I sat on a bench on the Santa Monica promenade one chilly evening and listened to an elderly unsheltered woman in an old parka named Mary as she recounted her humble and beautiful story. As I was leaving, I thought about all the people that pass her pass and barely perceive anything more than “an old bag lady.” What a great misinterpretation and loss for those who don’t come closer. I thought about all the people I have passed in such a manner. Perhaps people I see regularly. How little I actually, truly see of even those I know well.
My undergraduate work and my artistic journey was inspired by that encounter with Mary and others I visited on the promenade. I have been exploring the nature of the connections that make up the human experience and the deep desire to restore broken connections. The invitation to touch and physically engage much of my work is a strong conceptual and experiential component of that exploration.
After meeting Mary, I explored this concept by painting on the inside of coats, or images of coats, with drawings and other details within the coat and its pockets. The coats were displayed closed. Standing at a distance, one can only view the outside of the coat. To see the artwork better, one had to come closer and take a risk by opening the coat and holding it to explore. The more time and effort put into the exploration, the more is discovered. Both the art piece and the act of engaging it, or the lack thereof, symbolized the degree to which we more truly see, know, and connect with another.
I’ve continued making my work interactive and tactile to offer those who approach my work an opportunity to engage in the act of kinesthetic connection with the work and its concepts. The viewer becomes an active participant. The work requires being present and allowing time. It allows for some separation to be bridged as the participant engages in physical contact.
I have continued to explore this concept with interactive assemblage pieces in series such as “Allegories,” which explored the behaviors of birds and nature as metaphors for human experiences.
I desire to move deeper, to invite the participant into the conversation, to risk vulnerability and let go of control to know those who engage the work. I am inspired by the artists of the relational aesthetic movement and their steps towards inviting the participants into the formation of the art.
During my senior show, I had an installation called, “Book of Lives,” in which I invited participants to draw a picture about themselves that I added to a book on display each day before the gallery reopened. The glimpses into the anonymous lives in their drawings were powerful. The response of the participant as part of the art itself is an important element in the exploration of connection. I’ve been seeking how to create work that is the catalyst for a community art creation.
As a teacher, I had the opportunity to do so in a school wide mixed media piece called, “Together, We Rise.” During lessons on Martin Luther King Jr. and the power of community and of each individual, each student was given a large paper shaped like a feather and invited to color it in a way that expressed themselves. The feathers were assembled together to create two wings.
My series in progress, “Body of Truth,” is an invitation for participants to explore that reality together. Each piece is a sculpture of the area of the body and painting. My pieces include prompts to which participants can write on the corresponding body part. The body of work is an exploration into how our experiences are held in our physical bodies. As a massage therapist, I have experienced, through connection with my clients and physical touch, the way stress is carried in muscles, but hear how they are carried in the mind and heart. My next step is to explore this idea and allow for a greater degree of transformation through the participants by creating unfired sculptures that participants can modify.
My exploration in human connection has also led me in a dramatically different direction, by returning to portraiture. As a child, one of my favorite art genres was portraiture. People are fascinating, especially their faces. Once I was introduced to conceptual art, where the subjects’ role was as a symbol of an idea, I largely abandoned portraiture. In recent years, I have been struggling with how to process and engage injustices and tragedy through art. In the midst of this struggle, I was inspired by portraiture at the Getty Museum. Room after room of people carefully studied and explored and immortalized. Historically, portraiture has been a symbol of status and significance.
From this was born the series “Street Family Memorials.” I have been working with the homelessness response organization We Are Not Invisible for several years, which has sought to give voice to the unsheltered and promote the significance and dignity of each life, to make them not invisible. The organization has held the vigils, memorials, and funerals for several homeless people. These acts were particularly important to the attendees who were aware that society outside their little community did not recognize the person for who they are and their value. The moments were sacred. Often, there was not an enlarged photograph displayed, as I have seen at other vigils. I started to create portrait drawings to participate in honoring the lost street family members and those who are paying tribute to them.
After visiting the Getty, I was inspired to do oil painting portraits of the street family members lost. I see portraiture as a simple, but powerful way to recognize the inherent value of the life I render. In recent months, I have focused on creating oil painting portraits for vigils and funerals in an act of connecting with their community in honoring the person. The work has also been used in acts of activism by my director to visualize the value of those with whom she is advocating.
The next step of the project will be to collaborate with my director, who is a photographer and videographer, to create an interactive multimedia shrine for each person that would include video or audio of the person themselves. It would also include a larger surface on which to contribute memorials through art.
A third project that served as a creative outlet and a learning exercise through portraiture was the creation of “mobile miniature murals,” for the music community. I created a large painting of Tom Petty upon his passing, as a surface on which local fans could write messages and add remembrance. After his death, I felt the lack of a central point in which I could connect with others who grieved. I partnered with a local record store to display the painting at their grand re-opening and leave paint pens for people to write on the painting. I learned from the first day the power of shared connection through music and musicians in our culture. As I stood by the work, I felt a shared bond. I heard stories. I saw messages about how the music personally touch them and how they personally felt about his passing. Similar experiences were created in subsequent venues where the painting was available to sign. The following year, I partnered with a local radio station to create a second piece to be displayed at a tribute concert. The two pieces have since been displayed at tribute concerts and events. What I have learned is that the act and display of the artwork served as a connecting and bonding experience. I’ve made close friends from the exhibitions and created musical partnerships. I saw that my work gave musicians a connection the way their music did for me.
As I move forward, I seek to identify and pursue means of connections by transcending those areas that bring separation. I’m inspired by Banksy and street artists, whose artistic expression is brought to the community. I’m inspired by Van Gogh, whose pieces show the intimacy by which he saw and knew his subjects. I’m inspired by Frank Warren and his PostSecret project which has catalyzed the creation of millions of little works of art by people sharing their secrets and curated on the public platform of the internet, allowing engagement with people across the world. I’m inspired by Nicolas Bourriaud and his work and promotion of relational aesthetic. I’m also inspired by the creative acts of people in their ordinary life and their artistic expressions.