Going on the Road: El Paso and Berkeley

Busy week here as I get all the logistical stuff done for my cross-country trip next week to El Paso and Berkeley. I will be at two places in El Paso, the popular Downtown Arts/crafts fair and Farmer’s Market, as well as at the El Paso Museum of History during it’s National Day of the Cowboy festival, Old West Fest.

I’ve been busy 3-d printing some of their suggestions for items for the flag, including logos of the local college and minor league sports teams, as well as collecting various other outdoor gear and western/cowboy objects.

Museum of History is a stone’s throw from the Rio Grande and border. The Old West Fest where we will hold our Shared Spaces event will celebrate not only the Cowboy but also the Vaquero.

Museum of History is a stone’s throw from the Rio Grande and border. The Old West Fest where we will hold our Shared Spaces event will celebrate not only the Cowboy but also the Vaquero.

In this case all the Museum’s volunteers are tied up with Old West Fest, so I needed to find my own helpers for the event and photographer. A quick gig post on Craigslist got about 10 responses while I ate my lunch before I was able to take the post down. I have three great assistants now and looking forward to training and working with the team.

After El Paso I will head up to Berkeley, where I’ve just been approved for a free spot during Foodieland Night Market where thousands of people are expected, over the weekend of Aug 3,4. It promises to have an Asian flair and I’m hoping this might be a fresh (and very Californian) way to understand Berkeley, through it’s Asian-American community. Outsiders seem to understand Berkeley as a sort of echo of the 1960s Free Speech Movement, but those who live there know the majority of people are more culturally mainstream and ethnically diverse even if they lean solidly Blue-State in their politics. We’ll see! I grew up in the area and will stay with my brother, with a number of family members and old friends promising to show up. “Everyone please bring a small rigid object for the flag that is meaningful to you, 1-4” in size! ” It’s become almost like saying Hello for me these days.

Sather Tower or the Campanile on UC Berkeley campus.  I was the 4th generation in my family to attend or teach at Berkeley and look forward to the visit!

Sather Tower or the Campanile on UC Berkeley campus. I was the 4th generation in my family to attend or teach at Berkeley and look forward to the visit!

It will be a sprint to get everything done here, get down to El Paso and get that piece done, get up to Berkeley and get that piece done (about a week each) and make it back to New York in time to host a group discussion on August 15. But if nothing untoward happens with the car I will have time to catch several places on my 2019 bucket list, including Crystal Bridges Art Museum, Marfa’s Donald Judd works (Chiananti Foundation), and the SF Museums. On the way back I hope to swing past some of my galleries in Seattle and Kansas City to talk to the owners about new works etc. There will be lots of windshield time which hopefully will lead to new ideas for artworks. The last time I drove through Nebraska I spent most of the time thinking about Robert Henri, who was from Nebraska, who combined NY School/Ashcan sensibility with Midwestern work ethic in the early 1900s.

Shared Spaces Mount Vernon, Part 2-

Taking a closer look at the Mount Vernon Shared Spaces project,  I’ve tried to recall here some of the items used in the project and hopefully the videos will show up some others that made this event memorable and unique. Watch the video below, though, for a taste of the feeling during the creation of this piece- there was constant enthusiasm and activity at every stage. It was exhilirating and a little exhausting, in a good way!

Finished piece, Shared Spaces- Mount Vernon, 18x35x4, hydrocal and Carrara marble, 2019

Finished piece, Shared Spaces- Mount Vernon, 18x35x4, hydrocal and Carrara marble, 2019

There were some recurring themes in the project: namely, logos.  The boy who chose the Christian cross symbol also chose the Louis Vuitton logo. Together, scholars also picked the Snapchat logo, pointing it out again and again as something that they use. The Yankees also got in there: represented by a new 3-D printed piece I’d made for this event, along with the FBI and Samsung.  H&M was these scholars’ chosen brand, as it went in right at the start, and they commented on it with familiarity. This Swedish multinational retail chain is known for affordable fashion and must have a good foothold here.

One controversial object was a gun, (I have a realistic revolver squirt-gun) and it was introduced quickly: chosen by a young boy, which happened in LaGrange also. He was clear he wanted it pointing down lengthways down the flag.  

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One big question was about the stars: what should be placed in that area of the flag? In the end we chose three objects to go in among the stars – a football, the fairy princess wand which a Korean-expat girl had given us at the LaGrange, GA, project, and another keychain stylized star which Mr. Shore, the security guard, had been given as a service award from a previous employer. He spoke about it as a symbol urging us to reach for the stars and remember to aim high. We placed it in such a way that it surrounded and echoed one of the regular stars in t he flag.

The Coordinator of afterschool activities, Mr. Zuckerman, brought us a Gumby which makes a nice whimsical addition.  It’s the sort of thing he keeps in his office for kids to fiddle with as stress relievers when they come in and hang out between classes.  We all had a lot of fun moving Gumby into different poses.

An interesting logo popped up: I was curious when one of the students picked the CAT (Caterpillar) logo. This had been popular in Greencastle, Indiana as the tractors and heavy equipment are common out there, but in the inner city?  “Sure, we have one on our street where they are digging up for a new building,” the boy explained. Duh! Clearly, CAT is at home wherever earth is getting moved – city or country. Digging into my own biases, I realize I’d vaguely developed the mistaken background thought that ‘my’ urban coastal bubble was all about intellectual/professional class people and a large number of low-skilled poor and service workers, when in fact there is a skilled working class all around me. This moment was a real eye-opener, one of many where I feel like these Shared Spaces experiences let me learn basic stuff about my own country.

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The afro-pick comb with a Black Panther fist handle was also a popular choice, picked up early, and we talked a bit about it to make sure the kids knew it significance. Several people also picked seashells which I find everywhere I go.  The detail in the shell imprints in the clay is always a source of wonder. I’m glad that with all the human-made items in these works that natural beauty is still in there via the shells.

Shared Spaces, Mount Vernon: Part 1

January 14-18, 2019 Amani Public Charter School, Mount Vernon, NY


Pulling together my thoughts now from my most recent Shared Spaces project in Mount Vernon, New York. Located at the southern edge of Westchester County, Mount Vernon could be described as an under-funded town sitting between the Bronx and wealthier communities further up in Westchester.  The scene on the streets is almost 100% African diaspora population, with an especially large contingent from the Afro-Caribbean region (my whole time there I never saw a single Caucasian person on the street, and very few Hispanic/Latino members of the community were visible.)

For this Shared Spaces project, as with all the others, I saw my job as bringing this community’s voices into form through the Shared Spaces flag creation process. From my perspective, the planning and execution is getting more familiar (and less stressful!) now so it’s allowing me to focus more on the people at hand and their experiences. This project in particular took place in a school: I was there three days as a two-hour after school program, and for one morning as a visitor in the art curriculum for the regular classes. (It was a middle school so everyone was grades 5-8.)

Chelsea, the aide who was with our groups during the afterschool programs, is of Jamaican heritage (her mother is Jamaican and her father was raised in England.)  She brought the lovely “Peace” charm that is in the center of the flag in this Shared Spaces work. She had wanted to bring a Jamaican flag but didn’t have one with relief (which means it would not have shown up in the medium we’re working in).  Still, it was interesting to connect the Jamaican cultural threads into what I was seeing there. Jamaica is a country I’ve visited many times, and I enjoyed seeing how Jamaican values flower in the daily lives of its descendants here in the U.S..

I couldn’t help notice the interplay of traditions in the school, too. The charter school students - who were always referred to as Scholars - wore uniforms, though the 8th graders seemed to be allowed a little more latitude and many were wearing school sweats. (This may have been because it was after school.)  The afterschool program lasted from 4-6 PM each day and was always relaxing. This fit my fluid way of working - I’m pretty much incapable of being a disciplinarian anymore with kids.  But during the sessions of the regular art classes I watched, much impressed, as the teacher and dean held the kids to very high, school-mandated standards for quietness and rectitude in the classroom. It was clear that about half the class was right on target, holding themselves to strict standards of behavior while another group, maybe a quarter, were essentially ungovernable for a lot of complex and individual reasons.  I was told that in the nearby Bronx public school classrooms this kind of behavior was the norm (The term “Lion Tamers” was used by one of the faculty to describe an occasionally needed though unwritten job requirement.) In any case it was a joy and a privilege to directly experience the kids, the school culture and classroom environment.

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The first day, a small group of scholars assembled the name “Ana” from letters I had available in the objects ‘library’. It turned out that this was the name of one of their classmates who had died of a terminal disease a few years ago. I was moved that they were finding a way to use the flag sculpture as a space to memorialize her. The very next thing to go in the flag was a string of Chinese characters, chosen by an 8th grade girl. “Tell me about why you chose these?” I asked.   “Because I’m studying Chinese,” she shot right back. The characters were the Chinese names of African locations where the Chinese are building massive infrastructure projects now, I explained – ports, bridges, highways, rail lines.  I found myself reflecting on how these areas of Africa and Mount Vernon might share some of that relationship of being the one historically bypassed or even ‘taken from’ by rich, powerful outside interests, and how that might change in the future.

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The nature of the Shared Spaces project is frankly not that time-consuming for any individual participant, so one of the issues when kids participate is what do they do after they’ve selected an item, placed it, and helped see it pressed carefully into the clay.  Those hands frankly wanted to keep going and messing in the clay of the flag, which sympathetic though I was, would I knew leave a lasting trail of unreadable clutter in the finished piece. The solution was simple, handed to me by the kids who asked me bluntly, “Can I have a piece of that clay?”  Soon we were a busy and happy room full of Scholars, as they pressed various objects into their clay, rolling it out, smacking it around, turning it into a ball for tossing around with a friend. The clay handled it in stride, taking all into its infinitely flexible and forgiving embrace. I was struck by the stark visual contrast of the whiteness of the dried clay on their dark-skinned hands.  And of their eagerness to add their voices to the project, to personalize their American experience in the context of the flag. The project was off to a great start.

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Blog Post #8- SOFA Chicago

‘Empathy is the most radical of human emotions.’ - Gloria Steinem

Speaking with Mary Ferazza about Social Practice Art and discussing the possibility of a future Shared Spaces event in Pullman, on the South Side of Chicago.

Speaking with Mary Ferazza about Social Practice Art and discussing the possibility of a future Shared Spaces event in Pullman, on the South Side of Chicago.

Talking with people conversationally about my work in an art fair or gallery show always seems to help me better understand my own process. I haven’t previously shown any of the flag pieces from Shared Spaces formally, but one of my long-time dealers was showing at SOFA Chicago sculptural art fair, and twisted my arm to bring two of the Shared Spaces studies. (Shared Spaces Study #1 and Shared Spaces Study #5.)  

The good news is they’re generating lots of dialog and there was that classic question yesterday: What was your inspiration?  Here’s a paraphrasing of what I was able to piece together:

Joanna Pinsky, leading an Art Encounter group at SOFA, spent several minutes discussing Shared Spaces Study #5 with me and her group.

Joanna Pinsky, leading an Art Encounter group at SOFA, spent several minutes discussing Shared Spaces Study #5 with me and her group.

“I’m responding as an artist to how things are out there in the US these days – to the fractured dialog, the mistrust and anger.  Here’s how it works: I bring my clay to communities around the US and invite people to bring and select objects which we help them to imprint into the Shared Space of the American flag.  This literally forms the mold into which we cast blended plaster and  ground marble to create a community-owned wall relief sculpture.

By pulling together these flag works, filled with all kinds of different meaningful objects and symbols, in communities which themselves may be diverse and filled with lots of competing values and points of view, I’m hoping to learn more about how these things can all live alongside each other in some kind of whole.  When you stand back and look at the piece, I hope you’ll also feel it—that it all comes together –all those bristling powerful symbols and objects are all there, but somehow you feel the whole.

“I was a Middle Child, so I know all about how to live alongside other people’s agendas.  That feels like it has something to do with Pluralism, Diversity, ways of accommodating all sorts of different ways of being American. My hope is that by participating in a Shared Spaces event, or by viewing these works, especially once we can get six or eight of them together in a room, with videos of people talking about the things they are choosing and why, that we can learn something more about all the different ways of being American.  It’s like America is an invention, and we have to keep figuring out what we are and how to do it, every generation.”

Visitors at SOFA Chicago, November 2018

Visitors at SOFA Chicago, November 2018

Art Encounter curator Joanna Pinsky discusses Bob Clyatt Sculpture Shared Spaces Study #5 at SOFA Chicago 2018, Maria Elena Kravetz Gallery

Blog Post #7 - Pelham, NY

Pelham Art Center Director Charlotte Mouquin with Shared Spaces participants, October 2018

Pelham Art Center Director Charlotte Mouquin with Shared Spaces participants, October 2018

I realize that Shared Spaces is going to evolve and take on new forms over time.  This kind of thing happens a lot to artists:  we never quite know where a project is headed until it’s already happened.   Keeping a clear, crisp concept of an art project in my head has no doubt helped me get things done over the years, but often enough, the good stuff happens when I trip over it and suddenly realize I’m being led down a new path.

In this case I was down in Pelham, New York a few times this summer visiting an art friend from my building in Chelsea, Charlotte Mouquin, who recently left Rush Arts Foundation and took over the Executive Director role at the Pelham Art Center.  As Directors do, she asked me to create an artwork for their upcoming Gala fundraiser: a 12”x12” wall relief work in panel format that all the contributing artists were using.  Of course I said ‘yes’, thinking I would do one of my regular Cultural Landscape assemblages. A week later realized I could probably generate more fun for them if I created it with input from people there in Pelham. Then I realized if I just did a square flag fragment, (I wanted to work in their requested format)  it could work as a regular Shared Spaces event.  

Shane, helping unload the clay.  I’m always happy to have helpers, and give young people some old-fashioned work experience!

Shane, helping unload the clay. I’m always happy to have helpers, and give young people some old-fashioned work experience!

By the time dates were set for the first workshop, I’d already agreed to do a second one, and had been playing with various ways to get flag fragments into a square format.  I showed up with the clay already formed with the stripes, and we had a great afternoon in the courtyard of the Pelham Art Center with guests at their weekend events and people just walking by on the sidewalk.  As always, the kids get it right away which helps create buzz and gets parents and older people to come over and get involved. We filled up the two works nicely by the time it got dark, packed up everything, then Charlotte and I had a chance to visit some artists in their nearby open studios.

This visitor was a serious Harley fan, and even owned a vintage Harley from the 1930s!

This visitor was a serious Harley fan, and even owned a vintage Harley from the 1930s!

I took the pieces back to my studio, poured the plaster next day and cleaned them up in time for their gala.  I’m happy with the results – it was a nice, simple one-day project with the public imprinting of objects part, and the square format let me play around with star/stripe forms separately from the actual flag, which was liberating.  And I just learned the two pieces found buyers at their fundraiser, so now Shared Spaces is officially a way for communities to create works that raise funds for more art!


Blog Post #6 - Greencastle Indiana, Parts I, II and II

Part I, Greencastle Shared Spaces

July 19-20: Getting to Greencastle

Here’s the short version: I arrived in Indiana exhausted from doing the LaGrange, Georgia Shared Spaces project, and - frankly - unsure of what I was actually going to accomplish during the residency. This was just 10 days after completing LaGrange, and all I knew was that I had two-weeks at Taleamor Park- a working farm with artist space in LaPorte (northwest Indiana). Residency contacts weren’t  pushing me upfront for too many specifics, so I arrived in Indiana and began to explore.

Artist Residents at Taleamor Park, LaPorte IN, July 2018. Myself, Jennifer Filardo, Cara Lee Wade and Allison Campbell. Resident owner/coordinators are Clifford and Lisa Lee Peterson

Artist Residents at Taleamor Park, LaPorte IN, July 2018. Myself, Jennifer Filardo, Cara Lee Wade and Allison Campbell. Resident owner/coordinators are Clifford and Lisa Lee Peterson

I started chasing down the obvious cultural institutions in the area. This meant sending inquiries to any local museums, including the South Bend Museum of Art in South Bend, IN. The director at the Museum got right back to me, (Good!) informing me that they tended to schedule shows 1-2 years in advance, and that she would mention my proposal to the Board in a month or so. (Hmmm….) I did reach out to one of the Board members through a mutual friend, but clearly not much was going to get accomplished during the next two weeks.

Let’s backtrack: what about Indiana holds significance for my artistic practice, and to me personally? I wanted to expose myself to Farming America: tractors and corn and barns were something I’d driven past but had little direct experience of. It would be hard to understand America without spending time in farm country. And I’d wanted to at least visit Greencastle, Indiana – about three hours south of my residency, since four generations of my grandmothers had lived there. Wherever possible I’m trying to do Shared Spaces projects in places my ancestors have lived, a way however tenuously of connecting my urban coastal self to all these other American communities.

Vintage tractors are a big draw at the Putnam County Fair

Vintage tractors are a big draw at the Putnam County Fair

As always when setting up a project, I start with a local arts or cultural institution. There is a museum in Greencastle, but it covers local history, not art. Of course nearby DePauw University has great resources on the campus but like so many colleges, social practice art within the local community is not really aligned with their curatorial priorities (the university leans toward the international postmodern/conceptual).  Plus as it was July, no one was on campus - to say nothing of the general ambivalence on both sides of the the town-gown relationship. So I wasn’t too optimistic, but since I had time and had wanted to see the town anyway, off I went.

View along farming roads as I traveled back and forth between LaPorte and Greencastle

View along farming roads as I traveled back and forth between LaPorte and Greencastle

On the way into Greencastle I passed the Putnam County Fairground, a small-sized facility compared to some in the state. I noticed activity and stopped in to look around. There was a buzz about: 4-H club members, students who participated in farming and agriculture activities, were unloading their goats (adorable!) and leading them into the stables. I noticed a “Commercial Tent” set in a gravel parking lot where local vendors and non-profits could book space. The fair opened in two days. A quick look on the website showed an application form for those spots, but a chart on the wall showed they were long-since filled. It also listed a cell phone of Gene, the coordinator, and I fired off a call and left my pitch. Gene called back next day and, as I had hoped, someone had canceled last minute for the first two days of the fair.  Hooray for small town flexibility; I had my 10x10 space for the weekend – but now what? This was completely different than anything I’d contemplated before, with none of the support, institutional partnering, staff, or prior outreach. What might work?

Nobody can resist these goats- 4-H Fair, Putnam County, IN Fairgrounds, July 2018

Nobody can resist these goats- 4-H Fair, Putnam County, IN Fairgrounds, July 2018

I reasoned that if I made a mid-sized 18”x35” finished artwork from materials I’d brought to the residency that I would be able to move the piece around without a gantry - just with a little help from friendly neighbors. All I really needed, at the end of the day, was local people to participate in the creation - the “Voices and Choices” of the work. Where better to find local people than at a county fair? By spreading out objects related to American popular and commercial culture, mostly by scrambling around vintage stores looking for other “Indiana” related stuff like toy farm animals and a grain silo, I hoped I could get people to wander by and engage with the project.  I would just have to be the Jack-of-all-Trades: handling the setup, explaining the project, taking photos and video and adding each piece to the final Shared Spaces flag.  I raced the three hours back up to LaPorte, IN on beautiful country roads (straight lines through corn and soy fields with the occasional small town) stopping at every vintage and toy store along the way looking for Indiana-related objects. Then I moved all my stuff from my residency studio back into the car and scrambled back down to Greencastle. I set everything up just in time and prepared for the visitors.

Putnam County, IN Fairgrounds, July 2018

Putnam County, IN Fairgrounds, July 2018

Putnam County, IN Fairgrounds- July 2018

Putnam County, IN Fairgrounds- July 2018

Part II, Greencastle Fair + Shared Spaces

July 21-22


After the first day, everything seems to be working out. Greencastle is a low-key, tranquil place with a calm crowd. I am fitting in just fine. People have agreed to be filmed and they are making thoughtful choices for their contributions to the Shared Spaces sculpture. I’ve asked a lot of people to think about an object of their own in advance to bring in the next day, which I hope some will do, but even if they don’t they still have a few hundred objects to select from among. Things here seem to be progressing, albeit slowly.


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I only have the space at the fair for the weekend, and from what I hear this fair only gets people showing up late - from 4:00 to 10:00 pm. I begin to think I will not cast the work here – instead I’ll just take the clay as is, on its board, back to the residency in La Porte and do the casting, cleaning, finishing, drying, tinting and other steps there. It will be a good way to work through the second week of the residency, and at the end of it I will have a new piece.



What I won’t have yet is an institution invested in the piece, nor any help making it, but based on the pictures and video I’ve gathered tonight I should have enough to plug into a potential exhibit on a national scale—Indiana is highly photogenic in an all-American. farm-culture sort of way. Between shots of other events and people at the fair, and atmospheric shots taken elsewhere on my travels around the state, I’m confident I’m able to give a feel for this community. Interviews with the participants also seem to be going well so far..!



I am meeting a cross-section of the community, spanning from small-town drug culture to biker dudes, religious families, farmers and farm kids to students and a diverse, burgeoning Asian community. I’m motivated by having these diverse voices contributing to this artwork.

In any case I’m having fun here!  I find it really inspiring to see these young 4-H-ers who have so much responsibility for these animals, and I confess I like watching these old guys driving around on their vintage tractors. Everybody is calm and very matter-of-fact . Nobody else is even taking pictures. It’s just the way things are, and nobody has to make a big deal about anything… an unbelievably relaxed place.

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It’s the second (and final) day of the fair, and as the flag has begun filling up! I sneaked away from the booth for a bit to go around to the other fair exhibits, watching the families with their animals, and attending the public events. I wandered, taking photos and videos of contest finalists walking their animals in front of the judges and even witnessing a Tractor Pull.  Reviewing the footage, I captured some great stuff, and felt a bit like Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) at the rodeo, or as though I was part of a PBS documentary team. There were only a few non-born-and-raised-Indiana folks who stopped by today: for one, I had a nice chat with a Japanese exchange student whose host family brought him there for a crash course in the American Heartland.


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What felt clear to me was that people here are pretty comfortable and deeply ensconced in who they are, and are not sitting around wishing they could be more like the “urban coastal elites”. Sometimes I suspect they know more about us than we do about them, bringing to mind the way Baldwin described black people who knew much more about white people than the other way around. Yet I understand the scenarios to be vastly different: in the case of rural populations, our media is brimming with stories about the lives of coastal and urban elites, but aside from Duck Dynasty and a few other shows, very little of rural, heartland culture makes it into the hearts and minds of urban elites via media programming.


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Why should this be the case?  There has long been potential for overlap:  Drive just a few miles from any major city and you’re in pick-up truck country. It may not be the Bible Belt or even farmland, but it’s still working class and at least quasi-rural. City-dwelling “elites” who have country homes encounter this shift all the time - why haven’t the cultures more fully intertwined? It is as if the country were imagined as vast swathes of blankness, held up on a scaffolding of comfortably derisive narrative.  It reminds me of something I learned while an expat in Tokyo:  it was a well-known pitfall when expats found themselves dealing only with those Japanese who were good English speakers:  The assumption was that one could know all that was needed about the department at hand, or even the Japanese people generally through dealings with this small sample of people, but these ‘cultural interpreters’ were themselves unusual or unique individuals, so generalizing from interactions with them, or relying on them for information about actual business issues or their Japanese peers was risky.  Is there a cadre of cultural interpreters, perhaps the painters and tradesmen and such who supply services to second-homeowners, or who work in service industry jobs in the Jackson Holes and Hamptons of the world, who unreliably fill in for the great mass of Red Staters? Where are these ideas and impressions coming from, filling in the minds of our coastal and urban elites when they think about farmers and working class Americans?

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What I do know, after a few days out here, is that I am privileged to have looked into an intricate, rich and fully-formed culture and community that has few if any points of contact with anything I have ever known or experienced. People who live here are just different from what I’m accustomed to. Their physiques and wardrobes are different, their interests are different, their cars are often different and their entertainment is vastly different. Their aspirations, definitions of success and failure, all line up differently than my own expectations: in fact, it turns out that Georgia was an ‘easy’ place to feel at home compared to the Greencastle County Fair!



One area of contention, naturally, was politics. For example, I quickly got someone who wanted to place the Republican elephant symbol in the piece, and we have a nice bit of video about that.  But despite direct hints to some of the younger, hipper looking visitors, no one ever did place the Democrats’ donkey symbol in the piece. I just looked up the electoral map:  Putnam County voted 73% for Trump, 5% for Gary Johnson and the remaining 22% went for Hillary in 2016.  Still that means there was one Democrat voter for every 3 Trump voters, but I guess they weren’t at the Fair, or weren’t stepping forward if they were.  Perhaps they were mostly in the college community - DePauw is in Greencastle, and I did hear more than one conversation about the great divide, even enmity between the college community and the other residents of Greencastle and the surrounding areas.  Plus it was the middle of summer.


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None of this is to suggest I didn’t have plenty of friendly interactions, even warm and emotional ones. All this transpired without any institutional door-opening relationships to ride along on -- just me and my ideas in the presence of the Public.  But there were plenty of people who were closed-off, arms crossed, unable or unwilling to engage, and while many might simply have been bored or pre-occupied with other interests, I couldn’t help feeling that some of it involved suspicion of an outsider, a “New Yorker”, a person who might be in the process of setting up a trap for local folks to fall into.  I was asking for a bit of their heart, and they knew it, and not everyone was going to let me have that. Folks from the area felt burned before and were twice shy as a result, and I can’t blame them. Having roots in the area did at least seem to assuage some of the inevitable disbelief for how someone like me would ever end up someplace like that.

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It will take me lots of time to digest what I’ve experienced these past few days, and I don’t know that I will ever get anything definitive to say about it beyond its powerful effect on me. I do wish more “coastal elites”, more people like me, were spending more time in places like Greencastle.  I’ll stop analyzing here now and let the ruminative stages begin. I will say seeing those kids with their animals was really inspiring:  I remember feeling that if someone has had this much responsibility this early, it will likely always be hard for them to have a lot of sympathy for people later in life who come into difficulties as a result of their not taking responsible preparations.  I’m guessing you grow up fast in a farming environment - all hands are needed, risks are being taken and must be managed, animals must be cared for, crops planted and tended and harvested on tight schedules, with financial ruin a real possibility each year for those who screw up.  Parents, when I complimented them on their kids’ achievements with their animals, assured me that the kids also played video games and got up to nonsense, but one couldn’t help feeling it was blended in with plenty of tasks no suburban or urban kid ever had to tackle.

Blog Post #5 - Wrapping Up The First Piece

June 22, 2018

So people did show up, in droves!  The final participant count was 200 people, including about 60 children and people from all walks of life and across many different communities within the city (black, white, Korea, et al.)  It was actually overwhelming at times – they came with beloved items from home, they came to sniff around and see what was going on, they came with their teachers and many three-generation groups – teenage kids, parents and grandparents.  A Korean friend of the art center and gallery had come by on setup day, then sent out an alert to 130 Korean families in the area (KIA Motors has a big auto plant near here) and dozens of members from the Korean community showed up to lend their support.

A policeman came in with a badge from the department, wanting to have us include it, and a young girl brought in a grandfather’s World War II brass insignia that had been pinned on the grandfather’s Army hat.  People came in, curious, like we were from an episode of Antiques Roadshow, wondering whether something could be included, would it “print” into the clay, was there room or did we think it would be a fit?  Russ, the local notable, gave us his marijuana pipe to imprint in the clay, and his daughter brought in a logo representing his global corporation.

Bob with Policeman-LaGrange GA.JPG

We were busy, and went to work for a solid day adding pieces into the sculpture until 4:00 pm, at which time I was finally able to eat lunch! Then we picked up the ball again to pour the plaster and the foam, ending a very long and full day.

Reflecting on it tonight, I still worry: would the new gantry (a kind of mobile I-beam placed overhead) and chain hoist rig work when we have to raise and flip the piece? At my home studio I’ve always flipped the heavy clay and plaster ‘sandwich’, which weighs about 500 pounds, using chain hoists and steel beams mounted in the roof.  Here, I have no choice: I have to do it all with this mobile portable gantry, and it’s been stressful wondering if it would work. In the end, with 8 or 10 people watching and 6 people helping, we did make the flip to the delight of the crowd. The table started to tip, the gantry scudded a few inches forward, and everyone gasped and clapped as it settled down.

So it all worked, not elegantly, but all fine. We started cleaning, with a rotating crew of 15 people or so all having a chance to peel clay away, with essentially no missteps. It was all starting to be a blur – washing, picking, scraping, scratching, washing again, and more clay picking. It felt like a quilting bee with people talking and sharing and picking – all hunched over the piece from several angles, really drawn into a touching scene of genuine community. Participants were truly a part of something magnetic and worthwhile.  Lots of laughing, teens and young adults along with the elderly. A retired woman, a lifelong textile designer who had just moved back to town regaled us with her wit. “If I’d ‘a known how much fun this was going to be I’d ‘a started doin’ it years ago!”

I set the piece in its little tent to dry, with fans and bricks and boards and tarps and heater all working in unison.

Following the main event, I joined in with another dinner along with members of the Museum Board and friends – it’s been essentially one very long 72-hour- day. What comes next?

It’s clear to me that the hard part is ahead, even though this wonderful LaGrange experience has given me a great foundation.  Will we be able to put this piece and the community experience into context with similar projects from other places? Will we ever find other similarly inspired communities to work with?  As we do more of these will the results start to feel banal/skew toward a predictable middle ground? What if a (perceived) worn-down, beaten-up community (based on factors such as poverty-level incomes or undocumented-immigrant-percentage) produces a work that reflects only on the hardships of the community, as opposed to a vibrant look at who they are: encompassing all aspects of life in this Georgia community?

All ahead, all unknown.  What is clear is that after three exhilirating days (and a few more days tweaking with plaster and tints in upstate Georgia at another residency there)  is a tiny down payment, a preamble, an ante, for the real job ahead. The real work is getting several of these events in a wide range of communities to start building the outlines of a new story, generating fresh insights into places we think we know but never visit, uncovering a way of helping everyone involved find something new and valuable, perhaps something about what it means to truly be an American.