The Pioneer Square neighborhood brings me joy and sadness. Joy because I am drawn to its galleries and murals, public sculpture and commemorative works, its visible history; sadness because of the homeless community I see there as well, so many people in visible need. I don’t fault anyone for being there; I don’t have the right to fault someone for simply existing in a place. The trouble is that I am not sure how to engage. I don’t want to avert my eyes. I try to speak when I am spoken to. The men outside the Union Gospel Mission always say: “Hello, young lady.” I wish them a good evening and mention the weather if it’s nice. I ask directions sometimes. I am usually lost on my way to a gallery.
On the evening of January 7th I wandered this neighborhood in search of Gallery 4Culture. It was the opening night of Michelle de la Vega’s exhibit SUCCESSION: The Exchange Project (January 7th - 28th). Social engagement artist Michelle de la Vega (2015 Artist Trust Fellowship recipient) saw the contrasting nature of Pioneer Square as well. She seeks engagement in her art. She seeks to learn, to teach, to grow, and to produce work from her exchanges. For this project she invited members of the homeless community into the gallery as participants, a space she said they don’t usually enter. Could this exhibit give me a new perspective?
She guided her participants through a multi-step process, first asking them what gives them a sense of place. “It’s kind of an intense question to ask a homeless person, but it is a question for us all,” de la Vega said. After asking them the question, she had them write or speak about it. Then there was brainstorming about visual imagery that could come forth from the writing, and visual patterns that could come forth from the imagery.
Some of what gave the Union Gospel Mission guests and Recovery Café members a sense of place were:
• To come in from outside of family, community, companionship, the usual processes of life
• Cooking and sobriety, to stay in the world for a life, for peace
• A job at Jimmy Johns
• Lunch with a sister
• Childhood French fries with a father, stories from his life, eating fries now and remembering
• Knowing that you have a right to be, to exist in a place
• To be there for their child, to grab a bowl when they’re sick, a towel for their head
One participant whose sense of place came from cooking for their family was further asked to draw what he liked to cook (bagels), and then to create a pattern (bagels all over the page). Another participant drew a pattern of wedding rings. This approach constitutes a “conceptual, nonlinear framework for participants to access their own lives,” said de la Vega. The resulting work became material for the exhibit, tying several of these pieces together. In Place Bowels (2015, Paper Collage) copies were made, then participants stenciled out repeating shapes from them, and cut and pasted them to bowls- like feathers and scales overlapping and forming new vessels.
Recorded readings became part of the soundtrack to Us Them We (2015, Single Channel Video), a piece that depicted thirty-three paired exchanges between homeless community and arts community members. With intimate choreographed gestures, touch, and plenty of eye contact- this piece was an exercise in seeing and engaging.
The participants did not avert their eyes. They did not pass each other by, or comment on the weather. They stayed together, gazing face to face. It was an expression of art progressing from social commentary to direct experience. “Experience is the thing that breaks us, it’s the thing that heals us, and it’s the thing that transforms us.” de la Vega said. She also said that risk was involved, and that this is a good thing. She mentioned that there was joy, and crying.
In Small Ground, (2015, Mixed Media) writings were hand copied to a tarp and stretched over the welded frame of a tent. The tent was filled with items all in red, a color of life, blood, and vitality- and a design choice to go with another piece (Succession, 2015, Red Electrical Tape- a floor to ceiling pattern of blank family trees). The tent was filled with items of comfort and camping, dishes, blankets, a cooler, a lantern, children’s toys…
Tents can be seen across Seattle, places where individuals (as well as families with children) attempt to dwell. Families with children are a growing population among the homeless, de la Vega said. Has my perspective on the Pioneer Square neighborhood changed by experiencing this exhibit: by speaking to this artist, by reading and seeing and hearing these stories? I am left more aware that everyone has their own story. I am left more aware of how similar and yet unique the things that provide us with a sense of place are.
I am left more aware of just what I look away from when I avert my eyes.