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NoMa Arts Scene Taps Into History

Like any neighborhood on the rise, NoMa — shorthand for North of Massachusetts — is trying to attract dynamic new businesses and tenants.

But the area has another plan to build its character, too: It’s developing an arts scene that embraces the neighborhood’s ethnic history and location in the District. 

One of the leading contributors to NoMa’s burgeoning arts scene is Solas Nua, a contemporary Irish arts organization that screens Irish films and performs plays about the Emerald Isle. The group, whose name means “new light” in Irish, chose NoMa as its home turf for a specific reason. When Irish immigrants began coming to Washington more than a century ago, they first settled in this part of the city, which then went by the name Swampoodle.

Linda Murray, Solas Nua’s artistic director, grew up in Dublin and moved to the United States six years ago. She said that when she arrived, she didn’t know much about a historical Irish population in the District.

“We are very much about the current generation and not at all about an older representation of Ireland, but when I first moved here from Dublin, you kind of hear about these Irish communities, and there are those communities in New York, Boston, even San Francisco, but not Washington,” Murray said. “I was wondering how such a large city could have escaped an Irish invasion.” 

As it turned out, Washington had its own Irish community — it just didn’t define the city the way Boston’s has. Years ago, Murray stumbled upon a plaque in Union Station explaining the history of Swampoodle as the original destination for Irish immigrants, and in recent times, Solas Nua has organized many of its activities in NoMa. The group put on a play called “Improbable Frequency” inside an office building at 111 K St. NE earlier this fall and has plans for a hostage-themed performance called “Adrenaline” in early 2011. Murray said those shows were staged in NoMa to build a committed audience base for the May 2011 show “Swampoodle,” an abstract history of the neighborhood.

Today, NoMa retains little of its Irish culture, but Murray and Solas Nua see a connection between the neighborhood and its history.

“NoMa is very exciting for me because it’s a neighborhood on the cusp of something,” Murray said. “For my organization, part of what we want to do is make sure that the history of the neighborhood is kept intact in a vibrant and modern way and very much embracing the community there today that is primarily African-American. It has nothing at all to do with Ireland, but there is a parallel between their story and the Irish immigrants who lived there 100 years ago.”

Aside from Solas Nua, NoMa’s art scene reveals itself in stand-alone pieces spread around the neighborhood, many of them in the lobbies of office buildings. The NoMa Business Improvement District successfully put together a series of displays in storefronts a year ago, and the current art on display seeks to build on that experiment.

The lobby of 1100 First St. NE is decorated with two striking columns made of boxes of varying shapes and colors. In addition, the ground floor of 1200 First St. NE, the building that houses the headquarters of D.C. Public Schools, features three large doughnut-shaped pieces of art built by Tom Ashcraft, a professor at George Mason University.

Ashcraft said he built the pieces more than a decade ago out of plywood and mosaic, each with a theme in mind. For example, one of them is called “Mesopotamia” because he created it around the time of the first Gulf War and because his artwork resembles the wheel, which was invented in that region of the world.

However, Ashcraft said he hopes people will have their own reactions to the works and the space that they are being displayed in — an open, windowed lobby across from a new Harris Teeter grocery store.

Ashcraft’s work ended up in NoMa through a partnership with Hemphill Fine Arts, a gallery that he has worked with over the years, but he has a long-term connection to NoMa separate from his artwork.

“Thirty years ago, I lived on North Capitol and New York Avenue, and it was not like it is now,” Ashcraft said. “It was just rough and marginalized — it wasn’t at all on the gentrification landscape, and it was just an older part of D.C. that people drove through to get downtown. It’s been pretty fabulous to watch the transformation.”

That transformation is far from complete, but the artistic presence in NoMa illustrates how far the neighborhood has come since its days as Swampoodle.

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