The Company You Keep

This is an early draft of an essay I am writing as reflection on my role as Artist-Ethnographer for Boston Creates, Boston's cultural planning process, from July - November 2015.


Reflections on my time as a Boston Creates Artist-Ethnographer

What is an artist but someone who has been authorized to live in the cracks, to explore the spaces between and around conventional identities, roles and occupations?

While others working for Boston Creates had more task-specific, delineated roles, my directive as Artist-Ethnographer was open-ended: to “reflect and interpret” the community engagement process.

My three months as one of the City’s Artist-Ethnographers was full of new experiences: the long, challenging arc of an open-ended creative process paired with rock-solid support of a cohort of artists; unique insight into a citywide planning process; the opportunity to expand my own artistic practice to include breadmaking parties and a visual art installation; and the chance to tap into my diverse networks of fellow artists, across disciplines.

The process was whirlwind, full of potential, scary, and exciting. I loved being a part of an intimate cohort of brilliant artists, co-creating a safe space to explore ideas, probe, question, and receive and give constructive feedback. Kate, Maria, Heather and Leo were inspiring with their different perspectives, and provided an anchor community for a project that could have otherwise overwhelmed with its open-endedness.

I developed a citywide perspective. My experiences in Mattapan and Dorchester, and the all-city youth meeting, led me to deeply question the racial and economic disparities of our city, and the class privilege that informs my own ability to be a free-lance artist and classically-trained violinist. On the other hand, taking on a citywide perspective also validated the role of the individual artist for me in a new way. While non-famous or unaffiliated working artists may struggle as individuals for financial stability, and recognition, it became clear to me that from a citywide view, having a strong community of working artists is essential to any city’s cultural life. For the first time in my life, I felt a bit proud to be a non-famous working artist!

However, I was also drinking up the benefits of City affiliation, and enjoying the doors this opened. And as one of just five artists being paid to be a part of the process, I was eager to leverage this privilege to help bring more artists into this process.

At Boston Creates meetings in Dorchester, Mattapan, Jamaica Plain, I was inspired by the people who came – many hardworking folks from community and arts organizations – but I was also curious and concerned about the folks who were not at the meetings.

I wanted to make sure that individual freelance artists, as well as seniors, veterans, and the homeless community (to name just a few) were being informed of, and included in, this process.

My first act of “interpretation” was a re-interpretation of the community engagement meetings, reshaping them as 1) concerts interwoven with conversation for seniors and members of the homeless community, and 2) a series of breadmaking parties for artists.

Artistically, I was interested in how different contexts could encourage conversation and influence who was in the room. By billing gatherings as parties or concerts, would different people show up than the usual characters who would attend a “meeting”? Could the power of artistic engagement – fun, physical and creative activity – enliven the output of the conversation?

I tested these questions in two ways. First, in community concerts with Guatemalan guitarist and singer Cesar del Cid and myself on violin, I interwove the planning questions between songs in concerts at a Jamaica Plain senior housing complex and a South End homeless center. The power of Cesar’s music and his gorgeous voice, with songs from all over Latin America, brought instant smiles, sing-alongs, and dancing sways to the audience. With the ice broken, we found folks excited to talk and share with us their ideas.

Next, I curated “What Artists Knead”, a series of five breadmaking parties in five different neighborhoods to encourage local artists to gather, make bread, and talk about their visions for a better creative Boston. Gifted my first sourdough starter in July, I was delighted by the exponential growth and sharing possibilities of a little wild yeast and flour. This passion cross-fertilized with my concern about the racial and cultural segregation of our city. Could breadmaking help bridge some of these divides?

Inspired by the work of the Mobile Bread House, I reached out to local partners and co-hosts in each of the five neighborhoods, and created a physical chain of dough travelling across the city, with parallel batches of dough being mixed at one party, kneaded at another, shaped at a third, and baked and eaten on the fourth.

This physical bread link was a reflection of, and metaphor for my hope that artists from around the city could connect with, support and learn from fellow artists in other neighborhoods.

From recent college graduates to budding chefs to established senior working artists, five eclectic groups of self-identified artists and bread afficianados gathered for five consecutive days in Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Roslindale, and Roxbury. From cozy kitchens to the neighborhood café, to corner lot and backyard brick ovens (which we built for two events, following the guidelines of the Community Bread Oven project!), we convened in intimate gatherings of 12 to 25, washed our hands, and got floury.

Photo by Leonardo March

Photo by Leonardo March

Primed with excitement about making bread, the gatherings were energetic, fun, and connecting: distinct from just sitting in a room and talking. Some of the conversations felt like much-need support circles for isolated individual artists, others sparked lively debate about the role the City should play to support artists, but in all cases I suspect the hot-buttered bread greased the wheels of the conversations.

I loved working with Mattapan Cultural Arts, the Haley House Cafe, the amazing artists at the Cornerstone in Dorchester, and woodworker/community-builder, Beth Ireland in Roslindale. It was exciting to start a tiny network of artists, and foment connections and conversations. In looking for partnerships in neighborhoods new to me, I also experienced important pushback and skepticism, which helped me to understand the history of distrust between residents and the city in some of Boston’s underserved neighborhoods.

In the second stage of my Boston Creates work, I reflected on one of the most compelling concerns that emerged from the breadmaking parties and other conversations: the need for affordable housing and artist space (for studios, rehearsal, gallery, performance) in Boston. How can our city foster a vibrant community of artists without sufficient affordable housing and arts spaces? How can artists negotiate contributing to a dynamic cultural life and the potential role of being the “first wave of gentrification”?

Photo by Melony Swasey

Photo by Melony Swasey

To amplify these questions, I curated my first large-scale, visual art installation: an interactive paper house titled “What Makes a House Our Home?” The paper house, 10 feet long by 10 feet wide and 14 feet tall, had walls composed of hanging strands of smaller paper houses, internally-lit by LED lights. These smaller houses were shaped from poster sheets of handwritten ideas, the physical record from dozens of community meetings, and painstakingly folded with the help of a dozen volunteers, and the counsel of origami artist Michael LaFoss and visual artist Janet Kawada.

The installation was an interactive experience for attendees to the November 2nd Boston Creates Town Hall meeting. To enter the meeting, attendees had to pass through the installation and answer the question, “What Makes a House our Home?” by choosing which of the three doors to enter the house: “safety”, “affordability” or “community”. (Some circled back and voted more than once). Their votes were tallied during the meeting, and afterwards as attendees exited the Town Hall, they saw the results visually displayed as a whimsical crepe-paper “pie chart” roof.

Photo by Melony Swasey

Photo by Melony Swasey

The repurposing of the handwritten posters in this installation felt meaningful to honor the time, thought, and trust so many people volunteered in attending and sharing ideas at over 100 meetings across Boston. However, I learned a lot about efficiency after investing hundreds of person-hours, for an installation that only existed for a couple hours. (I also have no idea what to do with hundreds of paper houses now). The learning curve is steep for beginners!

            Three months after the project ended, when I struggled to clarify my ideas for a new artistic project, I knew exactly who I needed to call to my dining room table for help and feedback: Kate, Maria, Heather and Leo. That is the most incredible and lasting gift of this project – the relationships forged in challenging and exciting times will continue to feed our work as artist-citizens. When you work in the cracks, it is essential to have company! There is no other way to sustain this interstitial life.