Sheboygan, Wisconsin — Today marks the second week of my residency here in Sheboygan, a place which remains elusive to me. I have become familiar with the stretches of road between my cabin, the Arts Center and the Piggly Wiggly Supermarket on a highway named Business 28. I like going to the “Pig,” as the locals call it, to buy coffee and admire the vast selection of frozen pizzas they sell. The freezers filled with pizzas alone would choke a bodega. I admit, I bought one and ate it while watching the Matrix on the small TV/VCR combo here.
It’s been an isolating week. I drank too much Scotch Sunday night on the eve of my second “day off’ and spent most of Monday reading A Storm of Swords. A twitter conversation with @starsmodern and @bhoggard made me long for a good sci-fi novel about dystopian futures, not dystopian pasts. The most interaction outside of my role as “resident” was during the Midsummer Festival of the Arts last weekend.
During my outing, I spoke with a jeweler from Milwaukee and bought a small necklace that looks like a tiny Anish Kapoor dish. I hope he doesn’t sue her for a copyright violation, that is if you can copyright concave shapes. The fair brought over a hundred artists and craftspeople to the arts center selling paintings, ceramics, needle work, cat figurines, figures made of spark plugs (a midwestern Tom Otterness) and much more. There was a lot of glass and leather. One booth featured interactive paintings with a sign that happily announced that “They rotate!”
Walking through the earnest displays, I accepted that most of the “fine art” would hold its own in the alabaster booths of the art fair circuit. I also realized, I was just walking through a fair circuit of a different sort.
This morning, I explained my residency project to a group of 4 – 6 year olds at the arts center summer art day camp. The bright-eyed children understood it immediately and set about drawing Laura Ingles, Sponge Bob, Gene Kelly (a little girl had just seen Singing in the Rain the night before), iCarly and other characters the children knew but had never met. The kids shared their mediated memories on paper, which the staff and I helped them spell, write or transcribe in a way that some of the adults who’ve participated have not. The kids’ unselfconscious participation was a nice contrast to the “Oh, I can’t” smile and shake of the head that adults sometimes give as they inspect the project. I see their wariness and wonder to myself, “Is art that scary?”
Yesterday, the connecting communities coordinator, Yvonne, and I surveyed the hundreds of drawings that people have contributed so far, and had a long discussion about how to start integrating the isolated memories but also how to confront the lack of personal sharing. The number of drawings without some personal recollection has become obvious keeping the project on a surface level. I am interested in how shared memory overlaps with the personal, and how these people — celebrities, icons, historical figures and fictional characters — overlap with unmediated experiences. The problem is the project hasn’t reached that level yet.
This is part where the warm fuzzy feeling of being invited to participate in a residency working with the elderly, children and the arts center community got real, the MTV Real World moment had arrived. The questions and instructions that I’ve offered participants have not been enough to elicit deeper more meaningful written responses. The drawings themselves are beautiful in their own way, but drawing is not a widely taught or utilized skill set these days. The drawings in my own contribution to the main exhibition are often barely more than sketches. It is the language that flows around them that illuminates the anonymous individuals from my past to others. “Should we be reading this?” has been a refrain echoed around the drawing. Its been said that good art risks embarrassment, and that’s not an easy thing to in the confines of a studio, less so in public.
To that end, I decided that we should do a couple of things to change the tone and expectations for the project. First, we relocated my working space from the more kid-friendly Artery out into the main atrium of the arts center. While it was interesting working on a drawing project in a space painted with blue walls that remind me of the Great Lake nearby, the context also infantilized the project with many of the contributors being children brought by their parents.
“Oh we know Harry Potter, but we don’t do that anymore. It’s all about witchcraft,” one mother quietly explained more to her children than me. The comment, among others, reminded me constantly of where I am. It’s been a challenge to engage people and push them out of their comfort zone surrounded by imaginary houses made of cardboard and buttons. Culturally and politically, as an outsider here, I have also found it difficult to prod people to explain why they chose to draw a particular person or what is important about the person to them, to their lives. I suspect the failure is largely mine. I think adults can handle a friendly challenge. It’s not like I looked up and said, “What’s wrong with witchcraft lady?!”
After we relocated, I placed completed individual drawings on larger paper and invited visitors to the art center to share their memories, to add to and begin a dialog. On a drawing of Mark David Chapman, someone added a caption, “You wouldn’t be crying if you’re own father had been shot when you were five.” A woman stopped today and looked at a drawing I had done of Rod Sterling. “Oh no, it’s Serling,” she corrected me. “He’s a fascinating figure. He was influenced by his experience in World War II. He talked about how an air drop landed on a man standing next to him. It made him write about twists of fate in this stories.”
When I asked her if she wanted share that memory in writing she politely refused. “I like to admire the work of others.” I added it to my drawing of Rod Serling anyway, a man I think used to smoke on television during his vaguely threatening introductions to The Twilight Zone. Moving out of the artery helped somewhat, as more people paused and reflected, which no one did back in the Artery where we set up similar reflection stations.
In another effort to broaden the project and to make the ideas of “Everyone” mean more than Sheboygan and vacationers from Chicago in a way that I can still incorporate over the next two weeks, I am going to introduce it to Twitter and use this social media platform to ask people to share their memories through the drawings of others. I’ve created a twitter account called @ProjectEvery1 where I will post drawings that will be a springboard for people to share their memories. I’ll be posting the basic instructions on the feed, “reply to and identify the subject of your tweet etc.” These will be transcribed around the original drawing in the final work to be completed over the span of 4 or 5 days in August. This in and of itself is not a Twitter or social media art project, but I’d like to make use of the tools to help create a first iteration of “Everyone We’ve Never Met (from memory and imagination).” Still, the idea that this project could continue in perpetuity across platforms and in person is intriguing. I don’t think this project is over when the residency ends, it’s something that can continue to grow and change over time like a shoal.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.