Enough Violence: The Power of Craft
Enough Violence: The Power of Craft
In our soon-to-be-released April/May issue, we focus on craft that seeks to make a difference in the world – artists, educators, curators, and others who are tackling social and political issues.
A shining example? The Society for Contemporary Craft’s “Enough Violence: Artists Speak Out.” For this exhibition, the SCC asked 14 contemporary artists to investigate not only the impact violence has on our lives, but also the role creative expression and hands-on work might have in restoration and healing.
SCC executive director Janet McCall answered our questions about the show, which closes its Pittsburgh run on March 22. Those in the area should take note of the free/public closing weekend events, listed at the end of this Q&A. (And stay tuned for April/May, when we'll have more coverage of this exciting show.)
Talk to us about the decision to stage an exhibition of this nature. What was compelling about the subject/opportunity?
As a craft organization focused on contemporary work, we regularly present art that reflects artists’ responses to contemporary life and we have a history of curating thematic group exhibitions on topics of current concern such as Homeland: Artists, Immigration, and Identity. However, when a former board member suggested the topic of violence for a show, we knew that it would be a difficult topic, one that might be disturbing for some visitors and would certainly challenge us artistically.
At the same time, it had potential for great positive impact. As an organization, we’d been increasingly looking for opportunities to engage more broadly in community building and to showcase the unique insights that artists bring to societal problems. It would also provide a chance for us to take a leadership role in convening critical conversations around a topic that most people don’t feel comfortable discussing.
I must say that the response has been incredible. In almost 20 years of working at SCC, I’ve never seen such a level of gratitude and appreciation expressed for an exhibition. We’ve made many new acquaintances in the city and discovered that people are really excited to partner with an arts organization, to share their skills, their knowledge, and their passion around this topic. We have made connections that I know will carry over to future opportunities and as a team we are inspired to consider future “big impact” topics. It’s been a whole new way of relating to our community.
How does the show relate to the work of the SCC overall?
This show has moved us toward more inclusivity in serving a broader audience that’s more reflective of our entire community, not just the usual art enthusiasts. ENOUGH Violence has attracted visitors who might never have come to our organization otherwise, such as a recent visit by a group of inner-city women in recovery from substance abuse. I don’t know whether these women had ever visited a contemporary art gallery before, but I can tell you from the minute they walked in the door, they got it. They immediately understood what this art was all about and were deeply engaged with it. After seeing the show, they posted their stories to share with other visitors and even sought out a staff member to offer their help for other visitors who might need support.
We’ve met people who are struggling every day. The stories we’ve heard, the courage in the face of terrible situations – both survivors as well as professionals who work in the trenches every day to combat violence — have inspired us and changed us in powerful ways as a staff. We’ve experienced a more sophisticated understanding of the potential for the work we do and learned that by digging deeper emotionally, we can have much greater impact.
There is an impressive amount of programming surrounding the show (from lectures to a dedicated online presence). Can you talk a little bit about making this show such an all-staff, cross-department effort?
We hired several new, young staff members this year and thought this show would be a terrific opportunity to open up program planning to them through a larger, cross-department group. Also, on a practical level, this was an ambitious seven-month-long program with many community partners and moving parts. We needed all hands on deck to make it happen. As a team, we brought many different perspectives, experiences, and values to this project. We met weekly to discuss, debate, brainstorm, and passionately advocate for our ideas about how best to engage with the community through the exhibition and related programs.
Initially there was some discomfort and differing, sometimes conflicting, opinions about how we should present this topic. For some, a more objective approach felt right, just putting the work out there to speak for itself. Others were concerned about providing opportunities for emotional expression and healing. Still others wanted to take on a larger social action role. We evolved over time to a place of consensus, and I think we all agree that greater collective wisdom came about as a result of working with a larger group. This is definitely an approach that we will use again.
What is special about craft, in particular, and materials-based or hands-on work when it comes to addressing these issues?
Much of materials-based work is very accessible, since it is made up of the stuff of our daily lives. Especially when found materials are used, their “past life” adds heightened symbolism through other associations, memories, and emotions they evoke. For example, with Boris Bally’s Menorah, the provenance of the street is literally embedded in the steel of the disabled guns used as his raw material. There is such a palpable sense of danger that emanates from this piece that many viewers circle around it warily but are unwilling to get within a few feet of it when they first enter the gallery.
With Beth Barron’s spectacular band-aid mandalas, the “memory of cloth” is a central compelling aspect of her work. By constructing entirely out of used band-aids, with each piece she evokes a poignant and emotional community made up of hundreds of individual stories of injury, loss, and healing. Even visitors who are put off by the idea that these are made with used band-aids respond to the super-charged emotion conveyed through the materiality of these works.
Neuroscientist Frank Wilson has written compellingly of the hand as a cognitive organ, and the critical link between the hand and the brain in learning. As makers, we realize that often times the hand knows what the brain does not yet know and can express things intuitively. Because nothing comes between the maker’s hands and the material, this direct tactile exploration is extremely powerful (as opposed to the use of a paintbrush or pencil that denies touch and creates an indirect experience). As fingers explore surfaces, textures, and properties, a series of associations are initiated, an opening of heart or mind that can lead to unexpected places.
With this show, visitors have needed to process what they were feeling or grapple with how to respond to what they had seen. Through the hands-on Talisman Project in our Drop In Studio, each visitor can create a symbolic talisman to take away with them. Visitors have told us that the show brought up unexpected, distant memories that required time to process again. Providing a quiet space and materials with which to respond and reflect offers a transition, a way of returning to the world with heightened perspective.
Julie K. Hanus is American Craft's senior editor. "Enough Violence" runs through March 22 at the Society for Contemporary Craft, with plans to tour nationally.
CLOSING WEEKEND EVENTS:
Join Contemporary Craft for a soul-stirring afternoon of music and performance as we bid farewell to ENOUGH Violence: Artists Speak Out. All closing weekend events are free and open to the public.
SATURDAY, MARCH 22, 2014
2 - 3 PM: Feel the beat and enjoy a sense of community in a peace drum circle led by ABAFASI. Bring your own percussion instrument or borrow one on-site.
3 - 4 PM: Students from Dreams of Hope – a regional lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and allied youth performing arts group – will perform.
2100 Smallman Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15222