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Since its inception in 2004, the UMSL Public Policy Research Center’s Photography Project has documented over 30 organizations in St. Louis who address community revitalization, historic preservation, and social services. A teaching artist — like me! — lands in the organization and develops a curriculum that fits the partcipants, and trains them to document the work they do to make life here more beautiful. As a result of this creativity and breadth, the Photography Project’s website database feels to me like a multifaceted, diverse ‘family photo album’ of STL.
In 2008, I’d first worked on the Cherokee Street photography project with Mel Watkins, the project’s director, and Jean Durel, who commissioned the project on behalf of Incarnate Word’s “Heart and Soul” Community building efforts in Benton Park West. Our project bloomed into the “yOur voice yOur neighborhood” banners and the initial rendition of the cherokeestreetnews.org neighborhood blog, as well a community digital photo archive. In 2011, I enjoyed getting to know the volunteers at City Greens Produce whose vision is squarely set on the issues of health and food safety, illustrating the way that gardening and sharing food unite and empower a community. Getting to know the Angelbaked teens and volunteers this year was as much a delight. And, very delicious. Good thing I was biking there.
BROCHURE ESSAY // Today the basement of Saints Teresa & Bridget Church smells like fresh baked chocolate chip cookies. Students giggle and complain as they mix giant batches of dough in the church’s kitchen, package individually wrapped treats, and plan giant holiday shipments. Angel Baked Cookies, established in 2007 with three teen-chosen, taste-tested recipes, was the brainchild of North Grand Neighborhood Services in collaboration with local youth who needed jobs. In implementing this idea, a small and delicious enterprise was born that employs teenagers while giving them on-the-job training in how to manage a small business.
It’s not your typical first job. As the teens, or Angels as they are called, trickle in from school, one Angel might get help with homework while others nibble from the much- beloved bag of broken cookies while sharing a YouTube video of a step performance or a short story. A normal workday begins with “circle-up,” a ritual met with overt groans
that thinly veil the teens’ enjoyment. Dubbed the sharing of “roses and thorns”, each person shares a joy and a challenge currently present in their life. After this, the ‘pulse
prayer’ is offered up––purported to be the Angel’s “secret ingredient”––a chance to speak out for issues or friends who might need support. Finally, tasks are lined up for the day’s work and then they’re off! A spirit of creativity, camaraderie, and community pervades the whole process, and goofing-off merges seamlessly with go-mode focus.
This spirit that defines the Angels’ success comes from tiered mentorship, blending leadership and learning at different levels. Carla Jones patiently and expertly manages
the overall process; interns from Wash-U‘s Brown School of Social Work provide a charismatic presence; SLU-core volunteers amp up the human-power with skill and caring; and the teenagers bring the soul and keep everyone laughing. Teamwork is not just a word on the wall.
The natural, exuberant curiosity and creative expression of the Angels informed this Photography Project curriculum. Portraiture flourished under their playfulness and
style, capturing moments ranging from the silly staging of flour fights to sacred hugs in the sanctuary of Saints Teresa & Bridget church upstairs. Checking out such advertisement superstars as the “Got Milk?” campaign, we painted on our own milk mustaches and constructed unique cookie-centered still life settings, while noticing the
power of the image to create successful marketing. Conversations about how we source ingredients led to a field trip to Windcrest Farm, a local family-owned dairy farm
(and the chance to milk a cow!). Dialog about what it means to be relevant to the place where we do business led to documentary photography of the adjacent blocks as
well as an info session with entrepreneur Jason Wilson, who provided a history lesson on what was formerly the nearby Blumeyer Housing Project and a heads-up on the
intersection of race, class, real estate, and social justice – and how to integrate these issues mindfully into a business plan.
SLU-core volunteer Lexi Varvares can attest to the Angels’ power. “Ever since that first day I look forward every week to their smiling faces and the smallest remarks asking
how my week has been,” she said. “They notice when you are not there and always ask how you are doing, making you feel that your presence was missed . . . there was
always a sparkle in the Angels eyes and you could tell that they wanted to be there.” Sugar cookie, chocolate chip, or oatmeal raisin, the confidence, hope, connectedness,
and caring the Angels share is part of the labor of love you taste.
Artist/Photographer, PPRC Photography Project
The mission of North Grand Neighborhood Services is to promote the dignity of low-income persons and the community they share by developing affordable housing, employment and training opportunities for adults and youth, along with other community initiatives.
WHAT IS THE PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT?
The Photography Project is modeled after the pioneering community photography programs of Wendy Ewald and is sponsored by the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri St. Louis and directed by Mel Watkin. Each year PPRC’s Photography Project teaches volunteer community groups how to photograph their work to improve the quality of life in St. Louis. The resulting exhibition is displayed at two locations, the PPRC Photography Project Gallery on the UMSL campus, and in neighborhoods where the volunteers work. Through these partnerships, the Photography Project strives to bring art directly into St. Louis neighborhoods while also highlighting the undertakings of local organizations working towards the greater good and inspiring people to get involved with their communities.
The Journey Out: from Darkness to Light
How does it feel to find freedom?
What does the path through depression into full health look like?
This winter 2012 I was honored to create an image that speaks to that healing work, collaborating with students from three high schools: Lindberg, Maplewood Richmond Heights, and Kirkwood. CHAD’S Coalition—Communities Healing Adolescent Depression and Suicide—commissioned a mural to enliven their space that could represent this awakening to hope. I drew the composition on three large canvases, and the students chose the colors that would create the impact of their message. From left to right, here’s the intention of each panel:
Trapped in a Maze (Lindberg High School) ::::::::::::Desperation. Darkness. Feeling stuck, confused, bored, vacant. Numb. Alone. We began by sharing words that describe depression– like being trapped in a maze without help, energy, or a sense of the way out. Alongside the maze, the snake eating its tail, or ouroborus, is an ancient symbol representing the perpetual, cyclic renewal of life –or, “primordial unity related to something existing in or persisting before any beginning with such force or quality it cannot be extinguished. (Wiki)” We explored how, even in a feeling of absolute emptiness, there can be a quality of surrender that connects us to all humanity throughout history, to the bigness of the cycle of life, death, rebirth that exists in all of Nature. Then a “happy accident” (an unplanned visual event that steers the plight of creation, in art as in life) brought a new layer of hope – a student discovered a bee-line through the maze, an “escape hatch”. She chose to highlight this route with bright yellow, mirroring the glint of wisdom in the snake’s eye, as a testimony to the hope that is ever-present, whether or not we can sense it yet.
Finding My Path (Kirkwood High School) ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::You. Are. Here. An orange dot draws your eye to the start of a large labyrinth. Present moment awareness is the gist of the central panel. Unlike a maze with dead ends and endless twists and turns, the apparent complexity of a labyrinth belies its utter simplicity: you will reach the center if you take another step. Like the path out of addiction or depression, mustering the momentum to persist in baby steps will inevitably lead you to your goal. No traps, just willingness to keep on keeping, keep on opening. The edge of this panel foreshadows the lightness that will come as we keep turning our attention from the overwhelming chaos and pain to the sweet breath we are taking, in this moment. Just this moment.
Freedom in Expression (Maplewood Richmond Heights High School) :::::&, EUREKA!! With the foundation of committed self-care, with patience and persistence, comes the confidence to create again. To feel again. To sense pleasure and possibility, and to interact with others again. “This too shall pass” – and finally, it has. With gratitude and exuberance, we can experience the Technicolor fireworks of our pure humanity again – but now with greater depth and compassion, honed and stronger for the darkness we’ve walked through.
Our final creation speaks to the process of transformation, the relationship of dark to light. As one student artist, Ian, remarked: “Your depression doesn’t define you. It’s a representation of your complexity.” As we nurture ourselves, we are more equipped to see and support others in their full complexity as well.
In December 2011, I collaborated with sixteen 5-8 year olds in a nine-session after-school yoga and animation laboratory at SLLIS, the St. Louis Language Immersion School. Together, we developed the story line through spontaneous recordings and group storytelling. Then they developed imagery through drawings, yoga poses, and stop-motion play with found objects. Color-light-sound designer MIC∆H supported the visual and audio editing. Muchas gracias for the support of the power moms, especially Amy DeLaHunt!
I get to spend Saturday mornings with a delightfully bright, zany family in Soulard. Our ‘art lessons’ have ranged from creating chicken portraits and name placards for the coop, to gravestones for the same (possums!); mounting a living-room overhall ‘ice den’ fort building, to shooting a stop-motion animation with found-soundtrack depicting a typical “day in the life”. My inspiration is always refreshed.
Here is our short animation, created with iStopmotion and GarageBand:
I’ve enjoyed working with the lovely lil’ ladies at the Marian Middle School since 2008. My friend and collaborator Sarah Paulsen is their art teacher, and I’ve been the afterschool Art Club facilitator and workshop specialist. In addition to set design for their Christmas and diversity plays, we’ve done a few special projects:
MARIAN 2008 SUMMER SIZZLER CRAZY QUILT
“Inspired by the arts and crafts of many of the cultures that converge on Grand Avenue, this image-quilt speaks a playful and encouraging message of self-responsibility and connection: ’You hold your key! Be all you can be. Me + You = Friend!’
Each day during art class of Summer Sizzler 2008 we jumped off an idea, poem, or art form. From Latin American worry dolls to Ethiopian crosses, from Afghani poetery and calligraphy to African-American quilting, our project reflects that theres’ much to learn form every
culture! During the construction phase each girl chose her task. Then we practiced weaving all of our work together. (Collaboration is a great teacher! It can bring up attitudes and arguments — so you get to see if you really mean your message.
We hope our artwork is a joyful testimony to the intricacy of our interconnectedness. On day one we wove a web of our selves from a big orange ball of “You are here!” thread. We are a puzzle that fits into this tree of life, from STL to the world; our hands bear our message as we work believing in love, friendship, and peace.”
2010 LOVE LETTER CAMPAIGN
The Art Club received grant money to fulfill a service project of their choice and design. They decided they wanted to leave encouraging, anonymous messages out in the open through various means. They experimented with creating sculpey magnets to give to strangers and leaving these together with handmade poetic cards around town. But they were most excited to try their hand at spray painting stencilled messages to leave on dilapidated buildings. We got permission from Alderman Ken Ortmann to do a temporary installation near the Cherokee Real garden on Cherokee Street, with messages like: “Begin again. And again.” and “Grow Love”. We took a field trip to the flood wall to learn about Paint Louis past, and to get inspired about the future of participatory public art in STL!
“Listening with your Hands” at Catholic Charities Community Services, Southside
From the brochure: “What did artists do before the internet?! Come, Learn to feel inspiration without gadgets! We’ll practice some simple breathing techniques to connect you to your inner-imagination. We’ll play blindfolded drawing games and practice color-mixing, and we’ll also practice silence and listen to music to help us focus and get in the mood. After an introduction to brushwork technique, you’ll make your own exploratory painting! At the end of our session, we’ll proudly display our work in CCCSS’s newest gallery.” Compared to the schools and community centers I’m accustomed to, I was floored by how attentive and quiet these students were — we had such sweet silence as we all got into our paintings, and they were so proud to share their work with their families at the final day!
GraceSpace / GraceSpace, a yoga and art curriculum for neighborhood pre-teens and teenage girls, met at the Community Arts and Movement Project from March 17 through June 9, 2010. The weekly meeting, from 5-7pm, included over fourteen girls with a core group of seven regular participants. The rhythm flowed from circle time, to yoga/dance, to free-writing and healthy snack, and into an art project. Art explorations ranged from sewing part of “The World’s Largest Picnic Blanket” at a local gallery, to choreographing a dance, to watercolor, to designing, building, and performing the People’s Joy Parade “Pink Dragon”.
This year’s curriculum was full of new explorations. One surprise highlight was sharing “free write.” Meant to be a simple journaling and grounding technique to transition from movement to visual art, this time grew as girls wrote about hot topics and were eager to read their entries aloud. We frankly discussed sex, violence, and respect as they recounted events of their days. Students got to feel themselves as active participants in the life of their neighborhood in multiple ways: as celebrators, leading the parade in a giant sculpture; as artists, creating a “Collabo-mask” for Peat Wollaeger’s gallery show at All Along Press; and as entrepreneurs, in a car wash and cupcake sale they conceived of to raise money for their movie night. We were grateful to go beyond the Cherokee district in a special field trip to the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Whitaker Musical Festival, and (thanks to a special gift) on an outing to Circus Flora.
The class evaluation survey revealed that the two most valuable aspects of the class for the girls were the calm quiet of yoga learning, and the ability to connect with older/younger friends (“play mamas”). All girls wished for a continued class offering at CAMP. Additional funding was sought but declined through Open Meadows Foundation, who wants to see growth in the diversity of CAMP’s board that reflects the constituency. (So do we! And are actively extending invitations for participation from African-American mothers and colleagues to grow in this way.)
Overall, GraceSpace matured in many ways from 2009 to 2010 : Collaborative teaching between two paid instructors, expanded the subject matter and the one-on-one connection time. Partnerships with mothers grew as moms volunteered to bake, chaperone, and advise. Increased behavior expectations led to more formal start/end time and clearer focus. “Postive peer pressure” was evidenced in the way that, after a certain girl had been kicked out of class for yelling and rude disruption one day, her friend brought her back after a few hours to support her apology. A culture of leadership is clearly growing among GraceSpace girls — they often lead CAMP tours, contribute to workdays, and link the kids on their block to contribute to Operation Brightside cleanup and community garden efforts.
GraceSpace is a positive, nurturing, exploratory environment for young women that directly benefits their own well-being and the health of the neighborhood.
SLLIS/ I taught Art in Spanish to kindergarden and first graders during the 2009-2010 school year at this new charter school. I also taught the before-school yoga program, which was the joy of my year.
Highlights extracted from notes home: So far this year we’ve been exploring art we share with the public — long colorful chains and flags to brighten the zydeco show, the Houses for Haiti project that raised over $1600!, and now beautiful bursting gardens of tissue-paper tulips around the halls. We’ve also had a chance to explore new media, making art for ourselves – we watercolored heart creature Valentines and sculpted and fired pinch pots from clay. During 2nd semester, we made ‘mixed media’ sculptural creations that involved more steps – giving us practice at listening and following directions. Cray-pa still lifes with healthy-grains glued on baskets became beautiful cornucopias; mosaic-paper cardboard tubes and tissue became lantern sculptures. We also got to paint like crazy, a starry sky backdrop for our Posadas party. All classes contributed to make a permanent mark in the school by coloring mandalas that were pasted into a vibrant mural near the lunchroom. We also created beautiful parade banners and ribbon wands to participate in the “People’s Joy Parade” at Cinco de Mayo! After these public art collaborations, we spent time in “Taller Abierto” (Open Studio) exploring free choice time with various 2D and 3D supplies.
The Community Arts and Movement Project has been one of my favorite places to learn in STL. Dynamic, homegrown, peer-to-peer, spontaneous: the willingness to try prevails. To date, I’ve been involved with Drawing Night, Yoga Skillshare, the Afterschool Experiment, FOOTBEAT Singalongs, Parade Workshops, and Garden Love GetTogethers (Seedbombs and seed starts).
During the spring of 2007, I collaborated with Cultivadores, a Latino resource center in Rantoul, IL. I brought art lessons, garden designs, family photos, and play. Together with Elizabeth DelaCruz, an art education professor at the University of Illinois, we wrote a successful grant to the National Endowment of the Arts for a ‘neo-plaza’ at the center to combine greenspace and murals.
The South City Open Studio and Gallery / I cut my teeth and earned my feather at SCOSAG. New in town in 2002, I heard an interview with Jenna Baeur on KDHX and proceeded to bop into the studio to introduce myself and start volunteering. The rattles on the mantel, treasure maps and cryptic doodles everywhich where, and stinky gingko jar issued a clear invite to re-engage my kidself. Not as much a ‘find your inner child’ as — did you leave anything out in the childhood you needed to have? The next few years, the kids and artists I met at the SCO’ welcomed me to be fierce, be brave, be nonsensical. It’s a snowglobe of perfect memories: Celia and co kicking up dust in the tball fields singing Ghost Riders in the Sky, the blindfolded “Feel a Tree,” homeschool making up ditties on the fly as we molded clay . . . “Characters in the City”. Mud is enough. Some days we’d scrap our entire ‘curriculum’ to go hunt crawdads and tell stories at the trees knees. First taste of free school.
Are you in or is you out? / Collaboration with Lezlie Silverstein, Mike Pagano, Sumner alumni and art students (2005)
During the springs of 2004 and 2005, I team taught for the first time in residency with STL public schools through Craft Alliance. Emerson funded a program that set teams of artist in dialogue with the school art teacher to facilitate the student-led design and production of a permanent ceramic tile mural. I loved the richness of collaboration in the classroom – - allowing for more one-on-one attention, to let teaching and creating styles naturally attract different kinds of learners. Robert Longyear, the Outreach Coordinator at Craft Alliance, made the program rich with his sound-off freestyling and instantanous rapport with children.