The first week of August marked the first two city-wide 20 Neighborhoods meetings at Woman Made Gallery, focused on bringing participating artists, teaching artists, and partner organizations together to meet one other, share experiences and aspirations, and contribute to the development of the upcoming exhibition. With about 45 people present for the first meeting, and the about 25 present for the second, both evenings were alive with vibrant with conversation, shared ideas, and at some points, strong emotions.
In the spirit of found-object assemblage, attendees first gathered around stations containing various objects (a hammer, a feather, needle and thread, colored pencils, a plate, fork, and knife) to meet one another and discuss their shared and diverging interpretations of the objects’ symbolism.
At the station containing four pencils of ranging colors, two women remarked that they identified most with the blue pencil, which for them was reminiscent of the sky and also contained symbols of freedom, openness, and levity.
A number of women connected with each other over the needle and thread because it reminded them of their mothers with their thrift and ingenuity in fixing the family’s clothing and taking care of their homes. One woman shared that she recently came close to throwing out a purse because the lining was ripped up, but then she remembered her mother and decided to mend it, which brought her a sense of satisfaction: “I felt really good!”.
From there we switched from the exploration and discussion of objects to discussing questions about our neighborhoods and communities such as: “What would make you feel safer?”, “If you could travel anywhere in Chicago where would you go?”, “What do you like about the schools in your neighborhood, and what would you change?”, “If you could put your artwork from this project anywhere in your neighborhood for others to see, where would you put it?”. The conversations that emerged from these questions were rich with experiences and ideas that intertwined, connected, and diverged.
After discussing these questions, we wrote and drew our ideas on post-it notes and put them on the wall under the discussion questions. Here is some of what emerged:
“There’s just enough happening but I don’t always feel like I’m part of it. I wish there were more community events in the streets”. “I would like to see more art in my neighborhood that is made by locals or by the school children”. “Art in trees! Art on tables! Art in windows!”. “I would like to feel safer in my neighborhood. If there was a regular walking patrol in the neighborhood (at least a bike patrol in the residential portion)”. “I like that the schools in Pilsen have art programs or are close in proximity to FREE arts programming. I would change outdated books and add sociology to the curriculum by law”. “I wish using PACE was easier so I can meet new people”. “I refuse to be afraid”.
One of the most interesting conversations to emerge from this activity was in response to the statement “I would like to quality education for the children of my neighborhood”, which sparked a lively debate on education and parenting. One woman from the workshops at Imagine Englewood If brought up that her son gets out of school suspension for 10 days just for talking back to a teacher. She expressed that this kind of disciplinary action is making it hard for her to parent and for him to learn since there is no mechanism for him to get caught up once he returns to school, and it is hard for her to keep an eye on him during the day when he is out of school for suspension.
Many in the room agreed and voiced concerns about how the system could be improved to make out of school suspension less frequent and to put mechanisms in place to help students catch up if they are suspended. Another woman, who is a teacher and is participating in the South Side Community Art Center workshops, offered her perspective about how hard it is to teach when students are disruptive, and that disciplinary action is the only tactic or power teachers feel they have, and parents need to do more at home to make sure their kids are better behaved.
Another woman from the Imagine Engelwood If group brought up the work that their organization does around lead abatement and mentioned that lead poisoning is linked to learning and behavioral problems, and that it is important to address this in any conversation about education and discipline in Chicago schools. While the discussion felt tense, it also felt like productive. There was somewhat general agreement that these issues are part of a systemic problem and that we need to keep talking and learning from one another.
We ended both the meetings discussing the exhibition and all of its various components, with the hope that participating artists can be fully integrated in the exhibition process.
At the first meeting we began to discuss what kinds of panel discussions and artist talks could coincide with the exhibition. We are already looking forward to presentations from the workshop of women war veterans at Living Arts Center, as well as the artists at Center on Halsted, who are interested in a public exploration of their group’s diversity in age, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.
At the second meeting we had a little time to talk about the layout of the exhibition and brought up some of the questions we will be dealing with more explicitly at the exhibition planning meetings. For an example, we posed the question: “Should the assemblages be grouped by neighborhood/ organization, or intermixed?”. Many people in the room voiced that they would prefer to see the assemblages grouped together with others from the same workshop group as a way to understand the city. Many brought up various ways that a geographic or spacial presentation of the city could be linked to the display of assemblages in the space. Ideas included:
-Designating the back of the gallery as North and the front as South, or the downstairs as South and the upstairs as North, and placing assemblages accordingly
-Using the image of the subway system to designate neighborhoods, either with colored electric tape on the floor, or colored tape, string, or wire on the ceiling
-Hanging signs (maybe that look like street signs) from the ceiling to show which neighborhood is which
Kristina Tendilla, the teaching artist from Benton House, in Bridgeport brought up the idea of creating some kind of activity book or scavenger hunt, either printed separately or as part of the catalog, that would allow visitors to connect the work of women in one neighborhood to the work of women in another by finding similarities and differences.
We are looking forward to focusing in on the exhibition at upcoming city-wide 20 Neighborhoods meetings on August 15th and September 5th. Stay tuned for updates!