MAPEA 2020: Navigating the pandemic

Relocated to Kalamazoo, Michigan since 2016, last year I finally found the collaborators and organisations to work with on a new MAPEA mapping project. Getting to know a community always takes time. 

I had just begun to organise a series of workshops for the summer camps held by the Parks and Recreation Department of the City Council when the pandemic hit. 

Simultaneously we had been organising another event which had to be postponed straight away (with an exhibition hung and ready to inaugurate) but throughout the year we insisted on looking for ways to continue with our projects. 

The MAPEA workshops in particular suddenly seemed all the more urgent exactly because they entail outdoor activities for children who were now forced to stay indoors.

But it did necessitate some adaptation and a lot of uncertainty up until the last minute, so the first expeditions were to take a very long hard look at spaces available and how we could use them, as well as being a great excuse to go out for a bike ride, which became a pandemic favourite for many. The first and nearest site to where I lived was the Upjohn Park, neighbouring Food innovation Center and Parks and Rec Youth Development Center.

The Food Innovation Center (above L) was an obvious attraction since ecology has always been an important focus for me when looking at our urban environment but we weren’t sure we’d be able to have a proper guided visit. The recently restored Kalamazoo creek (above R) had a wonderful new walkway over it which connected these neighbouring facilities.

The pavilion (with adjoining restrooms L) and the roofed but open entrance to the Kikpool (recently painted by workshop assistant artists Anna Lee Roeder and Erik Vasilauskas R) were scouted as possible spaces to paint in/take refuge from the weather if needs be when we thought we couldn’t use the indoor space at the Youth Development Center. It wasn’t easy to juggle constantly changing requirements but we were very keen to make this happen as much in spite of as because of the ongoing lockdown.

The second site we explored was the Mayors Riverfront Park, which was home turf for Parks and Recreation, included another pathway following the river-under-rehabilitation from former industrial use and some additional cool features such as the Kalamazoo Stonehenge! 

It was also the next nearest park to us in Kalamazoo as our radar expanded and we got to know a lot of interesting areas we’d never been too (I heard that from some of the workshop assistants, longtime residents of this city). Kalamazoo has made efforts to designate bicycle lanes but as seems to happen all too often they’re still determined by whether or not there is extra space on existing roads, peter out suddenly and are altogether very roundabout ways of getting around town. The main obstacle to cycling though is really the speed at which motorists drive around so it can be off-putting using a bicycle for transport here apart from the huge distances.

Rockwell Park was the third place I went to see as we prepared routes and supplies trying to be ready for all eventualities. Even up to the last minute we weren’t sure of being given the green light, group sizes were reduced as we scrambled to apply for grants, but always certain that it would be an important activity for children who must have felt so bewildered with all routines and contact shut down.

Rockwell Park is a residential area in the north side of Kalamazoo and it felt snug and quiet, set apart up a hill with old houses and big trees. Right in the center the park was a gem with a new playground and impeccable restrooms while the old basketball court was considered as a possible spot to paint our maps on. Having mainly held workshops in museum spaces I wasn’t quite sure about how that would work outdoors but re-using old infrastructure for art activities has always been a penchant of mine.

In the end in the days running up to the summer camps there were awnings and tents put up in the parks which obviously made working outdoors a lot easier, playgrounds were also re-opened which was a saving grace. Nothing like having a bunch of kids in a park and an unavailable playground to put an extra load on keeping people happy and entertained as we discovered later.

At the last minute we were able to also include a workshop in Vicksburg, where I had a studio (another  pandemic lifesaver) and after some fumbling over indoor spaces settled on this magnificent pavilion next door to the historic village which was the subject of our Vicksburg map, this time with an older teen group carrying out vocational summer camps so requiring a little more educational information and input.

The historic village is an amazing little museum in Vicksburg that has been lovingly put together and run by local community members. It is a jewel of a resource, with a huge photographic archive amongst other treasures, I’m still discovering things there and thought it would be ideal to share with older youth.

So by early July we knew we’d have at least 5 workshops and began preparing materials, it was a treat to order professional quality acrylic paint, they diluted down really well without loosing intensity in colour (buying children materials is such a waste of time and money). Good quality materials are a must especially when working in museum spaces, to guarantee the quality of the exhibition and it’s a great initiation for children. Using a large format map makes it a totally different experience for them and having ready sewn dropcloths facilitated our work. That array of material resources available here in the US feels like such a luxury. It also helped to have a big studio like the Candystore in Vicksburg where I could spread them out and size in one go.

Mayors Riverfront Park, first workshop

The big day came and we had our first workshop at Mayors Riverfront Park, always a bit nerve wracking when encountering a new group of children, a different community and in a different culture. Our team was great and several of the artists had worked in similar programmes previously. I like to insist on horizontal or lateral communication as far as possible to stimulate the participants ideas and reflections in the mapping activity.

We had chosen a route to follow and it was a merry march along the side of the park down to the riverfront, some of the children were excited by the adventure as they don’t usually go out on walks (a very English institution I guess, hiking somehow implies more exertion and wilderness to my mind) and the river was a source of fascination to all, we were hoping to spy turtles and fishing stories were told.

The only real setback to working outdoors was not being able to hold up the map for all to see when finished. This was always the crowning moment in the workshops we’d done up to now, since it’s hard to see what your doing when it’s on the floor, especially that size. But even with a little breeze it was just too big, heavy and awkward to hold up. Previously I’d done the maps on Kraft paper and they dried quite quickly, the drop cloths really soaked up the paint, but were great for painting.

Rockwell Park, second workshop

Rockwell Park was our second workshop, a more urban experience in walking around the neighbourhood but it was nice and quiet with big shady trees, though some people were a bit worn out by the end. It was lovely to have this magical canopy to work under in the park.

We started with games and movement on the canvas which everyone got quite enthusiastic and the painting was pretty involved too. Working with younger children you realise some of the takeaways from this activity were about learning to respect boundaries and coordinate with other people on sharing space.

Youth development Center, third workshop

Our third workshop had as a starting point the Youth Development Centre and our route took us past the Food Innovation Centre of Kalamazoo Valley Community College, around and through the Upjohn Park, past the creek, skate park and Kikpool, a great variety of scenery indeed.  The KVCC greenhouses sparked a lot of interest as did the skatepark even without skateboards, and the following photographs are all by Landon Lacey from Alterra Productions who accompanied us that day together with Taylor Kallio to produce a short video included at the end.

Having someone filming the workshop was an additional attraction especially when they brought out the drone! Everyone was equally excited by the food production in the greenhouse, the musical instruments one of the artists brought along to share, horseplay in a big green field and the map itself where the fun and games began, I think the painting reflects an exhilarating workshop.

La Crone Park, fourth workshop

Our last workshop in Kalamazoo was at La Crone Park. As in all the other spaces we’d worked in the installations were clean and facilitated a fluid working environment, it’s such a pleasure to see well maintained city parks, making neighbourhoods so inviting and pleasant to walk around and that is exactly what we’re trying and point out in terms of being more aware of our urban environments.

This walkabout was much more of an urban experience but Kalamazoo as a whole is a pretty spacious and green city, it was very informative to get to explore in detail several areas I didn’t really know and the camp councillors were all eager to share their neighbourhoods. It was great when the kids got to point out their houses, or the school they went to or any other place they had a relationship with. It was also a source of inspiration for the painting afterwards in feeling seen and recognised. Then there are those kids who immediately pick up on the discussion about city life and it’s pro’s and cons and included public transport in the map or hospitals because they had family members working there ( very much on everyones horizon with the pandemic). Nature and the rivers were an obvious attraction for kids and not something they were necessarily very aware of in town or how they might connect up, so hopefully this sent them down some different paths in thinking about where and how we live.

Vicksburg historic village, fifth workshop

Our fifth workshop in this series was held in Vicksburg in the Historic Village for a group of middle school students involved in a more educational holiday programme so they really appreciated the tour by Don Wiertelo, unfortunately we were running a bit short on time and had to get a hurried start on the painting itself, but they picked up a lot from the visit and the map was an interesting one too.

As I mention in the video below when I see everyone concentrated painting together on the canvas, is when I know it’s working. To me it’s all about creating that group energy on a common project in a format and situation anything but common in most kids experiences of art. 

Thanks to Steven Brown, Anna Lee Roeder, Erik Vasilauskas, Brent Harris, Alexander Ladd, DeShawna Ladd and Honore Lee.

Support provided by MAGIK (Making Arts Grow in Kalamazoo), a program of the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo.

Destination Venezuela:Culture amidst Crises

Vicksburg Cultural Arts Centre, September/October 2020

How the arts thrive and flourish in spite of the pandemic and many uphill circumstances

Mangled hopes for bridges is the name of my exhibition and the painting above. They came in response to the reporting we were translating for our Destination Venezuela event that we’d been working on since the end of last year.  Specifically from the work of Tulio Hernández in the Centre for the Memory of the Venezuelan Migration, an initiative he established in Bogota when he had to flee the country a few years ago.  We left not long after, glad to have visas and jobs, but the recent migration over the last couple of years has been on foot giving rise to the most surreal and painful images especially across the long border shared with Colombia. 

With the onset of the pandemic and ensuing quarantine the event had to be postponed at the last minute even though the exhibition was already up but we were glad to finally open a reformulated version in September,  a brief respite in the uncertainty of the pandemic but all the more appreciated for that.

Poetry event to inaugurate Destination Venezuela with Lee Anne Seaver, Jake Munson, Claudio Mendoza and Syd Bastos

While waiting the exhibitions grew and adapted to incorporate four shows in downtown Vicksburg, a wonderful space for contemporary art in the greater Kalamazoo area, that will hopefully continue to grow as an opportunity for artists, both local and from further afield.

My exhibition became an immersive installation with a map of South America painted on the floor framing and contextualising the paintings that emerged during the isolation of the quarantine – images of  Venezuelans fleeing the country, and then returning as the pandemic tumbled their humble beginnings in other Latin American countries.

It was hard not to identify with faces and places that were part of my own memories of the country after so many years living there. Migration also feels like an ever more urgent issue as we learn that many ongoing conflicts also have ecological issues such as water and land scarcity behind them and that this will only continue to escalate with climate change.

The exhibitions came to include a Venezuelan artist, Héctor Fuenmayor who participated in the Prairie Ronde Artist Residency, the tattoo designs of a group of young people, Cicatriz Venezuela, using this medium to document the terrible violence in the shanty towns and the work of Rufus Snoddy,  an American artist based in Traverse City as part of the exchange we looked to establish with local artists throughout the event.

Throughout the many obstacles and setbacks the people who really made the project possible were the team that came together. First and foremost Claudio Mendoza, my husband and partner whose role as a scientist, academic, music and poetry lover were fundamental in shaping the event. Here in Vicksburg we felt very lucky to count on the vision, support and complicity of Syd Bastos, President of the Vicksburg Cultural Arts Center, who against all odds ploughed on with us to host an interesting and varied programme, catering to both local audiences and the Venezuelan diaspora. The other members of the Cultural Arts Centre were also supportive in varying roles, particularly Jake Munson who worked really hard on the organization of everything. John Kern from the Mill at Vicksburg was patient in accommodating our expanding needs for space to host all four shows and responsible for me having this fantastic space to work in this year. 

During the panel discussion with Venezuelan scientists and academics I was taken back to my two decades of living and working in SE Venezuela and some of the formative experiences I had there, especially with Maria Nuria de Césaris an urban planner and friend to this day.

I saw her planning process with local squatter settlements as the mayor’s office worked to accommodate their needs through her efforts in a fascinating co-design relationship for the houses they built. Later I accompanied her to a meeting of Pemon indigenous groups, negotiating with a local university custodianship of adjacent land. I have never before nor after seen such a civilised discussion, it was very long, but beautifully calm and serene, as each person stood and had their say, with no interruptions. Theres so much that we need to learn from indigenous people still, embattled as they are not only with the pandemic but the devastating mining going on in the region now.  These are just the two most outstanding examples from a long and fruitful conversation on public space with my friend over the years.

At the time the future seemed very bright in Venezuela, and I did not think I would ever want to leave that city, but the time I spent there was nothing if not definitive in my own formation as I continue to work in community cultural programmes that grow and evolve from those beginnings in the 80’s.

Pop-up in Vicksburg

This is an exhibition of my recent paintings @ Prairie Ronde Gallery, Vicksburg, alongside Cindy Steiler, Prairie Ronde artist-in-residence @ Vicksburg Cultural Arts Center.

This latest pop-up show (with a talk from Claudio Mendoza on An opening view of Venezuela) consists of a series of recent paintings of the Caracas urban landscape that I mull over with nostalgia in exile, worrying about the turmoil, simplified to its most elemental geometric abstraction through repetition. The gaps between buildings, those undesigned spaces, have always drawn me as a theme. Simple views through rendijas — a crack or a cleft, found in my daily urban wanderings.  Void spaces, partial, private, demolished, hidden, fleeting. Seen at a distance, overshadowed by concrete walls, the beautiful light still reveals colour in all its splendour. The tropical sun illuminates the ruins as graciously as the exuberant vegetation that bursts forth.

Clustered together in unchoreographed arrangements, in forgotten corners and fenced off alleyways, the ducts, chimneys, tanks, ladders and air conditioning appliances accumulate. All the apparatus that makes up the infrastructure of our comfort; hence the visual denouncement of our greedy existence and its serious ecological impact. The symbols of the things we want to control but ultimately get out of hand.

Cindy Steiler was the latest Prairie Ronde artist-in-residence at the Papermill in Vicksburg, where she was captivated by the incredible archives of the Vicksburg Historic Society and its guardians. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to share the Michigan/Chicago scene, watch her intriguing photographic process and discover our affinity for community practice/social art projects, all while working in the candystore-as-studio and then putting up this show. #moretocome #artworldsisterhood

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Cranes, change and permanence on East Michigan Avenue

 

This exhibition of paintings included in the 2019 October Art Hop at Suzanne’s Organics Salon features the downtown Kalamazoo urban landscape; it juxtaposes elements from the vintage architecture and the ongoing metamorphosis with new construction going up on all sides.

Fascinated by the feeling of inhabiting a Hopper painting the vintage architecture of Kalamazoo has drawn me as a theme since first coming here in 2013. Six years on and the fascination keeps growing as the city emerges from the throes of the 2008 recession (it felt very quiet still in 2013) to a full blown boom this year with all the encompassing development, renovation and gentrification. This last year has seen some dramatic changes to the skyline on East Michigan Avenue and beyond, and as the main street of the city it already has some emblematic vintage buildings. The WA Doyle Building with its ‘solid commercial Queen Anne and Romanesque style architecture’ has long been one of my favourites, inasmuch for its own style as for the links to European architecture that I grew up with. This need to make buildings with such a look of hunkered down structure and solidity, perhaps in an effort to establish a sense of permanence and belonging in a place with such a recent colonial history seems almost whimsical in the chosen references. Somehow the revival of styles from the Middle Ages (which began in Europe before being brought here) can seem charming and unsettling at the same time in the things it adheres to and those that are reinvented.

Researching the historical attributes of each building also brought up interesting details on the site of Suzanne’s Salon itself. This Red brick gothic building originally constructed as a hardware store, evolved in 1878 to incorporate on the first floor Madam Jannasch-Shortt’s Musical Institute, run by Anna Jannasch, and built for her by her father. An interesting development in itself considering women could not own property or even have a bank account until the pioneering suffragettes -led by Lucinda Stone founder of the Ladies’ Library in Kalamazoo- lobbied and obtained these basic rights in the State after a long struggle. The Ladies’ Library itself another Victorian Gothic gem, was the first building constructed by women for their own association in Michigan and third of its kind in the USA.

While it’s sad to see old buildings go, the energy and movement palpable in the city is inspiring when new uses are made of old buildings. I also used an 1871 map of the city  as a visual reference, to see the original layout of the town and compare where that still exists today. Even then many towns and routes were established on the foundation of indigenous peoples cultures and communication. The I94 was built along one such route connecting the places where Detroit and Chicago are long before those towns existed, making me wonder what they would have looked like then.