The Magic of Neighborliness

“Knowledge is held in communities and in our bodies.”

-Amanda Leigh Evans

My dad has worked as a mechanic for over forty years. Growing up, it was a common sight to look out the window to see him laboring with precision and care over our many aged but well-loved and maintained cars. In addition to being a mechanic, he oil paints, cooks Thai food, and helps my mom run our family restaurant.

So when Amanda Leigh Evans said, “Knowledge is held in communities and in our bodies,” I immediately understood what she meant. Amanda was shaped by her own roots from a working class family when she set out to create a program during a five year artist residency at an East Portland apartment complex. Interested in tapping into the vast knowledge that her neighbors there possessed, Amanda started The Living School of Art to connect neighbors in the sharing of their skills with one another. There, acts of neighborliness led the way for creating community gardens, laundry room art galleries, programs for kids and adults, and so much more. In my search for models of education happening outside of traditional academia, models which recognize the knowledge held by people like my dad, I am drawn to Amanda’s work. I spoke with her to understand the myriad of influences and support that went into The Living School of Art. 

Nina Vichayapai: Could you start with an overview of what The Living School of Art was?

Amanda Leigh Evans: The Living School of Art came out of this five year artist residency that I was offered in an affordable housing apartment community in East Portland. When I was in the PSU Art and Social Practice program, I had a friend who worked at Zenger Farm, which is a nonprofit community farm in East Portland. That friend, Krysta Williams, ran a teaching chef program for women who are immigrants and chefs. The women would use produce from the farm to teach workshops on recipes that they were experts on. It was a really beautiful multilingual experience. In 2015, Krysta and I wrote an application for a Precipice Fund grant through PICA (Portland Institute of Contemporary Art) to work with some of the women from the chef program to develop a series of meal-artworks about building connection across age and language and culture. 

In that project, called The Global Table, Krysta and I worked with three chef collaborators. Farida from North Africa, Blanca from El Salvador, and Paula from Oaxaca in Mexico. The five of us collectively designed a series of meals over the course of several months. Each of us invited our family and friends and asked that they commit to multiple meals together. We grew as a community by sharing these meals together. The group was an intimate group of around 20 participants, which ranged from children to elders

Our very last meal was a public event during the Art and Social Practice’s annual art conference called Assembly. Lots of people came to that event who hadn’t come to the more intimate dinners. A woman named Jessica Preboski was in town for Assembly and she attended the event. She was part of a nonprofit in Southern California called Community Engagement, which worked with affordable housing communities to develop artists residency programs in Santa Ana, CA and Phoenix, AZ. I was familiar with this residency program because I had a friend who was an artist in residence at an affordable housing community in Santa Ana. I often thought about that residency program while going through my MFA and wanted to apply to it when I finished my degree. When I was young, like in middle school and high school, I dreamt of creating an art school in my community and involving my neighbors in that process. This dream is what led me to eventually become an artist. 

Nina: What a serendipitous encounter. What came out of that meeting? 

Amanda: Jessica came to our last dinner at Zenger Farm. She had been working with an affordable housing community in East Portland that wanted an artist residency. Zenger Farm is very close to the apartment complex where I ended up being an artist in residence. Neighbors at this apartment complex really liked gardening, food, and cooking. They were also very interested in engaging crafts-based practices, which is part of my background since I work in ceramics. After the meal, Jessica  asked me to apply to be an artist in residence at the apartment complex. 

Nina: What was your initial reaction to the opportunity? 

Amanda: I was really excited about the possibility, but I also felt conflicted. While I do share some similar backgrounds to many of the neighbors in the apartment complex because I grew up in a diverse working class community, I am not an immigrant. And many of the neighbors in the apartment complex are immigrants or refugees. The apartment complex is composed of families primarily from Nepal, Somalia, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Mexico, Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Bosnia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and more. Additionally, there are many single, older white people who have disabilities living in the complex. What is shared among all neighbors is an income-level under which they had to qualify in order to be granted access to this affordable housing. 

When Jessica invited me to apply, I thought, “Am I the right person for this work with my lack of ability to relate to those experiences?” So I originally responded to Jessica with a list of other artists that I felt could be a better great fit. And then a few months later, Jessica came back to me and she was like, “We really want you specifically to apply, will you apply?” And so I did, and the five subsequent years I spent developing The Living School of Art were some of the most beautiful and fulfilling years of my life.

When I applied to Community Engagement’s artist residency, the framework was quite loose. I was provided housing, a stipend, and a small budget for supplies. Originally, they asked me to be an artist in residence and to live and work in the apartment complex for one year, but I ended up being an artist in residence for five years total. It was very open ended. At the beginning, I asked my neighbors, “What do you want to do with this opportunity? We have a space that we can use as an art studio, we have some funding for supplies, and we have time together.” The structure for The Living School of Art emerged from the responses that the neighbors gave.

Nina: That’s fascinating. And it sounds like such a serendipitous encounter that evolved from the seed that was planted in you way prior to that meeting. I’d love to know more about what your influences were in deciding how to structure the school.

Amanda: It was definitely a combination of influences. As an undergrad, I studied sociology and community development, as well as art. I became interested in forms like Participatory Action Research and community-initiated practices. I’m also really interested in artists like Rick Lowe, who has been committed to Project Row Houses for nearly 30 years now. Rick Lowe has worked in a row house community in the third ward in Houston on artist-driven projects for many years. It’s also a collaboration with single mothers. Some of the houses are devoted to artist residencies and exhibition spaces. I admire his commitment to one place and one community for such a long time.

I’m also inspired by artists like Mierle Laderman Ukeles for that reason, because she has been committed to a specific practice and community for decades. I really admire that commitment and am interested in what happens in the slow unfolding of a relationship over decades. 

However, I would say the artist who has had the biggest impact on me is Theaster Gates. For one, I can relate to his background as an urban planner through my study of sociology. I like the way that he thinks about systems like housing and architectural spaces, including affordable housing. Additionally, Theaster Gates is also a craftsperson, specifically a ceramic artist, who values beautifully-made objects. The way that he thinks about ceramics and its history and potential for social connection has also been very inspiring to me. Lastly, Theaster Gates’ dad was a roofer. I also share that blue collar background. My dad has worked in construction since he was 16 years old, and he’s still working in it today at the age of 70. The way that Gates creates works that draw from his working class roots, from his dad’s craft-adjacent manual labor job, is something that I particularly identify with. 

Beyond that, I’ve also been interested in various alternative art schools and artist collectives. All of those interests swirling around led to how I developed an approach to co-creating The Living School of Art, which began with a curiosity on what knowledge was held in our community. What topics were neighbors already experts on? What do people know well that they haven’t shared with other neighbors? How can we create a system that celebrates the knowledge held by our community that allows for people to share across age, language and culture? And what community interests haven’t been explored yet? What collaborative framework can we create that allows for intuitive creative exploration?

In addition, at this apartment complex, for over a decade a woman named Tia Bennett-Tveisme has run a very successful after school program and series of annual community events. So there was a foundation that I walked into because of her work. The Living School of Art was built on the foundation of Tia’s work (by the way, this Tia is not to be confused with Tia Kramer, who is now my collaborator in Walla Walla, WA and an alum of the PSU Art and Social Practice Program).

At many apartment complexes, the annual turnover rate in rentals is quite high, but in this particular complex, there are many families who have lived there for a decade or longer. Unfortunately, some of this changed during the pandemic, but this was true when I arrived. Anyway, what that meant was there were lots of kids who grew up together, who ride the bus every day together, who go to school together, and parents who watch each other’s kids on this playground that exists in the center of the complex. I came in with all these social structures already in place, but there wasn’t a forum for neighbors to share their knowledge or to be creative.

Nina: That’s amazing. To have those structures already be part of the community and the way that they are connecting with each other and the importance of building those connections over a long time. What was it like working with your neighbors? And what kinds of things did people teach each other?

Amanda: During the first year of my artist residency, The Living School of Art didn’t have a name. The name emerged around the one-year mark of the project as a way to define what we had organically started to do. Initially, working with the kids was an easy entry point into the community because they were so eager to make art.

One of the biggest resources that we had in the apartment complex was time. In some ways, it felt like we had infinite time because it was time at home. In the summer, the kids were around all day every day. And for adults, anytime someone wasn’t at work or at school, we had some time to do things together. Because the kids were around a lot, that led to a lot of initial experimentation and spur-of-the-moment activities.

Our first major project was a community garden built in a former swimming pool in the middle of the complex. The pool was bean-shaped and all of the cedar wood raised bed garden boxes were built to fit the contours of the pool. The garden is a really charming, unusual space. I think of it like earthwork. It really feels like a living artwork.

The bean-shaped community garden at The Living School of Art. Photo courtesy of Amanda Leigh Evans, 2017 in Portland, Oregon.

We also built a beautiful greenhouse out of recycled windows covered in paintings by the kids, which neighbors use annually to sprout seeds. Every spring, it’s filled to the brim with young tomato plants, which seem to be a favorite among neighbors. There’s this charming handmade quality to that garden space that exists in stark contrast to the banal, standard-issue apartment architecture surrounding it. 

In addition to children and garden programs, there was also a weekly women’s program. Each week, while the kids were at school, a different mom would lead that group and teach something based on her creative practice. A lot of amazing cooking happened in that group and sharing of recipes. One week we did eyebrow threading, another week someone led a performance art activity that expressed the daily stresses and fears of deportation. Because the community was so diverse, that all led to a really great exchange in terms of food and craft-based practices and gardening practices from around the world. 

Beyond that, there were many impromptu special events. We took a camping trip once. Several times we went kayaking. We’d go to art museums and artist studios. We were invited by the Portland Children’s Museum, Third Space Gallery and National to have exhibitions, which we planned and installed collectively. 

We also had eight laundry rooms in the apartment complex. Each of those laundry rooms became a rotating exhibition space. This was work made by neighbors and rotated on a quarterly or annual basis. Much of that art remains in those spaces now. Our work also led to a short-term artist residency program that was funded by a Metro Creative Placemaking grant. We put out an open call for artists who had lived experience in affordable housing or lived experiences as immigrants or children of immigrants. Some of the application questions were written by youth. Two application questions were, “What is your favorite flavor of popsicle?” and “How do you define a rainbow?” Once applications were submitted, youth in the apartment complex reviewed the applications and voted for who they wanted to invite to be an artist in residence with us. Those artists then made public, permanent artwork in collaboration with the young people at the apartment complex, which still remains there to this day. 

Most importantly, The Living School of Art was successful because it was built from a serious and intentional commitment to the role of “neighbor,” as an active, accountable, and public role in community. Most people in cities have neighbors, but often a neighbor is just someone who lives near you. There is no commitment or social contract among neighbors in the United States. Within this work, I was very serious about my role as a neighbor. To me, being a neighbor is an active commitment to a place and a community. Being a neighbor is a civic responsibility. The Living School of Art was possible because of a shared commitment to being neighbors. I lived in the apartment complex and I lived actively as a neighbor. Neighborly interactions were the glue that held everything together. There was lots of sharing of tea and coffee in living rooms, driving people to doctor’s appointments, helping someone file for unemployment, little gifts from the garden left on doorsteps, evening chats in the garden, random babysitting, teaching someone how to drive, helping someone move a couch, and so on. My life, my home and my work were deeply intertwined and I felt like, for better or worse, but mostly for better, I was deeply known, and with that knowing comes responsibility. And my neighbors also showed up for me in similar ways. This neighborliness was necessary in order to build the magic that emerged during making art together.

Nina: So, how has The Living School of Art shaped your ideas about education?

Amanda: I mentioned earlier that I grew up in a working class family. I was in the first generation of people in my family to go to college. My dad works in construction and my mom worked at a beauty salon. Both of those practices require attention to craft and aesthetics, and I learned these critical artistic skills from my parents. I didn’t go to an art museum until I was in college, yet I had decided to study art. Art museums weren’t places that were familiar to me when I was a young person. I came to art through domestic art practices and through art classes in public schools. 

I am very interested in how class dynamics affect access and belonging in the field of visual art. Many neighbors at The Living School of Art have similar vocations to those of my parents. They work in healthcare, construction, food service, etc. Those jobs can be very creative! What scrappiness, creative problem solving, and ingenuity can emerge when people with those skills come together to make artistic projects? Often, that artwork is so much more interesting to me than work made by artists who have received abundant financial support and artistic training since birth. When I enter conventional art spaces, I often wonder “Who is this art space for? Who is its assumed public? Who feels a sense of belonging in this space? How does this affect our perception of value and cultural capital?”

In The Living School of Art, we made art with and for ourselves. Our community defined what artwork and art practices were important to us. What could art mean if we were defining it for ourselves? Knowledge is held in communities and in our bodies.

At the same time, I now have a master’s degree. I am formally trained in visual art and I am no longer working class. Using and sharing specialized training is a public responsibility to me. At some point, I realized my neighbors expected me to share my training as an artist, especially if I was asking other people to share their knowledge. At the beginning, I was diminishing this training and wasn’t sharing it. Then at some point I realized this is why I went through school. Like, if you’re on an airplane and someone’s having a medical emergency, you would expect any random passengers with medical expertise to use their training in that situation. My neighbors expected me to share my art knowledge.

By defining The Living School of Art as an alternative art school or as an artist collective, we were using both of those terms; our framework allowed for any neighbor to be an expert and to be a teacher. This led to anywhere from five year olds teaching classes to women who were retired teaching classes on things within their realm of expertise that you might not learn in a conventional art class. 

Art in the twenty-first century is driven by conceptual frameworks rather than materials or techniques. Any type of practice can become a contemporary art practice. The Living School of Art is an artwork in and of itself, which created a framework for art practices to emerge. I think about John Dewey’s Art as Experience, but perhaps more importantly I think about craftspeople working together in communities in collaboration with each other for millenia. Some of the oldest ceramic objects are Jōmon pots from Japan, and it’s believed that those pots were made by communities of women. And so, the structure of The Living School of Art is radical because it pushes against contemporary educational structures, but it is also based on ancient frameworks because it draws from craft structures that have existed for over twenty-thousand years. 

Nina: It seems like a lot of your work has involved being a facilitator through connecting people to the knowledge of those around you. I’m also curious since you practice ceramics, how did that fit into The Living School of Art? Or into your ideas in social practice overall which tends to be dematerialized?

Amanda: Yes, ceramics have influenced how I think. Historically, ceramic work, unlike painting, has been made in the community. Until recently, there has been no cost-effective way to make ceramic work alone, isolated in a studio. Ceramic artists share kilns and studio spaces, and more importantly, share embodied knowledge. 

I have two small kilns and a wheel that I’ve purchased used over the years. We had those resources at The Living School of Art. My apartment was next door to a shared studio space where we would hold classes and gatherings and also just have open studio time. There were several neighbors who had keys– like teens who would come in and just use the space and other folks. Especially during the pandemic lockdown, ceramics were important because it was something really special that I could share that neighbors typically wouldn’t have access to.

If you’ve never had exposure to art making and you’re making it for this perceived general audience (as we sometimes did for exhibitions at off-site locations), I think it’s critically important to also have art in your home and to be living with it. 

I think socially engaged art can be a really powerful way to approach artmaking because it  expands perceived audiences and methods of collaboration. But I think social practice is assumed to be very dematerialized. However, the way that I approach social practice is in relationship to objects, contexts, and experiences. There have been plenty of valid critiques from socially engaged artists about the shortcomings of static, commercial art objects in a gallery. But that doesn’t mean that art objects are inherently evil, wrong, or dead. Social practice doesn’t have to be anti-object. I fell in love with art because I like to work with my hands; I like to build things with wood and with clay, and I work in design practices too. I love making things and I love eating from ceramic objects made by people who are important to me. And the joy of creating is something that I want to share with people. Creating beautiful objects for domestic spaces can be considered elite, but it is also a working class practice and I think everyone deserves to have access to that. 

Nina: That’s amazing to hear as someone who makes objects and is trying to figure out what social practice looks like for me. I’ve felt a sense of needing to put object making on hold for social practice but so much of my joy comes from making and sharing art with others just like you described. You articulated beautifully what it can mean to make an object in a socially engaged way. Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to provide educational opportunities to people or youth outside of academia or traditional institutions?

Amanda: I think about Sister Corita Kent’s 10 Rules, which include, “Find a place you trust and try trusting it for a while.” What communities are you already part of? Who can you partner with? Who has been doing similar work?

All of the work that I’ve had the chance to do over my career has been in collaboration with other people who are also doing that work. There’s nothing that I’ve built from total scratch. Find the people who share your values and interests, and create something together.

Nina Vichayapai (she/her) uses fabric as a language to reveal how surroundings embody humankind. Her work explores physical spaces as expressions of the many people who shape them. Through hand stitched textiles she addresses the important role of homemaking in establishing belonging within the American landscape.

Born in Bangkok, Thailand, she graduated from the California College of the Arts with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2017. Nina currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Amanda Leigh Evans (she/her) is an artist, educator and cultivator investigating social and ecological interdependence. Her work manifests as ceramic objects, gardens, books, websites, videos, sculptures, and long-term collaborative systems. Her work is rooted in design thinking, research-based inquiry, and long term collaboration, often resulting in artwork that exists outside of traditional gallery spaces. For five years (2016-21), Evans was an artist-in-residence in an affordable housing complex in East Portland, where she collaborated with her neighbors to create The Living School of Art, an intergenerational alternative art school that centered the creative practices of their multilingual community. Before that, she was a collaborator with the LA Urban Rangers (2011-13) and Play the LA River (2013-15) on projects engaging the history, politics and ecology of the LA River. Currently, Evans is a Visiting Assistant Professor teaching ceramics and socially engaged art at Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA. She and her collaborator Tia Kramer are the DeepTime Collective, an artist collective developing When The River Becomes a Cloud (2022-25), a co-authored contemporary public artwork generated through a long-term artist residency at a Pre K-12th grade public school in rural Eastern Washington. Evans holds an MFA in Art and Social Practice from Portland State University and a Post-Bacc in Ceramics from Cal State Long Beach.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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