CREATIVE EXPERIMENTS: What About Beauty?

Sponsored by the University of Minnesota Department of Art
and the Visual Arts Committee of the Minneapolis Union
1997

The Project
I was one of nine presenters for What About Beauty?, a year-long visiting artist/critic series hosted by the University of Minnesota. Public lectures and workshops were the catalyst for a conversation that extended beyond the boundaries of the University about relevant ideals of beauty in a Post Modern world. The series raised the subject of beauty in the context of core issues of our time:

beauty as environmental relatedness
beauty as community engagement
beauty as spiritual renewal
beauty as political and ethical responsibility
beauty as cultural construct

The other series speakers included:

Suzi Gablik
artist, teacher, author of Has Modernism Failed?, The Reenchantment of Art, and Conversations Before the End of Time

David Hickey
 critic, art historian, and author of The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty

Gita Kar
 folk artist and writer engaged in the study of impermanent folk art based on mythical Indian themes

Cay Lang
artist working on "Photographing God," a visual and verbal inquiry into the nature of the divine

Robert Lawlor
independent researcher and author of Sacred Geometry, its Philosophy and Practice and Voices of the Day—An Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime

Kosen Ohtsubo
Honorable Master Teacher of Ikebana, the ancient art of flower arranging, at the Rysei-ha School and author of Plant and Man

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith
 painter and printmaker, member of the Flathead Nation

John Scott
 sculptor who describes his work as an African-American vocabulary that combines African mythology and Western technology

Bill Witherspoon
an "earth works" artist engaged in painting, sculpture, land art and environmental events

When the invitation came for me to participate in What About Beauty?, I did not understand that the series organizers essentially were asking me to give a lecture. I was perplexed because I consider myself a performer, not a speaker, and also because most of the other speakers were coming from as far as Japan and New Zealand, and I live just a mile downstream from the University campus, on the Mississippi River. Because the University campus is virtually on the edge of my neighborhood I knew I would feel like a hypocrite giving a talk about community-engaged art without having a stronger connection with the University as a community. I proposed doing an extended residency at the University, and the organizers graciously arranged for me to be there for eight months ahead of my presentation. Several individuals I worked with during those months participated in a collective presentation for the What About Beauty? speaker series.

About My Residency
To design my residency, I put together a randomly generated Design Team made up of staff, faculty and students from diverse sectors of the University.

Finding the Design Team was like a human treasure hunt. Students, faculty and I filled two bags with slips of paper; bag #1 contained University roles and bag #2 contained University departments. We pulled slips of paper from each bag, i.e., a graduate student (bag#1) from African-American Studies (bag #2), a staff member (bag #1) from Architecture (bag #2), an adjunct faculty (bag #1) from the Arboretum (bag #2). My task was to find individuals who fit each description and were willing to participate.

Members of the Design Team agreed in advance to attend three design sessions:

Meeting #1: What would the residency be about?
Meeting #2: What would I actually DO?
Meeting #3: How would I evaluate the residency?

Inquiries
The Design Team was curious about what people make, why they make what they do, and what people love to do.

I was curious about the creative rub between 1) the collective input of a randomly generated group of people (the Design Team comprised of University of Minnesota staff, faculty, students and administrators), and 2) the creative activities that satisfy me aesthetically as an individual artist.

Challenges
This project was full of challenges, in the most delightful sense. The three primary challenges were the design process, implementing the residency, and synthesizing what took place into a coherent final presentation.

1) The Design Process
In the first meeting several people declared emphatically that it was impossible for them to design a residency for me sponsored by the Art Department: the Design Team members did not know one another, they did not know me, they had nothing in common, and they had no investment in my residency. Many of them said they knew nothing about the Art Department; that it was aloof and literally detached in a far off corner of the campus. In the spirit of curiosity, I followed the trail of their frustrations and discovered a treasure trove of questions: What goes on in the Art Department? Was making something at the Art Department any different from what people make in other parts of the University? What makes art so special? Doesn’t everybody make something? Do people in the Art Department make things for the same reasons as other people at the University? Why DO people make things, anyway? Is it because they love the act of making things? What DO people love to do?

A turning point occurred when 91-year old Lib Lawrence talked about her travels around the world. She said that in some parts of the world, when people need a spoon they carve one, but when we need a spoon we drive to the nearest Target store and buy one.

This led to a collective decision to focus my residency around the question, "What do people make and why?" A wooden spoon became a symbol for the project.

Some Design Team members were so amazed they had completed their first task together that they showed up for the second session just to see if they could do it again.

Their second assignment was to choose forms for my residency. The Design Team decided that they wanted to have people interviewed on and off campus about what they make and why they make what they do. They wanted me to collect hundreds of stories from people of different ages. They wanted to know what people love to do. And they wanted evidence of creative activities to randomly appear all over campus.

The final Design Team meeting was to determine an evaluation process. We decided to host a picnic at the end of the project to gather participants together to reflect on what we had done.

2) Implementing the Residency
How was I going to make these activities happen so that the process and the results were aesthetically pleasing for me?

Project Activities
As a guest presenter in University classes taught by colleagues in Art History, dance composition and writing composition, I generated assignments for students based on the suggestions of the Design Team.

Over 100 writers, dancers, and art history students conducted over 600 intergenerational interviews about what people make and why they make what they do. They brought back traces of the interviews in the forms of drawings, photographs, writings and/or movement gestures.

Through a town meeting process, we distilled the interviews down to the fifteen most commonly heard themes. These themes are listed here in the order of frequency they were mentioned during the interviews.

Fifteen Reasons People Make Things

  • Personal identity
  • Fun
  • Gifting
  • Function (creating something
    that is useful)
  • Legacy (passing down heritage, family history, ideas…)
  • Emotional expression
  • Connecting to nature
  • Spirituality and/or religion
  • Achieving a goal
  • Connecting to childhood
  • Spontaneous inspiration
  • Healing
  • Relaxation
  • Preserving memories
  • Boredom

    The captions under the photos are adapted from conversations between the makers and the interviewers.

    Other interesting discoveries came out of the interviews, as well. For example, people who were interviewed referred to what they made as "art" if they felt proud of it. They frequently did not consider what they made as "art" if they were paid to do it.
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Because the Design Team also wanted unannounced creative actions to happen around campus, in the winter months I showed up with spray bottles of colored water, and invited students to paint the snow. Students and I filled display cases in the student union with things people make. By combining sculptures with quilts and gum wrapper chains, we intentionally poked at the distinction between "high art" and "craft."

3) The Final Presentation
How to coalesce all that had taken place into a coherent presentation format that would reflect the vitality of the project?

All the activities became the raw material for an interactive presentation that was billed as my "lecture". I structured the evening as a series of prepared questions and answers. To add an element of chance to the content and sequence of the presentation, the audience pulled the questions out of two bowls: one filled with questions about the University residency activities; the other with questions about my previous projects—questions like, "What About Money?" (for my response, click on Creative Economy) or "What About Intuition?" (for my response, click on The Intuition Project).

These phrases are a few of the hundreds of phrases "donated" to this project by students from Webster Elementary school (courtesy of Linda Shapiro), writing groups in a senior center (courtesy of Margot Galt), a creativity retreat for women in midlife, as well as undergraduate and graduate students in English composition and poetry at the University (courtesy of Jim Moore).

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An example of a question from the University residency bowl was, "What do people love to do?" When an audience member pulled that question, I suggested the audience look under their chairs, where they found slips of paper with phrases of language written on them. I explained that these phrases came from stories about "what I love to do," written by elementary school students, graduate students in poetry, women on a midlife creativity retreat, and senior citizens in a writing group. I invited the audience to stand up and read the phrases from under their chairs. Mindy Zerem and Adrian English (two University dancers) and I improvised movement to this spontaneous choral poem. In a transcription of this presentation (published a few months later in the Minnesota Dance Alliance newsletter), the editor, Nancy Mason Hauser, included a comment about the choral poem, "…it so clearly exemplified how Wendy includes a community to become active participants in the creative process. Individual audience members provided a moving chorus, rising unexpectedly throughout the auditorium…people who were not performers by profession but were sensitive to the timing, expression and delivery of their contributions."

In response to other questions from the University residency bowl:

Members of the Design Team stood at their auditorium seats and talked about the project from their unique perspectives.

I spoke about the 600 interviews and the fifteen reasons why people make things while showing slides of things interviewees had made and talked about in their interviews.

University dance students showed videos and short compositional studies based on the unconscious gestures they observed while interviewing people about what they make.

Towards the end of the presentation, with my two bowls still filled with unaddressed prepared questions, we shifted to questions generated by the audience. In response to the audience question, "What About Beauty?" I asked the audience to call out words they associate with the word beauty. They shouted out words like, color, strength, wild, focused, pain, pleasure, ugly, rhythm, harmony and soul. Other dancers in the audience joined me and the University dancers on-stage where we improvised on the words the audience called out. I explained that this free-association word and movement play was how I had prepared to begin this project. Nine months earlier I had been with some colleagues in a studio and I asked them to free-associate on the word beauty. During that studio session I learned that, for me, beauty is the by-product of an unselfconscious relationship; and that to address beauty directly tended towards artifice. I needed to find someway to get in the back door of the subject. The Design Team provided that back door

What I Learned

  • The random selection of a Design Team was a vehicle to push myself into the territory of artmaking as community service. I discovered the joy of handing myself over to the collective wisdom of a randomly selected batch of humans.

  • The final presentation flowed out of the words, gestures, stories and images that many people expressed over many months. I discovered how easily I can make things happen out of the raw material of human engagement that are aesthetically satisfying to me. The presentation itself was fulfilling to me because it incorporated many of my aesthetic inclinations:
    1. Complex layering of imagery and ideas;
    2. Points of entry for voluntary active audience engagement;
    3. Carefully-constructed forms that support spontaneous interaction;
    4. Multiple modes of experience (visual, auditory, kinesthetic stimuli); and
    5. A vaudevillian sensibility and attention to time, humor, and accessibility which is more often associated with popular entertainment than with contemporary art.

  • A year following What About Beauty?, the Art Department published and distributed a catalog summary of the series written by a philosopher/aesthetician at the University of Minnesota. In the catalog’s introduction and conclusion, I thought the writer eloquently discerned threads of commonality between the speakers. She described the speakers as sharing an anti-formalist perspective that art (and beauty) are embedded in personal values, ethics, communal life, and cultural relatedness; and that the 20th century formalist views which dissociate art (and beauty) from social, environmental or political context have been a harmful influence on our world.

    Yet, when I read the catalog description of my presentation I was distressed and humbled. I had thought the presentation clearly demonstrated my response to the question, "What About Beauty?" – that, for me, beauty is inherent in relationships to one another and the act of making. Judging by the catalog description, the presentation was not as transparent as I intended.

    The catalog writer left out the aspects of the project I find most significant: the human interactions. For example, she wrote, "Morris showed slides…She discovered a common theme in collecting images of what people make…" Through the lens of the writer, the interpersonal exchanges were invisible; only The Artist (me) and the images of the objects made it onto the printed page of the catalog. Through my lens, I did not collect anything: over 100 people talked to over 600 other people. The slide images (along with the gestures, stories, videos, and phrases of language) were merely traces of conversations; a residue of the human connections that I find so beautiful.

    I have a great deal of respect for the catalog writer as an astute and perceptive viewer. If someone as sympathetic as the writer misinterpreted my work so deeply, then perhaps the gap between how I intended the work to be seen and how the work may have been perceived (especially in reference to the art world) was even larger than I thought. I was humbled to realize how much I have yet to learn about clearly articulating the values and intention behind my work.

  • Although at the first Design Team meeting, several people voiced their disbelief that they could complete the tasks at hand, in the end they seemed very pleased with the results and with themselves. In the year following the project, two Design Team members independently asked me to write letters of recommendation for them because they thought I had witnessed them at their creative best. Sometimes we are capable of more than we believe.

  • The picnic/evaluation gathering never took place. It was scheduled for the end of the semester during exams so I decided not to push to make it happen. No one objected.

    The picnic was unnecessary because the final presentation itself was an evaluation. The presentation served as a creative report back to the community about what had taken place. By coincidence, the presentation met the primary criteria for qualitative evaluation:

  • We had answerable questions.
    We involved multiple sources of information.
    We employed multiple methods for gathering information.
    We consolidated the information into a conclusive form.

I sometimes question why I bother to present finished art products to the public (performances, videotapes, books…) if I believe the real power of community-engaged art is the process of interaction. Why not just lead workshops? This project gave me another reason for presenting finished pieces of art as part of my community work: to create a forum for public accountability in community art. What About Beauty? is an example of how a performance can serve as an innovative approach to evaluation.

Resolution
I resolved to take more responsibility for speaking and writing clearly about my work so that the work will be better understood and harder to misinterpret.

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