Our Stories Share the Same Roots: A Community Mural Project

It’s been a really good summer, in many ways. Full of laughter and play. Weekend trips. Camping. Outdoor excursions and inside jokes. Crackling fires. Summer pies.

The Fool's Flotilla in Madison. Madison, you're a goofy city, and I love it.
The Fool’s Flotilla in Madison. Madison, you’re a goofy city, and I love it.

At the same time, it has been an emotionally tumultuous year–for lots of us, I imagine. Maybe election years are always this way, and there’s a lot at stake with this one. There’s a saying, that there are decades where weeks happen, and weeks where decades happen, which seems appropriate for this event-heavy, tragedy-aware year. As an artist, I feel grateful to have a skill and medium through which I can contend with and give a voice to heavy issues–personal, social, political. I’m also admittedly anxious about the responsibility of doing hard topics justice.

It’s been a busy summer, work-wise. I’m excited to share one of the projects I’ve completed in the last couple months, my first mural, a collaborative, public project with the students of Escuela Verde, Artists Working in Education, and fellow artist Gabriela Riveros.

Students priming mural panels.
Students priming mural panels.

To give some background on how this all got started, Escuela Verde is a public charter school in Milwaukee’s neighborhood of Silver City that uses a project-based learning model to emphasize sustainability, student-led learning, and restorative justice. They partnered with the nonprofit, Artists Working in Education, to use public art as a way to activate and enhance a public space and to discuss community concerns.

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Students’ brainstorm of the issues affecting our communities.

The students chose to focus on the topic of immigration. This is a salient topic, for the neighborhood, the students, and our political climate. Silver City is home to multiple immigrant populations, and many of the students also come from immigrant families that are affected by our current policies.

It was at this point that A.W.E. put out a call for artists. I got the chance to interview with the organizers, then with the students, and was selected as the lead artist for this project. (Those of you who attended my talk at DreamBank in the spring may remember this small moment of foreshadowing.)

A.W.E. connected me with the very talented illustrator, Gabriela Riveros, and I couldn’t have asked for somebody better to team up with (seriously, check out her site; she’s got major skill and major drive). We started working together in April, the outset of two months of workshops with the students and staff. At this point, we had a topic, and were ready to visit the space available to us.

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The Superior Salt Building, at 35th and Pierce Street in Milwaukee.

We didn’t have any imagery in mind yet, but we had a vision of what we needed to accomplish, and some of the problems we needed to address. The building owner, Gil, told us about the tagging problems. This part of the block is isolated and doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic or use. The back of the building is isolated, faces the bike path and railroad, and is easy to get to, so the building gets tagged, and the city requires Gil to clean the graffiti up. Community members shared that people often speed through this part of the neighborhood, which is dangerous, since it’s very close to homes and to a school. So how could we use public art to reactivate a neglected space, to deter tagging, to get people to slow down, to engage an important community conversation?

Tagging on the north side of the building.
Tagging on the north side of the building.

In our workshops, we researched and discussed the role and effects of immigration, collected classmates’ and neighbors’ immigration stories, and identified patterns in the migration stories we shared. Because many of our students are Latinx and Hispanic, many of our earlier dialogues focused on the Mexican-US border. But the “aha” moments in the classroom came as we collected and shared one another’s stories. Our students of Irish descent talked about their families being denied at Ellis Island and going instead to Canada, to cross the border into Montana. Some of our students got to attend meetings with the neighborhood association. Neighbors loved our idea for the mural, and also said they hoped to see something that was inclusive of all the different groups that live, work, and run businesses in the area.

Drawing by our student, Marisol, in our study of crops grown in Wisconsin.
Drawing by our student, Marisol, in our study of crops grown in Wisconsin.

The short of it: immigration/migration isn’t new, not for human beings, not for any species. It has played an instrumental role in how we’ve developed, advanced, and exchanged/expanded ideas. In our conversations of local vs global, it’s easy to take for granted how the two are interdependent, how technology has advanced along our trading lines, how language has evolved and literacy has spread, how on one dinner plate we may have chicken that was first domesticated in China, potatoes that were first farmed in Peru, and corn in Mexico.

Different crops and migratory species of butterflies in Wisconsin.
Different crops and migratory species of butterflies in Wisconsin.

So where does the art come in? It was important for us to emphasize a couple things here. First, that art has always been a mirror for the current times, and a leader/indicator for where society will go next. Second, that the imagery needed to come from the students, facilitated by the instructors. The purpose of Escuela Verde’s project-based learning structure is to empower youth in the decision-making process and to build applicable skills. A project of this size would require lots of organization, clear direction, and strong problem-solving.

Doodle wars. We did improv exercises to start off this workshop, ending with a doodle war, where students had to think quickly on their feet and create one-minute drawings in response to others' drawings already on the page.
Doodle wars. We did improv exercises to start off this workshop, ending with a doodle war, where students had to think quickly on their feet and create one-minute drawings in response to others’ drawings already on the page.
Painting day.
Painting day.

Our art workshops included the following: the history of arts and activism, image composition and drawing from observation, typography, games designed to make us think creatively and quickly on our feet, and communicating the ideas and metaphors of a story in images. It was a lot to pack into two months (and we needed the last two weeks for preparing materials and painting), and if there’s anything I could change, it’d be to have more time to explore each of these subjects more in-depth. But in this line of work, we work with what we’ve got, and we do our damnedest with it.

Butterfly by one of our students. All of the buttery and crop imagery for the mural came from the students. Gabi and I collaged them together, for the final composition.
Butterfly by one of our students. All of the butterfly and crop imagery for the mural was drawn by the students. Gabi and I collaged them together, for the final composition.

The butterfly became an important symbol for us, in a number of ways. Socially speaking, the monarch butterfly has already come to be a symbol of many social movements, representing migration and solidarity. Their migration patterns are known to play a role in many earthly phenomenons. The time at which a butterfly flaps its wings can determine whether or not a hurricane happens on the other side of the world, which ties us to our other important symbolism, and the purpose of the arts. One problem we are fighting in our communities is that of compartmentalism. Think about companies whose departments are siloed–unaware and therefore indifferent to how they affect one another. The result is low accountability and high blame in our organizations, and a toxic culture where people feel disconnected and purposeless in their work and livelihoods. Our siloed workplaces reflect our segregated neighborhoods. The health of our ecosystems reflects the health of our economies.

Community painting day. A big thank you to the volunteers from Urban Ecology Center and Young Scientists Club and our friends and neighbors who came and helped!
Community painting day. A big thank you to the volunteers from Urban Ecology Center and Young Scientists Club and our friends and neighbors who came and helped!

And us? We are artists working for and with a cause, who believe that creativity and logic are partners, that our ideals can be used to map our pragmatism and our realities. Our art is not just pretty–it’s smart. Our workshops went beyond aesthetics and embodied an understanding of math, science, and economics. Just as we found patterns in our shared migration stories, we studied fractals and tessellations, to identify the visual patterns in plant roots, butterfly wings, and the circulatory systems of our bodies.

Community painting day.
Community painting day.

So when you visit our mural in Milwaukee, I ask you to do so with an open hand. Look at your palm and the pattern of your veins. Look at how your fingers branch out from your hand and your limbs from your body. Think about the veins of a plant leaf, on a branch, on a tree. Learn to see this pattern, this shared, repeated pattern, that creates all the diversity we see.

I’ve reflected quite a bit in the aftermath of this project. As the second generation in an immigrant family myself, I feel lucky to have a dual perspective, of history, tradition, and my roots, and of the future and hopes for opportunity that drive all of us to move and embrace change. And whether we are the first in our families to grow up in this country or four generations in Wisconsin, all of us share this desire to trace back to where we come from, to understand where we belong, to feel at home where we are, and to find out where we are going.

Want to know more about our mural? You’re in luck. I’m a borderline insane documenter, and you can visit MigrationStory.US to learn about our full backstories, our workshops, the logistics of the painting/installation days, and the costs/pros/cons of the materials we used.

Cutting the ribbon at the opening celebration of our community mural on August 8, 2016.
Cutting the ribbon at the opening celebration of our community mural on August 8, 2016.

Photos from the show at Proyecto’Ace and some thoughts from Chiloé

It’s hard to believe I arrived in South America almost two months ago. I feel like I’ve lived a lifetime compressed into three weeks here in Patagonia.

After being on the road and multiple long bus rides, I have now what feels like a gargantuan amount of time–ten whole days–in a remote, tranquil studio with no Wi-Fi, reachable from the city center most easily via taxi for between the equivalent of 80 cents to $1.30 (depending on your driver and whether you’re obstinate about not getting ripped off as a foreigner/disinclined to fight with someone who is desperate enough to lie for an extra 50 cents), or if one is so inclined, an hour’s walk straight up a hill.

I’ll have more to share soon about this island of Chiloé and my second residency here. For now, I’m ready to share some pictures from my first residency, in Buenos Aires.

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The story follows the life of a homing pigeon, who unlike other pigeons, leaves his home and what he knows, to work in a world delivering packages of no value to people with no heads. He is rewarded for his ambition with a life in a golden cage, delivering messages for heads that are not connected to the bodies they try to lead. He has a choice at this point, to be comfortable with his “reward” in life, or to pursue a different way of being.

I have carried a draft copy with me on this trip, sharing it with a few other travelers who have been curious about my business here.

One of the many beauties of travel is how it gathers transient people to bond through the universal art of storytelling.

I have two choices when I buy a bus or plane ticket. Ida, or Ida y Vuelta? Going, or Going and Returning? For three weeks, I’ve only been going, but in this next short week, going will become returning, as I wrap my journey northward again.

Always, we are going and returning, and there is nothing quite like leaving what we know to find whom we always have been.

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Proyecto’Ace, Week 3: Time is Money, and some other thoughts and idioms

Time is money, the old saying goes.

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It’s not entirely true. We can buy other people’s time with money, and others can buy our time, too. But while we can always find the means to earn more money, we can never earn more of our own time. Our lifelines are a finite resource.

Still, in our developed societies, we have learned how to trade this resource for a monetary amount that someone else deems it to be worth. And we think the length of our freedom is attached to the supply of our bank account.

Another saying goes: a man works diligently for eight hours a day, so that some day he may get to be a manager and work ten hours a day.

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There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. If the work you do with your life is work that you love and that adds value to other people, then this trade of time is worthwhile. But far too many people hate what they do, or worse, are completely indifferent to it. Many people are disconnected from a sense of purpose in what they do. It’s no surprise that we are so wasteful in our “modern” life. When people do work that holds no value, they waste the money they earn from this work on things of no use as well. So goes the inertia of our hamster wheel lifestyles.

I worked for three years at my last company, which was not the original plan. I never intended to stay in an office job, and planned to save and quit after one year so I could focus on my studio practice. But I underestimated how stereotypically American I am and how much I get sucked into my work. There were a lot of problems in the office. First, I ignored them. Then, I got pissed about them. Then, I got competitive and driven to change them. Then, lots of people got pissed at me. Then, other people were really happy with me, and I started to earn some rewards and create a career for myself.

That’s a pretty inadequate summary, but I guess you could say that in spite of the stress, grievances, and frustration of office politics vs the need for business growth (never has bureaucracy been “value-add”) I learned a lot and, in retrospect, I’m really glad I stayed. I’m also really glad I left.

Whether you quit your job without an immediate opportunity/guarantee to follow it, jump out of an airplane, move to an unfamiliar city, change career paths, I hope you do something, anything, to risk losing the comfort of what you have and know, even the progress you’ve made and are scared to lose, because you’ll find on the other side that all those fears of loss don’t actually come to fruition. I could go on, but will leave it for another post.

The laws of inertia apply no matter where you are or what you are doing. As much as I got caught in the office rat race, I was enraptured by my most recent project at Proyecto’Ace, and now in the changeability and spontaneity of travel. But as full as my time has been in Argentina, I have not felt overwhelmed. I feel lifted by a new momentum, have absolutely treasured having the time to focus solely on my artwork in a studio space with many buenas ondas (good vibes), and now this immersion in the rich soul of the earth.

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As far as I’ve been concerned on this trip, I am not on vacation. I am building a new way of being, and opening my time to improve myself and my talents for whatever opportunity comes my way. I love being active, which is different from being busy. There is dynamic work that evolves you and the world around you, and there is work that fidgets, dances, and runs, in place. We should all opt for the former as much as possible.

Admittedly, at one point, I began to feel overexerted by my project. Commuting between Milwaukee and Madison for much of last year meant I haven’t had this kind of time to dedicate to new wood carvings, and in a way I binged a lot on a thing I enjoy to the point of getting indigestion. But, true to intent, I finished all 21 plates in time to print for our exhibition, or rather, for Adriana Moracci and Barita Vincenti at Proyecto’Ace to mix and test ink colors, set up the registration at press, and start the edition as I carved the last of the blocks. Thank you thank you thank you. I’m amazed by the team at Proyecto’Ace more than words can express.

I’ll write one more post after this one to share the final book, and there, I will share the full story of this little pigeon and some thoughts moving forward.

Ciao y cuídate. Envío mi amor desde hermosa Argentina.

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Proyecto’Ace, Week 2: Drawing and Carving the Images

If I’m to say any truth about the way our brains work, or at least my own, it’s that there’s often a delay between our experience of a thing and our understanding of it. (Or I’m just a little slow.)

This is my second post about my time at Proyecto’Ace. Read the first post here.

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The story is something of an allegory. Once I knew that I would be creating a fictitious tale, the storyboarding happened quite quickly. I love the momentum I had right from the start of this project. I finalized 12 images to illustrate this story, printed in two colors, for a total of 21 woodblocks to carve, print, and edition in under two weeks (my hand still aches thinking about it).

It’s funny to me that I had to fly to the other side of the equator to resolve thoughts that I have been brooding on for a long time in the States about our work culture.

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The story I’ve created follows the journey of a little homing pigeon, who, unlike other homing pigeons, decides to fly away from home.

He finds work as a carrier pigeon, delivering packages of no value to human beings who have no heads. He doesn’t understand these headless people, but continues to work hard in hopes of gaining something bigger.

Because of his ambition, he moves up in the world, to become a messenger for heads that have no bodies. This is the ambitious pigeon’s reward, to live a life in a golden cage through which he gets to see the world, and be a part of delivering messages that have no value and continue to drive the disconnect between people and their perspectives.

Stay tuned for posts three and four, where I’ll share the prints and resolution for this story.

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Proyecto’Ace, Week 1: Storyboarding new concepts

I arrived in the studio of Fundación ‘Ace on Monday, January 26th. The space is gorgeous and full of buenas ondas (good vibes). This was to be my creative home for the next three weeks.

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I knew that I wanted to produce an artist’s book during my time here, but did not yet know the story I wanted to tell. Whereas my work in the past has focused on the more personal narratives that connect people to their histories, I’ve found my interests moving towards a more social dialogue.

What I knew prior to this project: I am interested in passionate people, and for that matter, in indifference. I’m interested in what drives us–and thwarts us–in our pursuits. I believe it is important to understand the value of and motives behind what we do, and that a lack of understanding drives disconnect, dissatisfaction, and apathy. I believe that most people are capable of change, of either going after the things they want or reinventing their surroundings, and that the lack of movement in our lives stems not from a fear of change but a fear of loss.

More specifically, through my various work experiences in art, education, manufacturing, business, I’ve learned this: same shit, different place.

People are ambitious, industrious, passionate, opinionated…judgmental, apathetic, insecure, limited. Often loud spoken, but poor at articulation. Rarely do we express what we truly intend.

Printmaking as a medium was made for sharing messages with the masses. I like to think it was the world’s first social media. It’s an art form that educates and incites. Historically, politically, conceptually, it’s a powerful medium, capable of moving people first to understanding, then to action.

Among artists, I find myself in the company of those such as Goya, the Chapman Brothers in their defilement/decoration of Goya’s prints, Posadas, Otto Dix, the many creators of Brazil’s literatura de cordel

Otto Dix shone a light on human destruction.

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Goya stripped away the romanticism and idealism surrounding war.

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All of these artists have created poignant and relevant work, both in response to the social agonies of their time and the universal sufferings of humankind. Many have been great exposers, cynics, and satirists.

But for the work I was to spend my three weeks at ‘Ace on, I knew that I had no wish to be satirical or harsh. I wanted this work to deeply sincere without being naïve, to create simple images that explore a complex, human trouble.

I asked myself, “Is it possible to create images that can be honest about corruption without cynicism, that make healing seem possible in the midst of disrepair?”

I spent my first few days storyboarding. As much as I would have loved to jump straight to just making something, there was something coming clear to me that I could not see when I was living my “normal life” back home. And I needed to have the patience and focus to do justice for this newly forming story I wanted to tell.

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This will be the first in four installments that share the process of my project in Buenos Aires.