20 Neighborhoods at Chinese American Service League

Teaching artist Elaine Luther tells us about the workshops at CASL

The group in front of their maps. In the orange shirt is Bianca Lee, who is on staff at CASL, and is assisting and translating.

Artist Elaine Luther joined the participants at CASL, The Chinese American Service League, in Chicago’s Chinatown for the first of 5 weeks of art classes.

With the help of staffer Bianca Lee, SAIC grad, as translator, Elaine showed the participants how to do a simple and fun fold and cut paper cutting technique called kirigami. Each participants made two kirigami shapes and then combined them to make a lovely wall hanging.

“CASL, the Chinese American Service League is tucked away in a corner of Chinatown, away from the restaurants and hustle and bustle. The view of the Chicago skyline is different from my usual view of it.  Here’s the view from across the street from CASL’s multi-story building.”

“CASL provides a wide array of services to community members, including language classes, job training programs, a cooking school, Head Start, social clubs, and a community center for seniors. As you walk in the door, you see a beautiful painting by Chicago’s Zhou Brothers, a multi-panel red, black and gold piece that serves to recognize donors.”

“Our art class is with the participants of the community center for seniors, who come to the center daily and have meals and activities together.  The ladies are in their 70s, 80’s and even 90s and immigrated to the U.S. 40, 30, 20 and even 3 years ago. None of the participants speak English and as I speak no Cantonese, CASL staffer Bianca Lee serves as translator. Bianca holds a degree in art therapy from the School of the Art Institute and is a wonderful collaborating partner in the class in addition to translating. While some of the participants may not feel that they are creative or artists, everyone has life experience to draw on — knitting, cooking, homemaking, and decorating.  Bianca and I are introducing new materials to the participants, such as watercolor pencils and acrylic gel medium, which they enjoy.”

June 25

“Today the women participants at CASL worked with watercolor pencils and maps of China and Illinois and connected each map with a piece of rope or yarn to show their journey.  Then we talked about their journeys — how they came and when they came to America.”

July 2

“This week we began collages on wood panels that we’ll continue working on for the remainder of the classes.”

“A wonderful array of enticing materials were available for our collages, including lots of red, since red is an important and auspicious color in Chinese culture.”

“Bianca and I both participate in the class as well.  Here Bianca is showing her collage in progress and explaining what the images symbolize to her.  That’s my collage in progress in the foreground, with the green bit down the side. The art making and time together provide a perfect backdrop for talking about immigration stories, our lives, culture, childhood.  And would you believe that the participants and I played the same childhood game?  Hop scotch! A cross cultural exchange is taking place as participants share their stories and I share my mundane (to me) American experience.

This week we were talking about food and I explained that as a child I lived near a coast and we would eat a lot of seafood, cooked Louisiana style, where you boil shrimp and crab in a big pot outside with a spice mixture called Crab Boil.  The ladies said, you don’t need spices, crab is so sweet when it’s fresh!  What can I say, that’s what my people do!

It’s interesting to see your own life through the lens of someone else’s culture, and to have to explain it.”

July 7

From the book Art Saves by Jenny Doh:
“Be a Good Teacher:
I have to give Teesha Moore credit for allowing me to reinvent myself.  She is the one who opened up the teaching arena for me that I never understood.  What I now understand is that it’s important for teachers to have tangible knowledge about techniques that can be taught.  But teachers also need to have empathy and the ability to gauge students’ struggles that are not about techniques.  It’s important to hear what students are saying, and to help them feel understood and help them resolve assorted life troubles through their art.”
– Michael DeMeng
(author of Secrets of Rusty Things)

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