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Artist uses new Brightline building as a canvas to tell the history of Overtown

Robert McKnight looks out onto 3 MiamiCentral, where he created art that depicts the history of Overtown. Photograph by Nick Garcia.
Robert McKnight looks out onto 3 MiamiCentral, where he created art that depicts the history of Overtown. Photograph by Nick Garcia.

When Robert McKnight was asked to create art installations for 3 MiamiCentral, part of the hub that houses the southern endpoint of the Brightline train, he started research in a logical place: the history of trains in South Florida. But McKnight quickly switched tracks.

“I thought the mural should raise the presence of Overtown, and focus on its history,” he said.

McKnight grew up in Miami, after moving to Coconut Grove from South Carolina with his family as a child in the 1950s. For the Miami-bred artist, Overtown’s past was the perfect inspiration for his work adorning 3 MiamiCentral, just one tower of the six-block MiamiCentral mixed-use transportation center under development in downtown Miami and Overtown.

MiamiCentral includes the Miami station of Brightline, the passenger train that runs between West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Service to and from Miami began in May, and the line will eventually extend to Orlando.

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Robert McKnight at 3 MiamiCentral. Photograph by Nick Garcia.

Robert McKnight Creates a Beacon of Art in the City

Overtown’s past is steeped in music, art, and spirituality. It also is colored with events like the expansion of South Florida’s highways, which fragmented the neighborhood. McKnight’s installations reference that cultural history, while focusing on the legacy of change.

“Overtown adapts, [and] I came up with images that would talk about the changes.”

His work debuted in late March and shines like a beacon off 3 MiamiCentral. The installation is composed of two friezes and three murals. The aluminum friezes, on the upper portions of the structure, are overlaid with silk-screened images that reference black musicians, churches and iconic buildings. On the ground floor, McKnight digitally printed images across hundreds of kiln-fired tiles to create a colorful mosaic.

McKnight collaborated with poet Femi Folami-Browne on a poem, Hope for the Future, printed across the tiles. McKnight and Folami-Browne, who visited Overtown as a child, referenced the changes Overtown has undergone, and is still going through.

“Overtown adapts,” McKnight said. “I came up with images that would talk about the changes.”

A Tribute to One of His Artist-Mentors

McKnight wanted the installations to broadcast a message to as many people as possible. Whether from the train, highway or street, anyone passing by can engage with McKnight’s work.

He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Syracuse University, then studied sculpture in London. His career in various media has taken him around the world as a rock and waterscape designer, and to the Miami MetroZoo, where he once designed and built exhibits. McKnight still calls the Grove home, and he now works out of a studio in Cutler Bay.

When he first returned to Miami from London, McKnight joined the Miami Black Artist Workshop in the Grove. One of his standout memories of that time was getting to know legendary self-taught Overtown artist Purvis Young.

“Purvis was one of the people who gave me hope that I could make it as an artist,” McKnight said. “The collage method I used is a method Purvis used in some of his work. It is a tribute, in a sense.”

More: 5 questions with Brightline’s Dave Howard.

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