sunrise examined our relationship with technology and how we approach issues of sustainability in contemporary living. The sun’s orange-pink gradient conjured various time frames—our 8-second digital media attention span, the 24-hour daily cycle, and the eons of the earth’s life—raising questions about how we respond to natural versus artificial light in the iPhone age.
When it came time for de-installation, Freelander lacked sufficient storage space for the piece—which was made of 90 gallons of poured fluorescent epoxy resin—and so used a circular saw to dismantle it into slabs that could fit into the trunk of her car. The result is a series of one-of-a-kind shattered components resembling icebergs, called Fluorescent Fragments, which she exhibited at Brooklyn’s Cooler Gallery in July 2018. Instead of consuming more materials and space to create a new body of work, Freelander gave an existing piece a second life through a new physical form—a brilliant example of an artist economizing materials and space. “Spending time with each of these fragments,” she said, “I learned that sometimes the part is greater than the whole.”
In March 2019, she teamed up with fellow artist Gracelee Lawrence to exhibit Eventual Artifact, a sculpture commissioned by Times Square Arts and SPRING/BREAK Art Show. Described as a “fantasy core sample from the Times Square of tomorrow,” Eventual Artifact featured a fluorescent column punctuated with copper silhouettes of fruits, CDs, sneakers, Styrofoam cups, and other techno-capitalist artifacts including a pair of hands reaching for an iPhone. “Times Square is the belly of the late capitalist beast,” she said at the time. “We can’t think of a better place to talk about issues of consumption and excess. It’s one of the places in Manhattan where bedrock is closest to the surface, so to be in this space where we feel so emotionally and conceptually far away from it feels special.” Freelander’s other works, including the Fractured Sunscapes, Vectorized Mountains, and Neon Ranges series, also lent vivid visuals to geological themes.
Given the nature of Freelander’s work, it feels particularly cruel that she was killed by a gas-guzzling vehicle filled with unsustainable building materials. Her death raises significant concerns about Vision Zero, a program launched by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to eliminate all traffic deaths in the city by 2024. The incident marks the 15th cyclist fatality on New York City streets this year alone—more than double the number at this time last year. In response to her death, de Blasio declared a state of emergency and demanded the city Department of Transportation develop “a new cyclist safety plan to make biking in our city safer.” He also asked police to launch “a major enforcement action that will encompass every precinct and crack down on dangerous driving behavior.”
Transit advocates, however, say de Blasio’s efforts are too little, too late. More New Yorkers have taken to cycling amid a deteriorating subway system and streets congested by a new army of ride-sharing vehicles. Yet the city’s underdeveloped bike-lane infrastructure has proven ineffective at guarding cyclists from motorists. Two of them, Robyn Hightman and Ernest Askew, were struck and killed by motorists last week alone. The NYPD and prosecutors are also hesitant to indict—let alone investigate—drivers who kill cyclists and pedestrians. Slaps on the wrist are far more common than full-fledged investigations and, more often than not, police blame cyclists for being inattentive.
“Vision Zero is in a state of emergency and Mayor de Blasio is in denial about his signature program faltering under his neglect,” says Marco Conner, a member of the transit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. Conner has called on the city to pass an emergency response plan to implement several pedestrian and cycling safety initiatives including a citywide daylighting program to increase intersection visibility, reformed trucking and freight policies, automated enforcement technologies to protect bike lanes, and the passage of Council member Brad Lander’s Reckless Driver Accountability Act.
Despite efforts toward progress, Freelander’s death paints an ominous picture for residents of East Williamsburg and Bushwick, two long-overlooked post-industrial neighborhoods in Brooklyn that have recently become hotbeds of gentrification. An influx of commuters has long strained the L, the neighborhood’s highest-trafficked subway line. With ongoing repairs to the line’s Canarsie Tunnel, which suffered severe damage during Hurricane Sandy, reliable subway service has all but vanished from the area. Many residents have taken to cycling for quick and easy navigation, but local street conditions are largely unfriendly—if not outright hostile—to cyclists. Bushwick Avenue, where Freelander was struck, suffers from potholes, obstructed views, and speeding trucks, despite a citywide speed limit of 25 miles per hour.
Until the city redoubles its efforts to protect pedestrians and strengthen underdeveloped cycling infrastructure, cyclists will continue to fall victim to motor vehicles at an alarming rate. In the meantime, perhaps we can look toward Freelander’s body of work to rethink how technology encroaches into our day-to-day—and how we can be more mindful of our surroundings under its reign.
Socrates Sculpture Park is accepting donations in Freelander’s memory. Gifts given in her name will directly support the Park’s fellowship program for emerging artists.