Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Aguilar Family on Open Engagement 2014, Part I

Open Engagement is an annual conference exploring diverse perspectives in social practice. This year's theme was Life/Work, with keynote speeches by amazing artist-mothers Mierle Laderman Ukeles and J. Morgan Puett. The conference also featured Human Hotel, an evolving project by the Danish group Wooloo, providing free housing and on-site childcare for conference attendees traveling with families. Needless to say we wanted to include a full report on Cultural ReProducers. We got a great one thanks to the incredible Aguilar family, who between the six of them managed to participate in just about every aspect of the conference, from child care and housing to a group performance and conversation for the conference itself. We’re presenting their review in two parts. Here, Part I:

On the steps of the Louis Armstrong House Museum,
Queens, New York.
Joaquin Aguilar, 10
New York was the best trip ever. When we first came to New York City I was so excited to see everything there. Especially the Louis Armstrong Museum. After seeing everything we stayed at a hotel in New Jersey. The next day we went to the house we were staying at. The two people that hosted us were married. Their names were Joel and Avi. After that we went to Queens, NY and saw the Louis Armstrong museum. And we went on a tour. I learned a lot that I needed for my part of the presentation. I finished writing my speech and the next day was the presentation. We got there early and went to the daycare. We had a lot of fun there. We played tag, four square, built a city and got a redwood tree so that we could plant them for the future. And then we had to give our family presentation. For the presentation my mom sat on the stage in the corner finger knitting. My dad did a one-minute song about the moment. Then my brother drove a remote control car with a white lunch box on top of it while my sister was talking about my dad’s photos. Then I did the speech about Louis Armstrong and played the trumpet. Next was my sister. She sang and played the banjo while I played the trumpet. That was the end of the conference. We still had more time to see New York. It was one of the best trips I ever took.

Isabella Aguilar, 12

Our family was invited to be part of a conference called Open Engagement in Queens, New York. Our family had to do a presentation about integrating family and art. I presented a power point, which I made on the timeline of my dad’s art. There was another project
Madeleine and Isabella discussing daycare polls with conference attendees
going on called Human Hotel. It was a project that provided homes for families that were part of the conference. Our human hotel family was Joel and Avi Koepel. They were wonderful hosts. At the Queens Museum there was a daycare, where my siblings and I stayed most of the time, and what we did at the daycare was play games, go outside, see a diorama of New York City, and we had a small picnic. At the end of the daycare we had this paper asking 1 question: how can you make the conference less boring. Many people gave in answers. My sister and I read these aloud to strangers and conference people and we would just talk about it with them. We had a great time in New York. We went and explored as much as we can. This was the most impactful and favored trip we ever took.

Sonia Aguilar (mother)

When Alberto first told me we were invited to present at the Queens Museum I wasn’t too excited. I didn’t understand what that was or what it meant. One thing I did know was that through the conference and an organization called Wooloo they were providing housing for all 6 of us during our stay in New York. It was a huge relief and I was amazed that they would do that. 

We arrived in New Brunswick, New Jersey late evening. I remember all of us being nervous to meet the strangers who graciously opened their home to us. When we pulled up we saw a man sitting on the front lawn awaiting our arrival. We all got out of the van to introduce ourselves and extended our hands to him -- and Joel said, “Give me a hug!” That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Avi gave us a warm welcome as soon as we walked into the house.

It was urgent that we visit the Louis Armstrong museum that also happened to be in Queens, just a few blocks away from the Queens Art Museum. Joaquin’s part of the presentation was reciting a biography on Louis Armstrong inspired by a recent project he did
Open Engagement Daycare organized by Wooloo. Each child was given a
redwood tree to take home and plant and imagine it in 3014.
for school. Joaquin was really excited to learn even more about Louis Armstrong’s life and influences. I think we all left the museum transformed and inspired. There were even times during the tour I wanted to cry. 

Saturday we arrived to the Queens museum early so we could meet Martin of Wooloo and set up for the workshops we were leading at the daycare. Martin was so nice; we all talked a little bit about what we were going to do and then started setting up and making things. I remember at one point he said “I love how your kids just work so well together.” It’s funny how I don’t even notice, I’m so used to them making stuff together all the time I’ve become immune to it — but I realized at that moment that I am truly amazed by them. We spent the entire morning at the daycare. There were very few kids (most of them were our kids) but we had a great time just creating with them. Martin had bought little Redwood trees, about 30 of them spread out in this beautiful space. We all went outside to eat our boxed lunches by the empty fountain in the back of the museum. We took our Redwood trees outside with us, too.

After lunch it was time to prepare for our presentation. We sort of had an idea of what we
Integrating Family Life and Art Making: Sonia finger knitting and Joaquin
playing trumpet as Louis Armstrong
were going to do, but nothing is ever certain and decisions are made as we’re going along. Paolo was the last one to figure out what his contribution to the presentation would be. He put one of the empty lunch boxes over his remote control car and drove it around the stage during the performance. That was perfect for him because he loves his remote control car. You couldn’t tell there was a car under the box so it was funny seeing everyone’s reaction to a moving lunch box. 

During the Q&A people responded so positively. One woman said she was almost moved to
tears by Joaquin’s speech on Louis Armstrong, another asked us how we managed to make it feel so incredibly fluid, and I realized the power of what we’d just made as a family. Our trip and experience overall was incredible. We met some amazing people and got to explore New York City. What I was most surprised by was how much our kids loved NYC. They didn’t want to leave. 

Read Part II

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Art of Not Leaving the House

The Day Sondra Bird Was Born, The
Cicada Sang
, performed by Vicki Fowler
photo: Ryan Bach
The day before Mother’s Day 2014 Christa and I met up on Chicago’s Southside, in the Bridgeport neighborhood, to take a guided tour of the exhibition / salon Left the House. This invitation-only event was curated and organized by Vicki Fowler, and works by twenty four artists were presented in situ amongst the furniture, toys, pets, kitchen sink and shower curtains of the home that she shares with her partner and their infant daughter.

Christina Cosio's Sticky Rice
photo: Ryan Bach
Printed materials interspersed throughout the show, such as hand written letters or photocopied zines, were available to handle and viewers were encouraged to read them aloud. These pseudo–performative moments worked in contrast to the hospitality performances featuring mixed drinks on hand-written coasters (Trevor Martin) and sticky rice cooked up from a family recipe (Christina Cosio). Similarly, one might duck into a darkened office space and listen to an intensely raw audio recording by Anne-Marie Lindquist or step out onto the back porch and participate in Rebecca Parker’s graceful laundry-folding dance using sweet smelling, just-out-of-the-dryer bedsheets.
I Leave You In Good Hands, folding warm sheets
with Rebecca Parker. photo: Ryan Bach

With apartment galleries a perpetual hot topic in the city, it’s interesting to note that Fowler’s home functioned as one, going by the name Mutherland coincidentally, from 2007-2009. Although oftentimes apartment galleries end up mimicking the white cube of commercial galleries or contemporary art spaces, there was no such pretense here. It was interesting to experience an exhibition so deeply and unapologetically enmeshed within a domestic dwelling that also featured work that depicted or engaged with issues surrounding domesticity, the role of the
Kelli Connel's My Head
Under Her Shirt
hung over
the sleeping baby's crib.
photo: Ryan Bach
caregiver, the agency of the child, and the grisly and euphoric mixture of emotions that embody parenthood.

Admittedly, some of the works on view were alienating in their specificity, while others blended so well with the pre-existing stuff of living that guides periodically leaned in to explain a piece we’d just walked by. Overall, the project’s premise was an extremely earnest one, and a profoundly intimate gesture of creative generosity. Left the House illustrated that you don’t have to miss much by being homebound if — as Fowler did — you bring the outside in.

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Thea Liberty Nichols is a curator and writer from Chicago.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Residency Report: TJinCHINA, Mexico

Corrie Slawson, Hecho en EUA/Made in USA
Residency Report is an ongoing series of posts from artists undertaking creative residencies with their families. Find out about programs that support artists with kids, and see how other artist-parents balance the residency experience. 

Here writer Marc Lefkowitz writes about a residency program he undertook with his family at TJinCHINA, a cross-cultural program that got its start in Bejing and has found a new home base in Tijuana, Mexico.

I blog about sustainable urbanism for a living, and my wife Corrie Slawson, is a visual artist, and, with our three-and-half-year-old son, Ira, in tow, we participated in a creative residency at the TJinCHINA Project Space in Tijuana, Mexico this past March.

We had to confront prejudices about Tijuana before we even boarded the plane, formed mostly from people’s reactions when we told them where our family was going, and from what we read in blogs, travel books and the like. Many stoked fears of gang violence and ugly partying. If that Tijuana still exists, we never found it. We were inspired by Tijuana’s resiliency, its amazing food, light, and creative community. There’s a lot of creative capital in Tijuana, as in our own city - Cleveland - that tends to be undervalued by civic leaders and overshadowed by other concerns. Like many cities of the West, Tijuana was built around the needs of the car, so our walks in the main areas -- zonas Rio and Centro and our wonderful little neighborhood, Cacho -- became an important ‘minority report’ on how the city operates for the pedestrian, in particular, the family pushing a stroller.

TJinCHINA invited us to make work opening new borders. And we found plenty of moments where Cleveland and Tijuana are on or crossing similar “borders.” I found that our cities have in common small groups trying to deal creatively with the environmental damage of sprawl. For example, environmental groups are trying to reclaim rivers and restore the green space in the center. Tijuana native and Director of Woodbury University (San Diego) Graduate School of Architecture, Landscape + Urbanism, Rene Peralta, whom I interviewed, calls it “a set of green lungs” for the city. I wrote about this and other pioneers in “urban ecology,” like Oscar Romo, professor of urban planning at the University of California-San Diego and founder of Alter Terra, which is turning Tijuana’s trash problem into infrastructure like roads, walls, and stormwater containers.

Three weeks is a short deadline while juggling family life, trying to learn about the region,
making meaningful connections with other artists / urban planners and bringing a new energy related to our family life as working artists home with us. Without irony, I say being together 24/7 in one room pushed us together. And while it sounds like cramped quarters, it was a nice break from how we operate at home, where I report to an office and Corrie holds together a complex web of jobs, family ties and her own studio practice. The residency drove home how relatively easy it is for the parent who reports to an office every day (me) to schedule creative time, versus the daily struggle of the artist/parent who works from home and manages studio time along with part-time jobs and preschool carpools (Corrie). What a family residency provided was more life-work balance and more time of discovery together.

Corrie Slawson, proof wall
Since my work consists of interviews and field trips followed by creative time in front of the computer, I could count on writing time at night after Ira went to bed. Corrie found many ways of adapting her work to available materials, early on, she worked in the hotel room to render parts of drawings on the computer at night, prepping source material for her work in the studio the next day. Stroller trips to Office Max to make copies for paper lithography and the Comex (Mexico’s Sherwin Williams) store on the route down Boulevard Agua Caliente to purchase paint for her mixed media work meant that no moment was “wasted”.

On days when I had to write and Corrie was in the middle of a piece, we took turns walking Ira to a city park like Parque Teniente Guerrero, which had a big playground and an open mike area (where you could catch an abuelita singing or, if you’re lucky, a spine-tingling set from performance artist, El Muerto). Part of the experience was pushing ourselves to places that we might not otherwise have visited. It provided a window into another side of the city, namely what it offers families. For example, we got our day started walking and talking while Ira played at CECUT, Tijuana’s massive and free art, botanical garden, performance, kids activity complex. We appreciated it, but also grew to understand the need in Tijuana for more green space. It brought this into frame even before interviews, like my conversation with landscape designer Armando Ramos, who is fighting for a central park in Tijuana.

One of the greatest lessons learned from this experience was to see how adaptable our son is to new experiences. When we were moved to tears from the border fence ripping through the beach at Playas de Tijuana, Ira might have registered some of that but he also just enjoyed the crashing surf like the rest of the kids there. We also discovered how willing we are to support each other’s practice when the pressure is on. We gave ourselves license to go out at night a few times when we might not push ourselves in the same way at home. He would fall asleep in his
Border Fence w. Mely Barragan & Daniel Ruanova
stroller at restaurants where even the loudest norteña band and the best ceviche in the world couldn’t rouse him. Ira was really comfortable in the project space, and got to see a lot more of what mommy and daddy “do” in their work.

This sort of connection and cultural exchange is a rare gift, and we’re thankful to artists and project space founders Mely Barragan and Daniel Ruanova for their great efforts to make us feel welcome in their home and in their city, and for funding from the Mexican Government that made the residency possible. Corrie created an entirely new body of work in response to the city, and I wrote a series of articles based on interviews and research conducted over three weeks. Our work is currently in the exhibition “Urbanscape from a Bizarre Present” at the TJinCHINA Project Space, along with work by three other artists based in Baja and southern California.

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Writer Marc Lefkowitz merges reporting and activism with a focus on sustainable resource use, compact settlement patterns and low-carbon transportation as an equity issue. Marc is the editor of Green City Blue Lake at the Nonprofit Sustainability Center within the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. He also works collaboratively with his wife, visual artist Corrie Slawson, who interweaves realism and abstraction to examine development patterns, population loss and land use. Her work is exhibited widely, including recent projects for the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, the Rockford Art Museum, Galerie Module Drei in Dresden, Germany and TJinCHINA Project Space in Tijuana, Mexico.