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.

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