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.

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