Monumental must-see exhibition featuring artist, Sheila Pree Bright, celebrates the history and diversity of the American flag



by Janel St. John




Summer 2014.** If there’s nothing more American than apple pie…there’s nothing more iconic than the American flag. The old revered red, white and blue is so layered with symbolism, that just one wave, evokes the kind of emotion that makes grown men cry. Now, the stories of our flag and its’ role in contemporary life are at the center of an exhibition that’s receiving national buzz.

For Whom It Stands: The Flag and the American People, is now on view at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Hailed by USA Today as a ‘Top 10 Must-See Exhibition of Summer,’ the show is an investigation into the history and representation of the United States flag as an icon of our nation and its people. Featuring more than 100 works of flag-themed art, artifacts, documents and photographs, the show runs through February 28, 2015, in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of Francis Scott Key penning the poem that would become our national anthem.

For Whom It Stands is inspired by Grace Wisher, the 13-year old African American girl who contributed to the creation of the Star-Spangled Banner as an indentured servant in flag maker, Mary Pickersgill’s household. During the War of 1812, Pickersgill sewed the original flag in a house on the same city block as the museum, which is located near Baltimore's Inner Harbor at the corner of Pratt and President Streets. This retelling of the story of a U.S. war battle and the beautiful domino effect that created our national symbols - weaves together the effort, motivation and innovation of a general, a seamstress, a servant and a photographer, revealing the common thread of patriotism, centuries removed.

A general and a seamstress


Daughter of a flag maker, Pickersgill was an entrepreneur who was renting a house at 844 East Pratt Street in 1813 when the U.S. was at war with Great Britain.

Major General George Armistead was the U.S. Army Commander at Fort McHenry at the mouth of the Baltimore harbor on the Chesapeake. He wanted to send a strong message that America was going to defend its harbor and requested “a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.”

He commissioned Pickersgill to make two flags, one 42 x 30 feet, another 25 x 17 feet. The seamstress corralled a small army of her own for the massive undertaking. She enlisted her elderly mother, who was a flag maker during the American Revolution, her daughter, two nieces, an unnamed African American, who lived at her house - most likely a slave - and Grace Wisher, a free African American apprentice. Often working late into the evening, and sometimes till midnight, the flag making dream team completed the job in six weeks.

The flags had 15 stars and 15 stripes, one for each of the 15 states of the union. The main flag weighed about 50 pounds and took 11 men to raise it onto a 90-foot flag pole. It was flying over the fort at daybreak in September 1814 after the British ceased firing on the fort. An American lawyer named Francis Scott Key, was on a British vessel negotiating a prisoner exchange when he saw the flag. He was so moved, he picked up his pen and began to write... “Oh say can you see...” His poem became our national anthem.

Pickersgill also became famous and her story is well-documented. Her flag making business grew so lucrative, she was able to buy the brick house she was renting. She lived there for 50 years. The original flag has been preserved and hangs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. In 1927, the city of Baltimore purchased Pickersgill’s house. Full of artifacts, memorabilia, decorative arts and war history, it has served as the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House and Museum for 88 years.

"A Top 10 Must-See Exhibition of Summer"

- USA Today

For Whom It Stands: The Flag and the American People, is now on view at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History & Culture.

The exhibition features more than 100 works of flag-themed art, artifacts, documents and photographs.



Cameron African-American Flag after David Hammons, 2009


A servant and a photographer


While Pickersgill’s story is well-known, less mentioned is the story of Grace Wisher. The flag- making team, has never been the focus of the Star-Spangled Banner story, but throughout American history, the documentation of the lives of African Americans has not been considered important. There is no Ellis Island for black people. We don’t know what became of little Grace. There are no pictures; we have never seen her face. The only recorded information is from her indentured servant contract. It reveals Wisher’s mother was poor and placed her in an apprenticeship with Pickersgill at about the age of 10. In return for teaching Grace, Pickersgill gained a servant for six years.

In honor of Wisher, the museum commissioned Atlanta-based, award-winning, fine-art photographer, Sheila Pree Bright to create Fifteen during her artist-in-residence at the museum. Bright asked museum visitors and students from City Springs Elementary and Middle School to ‘become a face for Grace’ by posing with the flag and sharing their views on being American. It reinforces the theme of her 1960 Who public art series which highlights forgotten citizens who made honorable contributions to the country. For that project, Bright, wheat-pasted giant portraits of 1960s youth leaders on walls in downtown Atlanta as an homage to the sacrifice and bravery of ordinary Americans. “It always takes the youth to make a change,” she said.

Seasoned in flag work, in 2007, Bright created The Young Americans Series, featuring the Millenials. “I wanted to know what young people thought,” she said. “They are the biggest generation in history, even bigger than the Baby Boomers. I gave them the flag to do whatever they wanted with it.” ‘Change,’ she said, was the overall theme. “They understood the complexity of America.” Young Americans debuted in a solo show at The High Museum of Art in Atlanta during the 2008 presidential election.


In For Whom It Stands, Bright used the same technique, across three generations, ‘X,’ ‘Y’ and the Baby Boomers to get a cross-generational view. The “Baby Boomers,” who were mostly people of color, know the struggles,” she said. “But what better place to be – they love the flag and deal with the struggles.”

One man in his 50s, put the flag on his back as though it was a burden. Baltimore Mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, participated in the project and held the flag like a baby. “Some in Generation ‘Y’ told me they thought of slavery,” Bright said. A Mexican-American participant said ‘it’s complicated.’ “Everyone loves America and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else – but it is complicated with what we are still going through,” said Bright. “The new racism is classicism.”

A “cultural anthropologist,” Bright’s work captures cultures and explores common intersections. Her work on this project uncovered a myriad of intersecting views.


Award-winning, fine-art photographer, Sheila Pree Bright, created Fifteen during her artist-in-residence.




For Bright's mural - a focal point of the exhibition - students and adults across several generations, posed with the flag and shared their views on being American.



Cara Ober - White American, Generation X:

“I have a conflicted view of myself as an American, of the American flag,” said Ober. “I have never felt that it completely represents me - that it is attempting to sell me something I am not sure I want to buy or commit to completely. I always feel curious that so many Americans choose to hang the flag outside their homes and ongas stations and restaurants… Why do we need to hang it? What are we trying to prove? Possibly because I have spent time in other countries, where one’s nationality is more homogeneous, more assumed. I think I am very lucky to be an American and am happy to live here. But I question whether being born somewhere is a reason to feel proud?”



Deborah Nobles-McDaniel - African American, Baby Boomer:

"The character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than it does in this new millennium! Although African Americans are free, have proven themselves to be intellectually equal with other ethnic groups, and have reached the pinnacle of success in numerous areas …it seems that we will still be forever disrespected and chained to the negative stereotypes of the past."




TeKeyia and David by Sheila Pree Bright, 2007


Born in Waycross, GA, Bright was an Army brat who spent her childhood in Germany and criss-crossing the U.S. with her parents and three siblings. She picked up photography during her senior year of textile design at the University of Missouri. Nationally known for her photographic series, Young Americans (2007), Plastic Bodies (2003) and Suburbia (2006), her work consistently and subtly challenges stereotypes. Shortly after earning her M.F.A. in Photography from Georgia State University, she received the Center Prize from the Santa Fe Center of Photography for Suburbia. The series takes aim at the American media’s projection of the “typical” African American community. Brights color photographs of middle class, Atlanta homes depict a realistic view of everyday Black life in the suburbs. She was the first woman and person of color to win the award.

Last year, Plastic Bodies went viral on Huffington Post. Bright said she took the cultural icon of the Barbie doll to challenge the notions of beauty standards and highlight their impact on a young girl’s psyche. In this series, models and dolls were digitally manipulated into striking images that are half-human and half-plastic. Featured in the documentary, “Through the Lens Darkly,” Plastic Bodies is also in the traveling group show, Posing Beauty in African American Culture.

Bright’s mural, Fifteen, is an homage to the 1814 flag. Comprised of 15 high contrast photographs, the participants are rendered in black and white, while the flag is depicted in bold color. On display in the museum gallery, Fifteen, also has a public art component with companion murals at both schools.


An unprecedented exhibition


A diversity of voices, young and old alike, spanning pride and protest, fill the massive 3,200 square foot space in For Whom It Stands. With works by major artists like Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold, Kerry James Marshall and Gordon Parks, it also features lesser-known artists. The Veteran is a mixed media work on skateboard by Rafael Colón, a self-taught Puerto Rican artist. A Tribute to New York City, sculpted by Israeli-American Dalya Luttwak sits in the same show as Prayer Rug for America, by the Arab American, Helen Zughaib. Other pieces include a photograph of the Navajo code talkers who communicated the message to soldiers to raise the U.S. flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima, and a mixed media work by Chinese-American Flo Oy Wong about the detention of Chinese immigrants at Angel Island.

There’s a Library of Congress photograph of a young African American woman taken in 1942. She is carefully handling flags in a quartermaster corps depot. Again, she is unidentified; her name unknown. The photograph challenges notions of commonly held beliefs of what patriotism looks like. “We want to expand the historical narrative about whom the flag represents and share the contemporary contexts of its lived meanings,” said Dr. Michelle Joan Wilkinson, project curator and flag art scholar. “…For Whom It Stands aims to present diverse stories of the flag with a wide-angle perspective in which we all can see ourselves reflected in the national fabric.”

** Updated and reposted in 2018.


Prayer Rug for America by Helen Zughaib


Project 1960: Fifteen Faces For Grace Wisher from sheila pree bright on Vimeo.








Mark Bradford Week DMV


Posing Beauty


Design Awards

Kara Walker at BMA