Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Design Team in action

In our projects, development of the main ideas for the mural come from discussions and workshops held with the Design Team. These are folks who after coming to one of the community meetings are so inclined to choose themselves to be part of what I liken to the cast and crew of a small town play - think "Waiting for Guffman." Here in Sioux Falls our Design Team reflects many of the diverse aspects of the Whittier neighborhood. Among our twenty or so team members are artists, school teachers,  kids of all ages, the president of the Whittier Resident Association, arts council members, and even an f-16 pilot.

We depend on this group to help us understand the spirit of the place, its history, current challenges and hopes for the future. We also need the design team to help generate, either by making or finding, the sources of imagery that will eventually give life to the mural. To do this we begin simply by getting to know each other a little better. At the beginning of each meeting we sit in a circle, reintroduce ourselves, and then respond to a go-around question like, What's your favorite movie? Where's the best place to eat in town? What do you want to be when you grow up? or What's your nickname? The ice gets broken and we can dive into mural land.

The main focus of our design team workshops is to address questions that will help illuminate the shape and scope of our mural design. In Sioux Falls we first asked ourselves,
What do we know about Whittier?
Next we asked, What is the purpose of this project? What is its subject? Who are its authors? and Who will be its audiences?

Our answers were the fuel for collaborative drawing workshops where we tried to work out the relationships and relative significance of Whittier's culture and heritage. At one point I wanted the group to focus more on the continuing story of immigration and how it's impacted the area, so I asked an intentionally provoctive question -  Who's family at one time immigrated to the U.S.?  After a pause, all the hands went up except one, the artist Jerry Fogg. He is Yankton Sioux. From this, we launched into a discussion and then drawing session revolving around cultural diversity. At other times the prompts for drawing workshops included:

What makes a neighborhood?
Imagine Meldrum Park if it could be the way you wanted.
What are the challenges, obstacles, and misperceptions that the neighborhood faces, and how can they be addressed?

At the end of the session, each group stands up and presents their work. We do this not in order to critique the merits of style or drawing proficiency, but to teach each other about what we came up with and what we struggled with. The idea is to share our work and build off of each other, not compete. Two and a half weeks (and twenty-six meetings) later, we had amassed hundreds of drawings and written descriptions for the mural. The material was gold and enough for at least ten murals, I'm sure.

Our work now is mainly composition and editing. To start that process, Nate, Ashley and I met to draft a vision statement of sorts for our mural design. It's intended to give momentum and a frame for the design process. It's not written in stone and will continue to be sculpted as we go forward. Here it is as I read it to the design team at our last meeting.

Our mural welcomes people to Whittier, a working-class neighborhood that embraces its heritage, celebrates its dynamic cultural and ethnic diversity, and looks forward to addressing and overcoming challenges to a prosperous and peaceful future. Our mural recognizes this as the past and present home to Native Americans from many tribes, as well as the place where settlers have come from across the globe. Our mural sings with a chorus of many languages and radiates with the colors of many cultures.  And, our mural shows the neighborhood working together to care for its natural beauty, the education of its young people, and the welfare of its most vulnerable residents.  Our mural is beautiful, engaging, and is the product of many dedicated hands and minds.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Meetings, meetings, meetings and research

After a whirlwind three-weeks of meetings, drawing workshops and presentations, we're wrapping up the first stage of the mural project. In all, we held twenty-six meetings to gather input and begin to visualize the mural design. Here's a run-down of the groups we've met and or worked with so far:

Sioux Falls Parks Department
Whittier Middle School
Terry Redlin Elelmentary
Eugene Field Elementary
Hawthorne Elementary School
Washington High School
Whittier Neighborhood Association
Joe Foss Alternative School
Multicultural Center
Boys & Girls Club
Whittier Neighborhood after school program
Sioux Falls Arts Council
Community Meetings at the Public Library and Museum of Visual Materials
plus four meetings with our design team made up of local residents

This may look like a lot, but it really only scratches the surface of the the city's rich and diverse cultural landscape. Among others, I wish we could have visited with more students in high school and college, and more elders and artists in the community to hear their perspectives on this rapidly evolving city. Hopefully the word will get out and they will join us when painting begins.

When we weren't at a meeting, we explored the neighborhood and began to do research spurred by the conversations we'd been having.

With the help of middle school teacher, Lela Himmerich, we discovered the significance of Whittier's namesake, John Greenleaf Whittier, whose passionate and reasoned stance against slavery, advocacy for women's suffrage, and support for collective bargaining for workers coincided with many of the themes that emerged in our design team discussions.

A celebration of John Greenleaf Whittier in Amesbury, MA
We had a fascinating conversation with Jim Woster, a forty-three year employee of the Sioux Falls Stockyards, who recalled a dramatic shift in the workforce at Morrell's meatpacking plant (just north of the Whittier Neighborhood) due, in part, to labor disputes and new immigrants coming to town in the late 1980's. Jim reminded us that this wasn't the first wave of immigrants to be employed at Morrell's. In the early 1900's it was Irish, Norwegians, and other Northern Europeans who came to fill the difficult but well paying jobs.

Postcard of Morrell's Plant
Long a place of many cultures, characterized by Polish and German (then) and Ethiopian and Mexican (now) businesses, Whittier has been and continues to be Sioux Falls' most international neighborhood. This dynamic coming together of peoples in this unassuming part of town is celebrated every year at the city's Festival of Cultures event.

Sioux Falls Festival of Cultures
 A huge asset to Sioux Falls, Whittier's multicultural mix also presents challenges, most prominently the need for translators, translators of the more than eighty languages spoken there, and translators of cultural practice from religion, to family structure and gender roles.  In our design team meetings, we heard that some people outside of the neighborhood have misperceptions about Whittier - 'It's dangerous' and 'It's dying' among them. Imagining solutions to the challenges Whittier faces, and countering those misperceptions were the focus of our final drawing workshop with the design team.

As a community-based artist, I couldn't be more thrilled about working in Whittier. The place has an important story to tell that hasn't yet been shared with the greater community. Finding a way for the mural design to acknowledge and engage with its complexity and challenges in a positive, beautiful, and constructive way is our challenge.