Collaborative Curation, Ethical Exclusion, and the Materiality of Nightlife
Luz Blumenfeld with Roya Amirsoleymani
“People who organize parties in fringe spaces, or on the edges of the mainstream, or by and for marginalized communities, are curators of contemporary culture. Period.”ROYA AMIRSOLEYAMNI
When Roya Amirsoleymani presented her work and curatorial practice to our class last semester, I took the following very enthusiastic notes:
Among the phrases that I drew hearts around are: “curatorial practice as redistribution of wealth + resources,” “curating collectively,” “parties as material,” “sound + noise as visual art.” These thoughts informed my work deeply in the fall. I was, and still am, interested in how a temporal space, like a party or karaoke, can be a form of curated intimacy and the potential power of transformation there.
Roya posed the question, “What kind of temporary utopia or community space do you want to create?” I began to think about karaoke as a material, a temporary dreamscape, a liminal space. My own curiosities about sound art and field recordings were also echoed in her lecture as she mentioned her interest in “sound and noise as visual art, as a form of contemporary art,” a concept that was new to me though not conceived by Roya herself.
In November 2021, I collaborated with a friend to perform and record the entirety of Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR album in a karaoke studio. The experience itself was cathartic and ritualistic, and I struggled with the question of whether to use the field recording to create something else or to let it be enough on its own. The idea to consider field recordings and sound a material on their own has felt really expansive to me. I am leaning into the potential for a field recording of a performance or experience to be enough, to not have to be a stepping stone on the way to a larger project.
The following interview took place over email.
Luz Blumenfeld: I loved what you said about parties as material and I would love to hear more about that; what has it looked like in your own work and practice? What excites you about this concept and its possibilities? It made me think of Nan Goldin’s early photo slideshows at NYC nightclubs.(1)
Roya Amirsoleymani: Most of my curatorial experience has been at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), and our signature program since 2003 has been the annual Time-Based Art Festival (TBA), which includes experimental performance of all kinds (dance, theatre, music, etc.), visual art, film/video, new media, publications, and public programs such as artist talks, lectures, conversations, panels, and commissioned contextual writing. Additionally, the festival has always had a track of “late-night” programs, which tend to be centered on music, film, and/or dance parties/nightlife. There are social spaces built into these events, like bars, a beer garden, and local food (in the last several years, the food program has focused on partnering with BIPOC+-owned pop-ups). The late-night program has served as a meeting and convening space for both local and visiting artists, audiences, and participants. People talk about the artistic work in the festival, connect socially and informally, have more candid conversation, even hook up! For a long time, this track was considered more of a “fringe” program, peripheral to the “primary” festival, but we developed a more nuanced understanding of its value alongside a broader shift in discourse in contemporary art about how parties and social experiences are actual artistic material, part of what can be thoughtfully and intentionally curated.
To expand a bit, TBA’s late-night programs have historically had cheaper tickets, drawn a younger audience (always intergenerational, but skewed young), and are typically more demographically diverse (especially in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status). We have not been able to realize the late-night, in-person experiences at TBA since Covid, but it is something we hope to return to in some form— of course, with an understanding of all the ways in which art institutions need to do everything differently (and better) for the future. The reason I detail this track of TBA is not because it’s the only example of such a thing, but because it’s personal— it is how I came to understand nightlife and social space as part of the “art,” as just as important to critical conversations about contemporary culture as anything presented on more formal “stages” or in designated gallery spaces.
We have also learned ways in which party spaces are not always accessible, or can be less democratic than their image or spirit might suggest. For example, they might not feel safe or welcoming for folks who don’t drink alcohol, or for whom a big dance party might be too much stimulation, or whose traumas are triggered by dimly lit, crowded, party spaces and atmospheres. So, it can be exclusionary and inaccessible in certain ways. But it has also felt like a more comfortable space to a lot of people who don’t feel as welcome in a traditional theater or gallery setting, or who are seeking to be among more BIPOC+, Disabled, queer, trans, poor, and other folks who have been historically excluded from “high art” spaces.
Nightlife has always been a substantive part of contemporary, experimental, and underground art worlds, and the ways in which it is incorporated— both formally and informally— into institutional and non-institutional programs and spaces is something we should continue exploring, analyzing, and celebrating. People who organize parties in fringe spaces, or on the edges of the mainstream, or by and for marginalized communities, are curators of contemporary culture. Period.
Luz: I would love to hear more of your thoughts on “curating collectively” as a way to redistribute institutional resources. Could this be another way to frame collaboration?
Roya: ‘Collaboratively’ might actually be the better word here. I almost always invite co-curation, as it is a way of decentralizing authority, building/honoring collective knowledge, and directing institutional resources to individuals and communities who are historically excluded from wealth, or who don’t otherwise have a lot of access to such (gatekept) resources. I have co-curated two exhibitions with my PICA colleague, Kristan Kennedy: Gordon Hall’s THROUGH AND THROUGH AND THROUGH (2019) and Carlos Motta’s We Got Each Other’s Back (2020-21), the latter itself being a highly collaborative project based on how Carlos centers and works with local artists and creative communities to produce his projects, in this case with a focus on queer undocumented folks. I collaborated with Kat Salas and Matilda Bickers (at the time, of Stroll PDX) to curate No Human Involved: The 5th Annual Sex Workers’ Art Show, an exhibition, symposium, and publication in partnership with PICA in Fall 2019. I worked with a group of local sound artists to curate SUBHARMONIC: A Sonic Arts Symposium at PICA in Spring 2018. And in a similar vein, I have invited Felisha Ledesma (now based in Berlin), co-founder of the former artist-run sound and visual art space S1, to co-curate an upcoming program of sound art— in the form of performances, commissions, symposia, video/film exhibition, listening spaces, and a publication on the founding years of S1, to take place in Winter 2023. There was never a question in my mind of wanting to produce that project alone. I had Felisha as a collaborator in mind all along, and would have loved to have worked with any number of folks in similar ways. I will probably always choose to invite co-curation, whether I am working from within or outside of an institution and I believe I am a better curator and human because of the collaborative experiences I have in realizing artistic projects.
In short, I have always preferred to collaborate with others, to be in a place of conversation, discussion, idea exchange, resource-sharing, trust building, and to bring together expanded and perhaps siloed networks/social circles/spheres of community belonging. I think of these modes of curating (collaborative, shared, community-based, etc.) as aligned with my politics, values, and the ways in which I want to see art worlds change for the better. I am frustrated by curatorial practices that simply display politics as content, signaling social justice values without living them, embedding them, operationalizing them, or building them into the ways in which a curatorial project or institution functions.
Luz: In the lecture you gave for our class last semester, you spoke about “ethical exclusion,” and asked, “should a project always be for everyone?” I’ve been thinking a lot about who the work is for lately and the radical potential of making work specifically for certain people/groups of people. I think it can actually be really expansive to make work with and for only some people and not the “general public” (which to be honest, I’m not sure exists ha)
Roya: Great thinking! Here are some expanded thoughts on this:
Not everything is, can, or should be for everyone. I’m noticing artists, curators, and institutions approach this in several ways.
Increasingly, artists are making work that comes from a place of either critique or care (though these are not mutually exclusive). In either case, who or what is being critiqued, or who/what is being cared for, is specific. There is a growing and nuanced form of “refusal” in artists’ work across disciplines. For example, a rejection of the White gaze or audience, whether in the form of open critique of predominantly White audiences/art worlds, or in the form of exclusion/inclusion (e.g., excluding White audiences, exclusive to/caring for BIPOC+ audiences). The latter is just an example— this can look many ways. Sometimes a certain tension is at play. A knowing, active rejection or refusal of most of the people who are “in the room” to witness the work (those people typically being of dominant culture, e.g., White, able-bodied, neurotypical, cis). That is, artists might intentionally play with presenting in front of or “to” an audience, but the work is not legible to most of them, not “for” them, based on language, cultural references, aesthetic choices, use of space, location, or any number of other ways to create or deny access/legibility based on who the artist wishes to center, engage, or prioritize (or not).
Curators are sometimes the very people for whom the artistic work is not intended. Curators don’t always acknowledge or recognize this, but one way I think they can honor artistic work, regardless of intended audience, is to see themselves as being in service to it, to the artist, and to those it is “for.” To get out of the way, so to speak (curators giving up their jobs/power is another kind of “getting out of the way” that also needs attention/conversation!). To suspend or drop ego. To direct institutional resources (of all kinds) to support the project and the artist’s vision, unencumbered as much as possible. To be a voice of “authority” as a curator is an outdated and arguably unethical form of curatorial practice and interpretation of its purpose. Curators are, ultimately, facilitators of the work, and they must shift how they do their job from one artist/project to the next, each one customized, unique in what it needs, asks for, or invites. It is also a curator’s and institution’s job to “do right” by the work as much as possible— to meet artists’ needs, to strive to reach its intended audience, to be truthful, transparent, and forthcoming about working culture, processes, labor, fees and budgets, capacity, audience, limitations, etc. To be a partner in the work in the ways the artist wishes.
The notion of broad public engagement— the more people reached, the more diverse/mixed the audience, the better— has long been considered the goal in both visual and performing arts. Yet it overlooks the specificities of projects as defined and self-determined by the artist(s) themselves, and by the audiences who do meet it, or for whom it is intended. I have always believed that a depth of engagement is more impactful than breadth, yet at the same time, artists deserve visibility. So “outreach” or “engagement” with the multiple publics that might connect with a given project must be highly intentional, effortful, and committed. The reach of a project should be a considered aspect of its design.
Finally, institutions and artists must consider who feels welcome in their space, neighborhood, etc. Even if a project is intended for a certain audience or community, per se, it doesn’t mean those folks will feel comfortable being in the institution’s space, or able to access it. And in some cases, it is nearly impossible to undo an institution’s deeply seated reputation or reality of being an unwelcoming or exclusionary space, and it will take major shifts in internal culture, staffing, even mission if it is to achieve that. A complete reimagining.
(1) “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” by Nan Goldin, was originally formatted as a slideshow with music and shown at NYC nightclubs and bars. It was later turned into a book. There’s an excellent article about this by photographer Elle Pérez here.
Luz Blumenfeld (they/them) is a mixed, 3rd generation, gay artist from Oakland, CA. Luz is in their first year of the Art + Social Practice MFA Program. They are currently thinking about liminal spaces, psychogeography, and how a physical space can hold memory. You can see some of their work here, and you can follow them on Instagram at @dogsighs__.
Roya Amirsoleymani (she/her) is Artistic Director & Curator of Public Engagement at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), where she co-curates performance, visual art, public programs, and the annual Time-Based Art Festival. She also co-directs PICA’s Creative Exchange Lab artist residency program and their Precipice Fund, part of the Warhol Foundation’s Regional Regranting Program. Roya has been instrumental in expanding the organization’s commitments to access, equity, inclusion, and community engagement, with attention to contemporary art’s social, political, and cultural contexts. She lectures and presents at conferences; writes for publications; serves on grant and award panels; consults with art and cultural agencies; sits on Portland’s Public Art Committee; and teaches in Portland State University’s MFA Program. She holds a B.A. in Contemporary Visual Culture & Gender Studies and a Master’s in Arts Management Roya is committed to reimagining institutions in collaboration with their communities, in order to realize a more just art world and whole world.
ISO: Mentors of Color
Lillyanne Phạm with Karena Salmond
“I think so many organizations and companies talk so much about the need to diversify, and I think without necessarily talking about the ‘Why.’ And I think it’s that ‘Why’ that starts to make it click.”KARENA SALMOND
2022 is my last year of adolescence, 24-years-old. It’s a major event for me as I transition from being a youth organizer working with youth, to being an adult organizer working with youth. I’m excited (and nervous) to explore how youth allyship manifests in my daily life and art practice. To start off the year, I wanted to confront the toxic narratives of “being self-made” and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” by acknowledging those who have shaped me and are examples of the ways adults can show up for youth. Youth Program Director of Caldera Arts, Karena Salmond, has been one of my prime anchors.
In Fall 2020, I completed my Emerging Leaders Internship (ELI) PDX and progressed to Emerging Leaders Mentoring (ELM) PDX. ELI links students of color to paid summer internships in Portland and provides culturally competent workforce development training. If students are recent graduates, they are offered a spot in the mentoring program to establish sustainable support for their intern alums. At this stage, the amazing Director of Mentoring, Partnerships, and Recruitment, Nick Poindexter, asked me what qualities I wanted in a mentor. I gave him a really long list including a non-YT mentor, and was a part of the art world, but didn’t believe in conforming to the art world.
Nick played with some LinkedIn magic and found my soul mentor, Karena (she/her), who showed me care, honesty, and trust from day one. Since 2020, we’ve had monthly conversations that have helped me survive the uncertainty of exiting college. She also encouraged me to explore and mold my own space in the art world. Karena is currently shaping her Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) work and creatively challenging the non-profit industrial complex. Below we expand more on the importance of racially and culturally responsive mentoring and organizational structures, along with the creative practices that are part and parcel to them.
Lillyanne Pham: Hi Karena! Who would you consider to be your first mentor outside of your household?
Karena Salmond: It’s interesting because I think about mentoring as someone who supports in finding different pathways. This is completely informal, but one person that I often go back to, as someone who really changed the way that I saw myself and my potential, is an old friend from high school. While we didn’t go to the same school, I met her in high school. She is Salvadoran, her parents are Salvadoran immigrants.
She was probably one of the first nonwhite friends I had made as a high schooler. And she was just unapologetic about her race and ethnicity in ways that were so different than how I felt about myself at the time. And I think through our friendship, in a lot of ways, I became a different person. Even though she wasn’t, you know, there was no structure or formality to our relationship, I do often think of her as someone who impacted my life in a really positive way. And also my growth. That, I think, is certainly typical of friendships, but just a little bit deeper.
Another person that I think about, kind of very differently, is a woman named Sally Putney, I interned under her. She ran the YWCA mentoring program in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In the 90s, internships were often about making copies and entering data, and doing a lot of grunt work. But she really wanted me to have more of an experience. She was also a great mentor herself. She had a lot of different mentees formally. She really showed me what it was like to have ownership in a professional setting. Then I also took on a mentee at that time. She was just a great role model in both what it meant to run a nonprofit program and also what it meant to be somebody’s mentor. So those are two people that I often reflect on in terms of my own mentorship.
Lillyanne: For the first one, how did y’all meet?
Karena: We met because we both loved the same boy [Karena and Lillyanne laugh]. And she— this is how bold she is— straight-up called me one day and just laid it out: “We both love him. What are we gonna do about it?” Instead of him loving neither of us, Lupe and I just grew to love each other.
Lillyanne: That’s really exciting to think about, like, when I was writing these interview questions, I really didn’t think about peer-to-peer mentorship. But I definitely feel like that heavily shaped me as well. Especially growing up in a really white town with no ethnic enclaves nearby, just having fellow Brown chosen sisters when I was in elementary and middle school really impacted me— in college as well. Now I’m thinking about it. I’m like, oh my god. Brown friendships specifically redefining and exploring femininity— that brings so many memories. I feel like it’s way deeper with your chosen family than it is with your household.
Karena: There’s something about friendship, which I do think filters into youth work— that unconditional positive regard, right. With people in your household, there might always be some element of judgment. Because they, I guess, will have a bigger stake in your success in life. Whereas that peer-to-peer, I think, is often free of that same kind of judgment and pressure that you get in the household.
Lillyanne: I never even thought about unconditional positive regard. Yeah, then there’s the fact that y’all are the same age, and y’all are growing together and seeing each other grow. And like, that’s exciting as well, and experiencing the same things and having a different lens and sharing that. And having solidarity within peer spaces is really important too.
I interned for DREAM!, a restorative justice organization in New York City. They use art programs such as filmmaking inside schools to teach students how to do peer mediation in the Bronx. They found that it kept kids in school from fighting and lowered neighborhood crime. When youth give each other advice and stop conflict on their own, it is way more productive than an adult figure coming in that power structure. It makes me really curious about youth solidarity for adults. Does that mean empowering youth to empower themselves?
Karena: I think it’s a lot about holding space. Because I’ve seen that peer-to-peer connection and support at Caldera Arts.(1) Last summer, at camp, we did these small group bonding times at the end of the day, and it’s the adult staff members’ responsibility to hold the space and facilitate. But, in one of the groups that I joined, the group was just talking about their day and one of the students mentioned that they had a hard day and they had family stuff going on. Most of the students in the group brought forth so much support for this person and so much empathy. And there was so much you know, Oh, that’s really hard. And, Oh, I went through something like that too. Yes, our programming is about art and the environment. But so much of it, at its core, is about community and support.
Lillyanne: I feel like the youth stereotype, especially teens, is that they’re very much in their own worlds. There’s Gen Z who are too into social media and too into themselves. I feel like if you give them a chance, just listen and sit there, rather than try to control a situation, teens and youth eventually show that they can have as much emotional capacity as someone who is older. Ageism is real.
I also want to ask about your BA in Fine Arts at Kalamazoo College and your decision to pursue an MA in International and Multicultural Education at the University of San Francisco. What inspired you to explore a non-traditional pathway in the arts?
Karena: What inspired me was working at Chicago Children’s Museum, where I, every day, got to see play, imagination and creativity come alive in very young children. I had an entry-level job in their Education Department. And I just became really interested in child development and what the possibilities were, especially outside of a traditional school setting. I loved being able to see learning and discovery take place outside of a formal institution.
As we’ve talked about before, I think I sort of lost my grounding and connection as an artist after college. So, I was just thinking about the next thing and decided I wanted to go back to school and study education. I knew I didn’t want to be a classroom teacher; I wanted to go back into nonprofit youth work. At the time, I didn’t even know that arts education was a field or a possibility of connecting my art background with my education background, until I happened to get a job after grad school with an arts education organization. Then it continued and went down that path from there.
Lillyanne: If other people want to go into arts education, do you feel like that’s a smooth path?
Karena: I do, because in my program —I can only speak for my program, which was very liberal— we had really critical conversations about race and how race comes into the classroom. I think that experience challenged me to think critically about systems in ways that I hadn’t in previous education. I think that gave me experience in engaging in critical conversations in the workplace. And, you know, we are also still living in a professional world where credentials often matter. And so I just recognize that having that degree, I’m assuming, has helped in getting jobs.
Lillyanne: Did you have a thesis for your program? And beyond that, how has your training in education changed the way you think about your own early education?
Karena: I did a thesis on a case study at a child development center that was rooted in the Reggio Emilia approach, which I had become familiar with when I was working at the museum. It is, in a nutshell, an approach to early childhood education where really everything is connected, there’s no separate reading units, or separate art units, or whatever, it’s all connected. They view art as a language. I was really drawn to that aspect of the approach, and really just the child-directed approach. Which is a lot of what children’s museums are about, setting some context and letting children explore.
It definitely made me reflect on all of the rote learning that my education was and how nonexponential it was. I feel like I’ve retained nothing of what I learned in high school. I think the most useful class in high school for me was my word processing class where I learned home row and now I can type really fast. But like, I don’t remember anything that happened in history class. I just think it was not relevant to me. And not taught in ways that felt meaningful enough to actually retain. So yeah, I would say learning about different approaches has definitely shaped how I reflect on my own upbringing and how I approach youth work today.
Lillyanne: Delving deeper, why is it important for Black and Brown youth to have access to mentors, especially in the arts?
Karena: We talked about my friend Lupe, and the reason I kind of cite her as a mentor is because of her race and ethnicity. And I think Sally, the mentor who ran the YWCA program, is really special. In the mentoring field, she was really ahead of her time back then. But we didn’t talk about race and the role of race in mentoring, which I think is really important. My mentee when I was with that program was African American and we just didn’t talk about what it meant for the mentoring dynamic. What is race? How might race impact the mentoring dynamic? I think that was a big missing piece for me. I think fast forward to now, you know, I can speak for myself. I know, you and I, obviously, come from quite different backgrounds. But, just as an Asian person, I feel so much affinity with you, simply because of how we look, right?
I think a lot of the reason I lost connection as an artist after college is that there wasn’t much representation. I got really cynical about the art world because what I saw in magazines and galleries was very white-centric. It felt very about who this person knew: if you had a connection, you could get a show. And I just was so completely turned off by that.
Lillyanne: I definitely feel you’re also getting at the power of representation. It’s much more than numbers. Race and ethnicity are social constructs as we know, but I feel the need to acknowledge the corporeal realities of it. Connecting that to the arts, it is very rare to have an intimate space with representation. Versus seeing someone’s art about their racialized experience. There are actually few spaces where artists of color can connect. Did you have any of those spaces in your program or even outside of it?
Karena: When I moved to San Francisco, I found that. But, when I think about my undergrad experience, sure… I had some good professors. But I don’t remember seeing, looking at, or talking about many or any work by artists of color. All of my professors were white. The class that I hated the most was art history and it was completely about early European art. This was a small liberal arts school. And I would hope that the program is different now. But, at the time, it was just a sea of whiteness all around, in both content and who was there.
Lillyanne: How would you advise folks to build artists of color solidarity spaces for the students of color themselves, in the syllabus curation, and the decision-making processes?
Karena: I really can’t imagine any fields of study where it would not be relevant to consider the representation and critical conversations about race in that field. To even exist in our world today, we all need to think more critically and responsibly, about why representation matters and how that’s going to be achieved.
Lillyanne: I agree with you. I feel like we’ve talked about centering critical race conversations in syllabus curation before and it’s very much unavoidable. You would really have to purposely not do it. Or not know enough of it and not want to do the labor for a syllabus.
Karena: Yeah. Even if it’s in a European art history class, you could raise the question and have a section of the syllabus: why are there only white artists in a European art history context?
Lillyanne: How do you involve more artists of color in programming? How does Caldera Arts conduct outreach? Like involving artists of color, not tokenizing them, and actually having them fully access the community.
Karena: A really successful example is Caldera’s Artist in Residence Program. I don’t have the data with me. I’m pretty sure 100% of our residents in 2022 identify as BIPOC or from historically underrepresented communities. I think it is a success that has been built over time. None of this I can take credit for because it’s not my program. But our current Arts Center Program Manager, Jodie Cavalier (she/they), and before her, Maesie Speer (she/her) really built a program that prioritized BIPOC voices and artwork.
It definitely didn’t happen overnight. There was so much thought about: 1) who the organization was reaching out to, 2) how accessible our application materials were, 3) who was on the deciding panel. I think we’ve now gotten to a place where we have this really strong network. We also are very explicit. Now, we will list on our application materials that we prioritize BIPOC artists or folks from historically underrepresented communities, and we have those same people reviewing applications and making decisions.
Lillyanne: Yes to people reviewing the applications too. You’re getting representation within the process and the program. For example, if your artist residency program was all white, do you feel like artists of color would want to apply to that? I know a lot of organizations that have a majority white staff and they’re expecting BIPOC folks to work for them. Or they work with BIPOC communities but they don’t have any BIPOC in their organizational system. How do you break this cycle?
Karena: I think I will say that, personally, often if I’m job searching or just curious about an organization, I’ll go to their staff page to take a peek. And I think a strength if you look at Calderas’ staff, you see a lot of Black and Brown faces. I think it’s easy to think about communications as sort of, I don’t know, like fluff marketing, right. But I think it’s a poignant thing when someone is really intentional and thinking hard about what you’re communicating,. Whereas I think if you clicked on our staff page, and it was all white folks or white presenting folks. That’s where some judgment and questioning come in.
We have one staff member who is a youth program alum and then some other staff who started working at camp like 12 years ago and are now year-round staff. When we are hiring, we’re being really thoughtful about the aspects of a job, salary, and hiring processes through an equity lens which in turn will impact the future of our organization.
Lillyanne: […] Your internal organization matters and it really reflects your relation to BIPOC communities. (summarized)
Karena: I think so many organizations and companies talk so much about the need to diversify. And I think without necessarily talking about the ‘Why.’ And I think it’s that ‘Why’ that starts to make it click […]
Lillyanne: I’ll obviously delete some of our private experiences. I think I will summarize our conversation. As you’ve taught me to ask, can a nonprofit program or organization support whoever they’re trying to bring in? What does that support really look like? Are they willing to give away their power and disperse it? The way that has to happen if you’re making space for BIPOC communities.
Karena: Totally, there’s no way you can diversify and be successful without doing things differently.
Lillyanne: So, what does your creative practice look like in a nonprofit?
Karena: Historically, we could go all the way back to philanthropy, right? And how funding and nonprofits have often formed over the years, which is by well-intentioned white folks with deep pockets. And I am not saying I’m not grateful, or that these people didn’t have great ideas or start really incredible things. But I do think, if we don’t acknowledge the role of whiteness in the history of arts organizations and nonprofit work, there’s a big miss there.
I think we need to shake things up and look at different perspectives, all the way from how nonprofit and art organizations are funded in relation to the folks that those organizations are serving. And then there’s a lot in between. There are leadership structures, decision-making structures, whose voices are involved in the direction of an organization and the programming that it offers. Just having spent so much time in nonprofits, I am really drawn to the stuff in between. It’s hard to say, Oh, it’s this one thing. Because it’s not, it’s so varied and deep.
Lillyanne: How can creatives work within and against the nonprofit industrial complex system?
Karena: I feel like my day-to-day and the way that I’m most frequently flexing creativity is in creative problem solving, and trying to envision a different way forward. I think of artists and creatives as the OG innovative thinkers. I think so much of Art and its power is being able to look at something through a new lens, or see something in a way that you haven’t before.
I really think the industry needs people with different perspectives and different ideas of how to do things differently. I know it’s easy for myself to get caught in the cycle of like, Oh, well, this funder really likes this. Those structures are just so ingrained in me. So I love the idea of a new generation of creative thinkers just coming in and taking risks and exploring other ways.
Lillyanne: You mentioned earlier the concept of art as a language. Are you picturing this in the nonprofit world? What really drew me into socially engaged art was seeing cultural work in action in a nonprofit setting at Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO)(2). I don’t see many nonprofits that incorporate arts organizers as their own department. It’s usually one small lens throughout the whole organization. I was wondering what would happen if more nonprofits embrace art as thinking, engagement, and community building?
Karena: Something I think about a lot is that outside of creative problem solving, Caldera, as an arts organization and as staff members, spend very little time during our workday making art. And so much of what happens in our youth work is the joy and love in exploring new creative pathways. There’s a disconnect, right? How much of that comes into how we run the organization? And I don’t know what the answer is, what the role of doing that is? Or should it be in our work? It’s just something that I notice.
Our program manager is compiling a zine from some of our artists in residence and now she’s solicited staff contributions. I spent maybe like an hour last week working on my zine contribution. But I had this thought process of like, Oh, I’m like on the clock, should I be doing this right now? This was a doodle. This was not like an extensive project. But I was feeling some guilt over spending time doing something artistically creative that was part of work. Because I’m so used to work meaning emails and meetings. I had those feelings come up for me.
Lillyanne: Embracing art as joy and letting joy live within work is something that needed to be named, so thank you! Leading to my last question, how do you practice creativity outside your dance practice?
Karena: I think we’ve probably talked about this a lot in the past, but I do feel like most of my creative practice if I’m not doing an Instagram dance class is with my kids. I’m drawing alongside them or drawing something that they demand and draw. Which is nice, but it is different. I wouldn’t say it is as fulfilling as if I had time and space for my own exploration.
I know, we’ve also talked about my need for structure and accountability. So that remains an ongoing challenge in my creative practice. I feel like these days I’m most interested in just trying different mediums. A theme of my life has been holding small bits of knowledge about many different areas, but not being an expert on them. Right now, I want to do a block print of the house that my dad grew up in. And I will maybe work on it for 10 minutes at a time, like once a month. So, maybe six months from now, I’ll have something for you [Karena and Lillyanne laugh]. It’s all in bits and pieces these days.
(1) Learn more about Caldera Arts here.
(2) Learn more about APANO here.
Karena Salmond (she/her) is a Portland-based nonprofit worker, mother, Korean American, creative thinker and sometimes maker. She currently serves as youth program director at Caldera Arts and has dedicated her career to art as a vehicle for social change. When not working, Karena can be found dancing, cooking, and daydreaming about vacations.
Lillyanne Phạm (LP) (they/bạn/she/em/chị) was raised by Việt refugees in a trailer park near cornfields and suburbs (b. 1997). LP is a multimedia storyteller, placekeeping facilitator, social media scholar, and cultural worker. LP grounds their work in ancestral knowledge, the world wide web, and community-powered safety/sanctuary. Since graduating from Reed College in 2020, LP and their work have been rooted in East Portland exploring the power of BIPOC youth decision making. LP also builds community as a member of Metro’s Equity Advisory Committee (EAC), the Contingent’s SINE and ELI network, 2022 Atabey Medicine Apprenticeship, and the O82 Art Crew. You can follow LP’s work on IG: @lillyannepham or website: lillyannepham.com
Uncomfortable Conversations: Money Stories
Marina Lopez with Jose Marcos Lopez (my Papa)
“Like Mama Zoila always used to say, “If you don’t have ten feet to put shoes on, then you don’t need ten pairs of shoes, you need only one pair.”JOSE MARCOS LOPEZ
In 2021 I started Uncomfortable Conversations, a series of conversations that invites people into discomfort as a place of discourse and connection. I begin by asking people to identify a word or topic that makes them uncomfortable and then we use that as a starting place for a conversation. Both verbal and non-verbal dialogue serve as the medium to trace back pathways to locate the roots and home of discomfort that reside within us as individuals, and form our social and cultural sinew. In the inaugural conversation with artist Caroline Woolard, which was shared in the Fall 2021 edition of the SoFA Journal, we spoke about ‘money.’ Without being prompted, every subsequent participant has chosen to center their conversation around money. Their choice has beautifully shaped the first iteration of Uncomfortable Conversations around our ‘money stories.’
In tracing money stories with my participants, I become curious about the roots of my own relationship to money. I realized that my experiences were deeply informed by those of my parents and their parents before them. So, I invited my Papa to be a part of Uncomfortable Conversation, Money Stories as an integral part of this project.
My Papa, Jose Marcos Lopez Fosenca (he was told to drop his name, Fonseca when he immigrated to the U.S. in 1986 because it would make paperwork easier) is the son of una mujer poderosa y fuerte, mi abuela (my grandmother) Mama Zoila. He grew up in La Polka, Mexico, a small fishing and agricultural village in the southernmost state in Mexico with his twelve siblings. They called him El Gato, the cat for his wild adventures and larger than life stories. And I grew up with these stories of his life: The six year old who supported his family. A lone seven-year-old boy traversing seemingly endless dirt roads lined by translucent figures caught between worlds to get his education. His days began in the dark on fishing boats floating in waters of the painted dawn. His small body sprawled across still train tracks; hot blood saturated thick silk hair of youth, trickled down his spine as he oriented himself to home. Dust kicking up on feet still soft with innocence. His mother, “la Bruja” with her salves and remedies. These characters always made their way in and out of the stories that interlaced themselves into my childhood. His words spilled out in a manner that captivated the magic of life. These well-worn stories have existed as abstract legends that have deeply informed my own beliefs about the world, where I come from and who I can be. But I realized that unlike most folklore, I could speak with the author of these stories to uncover nuance, truth, and the beating heart within them. That is what you’ll find in the conversation below as we start with the prompt of, ‘money.’
Jose Marcos Lopez: We [humans] don’t create anything.We create paper and we give it some value.
Marina Lopez: Yeah. [giggles] It’s true.
Marcos: It’s like the gold. Gold you can find somewhere and we put a value. We don’t create anything. We don’t have any power. We think we are powerful, but we are not because we don’t create anything.
Marina: Who creates it, then? Who created the world?
Marcos: I mean we didn’t invent fish. Fish are in the ocean. People get it and eat it. We didn’t invent animals. Animals grow up. They eat and they grow anyway. We don’t do that. That was the philosophy when I was a child: we don’t create anything. In my community in La Polka, let’s say somebody passed away and everybody got together. The bakery would make bread for free. And people would bring coffee to share. And whoever had animals, would give something for free. The builders would go and dig the hole and make the tomb for free. People helped each other. If you wanted to build a little house the whole community would come and help. The people who were building the house provided food for those people, no money. And they made sure that everyone was okay. When I was growing up in my little La Polka all adults took care of the kids when they played. That was in my time. Now it’s different. But the money wasn’t important for us.
Marina: Yeah, that’s such a beautiful way to live.
Marcos: We understand when we pass away, you bring nothing. You don’t bring your big house, your gold stuff, your whatever. You don’t bring anything. Even now I ask myself, what is my goal in my life? My life is about being happy.
Marina: I love that Papa. You’ve always told me that.
Marcos: Just be happy. It’s not a big deal for me to pass away. It’s a part of the life. We give value to the paper. And our society brainwashes people where you are made to feel you are more important than someone else. If you have education then the system tells you that you are better than whoever doesn’t have an education. And this is not true. Because everyone is the same. A lot of people have the opportunity to get an education and a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to get an education. But everybody has abilities and gifts.
Money for me is not the most important thing in life. Always I have something to share. You know, I don’t remember one day (in my life) that I didn’t eat because I didn’t have any food. I don’t remember that you guys (my children) didn’t eat because you didn’t have any food at home.
I was blessed to have a job and make some money. Not for me, but for my family. Because if I have something, I share. For me it’s not a big deal to share. To help somebody to solve any problem they have. That comes from my community and Mama Zoila too (Marina’s Abuela).
Mama Zoila was the kind of person with a good heart and helped people. Mama Zoila picked up kids from the street and brought them home to eat. Mama Zoila collected clothes and visited places to give people what they needed. For example, on Sunday she made a lot of food and she’d send a portion of the food to the neighbors for free. If someone stole a chicken and one of my sisters saw that and my sisters would get upset. And Mama Zoila always said to her, “If that person would have asked you for chicken, would you have given it?” And my sister would say, “No!” “That’s why she stole it because she needs it and she knew that if she asked you, you were not going to give it to her. So she’s getting something that she really needed.” And my sister would say, “You’re crazy!” And Mama Zoila would say, “Yeah, I know I’m crazy.”
I was the first professional, not only in my family, but the first engineer in my town. Before me were two teachers. One of them was my friend. One passed away. But to study for engineering, I was the first one in the whole town of La Polka.
Marina: Wow! That’s amazing.
Marcos: And without help. Because nobody helped me. In La Polka we didn’t have fifth and sixth grade, so I went to Tonalá to do my middle school. When I finished at 15, I went to Paredón for military school and finally to Vera Cruz to get my college degree. Then you know the story, I came over here (the U.S.) and I went to SUNY New Paltz to get my education [Bachelor’s in education].
After I finished my degree in Vera Cruz, I went to work in the state of Oaxaca and I was an engineer. One day I asked [my friend] to go eat and he started crying. And I said, “Did I say something that hurt you?” And he said, “No. I’m crying because I’m working but I haven’t gotten paid for more than three months.” I said, “Don’t worry, I’m going to pay for it.” We went, I got some extra money and I gave it to him for his family. He tried to say “No”. And I said, “Yeah this is for your family.” And later on he tried to pay me back and I said, “Roberto, I don’t really need it.” When you see somebody that has more need than you, help that person. And even years later he reminds me of that all the time. I remember because he reminds me.
Life is too short mama. Life is a miracle. Life is too simple. We complicate it.
Marina: Yeah, I know. I always think about you saying that when things feel really hard.
Marcos: Life is simple. Like Mama Zoila always used to say, “If you don’t have ten feet to put shoes on, then you don’t need ten pairs of shoes, you need only one pair.”
But money is not the most important for me. You have money as a survival resource. But it’s not the most important [thing] for human beings. You can have a lot of money, but if you don’t have health, money doesn’t count. If you are not happy, what is the money for? A lot of people have money and they use a lot of drugs. They use it [money] in a bad way. They pay to kill somebody. It’s not good.
Marina: Yeah that’s true. And when you moved to the U.S. with Mamí, how did your life change?
Marcos: Well, I was a professional over there [in Mexico] and when I moved here [to the U.S.] I started from the bottom and that’s different. It changed everything. It changes your social and economic circles.
Marina: If you could have done anything in your life, what would you have done? Either in Mexico or in the U.S. What was your biggest dream to do with your life? What do you think you would have wanted to do?
Marcos: I don’t know. Because for a long time I didn’t believe that everything happened for a reason. In Mexico I had a good job but the corruption of systems wasn’t good either. There was no safe place to live. You don’t know anything from today to tomorrow. You could have a job today but tomorrow they could tell you, “Sorry we don’t need you anymore.”
Marina: Yeah so there was no security. No safety.
Marcos: Yeah no safety or security. Over here [the U.S.] it’s a little different. The system is a little different.
Marina: Yeah. There’s a little more security in some ways. And for you education has been something that has given you some security and also allowed you to move in different circles. Were there things in school that you got to study that you really enjoyed?
Marcos: Yeah I liked to study everything and especially Latino History. We read a lot and studied deeply about Latin American countries. We read Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And we read a lot of books about Europe and Russia. It opened my eyes about how different cultures are.
Marina: That’s really cool. And now you study a lot about different forms of spirituality, religion, and from different teachers. Do you think that is part of where your interest came from because you, at an early age, got to learn about other cultures?
Marcos: No, I mean, I read a lot about different religions in my country. The seminary [General Theological Seminary, NY] opened my mind more. Some of my professors were Vatican advisors and they had a lot of education around religion, economics, and politics.
Marina: Did they talk about how religion was related to the economic and political things that were happening?
Marcos: Oh yeah! Religion is economical. Religion doesn’t really teach spirituality, it teaches rules. Most religions take money from the poor and you can see at this point in Latin America the Catholic religion is not growing a lot. They brainwash people. All systems do this but especially religions. That’s why at this point in history a lot of people don’t believe in the main Catholic religion because they see a lot of priests abuse kids. A lot of people in society are waking up. They don’t obey the religion as much anymore. They don’t obey the politicians. They don’t obey the government. That’s why the wealthy people were thinking about how they control the societies and they use religion. Everything happens for some reason. You don’t necessarily know what’s going on from one moment to another one. Just like you never know when you’re going to pass away.
Marina: Yeah that’s true. In many ways, religion upholds hierarchical power structures where the people at the top with all the money and power make all of the rules, and everyone else is forced to follow them.
Marcos: Yeah. The system tells you that if you have more money you are superior or if you have more education you are superior. We classify people. That’s why we have wealthy class, poor class, and working class people. And it’s unfair, but this is the system.
Marina: But in your work in Mexico, you were starting fishing cooperatives, right? Helping people to learn about the benefits of working together instead of independently. What was that work like?
Marcos: It was like three or four careers in one: it’s marine biology, economics, and how does the project affect and benefit the community. We studied the land through topography and how the land behaves with the water. We made shrimp farms. We’d make big holes in the land so that the water filters more easily. We studied shrimp and the whole life cycle. From little one to big one.
Marina: You would go into the communities along the coast. What else would you teach people about? Would you teach them about the economics of it too?
Marcos: Yeah. I helped them to set up the fishing cooperative. I helped them to see the benefit of working in groups. Together. Not as individuals. I taught them how as one person the whole production exploits them. How the profits only benefit one person. But as a group there was so much more benefit. A lot of people woke up and started believing in the power of working as a group. And they’d change the director every year or two years.
Marina: Oh, wow! And did they see a benefit?
Marcos: Well, let’s see, in one group when I came, they didn’t have transportation as a group. When they worked together, they bought a car. When they worked together, they established the price of their product that was competitive. Before it was that someone would come and tell them, “I’ll pay this much for a kilo of shrimp.” So they didn’t set the price themselves. But now, they had three or four people who wanted their product, so it was more like an auction where one person would say, “I’ll give you 5 pesos Mexicano per kilo,” the other says, “No I’ll pay seven, no I’ll pay ten.” And whoever can pay the most, the whole co-op approves that. That was the benefit.
Marina: That’s really cool. Did you enjoy helping communities in that way?
Marcos: Yeah! Always I helped the community. Not only in that way, I helped in many ways.
Marina: Yeah. I mean, so much of your work since I’ve known you— because I didn’t know then— has been about helping your community. I remember how you really helped to create the Latino community in the churches in upstate New York. And even in the teaching that you do, it’s much more of a community. You teach more than just the content of the course. I remember hearing you talk about religion, spirituality, your philosophy on life, and engaging them in critical conversions about the world and their experiences in it.
Marcos: Yeah. When you were a little one I was working with Migrant Ministry. We helped people who got sick and anything the community needed. If they needed to go to the police or fill out forms, find shelter – anything. I worked with the clinic. You’d see how many people don’t have anything. They complain that they have pain, but they don’t know how to get the benefits or navigate the healthcare system. It was amazing how people never went to the doctor because they thought that because they worked on the farm they didn’t have any right to go.
Like Irina and Gerónimo. One day I went to the farm and she said, “I have a pain in my belly” and I said, “Go to the doctor.” The doctor thought I was her husband, I said, “No I’m not her husband.” He said, “She’s not going to leave today.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “She’s going to have her baby now. She’s pregnant and going into labor. How long has it been since she’s seen the doctor?” I said, “I don’t know.” I asked her and she said she saw a doctor once.
Marcos: And then the baby was born in the hospital. A lot of stories like that.
Marina: Did you ever think about helping farm workers create a cooperative?
Marcos: No. In Mexico, yes. Not here.
Marina: It’s interesting because in the last four years, I’ve been doing a lot of work with cooperative economics and the benefits to the people and often even the land. So it’s cool for me to learn more about the work you did in Mexico because I’ve never heard the details. Doing the work I do now with cooperative economies feels like it’s a part of my family history and your legacy; what you have passed on to me.
Marcos: Well over here it’s different working in groups. Helping groups is easier. In Mexico helping people is more difficult and dangerous. Because of the caciques. Caciques means the person who controls the one little community, a rural community, an urban community. If someone comes and goes against the interest of the caciques, who is the controller, they’ll try to kill or silence you.
Marina: So it’s more dangerous to organize there.
Marcos: Yeah. That’s why I helped people, but what I did was behind the scenes. I created a group leader in the community and I taught them how groups have rights and obligations. I taught them and they taught the rest of the community. So when the caciques became aware of the organizing happening, there wasn’t a main leader in the group. The caciques couldn’t do anything. Because if I try to be macho and take credit for myself, they would have killed me. You didn’t have a chance. Now it’s different. The president [Andrés Manuel López Obrador] that we have now in Mexico, is a person who wants to help the whole country.
Marina: Have you seen changes in organizing people because of him being in office? Do you think there’s more possibilities for cooperatives in Mexico now because of him being in power?
Marcos: Yeah, because the whole system is changing now. The time I was there, the corruption came down from the president to the lowest positions in society. The police could kill you and nothing would happen. The narco traffickers could kill you and nothing happens. The politicians stole a lot of money and nothing happened. Now it’s different. The politicians steal money and something happens. The president has been there for three years now and it’s changed a lot. They created a new system. The leaders are not corrupt. Any leader who is corrupt is taken away. It’s not like, “Oh I can be corrupt and nothing will happen.”
The president has changed so many things. For example, he forces people to pay taxes. Under the other presidents for 50 or 60 years, the corporations didn’t pay any taxes. The banks didn’t pay taxes. The president holds a conference every morning for three hours, La Mañanera. In those three hours he informs the whole country about what’s going on. For a long time, the narco-traficos controlled most of the country. But now Manuel López Obrador says, “Abrazos no Balazos” (Hugs, not Bullets). And he came fighting the whole system. In the 70’s the newspapers and the TV said that he was going to make them communista. Two elections were stolen from him in 2006 and 2012 [because in Mexico elections are every six years]. And this last one, he won the election. It’s said that a politician paid $25 million to try and have him killed.
Since the 1990’s, Mexico has bought half of the oil refineries in Texas. Under the other presidents, the country didn’t see one penny of profits but in the last three years, this president has collected maybe $400 or 500 million dollars. A lot of presidents in the past have asked for a lot of money from the Banco Monetario Internacional. That bank belongs to the wealthiest families. Most presidents come to ask for money and in exchange they have to give the bank the country’s resources. In the past, Mexico’s presidents asked for a lot of money, they gave the resources to the corporations, and then they stole money that’s supposed to help the country, and the public paid the price of being in debt.
In the past if you stole money as a politician and nothing would happen, it was fine. But now if you steal money, this president has changed the rules. If you have money that’s not yours, it’s a crime. But the process of change is not easy.
Marina: Well, it’s been that way for a long time, so it will take time.
Marcos: All of this corruption started in the 70’s and 80’s. I remember the head of the Department of Security of Mexico was a friend of the president and when he started his term he only had an elementary school education but was working high up in the government. Some newspapers investigated him and they discovered so many mansions in Mexico. One place he had 600 cars he imported from another country. Millions and millions of dollars. Wealthy, not rich, wealthy. Now it’s different. This president has made a pension for all the older people. I think if you’re 65 and older, you get a pension. Like people here have social security. Before they got it, but it was like $20 a month and that was the pension [laughs]. It used to be that they had to go through a hard bureaucratic system, but now it’s direct. Now people have a debit card and they can go to the bank. Yeah the president has a lot of projects he’s started in Mexico like El Tren Maya, airports, and creating hospitals. It’s a lot. I like him.
Marina: Oh yeah. You know a lot about him and the work he’s doing. Have you ever thought about being a politician or running for office?
Marina: You never wanted to?
Marcos: No. They offered me like three times over here in Newburgh.
Marina: Really?! For what position?
Marcos: For a representative for the Latino community or an advisor on the Latino Community. They came several times to my house and said, “We would like for you to run for that position and blah blah blah.” And I said, “No, no, no, no.” And they asked why and I said, because, I help a lot with what I do now. And I’m working full time. I don’t think I have time to go to meetings and go to this place and that. And politics are so easy to get in trouble. If somebody doesn’t like you, they kill somebody and they say, ‘Lopez sent to kill them.’” Not easy.
Marina: So you felt like you could have a bigger impact in your community with the work you were already doing?
Marcos: Yeah, and that’s why I said, no, no, no, no. I need peace. I don’t need problems.
Marina: I remember when Matthew [my older brother] and I would be with you in Newburgh, young gang members would come up and give you big hugs and say, “Mr. Lopez!” You’d tell us about how this kid, or that kid was getting into trouble in school and got suspended or expelled. That’s how you ended up working with and getting to know them because you were doing home tutoring at the time. I loved hearing about how working with you impacted their life. Like they’d be several grades behind in math and you’d explain it in a way that they finally understood it. Or they couldn’t read well and you’d find ways to work with them and they’d start to feel more confident. I always thought it was like a super power how you could work with anyone and help inspire them. And not just the kids, but because you also worked in their homes, you had a positive influence on their parents too. I love how you’ve used your education and life experiences to affect change for so many people.
Marcos: Oh yeah. When you have an education, you can reach more people in different ways. You have a little more power to help people in easier ways. Let’s say you want to evangelize people but you go house by house because you don’t have a church, but if you become a priest or a pastor, then you can have a building and you can reach more people. In my case it was the same because I said, people don’t know the rules about co-ops, and they don’t know the technique to cultivate shrimp. I would like to learn and know so that I can help them. When you do something that you like and love, money comes by itself. You don’t even know where the money comes, but it comes from different sources. That’s my experience. It’s like when you lose something in your house and you look so hard you’re not going to find it. When you relax it comes along, “Oh it’s here!” For me it’s the same.
I didn’t study because I wanted a lot of money. I could have sold drugs and gotten a lot of money easily. I’m smart enough to make that kind of business successful [laughing]. But that was my perception when I was a kid, when I was a little one; to become a professional to help and reach more people in different ways. That’s why I studied there and that’s why I studied here. If I wanted money I could have learned construction and built houses and made money and that’s it. But I wanted to help people in different ways through education. I reached a lot of people in the school. I had 105 kids every year just in the school. Then I had like 100 people every year at the college. To help them. At this time, it’s time for me to relax and have it be easier in my life.
Marina: Yeah. You’ve worked so hard!
Marcos: I still work a little bit, but not like I used to. I still help my people in Mexico. My Aunt passed away so I sent some money. Or my Nephew, someone stole his gas tank so I sent some money. Now Ricardo, my brother’s ex-wife, has cancer and they call me so I’m helping them too. Your Tio Hiero’s kid, Marcitos is going to get married. Hiero called and said, “‘Manito, you know, help me out. My son is going to get married.” I said, “But it’s not my fault.” [both laugh] He said, “No, we’re going to make a party, can you send something?” I said, “Okay, I will try.” When they call me and say, “Tio, it’s my birthday I want you to send me some money.” I say, “For fun I don’t send any money, but for emergencies, I will try. But if you want a party, call everybody who’s going to come to the party and collect something. For fun I don’t have any penny. But when you have some emergency, why not, I try.” This is me.
At the end of the life, everything we do, we live happily or unhappily. Because at the end of the life, everybody passes away. This is the truth. Sooner or later, everybody passes away. And we came to this world to be happy, not to be unhappy. Most people are unhappy, not because they want to be unhappy, but it’s the system. The system forced them to do something that they don’t want to do. Or they want to do something, but they cannot afford to do that. And they don’t have the energy or support to fight and get whatever they want to get. They lost the faith to do that. In a Christian life, most Christians don’t have faith. That’s why they asked God, “God give me that, God give me that, God, God, God.” In a spiritual way, we do not ask, we give thanks. “Thank you for whatever I have. Thank you for whatever I don’t have. I don’t have it because I don’t need it. I have it because it’s a gift.” At the end of the life, we have to be busy in some way. And whatever you have, you don’t take it with you when you pass away. If you have a beautiful big house, if you pass away today, you’re not going to take it with you.
Marina: Nope. It stays here. Yeah. Thank you, Papa. You’re so wise.
Marcos: Yeah I mean mija, life is too short. Life is so beautiful. Life is a miracle. Life is so simple. We are complicated, not life. Today we are here. Tomorrow, we don’t know. Later in my life I have an understanding about human beings.
Marina: I love you. We’ll talk soon.
Jose Marcos Lopez Fonseca was born in La Polka, Mexico, a small fishing and agricultural village off the coast of Southern Mexico. He is the son of una mujer poderosa y fuerte, Zoila Fonseca. He began working at six years old to support his family of 12 siblings. His community embodied the values of cooperative economics and he often bartered his labor for food and goods his family needed. Marcos is one of the few of his siblings to have finished elementary school let alone high school. He is also the first person in his community to earn a Bachelor’s Degree which he received from Universidad Veracruzana, Mexico in Science. As an engineer and marine biologist, he worked along the coastal communities with fishermen in Mexico to adapt cooperative practices and implement best practices. On Christmas Day, 1986 he landed on U.S. soil for the first time in New York City and the next day welcomed his son into the world. Five years later, after the birth of his daughter, he began his studies at State University of New York at New Paltz where he would earn his Bachelor’s of Education. He also continued to explore his interest in theology at the General Theological Seminary in NYC.He has dedicated his life to helping people meet their needs, build community, and use education as a vehicle for connection and inspiration. He has instilled in his children to give generously, to care for others, and to find happiness in their lives.
Marina Maria Lopez is the daughter of this incredible man. His experiences, philosophy on life, and stories have deeply informed the ways in which she understands the world and her commitment to justice and equity. She is a performing and social practice artist, massage therapist/somatic educator, and cultural organizer. Her experience as a bodyworker is essential to her practice as an artist because we can’t separate the art from the body that makes it. Care work is culture work. As an artist, her work is an interdisciplinary weaving of many voices that links to history, social movements, and tradition. She is a co-organizer and creative collaborator with Art.Coop and co-coordinates a national Arts, Culture, Care and Solidarity Economy working group. Marina seeks to create work that articulates and provides an embodied cognition of the ways in which art, culture, and care are foundational within a thriving society and brings these undervalued, but essential elements into relationship within a public-sphere that creates access to embodiment as an experience, but also as discourse. Her work challenges the status quo of who we as a society uplift as expert voices, and inspires curiosity, collaboration, and solidarity.
The Art We Value
Shelbie Loomis with Chris Emery
“I love reading some of the artist’s statements. There’s an art form there. Are you gonna be in the art show, as far as your artwork? Your portrait?”CHRIS EMERY
I was first introduced to Chris Emery from afar. When driving into the Jantzen Beach RV Park, where I live, I would see him walking through the neighborhood and notice his dapper fashion: a black wool button up coat, iconic fedora, and long white beard. He resembled a close friend and grandfather figure to me, Vincent Mariani, which made me affectionately want to connect. I made mental notes to seek him out on my walks to try to strike up a conversation with him, to collaborate with him on an art project, or even just to know his name. Throughout the pandemic, I put the desire on the back burner, because I wanted to be sensitive to the possibility of exposure and protect as many people as possible.
A year later, though, I started to attend community events at the RV Park, like Bingo and the Wednesday Luncheons. I was surprised to get my secret wish to meet this mysterious man when he attended the luncheon and was sitting just one table away from me! When he walked into the room, I suddenly felt nervous. Not only had I built up my meeting with him in my head, but when I talked to others about the “gentleman in the fedora,” many people at the Wednesday luncheon talked about him as if he were a local celebrity. Summoning my courage, I sat down at his table to introduce myself and approach the “ask” of him being a part of The Art We Value: an art project where I draw residents with artwork that they select and value in the Jantzen Beach RV Park and the Hayden Island Mobile home Community. I’ve been using this project to claim what I’ve already been doing, getting to know my neighbors, while using the subject of art to do so. His reaction to my ask was one of humble gentleness that made me like him even more. “There have to be others that are prettier than me that you would want to draw!”, he would tell me over and over again. I tried to convey to him that I would not only be honored, but ecstatic to have the opportunity to draw his style and caring smile.
Through text message, we planned to be at the RV clubhouse where he brought a found artwork that he bought at a garage sale in Alberta, Portland. Our conversation made me think about how gentrification has pushed many people to the edges of Portland into the next town, Vancouver, Washington (just over the state border) because it was cheaper. Living on Hayden Island in an RV perhaps was one step before being relocated from your home town completely. By talking through the lense of art, his stories, along with others, I’ve learned how the art that my neighbors select echoes lived experiences of ups and downs and ultimately what makes each person feel at home.
The following conversation is before I drew Chris’s portraits and the first time we sat down and talked about art and the Art We Value art project:
Shelbie Loomis: You were saying that you collect art and you have some in storage, but the size of the RV is kind of a limitation. Can you talk about that and what you like to collect?
Chris Emery: It is tough. Yeah. I started out collecting posters back in the 60s and had a gigantic collection of them.
Shelbie: What kind of posters were they?
Chris: Rock and roll posters. And I started doing light shows back then— liquid lights and stuff. The majority Experience Music Project- Jimmy Hendricks 1,000 posters. Another collection went to pay rent for 500 posters, private collectors. McMenamins Crystal Ballroom 30 or 40 rare and expensive. Another collection varies bands, X-ray, underground. Paying Rent and Storage. Bands and clubs, arts card.
The 1,000 poster collection went to the “Experience Music Project” now called the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle Washington. Another collection went to pay rent when I sold a 1960s collection of 500 posters to a private collector. Then I sold 30 or 40 rare posters to the McMenamins Crystal Ballroom. I used to attend these events, and give out posters. Then I started collecting gallery cards that describe artwork or exhibitions. So at one time, I probably had maybe the largest collection of Portland gallery cards in Portland. I lost about half of them due to a water incident.
Shelbie: So it sounds like you already go to galleries and art shows?
Chris: Oh yeah, for decades and decades.
Shelbie: Tell me a little bit about your history of how that’s been valuable to you?
Chris: I got into it because my sister was a beatnik, kind of. When I was 14 or 15, she got me involved in the music scene and introduced me to everybody. I was AFRU Gallery, Portland. going to be a beatnik. Then I started reading poetry. And then there was a showing at the Fountain Gallery with poetry readings that I went to and was like “Wow, this is cool and like a lot of fun.” And I’ve been going to galleries ever since. You know, tonight I’m going to AFRU Gallery, Portland. Have you ever heard of that? It’s really a cool one. It’s a gallery space that showcases eclectic work from emerging artists with monthly First Friday events. They have bands playing tonight. They’re gonna have Santa Claus wrestling. Wacky people, these artists… way fun people.
Shelbie: It seems like you’re an artist or poet yourself. Do you write poetry?
Chris: No, no, I write just for myself. I don’t have a publisher or anything like that. When I die, they will look at all my stuff and laugh. They’ll say, “Why didn’t they kill him earlier?” [laughs] Yeah, I did video special effects and titling for a video that I was working on. And then I got into silk screening, vinyl cutting, and ancillary services. Everything except actually doing anything.
Shelbie: I mean, I feel like it’s all the same vein, the same tree, the same family, you know. And especially the appreciation of the work that you have done in your life. What I’m really interested in is trying to understand my neighbors and I’m realizing that all of my neighbors have these wonderful, really rich lives they live. And they have such amazing histories.
Chris: Yeah, you get to put out a book with the text?
Shelbie: Yeah, I’ve been doing small projects in our RV park for the last three years. But I’m now concentrating on my thesis, called The Art We Value. The idea is that these portraits I draw of each of you with a piece of art you value will be put together in a show that I am going to show at the Northshore Club House, at the RV park. And then the drawings will be at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University. So then you can come to your art opening. See yourself up on the wall!
Chris: As long as it’s not a wanted poster! Sounds like a good thing. How do you like Portland so far?
Shelbie: I mean, I’ve only been here in Portland for three years. So I’m learning so much about the culture and the history
Chris: And the bucks! Where are the bucks at? How are you going to put out a product, book, DVD, or sell the pieces themselves?
Shelbie: Well, I don’t know about selling the pieces quite yet. I think I just want to just do a local show here for the residents. And then there will be a publication. I don’t know about selling. I have a weird thing about selling artwork. I’m kind of one of those people that would just rather give them away, believe it or not. I will make sure to give you your own smaller versions to keep, along with a copy of the publication.
So, in your opinion, what is the value in art? Why should we have art?
Chris: What an interesting question. To me, one of the things that interests me is that art is being crammed and crammed into smaller spaces all the time. Dimensional art gives depth to a room; lighting techniques can expand space visually. With my stuff I like to assemble these pieces and then photograph them and then pack them away in boxes, never to see them again.
Shelbie: Can talk about your history of living in the park and how you came to be here?
Chris: I had a spot down on Alberta Street, where I was going to open an art gallery. I wanted to show photographs of people with their tattoos and 3D sculptures of their tattoos. But the rent went up, which kicked me out of Portland, and now, Oregon. I hate and loathe moving, so I have it all packed in the van. And now if I ever move, it’ll probably all fall in the dust. The van was the only viable option.
Shelbie: How long have you been here in the park?
Chris: About 10 years. I’m ingrown. [laughs]
Shelbie: As I’m getting to know everyone here, the park seems to create a type of relationship with neighbors. For example, if someone doesn’t have something, you go and ask your neighbor and there seems to be an exchange. Do you feel like there’s an exchange on your side of the park with your neighbors?
Chris: You know, I dumpster dive continuously. I hate to see good stuff get munched. So I drag it out and put it on my patio and if anybody comes up and they need something on the patio, they can have it. It also distracts the thieves that come through the park, so you know, it’s like, “Here, I have a bunch of useless stuff—fill your buckets! Just don’t grab anything that I might need for the van!”
Shelbie: I talked to a person in the park named Alan two years ago, who has been taking different things from the dumpster and likes making them into wonderful art pieces in his yard. The squirrels have been burying stuff in there and things are growing. He showed me a rose bush he keeps from a squirrel who buried a rose seed in his salvaged planters. The seed grew to be a rose bush and it’s his prized plant. It’s interesting how things take on a new life.
Chris: You know, I’ll pick up something and find later on that I needed it or somebody else needs it, or a missing part turns up and it’s pretty magical. I’ve got a piece that a friend of mine did for Burning Man. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s a guy with a hard hat, kind of hunched over. The squirrels have turned it into their home and its plants have grown over it and I can’t just bring myself to throw it away.
Shelbie: Is this out in your front yard? Do you have a picture of it? I’d love to see a picture of it.
Chris: Yeah, I could bring a picture to next Wednesday’s Luncheon at the clubhouse. He did this really great thing that I hadn’t anticipated. He even helped me move it into the car. He gave me this DVD on how it was made and what it looked like at Burning Man. You know, that’s one thing I like about art is when people give you something they like– they are conversation starters. You have this little hidden bit of knowledge. It’s like “Ooh, well, let me tell you about this!” I love reading some of the artist’s statements. There’s an art form there. Are you gonna be in the art show, as far as your artwork? Your portrait?
Shelbie: Oh, that’s a good question. No one has asked me that. I’ve thought about drawing my partner, to put him in the project. But I haven’t selected myself. That’s a good question. What do you think?
Chris: I think you definitely should.
Shelbie: It’s not vain? To include myself in this project with a portrait?
Chris: Oh no! Hey, one of those things about starving artists, you gotta get out of the basement and get out there. “Hey, I’m here! Give me money!”
Shelbie: You know, I’m in this program called Art and Social Practice. It’s graduate students who work out in the community in different capacities. And one of the things social practitioners like to constantly debate is how much we put ourselves in the project. Because what we really center is the community that we’re working with.
Chris: You’re a part of this community.
Shelbie: You’re right. It’s a great ongoing conversation about how much do we insert ourselves (artists), and how much do we not insert ourselves within projects about the community? I didn’t think about that until you just brought that up. And now I’m gonna go home and I’m gonna contemplate my whole life. Um, wow, Chris, you have me stumped. Thank you for that. That’s a gift to me. I think at this point, because you brought it up, I probably will. It’s gonna be weird drawing myself.
Shelbie Loomis (she/her) is a socially engaged artist and illustrator. She makes projects and drawings with communities and participants about complex grieving, alternative housing, and exchange culture through times of crisis. Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico she now lives in Portland, Oregon.
Chris Emery (he/him) is a collector, thinker and appreciator of poetry, art, music and utopian literature. He has worked in tech and hospitality. His collections include music posters and ephemera from bands and clubs in the 60s, 70s and 80s from when he worked helping with light shows for bands like the Grateful Dead and the Byrds. He is affectionately referred to as a renaissance man of many philosophies. Chris Emery describes himself in the following way: I am a semi structure in time spaces. And neither am I. Take that Shorder.
It’s Hard to Imagine Myself as a Curator
Abigail DeVille responds to some questions via text message
Mo Geiger with Abigail DeVille
“History is felt, I’m always thinking about how can we experience history bodily.”ABIGAIL DEVILLE
Last summer, I visited artist Abigail DeVille at a gallery in New York City’s Chinatown where she was installing a show called The Museum of the African’s Experience in America: the work of Biko curated by Abigail DeVille. In the gallery space, bright light illuminated white pegboard walls where broken mirror pieces reflected an expansive, salon-style view of highly textured paintings, collaged found objects, and historical printed material. Around the corner, a large wooden china cabinet displaying ephemera and memorabilia invited further exploration. Through a doorway was another room filled with large sculptures, portraits, and three-dimensional wall pieces scattered across deep blue walls and pedestals under a celestial sky of lightbulbs. In her introduction as curator, Abigail wrote of the artist: “BIKO is a lover. Lover of all things Black and a preserver of the stories held within the body of the Black experience in America…. Biko and I share the same artistic DNA, using the impulse of history as the most critical and elusive material to wield.” Her own artistic hand was visible in the gallery, and those gestures were in service to Biko.
Later, on the train leaving the city, I began to wonder if Abigail viewed her curation of Biko’s work as part of her artistic practice. In the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State, we often discuss the ways that repositioning an artist’s role in a project, claiming unconventional elements of a project as art, and using collaborative methods can add layers of meaning to an artwork. The context of this show seems like one for fruitful discussion related to these topics, as it was primarily about centering Biko’s work, but two artists developed the space together.
Biko is an artist and museum creator who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Abigail wanted to bring his varied work to a larger audience. To prepare for his first solo show in New York City at 601Artspace, Abigail worked with Biko to select and compile works from his collections. In an interview published in the Pittsburgh City Paper in 2005, Biko explained that his Museum of the African’s Experience in America at the time held over 13,000 objects and started with a Black Panther button he got in 1969. In this ongoing work, some objects appear as he finds them and others he transforms. He blends archival and art practices by annotating collected objects with collage, paint, found materials, papier-maché, reproduction, and portraiture. In a recorded conversation that accompanied the show, Abigail spoke with Biko and fellow Pittsburgh artist Christine Bethea about their friendship, his work, his process, its origins, and the way they see it in relation to their community and other people. In her own work, Abigail makes site-specific sculptures and installations with symbolic found materials to excavate lost, buried, and marginalized experiences. She builds cosmic spaces that vacillate between layers of past and present and future, propelled by the weight of the materials she uses and her exhaustive research.
Their obvious symbiosis in the show’s physical environment made me want to ask her about how she now considers herself within it — how does reverence, collaborative curation, and her artistic hand factor into the way she sees her role in showing Biko’s work? To me Abigail is a friend and an inspiration, and I’ve provided fabrication support for several of her performance-based works. She reminds me to search for what is hard to find, and I always learn a lot when speaking with her. One night, months after the show closed, I asked if she had time to answer a few of my questions informally via text message.
Mo Geiger: In this art and social practice program, we talk about the forms that collaboration can take, and the meaning of it in different contexts. Do you think about the Biko show as part of your own art practice?
Abigail DeVille: I think that is what initially drew me to his work. The rawness and honesty in his storytelling. There is a relationship he has with material that I admire. Sometimes in large-scale projects with many moving parts, you forget about the original relationship between you and material.
Mo: Yeah I could absolutely see that in the pieces — an intense relationship. But what’s your role in the curation of his work and that show in particular, as an artist and excavator of stories and material? Sharing them with a different audience outside of Pittsburgh?
Abigail: I think it’s hard to imagine myself as a “curator.” I was approaching it as an artist creating a platform for viewing. I wanted to create a space that would elevate the work for a New York audience. I did want his story to travel. We are currently working on proposing the show to multiple institutions in the south and midwest.
I thought his collection story was interesting and I hope to reconstruct as much of it as possible for future iterations.
Mo: Ah that’s amazing!! It’s really striking work that seems to want to move around and be alive. Can you describe what attracted you to his collection story? And what do you mean by reconstructing?
Abigail: He had many objects that seem to have been lost over the last 10 years. During multiple health crises. I know he had more than one [ku klux] klan uniform, slave shackles, etc. I don’t know where these items are but I hope to recover them in addition to some more examples of his papier-maché sculptures.
He talked about working for a guy named Oran Z that had a very large collection of Black memorabilia.
That’s what inspired him to create his own.
Mo: I didn’t realize he witnessed a collection and then wanted to build another. Did you feel a connection between your own process of working with material, and the act of compiling stories, sculptures, and significant objects with him?
Abigail: I think there is a definite kinship. He processed his own experiences, relationships into powerful portraits. He is honoring and historicizing his present and honoring our collective past through the preservation of the objects he collected. He was also using them as an education tool and gave multiple workshops for community groups for many years. His project feels radical in an intimate way. I don’t know if my work has the same kind of intimacy. I think because of the scale I’m speaking to a large national collective consciousness.
Mo: I could feel your deep respect for Biko and this work in the rooms. I just sat there and felt it for so long before it was even done. Ok, one more question, speaking to those spatial strengths: can you describe what you made it feel like to walk through space? How did Biko and his spirit help you figure that part out?
Abigail: I think I was responding to the ambition of the work. The color blue especially. The BBC has a documentary series I refer to a lot. One specifically about the history of the color blue. Blue is the color of our dreams. It’s the last color named in almost every language. It was originally a variant of black. It has a deep history for African Americans. I think there are vague references to Yemanya and the Atlantic ocean as a mass grave and a storage place for buried treasures. I wanted to create this dream space for Biko’s portraits. The coolness of blue was a perfect counter to the hot palate of Biko’s work. The storefront with pegboard was thinking about storefront museums and historical societies. Who has the authority to retell history? We are all historians. History is felt, I’m always thinking about how can we experience history bodily.
Mo: Was building a platform for him an artistic act? In it, were you channeling the intimacy he created in works physically smaller than yours?
Abigail: It was an artistic act. I think I played to my strengths of organizing information spatially. I am not sure his work has been given the same consideration in the presentation. His art is all heart and it was my way of honoring him to set the stage for viewing.
Abigail DeVille (she/her) is an artist whose recent exhibitions include Light of Freedom at Madison Square Park, New York and the Hirshhorn, Washington D.C., Brand New Heavies at Pioneer Works, New York, and The American Future at PICA, Portland. DeVille’s work has also been exhibited at The Whitney, Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New Museum in New York, the Punta Della Dogana in Venice, Italy, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. DeVille has designed sets for theatrical productions at venues such as the Stratford Festival, directed by Peter Sellers; Harlem Stage, La Mama, and Joe’s Pub, directed by Charlotte Brathwaite. She has received a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute, a Creative Capital grant, and an OBIE for design; and has been nominated for The Future Generation Art Prize in the 55th Biennale di Venezia. DeVille was the Chuck Close/Henry W. and Marion T. Mitchell Rome Prize fellow at the American Academy in 2017–2018. She teaches at Maryland Institute College of Art and is a critic at the Yale School of Art. More info is available here.
Mo Geiger (she/her) is an artist and graduate student in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice MFA program. Trained as a theatrical designer and technician, her work now blends elements of sculpture, craft, social practice, and multimedia performance. She creates interdisciplinary, often collaborative, site-specific artworks and designs that have appeared in art galleries, theaters, museums, public places, and local organizations. She is a co-founder and member of Valley Traction performance collective, and she is based in Boiling Springs, PA. More info is available here.
A Country Without Traditions is like a House Without Books
Diana Marcela Cuartas with Luna Flores
Text by Diana Marcela Cuartas
Translated by Camilo Roldán
Spanish version below
“A country without traditions and without culture is a gray country. It’s like a house without books. When there are books, you see the imagination of everyone who lives there and the people who read them. That’s what Día de Muertos adds: culture and roots.”LUNA FLORES
A book for the travel ritual is a collaborative project between Diana Marcela Cuartas and a group of six mothers who have immigrated from Mexico to Portland, Oregon. It explores different aspects of how Día de Muertos [Day of the Dead], a major celebration for the Mexican culture’s heritage, is celebrated within the diaspora. As a part of the project, I invited the poet, Luna Flores, to lead a writing workshop with the group of moms about calaveritas literarias [little literary skulls]. This is a literary genre written as satirical verses of epitaphs for people still alive that is very popular during this holiday.
Luna is a Mexican radio host and cultural organizer who has been living in the United States for 21 years. She was one of the organizers for the first public celebrations of Día de Muertos in Portland. In this interview, she tells us about her process of adapting as a Mexican immigrant, the way Día de Muertos celebrations have developed in Portland, and her vision for calaveritas literarias as a space for expressing social critique and cultural values.
Diana Marcela Cuartas: Tell us about your arrival in Portland: How did you adapt? Was there something you missed in this new environment?
Luna Flores: I arrived by chance. I was passing through the United States because I wanted to go to Canada, and then to Europe. But fate kept me in Texas for a few months, where I had a job disassembling computers, which happened to be what I had studied in Mexico. From there I came to Portland because a friend put me in touch with someone who could help me, and I wound up living here. But in reality, I never had a chance to miss Mexico. I never had a chance to yearn for the food or the celebrations, because the family that took me up here is very rooted in the traditions, in Christmas festivities and las posadas [nine days of thematic celebrations leading up to Christmas]. I didn’t miss Dia de Muertos that much. Seven or eight years had to go by in Portland before I realized that I missed that situation.
Diana: The way you tell it, it sounds like the family that you found, in one way or another, was well adapted to life in Portland, and I wonder how that happens. In my case, as a Colombian, it doesn’t feel easy, but I see that the Mexican community has managed to adjust in a way that lets them hold on to some part of their essence, and they continue to flourish culturally, as Mexicans and migrants. If someone wants pozole, they can find a place where they serve it. In my case, I feel like it’s hard to satisfy those, let’s say, cultural “cravings” that I might feel as a Colombian.
Luna: I think it’s important to remember that we didn’t cross the border. That is, they put up a fence in a land that had been and was Mexican. For us, it’s an advantage to be so close to the United States because if I feel like having parsley with green chili, I can hop the border and bring the chili and parsley with me and eat it in the United States. It’s an advantage that we have as Mexicans. There’s also the fact that we have a lot of solidarity. If you’re new to Portland and you ask for help, they’ll surely find you a job at a fast-food chain or department store and they’ll help you settle in.
But I’ve also seen friends from South America who come here and struggle to find compatriots or people who speak their language. They have a hard time living among the Americans without being able to express their identity, whatever it may be. And I’ve noticed that in other cases, they feel embarrassed and they shrink away from it. Mexicans don’t give a damn because we have a deep-rooted nationalism. In my case, I will never deny where I come from, what I am or what I represent, politically or artistically.
Diana: So, basically, it’s having the border that allows the Mexican community to adapt a little more easily to this environment. That makes a lot of sense.
Now, changing the subject a little bit, I understand that you were one of the pioneers in celebrating Día de Muertos in Portland. Can you tell me about that experience?
Luna: I was working as a radio host on KBOO Community Radio and a Chicana friend asked me if I remembered Día de Muertos. She said she was organizing a celebration and we started to talk about our experiences and our ideas. The first thing I remembered were the calaveritas literarias, and we included them as part of the programming. We had a lot of meetings at her house in North Portland, and from there we went on to create the celebration at Holocene in 2006.
There were tamales and pan de muerto. One of the organizers brought a mariachi band and we put together a walk through the nearest cemetery. There were children, candles, people formally dressed, and catrines and catrinas [elegantly dressed men and women with sugar-skull makeup]. You have no idea how incredible it was. We did it again the next year and it was also a huge success. The third year we did it in the Crystal Ballroom and by then there were also celebrations in Hillsboro, Salem, and Beaverton, and it kept growing over the following years.
Crystal Ballroom celebration poster, 2014. Image courtesy of Luna Flores
Diana: Who was the public for that first celebration?
Luna: Mostly Latinos and Mexicans, a few Gringos. I remember a really interesting scene at the Crystal Ballroom celebration where some people dressed up as zombies tried to come in and the bouncers wouldn’t let them in. They told them it wasn’t that kind of event because they clearly understood that it was about Día de Muertos, not zombies or Halloween.
Diana: Personally, I’ve enjoyed this celebration because I feel like it gives a feeling of collective care that’s important for a community, especially in countries like ours where there is so much violence and death. I think that if Colombia had a celebration like that, it would help us to heal a lot of pain that we haven’t had a way to process beyond the rituals that each person has for their loved ones when they die.
What do you think Día de Muertos adds to society?
Luna: Well, the resignation that one day you will die and you will be celebrated. It represents traditions, imagination, and culture, because a country without traditions and without culture is a gray country. It’s like a house without books. When there are books, you see the imagination of everyone who lives there and the people who read them. That’s what Día de Muertos adds: culture and roots.
Diana: To finish up, what are the calaveritas literarias?
Luna: The calaveritas literarias are something that started as a way of mocking the upper classes. They came around in late 1890, under the government of Porfirio Díaz, a president who was the first official dictator in the history of Mexico, who centered on a policy that glorified everything from Europe, especially from France. He set out to make big buildings, like the National Palace, the Palace of Fine Arts and the Main Post Office in Mexico City.
Porfirio Díaz did those kinds of things, and he was obviously leading the country toward huge economic developments. At the same time, under the rug, there were also millions of illiterate people living in poverty who didn’t enjoy any of the privileges of this “progress.” So, in the leftist newspapers they drew cartoons criticizing the government, and for Día de Muertos they started to make these critiques in the style of epitaphs that mocked the bourgeoisie. That was the beginning of the calaveritas literarias. It was a kind of rebellion that became a custom, and it coincided with the revolution and the fall of Porfirio Díaz. But the tradition continues because, although the revolution came to an end, the inequality did not, and the calaveritas literarias stuck around over time.
Currently, it’s basically an epitaph that can be about you, my teacher, or my governor. It’s based on the history of the person who is writing it, and it has to rhyme and have a resolution. Something I love about the calaveritas is that, more than critiquing, it’s an opportunity to analyze the characteristics of my friends or the person I am writing about; that’s the most exciting part to me. Another interesting thing is that, in traditional calaveritas literarias, it’s assumed that death will send you to the underworld, but not in mine; in my calaveritas they escape death in the end, and that’s part of the way I write.
Diana: What do you hope will happen with the calaveritas literarias creative writing workshop as a collective experience?
Luna: That this beautiful writing exercise will become more well-known and the tradition won’t be lost. I hope that everyone wants to participate fearlessly and will realize that we can all write, so future generations will learn to do it and keep the practice alive.
Luna Flores (she/her) was born in Mexico City where she pursued technical studies and literary writing at the Museo Universitario del Chopo. She began writing poetry when she ran out of tears to shed for a lost love, and she has been a frequent participant in Voz Alta, a narrative project about the Latino community in Oregon. As a Portland resident since 2000, she has been a contributor for KBOO Community Radio and other radio initiatives that offer Spanish language programming focused on Latin American art and culture.
Diana Marcela Cuartas (she/her) is a Colombian artist, educator and culture worker residing in Portland since 2019. She is currently a student at the Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University. As a family engagement specialist for the Latino Network’s education department, she creates spaces for immigrant families to meet and learn within the afterschool programs offered by Portland Public Schools.
Un país sin tradiciones es como una casa sin libros
Diana Marcela Cuartas con Luna Flores
“Un país sin tradiciones y sin cultura es un país gris. Es como una casa sin libros. Cuando hay libros encuentras la imaginación de todos los que la habitan y la gente que los leyó. Eso aporta el Día de Muertos, cultura y raíces.”LUNA FLORES
Un libro para el ritual de viaje es un proyecto colaborativo entre Diana Marcela Cuartas y un grupo de seis madres de familia inmigrantes mexicanas en Portland que explora, desde la diáspora, diferentes aspectos de una celebración tan importante para el legado cultural Mexicano como lo es el Día de Muertos. Como parte del proyecto, invité a la poeta Luna Flores, a liderar un taller de creación de calaveritas literarias con el grupo de madres. Se trata de un género literario escrito a modo de versos satíricos con epitafios para los vivos, y que es muy popular durante esta celebración.
Luna es conductora de radio y gestora cultural mexicana, residiendo en Estados Unidos desde hace 21 años y fue una de las organizadoras de las primeras celebraciones públicas de Día de Los Muertos en Portland. En esta entrevista, nos cuenta de su proceso de adaptación como inmigrante mexicana, la manera en que se ha desarrollado la celebración de Día de Muertos en esta ciudad, y sus visiones sobre las calaveritas literarias como medio expresivo de crítica social y valores culturales.
Diana Marcela Cuartas: Cuéntanos de tu llegada a Portland, ¿cómo fue tu proceso de adaptación, había algo qué extrañaras en este nuevo entorno?
Luna Flores: Llegué por casualidad. Yo venía de paso a Estados Unidos porque quería viajar a Canadá y luego a Europa. Pero el destino me detuvo unos meses en Texas, donde trabajé desmantelando computadoras, que casualmente era mi carrera en México. De ahí vine a Portland porque una amiga me contactó con alguien que me podía ayudar y aquí me quedé viviendo. Pero en realidad nunca tuve oportunidad de extrañar México. Nunca tuve oportunidad de añorar la comida o las celebraciones porque llegué a una familia muy arraigada a las tradiciones, a celebrar la navidad y las posadas. El Día de Muertos no lo extrañé tanto. Tuvieron que pasar siete u ocho años desde que llegué a Portland hasta que me dí cuenta que me hacía falta esa situación.
Diana: Como lo cuentas suena que la familia con la que te encontraste de alguna manera estaba bien adaptada a la vida en Portland, y me causa curiosidad cómo se logra eso. En mi caso como colombiana siento que no es fácil, pero veo que la comunidad mexicana ha logrado adecuarse para conservar algo de su esencia y seguir desarrollándose culturalmente como mexicanos y migrantes. Si alguien quiere un pozole, puede encontrar donde comerlo. En mi caso siento que no es nada fácil “satisfacer”, por decirlo de algún modo, los “antojitos” culturales que pueda tener como colombiana.
Luna: Creo que es importante recordar que nosotros no cruzamos la frontera. O sea, pusieron una cerca en un territorio que ya estaba y era mexicano. Para nosotros es una ventaja tener esa cercanía con Estados Unidos porque si se me antoja un perejil con chile verde, me brinco la frontera, me traigo el chile con perejil y me lo como en Estados Unidos. Esa es una ventaja que tenemos los mexicanos. También está el hecho de que somos muy solidarios. Si tu llegas nuevo aquí a Portland y pides ayuda, seguramente te van a mandar a trabajar a una tienda de cadena o comidas rápidas y te van a ayudar a establecerte.
Pero también me ha tocado ver amigos de Sudamérica, que llegan y le batallan en encontrar compatriotas o gente que hable su idioma. Se las ven duras entre los gringos sin poder expresar su identidad, sea la que sea. Y he notado que en otros casos les da pena, se achican; pero a los mexicanos nos vale madre porque tenemos un nacionalismo bien arraigado. En mi caso, nunca voy a negar de dónde vengo, lo que soy, ni lo que represento, ni políticamente ni artísticamente.
Diana: Entonces, básicamente es la condición de frontera la que permite que el pueblo mexicano se pueda adaptar un poco más fácilmente en este entorno. Tiene todo el sentido.
Ahora, cambiando un poco el tema, tengo entendido que fuiste de las pioneras en la celebración del Día de Muertos en Portland. ¿Podrías contarme de esa experiencia?
Luna: Yo estaba trabajando como locutora en KBOO Community Radio y una amiga chicana me preguntó si me acordaba del Día de Muertos. Me comentó que estaba organizando una celebración y empezamos a conversar de nuestras experiencias y compartir ideas. Lo primero que me vino a la memoria fueron las calaveritas literarias y las incluímos como parte de la programación. Tuvimos muchas reuniones en su casa en North Portland, y de ahí pasamos a hacer la celebración en Holocene en 2006.
Había tamales y pan de muerto, una de las organizadoras trajo mariachis e hicimos un recorrido por el panteón más cercano. Había niños, velas, gente vestida de gala, catrines y catrinas. No tienes idea lo increíble que fue. Lo repetimos al año siguiente y también fue un tremendo éxito. El tercer año lo hicimos en el Crystal Ballroom y para ese entonces ya habían surgido celebraciones en Hillsboro, Salem, Beaverton, y continuaron expandiéndose en los siguientes años.
Diana: ¿Quién era el público de esa primera celebración?
Luna: En su mayoría latinos, mexicanos, uno que otro gringo. Recuerdo una situación muy interesante en la celebración del Crystal Ballroom en donde algunas personas disfrazadas de zombis intentaron entrar y los guardias no los dejaron. Les dijeron que de eso no se trataba el evento porque ya de antemano entendieron que se trataba del Día de Muertos, no de zombis o halloween.
Diana: Personalmente me ha gustado esta celebración porque siento que brinda un sentimiento de cuidado colectivo que es importante como comunidad. Sobre todo en países como los nuestros donde hay tanta violencia y muerte. Pienso que si Colombia tuviera una celebración así, nos ayudaría a sanar muchos dolores que no hemos tenido la oportunidad de procesar más allá de los rituales que cada quién le hace a sus seres queridos cuando mueren
¿Tú qué piensas que el Día de Muertos le aporta a la sociedad?
Luna: Pues la resignación a que un día vas a morir y vas a ser celebrado. Representa tradiciones, imaginación y cultura, porque un país sin tradiciones y sin cultura es un país gris. Es como una casa sin libros. Cuando hay libros encuentras la imaginación de todos los que la habitan y la gente que los leyó. Eso aporta el Día de Muertos, cultura y raíces.
Diana: Para terminar ¿qué son las calaveritas literarias?
Luna: Las calaveritas literarias son algo que empezó como una expresión de burla hacia la clase alta. Surgieron hacia finales de 1890, cuando gobernaba Porfirio Díaz, un presidente que fue el primer dictador oficial en la historia de México, quien giraba en torno a una política donde todo lo que venía de Europa, especialmente Francia, era muy bien visto. Se ocupó de hacer grandes edificaciones, como el Palacio Nacional, el Palacio de Bellas Artes, y el edificio de Correos en la Ciudad de México.
Ese tipo de cosas las hacía Porfirio Díaz y obviamente estaba llevando al país a un desarrollo económico tremendo. Al mismo tiempo, debajo de la alfombra, también había millones de pobres y de analfabetas que no gozaban de ningún privilegio de este “progreso”. Entonces en los periódicos de izquierda se hacían caricaturas criticando al gobierno y para el Día de Muertos empezaron a hacer críticas a modo de epitafios burlándose de la burguesía. Ese fue el inicio de las calaveritas literarias. Fue una forma de rebelión que se hizo costumbre, y coincide con la revolución y la caída de Porfirio Díaz. Pero la tradición continúa porque, aunque la revolución acabó, la desigualdad se mantuvo y las calaveritas literarias siguieron con el paso del tiempo.
Actualmente se trata básicamente de un epitafio que te puedo hacer a ti, a mi maestro, o a mi gobernante. Se basa en la historia de la persona a la que se le escribe, y tiene que llevar una rima y una conclusión. Algo que me encanta de las calaveritas, más que criticar, es esa oportunidad de analizar las características de mis amigas o de la persona a la que se la voy a escribir, esa es la parte que más me emociona. Otra cosa interesante es que en las calaveritas literarias tradicionales se supone que la muerte te lleva al inframundo, en las mías no, en mis calaveritas, al final se salvan de la muerte, y es parte de mi manera de escribir.
Diana: ¿Qué esperas que suceda con el taller de creación de calaveritas literarias como una experiencia colectiva?
Luna: Que se dé a conocer éste hermoso ejercicio de escritura y no se pierda la tradición. Espero que todas se animen a participar sin miedo y a darse cuenta que todos podemos escribir, para que las generaciones futuras lo aprendan y lo practiquen.
Calaveras del Montón – Grabado de José Guadalupe Posada, 1910
Luna Flores (ella) nacida en Ciudad de México, cursó estudios técnicos y literarios de escritura en el Museo Universitario del Chopo en la Ciudad de México. Empezó a escribir poesía cuando ya no tenía más lágrimas que derramar una ruptura de amor y ha participado en múltiples ocasiones en Voz Alta, proyecto de narrativas sobre la comunidad latina en Oregon . Residente de Portland desde el 2000, ha sido colaboradora de KBOO Community Radio y otras iniciativas radiales ofreciendo programación en español enfocada en arte y cultura latinoamericana.
Diana Marcela Cuartas (ella) es una artista, educadora y trabajadora cultural colombiana, radicada en Portland desde 2019. Actualmente es estudiante de 2do año de Maestría en Arte y Práctica Social en Portland State University y trabaja en el departamento de educación de Latino Network, como especialista en participación familiar, generando espacios de encuentro y aprendizaje compartido para familias inmigrantes a través de programas extra curriculares en escuelas secundarias de Portland Public Schools.
Emma Duehr Mitchell and Becca Kauffman
Emma Duehr Mitchell
Becca Kauffman, Emma Duehr Mitchell, and Caryn Aasness
Lisa Jarrett and Harrell Fletcher
Cover Design: Gilian Rappaport
Cover Production: Laura Glazer
Gilian Rappaport with Carla Kaya Perez-Gallardo
Becca Kauffman with Fernando Perez
Justin Maxon with Leon Patterson and H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams PhD
Kiara Walls with Harrell Fletcher
Rebecca Copper with Marti Clemmons, Gilah Tenenbaum, and Katharine English
Caryn Aasness with Wesley Chung
Olivia DelGandio with Barbara Caulfield
Laura Glazer with Jessica Cline
Luz Blumenfeld with Roya Amirsoleyamni
Lillyanne Phạm with Karena Salmond
Marina Lopez with Jose Marcos Lopez
Shelbie Loomis with Chris Emery
Mo Geiger with Abigail DeVille
Diana Marcela Cuartas with Luna Flores
Eric John Olson
Letter from the Editor
A transcribed conversation isn’t always deeply revelatory, but it can be. In the participatory field of social practice, we honor the potency of dialogue and combined perspectives. If our art projects don’t take place in solitude, why should our research and creative inquiry? It’s only natural that conversation be a primary method; sometimes it’s even the artwork itself. For the socially engaged artist, conversation can be a hinge, a connector, a keystone, a debrief, a record. No matter what, it’s always a material.
In the Fall 2021 edition of Conversations on Everything for Social Forms of Art Journal, we share conversations using a traditional interview format, and approach the co-authored publication assignment as what I might call social practice praxis. As students in the PSU Art + Social Practice MFA program, we each come from different creative backgrounds and training, including: photography, design, dance, illustration, textiles, set design, publishing, curation, theater, herbalism, and cultural organizing. We find our way here because we’re drawn to the social component of our various disciplines, and we’re interested in spotlighting the parts of our artform that necessitate people, interactions, and collaborative contributions. We shift the focus from the picture (or the book or the play) to the process by which those things are made, and the people who work together to make them.
As a result of this shift, conversations become a significant and intentional medium for us all. “Social practice frames potentially ordinary or common actions such as dialogue and conversation,” first year student Luz Blumenfeld reflects. “It’s really helpful to understand that the things I do in my everyday life are a part of my work.”
That’s because a part of social practice praxis is formalizing what we’ve already been doing. Third year Shelbie Loomis offers, “Conversations and interviewing have been in the depths of my practice (existing in different forms, in different lives), but only recently, through reframing how I look at the act of conversation, did I realize how much…interviewing feeds my artform and practice.”
I relate to this as well. For years, I recorded conversations I had with friends and strangers, capturing the collectively-generated musings, theories, aimless chit chat, and impromptu laughs ping ponging between us to make sure they didn’t evaporate forever. The impulse was similar to taking a picture, and the result became an audio snapshot, which I could transcribe for my own amusement and/or re-perform as a script. Mostly, I put them on an obscure tumblr no one read, and assembled a semi-private album of memories that encapsulated the inherent value of people talking to each other. Many moons later, it’s thrilling to now have a framework to understand my instinct, integrate it into my art practice, and have the opportunity to channel it into a formal publication.
It led me to wonder how the practice of conversations and interviews is actively informing the broader work of my classmates. How has the practice of interviewing influenced their art making/thinking? In what ways are conversations valuable to their practice/s right now? How do they integrate the art of interviewing into their art practice? What did my colleagues find valuable in the process of conducting interviews for this issue?
For third year student Rebecca Copper, “an interview can open up space for exchange, to lean into an inquiry, to uncover, and to potentially understand. It’s a basis for questioning— questioning for curiosity.” That joint act of digging deeper together resonates with third year Mo Geiger, as well. “It’s a way of relating. Conversing is a trippy way to excavate something with another person.” Second year Laura Glazer agrees: “Having a conversation helps us figure out what we can do/make/explore together, and find shared points of curiosity and excitement.”
This exchange has the effect of expanding our practice and giving it artistic definition. “If conversation can be interview, material, medium,” Luz concludes, “it can also be research. And since I’m finding a lot of my practice to be research-based, it’s really helpful to understand that the things I do in my everyday life are a part of my work.”
For second year student Caryn Aasness, the interview gives structure to a familiar routine: “I think I’m always interviewing people, so it’s nice to formalize it. I always want to know what everyone is thinking and I love to try to convince them to think out loud. Or to work through on the spot something they have never really thought through before. Being sent into the world with ‘interview’ as an assignment really parallels the way I already thrust myself into the world with ‘interview’ as the imperative.”
The assemblage of these perspectives illuminates the utility of conversation as a tool for investigation, not only into our own subjects of interest, but into the importance of human-to-human exchange. In this issue, we hear from a scientist on his far reaching approach to mycology, a jazz professor on healing, a neighbor on her domestic art collection, a Ukranian immigrant on his transition to Portland, Oregon, the Bing Crosby Fan Club president on what it means to be invested, a librarian with a vision for collaborative learning, and much more. We hope you enjoy the material.
-Becca Kauffman, Editor
with contributions from Caryn Aasness, Luz Blumenfeld, Rebecca Copper, Mo Geiger, Laura Glazer, and Shelbie Loomis
Touch the Things, Make the Sounds
During my first year in the MFA program, I tried using an art studio on campus. I filled it with my favorite supplies, inspiring books, and uncluttered surfaces. But when I was there, it did not feel vital to my practice. I relocated it to another room with a huge window, hoping that it would be invigorating to see activity outside. Instead, the studio remained quiet and lonely, with few opportunities to respond to the place.
When Elsa and I talked for this interview, I was captivated by her vision of including spaces for art studios in the library, and I imagined relocating my under-utilized studio there. But even in my daydream, it still wasn’t a place I wanted to go. So, I started constructing a version of what a studio in the library might look like for me as a socially engaged artist: no walls, doors, or desks. Instead, there is a large table near the existing library study carrels and stools on wheels tucked under it. Nice paper and pens are available for free, and a special stapler for making zines is nearby. And anyone using the library is invited to sit down and work there. When we need inspiration or have questions, we can explore the books in the stacks and collaborate with Elsa.
This vision of a public art studio reveals an evolution of my creative practice, going from creating a private space that didn’t feel right, to envisioning a public space like the library as a studio space, and shaping it to respond to that site. This ideal place is not a space where I work in isolation. Rather, it is a large desk with space for me and other people to work, study, and create together; it is a place to be social in public.
Laura Glazer: I was trying to figure out a good place to start and what came to mind was how I’m haunted by something you said in our conversation last August. I have this really clear vision of what you described at OCAC(1), where you would have a pot of coffee and students would come in all the time. But at PSU, you were saying it doesn’t work at this scale. And you said, “I need help inserting myself into their practices.” Where are you with thinking about that?
Elsa Loftis: You know, I always feel re-invigorated when I’m able to do the instruction sessions because that’s when I start to get contacted by students. You know, when I get in front of them, and I do my little dog and pony show: here are the databases and this is why they’re so useful and look at all of the fun things you can look for and find. And then I will get emails after that from students who say, “oh, you visited my class and I’m doing this.” Then I get excited about the actual connection between working with people who are seeking information and hopefully assisting. And that’s the person-to-person stuff that I really enjoy. And that’s difficult because I’m waiting for people to kinda come to me. Whereas I would like to just sort of be out wandering around and saying, “Oh,” you know, “how are you today?”
I think very much about the library as place. The library is symbolic in many ways of a place for information. It’s a place to have solace and quiet and reflection, but there’s also kind of this element of, it’s a place to be. It’s a brick and mortar building and that is more or less important now than it ever has been.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, the library is definitely more than just what’s inside the four walls, it’s absolutely more than that. Not only because of our electronic resources and things of that matter, but it’s also kind of a headspace. It’s sort of a way to think, reflect, and work. But it’s also just the actual challenges of the proximity of where I am; in my past lives in other libraries, my office was sort of right out there where students were running around. So, if someone had a confused look on their face, I could just intercept them at their point of need. And where I am now, my office is in the cataloging and acquisitions space, which is behind locked doors so I have to actually physically leave my office to go look for students.
So that’s just a way that the space is elemental. And just having the energy of the people around me when they’re in their seeking phase of their research.
Laura: What does it mean to be an academic librarian?
Elsa: It’s a good question. It just means I’m a librarian in an academic setting. I’ve worked as a public librarian before, so that was a different experience. I mean, it’s not that different in a lot of ways. It’s a service orientation and you’re a public servant, you are meeting different needs in different spaces so you adjust your pedagogy or your workflow. You certainly are dealing with different kinds of collections. The range of people that you meet is certainly a little more narrowly defined in an academic library setting. Although most of the time we’re open to the public. Although we aren’t currently open to the public because of the pandemic. But we do offer spaces for the public to come in and share our resources and share our space. The PSU motto is “Let knowledge serve the city,” so we take that very seriously. We have that as an important role that we play, to offer information and services to people that are beyond our community.
And we also are a government document repository library. People need access to their government information and we provide that.
Laura: Where is the ideal space for you to work in? And it can be in a magical world!
Elsa: I think that in my magical world, the library is in the center of campus, in the heart of the physical space that students inhabit. I would love for there to be studio space in the library. In fact, I used to experiment with some of that.
I would try to put small little pop-up library collections in the studio spaces so that people could have reference resources while they’re throwing pots or welding things. [Laughs!] And when we did that, it was difficult to gauge the engagement with the resources, because a lot of times there’s no way to really track usage if it was just sort of like, Here’s some stuff you could look at it, you know, go nuts.
When you’re trying to work with students and getting folks to get engaged with your materials, you just throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks. We used to do those little pop-up libraries—these little mini curated things—and I thought that was really nice; I wanted people to be able to have access where they were. Not have to be like, Now I’d like to venture over to the library and look at some different examples of what I might be thinking about doing right now as I’m sitting here in the studio.
I would love to have that integration of classroom, studio, and library space all in one. And that might be a completely difficult thing to realize but I think that I always want the library everywhere. [Laughs]
Laura: That is a beautiful quote! “I want the library everywhere all the time.”
Elsa: Well, because I want people to feel like they own it. I think that libraries can be daunting spaces. When I talk about the library as “place,” that’s often very loaded, I think, for some people. I think of libraries as sanctuaries and places to explore and places to go on these adventures. And I think that maybe not everybody feels that way. I think that sometimes they can be sort of vaunted spaces. They’re sort of cold and quiet and maybe you don’t feel like you belong. If there’s one thing I want is for students to have agency over their library, because it is their library.
Elsa continued: We’re not here for any other reasons; we’re here for service. You want to humanize it, familiarize it and make it feel like their workspace, not as some sort of museum or a place where they aren’t supposed to touch the things or make sounds. That can be loaded in a way because I think the library as place is very important and I think that research can be done in so many different environments and formats. You can do a lot of research online; people are very good at doing research online. We’ve spent a lot of time here creating a lot of learning objects(2)(3) and ways that you can access materials virtually, and you don’t have to be in the library, but I also think that the space is important.
And again, that really depends on what kind of learner you are and how you like to interface with things. But I think one of the nice things, and especially for art students and art practice students, is that element of research that’s that really kind of almost haptic practice of research, like you get in there and you’re engaging with physical materials.
For some learners that’s really a big element for their practice, for their understanding: how you process things—physically and mentally—and work that into your creative practice.
And then there’s also that kind of iterative feeling of being in the lobby. You start… it’s like you search and you research, there’s this cycle. It’s not just searching, it’s re-searching. You keep coming back, you keep doing it again. And for some makers, it’s that kind of repetition.t’s that iterative process of research and it being a discipline, you approach it in a disciplined way. And that’s evidenced in a lot of different, physical practices of making art, too.
That’s what I also like to relate to people, is that the parts of the brain that you’re using when you’re doing research are creative parts of your brain. It’s part of art practice, too. You’re using those same kinds of problem solving connectors, the same little parts of your brain light up when you’re doing research as when you’re creating things. And I think that that’s a really useful way to look at it because it’s creative problem solving, just like you’re doing when you’re making work.
Laura: Where do you land on reframing the concept of research for a studio artist and a non-studio artist like myself?
Elsa: Well, it’s a really good question and it’s a really important issue. I think that all over the academy, not just in the arts, we are asking ourselves these questions and mostly from the library’s perspective: what do we collect and what voices are being centered; what voices are being left out; who is considered an expert in their field; what’s considered scholarship?
There are a lot of silenced voices in that narrow definition of what constitutes scholarly research and those definitions are opening up. We see this now and it’s our job as the library to be on the front lines of that and leading that, and collecting and valuing and centering—I don’t want to say alternative research, or maybe just non-traditional resources, I suppose—narrative things and people with learned experience and lived experiences, being thought of as experts, not necessarily attaining some sort of degree that makes them all of a sudden worthy to hear and listen to.
So, for a studio artist and a non-studio artist, I think that those paths are somewhat parallel. But it’s also difficult to wedge that into a traditional expression of scholarship. If you were doing a research essay and you needed five peer reviewed sources or X amount of primary sources versus secondary sources, and this is how you format your bibliography, it can be a little bit daunting to put this sort of non-traditional research into a traditional kind of scholarly product. I think that our instructors are more open than ever to that. You could speak to that better than I could. Do you feel that that is something that’s encouraged or at least tolerated?
Laura: I don’t know yet. I’m really taking my first class outside of the School of Art and Design this term in the History Department where I’m taking a class on museums and memory. We have to write a research paper, which I haven’t done since the nineties. [Laughs] So I am looking at the list of requirements, like six primary, secondary sources and thinking, huh, how can I bring the lens that’s relevant to me as an artistic researcher to this requirement? And I’m in a pretty good dialogue with the instructor. I want to be careful not to push her too far because I think she’s more traditional in how she approaches research papers and so are my classmates, but that doesn’t really work for me cause that’s not what I want to produce. I guess in undergrad, it was very traditional, very structured and I just didn’t do it.
Elsa: Well, you’re not alone in that. I think that we hear that a lot more and I think that that’s becoming more accepted. It’s not like, Oh, well, this student just doesn’t want to produce what I want them to produce. Even my son—he’s nine years old—his teachers are talking about, Okay, maybe you could make a video, maybe you could do a presentation rather than a paper or something like that, just being more inclusive to people with different learning styles or different storytelling. That’s been really central to a lot of more evolving scholarship, talking about things in terms of storytelling.
Laura: Definitely, which I’m always excited by and that’s the route I’m taking for my museums and memory research paper.
Would it make sense for a student to think of a librarian as a collaborator?
Elsa: Oh, yes. I hope so! [Laughs] Yes, because that’s how I think of myself. I think about myself as playing a supporting role. I love the idea of the librarian as a collaborator, yes. What that looks like in practice is a very interesting question, it can take a lot of forms. We’re in these roles as faculty, but we can do research together.
One of the things that I’m always trying to get to the root of is, how is that being engaged with, or is it being engaged with? And what can I do to better my pedagogy and my skills to share these research methods and these research resources and how can I do that better? I’m always, in a way, collaborating with students, whether they know it or not, to see how that’s going. Whether or not it’s a measurable outcome depends on how it’s being measured, I suppose. There’s traditional metrics of, We could give a pre-test and a post-test, or I can analyze people’s bibliographies to see if they found great sources or things like that, which is not really an active collaboration.
So, I’ve done things in the past where I’ve done focus groups with students, had them come to the library, tell me about what their needs are that we’re not meeting. What are we doing well? What could be improved? And again, trying to lend the agency to the students so that they have an active hand in creating their space, their library.
I’d love to collaborate with students on their independent projects, I think that would be wonderful. But mostly from my side, I am interested in collaborating with students to create a better library for them and a better learning experience for them. But I think it could happen on both sides.
Laura: When you say create a better library… I’ll tell you the vision that is in my head and it’s narrow: I think, Oh, get different books, more books.
Laura: Tell me what it means to you?
Elsa: It means community. I think it means an inclusive place where people feel welcome and where they feel productive. New books are nice but it’s also about active space and active engagement. There’s a few different ways to think about it.
More books, beautiful environments. Certainly, it’s nice if the chairs are comfortable and the colors are pleasing to the eye. But yeah, obviously the resources, the best possible resources that reflect our students’ needs and their interests, really inspire them and encourage their own growth.
Sure, the best possible library would be: you walk to a shelf and the thing that you were hoping for just pops right out. But what also is even better is that that thing didn’t pop out, but you got this other idea because the thing that was shelved next to it was sort of interesting. And so you pulled that out, and then you started walking around, you know what I mean? I love the serendipitous browsing, which is why we kind of create these cataloging systems where everything’s co-located.(4) So if you’re on the right track, you’re kind of on the right track. Sometimes that’s not true. Sometimes you gotta go to a whole different floor of the library if you want painting, but now you’re interested in aesthetics where you have to go down to the basement.
But that’s just the nature of the size of the collection, which is wonderful. You want a big, rich collection with lots of different formats and things kind of jump out at you in different ways. If you have the special collections, zines or ephemera or things like that, it’s just fun to kind of go through that stuff and get ideas. And then if you’re in the stacks, you’re kind of looking through the physical spines of the books and sort of getting the smell and all the physical and psychological cues that go with just sort of roaming around the stacks and having those kinds of serendipitous experiences. That would be the perfect library, I suppose.
And then you’d have a relaxing place to be, or where you were stimulated by all the cool stuff that was going on around you, where people were discussing great ideas. And then you’d have your studio right there and you could just go in and start working. That’d be pretty nice. Coffee wouldn’t hurt! [Laughs]
Laura: As a sidebar, I recently had that serendipitous experience at the downtown Multnomah County library and it was so special. I had to work for it, had to really pay attention to my inner voice, leading me around. It was triumphant and it changed my research path.
Laura: I’ve had that happen a little bit at the PSU library. It’s only been open for a little while, so I’m still finding my bearings there. So as you’re describing this magical library experience, the perfect library experience, I’m thinking of the different elements: in one way, you’re describing (in my mind), like a coffee shop and sometimes there’s a lot of activity and sometimes it’s really chill, without a lot of activity. And then I’m imagining a research lab for a scientist, like things bubbling over. It’s a really dynamic space, what you just described.
Elsa: I think the best libraries are, and it fits with our mission. But I also think that part of our other mission, just as important, is to collect and preserve. I mean it’s really important that we are keeping the human record, right? And that’s what we do. I think that a lot of what we do that is important, is curating a collection that is valuable and instructive to our students and also to the community at large.
And so we need to be very intentional about how we use our resources to provide those things. Resources are limited and not just in terms of budgets, but also in terms of space and our priorities and what we can provide. And that’s where librarians come in and use their expertise to get the best, most relevant information in front of a searcher– a researcher.
Laura: What’s informing you as a librarian, right now?
Elsa: In terms of what to collect or in terms of just how I’m spending my time?
Laura: Referring to how you collect, because you were just talking about that, the intentionality of a librarian. So that leads me to wonder: well, what’s informing your intentionality?
Elsa: We need to be responsive to the needs of our departmental faculty. So, of course instructors and professors will be telling us what they need to support their curriculum.
Another good indicator for me is when new courses come up, we are asked to write a statement of support from the library, so I get to see syllabi and make sure that our collections can support the teaching and learning endeavors of the new classes that are starting. So, that’s really wonderful for me because then I can see what’s being assigned. Certainly, I’m looking at making sure that we can support the assigned reading lists, but also just kind of getting a sense of where things are going in the departments. And so that is really informative to me.
It’s also informative to me when I’m in my instruction sessions, because I have an idea of what the assignments are, the research projects, working with students, finding out what they’re interested in and then that leads me to kind of explore. And maybe we don’t have everything that they might need and that’s when I go and I find it.
I also read a lot of academic book reviews, new things coming out by certain publishers that I really value or appreciate, but I’m also still looking for things that aren’t as well represented in our collection. We need to have a sense of where the gaps in our collection are, what might be overrepresented or underrepresented. Do we need another book about Renaissance painting, or are we more interested in collecting a new exhibition catalog about yarn bombing? I don’t know. [Laughs] It doesn’t mean that the other one isn’t useful and necessary. But where do we fit in the conversation and are we representing what’s going on currently in our students’ practice mostly and what’s being taught in the curriculum.
The other consideration we have is we are part of this wonderful big consortium. We have 37 other libraries from universities and colleges in our area that also have their collections and we share that catalog. So, we call that cooperative collections development.
While I might not need to buy everything… I can’t buy everything. But the University of Washington might have one and Portland Community College might have one. Reed College might have one. Willamette University just acquired PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art) and now their library collection is part of our catalog. They have some really amazing parts of their collection that might not be represented in the PSU collection, but I can get it.
So those are other things that are kind of informing my collection development and what I see as a need for our library. As wonderful as it is to have all the things on the shelves in the library space, where you’re looking and searching and having those serendipitous shelf moments, there’s no way that we can have everything on the shelf right in front of you. So that can be a frustration. People like to just go and browse and that’s awesome, I get that. But there’s so much more to our collections. They’re all over the region, they’re all over the world, and they’re in the online environment. And so some of those things do get missed when you have a researcher who just really likes to browse the shelves.
Laura: I read your article, The More Things Change: The Collaborative Art Library, and I’m a huge fan of the inclusion of “collaboration” in the keyword list. But I want to back up a little bit and ask you, does PSU have an art library and actually what is an art library?
Elsa: Ah, that’s a really good question. We have our central library; we don’t have any sort of satellite library. Some departments have their own collections, but they aren’t under the purview of the library.
But an art library you are basically focused on art but it’s not to the exclusion of everything else. I’ve worked in art libraries and it’s mostly to support a specific kind of learning activity, the study of art in this case. Museum libraries are much the same, they’re there to support the research of the curators or visiting researchers who come in and would exemplify a kind of collection focus that a museum has. The Museum of Modern Craft, when it was around, had its own library and those had obviously a very specific scope and focus.
At the OCAC library, we definitely built our collection around what was being taught in school, so the different kinds of craft concentrations, but also art history. And there was a lot of social history too, you know? Libraries take many forms and many shapes and the art library is not a monolith of one kind, but you would certainly find more art books in it. [Laughs]
Laura: Thinking about the art library: so PSU’s collection isn’t considered an art library?
Elsa: Well, it would be the art section of the library. Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Laura: Okay. Got it. Cause as I was reading the article, I was like: oh no, are we not included?
Elsa: Oh my gosh, no, no, of course not. We have wonderful, wonderful art in our library. And I mean, an art library can be conflated to mean so many things. It could be a library of art, it could be a bunch of paintings lined up. A library is terminology that can mean any kind of collection, I suppose, as long as it’s organized and preserved in some way.
We use the Library of Congress classification system so most of our art books are in the Ns and they’re sort of located in a way that’s find-able and together. But other parts of “art” are not in the Ns necessarily. They might be in more technology-related things. So like photography will be in the Ts and aesthetics and the study of beauty and things like that are going to be in the Bs, which is more in the philosophy area.
That’s what’s wonderful about the multi-disciplinary part of that, and you can look all over the collection and that can inform your art practice, certainly.
Laura: When you think about yourself as a collaborator with a student researcher, what do you make together and what do you wish you could make together? We talked about maybe a bibliography, but what are some other things? I’m trying to really wrap my head around what that collaboration is like with you as a librarian or even with the library as space?
Elsa: Well, I think that one thing that was fun that I’ve done in the past with students at the Oregon College of Art and Craft Library has been for a guest student to curate a book display which was always really fun. We have had students do that in the past where they go with the theme and find things that they’ve connected with and arrange it in a way that’s pleasing or just accessible for people.
We’ve had people do art shows in the library, certainly utilizing not only the space, but also elements of the stacks and the books themselves. One example of that is, I had a student that made all of these really delicate ceramic books and he would kind of inner-shelve them in the space and it was really neat. We had students take over the space in a lot of different ways with their physical work.
Then rearranging the library space to facilitate other kinds of making and doing and even if it’s something as simple as having a knitting circle going on in the library and we would pick topics to talk about as we were doing that, readings that we all might have done, or just sharing favorite stories or something like that. I suppose you could mean a collaboration in that way. Students collaborating with the librarian themselves or with the space or just the different ideas of use.
We had one student one time who was exploring repetitive practice stuff and she put a big trampoline outside the library and she would go and be on the trampoline for at least two hours a day, not jumping necessarily, but she would be sitting out there or just being in that little space. That was outside of the library and certainly everybody else was welcome to use it, [laughs] and it was just kind of this fixture. It wasn’t necessarily anything that I was doing or collaborating with myself or even the space of the library, but it did take on a form of its own because it was this sort of feature that was happening and people would talk about it and she would start to try to help generate those conversations, too, because that was part of her inquiry.
I prefer the ones where the space is being used, reused, and remixed and the collection is part of that. And anything that people are using to connect. That’s what I hope for when I collaborate with students or have them collaborate with the space or the collection.
Laura: Anything being used to connect ideas? People?
Laura: What are you meaning with that connection?
Elsa: I mean specifically people. Again, having ownership of the library, having agency, and feeling like they belong there and that the library can change to support them rather than the other way around, if that makes sense. Because when you come into the library space, you have to kind of conform to it in a way, right? You need to position yourself where you need to find the things and there are rules: you have to go to the circulation desk, you have a checkout period, you have a loan period. So there’s sort of these other things. But I think that the library can also transform and be a space that can be used and enjoyed and people can connect.
A really great example of our collaboration was with that subject guide that we created.
Elsa: That can be a work in progress and it can be molded and shaped. That kind of learning object is really wonderful because I think that it fits a need and it wasn’t a need that I knew about until you told me.
That was a great example of a collaboration. It’s a positive step that now exists and it’s something that can continue to change and be added to. There’s a lot more things like that that we can do, I think, that I’d love to see students engage with and make it their own, in a way. I can’t exactly let everybody edit that guide, but I can garner all kinds of input and feedback about it and adapt and change and be agile enough to create new things out of it.
Laura: You mentioned including things in the collection that maybe aren’t in the traditional way we think of a collection being developed. And one example that comes to mind is publications by artists. How do you see those fitting into an academic library?
Elsa: You don’t mean like a monograph, you mean like kind of ephemera or like zines or…cause that can take so many different shapes.
Laura: I think zines are a good example. I’m also thinking about small press publications, things published that aren’t easy for an institution to buy.
Elsa: Right, right. Absolutely. Well, it gets challenging. We have the usual constraints of where to get it and how to collect it comprehensively, I suppose. And so it’s helpful if you wanted to have a concentration of some kind, like artists from Portland, for example, or an artist working in a specific kind of thematic area or medium or something like that. I suppose if we were to kind of pinpoint that sort of thing then it’s a little bit more scoped rather than just like, oh, you know, kind of anything we come across, we get.
Our special collection is a good place for some of this stuff, especially when the formats are a little unstable. Case in point, with a zine, I couldn’t really throw that on the shelf, it would get kind of destroyed, right? There needs to be a special place. And digitization of that kind of thing. Then that can go in our institutional repository, like PDXScholar, if it was somebody from our community, that would make a lot of sense. So there’s room for that and it tends to be kind of in what we think of as our special collections. Just for its own kind of protection, just physically, so it doesn’t fall apart.
Some libraries have very specific collections based on that. You know, ephemera collections, and postcard collections, for goodness sake! The New York Public Library has an amazing historical menus collection and things like that, it’s wonderful. It goes library by library and a lot of that has to do with the institution that it’s supporting.
Laura: I saw there was a faculty announcement that you are an associate professor.
Elsa: Oh no, I’m an assistant professor assistant. I haven’t gotten tenure yet.
Laura: Sorry, I mix them up. Do you teach classes?
Elsa: Librarians have faculty status at Portland State, or they can. We have faculty status and so we do teach, but teaching is defined as provision of library services. So our kind of pedagogy is providing information. We do teach, I teach instruction sessions. It’s kind of defined as, provision of library services is what teaching is, which means that we are providing the ability to do the research; that is our process.
Well, how is this going to look? What is the theme of this journal?
Laura: There is no theme for this issue. I bring the theme. For me, my practice is about books, collections of knowledge, selecting pieces of knowledge, libraries as spaces, people as collaborators. When we talked in August, I was like: oh, Elsa is a great resource. I need to understand more about what you do.
There’s a woman in Montana who does a traveling bookstore. And she goes all over the country and she comes to Portland. So I’m thinking about interviewing her in the winter. Kind of along this theme of books as spreaders of knowledge and trying to figure out where do I fit? Why is that a part of my practice? So, that’s why I’m talking with you. I’m like, why am I so drawn to the library, books, and collecting?
Elsa: I love that idea of the traveling bookseller, that’s really neat.
I had a colleague at OCAC, she’s at Reed now, she’s a book artist, Barbara Tetenbaum. And she was doing this really cool project where it was called The Slow Read and she was using Willa Cather’s book My Ántonia and she had these display monitors up in various places, and in different cities, too.
It would be just a display of one page of the book. And so people could kind of come and read that page. And then the next day there would be a new page. The idea was sort of like this community read, but also really slowly.
Laura: At the library?
Elsa: We had one of the monitors up at the library. But she went out all over the place and it was centered in Nebraska, because that’s where the author was from.
Laura: And she’s at Reed College now?
Elsa: Yeah. She and I used to teach together and she’s wonderful.
Laura: I’m looking at the website right now.
Elsa: Oh yeah, you got it? Okay, great. That puts me in mind of what you’re talking about, right?
Elsa: Yeah. Pretty neat, huh?
Laura: Oh, my goodness. Where did you teach with her?
Elsa: At OCAC. She was the chair of the Book Arts department. Yeah, and then she and I co-taught a student success class for incoming freshmen. It was basically like a college skills class. I think we called it College Skills or something like that. But it was me teaching research and then also just how to be a student and how to succeed in school and even like financial literacy and stuff like that.
So she and I became good friends because we designed the whole course together and she was in the middle of this whole project in the last year that I was there and I was so blown away. You know, talk about collaborative and text as experience, right?
Laura: Oh my gosh. Text as experience. Did you just make that up?
Elsa: I just made that up and I don’t know, [laughs] maybe it flew in from somewhere. She’s one of those people that’s really quite amazing.
Laura: I’m going to have to spend some time with this. See, I already benefited from talking with you! I would not have known, oh my gosh!
This issue of SOFA Journal won’t come out until mid December, I think. And I will keep you in the loop. And just so you know, I personally publish it as a printed zine. And lucky you, you’ll be a lifetime subscriber. So you’ll get a copy of every one that I do in the next year and a half. And then I’ll also send you the back issues.
Elsa: Well, they’re beautiful. I’ve been looking at them on PDXScholar. I’ve never seen a physical one, but I’ve been enjoying looking at them, they’re so rich and pictorial.
Laura: Awesome. Thank you so much for your time.
Elsa: Have a wonderful weekend!
Laura: Thank you! Bye!
(1) Oregon College of Art and Craft was a private art college in Portland, Oregon, from 1907 until 2019 when it terminated all of its degree programs.
(2) A learning object is a digital, open educational resource that is created to assist in a learning event. M, Vanessa, and Jane C. “What Are Learning Objects?” Instructional Resources, October 15, 2021. https://blog.citl.mun.ca/instructionalresources/what-are-learning-objects/.
(3) From Elsa: “I was specifically talking about the Library Guides and from our website, Subject, Course, and How to Guides, which are created by Portland State librarians to help you! These guides provide helpful resources, strategies for research, and tutorials.”
(4) Co-located means having multiple things located together—like the sections in a library—the painting books are near the other painting books, Portuguese language books are next to the other Portuguese language books, and so on. Definition provided by Elsa Loftis.
Laura Glazer (she/her) is a student in the Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University. She graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a BFA degree in photography and lives in Portland, Oregon. Her curiosity about people and the visible world guide her as she uses research, conversations, and collaboration to create projects. She processes and organizes research through publications and local, free distribution methods of printed matter and visual culture such as brochures, flyers, and postcards. See her projects and process notes on lauraglazer.com and Instagram.
Elsa Loftis (she/her) joined the Portland State University library faculty in 2018 as the Humanities and Acquisitions Librarian. She is the subject liaison to the College of Art + Design, and the Film Studies, World Languages, and Literature departments. Prior to her arrival at PSU, she was the Director of Library Services for the Oregon College of Art and Craft, worked as the librarian for Everest College, held positions at the Brooklyn Public Library, the Brooklyn Museum Library and Archives, and the Pratt Institute Library. She received her MLIS from the Pratt Institute, and her BA in International Studies at the University of Oregon.