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Make Your Mark: KC's Picnic Project

Picnic blanket tiles created at a Washington Square Park workshop earlier this year. Alison Heryer held many such events, inviting people to decorate the individual squares that will be used to create the "Big Blanket" at the Nelson-Atkins this Sunday.
Detail of the tiles created at Washington Square Park.
Younger workshop participants generally didn't hesitate to grab a paint brush, Heryer observed, while adults were more drawn to using found objects as mark-making tools.
Picnic blanket tiles created at a Washington Square Park workshop earlier this year. Alison Heryer held many such events, inviting people to decorate the individual squares that will be used to create the "Big Blanket" at the Nelson-Atkins this Sunday.
Photo gallery (4 images)

Will you be in Kansas City this Sunday? Head over to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art for a public picnic – on a 10,000-square-foot blanket that the city’s residents helped create. A community-driven interactive installation, “The Picnic Project” is the brainchild of Alison Heryer, who teaches in the fiber program at the Kansas City Art Institute. Read on for her thoughts on the project, her experiences at public workshops earlier this year, and her hopes for Sunday – and beyond.

Tell us a little bit about the genesis of the project. Where did the idea come from? What were your original goals?

I’m always interested in creating art and performance experience that facilitates new connections between different communities. For the past year, I’ve been interested thematically in exploring different incarnations of the American meal.

Picnics have long been opportunities for friends and family to share good food and good company in the outdoors. With this project, I was hoping to expand the scope of the picnic experience to include the entire city. The idea of creating a large picnic blanket initially served as way of locating this experience – it provided a designated space where people from all over the city could come together and share a meal. When I began thinking of ways to replicate the quintessential red and white gingham pattern, I saw the opportunity for dividing the blanket into individual red and white tiles that I could create with the public.

You did that through holding public workshops, inviting people to paint, stamp, and stencil fabric tiles. How did people respond? Did anything surprise you about the process?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive.  People have really enjoyed the opportunity to create something with their friends and family.  There was an excitement that their individual contribution would become part of something huge – particularly something that would be displayed on the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins [Museum of Art]. Many people, particularly adults, loved using the found objects as implements. There were a number of people who classified themselves as “uncreative” and were initially intimidated by painting something, but were able to create beautiful patterns and motifs using the objects.  

All of the workshops were either held at city parks or farmers’ markets in Kansas City, Missouri. I chose the workshop locations because of their relationships to food and public space, largely expecting to only draw participants from the immediate area. An unexpected turn was that the workshops became destinations, facilitating new discoveries among participants from different parts of the city. There were so many instances where we heard remarks like:  “I never knew Waldo [a South KC neighborhood] had a farmer’s market!” Or: “I hadn’t been to Swope Park in years – I’d forgotten how pretty it is!”  Or: “I drive by every day and never noticed this park until today – we saw you guys making the blanket.” The workshops called attention to these places in new and unexpected ways and changed people’s perceptions of what they had to offer.

Tell us more about “mark-making as a form of individual expression.”

The printed blankets reflect the unique personalities and sentiments of the individuals who created them. We offered up found objects as an initial prompt, however we gave very little direction when it came to how people should go about printing the blankets. I think in many ways the chance to use objects as printing implements allowed anyone, regardless of artistic ability, to express an idea on canvas. This was particularly true for adults. While the kids who participated were fearless when it came to paint on canvas and usually insisted on using a brush, the adults were largely drawn to using the objects – choosing items they had a personal connection with or were drawn to aesthetically.

We had a number of people print blankets using objects that reminded them of a particular person, place, or time in their life.  We’ve had new parents create blankets with their babies, commemorating their tiny footprints. One participant described her canvas as a “personal flag” – she used items that represented her personality and interests. We also had people use the objects to create representational still lifes, landscapes, and narratives. The approaches really ran the gamut. That was part of the idea behind running a “Blanket of the Day” on our Facebook page, to highlight all of the different ways people approached their individual square.

So did you provide most of the found objects? Or did people bring their own? There was such a variety: potato masher, remote control, bubble blower, toy guitar. Tell us about a few favorite objects – or most creative uses.

We did invite people to bring their own objects, but the majority objects used were provided by the project. I think there was some hesitancy to cover sentimental things in paint, and, largely, people seemed to be pretty satisfied with the items we had to offer. Each week, my interns and I would go to garage sales and second hand stores looking for everyday implements that were under $2 and that we thought would create an effective imprint. So we were always adding new items and we did take requests – the $4 toy guitar was an item we splurged on because we had gotten a request for musical items. In general, we tried to choose recognizable items that had the potential for multiple meanings and associations.

My personal favorites are the iron, the rooster, and the spatula because they remind me of my family. The guitar has certainly been popular since we got it. Other fan favorites have been the pool triangle, drain cover, and the planter base – not necessarily because of what they are but the imprint they make. There have been so many amazing uses of things that I couldn’t possibly pick a “most creative.”

How does The Picnic Project relate to your own practice?

The Picnic Project is part of my ongoing interest, which I mentioned earlier, in creating work that connects people to each other and their environments. Up to this point, the majority of my work has been designing scenery and costumes for performance. This is my first major endeavor that hasn’t had some kind of performative aspect, however surface design and community engagement have always played a huge role in my practice. This past year, I began teaching in the fiber program at the Kansas City Art Institute so my focus has shifted a bit from scenography to installation. The Picnic Project is a good reflection of my artistic interests and I look forward to doing more projects like it in the future.

On Sunday, July 15, it all comes together. Hundreds of individually decorated fabric tiles. One giant blanket. What do you hope people take away from the day?

It’s my hope that July 15th is not a finale but the beginning of a Kansas City tradition that will continue in some form for years to come. This project is really about the process rather than the product. It could be easy to view this project as pure spectacle – a big picnic blanket just for the sake of making something big. But it’s really about how the parts come together to create something big ­– how by working together we can create something greater than what any one of us could do on our own. When you listen to the news these days, you tend to only hear about the things that seek to divide us. The Picnic Project is about celebrating common ground.

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