Conversations On Everything: Interviews Spring 2021


Cover of SoFA Journal: Conversations on Everything Spring 2021. Designed by Salty Xi Jie Ng.

Editor’s Note: The Source Commissioner Speaks

“I personally believe that someone can make amazing work for $100. And somebody can make horrible work for a million dollars. And every possible thing in between.”

– Harrell Fletcher

In Spring 2021, Portland State University Art & Social Practice MFA students were each given $100 to commission someone to do something, anything. Projects created include: buying candy for an entire elementary school; continuing an AGNES VARDA FOREVER poster project; retroactively compensating for a minute of building Black excellence; taking a nostalgic driving tour around Bed Stuy, Brooklyn; paying an anonymous woman surfer to go surfing for a week. 

For this issue of Conversations on Everything: Social Forms of Art Journal, MFA students interview those they commissioned. They get to know each other more, plan their projects, and discuss meanings of art and labor. In place of an editor’s note, Salty Xi Jie Ng interviews program director Harrell Fletcher, who commissioned the commissions. He talks about this unusual class assignment, its multiplier effect, shared authorship, the creativity that can emerge from limited resources, and how a fixed multiplayer framework facilitates the appreciation of diverse expression.

Source commissioner, commissioned commissioners, final commissioned. Diagram by Salty Xi Jie Ng.

Salty Xi Jie Ng: How did you come up with this assignment?

Harrell Fletcher: I was trying to figure out a real world project that could happen within the program, that gave everybody the chance to try out what it was like to do a few different things. One of them was the idea that instead of using money that comes to you, you could transfer it to somebody else. And that goes along with this concept of repositioning, an approach that I’ve used in my own work, but I didn’t really have a framework for thinking about it. This idea of repositioning is where, as an artist, you’re given platforms, resources, or opportunities, and you can choose to allow somebody else to use that opportunity, resource, or platform, but to do that  as your work. You’re not doing it in an altruistic way; instead, you’re sort of doubling the resource—I get something out of it as the artist, but also somebody else who may not normally have this kind of opportunity would now get it as well. 

Anyway, I was thinking about those kinds of things and trying to figure out how I could make an object lesson circumstance where everybody in the program would get to work through this framework with a relatively small budget, one that needed to cross the threshold where it still seemed like something. $100 is becoming less and less all the time, but it still means something in our imagination. It depends on the context and who’s receiving it. And that was something I wanted the students to think about too—who makes the most sense to commission for this amount, this particular budget. 

So the assignment provided an opportunity to think about a whole bunch of different aspects that come into play with social practice: crediting people; resource sharing; repositioning; the idea that as an artist, sometimes you can curate, commission or edit—you can use other modes that are oftentimes seen as a background role, but you can forefront that role as your own work. I was thinking about all these different things jumbled up together. It seemed like it might be an interesting experiment.

Salty: What was the process like? Did the students discuss with you what they were going to do and did you give them any feedback?

Harrell: I gave them an outline, which was that it needs to be framed as a commission, and the $100 should be the total amount that’s needed. You can add on to the project later if you like. It shouldn’t be like, Here’s $100, for really what should be a $1,000 project. Part of what I am trying to think about too, is that, when people get commissioned to do a project in general, or with a project budget of any kind, there’s going to be a set amount of money, whether it’s $1,000, $10,000, $100,000. I want people to be able to practice thinking within that budget limitation, because you’re going to ruin yourself if you can’t figure out how to modulate projects to fit within the resources that are offered for them. These could be monetary resources, space limitation, time, any of these things. Whatever the resource limitations are, you have to think within them.

The other requirements were that it had to be done by the end of the school year, and you had to conduct this interview that goes along with it. I talked to people individually about their ideas. Becca (Kauffman) was the very first person who was ready for the $100, so I Venmo-ed her the $100. I said to everyone, all you have to do is tell me what the project is, we’ll go through the details of it, and then I’ll give you the $100. I met with each person a couple of different times. As a group, everybody shared their plans, and we worked out some kinks together. Some people wanted to just pay the person $100 to do the interview, but the way we came up with this, it’s like a two parter. There’s the commissioned project and then there’s the interview about the commissioned project. Some folks couldn’t quite figure out what a commission was, or thought it should come back to them, because they were going to end up doing some work on it anyway. But overall it was interesting to see all the different approaches people had.

Salty: Let’s talk about the different levels or roles here. You’re the source commissioner who’s commissioning the grad students. And so maybe we can call the grad students the commissioned commissioners, and the people they worked with the final commissioned. And by the time we get to the people experiencing the thing that was made, it would have gone on to the fourth level already. You could walk past someone on the street and not know that they were affected by your giving out of this $100. This to me is part of the beauty of this exercise. What are your thoughts on this multiplier effect?

Harrell: I like that. I think that’s really interesting. In general, that’s a good approach to resources in general—not just keeping them to yourself but thinking about how you can spread them out. There’s some project I did in the past that I’m trying to remember—I eventually met a stranger and they were telling me about the project as if it was something I didn’t know about. And I was like, Oh, yeah, that’s my project. It had gone through enough layers that this person had no idea I was sort of the source of the project. In some weird way, it came back around. I like when what starts the process going gets sort of lost, and then the project offshoots and involves many people. That’s one of the things that I’ve been interested in, creating projects in which there is multiple authorship. 

Salty: So how do you think these $100 Projects should be credited, as individual projects and as a collective whole? 

Harrell: I’ve sort of intentionally left this unresolved, partly because I wanted to see how it went. Having done this first version, maybe we’ll do this again and have a much better idea about what is happening. But I think this is an interesting question. Some students that I’ve talked to like the idea that in a way, it’s my project, and that they are a sub, a delegated member of a project that I’m sort of orchestrating. That is one way of thinking about it. And then other people probably want to have nothing to do with me, and want to think about it as just their project, for which some dude gave them $100 to use. I kind of like that people are sorting it out in different ways. 

And as far as I’m concerned, if somebody were to decide to formalize it on their resume or on their website, and they want to credit me, and see it as a project they’re participating in that I’m the big author of, that’s fine with me. I’m totally happy to validate the idea that that’s what’s going on. If other people don’t want to credit me at all, and not even acknowledge that they’re part of a set of other people doing the same commissioning process, I’m okay with that also. 

Like so many other projects that exist, I like that we can look at it from different perspectives, make choices about crediting, and there can be multiple authorship. And there’s no scarcity. We’re not fighting over who gets authorship and credit. Because we’re the ones determining that, we can spread out the authorship and credit as far and wide as we want. And it’s still potentially as beneficial to any one of us, as it would be if we had somehow treated it in a very proprietary way and been like, This is just mine. I don’t think there’s any great benefit to doing that. Mostly people are misled in trying to retain some kind of sole authorship of projects, believing that they get more that way or something like that. I think that in the end, they actually kind of get less by treating it that way. 

Salty: When I was editing the conversations between the students and those they commissioned, it was really delightful to see the variety of ways everyone chose to use the $100. This delegated model created more ways of thinking about art. For some there was this element of wish fulfilment, for others, it was about memorialising something, or a chance to get to know someone better, or getting someone to continue a great project, or giving someone resources to dream up something new, especially for the children, for whom it was like a bestowing of power. Justin did a retrospective commission, and both him and Bri brought the value of labor into the fore. What are your thoughts on the spectrum of ways that it was done?

Harrell: To me that’s one of the interesting things about this delegated model. The way I think of that term is the idea that one person is coming up with a structure and within that, delegating out little structures to multiple people. When you put it back together, you have this bigger piece. I think that can be an interesting and also liberating approach for an artist. Some people would think that that was stifling, limiting, taking agency away from artists, that you were giving them a structure that was similar to multiple other people. But on the other hand, we’re always working with limitations and structures. And so this is being very transparent about that, and formalising it. As you’ve described and which happened in this case, with limitations you wind up having all of these different responses to it. In a way, the limitation is what allows you to see the diversity of approaches. As opposed to if we had just asked everybody to do their own work, we wouldn’t have the framework of comparison to then be able to see the wide variety of approaches to a single structure that are going on. So I guess for me, it’s a confirmation that this can be useful and that it doesn’t necessarily have to stifle creativity. It can instead stimulate individual creative ways of addressing the challenge or limitation that’s been given to them.

Salty: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think it is an infinitely expansive exercise. Were there any projects that were particularly memorable to you? Or that you were really intrigued to see how they would progress? 

Harrell: There were interesting, different developments that occurred. For instance, Laura’s project was the first one to be realised. And as a result, it was a nice example to have floating around as other people were figuring it out. Partly because it was a very simple project, making this AGNES VARDA FOREVER flyer with her friend JJ. It wasn’t like a heavy lift, and it was a response to something that JJ had already done. Something that I’m always trying to emphasise within the program is, if you make things public, as opposed to how we normally think of artists making work privately in a studio, things start to happen that are unexpected and opportunities start to present themselves. 

And that’s what happened with Laura’s project: she puts up these flyers with her friend JJ. And pretty quickly, there’s lots of different people posting it on Instagram who don’t even know whose project this is; I keep running across them myself. The Hollywood Theatre in Portland becomes excited about it, because they like to show Agnes Varda. They track down Laura and JJ, and invite them to do an interview based on it as well as curate something, and they’re getting promotion from the Theatre. They got connected to Agnes Varda’s daughter and son. All sorts of different things occurred as a result of this fairly simple project that was made public. 

Salty: Because $100 could print 550 AGNES VARDA FOREVER posters.

Harrell: And Laura has checked on Google searches and suddenly, in the United States, there’s more Google searches for Agnes Varda in Portland than anywhere else in the country. To me, that was a really great example project to have, to show that you could do something simple, easy, fun, and that it would also lead to all of these other things, these funny, interesting connections.

It’s been interesting talking to Kiara about her project with her cousin, Jordan. It’s been a good experience for Kiara to think about how she might work, how she could collaborate with somebody like Jordan. From a plan for making a project together, I think it has now expanded to a much broader set of things that she can do. You can start a small, simple project, and then it leads you to other projects. In Laura’s case, one version of that is happening which is more external. In this one, it’s more like realizing, Oh, here’s my nine-year-old cousin, I could do projects with him. Kiara’s working on a virtual exhibition with Jordan and shooting video together and things like that. 

This idea that happened with Justin paying Herukhuti for one minute of his time is something that I’ve been thinking about—retroactive projects and valuing people for their time. On the one hand, we could say $100 is not very much money, especially for a knowledgeable adult professional. But if we change the increments of time that the person’s being paid for, so in his case, reducing the payment conceptually to one minute, then suddenly $100 seems like at least a reasonable amount of money for one minute of time, as opposed to $100 for all of his life’s work. 

As the artist, there are different areas you have control over. Instead of feeling like you are stuck with reality as it’s been presented, you start to realize that you can change it; you can go back in time, you can shrink time, you can work with all of these things that become very empowering. Justin’s project gives us an example of how to work with areas that normally artists don’t think of themselves as having agency over. Instead of being like, I don’t have enough money, I can’t do it, we can say, Well, we’ll just shrink what the expectation is, you know?

Salty: He made a very tangible statement about labor. I’m also thinking about the range of people who ended up being the final commission people. How do you think that commissioning a nonartist changes the way they think about art, their involvement in art, and what art can be?

Harrell: I think that was an interesting opportunity. I was hoping at least some percentage of the students would be working with nonartists. I’ve always used this as an example to try to flip my own understanding—if, say, a dance choreographer came to me, and said, Hey, I like the way you move, will you be a part of my dance performance? And I’d be like, I’m not a dancer. They’d be like, That’s okay, you just have to come to these rehearsals, and then we’re performing it, and you just get to be a part of it. And I’ll be like, Hm, that sounds like fun, sure, I’ll do it. 

I wouldn’t feel like this person is a choreographer and I’m not, and maybe I’m being taken advantage of. Instead, I would see it as them extending an opportunity to me, and in a way doing this repositioning for me, where I get to embody an experience that I wouldn’t normally have. And so I would be appreciative of that. I wouldn’t feel like I had to get paid, or have equal billing or something like that. I would just feel glad I got to have this interesting experience. This is hypothetical and I could imagine it happening with lots of other things too where somebody was, like, Oh, we really like the way you cook string beans, will you come to our restaurant and cook the string beans for a night or something? I’ll be like, Okay, I’ll give it a try. You know, I don’t expect it to be my profession. But I like to have the experience of it. 

And so I was hoping that by framing it through an art lens with nonartists, they would have this moment of thinking of themselves as having this capacity to do art, even if that wasn’t their profession or identity. And partly what I thought would be interesting is the discussion about it, where you get to ask, Well, what do you think? Is this a problem? Is this fun? Is this stressful? It could be different for each person. And an interesting question to pose to someone could be like, If we were to look at this thing that you do, surfing, or whatever it is that you’re already doing, but we reframe it as an artwork, and you get paid for it—how would you feel about that?  How does it change things for you? Is that positive? Would that be something you desire? Is that something that feels shameful or guilty? Which seems kind of like what happened with the person Bri commissioned. And then talking it through and, asking, Would it be a problem if you were being paid by a surf company to do this? Oh, it’s only a problem if you’re being paid to do it as art because artists shouldn’t be paid? Because you shouldn’t be paid to do things you like, or what is it? What’s coming up here? And how does it apply to other circumstances? 

Salty: I think what this did was create at least 13 new conversations about what art is, and definitely many more, because the commissioned folks will be telling their family and friends, Hey, I just got paid $100 to do this, and those people might ask, How is that art? It adds more definitions of art in an expansive way. Would you do this project, again, with a different amount of money?

Harrell: Potentially, if I had access to other amounts of money. I have done things that I called re-granting, starting back quite a while ago. One of the first ones that I did, where I formally thought of it like that, was in 2005 when I got the Alpert Award. I was given something like $50,000, and as part of it, I decided I would re-grant a chunk of that money. I can’t even quite remember how much I ended up re-granting, maybe $15,000. And so I selected a bunch of artists, and I gave them little grants of $1,000 each. I didn’t have specific conditions about them commissioning anyone or anything, it was just like a grant to do their work. 

Salty: Did they have to apply?

Harrell: No, it was like the MacArthur Genius Award. They didn’t know, it was out of the blue. They suddenly got the award, and it was called the Earthling Award.

Salty: So in a way you were being a curator, except when the curator does it, it’s part of the job. But when you do it, you get to claim it as an artistic action.

Harrell: Yeah. There have been other circumstances where I did that in different ways, like offered up chunks of money that I got. In the case of the $100 Projects, it was strictly out of my pocket. But this year, I did get part of the U.S. stimulus money, the check from the government. So I got some extra money that came in out of the blue, as was the case for millions of other people in the U.S. I thought, What do I want to do with this money? And this was one of the things I thought I could do with it. Next year, I might not be in the same boat. So I don’t know that I would repeat it exactly.

Salty: How do you think that it would be different if it was $10 instead of $100?

Harrell: I think you could do it with really any denomination. But you have to then reframe what you’re going to do with it. Like, in what circumstances does $10 seem valuable? And so I think that you have to recognise that because there is wealth inequality in the U.S. and in the world, the value of money is not constant. Any amount of money means different things to different people. If a person has millions of dollars, then $100 is not going to be very valuable. For a person with very little money, literally on the street with 15 bucks in their pocket, suddenly $100 will seem like a lot of money. When we think about children, they aren’t allowed to work, they don’t automatically have money. They may have an allowance, maybe their parents give them some money. But even if so, it’s usually in pretty small amounts, and even with that, it varies. But if you start with the idea that you’re working with a kid, then maybe $10 will seem like a reasonable amount to do a project with. 

And similarly, there’s other kinds of circumstances in which $10 might seem like enough. For instance, if you said to someone, Okay, here’s $10, I’m going to commission you to buy something in this convenience store, and then we’re going to put whatever you happen to purchase in an exhibition, with a label we make. And so somebody goes in and buys a bag of potato chips and comes back out, and they’re like, Okay, I did it. I’ve even got seven bucks to spare. And you say, Well, you can keep that for your work, and we’re gonna install this bag of potato chips in the exhibition; can you tell me what you want on the label? With something like that, suddenly $10 would work again. 

So it’s just really a matter of framing, and sort of resource matching, where you match the project to your resources. And so you have to figure out how you do the best possible match to create the best work, given whatever the resource happens to be? Which could be $10, $5, $1, or $100, $1000, $10,000. It can keep going in all these different directions and people can make amazing work. I personally believe that someone can make amazing work for $100. And somebody can make horrible work for a million dollars. And every possible thing in between.

Salty: It occurs to me, though, that the resource of $100, in this case, does not really include a fee for the labour of the commissioned commissioner, as in the student.

Harrell: Right. And that’s because in this case, it’s a school project, it’s an assignment. And normally, you wouldn’t get paid to do an assignment in school. If I had extra money, then maybe we would have made that part of it. And maybe that would have been interesting to say, Okay, you get $100 for yourself, and you get to commission $100. If it was a non school based project, then I think that would make more sense. But because it is within a school assignment, on the one hand, you could say, I’m being asked to do this additional labor. But our program is not just the classes or requirements that involve grades or credits. I sort of see it as much more inclusive—kind of everything that happens during the three years that’s attached to the program is part of your education. It’s a broader sort of view that’s not about just paperwork and grades, but more like an immersive cultural experience. 

When students select someone for our weekly Conversation Series, they’re not paid to do that. In the real world, you might get paid to do that, if you were working as a programmer for an institution. In this case, it’s a chance to flex those muscles and sort of learn about what goes into inviting someone as a speaker. So it has to be understood within the educational context, in which case, the idea that the professor is giving money from their pocket is unusual to begin with, that’s not part of what normally occurs. We’re already tweaking it quite a bit. So the assignment was a twist, but it was still within the framework of graduate school assignments. 

Salty: Another thing that I love about this is that it stretches one’s imagination in terms of our relationship with money— it momentarily turns money into this thing that can make you and someone else happy through the act of creative gifting. 

Harrell: Yeah, I had the experience pretty early on, beginning to work with project budgets, when I was collaborating with Jon Rubin, Larry Sultan, and other people that Jon and I were collaborating with in the Bay Area. When we were still in graduate school, or just out of graduate school, we started getting project budgets that were pretty big, like $10,000, $30,000, pretty big chunks of money. This is in the 90s. And I was someone who, at that point, made $10,000 a year—that would be my total income. 

And so suddenly, I was working with a project budget that was three times bigger than my yearly income or something. I recognised that it wasn’t my money—a portion of it was mine that I was getting paid a fee for, but the rest of it was money that I got to use to create a project with. And it became fun to be able to spend $1,000 on something that I personally couldn’t spend $1,000 on. But with the project money I could. 

It gave me the sense that money is relative, not static, and it means different things to different people in different contexts. It gave me this chance to have fun with money, which seems very privileged, and it kind of was, but it was the circumstance that I got as a basically impoverished artist working with what seemed like big project budgets when I was still in my 20s. It gave me a fluid, flexible feeling about money that I think in some ways allowed me take more risks, to feel like I could run out of money and still be okay, to spend money on things—basically my work—that could seem kind of frivolous from a broader public or maybe a family member’s point of view. I wanted the students to get a little bit of that feeling.

Salty Xi Jie Ng (she/her) is an artist, program alumni, and editor of SoFA Journal. She is based in her home country, the tropical metropolis of Singapore. 

Harrell Fletcher (he/him) is the co-founder and director of the Art & Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University.

Going the Extra Mile (Luis Insists on Hardcover)

“What would I be without everybody? Without my customers?

-Luis Orlando Beltran

I did the whole thing backwards. I could’ve picked a simple task, a task that required no money at all, and compensated the commissioned party with the full funds granted for this project as a means of valuing their labor. Instead, I went about it in a much clumsier way. I used it as a reason to hang out with Luis, the affable shopkeeper of my neighborhood thrift store, and decided to figure out exactly what I would pay him for…after the fact.

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning for the month of April, I walked the two blocks from my apartment in Ridgewood, Queens (a quiet residential nook of New York City) to Celene’s Thrift Shop—a clothing, housewares, and bric and brac store no bigger than a corner bodega—with my recorder in hand, and met with Luis to capture his ebullient philosophies on life. We knew the outcome would be some kind of “booklet,” as we called it, and when I tried (multiple times) to explain the part about paying him a hundred bucks, he waved the idea away with his hand and said, “No, no, no.” I tucked the topic away for a later day.

His automatic resistance to the money has to do with the fact that Luis is a man of God. Devoted to his church, Luis organizes bible retreats, goes on missionary trips, translates his pastor’s sermons into Spanish at Sunday service, and recently gave a motivational speech on the lesser known Christian disciple Barnabas, known as the “son of encouragement.” While I live a fairly secular existence and tread lightly with religion, I nonetheless feel warmed by Luis’ customary send off: God bless you, honey. That’s because he really means it. 

His store, named after his wife of 44 years, is 182 square feet of fastidiously organized and artfully displayed secondhand items. One wall is devoted entirely to mugs and glasses, another to perfectly folded pairs of pants, each of which is labeled with handwritten tags denoting their size. Somehow, in this tiny shop are also records, gowns, candles, figurines, bedsheets, shoes, games, greeting cards, jewelry, coffee makers, DVD players, and a glass case full of perfumes, all arranged according to category, and often, by color. Luis accepts item donations, and therefore provides not one but two services: a place to acquire new things, and a place to let go of old things. I bring him my things not just because it’s a convenient way to get rid of them, but because I know his shop will consider them treasures, house them affectionately, and foster them until they find a new home. And so the shop exists as a kind of undeclared community general store, where each one of us that comes in is, to some degree, inadvertently exchanging goods with our neighbors by way of Luis’s stewardship. The effect is a feeling of generous flow, an abundance as reliable as the tides. You can pop in on any given day to see if he might have a clipboard, or a suitcase to sell you, because there is a legitimate chance that he does. This, combined with his infectious energy and genuine extroversion, makes Luis, in my estimation, the most popular guy on the block.

“Hiya, Bec!” Luis greeted me upon arrival for our first recorded interview. It was a seasonable Spring day, and I watched as he set up a cup of coffee, a bag of cookies, two oranges, and a knife on three plastic-upholstered dining room chairs he was selling out front. We settled into the spread and I joked that we were a living advertisement for the furniture. Not long after, a man walking by politely interrupted our conversation:

Customer: Hey, how much are these chairs?

Luis: These chairs? Will be fifty for three of them. And $25 for this table— $75.

Customer: Can I take a picture of this chair? I’m so sorry.

Becca: No worries. 

Luis: Not a problem.

Becca: We were just saying, we’re an advertisement. [Laughter]

Customer: I’ll be back. I live around here. I bought stuff from you a couple of times. Remember the cage? 

Luis: Yes. 

Customer: Well I’m gonna come back. I’m gonna see, I like them, that’s a good price. 

Luis: Alright, brother.

Customer: It matches my table, too. 

Luis: It matches your table?!

Customer: Yeah it matches my table too.

Luis: Ay, let’s do it man. 

Day 1: Luis, the chairs, and the oranges. The chairs were sold while we sat on them. 2021, Ridgewood, Queens, USA. Photos by Becca Kauffman.

Over the course of our time together, especially since we were meeting outside, I came to expect these interruptions. The frequent “Good morning” from a passerby, and Luis’s “Buenos dias!” or “Good morning! How are you?” back. The shop sits at a residential intersection, so cars sometimes whizzed by with greetings like, “AY, LUIEEEE!” flying out of an open window. “AY!” Luis would shout back, explaining to me with a grin, “That’s my buddy.”

The chairs sold later that day, purchased by another, more swift-acting customer. So for our second meeting, Luis set up a fold-out card table on the sidewalk next to his minivan, with an overturned milk crate and a stool for us to sit on. This time, there was an additional cup of coffee—for me (“My wife makes me coffee every morning,” he said appreciatively), and again, two oranges and a knife. He peeled one for each of us as he told me about his life. He talked about moving to Brooklyn from his rural town in El Salvador when he was twelve, and learning English from his aunt and uncle’s Engelbert Humperdinck records. He told me about the impact that his first job in New York had on him, learning how to sort and package fruit for produce displays at a local grocery store. He described how his family taught him to dust, sweep, and mop, and tasked him with cleaning their apartment on Kosciuszko Street from top to bottom every day, the summer before he started school in the USA. 

He also told me about his struggles with substance abuse, his failed Western Union franchise due to a bad contract and a bad cocaine habit, the day he spent in jail because of a misunderstanding, and how he eventually bottomed out and found his way to God as a means of survival.

I arrived at our sixth meeting with the proof of our book, a condensed and edited selection of his most compelling stories culled from hours of recordings. We sat down once again next to his minivan and together, read through what we had made. Luis seemed to delight in hearing his words read aloud to him, exclaiming, “True! So true,” after each story. He persisted in his resistance to the one hundred dollar financial support from school, and, as a person deeply energized by hard work and a big project, he wondered aloud how we could make it better. “Let’s do it the best we can,” he said, leaning in to ask: “Can we do hardcover?”


Becca Kauffman: So here’s what I’m thinking. Here’s a pen, you can mark it up however you want if you have any edits to make.

Luis Beltrán: Ok. I like this, this is nice.

Becca: So this is a really big version, but I’m imagining it will be about five inches by four inches, sort of like a photograph size. So you can hold it in your hand, and that way it will be thicker, too. But the text will still be big enough that you can read it. “Inside Celene’s: Store Stories” is a working title. I just chose it because it’s kind of what we’re talking about.

Luis: Right.

Becca: But I’m open to any ideas. It’s just the starting point.

Luis: I like that. I like that. It goes together, cause it catches the attention. Stories? Stories? What’s in there?

Becca: Yeah, so now we open up and find out what’s inside… So this is the same writing I gave you a copy of last week, but I just formatted it. I put this big text at the top, the quote, that sort of gets you started. And then here’s all the nitty gritty details of what you’ve said. So there’s ten of these. They’re kind of like chapters. We can read it together if you want. I can read it out loud, or you can read it out loud. 

Luis: You can read it out loud. Go ahead. 

Becca: Okay. Great. So: [Reading aloud]

“It’s amazing how this little place keeps you on your feet.

I love what I do. I’m here seven in the morning, eight in the morning. And I know what I got to do. One thing I gotta say is that I’m not tired of doing it. And health wise, God gives me the strength to carry on. And I’m going to do it until… I don’t know what’s gonna happen… It’s a fountain of energy. Yeah, in a different way I found my match. I’m the manager. I clean the toilets, I sweep, I mop, I organize, I take, I put away.

After we take everything out and we clean inside, I like to sweep even though it’s clean. And I mop. Clean and mop… Sometime during the day, I like to do it once. Like it bothers me I haven’t done that… When it’s the time, it’s the time. There’s a time for everything, like I said. So when it’s, Oh okay, everything was cleaned. It’s amazing how this little place keeps you on your feet. I got a lot of work to do. So that’s how it is.”

Luis: Yeah, that’s nice. It sounds better when you say it.

Becca: I disagree. I like it when YOU say it! But I think it’s an interesting experience to read what you said out loud on paper.

Luis: Because you’re a storyteller.

Becca: So are you!

Luis: But it sounds… No, I like to hear it.

Becca: So here’s the next quote: [Reading aloud]

“Whatever they give me, whatever life gives me, I take care of it.

I was twelve when I started doing produce, because my brother-in-law was a project manager for this Jewish chain of supermarket.”

Luis: That’s produce. Produce manager.

Becca: Ohhh, yeah. That makes sense. Here, cross it out and write “produce.” That’s helpful, thank you. [Reading aloud]

“…It was called Royal Farms in Brooklyn. We had like twenty two stores. In September, after school, my brother-in-law used to take me to work at the basement of that store. And he taught me how to select oranges from apples and all that and wrapped up, put six, six apples in a tray, wrap it up, put a price and all that. So I was like in heaven. So I worked. And through the years, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, eighteen, nineteen, I knew that trade. So every summer, I used to come to the company and they started giving me jobs. And I was a full time, I was a part time, and I was a manager. Managing became also part of that responsibility of leadership, so to speak, because then you have to do what you have to do to manage. Right. So like freshness, cleanliness, and all that. All those things that I learned, got me, I mean, to be the person I am, I think. Humbly I say it. Because I think those are the little qualities that you pick up in life that you bring with you in those years. And that’s how I, I don’t know, whatever they give me, whatever life gives me I take care of it. Because it’s an opportunity to me to do well, for me to serve the community, to serve somebody else. And so you see, it depends on what you got. If you got lemons, you got to learn how to do lemonade. Right? That’s how it is. That’s how I did it, I guess.”

Luis: [Starts to laugh] That’s the story. I can’t believe it, I’m thrilled. I’m hearing things that I, that we said.

Becca: Yeah! Do you remember them? Do they sound familiar? 

Luis: Yes, now it’s coming back to me.

Becca: Here’s photographs of where we were sitting, with you peeling the oranges. 

Luis: You’re not there, though!

Becca: I know. You know what we need to do? We need to get a photograph of the two of us. 

Luis: Yes. 

Day 2: The oranges become a ritual. Sidewalk talk in front of the shop next to Luis’ minivan, on his 11am break 2021, Ridgewood, Queens, USA. Photos by Becca Kauffman.

Becca: Thank you for reminding me of that. Okay, now we’ve got: [Reading aloud]

“People are searching for something. Same thing here! Searching for something.…You listen, people come in need of something.

In church, there’s a principle that when someone comes near, for the first time, second time, we have to pay attention to that person. We have to, “Hi, how you doing today?” We have to like, “Hey, I see you again. Thanks for coming.” Because people are searching for something. Same thing here! It still has the same meaning. 

I was in church when I opened this [shop] up. So the first thing I said to the pastor was, this space was a blessing, because it was a blessing. I said to myself, I want this place to be a blessing for people. I want this place to be, they could find something that they are looking for and need. And I said to him, “Do not let me get a hold of items. Do not let me get a hold on this. Let me be free to give it if they need it.” And it has happened. And people have come, people have come, and they come only to say hello, because of the relationship that we already had. I have had people coming back into the neighborhood [to visit] from LA, from Miami. And they come and say hello. “Hello Louie, I thought about you, I was in the neighborhood. And I came to say hello.” I say, “Thank you, thank you thank you.” And they do, they do, they come. Well, and this place, I have had people that come in, and they step in, and I say, “Hi, good morning, good afternoon. How you doing?” And they will start talking about different things. And we wind up healing the soul. Like I say, you listen, people come in need of something. And that’s when the Holy Spirit, I believe, Spirit touches you, and then you touch that person, and that person feels, Wow, I’m glad I came in, I don’t know how I got here—these are the words that they say-—I don’t know how I got here, but I’m happy that I came here, because I found…whatever, you know? They do that.”

Luis: True, true. I’m glad you put that in there. True story.

Becca: Yeah, that was a special one.

Luis: I’m here to say, Yes, it was true. You putting me way up there in my thoughts. This is not only—I’m glad you did this. I’m very glad. Because— 

Passerby: Morning.

Luis: [To passerby] Good morning. [Back to me] I’m thinking about— I never thought I was gonna do this. The story of my last years. I’m not ready to go, but, this is something that I’m gonna leave behind. It’s great. It’s great, the thought of it. I want you to be there when you have to read it.

Becca: Oh my gosh, should we have a reading at the store?

Luis: Yeah! Okay keep on going, I don’t want to take your time. 

Becca: Okay. [Reading aloud]

“Go the extra mile.

Through this place, I have had people that, they feel good. They come back. Some people, they come in and we sit down inside, we have coffee and we talk about religion, we talk about this. I’ve had people come with problems and they pour themselves out in tears. And sometimes I gone through the same things and I could share something with them. Last week it happened. And they come back and they call me later on, they say, “Luis, thank you for the comfort. For the comforting.” I say, “Don’t worry about it.” The idea of this place, like I said, I pray everyday, and when I pray, I say, Lord, find, get me people that I could talk to. Send me somebody in need, please. And He does. And He has also sent me people for my need. Because I also receive. I do not only give, I receive. Affection; I receive a word of encouragement. I receive, when I’m down, I’m struggling, my mind, I got too much work to do. And I have had people come and offer their help for free to do something for me, because it’s all a mess and all that. He listened to me. He knew me, he knew that I was bothered. So, you know, it’s like, it’s life. To me it’s God. To me it’s, I’m not the person I used to be. I’m a different person. You know, I stopped doing a lot of things that were not good to me or to the society. Change. We all change. Sooner or later, we all change. And the best that we could do is share that warmness, that careness, that ear, lending ear. Or, Listen, I’m looking for this bed frame that was there, and I want it, and let go, to not be greedy. I’m going to sell it to you. Listen, I’ll bring it to you in my car. You want it? It’s yours. Sure. For free? Yes. Take it. Take it, don’t worry about it, we take it in your car. Go the extra mile, go the extra mile. You never know when it’s going to be somebody coming for you for the extra mile.”

Luis: Nice. I remember that. I remember that story. It’s true.

Customer: [to Luis] How’s business today? 

Luis: [to customer] Good! You the first customer that I greet with my smile. Bless your heart. Whatever you want— that smile pays for everything. 

Customer: [Laughs]

Luis: [to customer] Stop smiling, otherwise you take everything!

Becca: Okay, so here’s a photograph. You, gesturing, which is something you do, I’ve noticed. So on to the next story. This is one of my favorites. “There’s time for everything.”

Luis: Yes. A wise man said. Solomon.

Becca:  [Reading aloud]

“If I was a guy [who] did not care much for anything, would I be here sitting with you? Telling you all this stuff?”

Luis: [Laughs] Come on! [Laughs]

Becca: [Continuing]

“…Where I’ve made time to sit down? Is my life more like—I say to myself, right?— is my life more like, doing this business and all that? I try to live a life that is not too rush-y, because there’s time for everything. Sometimes I do get into the rumble, you know, and I rush, because I have to. But I realize that there’s time for everything. There’s time to cry. There’s time to laugh. There’s time to rest. There’s time to sleep.”

Luis: Mm, nice. Nice. It is. That’s a quote from the Bible. 

Becca: Really? 

Luis: Yes. Solomon, King Solomon. Ecclesiastes is a book in the Bible. And he says that there is time for everything in life and that nothing in life is new. Whatever has been, it’s always been. It’s like a cycle. You know? There’s nothing new in this world. Everything has been already done. In our lifetime, fire has always been fire. The rays of the sun, they always been there from the beginning, and they still are. Imagine, without a sun?

Becca: We wouldn’t survive.

Luis: We wouldn’t survive. And the distance is just right… I went to [a bible retreat in the country recently]. And I started walking in the open space, the birds. Not cement. But trees. No buildings, but grass. And I started to say, Wow, that peace, that complete peace—and I needed that peace—but at the same time, I feel lonely. Like I felt like I left everything behind. I missed this [gestures to the shop]. I don’t know, I missed communicating… My people, my customers, my helper [Ana Yris]. I said, Oh my god, what am I doing here? [laughs]. I feel lonely. But I didn’t know that my mind was taking other kind of oxygen. Not this oxygen. Nothing like this. 

Becca: Yeah, I feel like being in nature has a tendency to do that. Because all of the stimuli of city life goes away and suddenly you’re like, What am I left with? Who am I without other people around?

Luis: I felt lonely. And I miss my wife. And I miss everything about New York. Oh my God, if I stay here, by myself, I’ll die. [Laughs] And that’s why, you see those people in the country? They live at their own pace, they got their own things. But not us. And what would I be without everybody? Without my customers? I felt like completely detached. Separate.

Luis arranges his research materials for his speech on Barnabas at the bible retreat. Photo by Becca Kauffman.
Close up of Luis’ research materials2021, Ridgewood, Queens, USA. Photo by Becca Kauffman.

Luis: Have you told anybody else the story yet? You know, opinion-wise. 

Becca: I showed my mom. I sent this to her last night. She loves it. She loves your stories. And oh, she actually had a different idea for the title. She suggested calling it, “Going the Extra Mile.”

Luis: That’s an option. 

Becca: Because that’s a quote from one of the stories.

Luis: Yes. Well, we haven’t finished yet.

Becca: Okay. [Reading aloud]

“How do you know what you want? The need of other people is a start.

How do you know what you want? The need of other people, is one point, it’s a start, in this business, I understand. Or let’s go back forty years ago, people come in and say listen, I need this kind of oranges, size big or small, with seeds, without seeds, and you go and find it. Because your knowledge knows that the oranges, which one has seeds, which ones don’t have seeds. Because life teaches you a lot of things. So, I was an expert in fruit and vegetables. So how do I know? Because the need of other, the need of other is what I want. What I really, really want?—is different than in the business world. For example, there was a lady that is in the neighborhood. She wants earrings that have a little cross. And I had them, [but] I sold them all. I went to find them yesterday and there was none. But she asked me for it. And that’s my need. That’s what I need. I want to get those earrings for that lady. And I will not rest until I find it.”

Luis: She came.

Becca: Yeah?

Luis: She came and asked me, a young girl. And I’m gonna go to get them in Manhattan.

Becca: Yeah, that’s the next part! [Reading aloud]

“Even if I have to go Manhattan. [Both laugh]… And I want to see that. That’s all it takes. I want to do it, I want to have it.

It’s like a winning step up the ladder. You did that. Then after that? I don’t forget what I said. It’s done. The satisfaction is that few seconds of happiness of the person, that, Thank you, you know, or, Here, an extra dollar. I don’t need it, but she wants to compensate what I did. And I’ll take it.”

Luis: Life always gives you compensation. You never know when. For your good deeds. For that extra mile. That happens to everybody. Sometimes we don’t see it.

Luis looking at the front cover of the proof. 2021, Ridgewood, Queens, USA. Photo by Becca Kauffman.

Becca: Final chapter. [Reading aloud]

“I see it as a gift.

I’m surprised that for ten years I’ve been doing this. And I’m still going with it. I’m still happy to do it. What else would I be doing? You know? And every morning is different. Somebody comes in with different things, even though it’s the same but it’s different, a gift, that they give me. I see it as a gift, you know? I see it as a blessing.”

Luis: It is.

Becca: [Showing the book’s last picture] I thought it was nice to end with the open door to the store.

Luis: Yes. And the blessing. That makes sense. Yes. 

Entrance to Luis’ store, with Ana Yris, Luis’ helper, organizing new arrivals. The blessing is above the door. 2021, Ridgewood, Queens, USA. Photo by Becca Kauffman.

Becca: And then this would be the back cover. I wrote “Established 2011,” because you said you’d had the shop for ten years, but is that the right year?

Luis: I was gonna look for that. [Opens his wallet and unfolds a piece of paper] This is the certificate.

Becca: What! You carry this in your wallet? So cool.

Luis: Because when you go into business, some people, they ask you for the certificate. It’s a copy. And here, we have the date.

Becca: Which is… August 4, 2011.

Luis: So 2011 to 21. It is ten years.

Becca: So August 4th of this year is your ten year anniversary. Maybe that’s when the block party should happen!

Luis: Yes! So, very, very nice. I love it. I really, really love it. I’m so happy. I’m very, I’m very happy.  

Becca: Well, it’s all you, you know, it’s your story. 

Luis: I wouldn’t have done it without you.

Becca: It’s a good collaboration.

Luis: Yes, it is. It sounds so good. And so true. How can we make it better?

Becca: Okay, that’s the question. So now comes strategy about how the actual book will look. I think we have to think about, who do you want to share these stories with? And how can we make it accessible for those people?

Luis: Can we make copies? 

Becca: Yeah, absolutely. 

Luis: Can we make it like a real… 

Becca: …book?

Luis: Book? 

Becca: Yeah. 

Luis: In like, hardcover? …Give me an estimate. Let’s do it the best we can.

Becca: Okay. So we have $100 to spend. This project, we call it the $100 Commission. The idea is that my institution gives me $100 to fund a project with somebody else. So I have this one hundred dollars to spend. 

Luis: Yes.

Becca: So it’s like, I’m an artist, but right now I’m kind of wearing the hat of a bookmaker or a publisher: I want to make a book. 

Luis: Okay.

Becca: And I want you and your stories to provide the content for that book. 

Luis: Okay.

Becca: So in a way, it’s like I’m commissioning you to share your stories, so that we can make this book together. And we can use the $100 for publishing materials to print it out. I can find out how much it will cost to do a hardcover. And to do color.

Luis: Yes.

Becca: If there was anything left over, I would give it to you, donate it to the shop. 

Luis: No. Let’s do something nice. Don’t worry about the price. Just find out. You know, give me the expense details. 

Becca: Well, I don’t want you to pay for this. 

Luis: But I do, I want to, because I want not only… I love the story, I love the point. For me, it’s very important. So that we could make a nice, real book. So that I could give it to my kids. 

Becca: Okay. 

Luis: Alright. And also, I want you to present, because at one point, you’re going to present this to the school, right? 

Becca: I will. 

Luis: Well what do you want to do with it?

Becca: My wish is that other customers who come into your store could also obtain a copy. 

Luis: Okay. 

Becca: So whether that means it’s available for free, and you throw it in with, you know, a purchase over $20, or maybe there’s some kind of cool little display, like a stand, that we could put the books on. And you could have a place in your store so that when people come in, and they’re like, “This is such a great shop, what’s the story here?,” you’re like: “Buy my book.”

Luis: [Laughs, applauds] That’s beautiful. Good idea, yes!

Becca: So in that case, especially if it’s a really nice object, then maybe you do sell them for a little bit of money. If we end up investing a little bit more in the quality of the book itself, it will make more sense to charge a couple dollars for it. What do you think?

Luis: Don’t worry about it, that’s not an issue, because I want… You see, there are people that come and are very interested and they love my shop. And it wouldn’t be fair for me to charge them for a book. I will give them with all my heart. You know?

Becca: Yeah.

Luis: “I’m glad you love my shop, I’m glad you love this store. This is us,” you know? And that book will travel and travel. Just the fact that we have a story about this, that’s my goal. And whatever it takes to make it a better story, we can work on it. If you have the time.

Becca: I do. In terms of the style of the book and how we present it, I want to design it around how you envision the exchange that you would have between someone who walks into the shop and loves it and wants to know more. Like, what kind of book would you feel comfortable saying, “Here, take this with you?” Do you have a picture of how big it is, what color it is, if it’s on display somewhere? And is this title something you feel like represents you and the store and how you want to be seen?

Luis: Okay. Is this gonna be like the front? No, that’s not going to be the—

Becca: This is a draft. It could be anything on the front. 

Luis: We got to find something else. And the name, I like this name because it was first but I love your mother’s idea too. 

Becca: “Going the Extra Mile?”

Luis: Yeah. Because it is an effort being accomplished. And you know what, it comes in a time of need, of the times that we are living. You know, it’s a business, but at the same time we are helping the community, right? We doing it for the community. And going the extra mile is helping people. Going the extra mile is providing for people. And the colors [points to the blue and yellow Celene’s Thrift sign on the building]. I would like to use those colors.

Becca: Oooh! Okay. 

Luis: Because it has to go all according to the store… My son-in-law, he has a printer. We could get him involved. He prints t-shirts and hats.

Becca: Good to know for your ten year anniversary.

Luis: Yes! T-shirts. 

Becca: I would definitely buy one of those.

Luis: Ten years anniversary and—

Becca: Ooh, a big sign!

Luis: A big sign! Now you got me going with this.

Becca: It’s good to think ahead. I mean, August isn’t even that far away. We could make these books before then, and make sure to have them there for your ten year anniversary. Maybe that’s the premiere of the book.

Luis: Everything. It comes along!

Becca: So it could be important to note on the back, like, “In honor of the ten year anniversary of Celene’s Thrift shop, this collection of stories.” And maybe that’s part of the reason why we publish it?

Luis: No, well, I’m doing this because I want you to, for your school, for your project. 

Becca: But MY project is to facilitate and support YOUR project! [Both laugh] It would be perfect if there’s a ten year anniversary party, and then this book just fits right into that.

Luis: It would. We’re gonna do that. We’re gonna celebrate. We’re gonna put balloons, we’re gonna do something for everybody. We gotta announce it before. We could, you know, play some music. Celebrate. Make a celebration. I don’t see why not. 

Becca: How many copies do you think? I can price stuff out, but I was hoping like, fifty? 

Luis: Yes. Something like that.

Becca: Think that’s enough? We could always reprint it if it’s popular and they sell out and we want to keep going.

Luis: Let’s start with fifty. I want to take the funding. I want to fund it. I want to pay for it.

Becca: Noooo!

Luis: Yes. Because I love the story. It’s all about us. And it’s about you. But I want you to have some, and I want to have some. It’s not fair, that you, you came up with the idea, and I love the story, and everything is being created. And I want to fund it. 

Becca: That’s very generous. 

Luis: A hundred dollars isn’t gonna do. 

Becca: Well, I know.

Luis: You know that!

Becca: I’m going to do as much as I can to fit it into a hundred dollar budget. I’m gonna do the best I can. And then yeah, I’ll let you know. I’ll ask around this week.

Luis: Ask around, take your time, and work on it, and let’s make something very nice. Okay?

Becca: Okay. Cool. Thank you!

Luis: Thank you, Becca. 

Becca: It’s been so fun. 

Luis: Oh, yes, it has. I’m happy.

Me and Luis on the morning of this interview 2021, Ridgewood, Queens, USA. Photo by Ana Yris.

Becca Kauffman (she/they) is an artist living a block away from Celene’s Thrift shop in Ridgewood, Queens. They are a first year in PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA program currently investigating the voice as an artful and multifaceted communication device.

Luis Orlando Beltran (he/him) was born in El Salvador, Central America and moved to the United States in 1969. He went to high school in Brooklyn. He’s never written a book before, but has a lot of stories. He has worked as a produce manager, a vacuum and encyclopedia salesman, a chauffeur, a check-cashing clerk and franchise owner, and now runs his own thrift shop, where this story begins. 

A Book for the Travel Ritual

“I like this project because the only certainty in life is that we will pass away, and we would like our children to remember us. I tell my son, ‘When I die, take me to Mexico.'”

Text by Diana Marcela Cuartas
Translated by Camilo Roldán
Spanish version below

I arrived in Portland in the fall of 2019. With nearly ten years of experience working with arts organizations in Colombia, I spent the entire Fall trying to find work in the art world in this new city. After months of searching without results, I wound up in the world of social work. I suddenly became a Family Engagement Specialist, and my mission was to support Latin American immigrant families as they navigate the school system and to foster an interest in education. In this new role, my first “client” was Reyna R., a Oaxaqueña with a curious and collaborative spirit. From day one, I was inspired by the strength she showed in pushing her own limits and learning new things. Beyond work, circumstances have helped us to build a friendship and a shared learning process.

As an artist immersed in an unconventional form of employment, I am interested in how art can impact other systems and professions—in this case, social work. Interviewing Reyna seemed like a perfect opportunity to experiment with my role as an artist-social worker in a timely way. I offered Reyna my bookmaking services to produce a small book of her choice, and I gave her the 100 dollars as a stipend for the interview. Reyna accepted and decided that she is interested in making a book for her family about Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The following conversation is a starting point for what this project may become.

Diana Marcela Cuartas: Hello Reyna, tell us where you are from and when you arrived in Oregon.

Reyna R: I’m from Oaxaca, Mexico, from San Miguel Cuevas, in Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca. I came to Oregon in 1998.

Diana: And what brought you here?

Reyna: I came to work during the fruit harvest—with blackberries, strawberries or blueberries—in a processing plant.

Diana: And did you like it?

Reyna: Yeah… I worked at night. It was hard for me, but at night I could get overtime.

Diana: And why did you decide to stay here?

Reyna: I liked the weather. It isn’t as it is in California. I used to live in Raisin City, California where I worked harvesting grapes and trimming the vines, it was a lot of really hard work.

Diana: So here you could do work that was just as hard, but with cooler weather.

Reyna: Yeah, it was easier.

Diana: And have you ever collaborated on an art project?

Reyna: No.

Diana: How do you feel about the opportunity to create your own book? Keeping in mind that what I proposed were my services in making it, plus a small payment in recognition.

Reyna: I feel a little bit nervous. It’s unbelievable to me. I never thought about making a book. I don’t even know where to begin.

Diana: But do you think it’s worth it?

Reyna: Yes. There’s nothing to lose. On the contrary, I’ll gain a little bit of experience. And, you know, I can remember what my hometown is like, how they celebrate fiestas there.

Diana: And why did you choose Día de los Muertos as a subject?

Reyna: I think it’s because I really like Día de los Muertos, but also, when we went to see the movie Coco, my son said to me, “When I die, put this and that on my altar.” “Oh no!” I said, “Your mother is going to die first, and you’ll die later on.” But it’s a beautiful tradition because Día de los Muertos is when our families come back to visit us, to live with us. That’s what people believe.

Coco is a 2017 Pixar and Disney film about a boy who is accidentally transported to the Land of the Dead to find his great-great-grandfather, a legendary singer.

Diana: So, it’s also to leave this knowledge behind for your family?

Reyna: Yes, for the children. Because living in this country, we lose a lot of our original culture because we don’t practice it. And if I don’t do it myself, they’re even less likely to do it. So, when I’m gone, at least they’ll come to see me. I didn’t use to celebrate it, but when one of our pets died, for whom my youngest son was a “father,” he said, “This year we will make an altar for Mila.”

Diana: How long ago was that?

Reyna: We made the altar two years ago. This will be the third year.

Diana: I wanted to ask you, what is your relationship to art, or what do you think art is?

Reyna: Well, to me, art is… I imagine colorful drawings.

Diana: Because what we’re going to do is art. This little book will be a work of art that we’re going to make together. Maybe you haven’t drawn before, but would you like to draw?

Reyna: Oh no, I’m really bad at drawing. I have two left hands.

Diana: I ask because, to me, for example, art is more like a way of doing things.

Reyna: Like a way to express yourself? Like, if you don’t know how to do it one way, you can do it another way?

Diana: I think so. I see it as a way to present an idea in the coolest way possible. Like when you put lime or hot sauce on things. The plan will be to share your knowledge in a format we like best.

Reyna: That sounds good.

Diana: What do you expect from me as a collaborator and producer?

Reyna: That you show me how because, well, I haven’t the slightest idea. Like I said, to me, it’s incredible that I can help you to do this because, well…

Diana: But I’m the one who will be helping you! And ok, you say you want me to teach you, but what do you want to learn?

Reyna: How to better describe things, and how to write about them so that people will understand.

Diana: Yeah, I can do that. Now, tell me, what do you think about the $100 payment for something like that?

Reyna: I think it’s fine.

Diana: It makes me think about the difference in the value of money here and in our countries. When I first came here, every time I went to pay for something, I thought, “This is going to cost 3 dollars, that’s 9,000 Colombian pesos—it’s so expensive!”

Reyna: 100 dollars in Oaxaca is a lot of money, but here not so much. You can pay for some things, but it isn’t much. In Oaxaca, you could buy a lot more stuff. Because here you go to the store and you can’t buy anything with 100, even less if you go to Costco. My god! But wherever you go things are expensive, here and in Mexico. Wherever.

Diana: Ok, and how do you imagine the project we’re going to make? Without thinking about the fact that we still don’t know how we’re going to do it. If we had a magic wand and, “Ta da! it’s done,” what do you imagine?

Reyna: At the end there needs to be a photo of the altar for my “granddaughter.” And, I dunno… we should say why people do this, and describe everything you place there. That you collect the wood little by little, buying the little things, so when the day comes around you have everything. From making the mole and all the food, because it is a long process where men definitely have to help out. Because they have to decorate the tabletop altar for the saints. And the women are in the kitchen.

Diana: And do you see yourself sharing the result with the groups you belong to, like Guerreras Latinas or the Oregon Food Bank where you volunteer?

Reyna: If I can, sure. They should take a look to see what they think. And more than anything it would be a book for children, I think. I imagine it that way, with cartoony drawings or something really colorful that holds their attention, because children are the next generation, and it’s up to us, their parents, to teach them.

Diana: Okay, so the book needs to have colorful drawings. And you also told me that it should be in both languages.

Reyna: So that those who don’t speak Spanish can also understand it.

Diana: What’s most exciting to you about this project?

Reyna: I like this project because the only certainty in life is that we will pass away, and we would like our children to remember us. I tell my son, “When I die, take me to Mexico.” Because if they bury me here they have to make a payment every month that I’m in the ground, and if they don’t, someone will dig up my bones. Better to be in Mexico. There they’ll know where to go to visit me. Just yesterday he was saying to me, “Mommy, when you die I’ll go on my days off to bring you flowers and chat with you.”

Diana: Do the two of you talk about death a lot?

Reyna: Right now, yes, because my husband’s grandmother just died on Thursday. Over in Oaxaca. But she didn’t die of COVID, she was just very far along, she was 99, was going to turn 100 in August.

Diana: My grandfather also died at 99. He left us when we had nearly put together the party for his 100th. He died in April and was going to turn 100 in September. My aunts and uncles wanted to throw a big party and had been saving up since he turned 99.

Reyna: They were also saving up here for a big party, because she’s the pillar of their family. But she left us on Thursday, and that’s it, she died.

Diana: And tell me, what is Día de los Muertos and why do you have to prepare to celebrate it?

Reyna: Day of the Dead is October 31st, which is Halloween here, but in Mexico we celebrate it differently. We don’t ask for candy. There we celebrate with food because it’s the month when those who came before us come back to visit us and to eat. You have to prepare the totopos a month in advance because they’re made with fresh corn, and it takes time to make them. When I would make them, my father would say, “Don’t eat them. Even if it’s broken or burnt, don’t eat it because they have to eat first.” And I had to hold out and not eat those tortillas that smelled so good. But he said, “You have to show respect until they eat, and then we can.”

You also decorate an altar. You put out bread, lemon, oranges, sugar cane, plantain, pan de muerto—that bread in the shape of a skeleton. There are small ones for commemorating children who have left us, which we do on October 31st. For them, you put out rice pudding, candy, fish broth, small tortillas and little breads. The adult’s day is November 1st, and then you put out big tortillas, aguardiente, cigars, beer, mole, chayote, fig-leaf gourd, or whatever the deceased would like. The decorations should be made in the preceding week, otherwise the flowers, which are Mexican marigolds, will wilt. I remember my father would go into the hills to find some flexible cane to build an archway that he would fill with flowers. You also put out a lot of candles and votive candles, which are a light to guide them.

For the little dog’s altar, I didn’t make an arch. I only got the flowers and put them in a vase. I did buy bread and put some Maseca tortillas out for her, but it isn’t the same because it doesn’t smell as good as when you make fresh tortillas.

Diana: Because the smell is what matters.

Reyna: The smell is what the dead consume. I mean, they come to eat, but they come only to smell the food.

Diana: And do you play music?

Reyna: Yes. On November 2nd you go to the cemetery, and a live band from the town shows up and you tell them to play here or there. And they go and play where your dead loved ones are. Also, the priest is there, and you tell him to bless the tomb of your loved ones, and he goes and blesses it. You spend almost the whole day in the cemetery with them.

Diana: And, for example, here in the United States, where you don’t go to the cemetery, how do you conclude the ritual?

Reyna: With prayer. Praying for the dead just in your house.

Diana: In the movie Coco, I remember that the animals became alebrijes, sort of fantastical creatures. Is that really part of the tradition, or something Disney invented?

Reyna: My great grandmother told us to be nice to dogs because dogs would help us to cross the river the day we depart, but I’m not sure if that’s true. She also said that it was better to have a dog that isn’t white, because a white one would say, “Don’t ride on my back because you’ll get me dirty.” But Mila was white as snow.

Diana: I think we need some drawings of what Mila would look like as an alebrije.

Reyna: I think so. I’m going to tell her “father” to draw her.

Diana: Because if all of this came about for Mila, then we have to include her.

Reyna: Yeah, like I said, I didn’t do this until she died.

Mila Princesa. Drawing by Reyna’s son.

Diana Marcela Cuartas (she/her) is a Colombian artist and first year student in the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University. In 2019, she moved to Portland and has been working as a social worker for Latino Network, serving immigrant families through school-based programs at the Reynolds School District in the East Multnomah County area. As an artist, she is interested in studying how art relates to and affects other disciplines and systems, in this particular case, social services.

Reyna R. (she/her) is a mom of three children, two of them students in the Reynolds School District. In addition, Reyna works as a caregiver of elderly people, as well as volunteers with the Oregon Food Bank Program and the Multnomah County Líderes Naturales group. She is also a member of the Guerreras Latinas Community and participates in Latino Network’s Colegio de Padres Program.

Diana Marcela Cuartas con Reyna R

«Este proyecto me gusta porque lo único seguro en este en este mundo es que nos vamos a ir y nos gustaría que nos recordarán nuestros hijos. Yo le digo a mi hijo “el día que me muera llévame a México”»

Llegué a Portland en el otoño de 2019. Por mi experiencia de casi 10 años trabajando con organizaciones artísticas en Colombia, estuve todo ese otoño tratando de encontrar empleo en el mundo del arte de esta, mi nueva ciudad. Después de meses de búsqueda sin resultados, terminé por casualidad en el mundo del Trabajo Social. Me convertí de repente en Family Engagement Specialist, y mi misión sería apoyar familias Latinas inmigrantes a navegar el sistema escolar y motivar interés en la educación. Bajo este nuevo rol mi primera “clienta” fue Reyna R, una oaxaqueña de espíritu curioso y colaborador. Desde el primer día me pareció inspiradora su fuerza para empujar los propios límites y aprender cosas nuevas. Más allá del trabajo, las circunstancias nos han ayudado a construir una amistad y un proceso de aprendizaje recíproco. 

Como artista inmersa en un ambiente laboral no convencional, me interesa explorar cómo el arte puede impactar otros sistemas y profesiones; en este caso, el trabajo social. Entrevistar a Reyna me pareció una oportunidad perfecta para experimentar con mi rol de trabajadora social artista de una manera más puntual. Le ofrecí a Reyna mis servicios profesionales para producir un pequeño libro de su interés, y los 100 dólares como un estipendio por la entrevista. Reyna aceptó y decidió que le interesa crear un libro acerca del Día de los Muertos para su familia. Esta conversación es un punto de partida sobre lo que este proyecto puede llegar a ser.

Diana: Hola Reyna, cuéntanos ¿De dónde eres y hace cuánto llegaste a Oregon?

Reyna: Yo soy de Oaxaca México, San Miguel Cuevas, Juxtlahuaca Oaxaca. A Oregon llegué en 1998.

Diana: ¿Y qué te trajo por acá?

Reyna: Me vine a trabajar la temporada de las frutas frescas como la mora, la fresa, y la blueberry en una procesadora de fruta.

Diana: ¿Y te gustó?

Reyna: Si, sí… trabajaba de noche. Se me hizo pesado pero pues de noche podía hacer overtime.

Diana: ¿Y cómo decidiste quedarte por aquí?

Reyna: Me gustó el clima. No hace tanto calor aquí como en California. Antes vivía en Raisin City, California. Allí trabajé piscando uva y podando las viñas, era mucho trabajo y muy pesado.

Diana: Entonces aquí se podía hacer el trabajo igual de pesado, pero con menos calor.

Reyna: Sí, más fácil.

Diana: ¿Y alguna vez has colaborado en un proyecto de arte?

Reyna: No.

Diana: ¿Cómo te sientes con la posibilidad de crear un libro tuyo? Teniendo en cuenta que lo que te propuse fue mis servicios para producirlo, más un pequeño pago en reconocimiento.

Reyna: Me siento un poco nerviosa. Para mí es como algo de no creer. Nunca había pensado en hacer un libro. No sé ni por dónde empezar.

Diana: ¿Pero crees que vale la pena?

Reyna: Sí. No voy a perder nada. Al contrario, voy a agarrar un poquito de experiencia. Y pues para recordar cómo es mi pueblo, cómo se festejan las fiestas de allá.

Diana: ¿Y por qué escogiste el Día de los Muertos como tema para esto?

Reyna: Creo que porque me gusta mucho el Día de los Muertos, y más cuando fuimos a ver la película Coco y mi hijo me dijo “Cuando me muera ponme esto y esto en mi altar”. “¡Ay no!” le digo, “tu madre se va a morir primero, luego tú”. Pero es una tradición bonita, porque es cuando regresan nuestros familiares a visitarnos, a convivir con nosotros, esa es la creencia.

Diana: Entonces ¿es también para dejarle ese conocimiento a tu familia?

Reyna: Sí, a los niños. Porque estando en este país mucha cultura de donde venimos se pierde porque uno no la practica. Y si uno mismo no lo hace, menos ellos. Así cuando yo falte, al menos que me vayan a ver. Yo no celebraba, pero desde que murió una mascota que teníamos, de la que mi hijo el más chiquito era el “papá”, pues él dijo “Éste año sí le vamos a poner un altar a la Mila”.

Diana: ¿Eso hace cuánto fue?

Reyna: Eso fue hace dos años que lo pusimos. Este sería el tercer año.

Diana: Te quería preguntar ¿Cuál es tu relación con el arte, o qué piensas que es el arte?

Reyna: Pues para mí el arte es… yo me imagino que es dibujos con colores.

Diana: Porque lo que vamos a hacer es arte. Este librito va a ser un trabajo artístico que vamos a hacer entre las dos. De pronto tú no has dibujado pero ¿te gustaría dibujar?

Reyna: Ay no, yo soy muy mala para dibujar. Tengo dos manos izquierdas.

Diana: Te pregunto porque para mí, por ejemplo, el arte es más como una manera de hacer algo.

Reyna: ¿Como una forma de expresión? ¿Que si uno no lo sabe hacer de una forma, se puede hacer de otra?

Diana: Yo creo que sí. Yo lo veo como una forma de entregar una idea de la manera más chévere posible. Como cuando uno le pone limón o chile a las cosas. El plan sería compartir un conocimiento que tú tienes de la manera que más nos guste.

Reyna: Suena bien

Diana: ¿Tú qué esperas de mí como colaboradora/productora?

Reyna: Que me enseñes porque pues yo ni idea. Como te digo, para mí es increíble que yo te ayude a hacerlo porque pues…

Diana: ¡Pero yo soy la que te va a ayudar a tí! Y bueno, dices que te enseñe pero ¿qué quieres aprender?

Reyna: Cómo describir mejor las cosas y cómo escribirlas para que la gente entienda.

Diana: Sí, yo puedo hacer eso. Ahora cuéntame ¿qué piensas del pago de $100 por algo así?

Reyna: Creo que está bien.

Diana: A mí me hace pensar en lo diferente que es el valor del dinero aquí y allá en nuestros países. Cuando recién llegué aquí, cada que iba a pagar algo pensaba “Esto vale 3 dólares, son 9000 pesos Colombianos, ¡está carísimo!”

Reyna: 100 dólares en Oaxaca es bastante dinero, aquí no tanto. Sí puedes comprarte algo pero no es mucho. En Oaxaca podrías comprar muchas más cosas. Porque aquí va uno a la tienda y no compra uno nada con 100, menos si va a Costco. Oh my god! Pero dónde sea, están caras las cosas, aquí y en México. Donde sea.

Diana: Bueno, y ¿cómo te imaginas el proyecto que vamos a hacer? Sin pensar que todavía no sabemos cómo vamos a hacerlo. Si tuviéramos una varita mágica y “tarán, ya está listo” ¿tú qué te imaginas?

Reyna: Al final tiene que haber una foto del altar de mi “nieta”. Y pues no sé… poner porqué uno lo hace, y describir todo lo que uno pone. Que poco a poco se va juntando la leña, comprando las cositas para cuando llegue la fecha ya tener todo. Desde hacer mole y toda la comida, porque es un proceso largo en el que los hombres tienen que ayudar ahí sí. Porque tienen que decorar el altar que es donde están los santos en la mesa. Y las mujeres, pues en la cocina.

Diana: ¿Y te imaginas compartiendo el resultado con los grupos de los que haces parte, como Guerreras Latinas y el Banco de Comida de Oregon donde eres voluntaria?

Reyna: Si se puede, sí. Que den su vista a ver qué opinan. Y sería algo más que nada como un libro para niños, creo. Me lo imagino así con dibujos de caricatura o algo bien colorido, que le llame la atención a los niños, porque los niños son las nuevas generaciones y a nosotros los padres nos toca enseñarles.

Diana: Okay entonces el libro tiene que ser colorido y con dibujos. Y me habías dicho también que estuviera en los dos idiomas.

Reyna: Pues para los que no hablan español lo entiendan también.

Diana: ¿Qué te entusiasma más de este proyecto?

Reyna: Este proyecto me gusta porque lo único seguro en este en este mundo es que nos vamos a ir y nos gustaría que nos recordarán nuestros hijos. Yo le digo a mi hijo “el día que me muera llévame a México”. Porque si me entierran aquí tienen que pagar cada mes mientras yo estoy enterrada y si no, me sacan mis huesitos. Mejor en México, allí saben dónde ir a verme. Justo ayer él me estaba diciendo “Mami cuando te mueras voy a ir los días de mi descanso a llevarte flores y a platicar contigo.”

Diana: ¿Ustedes hablan mucho de la muerte?

Reyna: Pues ahora sí porque apenas murió la abuelita de mi esposo el jueves. Allá en Oaxaca. Pero no murió de COVID sino que ya estaba grande, 99 tenía, iba a  cumplir 100 en agosto.

Diana: Mi abuelito también se murió a los 99. Nos dejó con la fiesta de 100 años casi armada. Se murió en abril y cumplía los 100 años en septiembre. Mis tíos querían hacer  una gran fiesta y estaban ahorrando desde que cumplió los 99.

Reyna: También acá estaban ahorrando para celebrarlo en grande, porque ella es la raíz de ellos. Pero ya el jueves se fue y pues ya, se murió.

Diana: Y cuéntame ¿qué es el Día de los Muertos y por qué hay que prepararse para celebrarlo?

Reyna: El día de los muertos es el 31 de octubre, que viene siendo Halloween aquí pero en México se festeja diferente. Allá no pedimos dulces. Allá se festeja con comida porque es el mes en el que los que se nos adelantaron regresan a visitarnos y a comer. Hay que prepararse un mes antes con los totopos porque son hechos de mazorca fresca y toman tiempo en hacer. Cuando los hacía, me decía mi papá “No te lo vayas a comer. Aunque esté roto o esté quemado, no te lo comas porque le toca a ellos primero” y me tenía que aguantar y no comerme esa tortilla que huele tan rico. Pero él decía “tienen que respetar hasta que ellos coman y después nosotros”.
También se decora un altar, se pone pan, lima-limón, naranja, caña, plátano. Pan de ese que está como en forma de muerto, con su carita y sus brazos. Hay chiquitos para el día de los niños que es el 31 de octubre. Para ellos se pone arroz con leche, dulces, caldo de pescado, tortillas chiquitas y pan chiquitos. El día de los adultos es el 1 de noviembre y ahí se ponen tortillas grandes, aguardiente, cigarro, cerveza, mole, chayote, chilacayote, o lo que fuera que le gustara al difunto. Las decoraciones, se hacen una semana antes porque si no se marchitan las flores, que son de cempasúchil. Recuerdo que mi papá, iba al monte a conseguir unas varas flexibles para hacer un arco y lo llenaba de flores. También se ponen muchas velas y veladoras, que son la luz para ellos.
Para el altar de la perrita yo no hice un arco. Yo nada más conseguí las flores y las puse en un florero. Sí le compré pan y le puse unas tortillas de Maseca, pero pues no es lo mismo porque no huele tan rico como cuando uno las hace frescas.

Diana: Porque el olor es lo importante.

Reyna: El olor es lo que los muertos consumen. O sea vienen a comer, pero pues vienen no más a oler la comida.

Diana: ¿Y ponen música?

Reyna: Sí. El 2 de noviembre los lleva uno para el panteón y ahí llega la banda del pueblo y uno les dice toque allí o toque allá. Y ellos van y tocan donde están tus muertos. También el padre está allí y le dice uno que vaya a bendecir la tumba de tus seres queridos y él va y la bendice. Está uno casi todo el día ahí en el panteón con ellos.

Diana: Y por ejemplo aquí en Estados Unidos que no se va al panteón ¿Cómo se cierra el ritual?

Reyna: Orando. Rezándole a los muertos no más ahí en la casa

Diana: En la película Coco yo me acuerdo que los animales se convertían en alebrijes. ¿Eso es parte de la tradición de verdad, o es un invento de Disney?

Reyna: Mi bisabuela nos decía que tratáramos bien a los perros porque los perros nos iban a ayudar a cruzar el río el día que nos fuéramos, pero yo no sé si es cierto. También decía que era mejor tener un perro que no fuera blanco, porque blanco te va a decir “no te subas en mi espalda porque me vas a ensuciar”. Aunque la Mila era blanca blanca como la nieve.

Diana: Yo creo que necesitamos unos dibujos de cómo sería Mila si fuera un alebrije.

Reyna: Yo creo que sí. Le voy a decir a su “papá” que la dibuje.

Diana: Porque si todo esto se originó por Mila, entonces hay que incluirla.

Reyna: Sí, te digo que yo no lo hacía hasta que se nos murió.

Diana Marcela Cuartas (ella) es una artista colombiana y estudiante de 1er año en el programa de Arte y Práctica Social en Portland State University. En 2019 se mudó a Portland donde ha estado trabajando en servicios sociales para Latino Network, apoyando familias inmigrantes en el Distrito Escolar de Reynolds, en el área Este del condado de Multnomah. Como artista, le interesa estudiar cómo el arte se relaciona y afecta a otras disciplinas y sistemas, en este caso particular, el trabajo social.

Reyna R (ella) es madre de tres hijos, dos de ellos estudiantes del Distrito Escolar de Reynolds. Adicionalmente, Reyna trabaja cuidando personas mayores, es voluntaria en el Banco de Alimentos de Oregon y el grupo Líderes Naturales del Condado de Multnomah. También es miembro de la Comunidad Guerreras Latinas y participa en el Programa Colegio de Padres de Latino Network. 

Agnes Varda Forever

“I’m born to post stuff in public!”

– Jennifer “JJ” Jones.

I commissioned Jennifer “JJ” Jones to continue her Agnes Varda Forever project, which began in the summer of 2020 after JJ and her son watched movies directed by Agnes Varda. Acting on a desire for more people to know about the mother of French New Wave cinema, she painted “AGNES VARDA FOREVER” in eight inch tall letters on the utility pole at the end of her block.

On the way to visit a classmate in October 2020, I drove past this bold sign and was delighted by its spirit and message, not realizing that it was JJ’s neighborhood or her handiwork. I was so excited about the sign and its striking letterforms that I emailed her about it later that night.

She replied: “One night, when I couldn’t sleep, I went down to the corner of MY STREET and painted that pole!!!!! What is incredible is that YOU saw it! I thought about sending you a picture of it but then thought that a better thing to do would be to someday, go and paint it on something near your apartment, so you could accidentally stumble upon it! This is SO magical, that it worked out this way. My heart and my mind are blown!!!”

In March 2021 we collaborated on the design and production of a poster with this “AGNES VARDA FOREVER” message. Since then, she has hung approximately two hundred of  these posters on poles around Portland and beyond. When I asked her about this experience she said, “I’m born to post stuff in public!”

I am someone actively looking for signs like hers: expressions of excitement, wonder, and discovery that resonate so deeply that they can’t help but burst into public and be shared. And I’m not the only one! In the short time since JJ posted the first poster on April 5, 2021, Oregon has been one of the United States regions in which the web search term “Agnes Varda” is most popular, according to Google Trends.

We’re already exploring other public ways to celebrate the life and work of Agnes Varda and are thrilled and inspired by the conversations we are having with people contacting us about the poster. For more information and photos, visit

Poster from the AGNES VARDA FOREVER project hanging in Portland, Oregon, on April 14, 2021. Photo by Jennifer “JJ” Jones.

Laura Glazer: Who is Agnes Varda to you, as if you were introducing her to somebody who had never heard of her?

Jennifer “JJ” Jones: It’s easy to introduce her and say who she is. It’s a little harder to say who she is to me.

Laura: Well, do the hard thing.

JJ: Yeah, when in doubt do the hard things!

Laura: Because I’m really curious about that.

JJ: I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I have always been a movie lover and I’d taken it seriously as an art form and cared about seeing films from all over the world. But only recently did I start to even notice the lack of female directors. That’s the part I’m embarrassed about. I feel like, what’s wrong with me, you know? I call myself a feminist, but then I never even paid attention to the fact that almost every film I’ve ever seen in my life has been directed by a man. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t aware when I was seeing a film made by a woman, but I just didn’t think much about it.

Laura: Where does she fit into this realization?

JJ: Kind of late in the game. I had heard of her, but I don’t think I had seen a movie of hers until I saw Faces Places. I saw that with you and that’s why you and I have this connection with her.

Laura: I assumed you had seen many of her movies and that that’s what brought you there.

JJ: No, I think I saw one little experimental short once and that’s why I knew her name at all. It was in a program quite a long time ago, that was just a bunch of short films and hers was there. I think that’s the only reason I knew her name when the Faces Places film came out and that’s why I went to see it.

I’m also a little embarrassed to say that I went to see that movie because I knew about JR. (1) Then I went to watch it and I was like, forget him, Agnes Varda, she’s blowing my mind. I saw that movie and I was like, I can’t believe how great she is, where have I been all my own life, not paying attention to this lady. But I’m not too hard on myself about it because in her own words, she said, “I was not a filmmaker; I was a woman who made films.” And when she said that, I didn’t know if she was saying that from her own perspective or if she was saying that this is what the film world told her.

I know that she said it because she never had real commercial success. I think if she had made more mainstream movies and if they had been better received by the world, then maybe she would have gotten more press and more attention. I’m sad that she’s not here because we can’t ask her, if commercial success had been more of an option for her, would she have even wanted it?

Laura: How does that relate to why you don’t feel so bad?

JJ: I feel like it’s not my fault that I don’t know who she is. It’s the film world’s fault they did not put her in my view, and I was a prime target because I watch foreign films and I go to art house cinemas. Why didn’t I ever see her before?

Laura: I thought you were saying it absolved you in a way because you weren’t a woman movie watcher. You were a woman who watches movies, trying to figure it out.

JJ: That’s true. I guess I did start saying this thing: I wish I had been more proactively seeking films by female directors.

Laura: Got it.

JJ: I guess it’s a double whammy of, I was not doing that and also the film world didn’t put any of them in my path for me to find when I wasn’t actively seeking them out.

JJ painted “AGNES VARDA FOREVER” at the base of a pole at the intersection of NE Ainsworth Street and NE 27th Street in Portland, Oregon, in September 2020. Photo by Laura Glazer.

Laura: Last October, I drove through your neighborhood unknowingly and saw a sign that says, “AGNES VARDA FOREVER” What can you tell me about that sign? Specifically, tell me the story of how that came to be.

JJ: It has to do with my son, Nico, who just graduated from college and because we’re stuck in a pandemic and we can’t go anywhere, he came to live with us because he finished college and had no reason to continue to live where he was living in his college town, so he said, “I’ll come and live with you,” and we’re all cooped up inside. So, Nico decided, okay, this is my opportunity to give myself a cinema education. And he watched, on average, more than one movie a day. When he left, he’d been here from May to December and he had watched 175 movies. So, I guess that’s some days, not one everyday, but he watched 175 movies while he was here because he kept count. And I watched a lot of those movies with him and I said, “We gotta watch some Agnes Varda films because I love her, and I want to make sure that I’ve seen at least all the ones that are quote unquote, significant.”

We watched a few and we were both so in love with her and so enamored of everything about her and her work. I said to Nico casually, “I wish more people knew about her.” And he said, “We should just spray paint her name all over town so everybody sees it,” and I said, “Oh yeah, that’s a good idea, but I don’t know, would we really do it?”

Laura: Wasn’t there an expletive somewhere in there?

JJ: Yeah, actually he said we should graffiti “Agnes fucking Varda,” which is, as far as I know, made up by Johnny Fuckin’ Marr. So, I said to him, “Well, let’s take the expletive out just to make it more friendly and not be off-putting to anyone.”

We talked about doing it, but it was very casual in the way that you talk about doing a thousand things that you don’t actually do. I sometimes have insomnia and one day, it was about five o’clock in the morning, and I was awake, and I was thinking I gotta do something. It was super lovely outside and I was like, I’m going to go for a 5:00 AM walk. And then suddenly it just struck me. I said, I know what I should do. It’s dark. Nobody’s going to see me. I’m going to go do that thing I thought I might not ever do. I’m going to go write Agnes Varda and I thought, “Oh, but I don’t want to say Agnes ‘Fucking’ Varda.”

I just grabbed a paint brush and a thing of white paint and I went down to the corner that’s a somewhat well-traveled corner. I decided to put the words at the bottom of a phone pole so that it would be super easy to see from far away. Then I painted the letters as big as I could get away with on the small surface.

Laura: But not in your own street?

JJ: Yeah, it is my street, but it’s two blocks away from my house. It’s not right next to my house, but it’s on my street. It’s on the street that I have to turn onto to come home. So it was a bit of a marker for me.

There used to be a sign for Concordia University, which is also on this same street. And I always knew, Oh, there’s the sign for the university, this is my street. And the university closed, and they took the sign away. This is also a joke I had with Nico. We were in the car together some day, and I said, “You know, we should have something else on this corner as a guidepost that this is where we’re supposed to turn.”

I mean, it’s silly because it’s my own street, of course I know to turn, but I just like having a visual marker for things. That’s why, when I decided to do it, I thought, Oh, I know where to do it. I need to do it down there so that I’ll always know it’s my street! [Laughs!]

Laura: What did you end up painting?


Laura: Did you premeditate that?

JJ: No, I premeditated it while I was putting my shoes on and getting the paintbrush, you know, it wasn’t exactly in the moment. It was about 10 minutes.

Laura: So, you’re walking to the corner and you know you’re going to write “AGNES VARDA FOREVER”

JJ: I was walking to the corner and I was actually thinking to myself, I wonder if I have enough space at the bottom of this phone pole to write three words with the letters being a good eight or 10 inches tall.

Laura: It’s a good thing you took that sign painting class.

JJ: Yeah, because I did take a sign painting class with the great Lee Littlewood, who I adore. So, I did have some thoughts about how big letters have to be to be read from what distances. Since I wanted people driving down the street to see it, I knew that the letters had to be pretty big.

Laura: That’s what happened when I was driving. I was going to a new friend’s house. I’d never been there before. I knew where you lived because I’ve mailed you things, but I wasn’t putting two and two together because I rely on Google Maps.

JJ: And 27th Street is a long street.

Laura: I’m driving and just like hoping to get there on time. Hoping I don’t miss a turn and I see it and I’m like, Oh God. And I just turn the car around and it’s like in a cartoon where the car can’t get there as fast as I want it to, and I just throw it in park and hop out and because I’m not with anybody, I didn’t know what to do. I was like, how is this even real?

JJ: That’s so great! This dovetails perfectly into my feelings about what I wanted from it. Now I did it partly to just amuse Nico. You know what I mean? I kind of did it for him because he said we should put her name everywhere and so I did it. I had him in mind when I was doing it, but then I thought, oh, but I am making it big so that you can see it from at least a block away because I do want everyone to see it.

Then I thought my greatest dream will just be that people will be walking their dog and say, what is that? Like, I’ve never seen a piece of graffiti like that. That’s specifically why I didn’t do it with spray paint. I have spray paint, but I feel like when you see a piece of graffiti that wasn’t made with a spray can you notice it more because we’ve all become kind of jaded to spray paint. You know what I mean? When it comes to reading a word on a wall somewhere your brain doesn’t even go into it sometimes when it’s in spray paint, because it’s just like every stupid illegible tag is in spray paint. I was conscious of that and chose the paintbrush on purpose because you just don’t see graffiti made with paintbrushes very often.

My dream is that somebody will walk by and say, “What is that?” and want to know and take out their phone and do a Google search for Agnes Varda. That’s all I wanted but then it turned into something so much better when you accidentally saw it! Because I thought, I’ve got to take a picture of this and send it to Laura. And when you saw it, it had only been up there for about a week and it was still my intention, I was just, you know, procrastinating. It was always my intention to take a picture of it and send it to you specifically. That’s why it was particular magic that you found it on your own. That’s just the most fantastically serendipitous thing that’s happened to me.

On that front, Nico recently reminded me that you don’t have to be a person with a website to use Google Trends. You can type anything in there and see how it’s trending, how many people in what parts of the world are looking at different things. I have actually decided that after we put up all these posters that I’m going to look at Agnes Varda analytics to see how many people search for her name now in Portland, Oregon, and see how many people search for her name two or three months from now after these things are all over town. I think that’ll be a fun project. Although it’s not the reason I did it. I just did it hoping that I might pique anyone’s interest in this woman. That was my only goal.<

This the invitation to the commission that I created and mailed to JJ. I explained that the only string attached to the commission is that she allowed me to interview her about it. A few days later she received the invitation in the mail and accepted the commission. Photo by Laura Glazer.

Laura: Along those lines, I approached you saying I have a hundred dollars for you to continue working on it.

JJ: Which I thought was crazy. That was like the wildest thing anybody ever said to me.

Laura: What did you decide to do?

JJ: When you and I were texting back and forth about it when you made this offer and right before you made the offer, you said, “I really like your thing, and I think you should expand on it.” I thought back to the original conversation that Nico and I had, which was where we should put her name all over town. When you said I should expand on it, I thought, yeah, I should just go out and write the same thing again, all over in other places. You had mentioned stickers, so I thought about that for a little bit.

You also mentioned that you particularly liked the actual writing of it. So, to just type it out or whatever would not have the same effect. You helped me understand that that was for sure. And I thought, Stickers, like how would that work? Slap-tagging “AGNES VARDA FOREVER”? Not a bad idea, but I thought again, people don’t look at those things because they’re so ubiquitous, nobody gives a shit. Nobody’s really looking at the back of the stop sign with 25 stickers on it.

Then it just came to me. I had the brainwave that because of the pandemic, all of the phone poles in Portland, which are usually covered with posters advertising events, there are none; they’re literally bereft completely of posters. So, I thought, That’s it, it’d be like an Agnes gig poster. That’s why my first idea was to say, “now showing” because I knew that would make people look at it because nothing is “now showing!” It was going to say, “now showing” and then in smaller print, “…in your own living room anytime you want.”

I just wanted anybody to Google her, who didn’t already know her and that would be enough for me. But then when I thought, Oh, if I make it like a “now showing” thing, maybe I could get even just one person to actually watch one of her films, which would be super better.

After talking to you and we were brainstorming together, then we came up with the idea (I feel like we came up with it together) to put the names of movies and then to make them pull tags so that people remember, because I, of course like so many people, I’m sure, go out into the world, see things, and go, “Ooh, when I get home, I’m going to look that up” and then I forget. But to have a little piece of paper in your pocket or your wallet, or in your car or whatever, does three things. For one, it gives the person a particular film to watch because each tag has a different name of a film. One of those titles is going to resonate with someone and make them pick whatever one seems like something they might already be interested in. This is better than just saying, “Go watch a movie of hers.”

A tag removed from one of JJ’s “AGNES VARDA FOREVER” posters. Photo by Laura Glazer.

It’s also good because if somebody has a physical thing with them later, it will be a reminder and it will help them maybe be more successful in the goal of getting someone to watch something or even Google her.

But then the third really great thing about it is that your focus is art and social practice. And there’s something about a stranger taking a little piece of something with them that makes it more of a social practice. That just seems like a little bit magical to me and I love everything about that idea.

Laura: Yeah, that ripple. Like the ripple in a pool that you’re not watching. You can’t be like, Oh, that one that went to that person and that person. It’s like letting go and believing someone’s going to do something with it like in 10 years; they don’t even have to use it right away.

JJ: Which has long been my jam and that kind of ties into the way that I met you, which is mail art, which has a similar sort of feeling. I mean, it is for an audience of one; you are sending it to a single person. But when you create a piece of artwork, especially if it’s odd, if it’s three-dimensional or it’s a funny shape, or it’s got crazy textures on it and you stick a stamp on it and you put it in a mailbox, you can’t really know that it’s going to get there or that it’s going to arrive the way you intended it to arrive, but that’s part of what’s great about it.

That’s a little bit like this project. We’re going to put it out there and I don’t know what’s going to happen with it. It’s a lot different than if I was doing a dance performance and I invited people and they saw me, then it was over and then we all shared the same experience. What I love about this is that I’m hopefully generating something that, as a result, is going to have, who knows what experience, in the future. That’s what I really like about it. I don’t need to know what people do with it. I just like knowing that something might happen with it, that’s enough for me.

Laura: Like the art of possibility.

JJ: Exactly. That’s what turns me on.

Laura: That brings up something important to note, which is that there’s no contact information on the poster.

JJ: Oh yes and that’s on purpose because after you and I looked at the final design, it occurred to me that usually these things have a URL or a hashtag or something. And I was like, No, this is so great that it doesn’t have any of that because, frankly, everything about it is unusual, everything about this project is not anything I’ve seen before. So, this is just another part of it.

I hate to say this because I do like Instagram, but don’t you sort of feel like people just do a project and hashtag the hell out of it for some edification of their own? So that they can say, Oh, 4,000 people looked at it. I don’t care if 4,000 people look at it. I don’t personally need to know that 4,000 people looked at it.

Laura: I think that’s part of it because you did make 550 copies.

JJ: I did, and I have a hope that all those little tags will be pulled, and people will go watch a movie. Of course, that’s what I would love to have happen, but I don’t want to have to worry about it later.

Laura: I think there’s another element, too, is that when there’s an Instagram handle or hashtag, then it becomes about consuming more of it. If it were me and I wasn’t associated with this project, I would immediately go to your Instagram page, out of curiosity, to see what else you’ve done.

JJ: Oh, sure. Yeah.

Laura: But this is not about that. It’s not about me knowing you.

JJ: I don’t want any attention about it. I want Agnes Varda to get all the attention. The goal is for people to see this woman who I think is under-seen, that’s all I care about.

Laura: When I walked out of my apartment building and saw the poster that you hung up outside the front door, I loved the experience of thinking, “Who put that there?”

JJ: That’s the other thing that I did think about when I was thinking it’s good that it doesn’t have any contact information on it. You know, the Futel (2) telephone kind of reminds me of the same thing. You don’t know who put that phone there and it doesn’t matter, it’s not the point. I’m more invested in people imagining who put it there.

I feel like with the internet and everyone having a computer in their pocket at all times, there’s no more mystery. Everybody knows everything and everybody wants everyone looking at them. This is one thing I like about this project—that it’s not about me or you. That doesn’t mean I don’t want you to put it on Instagram. But I don’t care if my name is attached to it. It’s just because it spreads the message further. That’s all I really am interested about.

Laura: For some reason that’s making me think of her movie Daguerreotypes. You’ve seen that?

JJ: Oh yeah. In fact, it was after that film, that Nico and I had this conversation, that she is so great.

Laura: What aspect of Daguerreotypes led to it? Because there are a lot of things that could lead to it.

JJ: That’s a good question. It must’ve had to do with the connectedness to your immediate environment. You don’t need to travel to another country to notice interesting people, just go out your door and look at who your neighbors are.

If you really, really see them, like she is really seeing deeply the subjects of that movie, then it’s fascinating because most people are pretty fascinating. If you really pay attention to them and you really learn anything about their story. That’s probably what Nico and I were talking about when the film was over and saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if more people thought that way, if more people approached their immediate surroundings with the love and deep noticing that Agnes does?”

One thing I love about Agnes’ movies is that even her very first movie, La Pointe Courte, is about this couple and they’re at the beach and they are professional actors, but all the other people in the movie are just the people in that town. Every once in a while, the camera just really lingers on them. And that was her very first film. Then her next film was Cléo From 5 to 7, which has a ton of shots of the people who are on Paris streets and what they’re doing. They’re all real people. A lot of them, you see, notice the camera and look at it like, “What the heck is that about?”

This is one of the things that I love about her—that some of her films are straight documentaries, but even her films that are not, all have a bit of a documentary feel to them. And I did hear her say in an interview once that she just loves everyday people and that that’s who she is working for, you know, that’s who she notices and that’s who she cares about and who she’d like to connect to. It really shows when you see one of her movies, doesn’t it? Like you can feel her compassion and interest in every passing stranger. That resonates with me because as I told you before, I love strangers.

Laura: We definitely connected over that. It’s almost like a hobby.

JJ: Yes.

Laura: That insatiable curiosity.

JJ: Oh, absolutely. I think a lot of people love people watching. I love people watching, but I love even more to then stop watching and actually interact with some of them.

Laura: It’s like, tell me one mundane thing you did today, and we could talk for hours, right? The more mundane the better.

JJ: Yeah, I agree. Totally.

Laura: Did you have enough money to do what you wanted to do?

JJ: I was talking with someone about what I could do with $100 and they said, “Well, maybe you could do it for free and you could just keep the money.” And I was like, what? It didn’t even occur to me to have the money as money for me to have. I was like, how many things can I make with $100? Especially because this particular project is about spreading the word and blanketing the town, which is kind of my dream. I don’t know if I’ll have the stamina to do it, but that was the idea.

“I’m born to post stuff in public!” said JJ after hanging a batch of AGNES VARDA FOREVER posters in Portland, Oregon, in April 2021. Photo by Emma Swartz.

I definitely spent all the money on copies and paper. The money is gone already. Well, now I have $5, I guess, because I spent $5 on the paper, which was a bargain and I was very excited to find it. And then when Mykle (3) said he was going to print them at the Independent Publishing Resource Center, I said, “Well, how much does it cost per copy?”

He said, I don’t actually know, but I think it’s comparable to a photocopy. So, I said, “Okay, why don’t you make as many as you can make for $90, because I might have to spend five more dollars on staples and tape and that way it’ll be a perfect hundred dollars.” I was astonished, honestly, when he came back and I said, “How many is it?” And he said, “550.” I didn’t think it would be that many. But I’m not at all sad about it. Oh no, I’m really excited about it. Now we have the idea of sending some to your friends in other cities. Then Nico asked me to send him five or six and he’s going to put them in a small town in Nevada, which is really great.

My friend who lives in Enterprise, Oregon, I have a plan to go visit her and I told her about this project and the first thing she said was, “Oh, can we do it in Enterprise?” I was like, absolutely. I wouldn’t be surprised if after a while 550 is not enough.

Laura: When you look at the finished posters that you have, how are you feeling about the transferring of your original painting to a poster?

JJ: When you first presented the idea, I was like, No, that’s terrible because I’m not particularly proud of the lettering, as a person who cares about lettering and an amateur calligrapher. And like I said, I took the sign painting class and I painted some signs and tried to make them look “nice.” But when I did the Agnes Varda sign, I just wanted it to be big and it was in the dark so I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see very well what I was doing when I did it. The surface that I painted it on is uneven, so the letters look wobbly because that thing has grooves in it.

As a letterer, I’m not at all proud of it, it’s not nice lettering. But it is eye catching! Mostly because it’s white on black, frankly. And because it’s not with the spray can and when you said that you thought the project should have my own handwriting on it I did kind of see some logic in that.

When you first said that idea, I was like, Oh no, no, no, nah, no, because I liked this kind of gig poster idea that I initially came up with. But then after you sent it to me and I looked at it, I thought, Oh, that is going to look pretty good. I mean, that is going to be pretty great.

It’s unusual looking because it’s not made on a computer or perfectly lettered; it is odd or different, which serves the purpose of making people look closer at it. Right?

Laura: Totally.

JJ: Once I put it up on a pole, then I was even way more delighted when I stood back and looked at it from afar. That’s when I realized that it was actually perfect, and your idea was totally spot on. Yeah, it really looked good on a pole.

Laura: I’m so glad it translates because your letters on that pole are probably six inches high.

JJ: Bigger, I think eight or nine. Actually, they get smaller because I got down to “FOREVER” and it’s harder to fit. I had to make them smaller.

Laura: I tried to execute your original design and concept and I was struggling; I really wanted to make your vision.

JJ: Well, I’m so glad you didn’t. And I really wanted to tell you that part of what I loved about the way it was written was it reminds me of one of my other most favorite artists, Sister Corita.

Laura: In what way?

JJ: Sister Corita’s prints…one of the things that I always think about when I look at them is, how did she do that? How did she print these letters that look like they’re moving? Or like they’re on an uneven surface when really, she was just screenprinting.

In this project with you and me… when I saw it and it made me think of Sister Corita, of course, I was just even more delighted. Now it’s been done in these crazy bright pop art kinds of colors. I mean, the whole thing is so good. That was an unexpected delight that I wasn’t planning on, I didn’t notice it until I saw the finished product and that made me more proud of it. And more sure that I did the right thing in listening to you.

JJ’s neighbor, Mykle Hansen, volunteered to print the posters using the risograph copier at the Independent Publishing Resource Center. The ink colors include neon pink, red, and purple. Photo by Mykle Hansen.

Laura: I appreciate you saying listening to me, but I think it was a real collaboration.

JJ: So do I.

Laura: When I sent it to you via text, I was like, it’s totally okay if JJ says she doesn’t like it. Whereas there are some people I might not be as okay. But I feel like in working with you on projects, there’s something about the kind of admiration and respect we have for each other that when you tell me what you really think it does not hurt my feelings.

JJ: Oh, I’m so glad that I’ve taken that as a compliment. That’s good.

Laura: In friendships where we’re developing, being able to be genuine feels even better than getting compliments and being like, Oh, everything you do is gold. I really like when you’re like, “Actually I don’t think I like that.”

JJ: Right.

Laura: And I’m like, “Oh cool. Now we can talk about what you think instead of saying it’s done.”

JJ: Yeah. You’re right. So much more interesting. Yeah. Oh, that’s great. I’m glad I remembered to tell you about my Sister Corita realization because it’s important.

Laura: I think in the back of my mind, I recognized it but I couldn’t figure out from where. 

JJ: Right.

Laura: I was like, “Why do I know this?”

JJ: It had to do with the bendy letters, right?

Laura: Yeah. I couldn’t put my finger on that.

JJ: I think that’s it. I wouldn’t have thought about it until after I’d seen it. Of course, I noticed that it had the wrap-around look when you sent me the proof, but it wasn’t until it was printed and I was looking at it in hot pink ink on yellow paper, then it all came together and I went, Oh, wow, this is even better. Because now at least for me personally, it won’t be for everyone on the street, now it’s referencing two great female artists.

Laura: What do you think about the drawing of her? Could it have been just as effective without the drawing of her?

JJ: Yes, because it’s all about her name. Although I originally wanted to have a picture of her in it because I don’t think people know how cute she is and her fantastic hairdo, which would make anybody want to know more about her. But I have a future project in mind that has a picture of her face. That’s my next postering project. We can talk about that later. But because of that, I thought it was great that it had a little picture of her because it might help to pique interest.

Laura: That’s what I was thinking too. I definitely like it with the picture. And there’s a part of me that’s nervous that somehow the person who drew the picture will be like, I didn’t give you permission to use the picture. But I did put the credit.

JJ: Because you didn’t actually ask him if you could do it?

Laura: No, no, but we are non-profit.

JJ: I’m not selling anything.

Laura: So I think we’re okay. But I was really tempted to be like, maybe we don’t need this, but to a casual passer-by having a figure and a face on a poster, it really invites you into the thing. Am I on the right track with that?

JJ: Yeah, I think so. I like the little image.

(1)  JR is the pseudonym of a French photographer, filmmaker, and street artist whose identity is unconfirmed. He co-directed Faces Places with Agnes Varda.

(2)  Free phone service in Portland, Oregon. For more information visit

(3)  JJ’s next door neighbor of 22 years, with whose family she shares a backyard, chickens, and a shed. 

Jennifer Jones (she/her) is a mail artist, gardener, cinephile and an art school dropout. Having decided in the 90’s that the best art galleries are the street and the mailbox, she devoted her practice to engaging with strangers. Believing that encountering curious bits of art and one-way communications in the wild are two of life’s most magic moments, she aims to leave a trail of fun in her wake. Jennifer is a lifelong member of the Eternal Network, the Portland Correspondence Co-op, and curates the Bikeshed Film Festival in conjunction with Mother Foulcault’s Bookshop in Portland, Oregon.

Laura Glazer​ (she/her) is a first-year student in the Art and Social Practice Master of Fine Arts program at Portland State University. She graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in photography and lives in Portland, Oregon. An avid letter writer, she is a member of the Portland Correspondence Coop and creates artwork at the intersections of photography, design, publishing, and

Is This Your Card?

“I think it would be harder for me because I don’t think of myself as creative. I think thinking through you is a lot easier.”

With the $100 I decided to task my roommates (four of the eight of them were up to the task) to make a project that they thought I would make. The occupants of Flanders House [known for drunken haircut nights and freshly baked bread] have known me for nearly a year as an art student and have been witness to my many artistic gestures and art-themed rants. They also looked at the work on my website as research.

I was interested to see my practice through the eyes of others and curious what they would come up with when given a commission. They work in and explore many fields including tech, environmental science, child development, gardening, baking, investing and much more.

Caryn Aasness: My first question, I just want to know, when was the last time before this that you made something that you would consider an art project?

Shannon Hunter: I made something two weeks ago, I went to Scrap (local creative reuse store that sells recycled materials and second hand art supplies) and I got this old plaque that used to have someone’s name on it, but unscrewed that. And the plaque was in the shape of Oregon. I also purchased some secondhand paints, and paintbrushes, and painted a scene of windmills to represent clean energy in Oregon, for the campaign that I work on. So that was the last thing I would call an art project because I did it for like a call to action on social media, but it was also just fun and involved painting, and creativity and thoughtfulness. And it had a purpose.

Steph: Art project is a weird word to use. I do consistently write haikus, but then once a month, I’ll watercolor and if the watercolor is good enough, it gets a haiku paired with it. I have a very large stack of haikus and watercolors that just continuously get added to, so it’s not a project?

Caryn: Let the record show that Steph’s voice went up a whole octave right there.

Steph: It is a consistent thing that I do, that is like an art outlet for me. But there’s no purpose or call to action, or any of the words Shannon just used.

Shannon: That’s okay! Can I ever see those?

Steph: No, no one gets to see those.

Adrian Pants Messado: I haven’t done anything recently, I think the last thing I did was a Bob Ross painting or the sound reactive drum thing that I told you about. It was a drum that I made for music festivals that had a wooden staff. But it had lights in the middle of it, they were sound reactive and formed an image when you got closer to the sound.

Caryn: Do you consider yourself a creative person or an artist or artistic?

Steph: No, none of the above at all in any sort of way?

Caryn: Are you being sarcastic? No.

Adrian: I do. But I am lazy and don’t do anything unless I have a really hard push to do it. So either when I’m drinking with people or doing it last minute for a festival.

Shannon: I would consider myself a creative person. But I’m not sure if I’m making that assessment based on my past or what I’m doing currently. Because I was super into creating songs and paintings and all sorts of creative energy things in high school.

Caryn: Tell me what you came up with for the project.

Notes from group brainstorm meeting, Steph, Luke et. all, 2021

Steph: So we’re going to make a deck of cards. Each of us is going to do a different suit. There are very few rules to that, as far as what kind of media we want to use. We’ll use a similar sized background for them all but other than that, like Shannon gets to do whatever she wants for hearts—obviously she’s doing hearts! The idea is that we’re going to create a set of cards. The reasoning behind this is we all had a couple of different things that we felt like were important as Caryn. Shannon’s thing was that it should be able to be made all secondhand or used. We wanted to be able to create it from what we have or what you can easily find from Scrap or Goodwill, those sorts of things.

Shannon: Because you frequent those spots.

Steph: You do. We wanted to do multimedia work because oftentimes your work is not just one thing, but I have seen a lot of variety in your work. And also oftentimes you want a social interactive aspect. I quoted one of your artist statements when we were talking about it. I really enjoy it. But it was, I don’t remember what the piece was called, but it was the hanging fabric one—oh, “To call it cute would be a misunderstanding,” yeah, something like that. Anyway, and in the artist statement, it was like, if you don’t want to take the time to understand this that’s fine. But you don’t get to walk away from this thinking you haven’t missed something. It feels like you have a lot of other things where you are wanting interaction in a way. So the idea of building something that then you could interact, play, use, with a group of people is the concept there. The actuality of being able to play with these cards is to be determined. Because we haven’t made them yet I don’t know how 3D any of them are going to be or if they’ll be shuffleable; we’re not really sure.

Shannon: Also, we do know that you collect cards and have been attempting to create a whole deck from found cards. And I thought that was super cool. And then we also saw a deck of cards being incorporated into some of your other pieces of artwork. So we thought that it was a good direction.

Steph: And in my personal experience with Caryn, cards have been important. Yeah, you just use them a lot, you have so many of them. Anyway, and then we want the cards to not be the same. They don’t have to be uniform, because the artwork that I’ve looked at, at least, is very abstract and very diverse and has just a lot of variety. 

A selection from the collection of found playing cards, Caryn Aasness, 2021

Shannon: And one thing that I noticed that you really enjoy are hands. So I’m really excited to incorporate hands on a couple of the cards. I also thought about dogs.

Steph: Obviously. Yeah, but also when we were talking about hands and dogs we decided we don’t want this to become something that’s a representation of Caryn necessarily, so that’s a hard line I’m trying to walk here.

Shannon: I saw a dog in one of their artworks. 

Steph: Have you seen the one where it says dogs are not for sale or something?

Shannon:  No. 

Steph: Oh my God, that’s a good one. It’s like all of these Craigslist ads of couches that are for sale. “Dogs for scale. Not for sale.” Where the dogs are just included in the photo. 

Shannon: See, I think we can include dogs.

Caryn: So how will the $100 come into it? 

Steph: So we each get $25.

Adrian: Yeah, but like, paper’s cheap. But we should get hard paper.

Steph: Yeah, so I already have what I would call hard paper. I will take it to work tomorrow and cut it out, that’s not a cost. I think we can divide it up into $25 each. If that means I want to keep it and buy myself coffee because I already have art supplies that’s fine. I think if you wanted to go to Scrap you could do that also.

Shannon: But we won’t buy glitter because that’s not environmentally friendly.

Adrian: What? They make environmentally friendly glitter, don’t they?

Shannon: No, I did a research report on it. No.

Caryn: You did a research report on sustainable glitter?

Shannon: It doesn’t exist yet!

Caryn: That’s amazing.

Steph: What if it is edible glitter?

Shannon: I mean, we could use mica or something like that. That gives a shimmer.

Steph: But that’s not glitter.

Adrian: Close enough.

Shannon: Okay, then. Yes, we can do that.

Steph: Okay. Mica it is.

Adrian: But what if I take the $25 and invest it into crypto…

[Collective groan]

Caryn: I also have materials that I can supply, if you know what you need. Do you think that the project would be different if I had approached you with a different budget or no budget?

Steph: No, no, but that’s personal. Because I will spend money on anything. So I think if I was like, But I need gold leaf, I would still buy gold leaf for a project that I was not compensated for. I don’t necessarily think I’ll actually buy anything though.

Caryn: If you were doing this project for yourself, how would it be different? If I wasn’t involved?

Steph: If we were to take this concept and do it for ourselves?

Caryn: Open ended question.

Steph: So Steph is creating 52 cards. I think I would stress about it a lot more. Or I think it would be harder for me because I don’t think of myself as creative. I think thinking through you is a lot easier. Looking at your work that you’ve done before. And like, getting ideas from you, that makes way more sense to me than trying to come up with something or feeling that  the onus is on me for the creativity.

Caryn: If this project were changed into a reality TV show, what would that look like?

Steph: Oh my god. You know that Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman craft show (Making It is a reality competition show where craftspeople are given challenges to make various crafts)? That. Yeah, where you are given a prompt, and then we all have different things we can choose from but we have to make our own thing. Yeah, that’s the best reality TV show. That’s what it would be. I’m pretty sure somebody wears overalls every single episode.

Shannon: I think it would be like the Great British Bake Off because we’re all like nice to each other.

Caryn: Do you have any questions for each other or for me?

Steph: How do you feel? 

Caryn: I’m excited. 

Steph: Okay. Have we ruined your life completely?

Caryn: No, not at all, it’s exciting! Who’s making the Jokers?

Steph: I think two of us can make Jokers if we wanted. And then two of us make an instruction card or something like that. Which I think could be really fun with very little context or expectation for that to make sense or be related to anything else.

Shannon: We’ll figure it out. Cool. Great. Thanks for doing this!

Caryn: Thank you!

Steph: If anybody wants $25 I have a $100 bill that I can cut into four!

Steph Luke (she/her) is a lady living in Portland, OR but doesn’t own a bike.

Shannon Hunter (she/her) is an environmentalist living in Portland, OR but isn’t vegan.

Adrian Pants Messado (he/they) is a human being living in Portland, OR but has never been rock climbing.

Caryn Aasness (they/them) is an art student living in Portland, OR but has never been to Powell’s.

*A fifth entity (they/them) was involved in the project but decided not to be interviewed, recorded or perceived

A Bear in the Forest

“At the playground, I jump from the brick wall to the slide and it’s about like six feet apart. I’ve been trying to land perfectly on it and that shows my bravery. Symbolizing my strength, I help my friends and what they have trouble doing, like lifting stuff, carrying stuff somewhere, everything like that.”

– Jordan Williams

The following conversation is between my little cousin Jordan Williams and myself. I commissioned Jordan with $100 to collaborate on a social practice art project. I used the “hanging out” method coined by Harrell Fletcher, the director of the art & social practice MFA program, to explain the purpose of the project and to pick his brain. Jordan surprised me with his quick understanding of social practice art. Usually, I need to explain the concept of social practice art in various ways but Jordan understood right away. Jordan was interested in the symbol of a bear and the use of clay. We used the $100 dollars to buy the following supplies: clay, chicken wire, pliers, acrylic paint, shadow box, and molds. 

To kick off our first “hangout” or collaborative art session, Jordan attended a Saturday school session I was hosting at the school where I teach art (Peak High School in Dallas, TX). We set up our workspaces in my classroom while my students completed their work. We were going to make a bear using our supplies, and decided that we would each work on a part of the bear. Jordan sculpted the body and limbs. I was left to sculpt the head and assemble all of the body parts. 

Afterward, Jordan and I visited the Fort Worth Water Gardens and a park in the Fort Worth Area. There were several connections made throughout the day which created a rich collaborative environment. Jordan shared his perception around self, vegan food, and his favorite video game. 

Jordan at the Fort Worth Water Gardens. Photo by Kiara Walls.

Kiara: I am in a graduate program called art and social practice at Portland State University in Oregon. When you hear art and social practice, what do you think? 

Jordan and Kiara take a selfie at Fort Worth Water Gardens. Photo by Kiara Walls.

Jordan: I think you’re being social and doing art with the person you’re being social with.

Kiara: Okay, That’s a really good guess and that’s pretty much what that means. So for this project, can you explain, how do you think this project is tied to social practice? 

Jordan: I think it’s tied to social practice so that you work better with people when you’re doing art and doing other stuff.

Kiara: Okay. So with us doing our project together, how do you think we can make this an art and social practice project? 

Jordan: We are socializing, and we’re going to build it and make it. So, we’re talking about how we’re going to do it so then when we build it we have an idea.  

Kiara: Yes, that is a really good answer. What are some of your ideas for this project? Can you explain what we are going to do?

Jordan: We are going to make a bear in a forest. The trees will be made out of clay and wire, and the bear will be made of brown clay. We are also going to use a mold for the leaves on the trees and everything like that. We are probably going to use actual dirt for the ground. 

Jordan running in the park, akin to the bear in the forest he is making with Kiara. Photo by Kiara Walls.

Kiara: Great. So why are we doing a bear in a forest? How did you come up with that idea? 

Jordan: It symbolizes myself, my bravery and my strength. 

Kiara: Can you share some examples of where you have been brave or strong? 

Jordan: At the playground, I jump from the brick wall to the slide and it’s about like six feet apart. I’ve been trying to land perfectly on it and that shows my bravery. Symbolizing my strength—I help my friends and what they have trouble doing, like lifting stuff, carrying stuff somewhere, everything like that. 

Kiara: Wow. Okay. You sound like a really good friend, Jordan. What are you most excited about with making this project with your cousin?

Jordan: Getting to hang out with you and finally getting to do clay art.

Kiara: Okay, this is your first time doing clay art?

Jordan: Yes.

Kiara: What are you most excited about in terms of working with clay art?

Jordan holding “Bear” made out of clay. Photo by Kiara Walls.

Jordan: I am most excited about molding the bear and getting it just to where it’s good… good enough.

Kiara: What materials are we using for this project?

Jordan: We are going to use clay, wire, wire cutters, and paint brushes. We are also going to use dirt.

Kiara: Where do you think we should get the dirt from?

Jordan: Let’s see… probably from a bald spot where there’s no grass.

Kiara: A bald spot where there is no grass. Okay, so do you want to get this from like a park, or do you want to get it from your apartment complex?

Jordan: Um, let’s get it from a park.

Kiara: Okay, so we need to find a park to get some dirt from. What else… is there anything else that you can think of that we are going to use?

Jordan: Hmm, probably a bit of styrofoam.

Kiara: Okay that sounds good. This is going to be our first reflection so we can record each stage of the process. And then I am going to ask you more questions when we’re actually making the work and see how you feel with everything. Then we are going to answer more questions when we finish the project. Does that sound good?

Jordan: Yes. It does sound really good.

Kiara: Okay great.

Please join Jordan and I at Assembly TV on June 11th at 4:00 pm PST where we’ll present our finished version of “A bear in the forest”. Find more info at:

Kiara Walls (she/her) is a teaching visual artist originally from LA but now stationed in Dallas, Texas. Her work is centered around increasing awareness of the need and demand for reparations to repair the injuries inflicted on the African American community. This interpretation is seen through many forms including drawings, sculptures, and video installations.

Jordan Williams (he/him) is a 9-year-old artist, 4th grader, and big brother to his younger sibling Josiah. Jordan enjoys playing video games like Minecraft and playing outside with his friends at the playground where there are slides. He aspires to be an engineer in computer science when he grows up. 

Strip Mall Hustle and the Other Violin: Sponsoring a Charade

“Only narcissists make art with other people and don’t use their names.”

One day, while walking through a Walmart parking lot, I got scammed. Or I thought I got scammed. 

After pulling my car into a spot, I heard violin music coming from a small patch of shade underneath one of the trees in a mulched median. There, a man was playing an electric violin accompanied by amplified backing music. His family, a woman and two children, was sitting nearby next to a sign that explained their situation. I was really struck by them. The weather was hot that day and it seemed like they could use some cash. I missed seeing buskers, especially during the pandemic—it had been a while since I’d caught live music by chance in a public place. This time felt particularly peculiar, as it was in a Walmart parking lot near a major highway in rural-suburban Pennsylvania. I took a few dollars out of my wallet, thanked him for the music, and went on with my business.

On the way home, I called a friend to see if he knew anyone who supports local music that could help them out. Instead, he told me that this particular person had been making the rounds to parking lots in the area, and that people on social media had been complaining about the guy being a scammer. According to a couple of posts in the town’s community Facebook group, he fakes it—pretending to play the violin along with a recording. Public opinion on this issue is split—some think that it’s a successful hustle, others think it’s flat-out misrepresentation. It turns out that this guy is sort of a parking-lot-hopping temporary local celebrity, both reviled and admired, much like the typical celebrity variety. I wondered if people were reacting to their own versions of what I felt when I saw him “playing.” Like any good con, it gave me something that I didn’t realize I wanted in the moment. I drove back to the parking lot to ask him if he was, in fact, faking it. By the time I got there, he had moved on.

Based on public comments on those social media posts, I narrowed down a few of the locations where he could be. I wanted to talk to him about why he regularly attempts this kind of performance, and I wondered what he would say if I asked to sponsor the scam. I took a chance and went to the other gigantic parking lot in town, at the Target. And there he was. When I approached, I expected to negotiate an interview price with a seasoned con-artist, but that’s not what happened.

In the following text, I’ve removed the names of the Woman and the Man, so that they could remain anonymous while going through the immigration process. They asked me to refer to them as “The Target Family” for the project. We tried to speak to each other in different languages, but ultimately the conversation required translation, and I had more questions than answers. They accepted $100 for a successful day of pretending to perform violin music, gave me permission to print this record of our interaction, and I ended up doing some hustling too.

Mo: Hi, do you mind if I talk to you both for a minute?

Target Family: No, no English.

Mo: Do you remember me from Walmart? (pointing in the direction of the Walmart)

Target Family: Si, si.

Mo: You don’t play the violin, do you? I think I gave you money for doing something you don’t know how to do.

Woman: Parli Italiano?

Mo: Um… very, uh, un piccolo italiano. Me (pointing at myself, then speaking broken Italian)… un artista. Tu (pointing to the man), tu artista. I want to… pagare (pay)?… tu, you, to be an artist. Um, this probably isn’t making sense to you. I don’t remember any of the Italian I learned. And it wasn’t much to begin with. Less than un anno in Firenze.

Man: Ah, Firenze! (gesturing toward them both) Milano.

Woman: We have a phone app.

(We started to use a translation app on a cell phone, and then things started to become more clear. I refer most often to the woman in the following section because although the man also participated in our conversation, he was not the one who spoke into the translation system.)

Mo: Can I pay you for pretending to play the violin? I’d like to talk to you about your story.

Woman: Problem? Is there a problem?

Mo: No, there’s no problem. I’m offering to pay you for this scam.

Woman: We are not ready to tell our story.

Mo: I’ve got $100 to pay you a commission to be a performing artist. To me, this looks like a scam and I want to talk to you about it. Do you know how to play the violin?

Man: No. My son does.

Woman: If you want, we’ll give you your money back.

Mo: I don’t want my money back. I’m interested in why you pretend to play. It’s for an art project. You’d be the artist.

Woman: No, we can’t be part of an art project.

Mo: I wouldn’t have to use your names. I don’t want to get you in trouble.

Woman: Only narcissists make art with other people and don’t use their names.

Mo: That’s fair. We don’t have to do it.

Man: You see, I don’t trust you.

Mo: I understand. I’m an artist, and I’m not trying to steal your story, which is hard to prove to you. I’m not the police though (I point to the paint on my pants and shirt, and they laugh).

Woman: You are an artist? You paint pictures? (she points at the paint on my clothing)

Mo: (also pointing at the paint) I do this to make money (making a sign with my hand that means money), and I also make other art that makes me less money. Maybe I’ll make more with that part one day.

(I reach into my bag to retrieve one of my business cards. I give it to her.)

Woman: How did you find us?

Mo: I looked for you. People have talked about you on Facebook. There were a couple of locations listed—many of them don’t like what you’re doing. I wanted to know more about you, since I gave you money earlier and you took it. I thought there might be more to your story than the fake violin playing.

Woman: We are working with immigration. We use the money to feed the family.

Mo: Are you interested in me paying you to perform?

Woman: We cannot get in trouble with immigration.

Mo: Where did you live before you came to this country?

Woman: Italy. We left there because they treated us badly.

Mo: When did you come here?

Woman: 20 days ago. When we came here they put us to sleep on the floor and our blanket was some aluminum bags.

Mo: Why do you pretend to play the violin?

Woman: For food and to survive.

Mo: Why do you use the violin?

Woman: Our son plays. The police told us children are not allowed to play.

Mo: How did your son learn to play the violin?

Woman: He studied in our country at the music school, but he’s still not so professional. We have had so many problems already.

(They go into their car, retrieve a different violin—this time acoustic—and give it to their son. He plays a song.)

Mo: Wow that’s beautiful! Thank you for playing for me. (I don’t think their son understood this—it didn’t get translated.) In this project, I can pay someone $100 for doing something that could be considered art. I think what you’re doing today is a public performance. You’re compelling people with deception, in order to support your family.

(There is more translation trouble, they tell me they have to leave because the children have not eaten yet. The man goes to put away the violin, and it falls out of the case. The chin rest falls off. I go over to see if I can help fix it.)

Mo: I work with wood; I might be able to figure out how to fix it.

Woman: Oh, you work with wood?

(I sit down on the asphalt, and take a look at the chin rest. I’m able to re-attach it onto the body of the violin.)

Mo: Do you have pliers?

Man: Um (checks in the car), yes, this? (holding up pliers)

Mo: Yes. (I tighten the grips on the chin rest and re-seat the cork padding. It’s functional again, but not perfect, and I suggest a different tool to make it better).

Woman: Thank you! 

Mo: It’s no problem—I thought I’d at least take a look since I’m here.

Woman: For fixing this violin, you can do your project.

Mo: No, I’d still like to pay you for performing!

Woman: No, please, you already gave us money.

Mo: This project is a commission for $100, and I think there is more to your story than people realize when they see you in these parking lots.

Woman: No, no. We cannot take your money. You draw us a picture and we can trade!

Mo: That’s what this money is for! Please take it. It’s a performance that pays. I can still make you a picture though.

Woman: And this is for art? I thought you used paint?

Mo: I work with paint, but also with people. This one is about people.

Woman: Ah.

Mo: Do you still not want me to use your names?

Woman: It’s better not to use names.

Mo: Well, can you give me your phone number and I can stay in touch? If you want me to add your names when you have immigration papers, I can.

Woman: Yes, that’s fine!

Mo: May I take a picture?

Woman: Yes. We’ll use this [acoustic] violin. The other one isn’t good for photos.

Mo: (gesturing) With the building behind you?

Woman: No, no. Something else.

(We find a place that has more sky and less strip mall in the background. They pose together, the man holding the violin as if he’s playing, and the woman next to him. She brushes back her hair and he holds up the violin’s bow. I take several photos. The light is nice—the sun is starting to go down after the hot day, and they’ve spent most of it traveling between large parking lots. They ask me if they can see the photos. I show them, and they ask for one more. I take it, and they approve).

Graphite drawing of Man and Woman by Mo Geiger. They received this image via text message after the interview.

Man: Where will this be [published]?

Mo: In an art magazine.  

Man: Oh, wow, an art magazine! I hope this makes you a lot of money!

Mo: I don’t think this will make me a lot of money, but it made you some money!

(They go to put the violin away)

Mo: (without translation) May I take a photo of the violin? (broken Italian) Um… una fotographia.. ehh… solo violin?

Woman: Ah si. Qui?

Mo: Yes, qui, on the grass is nice.

Their son’s semi-repaired violin, on the grass in a median of the Target parking lot.

Mo: This was so great, I’m happy to know more about you! I hope you can use this money, and that your son can keep playing his instrument.

(I turn off the translation app)

Woman: Thank you! Blessings to you!

Mo: Can I have your telefono numbers so that I can stay in touch?

Woman: Ah si.

(I take an old airport boarding pass out of my bag and ask them to write their phone numbers down. She tries to write with my pen but it’s out of ink, and she retrieves a pencil from the glove box of their car. She hands me the pencil and the paper. I accidentally take both.)

This pencil is the one I accidentally took after our interview. I might never be able to get it back to them.

Mo: I’ll text you (making a hand sign for texting), and you have my card—I gave you my card, carta, right?

Woman: Si. Thank you!

Man: Grazie!

Mo: Molte grazie!

Mo Geiger (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist and graduate student in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice MFA program. Learn more here. 

The Target Family (they/them) is in the process of immigrating to the United States from Italy. As of May 2021, they are busking somewhere in Pennsylvania. They have chosen to remain anonymous until their paperwork is approved.  

Dinosaur Death Books

“Death is so much a part of life.”

-Lucille Linville

In February 2021, I lost my grandmother to cancer and found myself in a constant conversation around grieving, death, and ritual during a time when social support had been replaced by social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Within my artistic practice, I have been asking questions about how to have a public-facing conversation through art around the state of death and what constitutes death literacy, especially within a country that has not had the time to grieve the half a million people it lost this past year. 

4" x 17"
Mixed Media: repurposed children's book, toy stegosaurus, paint, paper, colored pencil.
Death of a Dinosaur, 2021

When the Art & Social Practice Program introduced the 100 Dollar Project, a commission-based project to invest in someone of our choosing, I immediately thought about Lucille Linville, an art undergraduate student at Portland State University. Within her work, Lucille was asking the same types of questions about death literacy—through the creation of a series of books called Dinosaur Death Books. 

I first was acquainted with Lucille Linville’s Dinosaur Death Books while I was a graduate teacher’s assistant in the Advanced Drawing and Mixed Media class in Winter 2021 at the university. Within the class, she took prompts like Horror Vacui (The Fear of Empty Spaces), Plane Space, Unconventional Drawing, and Juxtaposition & Sequence and created an ironic and poignant spin on the objects she was producing. Through the allure of toys and the action of “play,” she introduced serious topics such as death to begin an exchange within the audience’s mind around the impermanence of life and the ebbs and flows of disasters. When talking about her work, she said that these objects were meant to be engaged socially—to be held, contemplated over, and used as conversation starters. When I asked her if she could see a future for these objects, I was surprised to hear that she wanted to engage more within a group setting rather than allow the objects to be displayed within a traditional art context. In this conversation, I ask her about her inspirations and influences around the topic of death and what she hopes to do after being commissioned through the 100 Dollar Project. 

Shelbie Loomis: Lucille, what is worth talking about within this project that you couldn’t talk about before or yet?

Lucille Linville: I think, just really kind of death in general. There is a culture of avoidance, at least in a lot of the western world, around thinking towards death. And I think that it’s just an easy thing to avoid and not talk about, especially since it’s something that, you know, ideally happens to us much later in life. And so talking about death as a younger person is a bit taboo, and not something that you’re supposed to deal with yet, or have on your mind, or think about. I think that’s worth reevaluating. And I always wonder what it would be like if we talked about death the way that we talk about birth and pregnancy—how people are so open to talking about their experience with those things, but not their experiences with death or their ideas of it. I think a lot of that is fear-driven. The fear of the unknown, or fear of an end or change, or the end of a legacy, I guess, to something not being carried on, or being forgotten. That’s just worth reevaluating, because it seems a little bit archaic. Death is so much a part of life. And without it, there really can’t be new life in the same way. A lot of people think of death as this kind of ending point. I don’t see it as an end, but sort of a new beginning, as kind of cliché as that is.

My Little Book of Mass Extinctions, 2021 

Shelbie: It’s interesting because I feel like when I first engaged with you and this project, in a class setting, my impression was that you are very comfortable with having conversations around death, and you have a certain type of death literacy. I can see a parallel between death literacy and literally making books about death. Where does this death literacy come from? Can you give a little backstory about it?

Lucille: Yeah, my great-great-grandmother ran a multi-faith funeral home outside of Chicago, and she lived well into my lifetime. I knew her and could talk to her about these things when I was younger. She saw a lot of death in her lifetime—in her career and outside of her career. She outlived her husband and her only son and a lot of the people she knew.

She lived through almost all the wars of the 20th century, like WWI and WWII, while she grew up on a pig farm. There was just this kind of constant presence of death. And I think that it was much more familiar to her as being part of life. And she had a very matter of fact and blatant way of seeing it, and was very open about what she wanted to be done when she passed and how she wanted her funeral to go, how her possessions were to be split up, how she wanted to be remembered. And she was the only person who I ever experienced talking about death in that way. It just was not this kind of scary, enigmatic thing that we have to face. I think a lot of people fight against death because they do want to live and it’s a combative relationship, however it felt more symbiotic with her.

Shelbie: I hear you say that it almost feels like there has been some kind of shift, especially in our society, where we have an absence of conversation around death, an unwillingness to linger within it or address it culturally, which causes a distancing effect. And we don’t get to see it except for certain censored portrayals. I’m interested in how this conversation is being tied into a situation where we find ourselves in a global pandemic in which we have lost more than half a million people. Why is the conversation about death relevant now, since we have yet to consider that we’re a nation that is grieving?

Detail of My Little Book of Mass Extinctions, 2021 

Lucille: I think it puts the mass mortality going on right now into perspective and it’s overwhelming, especially since we don’t talk about it a lot. It’s easy to look at the numbers on a screen as a cold statistic. I think putting it into perspective is valuable especially in coming to terms with the fact that it’s happened before too. And, at least for me, just coming to terms with the fact that we’ve lost so many people, but that it’s a part of living in a world where diseases exist and natural disasters happen and though it’s disheartening, and we don’t want it to happen, it’s something that happens and will happen. And we might as well kind of learn how to deal with it, unfortunately.

Shelbie: Yeah, and that’s something that I appreciate about these artifacts that you’re creating with the Dinosaur Death Books. It almost serves as a visual means of creating perspective in a playful way—to see the larger picture of how the ebbs and flows of death throughout history could take the view from microscopic to macroscopic. In other words, taking an individual personal experience and expanding the horizon to include death on a larger scale like mass extinction. I think it’s an interesting topic to introduce within a kid’s toy. 

Lucille: I’ve kind of struggled and keep going back to this notion, a “death is unfair” mindset. I lost a friend in November and she was only 22. She died of a brain tumor and that was hard. It felt just unfair. I wanted to just take a step back and think about it from a greater perspective, and to allow other people insight into that viewpoint. The idea of making it in a more playful, easier-to-swallow version was to ease into that conversation, I guess. Because when you put it on paper, millions of people are dying of COVID, and you know, my friend died at 22. It’s rough and it’s sad. But if you think about it, on a grander scale you have no control over how, when, or where you’re going to die—it’s unavoidable and it’ll happen to everyone. You’ve just got to be ready for it and accept it. I was trying to return to a point of acceptance and rationale.

Shelbie: As you’re talking, it makes me think differently about processing deaths in our day to day lives. We have these moments of clarity, where the existential dread becomes intense and it allows us to figure out how to almost create a coping mechanism—and not necessarily one that makes that dread go away. Making art out of grief allows us to have insight about feelings, like not having control, and coming to terms with that. And so do you think that through this process of creating, this has been a healing process for you? And would you envision this being similar for an audience in their response?

Detail of Stegosaurus: Death of a Dinosaur, 2021

Lucille: Well, in making them, I was hoping that, even though they are made out of toys, which would be perceived as targeted for children, I would like to think that these objects cross the boundaries of age and can be used by anyone. I think that it was healing for me to make them and to have them around to look at and reflect on. I would love for other people to have the opportunity to do the same with them if they wanted to. I don’t see these as art objects that belong in a gallery, but more out in the public sphere. I can imagine these getting brought into more therapeutic settings too, to explain or explore death with people. And maybe even younger kids because it’s not such an in-your-face gory idea of death. Yeah, I think that I would like these to kind of be handled and experienced personally, and in a space where people can speak about their perspectives on death and not feel prohibited by a gallery space, or who’s around them, or other people’s ideas of death—it can be very much something that they experience on their own.

Shelbie: When you say that, what I’m hearing is, these could be used as conversation starters. Do you think you will facilitate sessions to engage people in conversations around death and dying? For example, creating a space where people are holding these books and you invite them to talk about what resonates or what stories come to mind. Would you imagine this being one on one, or with a larger or a smaller group? What do you envision? 

Lucille: I envision one on one or maybe even a smaller group. I think between the size and the subject matter, that it would be more impactful in a smaller setting. With too many people, the books become too small and distant and the number of people would overcome the piece itself. And so I would like it to be a more intimate, smaller scale interaction with people, so it would feel more comfortable to be within themselves and have a peaceful experience. 

Shelbie: I’m gonna pivot because I want to talk a little bit about the commission. I’m commissioning you to continue what you are doing but also to figure out what you would do with $100. How do you plan to use the $100 for this commission?

Lucille: Well, I plan on making more of these death books. My twin brother recently asked for one because he works at Child Protective Services (CPS). It’s a tough job. He also lost a kid on his caseload to natural causes a few months ago, and that was hard on him. And he wanted one to keep on his desk to help him and other kids that come through his office to have that conversation and a reflection on death. So I want to make a special one for him. He wanted a T- Rex, but honestly, those are harder. It’s easier to do the ones that stand on all four feet and it’s easier to deconstruct.

Shelbie: What do you envision in terms of site-specific areas?

Lucille: I could see this being part of PSU somewhere. Whether in the PSU library or The Institute of Aging through gerontology. I could also see these objects existing in a school therapist’s office, or, maybe more than one setting, but still reaching a broader audience. And I could also really just see these books living on someone’s bookshelf for when they’re having a hard time. Maybe they could make themselves a cup of tea and look through a dinosaur book and think about death and life and ultimately their feelings. This project has a lot of possibilities for versatility, and it’s not necessarily just a one-time conversation. It’s always an ongoing conversation with a community or with oneself.

Shelbie Loomis (she/her) is an artist and graduate student in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice MFA program. She graduated from Santa Fe University of Art & Design with a Bachelors of Fine Arts degree in Studio Arts and currently lives in Portland. A self-proclaimed economist and sociologist, her art and career has engaged with finances and social issues around the elderly and death and dying. She is a member of American Federation of Teachers-Oregon and American Association of University Professors-Oregon.

Lucille Linville (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist living and working in the Pacific Northwest. She will be receiving a BFA in Art Practice from Portland State University and has studied at a range of institutions across Oregon. Her practice merges mediums and methods to create engaging work that questions social standards, preconceived notions, and material limitations.

Moments of Blackness Matter

It means that somebody betta cuss and talk shit if you want me to connect with the work.

–  H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams

Herukhuti takes a selfie while being Black AF, inside Temple of Heru, an ancient Egyptian temple on the west bank of the Nile in Edfu, Upper Egypt. July 27, 2017, 8:36am local time.

In May of 2020, Justin Maxon, graduate student in PSU’s Social Practice MFA, commissioned H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams, an interdisciplinary artist, activist, and scholar, with $100 retroactively for one minute of his time dedicated to building Black excellence. The original idea was ideated by Harrell Fletcher and augmented by Marina Lopez, incoming first year PSU Art+Social Practice student. In this interview, Maxon talks with Williams, about the importance of moments of Blackness for the Black artist. What does it feel like to be a Black artist? For Herukhuti, it is “to live and create in a world enveloped by a matrix of systems designed to extract every ounce of what animates you and your art to power other people’s agendas.”

This interview is a part of an ongoing dialogue between Williams and Maxon and serves as an entry point into a project they have been developing. Since 2017, they have been working on a collaborative book project titled Chester: Staring Down the White Gaze. At the epicenter of this critical collaboration are two sets of images: the work Maxon completed as a photographer and journalist, covering the city of Chester, Pennsylvania from 2008-2016, and photographs from Maxon’s childhood archives. Using the latter, they built a visual glossary of white racial tropes to unpack Maxon’s relationship to whiteness. They use this framework to reconsider Maxon’s work in Chester, along with other contemporary and historical local media coverage of the city, to elucidate the ways the white gaze reflects its own values when reflected off of the bodies of Black people.

Justin Maxon: Recently, you told me about participating in a professional development opportunity for artists of African descent. You were so happy about “living in that moment of Blackness.” What did you mean by living in moments of Blackness?

H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams: Yeah, the Digital Evolution Artist Retention (DEAR) initiative at Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute. It’s a great project that started earlier this year. My team is participating in the second cohort, which is active now. As a college professor, I spend so much professional time in spaces dominated by whiteness. I cherish when I can be in a space with just us, Black folks. When that happens, I call that living in a moment of Blackness. No code switching necessary. No call for double consciousness. We can speak to each other beyond the words and convey a knowing, shared understanding, and sense of recognition. It’s nourishing to my soul. 

Justin: What other moments of Blackness have you experienced? What impacts have they had on you as a person and artist?

Herukhuti: House parties. Barber shops. Church services. Soul Summit in Fort Greene Park. Places where Black people are eating watermelon and fried chicken without wondering if there are any wyppipo around to see. Comedy clubs. Sex parties where hip hop beats and heartbeats mix with the polyrhythms of desire. Big ass belly laughs around tables used to rest Black hands. Spades tables. Domino tables. Bid whist tables. Tables filled with the best macaroni and cheese, tata salad, greens, plantains, jerk, curry, sweet potato pie, etc. Block parties. Open fire hydrants. Listening to gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, soul, funk, hip hop, neo-soul. The Drummer’s Circle in Prospect Park. 

They have affected and informed my aesthetic as an artist and as an audience for art. It means that I am attracted to art that has soul, connects me to the ground just as much, if not more so than the air. It means I have a wicked sense of humor that can cut just as much as it can connect some shit. It means that for me, fine art is art that represents how beautiful Black people look, our skin tones, hair textures, how we walk, talk, hold our heads. We are fine. It means that somebody betta cuss and talk shit if you want me to connect with the work.  

Justin: Listening to you, I can understand why you value those spaces so much. 

Herukhuti: Although for the past decade or so it’s been predominantly white institutions (PWI) that have employed me, those spaces with moments of Blackness feed me. 

Justin: You have spoken to me recently about your desire to flip the ratio of your time spent working and collaborating in white versus Black spaces. Do you think that ratio has anything to do with white America not compensating you fairly for your time, labor and intellect? What would make it possible for you to work in Black spaces? What would flipping the ratio mean for your heart, body, and spirit? White America was built on the unpaid labor of BIPOC folks, including our current moment of cultural reckoning. In its fragility, white America, like blind mice, is searching for a guiding hand. This $100 for one minute of your time, in my mind, is symbolic of the need to compensate you for your unpaid labor. What is your time worth? What are you owed?

Herukhuti: My time, labor and intellect are all priceless. You could never be able to adequately compensate me for my time, labor, or intellect. And no institution has ever adequately compensated me for my time, labor, or intellect. But I sure wish they would try. 

I calculated what $100 per minute would be for a year: $52.6 million. The United States of America is one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the history of humanity. Don’t understand how I could say that? Check out Raoul Peck’s recent documentary series Exterminate All the Brutes. But anyway, almost $53 million dollars a year. Ask yourself how much you think would be sufficient compensation for educating, nurturing, and helping to transform the family members of the prison guards in a prison that imprisoned you.

Justin: Great question. Mathematics can never do real justice. 

H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams PhD, is the founder and chief erotics officer of the Center for Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality. He is a playwright, stage director, documentary filmmaker, and performance artist. Dr. Herukhuti is the award-winning author of the experimental text Conjuring Black Funk: Notes on Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality, Volume 1 and co-editor of the Lambda Literary Award nonfiction finalist anthology and Bisexual Book Awards nonfiction and anthology winner, Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men . Dr. Herukhuti is a core faculty member in the BFA in socially engaged art, co-founder and core faculty member in the sexuality studies undergraduate concentration at Goddard College and adjunct associate professor of applied theatre research in the School of Professional studies at the City University of New York.

Justin Maxon is an award winning visual storyteller, arts educator, journalist and aspiring social practice artist who often examines social, political and environmental issues. His work takes an interdisciplinary approach that acknowledges the socio-historical context from which issues are born and incorporates multiple voices that texture stories. He seeks to understand how positionality plays out in his work as a storyteller. He is a second year student in PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA program. He has received numerous awards for his photography and video projects. He has given more than 50 lectures and has taught photography workshops in over 8 different countries across the world. He was a teaching artist in an US State Department- sponsored cultural exchange program between the United States and South Africa. He has worked on feature stories for publications such as TIME, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, Mother Jones, and NPR.

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.

SoFA Journal
c/o PSU Art & Social Practice
PO Box 751
Portland, OR 97207