When I was visiting my father over winter break, I unearthed documentation of artwork that I did twenty years ago. It is funny to think of myself as an artist-practitioner for twenty years. Yet, when I look back at that work it is plain how it connects to my work today, and the red threads in the work stitch clearly through a variety of projects between then and now.
Some of these red-threads are obvious to me, but I have shown the work to a couple of friends, both of whom asked some razor sharp questions, that make me feel like the work was more of a success than I thought it was at the time.
The documentation in question was work for a class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago called “Materiality, the Body, and Motion,” which was taught by Mark Jeffery. The documentation is bound up in a red photo album with photos by my classmates, and a colleague, Alberto Antonio Aguilar, who worked at Pearl with me. The book is interspersed with handwritten notes on deep teal colored vellum, onion skin, and copper painted magnolia leaves. I will be sharing these projects over the next few days and weeks.
The work was about safety and connection in urban life: seeking a way to create sacred space and grounding to the earth in a place coated in concrete and hyper-human constructed space.
My two friends who asked questions about the work zeroed in on that right away. They read my notes and asked questions about the patterns and the method of creation. They wanted to know how the projects related to one another and to my current practice. They helped me bring out some meaning that I created at the time, but hadn’t then developed the spiritual wisdom to put into words.
The three projects were investigations into my relationship with the city of Chicago, and to urban space in general.
My feelings about urban spaces are mixed. On the one hand, it is clear that the way towards sustainability involves dense living areas. In denser areas, it is easier to create infrastructure that supports sustainable choices like public transportation, and larger buildings which hold temperatures and can be regulated with convection using green architectural techniques. On the other hand, it is clear that urban spaces as they exist with layer upon layer of human choices that clutter those possibilities. While nature creeps into sidewalk cracks and organized plantings, urban areas are also removed from the grounding feeling of nature.
Downtown Chicago in the year 2000, before the re-development of Millenium Park, had very little space that held native plants or quasi-wild spaces. Now there is a beautiful garden with native plants, tailored on a very geometric matrix, but still more wild than what was there then: a big field of grass.
Where I grew up, on the southeast side of Ann Arbor, was only a 20 minute bicycle ride from the denser downtown. However my house was across the street from a city-owned field, pond, and swamp that had been bought back from a developer sometime in the 1970’s as evidenced by abandoned foundations from their attempts to remediate the floodway. In addition the Ann Arbor Public Schools’ biggest nature area, the Mitchell Scarlett Woods, was right next to my school, and all these connected up with a big park nearby that has its own nature areas.
Essentially, we could walk for about two miles inside those woods, with few traces of humanity except the sound of 1-94 racing by a football field away from us. We went on orienteering and nature walks in those woods. We overturned rocks and stumps finding bugs, hunting garter snakes, and corralling toads. Turtles and egrets sunned themselves in the pond, and we shoveled it to skate and play hockey in the winter.
Yet we were only about twenty minutes by bus or bike from Ann Arbor’s downtown packed with cafes, galleries, vintage shops, and book sellers.
I was privileged to have easy access to both urban and natural life.
Chicago, with the backwards flowing river, reclaimed swampland, giant skyscrapers, and twenty-four hour public transportation was both exhilarating and traumatic for me. Being able to go anywhere I wanted easily, and accessing the resources of a huge urban area– fabric stores, art galleries, cultural activities– gave me power and cultural capital that I couldn’t quite reach in my hometown. The geometric hard spaces are organized and functional, created by the values of urban life: easy to navigate, but rigid and mechanical. They are so shiny they seemed untouchable and fragile.
Humans built the city and it was inspirational and intimidating.
However the beauty of human-built spaces was also a barrier. It was difficult for me to be so far removed from organically flowing streams and wild areas full of overgrown woods. In my dorm at DePaul, I was removed from the sounds of birds. They were replaced by the rumble of the EL going by at all hours across an empty field with no trees.
When I moved out of the dorm, the neighborhoods I lived in were a bit better. I prioritized living near parks or near the lake, but there was still a restlessness that I felt that fed into my artistic practice, and motivated me to see solace in creating art, connection, and what I used to think of as “sacred space.”