The small, circular portrait features the face of a man in gold. Creases cut through his forehead, and patches of hair line his thick lips. Tendrils hang over the right side of his head — maybe they’re stylized dreadlocks, or perhaps pieces of cloth. The man doesn’t smile but seems lost in thought, gazing into the distance.
The man was named Gilbert Kelly. He was homeless but, in a way, had a home: one block of Clinton Hill, where he was a fixture for decades. Artist Anne Peabody spent years living nearby, and she bonded with Kelly over a love of music — he would bring her and her husband records. Then, last spring, a teenager shot Kelly to death for no discernible reason. Peabody made the portrait, a drawing on 14k gold leaf on glass inside a hand-turned wooden frame, after finding a snapshot of Kelly nailed to the tree where he died, intact nearly a year after the shooting. “It is a small memento of a friend,” she writes about the piece.
The portrait, “For Kelly” (2015), is currently on view at Hot Wood Arts Center as part of an exhibition of work by the residents of the inaugural Engaging Artists program. Produced by More Art, Engaging Artists was dreamt up by Jason Maas, an artist, educator, and the founder and director of the Artist Volunteer Center. Maas launched the center in the fall of 2013, on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, an event that had a profound effect on him. “What happened after Hurricane Sandy altered the course of my life and my artwork,” he told Hyperallergic. “Being [a volunteer] out in the field every day, meeting people, asking what they needed and pulling together teams to meet those needs was work I had never done before. I saw an opportunity to create an organization to act as a conduit to connect artists with the communities around them through direct action.”
Engaging Artists, now entering its second season, is a key feature of Maas’s fledgling center. The six-week program, which is free, enlists artists to volunteer at least four hours a week at partner organizations while also participating in weekly development workshops. Each season of Engaging Artists has a different theme; last year’s was homelessness, perhaps spurred by other art projects on the same topic that were happening then too. Fifteen applicants were chosen as residents, and in the summer of 2014 they volunteered with organizations including Sylvia’s Place, Common Ground, and the Bowery Mission. They attended weekly workshops with artists and nonprofit workers that “offered them an overview, a history, a context, and connections in the field of nonprofit advocacy, activism, curating, and art making about homelessness,” in Maas’s words (among the speakers were artist Andres Serrano and Martha Dorn, executive director of the Art Therapy Outreach Center). When the program ended, all the participants had a chance to apply for grants from More Art (two projects by a combined four artists won), and now their work is on view in the exhibition in a small gallery at Hot Wood.
“An important distinction that sometimes gets lost, often just by hearing the title of the organization, is that people think this is a social service endeavor, and people can have very guarded opinions of artists being asked to give yet more of their time and talent away for free,” explains Maas, who is equal parts genial and earnest. “As an artist, I completely understand this standpoint and want to underscore that the AV Center is an artist support service. It is a reaction to a commercial art world that values artist’s time so long as it helps their bottom line. Emerging artists, a vast and nearly invisible group of dedicated talent, persevere despite these conditions, and I seek to give them voice. The AV Center is founded on the principle that art is most powerful when inspired by or attempting to establish a dialogue around social justice issues.”
One of the strengths of the inaugural Engaging Artists exhibition is that it demonstrates the variety of ways in which artists can be inspired by those issues. For someone like Peabody, the connection is quite literal and explicit; others, like Flavia Berindoague, have found symbolism in materials — her two strong pieces make use of the stock blankets that institutions give out to homeless people. Some have left the link between the program and their work in the gallery open-ended, allowing the viewer to suss out connections — for example, Anna Adler’s stark drawing of red hands and lines; still others have embarked on the kinds of participatory projects one might expect from an artist residency about homelessness, including Julia Rooney’s moving recipe exchange with women at a shelter (accompanied in the gallery by original painted napkins).
It isn’t, in other words, all social practice, even though it is all socially conscious and engaged. The work on view (not in the gallery, actually, but just down the hall) that adheres most closely to traditional definitions of social practice art is Sue Jeong Ka’s “ID Shop,” an ongoing project in which the artist helps homeless people obtain IDNYC cards, which require proof of residency. While leading a workshop at Sylvia’s Place, “I talked to participants and the administrator and realized they [the shelter residents] didn’t have much experience with cultural programs because they cannot prove who they are,” Ka says. “If you want to apply for those type of programs, you have to prove who you are — you need an ID card and proof of residence. The homeless cannot do that.”
Ka began by allowing certain homeless individuals whom she trusted to apply for an IDNYC card using her address. She then moved to set up a system, the ID Shop, whereby she uses the addresses of vacant buildings for homeless people or enlists organizations like More Art to vouch for them. On view at Hot Wood are signed agreements between Ka and some of her participants, and between Ka and More Art. “It’s institutional critique,” she says, “to show the links between artist, institutions, and participants. It’s all about triangulation. There is no direct binding between institution and participants in the form of labor; however, on the card, there are only participants’ names and institutions’ addresses. There is no artist name on the card. I’m the liaison between two parties.”
Ka says one of the most valuable aspects of Engaging Artists was meeting “peers who are going to be my collaborators. Social practice is really about people. It’s great experience to expand my network, and it’s also about building a better community and understanding what kind of community I live in.”
“The experience, the interactions I had, the stories I heard, the words, thoughts, emotions exchanged, all filtered into my life and work, either directly or subconsciously,” says Anna Adler, another 2014 resident.
Adler’s words echo Maas’s, when asked why he thinks it’s important for artists, specifically, to volunteer. “The unique quality that makes an artist an artist is how their experiences become inspirations,” he answered. “When artists become artist volunteers, not only are they provided with opportunities to improve their lives and the lives of others, they are also given new inspirations for art making. This art making inspires others to think and act differently. Who better than artists to be offered such meaningful experiences?”
The inaugural Engaging Artists exhibition continues at Hot Wood Arts Center (481 Van Brunt Street, #9B, Red Hook, Brooklyn) through April 19. Applications for Engaging Artists 2015, whose theme is, loosely, immigration, are being accepted through April 19.