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.

What the seasons teach us about change

Fall.

This is the season when the trees undress and the people cover up. Once again, the seasons teach us how shared conditions lead living things to change in different ways. They illustrate how things being opposites do not equal one positive and one negative, but both necessary and synchronized adjustments.

I have lost a couple friends since the summer. First, Nicole in July, who was the daughter of one of the mother figures in my adult life, and most recently, a friend who died unexpectedly the morning following the lunar eclipse.

He worked hard on himself, to be compassionate, perceptive, and resolute. He lived his life in the service of others’ needs, maybe, sometimes, too much so. He was a friend, a mentor, a builder, and a healer for many of us who knew him, and he was strong for the people he cared about in the way we all must now be strong for him.

He hung himself from a tree, and there is a lesson to be taken here for those of us who are open to it. The trees are beautiful and give us many things. They give us the oxygen we breathe and protection from the sun. They are also strong in a way that is unrelenting, and that which does not relent will bear the weight of what its power can take from others.

The trees are showing us right now how beautiful it is to let things go. They are also showing us that what remains must endure the cold.

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My friend once asserted that in our actions and honoring of people, we should put our community first, then our family, and lastly, ourselves. And as I have grieved and reflected with his partner, one of my longest term friends and mentors, I’ve thought about how my definitions of community and family have developed and blurred into each other over the last decade.

I have a very small nuclear family. I’m an only child, my dad has been dead nearly seven years, I live far from my mom and childhood home, and most of our family is scattered across the nation or back in China and Taiwan. I haven’t even met most of the people I’m related to and haven’t seen or spoken to my paternal grandparents since I was in grade school.

Also, I spent a lot of time by myself as a kid, which has had the long-term effect of making me fiercely independent and uncompromising, for better and sometimes worse.

But my independence has taken a new shape in my adulthood. Because I’ve lived entirely in cities with no familial ties, I’ve had to get good at the things that “independent” people typically suck at, also known as being “dependent” and asking for help. It is well to know that there is no independence without dependence, something we often forget in a country and a culture that praises individualism to our own demise. Thankfully, without the barriers of familiarity, I approach nearly everyone in the same, open way. For me, blood isn’t thicker than water, and I do find teachers, family, and home wherever I go.

Fall in Central Wisconsin
Fall in Central Wisconsin

This hasn’t always been the case, nor has it been obvious along the way. But I know it to be true in both moments of joyous surprise and unexpected tragedy.

When two friends in Madison asked me to be witness to their marriage, and the groom asked for my approval to marry one of my best friends. (All of us are transplants.)

When my friend, mentor, and mother figure called from Milwaukee after her partner had died, and I was able to call another friend to watch my apartment and cat in Madison at the last minute, so I could pick up and leave town for the next week.

Both joy and pain can highlight just how damn good you have it and how strong of a safety network you actually have.

I wasn’t nearly so available seven years ago when my dad got sick, when I was overworked, overwhelmed, and incapable of reaching out for fear of burdening others. I thought I was tough back then, when in reality, I was rigid. I shattered under the weight, though it took years to admit that the experience was traumatizing. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes terrible things to happen for us to realize we need a paradigm shift, and then even more time to put that realization into actions and practice.

I recently wrote about how a year has passed since leaving my day job, and I’d be a liar if I claimed not to have days shaded by self-doubt, imposter syndrome, or the realization that I’ve chosen a much harder and less predictable path.

But I also know that I am building a life around my values. I have not given up security. I have changed my definition of it. Where once I was intense and urgent, I have become persistent and patient. Where once I was rigid, I have found true strength in flexibility. Where once I feared failure and loss, I have come to understand that more chances always come, that nothing in this world is new or an isolated experience, and that the missteps of the past are not losses or failures, but lessons in how to do better next time.

I hope, that for these lessons, I am a better daughter, student, partner, and teammate, to my own mother and to the people who have stepped into the parental and mentor roles in my adult life when I have needed them. I hope that what I could not handle alone as a child who thought she was an adult, I am ready to rise and face as an adult who embraces that she will always be a child.

Fall in Central Wisconsin.
Fall in Central Wisconsin.

This is the season when the trees undress and the people cover up. Once again, the seasons teach us about repetition and ritual, about the cycle of activity and rest, about how to fall so that we may continue.

Learning to See: Reception

Art is nothing without dialogue. At the end of the day, I am little more than the applicator of colors on paper. So it is both humbling and special to see that something as basic as a set of pictures on a wall is enough to draw people together. We humans are peculiar and endearing like that. For all our cynicism about humanity, time and again we prove that the simplicity of a flat piece of paper is enough to make us stop and look, a song or some spoken words enough to make us gather in a crowded room and resonate with other people.

To the people who attended my reception at Ploch Art Gallery, thank you for being there not just for the show, but for the experience. Anything can look good on paper. It takes people to make that paper mean something.

On that note, thank you to my friends who came to support me. Many of you drove an hour or more to be there. Thank you to Barita Vincenti, Adriana Moracci, Alicia Candiani, and Daniela Ruiz Moreno at Proyecto’ace for inviting me to do a residency and helping me produce my book, The Golden Cage, which has turned out to be a critical point in the development of my newest work. You are truly masters of your craft. Thank you to Latasia Lowery for offering feedback on the final text and design of my book, The Golden Cage. Thank you to Latasia and Jer Yang for your feedback on my talk, and always being willing to listen and discuss ideas. Thank you to the people at Museo de Arte Moderno for inviting me to do a residency in Chiloé, where I was able to reach another turning point in the goals of my work, and to Jose Salas and Javiera Castilla for being such great hosts during my stay there. Thanks for taking me bird watching on the island. Thank you to Adam Cohen and Mandy Tsai for being incredibly reliable friends and helping to install the art at Ploch. You saved me much time and sanity and probably treated the work better than I do. Thank you to Pedro Castro for taking the beautiful photos featured in this post so I can share these moments with those who could not attend the show. Thank you to Robin Luther for all your coordination, marketing, promotion, and general time and hard work to make this such a seamless event. Thank you to photographer Bill Zuback for writing one of the kindest responses to the work following the reception. I’m honored by your words and can’t express my respect for your character and perspective enough. I’m forgetting a gazillion people, but thank you to everyone for listening to my story and sharing yours as well.

The show is still on display through May 18th. If you are so compelled to visit the Wilson Center (and I encourage it, they have great performances there), I invite you not to see art not as a static portrait, but as a mirror that changes depending upon who views it. In that exchange, I hope you may see something the rest of us did not, and thereby start a new conversation.

Preview of Solo Show at Ploch Art Gallery

I have been back in the States now for two weeks, and my first bit of business has been preparing for a solo show at Ploch Art Gallery at Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Here is a preview of the show and a few of the new pieces, many from my art residencies at Proyecto’Ace in Buenos Aires and Museo de Arte Moderno in Chiloé.

The show will be up through May 9th. The opening reception is Saturday, April 18th, from 6 to 7:30 pm. I would love to see you there!

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View of a new series, “A Test of Vision,” and to the right, page spreads from my new artist’s book, “The Golden Cage”
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View of a new series, “A Test of Vision”
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(farthest left) “Remember, You Are Human”
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“Angelica” (left) and “We Write Our Autobiographies on the Shoulders of Giants” (right)
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“We Write Our Autobiographies on the Shoulders of Giants,” ink on paper
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“There is No Such Thing As Me,” ink on paper
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Second hall of the gallery space

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Page spreads from “The Golden Cage”
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Close-up/sneak peek of a new ink drawing, “Counter Intuition”
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Second close-up of “Counter Intuition”
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Close-up of “Our Little Freedom”
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“The Light Within Us We Do Not Use,” ink on paper