Category Archives: Public Art

Once Upon A Place Comes to Toledo

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The world of immigration is calling from a phone booth in Toledo.

When was the last time you found yourself in a phone booth? I don’t remember, and I bet you don’t either. These little, closet-like structures used to dot the urban landscape, providing points of tinny contact with far away people and places. The internet and cell phones have changed all that, and now the lowly phone booth is a seldom-seen and even more seldom operated relic of the analog era.  But global citizen and Afghan American artist Aman Mojadidi wants you to pick up the phone right now, and reconnect with the outside world via 3 re-furbished and re-purposed phone booths installed in downtown Toledo until October 22.

Born in 1971 to a prominent Afghani family (his uncle is a former president of Afghanistan), Mojadidi grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, where he learned to navigate the psychological contradictions and similarities between his family’s traditional Afghani culture and the values of the American south. From his unique cultural vantage point, Mojadidi drew satirical comparisons between the macho culture of the Afghan mujahedeen fighters and American “gangsta” culture in staged photos such as “A Day in the Life of a Jihadi Gangster After a Long Day’s Work (2010) and made pointedly humorous artworks like his fashionable suicide vest,  Conflict Chic.

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A Day in the Life of a Jihadi Gangster After A Long Day’s Work

The phone booths Mojadidi recently designed for Once Upon a Place move away from satire and toward a more journalistic approach to the subject of immigration. As part of his Times Square Arts residency, Mojadidi was drawn to the phone booth as a perfect vehicle from which to tell the immigrant story.  “I learned that phone booths were being removed from the streets… the idea immediately hit me. The fact that so many people have used these booths in the past… made them a natural way to present new stories.”

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Conflic Chic Suicide Vest

He researched the full variety of immigrant experience by studying census  records, articles and reports on immigration and then went out into the community to contact immigrants directly in community centers, mosques and temples.  There, he admits, his interest was suspect, “… there was a lot of suspicion from them, which added an extra barrier to reaching people. They wanted to know why I was collecting information on immigrants. Many people who spoke with me were illegal and stayed anonymous.” Rather than a scripted interview, Mojadidi’s methods were open-ended. He asked his subjects to tell him anything they wanted to share, such as, “why they left home… [or] why they came to NYC. Was there something unique that happened on the journey?”  In the end, he collected over 70 stories of immigrants from 26 countries.

When I visited Once Upon a Place in Promenade Park recently, Mojadidi’s skill in putting together a moving collection of stories was apparent. As I listened to the interviews in the phone booth, I often couldn’t understand the language that was being spoken (I’ll admit here that my Urdu is weak). It gave me a sense, though, of how large and interconnected the world is, and amplified the emotional impact of the interviews. Whether the speaker was a young man carried over the Mexican border by his mom when he was three years old, or a man from Yemen whose attitude about politics was completely changed by 9/11, or a Puerto Rican woman who came to New York to make a change in her life, each story was deeply personal and unique.  Or as Mojadidi said in an interview, “Picking up that phone and listening to someone’s voice is an intimate experience; it’s different from hearing someone’s story on the news or through some other medium. In a way, the project just cuts out the politics; the person just tells their story.”

Local arts organizartions sponsoring Once Upon a Place’s Toledo residency include Contemporary Art Toledo, River House Arts, the Arts Commission and the Toledo Museum of Art. Next, Mojadidi’s phone booths are headed for Miami, before returning home to New York. The artist told me that he is working on plans for a European variation of Once Upon a Place for Paris and beyond. He also plans to begin “working on a commissioned project related to notions of Home within the context of conflict, at the Imperial War Museum in London early in 2018.”

When asked about his experience as a visiting artist in Toledo, Mojadidi replied, “I was very touched by the warmth and enthusiasm of folks… both those who helped bring Once Upon a Place there, and … the engagement of students during talks I gave at different Universities.”

This post is reprinted from The Toledo City Paper.

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In Transit

Flower of Life by Misty Lyn Bergeron

I recently wrote a review of In Transit for Pulp.  Over 70 photographs by current and former students in the Photo Technology Department of Washtenaw County Community College are on display in Gallery 117 at the Ann Arbor Art Center through September 30. To read the full review go here 

Leslie Sobel

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Lake Michigan Deep Blues by Leslie Sobel at WSG Gallery

Artist Leslie Sobel both loves nature and fears for it.  An avid hiker and outdoorswoman,  Sobel’s encaustic paintings, monoprints  and three dimensional  assemblage celebrate the mystery and majesty of nature while describing the effects of human-caused climate change. They are often based on personal observation of the landscape but can also be inspired by online aerial images of glaciers or maps of open territory at the poles.  One of Sobel’s great ambitions is to see the lands of the far north and Antarctica before they are forever changed by global warming.  “I am affected by solastalgia,” she says.  Sobel describes solastalgia as “nostalgia for a place one has never been and that is no longer there.”

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Spring Rain II

Three of Leslie Sobel’s encaustic paintings are on view now in Ann Arbor at WSG Gallery, as part of their 16+16 members invitational show, on  view until February 4.  All 3 works in the exhibit relate to a single transcendent moment Sobel experienced while hiking at the crest of the Sleeping Bear Dunes.  She and her companion were alone, a rare occurrence.  As she looked out over the brooding seascape of Lake Michigan and the clouds rolling above, Sobel had a profound sense of the small and temporary nature of human existence in the face of nature.  These somber thoughts inspired the creation of several encaustic paintings  which feature only the stormy sky and Lake Michigan,  separated by a distant horizon.

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Row of Pines by Leslie Sobel

In addition to these private meditations, Sobel does public commissioned artworks, most recently her downtown PowerArt Box. Based on her painting “Row of Pines”, it is one of several selected by online popular vote through Ann Arbor  Arts Alliance’s PowerArt Project.  The aim of the program is to install  reproductions of works  by Washtenaw County artists on power boxes throughout the city in order to add visual interest to the streetscape and to discourage tagging on utility boxes.  Phases 1 and 2 have been completed and now Phase 3 is in the planning stages.  The Arts Alliance is actively soliciting sponsors for individual power boxes. For more information go here.

Sobel’s interest in the natural environment has also led to her participation in numerous artist-in-residence programs in national parks, where she is often paired with scientists and naturalists working there.  She recounts with special pleasure a recent residency in Colorado’s  Canyon of the Nations National Monument, where she worked alongside archeologists, biologists, anthropologists and geologists.  “I was surprise how much these ruins tied in with my interest in climate change–the people who lived here didn’t die. They had to move because they had depleted and degraded  the local natural resources. When archeologists searched the middens (trash heaps) of the abandoned settlements, they found that earlier ones held the remains of deer and antelope, while the later ones had the bones of chipmunks and mice.”   In the later middens. they also encountered human remains showing signs of cannibalism, a grim reminder of true scarcity that led to their departure for points further to the southwest where it is believed  they  became the Hopi nation.

 

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Climate Change Game

 

In at least a partial fulfillment of her dream to see the far north and south latitudes before they are changed forever, Sobel is planning  an extended visit to the Yukon in 2017.  She will camp and create in Kluane National Park at the invitation of scientist and researcher Seth Campbell of the University of Maine. Like so many worthy projects, this is an unfunded labor of love; Sobel will be soliciting funds for the trip soon in a GoFundMe campaign. For more information about Leslie Sobel, go here.

Cathy Jacobs

Cathy Jacobs doesn’t remember not being an artist.  As a child she sat at the vanity of her upstairs bedroom drawing obsessively for hours.

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Starry Sky by Cathy Jacobs

“I was always drawing from the time I was 3 or 4.  When I was 7 or so, I thought I can be an artist! I had a vision of a sort of Salvador Dali character in a beret and a pencil mustache.”

In fact, she remembers dressing up as the surrealist master for Halloween one year.  This seemed perfectly natural to her, since art was a man’s world at the time.

“I always thought I’d grow up to be a man” she says, laughing.

The image Starry Sky that was chosen for the PowerArt Project box now installed at Miller and Main in Ann Arbor, comes directly from her childhood memories. She vividly recalls  looking out of her bedroom window at the night sky and the  houses in her Ferndale neighborhood. “I didn’t like that they were so uniform, so I invented columns and balconies for them in my mind,” she says.

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Interface by Cathy Jacobs, 2012

Jacobs’ interest in painting and drawing  was a constant throughout her childhood and adolescence and was followed by college art studies. She studied painting at Wayne State University where she earned a B.F.A. and continued at Eastern Michigan University where she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Painting degree in 2015.

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Breakfast of Champions by Cathy Jacobs, 2010

Jacobs’s paintings from this period are figurative and show a strong interest in fantasy and storytelling. Fairytale archetypes and mysterious situations, puppets, dolls and queens populate her pictures. They have the quality of half-remembered dreams, fascinating and just out of reach.

Her work at this time was well composed and expertly painted, but Jacobs felt dissatisfied. She wanted the color, translucency and light in her paintings to escape from the picture plane and from narrative imagery. She experimented with various sheer or translucent materials–metal screen, gauzy silk and the like–collaged onto her paintings. The  kind of lightness and atmosphere that she wanted  seemed impossible to achieve with the media at hand.

But then, in 2014, Cathy Jacobs discovered weaving. Finally, this new medium allowed her to escape the painted canvas and the drawn image.

“It immediately took hold of my imagination. Through weaving, I found that I could express the full spectrum of colors and moods, but in real 3-dimensional space…I learned weaving and all of a sudden all the things I was thinking about in my paintings, the depth you would get through layers of color and translucency, I found I could get in 3 dimensions.”

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Portal by Cathy Jacobs, 3 views, handwoven linen, aluminum screen, mirror, metal hangers

Cathy Jacobs sees the way before her clearly now. “My current focus is in weaving panels of linen that, when layered together create vibrating fields of color.”  She has already had some success, exhibiting  her woven panels at Sofa Chicago 2015 on Navy Pier, and in the 2016 Architectural Digest Design Show in New York City.  This fall, her work will be featured in  World of Threads in Ontario, Canada.

Jacobs enjoys both  the process of weaving and  “the sense of finality and completion that comes when I finish a piece.“  She seems to have found the means and medium to bring to the real world the contents of her imagination. Every working artist knows that this clarity is a temporary thing in a long creative life.  Cathy Jacobs is a young artist and the future may see changes in her art practice,   but for now  she is happy in her woven world.

“It feels like a really good fit, ” she says, smiling.

 

PowerArt!

Lately I’ve been spending a whole lot of time on the hot, hot streets of Ann Arbor, looking at some cool traffic box wraps that have just been installed all over town. After the chaos and cacophony of the Ann Arbor Art Fairs last week (which features the work of excellent and not-so-excellent artists from around the country) it’s a pleasure to see work by accomplished local talent while walking leisurely down the now-deserted streets.

The PowerArt! project is sponsored and managed by Arts Alliance in co-operation with the Downtown Development Authority and  Ann Arbor Public Arts Commission. Not only do these easily cleanable vinyl-wrapped  traffic boxes add interest to the urban streetscape, they also -sneakily- discourage graffiti and tagging.    I’ve seen projects like this in my travels, most recently in Seattle and Minneapolis, and now power box wraps have come to our fair city.  The project features images from Washtenaw County artists, some of whom I know (I’m one of them) and some I’d never heard of.

I was curious so I googled them. Where have I been? What I discovered was that Ann Arbor/Washtenaw County is home to  an amazing group of accomplished arts professionals that are keeping a very low profile. There’s a science illustrator, an accomplished museum conservator, a comic and children’s book author and a caricaturist (just to name a few). There are also numerous artists who teach at all levels as well as working hard on creating their own art.

I think it’s some kind of a crime that many of  these creatives haven’t (up to now) been  widely known and appreciated in their home town. So in the coming months I will be periodically interviewing them for RustbeltArts.com.  Stay tuned!

I will be going on vacation in the next two weeks, and since this is a one-horse operation there will be a short hiatus in my posts.  If you want to read  about Michigan arts and artists  while I’m gone, there’s a good story by former MLive arts reporter Jenn McKee about PowerArt! project from Culture Source . There’s also an interesting interview with Bruce Worden (the afore-mentioned science illustrator) here

Stay cool!