Letizia D’Avenia: Miami as Text 2021

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Hi! My name is Letizia D’Avenia. I am a sophomore attending the Honors College at Florida International University majoring in psychology. I was born in Milan, Italy, and I lived there for the first 17 years of my life. At FIU, I am part of an organization called Roarthon, I am a proud member of Phi Mu Fraternity and I am a Learning Assistant in the Psychology department. I like to describe myself as an “artistic” person. One of my favorite hobbies is singing and playing the guitar. I took pottery classes for about 4 years and I love painting. I enjoy reading and writing songs. I am very extroverted and one of my goals in life is to travel the world and make friends with people from different countries. Additionally, after taking an environmental science class during the fall semester, I became very passionate about this topic and I am planning on participating in different volunteering opportunities, such as beach clean-ups. I decided to take this class because I moved from Italy about one year and a half ago, and due to COVID-19 I have not had the opportunity to visit Miami as I wanted to.

Downtown Miami as Text

Photos by Letizia D’Avenia (CC BY 4.0)

Written in These Walls” by Letizia D’Avenia of FIU in Downtown Miami.

“Today is the day”, I thought to myself while making the bed. It’s a windy day, but the sun is shining and smiling at me. As toast with orange jam and Philadelphia melts in my mouth, I start feeling anxiety kicking in. This would have been my first in-person class since the pandemic had started. I felt my skin slightly tingle and my lungs filled up with new fresh air. I breathed out my sudden wave of fear, I put my sneakers on and I started driving to the location. I parked and felt my nerves slightly loosen. I turned my car off as I let out a shaky breath. My feet felt light on the concrete, like all of a sudden I had wings attached to my ankles. I spotted my classmates awkwardly standing in a semi-circle in front of the escalators next to the Government Center. I slowly waved at them and I stopped a little behind the semi-circle. “A student is late” said the Teaching Assistant, fixing her mask and making eye contact with the professor. I am not sure what to do with my hands or eyes, so I pretend to look at my phone. Once the student meets us, we started walking. 

Little did I know that during that walk that lasted for more than 2 hours, I would have learned about Miami’s deep institutionalised racism and how much it affected the quality of life of too many people. I forgot about the present and I dived into the past, and I learned about the Tequestas, Seminoles and runaway slaves, who all lived in Florida and were pushed down to the Everglades and forced to live there by the British. I learned about Flagler, who “convinced” 240 black voters to vote on July 28th, 1896, to create the city of Miami, and then he assigned them to live in Colored Town (the worst part of Miami at that time). I learned about Ponce de Leon, who started the contact between Tequestas and Europeans and General Dade, who was the general who led the army to fight the Seminoles out of Florida (and who was the first one killed during the clash). I learned about Julia Tuttle and Mary Brickell, two women who were crucial to the development of Miami. Our last stop was the Freedom Tower, which was the first place where Cuban Immigrants would be taken once they got to Florida and where the Pedro Pan children were brought. I sat on a bench on the first floor, staring at the image in front of me but not focusing on it. This building smells vintage, a mixture of wood and dust. 

At the end of our excursion, I feel filled with unknown knowledge, with forbidden truth, which no one really talks about but that lives in the walls of Downtown. My heels tingle from walking 6 miles and I can feel my stomach growl in anger for food. But all I can do is just stare at the wall and let the stories that I learned that day sink in my brain, so that I will carry them with me and keep them alive till the end of my days.

Everglades as Text
Photos by Letizia D’Avenia (CC BY 4.0)

The Gators Hole” by Letizia D’Avenia of FIU in Everglades

One of the reasons why I enrolled in this class was to experience Slough Slogging. The day finally came, and as I was walking down the long hallway of the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, a shiver ran down my spine. I greeted my classmates, and after the skilled Park Ranger gave us detailed and important information about our excursion, we got into our cars to start this thrilling adventure. When we reached the spot where our walk would start, I wore my bright blue water shoes, I grabbed a long stick (which you use for balance),  and we all got in a line to get in the muddy water. As soon as my feet came in contact with it, I felt the cold liquid infiltrate in my water shoes, soaking both my feet. As I kept walking in though, I understood why my professor had instructed us to buy these kinds of shoes: they were really tight to my feet and they did not retain water, enabling me to move freely and easily. After I got used to the sensation of the water hugging my legs, I started using my senses to experience the nature around me. I could feel the light rain on my hat, the smell of wet plants; I could hear the far away frogs croak and the birds chirping and all I could see were the cypresses surrounding and swallowing us.

The deeper we walked into the environment, the greener it became. I could see algae touching the water’s surface and brushing my uncovered ankles. At some point, I truly believed we had crossed some sort of portal and we were on another planet. I had only seen this kind of flora in movies, and being able to experience it in person felt unreal. The Ranger explained to us that the Everglades are a source of inspiration to many artists, since it is such a unique and peaceful place. We then reached a more open area, where there was grass and periphyton, a particular algae important for the overall ecosystem of the Everglades. While we were walking back towards our cars, we stopped to take some pictures and we passed by the Alligator Hole. Because during the dry season there is less water, the gators create deeper holes where they usually go to rest. When the wet season ends, the water levels rise again, causing these holes to become even deeper than they originally were. We all got back to the cars safely, and we drove to the Anhinga Trail, where we had lunch and walked around. We saw an alligator sunbathing and many different kinds of birds and fish. 

As I drove back home, I felt at peace with myself and nature. That was a day I understood how powerful nature is and how important it is to protect it, otherwise places like the Everglades will have a hard time to exist as we know it.

Miami Beach as Text

Photos by Letizia D’Avenia (CC BY 4.0)

Blue Eyebrows” by Letizia D’Avenia of FIU in Miami Beach

I looked at the time on my phone as I was frantically walking towards South Point Pier. “I am late” I thought to myself, while impatiently looking for the spot where the afternoon class was supposed to meet up. I finally saw my professor and, with my surprise, only one student, which made me feel less guilty of the sweet time I had taken to reach the location. As we waited for the rest of the students, I was able to admire the beauty of the view in front of me. I looked at the people on the beach, who were carelessly sunbathing, playing on the sand and swimming between the turquoise waves. Behind them, tall colourful skyscrapers took the rest of the landscape, creating this peculiar mixture of urban and rural, which is what Miami is known for. 

The rest of my classmates finally arrived, and we started walking down the Pier, while the professor talked about the history of Miami, and the major figures that helped create it. We talked about the importance of the letters that Francisco Villareal left us. I learned that the original name of Miami Beach was “Ocean Beach”. We discussed how Carl Fisher was one of the people who saw a lot of potential in Miami Beach, and was the one who decided to create this “tropical” paradise for him and his northerner friends (by removing the majority of mangroves and any “unaesthetic” feature that he could find). Unfortunately, he was also the one that prohibited Black people from coming to Miami Beach, since “if you want to attract white wealthy northerners you do not want “blacks” on the beach”. Once Miami Beach developed and flourished, the division between white and black people widened even more. As we walked down Lincoln Road, I found myself surrounded by vivid buildings, with thick eyebrows and windows that seemed to be staring at me. I learned about the peculiar architecture styles that make Miami Beach such an attractive place for locals and tourists. We finished class at an H&M store, which was originally an old theater that was bought by the company and transformed into a unique location.

This class helped me see Miami Beach under a different eye. I have always thought of it as a fancy strip of land where people sunbathe. Being from Italy, I had the European picture of it. I never thought Miami Beach had so much history embedded in its sand and streets. 

Deering Estate as Text

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia (CC BY 4.0)

Six Ecosystems” by Letizia D’Avenia of FIU at the Deering Estate

As we walked into the Deering Estate, it felt like we were leaving the busy world behind us, to enter a magic kingdom, who seemed to be inhabited by mystical creatures who survived off berries and sun. I moved my head back and forth, mesmerized by the tall trees and the sweet smell of flowers and spring. A butterfly passed by and settled down on a white table cloth. “It looks like there’s going to be a wedding!”, said our TA softly. I glanced at where she pointed and I saw numerous tables, which were being decorated with all kinds of ornaments. I smiled under my mask and kept following my classmates. Before starting our long hike, we stopped by our professor’s office, where he showed us the painting he is working on. The vibrant colors attracted my sight to it, and I let my eyes wander on the canvas for a couple minutes, before we left to start our hiking. We walked for about 3 hours, and we passed six ecosystems. Between salt marsh and tropical forest, we had the opportunity to explore these completely different habitats, and it felt like we were walking through different continents. It is unbelievable to think that in such a small strip of land there is so much flora and fauna.

Once we finished hiking, we had lunch and we hung out with the manatees, which are usual visitors of this place. In the last part of our excursion, we were able to visit Charles Deering’s house, which was filled with art and history. We were even able to see his massive wine collection.

It was the first time I was able to visit this place, and I am glad I had the opportunity to do it with such an amazing group of people. I will keep this little piece of paradise in mind and I cannot wait to go back and relax under the palm trees.

Vizcaya as Text

Photo by Letizia D’Avenia (CC BY 4.0)

The Hidden Spot” by Letizia D’Avenia of FIU at Vizcaya.

There was peace and quiet at the entrance of Vizcaya. The open space in front of the ticket booth was wide, giving us enough space to social distance, as COVID-19 rules require. I could feel the warm sun on my skin, and a breeze of wind brushed my hair. We started walking down the main street, in between two fountains, until we reached the yard right in front of the house. There was a pond in the middle, which resembled the structure of a boat. There was also a triumph arch, which did not make a lot of sense, since James Deering (the owner of the house and the wealthiest man of Miami) was not a soldier; however, he liked this kind of “decoration”, and wanted one for himself as well. We walked up a couple steps and we entered the house. On a table, right in front of the door, there is a statue of Bacchus, the God of Wine and Ecstasy. He was purposely placed there, so that when Deering’s friends would walk inside the house, they would understand what the “vibe” was. Moving into the middle of the house, there was a spacious yard, decorated with all kinds of plants. Deering had a huge studio, a dining room, a “music” room, and different rooms with all different kinds of arts displayed for his guests to admire.

He was one of the first people to own a refrigerator, and in his kitchen he had a way to alert his servants where they needed to bring him food. After we finished exploring and learning about the inside space, we walked out, in his backyard. He had built a dock, so that his visitors (which usually came by boat), could leave their boats there. There was construction happening while we were visiting, so we were not able to reach some of the areas outside, but we were still able to walk in the majestic garden.

Thanks to professor Bailly, we were able to learn some secrets of this place, such as the little theatre stage and the hidden place in which Deering stored the wine that was brought for him. Although I had already been at Vizcaya, visiting it while actually learning about its history was extremely insightful, and I am glad I had the opportunity to acquire this knowledge.

Margulies Collection as Text

Photo By Letizia D’Avenia (CC BY 4.0)

Elevator Stares” by Letizia D’Avenia of FIU at Margulies Collection

 I have never been someone who enjoys contemporary art. I am a lover of Italian Renaissance and anything connected to it. I like to think of art as neat paintings and sculptures and the way in which artists create pieces which “lack” of organising principle has never attracted me. Therefore, as I was speeding towards the entrance of the museum, I was feeling hesitant and slightly annoyed. As soon as I walked in I was greeted by a smell of freshly laid plaster, the walls were a soft white color. The room felt empty, although there were many art pieces neatly exposed. I mentally prepared myself for two long boring hours, but little did I know what was to come. What I learned that day was that, in contemporary art, anything can be viewed as an artistic expression. One particular part of the exhibition that stuck with me was Magdalena Abakanowicz’s piece called “Hurma”. It consisted of 250 figures, with no head, just standing in the room all turned in the same direction. That creates an effect where you can almost feel them staring at you, and it overall felt fairly intimidating. Through this piece, the artist wanted to give the idea of “dehumanization”, since the pieces are in fact bodies, but they are empty and they all look the same.

I also learned that contemporary art can be engaging, such as Leandro Erlich’s piece “Elevator Pitch”. It consists of the structure of an elevator, which opens every few seconds and inside it’s projected people who stare at you. It made all of us chuckle. As I kept observing and interacting with the different parts of the exhibition, I realized that I was having fun. This feeling caught me by surprise. Usually, in museums I have always been expected to be “serious” in order to understand the true meaning of the paintings; but at Margulies Collection, I was having fun, I was laughing, I was interacting with the art and I was genuinely connecting with what the different artists wanted to transmit. It was in that moment that I realized how much I have misinterpreted contemporary art, and how much depth there is in each piece. We finished the visit in front of a sculpture from Will Ryman, which represented the “Last Supper”, but he depicted the disciples in a peculiar way, almost deformed, with big round eyes and disturbing features. Being raised catholic, I have always seen religious pictures as “holy”, perfect in the details and overall armonious and delicate, so this definitely left me perplexed and confused on how to feel. As professor Bailly was explaining this piece of art, he mentioned how it is almost impossible to expose this in a public area. That is because today’s society is “sensitive” regarding certain topics, and this religious representation would definitely create conflicting opinions. Some would be offended by the way in which such important religious figures are depicted, and others would be offended by the idea that a religious piece is being installed in a public place. 

 I believe that this last class of “Discover Miami” gave me something that I never thought I needed, an understanding of the true meaning of contemporary art.

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