Category Archives: Community Art

Visual Biographies

Visual Biographies is an exhibit that partners artists with the senior residents of The Lakeshore apartments in southeast Seattle. The residents shared their stories and the artists created a Visual Biography of the elder. My partner was Mary Cross.

MaryCrossI smiled at the irony when I first heard my resident partner’s name. After our first phone call I laughed in spite of myself. It was a little bit like the classic skit “who’s on first”. After the initial confusion, we settled on an understanding that our names are very similar, and got on to the business of sharing. We live in a world of uncertainty, and a time of entitlement and indulgence. The openhearted bravery of the residents to allow strangers in to write their story is awe-inspiring. I believe it is an adventurous and courageous act. I was pleased to have the opportunity to spend time with Mary Cross. She was open and compassionate even in the face of being unsure at times as to why I was there and what I was going to do. I feel the best way to honor her and her willingness to partake in this journey is to simply create her portrait. She is a complex individual yet simple in nature, strong yet fragile. It seemed appropriate to create her portrait out of metal, a material that can be both fragile yet strong at the same time. I hope the portrait does her justice and features these traits in a positive way. Thank you Mary Cross for spending time with me, Mary Coss, and sharing your story.

So what is this thing you call Socially Engaged Art?

I find it distracting when I’m teaching and the students are so busy taking notes about what you’re saying that they don’t hear the words. My new tactic is to put the topic in writing, hand it out and tell them everything I am saying is in the summary so please listen up to what I’m saying and give your pen a rest. Of course this only works for specific topics and not when you get into exploring the meat of an issue and want to follow those intriguing threads. But for introductions, it helps. And so here is my blurb on this topic. What is this thing you call Socially Engaged Art?

Layers of the Hijab artist panel

Simply put, It is an art that makes use of artistic methodology to engage with a community to address social issues of importance.

It may be useful to ask what is it not? It’s not commercially viable and it does not hang well or even belong in a gallery or museum. It’s not a single discipline. It hasn’t been documented as other art forms have, either by the critics or the historians. Consequently it has little documented art historical context.

When social engagement works, it’s not an art that represents, it’s an art that is. The art, the process, is the thing. It’s roots lie in happenings, performance art, conceptual art, installation, post minimalism, and relational aesthetics. It’s often called public art or community art, especially in Europe. It is a timeless phenomenon although some of the most successful contemporary artists adhere to the form. Similar to much contemporary art, the aesthetic lens is about methodology. It’s difficult to present it out of context, it’s site specific, and as it’s community based. It is also people specific and social specific. It balances ethical standards with aesthetic standards and therein lays both its value and it’s challenge. A myopic view can see it simply as social action.

Socially engaged artworks often result in a relationship between the artist and the community. Successful work is not appropriation. The work focuses on process and the artist works from within the community, embedded and immersed in the project and the community culture. When social practice works, it is an art that grows exponentially through collaboration.

The socially engaged artist considers their artistic intentions within the social realm, as well as the artistic world, with intention to contribute to social change. With this professed aim to shift social strategy, you may ask how is it different than political engagement?

It is through the lens of the artist that a shift occurs. An artist’s perspective draws from metaphor and interprets in innovative ways. By seeking engagement with the audience and making use of creative problem solving, ideas emerge. Symbols are used. Symbolic allegorical works evolve to speak to our social conscience through our aesthetic voice.

When work moves you visually, spiritually, viscerally, beyond the intellectual, you can ask yourself what’s going on here? If you look deeper into this meaning, you will find the vocabulary of the art world, and the vocabulary of socially engaged art.

The Sacred You and Me: a culmination

IMG_1179The Sacred You and Me is an arts and culture workshop sponsored by SEEDarts, but more than that it is a community, relations, a family. I recently taught a workshop with elderly women aged 65-95 from varying faiths and ethnic backgrounds. We met weekly to share experience, culture, stories and to express these facets through art making. Immigrant women from southeast Asia sat with East African women, Filipino immigrants and African American women from Seattle as well as the south. Many had never spoken with a woman from another culture. The sharing of food, holiday traditions, and crafts turned into a heartfelt sharing of life’s turning points and one’s deepest held secrets.

IMG_2837I believe when you tap into your creative soul, trust follows. This belief was found true through the words and actions of these women. The women chose a Maya Angelou quote to sum up their final project, a glass mosaic for the foyer of the building, “Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud. “ They speak of building community, but beyond that they talk of being more comfortable in their residence, learning to grow through their own prejudices, and finding deeper meaning in their relationships with others, and forgiveness of both others and themselves. One woman came to tears describing her newfound understanding of other races. She confessed of her prejudice as a young women helping in the hospitals of the Philippines, avoiding the black soldiers while she catered to the others.

DSC_0030We went to Jack Straw Productions Recording Studios to record poems, stories, and songs. One women led her reading with a story of healing. “We stormed the heavens with prayer.” These powerful words are poetry and with her performance I felt fulfilled that indeed, these women were poets and artists and had been inspired by sharing, trusting, and tapping into their creative souls.

The mosaic with sound will install in the resident’s foyer this fall.




The Sacred You and Me

16 amazing women showed up for our workshop today, and wrote this story, phrase by phrase as we went around the room, DaDa style.

This is a memory of my husband that I just met. We got to talkin and got to know each other. We took a trip and danced all night, mesmerized with the beautiful flowers he brought. He was tall and handsome, he was fabulous and I loved him so much.

During the trip we met somebody else.

Happy my husband’s alive. I love my daughter and enjoy my children.

We secretly met, me and that other. It is really difficult with another man talking with her own husband. I don’t know how to talk about another man.

Any man will do.
The other man showed me a world that I thought I would never see. Then I woke up, and realized this other man was the mission I would spend my life looking for.


Layers of Conversation

My Project Layers of the Hijab resulted in an onionskin of strata. Layers of the complexity of the girls lives, made up of a balance of so much more than initially understood. While navigating their religious Muslim lives and their social lives as American teens, they are also balancing their Somali heritage with their gender roles as young women in all three cultures. Layers undeniably navigated with humor and grace.

The project has fed my soul, and in turn my own artwork. I completed an installation of the girls, based on portraits of five of them. The portraits are three-dimensional drawings of sorts. I took light gauge wire and braised it to create the figures. The pieces where their skin shows, their facial silhouettes and hands, are gold leafed. The images are simplified to just the silhouette outline of their face to respect their religious concerns regarding reproducing, or drawing eyes.

The elongated figures stand on a solid base, a base of balance reflecting their roots in Islam. The girls are a complex rich combination of influences and interests, living out dualities of life on several levels. As such, the yin yang symbol seems appropriate to use, alluding to the contrary yet interconnected worlds they live in. It is used to shape the form of the base. These forms are modified to reference the paisley design, a common form found in Islamic artwork. The base is lit, projecting the imagery of the wire sculptures. It is banded in a colorful pattern based on traditional floral imagery.

I am thrilled to have this work move on with the integration of another layer, an audio component, in it’s remounting at the Wing Luke Museum in the upcoming exhibition Under My Skin: Exploring Race in the 21st Century. The minimal visual weight of the wire is as illusive as the topic of race. In this reinterpretation, there will be an added component of sound. The sound installation will layer conversations with the girls, along with the music that they listen to. The concept of race is a social construct. As such, it is tentative, illusive, an illusion. It is temporal. My work for this show is based on this moment in time. A snapshot. It is a slice of life of five East African teen girls in 2013. The show runs May 10th – November 17th.

The girls will have an artist panel this Thursday, March 14th at 7pm at Columbia city Gallery in Seattle. Join us if you are in the area!