socially engaged art

Dyin’ by tha Gun! by Marlos E’van Hosts Closing Reception Friday

Marlos E’van’s “Dyin by the Gun!” received such a warm reception that the artist has arranged for a closing reception this Friday, June 24 at 1808 Buchanan Street from 4 p.m. – 6 p.m.

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Photo by Courtney Adair Johnson. 

I interviewed E’van a year ago for NYCnash, and this current work is a full evolution of sketches he showed me last June. “Dyin’ by tha Gun!” includes dozens of large scale paintings and sculptures that reflect our society in the wake of the police killings of Black children, men, and women. He comments on issues within Black communities, the militarization of police, and the epidemic of gun violence in America. Many of the works portray black men as monstrous beings, as savages with cartoonishly enlarged facial features meant to invoke fear.

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“Black Myth#2/wanted” by Marlos E’van

It reminded me immediately of the way Darren Wilson described Michael Brown: as a demon, a Hulk Hogan, who “made like a grunting, like aggravated sound.” In a pair of particularly evocatively paintings, a white cop squares his shoulders, his hands on his gun like a cowboy at a shootout. Just feet away on the floor sits a twisted canvas showing a brown monster-like figure with a broad, vacant smile, moving alongside a camp fire. The “noble savage” beside the defensive cop makes for a juxtaposition difficult to ignore. DSC04666

While I usually argue for subtlety of message, E’van’s work is anything but. And I love it for exactly that reason. His big bold paintings hang from vices strung to pipes that are mounted on the walls. The space is in total disrepair. Open electrical sockets and wiring erupt from the dingy, gray walls. The tile floor shows footprints in dust. I think it speaks to the climate of our art scene that a show willing to take on social issues of immediate poignancy be held in a previously-shuttered industrial space. In many, the canvases are not stretched, but hang against the walls with frayed edges and misshapen angles, as if they can’t be contained.

For white people like myself, it may not feel like a joyride, and if you’re looking for an uplifting message, you won’t find it here. Instead, you’ll find a call to personal responsibility. E’van’s work conveys the immediacy of the racism epidemic that has only grown more volatile over time. He insists that we confront our role in racial injustice and police violence. How are we complicit? How are we affected? How are protected by our privilege?

Outlaw’s MeetUp Makes Players Consider What Moves Us

“It’s behind the tree!” the the boy yelled. “It’s right there!” He and his brother were in jail again, and their mom was busy guarding their flag on the other side. But they wouldn’t be there for long. A woman sprinted across enemy lines, tagging them free, and the trio jogged back to their territory, their arms stretched high in triumph.

FLEX-AO-JuneOn a Sunday in October, artist Adrienne Outlaw organized a game of Capture the Flag that allowed children to be models of wellness. Capture the Flag requires team members to communicate and strategize and rewards different levels of athleticism and skill. Players found themselves conversing more with the people they didn’t know than those they did, and adults relied on the speed and gall of children to race to the opponent’s side and capture the flag, their pursuit of fun guiding them every step of the way. The game quickly became an exercise in community bonding as much as physical resilience, and players enjoyed an emotional and spiritual workout to boot.

The game was the latest in Outlaw’s social practice work MeetUp, which invites us to consider the ways we exercise health and harmony with each other. At the core of the piece is the concept that individual responsibility can cause a sea change. A subtle shift in our lifestyle choices–honoring ourselves and bodies, valuing the food that we eat, and celebrating movement–can effect change around us, rippling out to transform our society at large.

MeetUp events have participants considering what we hunger for and why we move. We eat for sustenance and to commune with those we love. Sometimes, we eat to feed something that food alone will not satisfy. We engage in fitness practices to live longer, to look better, to socialize. We exercise to feel good, to beat back stress and keep emotional exhaustion at bay. Sometimes, we exercise to gain entry into an exclusive club of fit people. The deluge of media attention on fitness and the emotional gymnastics of well being are enough to cloud our intentions. By getting out of the gym and onto the field, MeetUp players became willing participants in a workout that left them sore but emotionally nourished.

Like all of Outlaw’s MeetUp events, Capture the Flag has an aesthetic component. The game itself was captured by photo and video and will be displayed as part of Outlaw’s video installation project, on view in the Parthenon through January. MeetUp acts as the capstone of FLEX IT! My Body My Temple, an evolving exhibition in the Parthenon Museum and on Centennial Park grounds that engages multiple artists with Nashvillians and addresses health, harmony, and wellness on a community level.

True to her oeuvre, Outlaw’s MeetUp underlines what really feeds us–communion with each other, the unity of purposeful action, and the benefits of being present for what moves us.

Art in the Park: Your Workout Just Got Better

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A park visitor captures coins using Bryan Leister and Becky Heavner’s app-based fitness game at FLEX IT! in Centennial Park.

Exercise just got easier thanks to artists Bryan Leister and Becky Heavner, whose interactive, app-based game Pygmalion’s Challenge has Centennial Park visitors pointing their smart phones at batches of flowers and racing up the the Parthenon steps. As part of FLEX IT! My Body My Temple, new media artist Leister and landscape architect Heavner joined forces to riff on the theme of obesity prevention, healthy living, and community. The results couldn’t be more fun and require only a smart phone to get started.

Visitors must download the free app for iPhone or Android. The goal of the game is to collect coins that allow you to unlock sculptures and watch them come to life. The artists have set sculptural markers on the Parthenon law that are now lush with flowers. Pointing a smartphone at a marker causes several gold coins to pop up on the screen. Then comes the exercise: contestants can race to the “Treasury” behind the Parthenon to cash in coins for keys. They then race back to the markers to unlock colorful, animated characters from the sculptures. The app includes an option to take a picture with the dancing sculptures and post it to social media, which the artists hope will encourage participation from kids and adults. Gold coins are apparently heavy though, so they’ll have to make several trips to unlock all of the treats.

Leister’s interactive artwork is a perfect match with Heavner’s landscape architecture. Both disciplines require an audience. “It all revolves around anticipating what people want and providing them with that experience,” Leister says. “With landscape architecture and interactive design, there is no photo opp. It’s more about the experience of people walking through the space and thinking, ‘How can I make people happy and enjoy themselves more?’”

Leister’s interactive gaming and design work includes the creation of 2000 messages to survivors of the Mayan apocalypse, an app-based mood analyticator, and videos that track viewers’ motion. He will return to Nashville on September 19-21, where he and Heavner will present a talk on their design process for Pygmalion’s Challenge (Saturday 10 a.m., location TBD). At Watkins College of Art and Design, he will facilitate two workshops: Creating 2D and 3D Content for Video Games (Thursday and Friday, 1-5 p.m., room #403) and Augmented Reality (Saturday and Sunday 1-5 p.m., room #403).

FLEX IT! My Body My Temple is a set of evolving, socially engaged art exhibits in the Parthenon Museum and on Centennial Park grounds. Curated by Adrienne Outlaw of Seed Space, FLEX IT! invites participation and reflection on personal health and fitness, while building community.

Baking Bread at the Parthenon

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Demeter’s Torch. Moira Williams and visitors of Centennial Park created this working, adobe oven. It is on wheels and can be used by visitors to bake bread on the Parthenon lawn during FLEX IT! My Body My Temple.

If you happened to be at Centennial Park during the first week of September, you may have seen artist Moira Williams walking along the loop with a wagon in tow or operating an adobe oven on the Parthenon lawn. As part of Adrienne Outlaw’s FLEX IT! My Body My Temple, the Brooklyn-based artist created an ongoing, participatory art event that invites visitors to consider what feeds us.

“When I do socially engaged work,” says Williams, “it’s always about the community and supporting the community.” The physical structure of Socrates’ Wagon Sings with Demeter’s Torch was in fact community-made. Williams worked with park visitors to construct an oven and the mini-Parthenon shaped adobe structure surrounding it. She set up a table on the Parthenon lawn and park visitors helped sketch out their ideas for the shape, the designs on the pediments, and the individual metopes. Together, they configured it to be about Athena, exercise, and eating healthy– topics that arose naturally in the course of conversation. Working with clay, they built a miniature version of Greece’s (and Nashville’s) doric masterpiece.

With the oven complete, Williams walked the mile loop with Socrates’ Wagon, collecting wild yeast and conversing with park visitors in a kind of Socratic Dialogue. “My work is always about starting a dialogue — talking and listening to people,” she said. After she harvested the yeast, she returned to the lawn and the oven and baked bread, pizza, yams, garlic, apple crumble, and dosas with park visitors. Together, they cut ties with the commercial food chain and ate food harvested from the park itself.  “When we eat together, we slow down, we think about things,” Williams says. She hopes that the experience will show participants how easy it is to step away from commercial foods.

Socrates’ Wagon Sings with Demeter’s Torch is now on display in the Parthenon Museum, and visitors can contact the artist for permission to use the oven on park grounds. She is drying Centennial Park yeast to send to FLEX IT!, and it will be available with sourdough starters for Parthenon Museum visitors. In November, she’ll return to Nashville and walk 70 miles south to The Farm, which has a legacy of teaching about community health.

Williams has made walking part of her artistic practice for many years. A founding member of The Walk Exchange, she also enjoys night walks through New York wearing various safety suits, walks pigeons over the Brooklyn Bridge, and makes trips to the post office to mail letters to the Milky Way Galaxy. When she’s not walking, she’s engaged in other participatory works, like commissioning teens to paint graffiti murals in Brooklyn, producing handmade paper from trash on the streets of Haiti, and distributing tomato seeds from 19th century Italy to community gardeners. Her work is all about reciprocity and is shared with Nashville in the spirit of relatedness.

FLEX IT! My Body My Temple is a set of evolving, socially engaged art exhibits in the Parthenon Museum and on Centennial Park grounds. Curated by Adrienne Outlaw of Seed Space, Flex It! invites participation and reflection on personal health and fitness, while building community.