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Art for Social Change: Radical Vulnerability

A large cardboard cutout of a map is placed on a red brick floor. Lines of colored yarn connect the countries.

Chicago Avenue’s Pillsbury House and Theater is always bustling with activity, but last Thursday afternoon the air felt particularly electric. Bright mylar sheets lined the walls of the entrance and a massive cardboard map of the world lay on the floor, the countries painted a rainbow of colors. Hot coffee, tea, and ginger snap cookies were laid out on the reception desk, and artists clustered in pockets throughout the first floor lobby, putting the finishing touches on temporary installation pieces. The clock ticked down to one o’clock, and the artists turned to welcome their first guests into the group exhibit Radical Vulnerability.

A black and white flyer describing the Radical Vulnerability exhibit sits next to a bowl of gingersnaps.

The students-artists behind the Radical Vulnerability exhibit in Pillsbury House that day were part of HECUA’s Art for Social Change course, an immersive, semester-long program for undergraduate students across the United States. College undergraduates spend three months immersed in the creation of socially engaged works of art, with the community as their classroom. During the course each student dedicates six hours per week to seminar classes at the Pillsbury House + Theatre. In addition to classroom time (and the reading and field visit schedule) they work 20 hours per week at an internship placement with a local arts-focused nonprofit.

Art for Social Change’s schedule is organized around a series of three public installations students design, develop, and promote collaboratively. The first of these comes six weeks into the semester. Students have two weeks to settle into the rhythm of the class, and then they are launched into collaborative art-making. The Spring 2017 cohort was encouraged to create pieces for their first exhibit that examined the intersections of ancestry, personal history, and US policy. Mentored by artists Pramila Vasudevan and Junauda Petrus, students reflected on themes explored in their readings –Antelope Woman, The Underground Railroad, The Case for Reparations, and more– discussions, and their own history as residents of the United States.

Four weeks of planning, work, and final tweaks later, twelve installation pieces created by students had been installed on every floor of Pillsbury House + Theatre’s four story building. Community members, families, friends, and professors walked slowly through the space, soaking in the exhibits.

Two people stand with their backs turned to the camera in front of a large silver sheet. The sheet is covered in colored sticky notes.

From left to right: Andrew Williams, HECUA’s Executive Director, Faye Price, Co-Artistic Director of Pillsbury House + Theatre, and Mike Thurston, HECUA Art for Social Change student. 

Connection and dialogue was a clear through line for many of the exhibits. As guests entered the space they were greeted by Mike Thurston, performing in Connection Booth. Wordlessly, he handed each new guest a sheet of paper with a question and a prompt encouraging the reader to open a conversation with a stranger. At the opposite end of the room AJ Gerick invited conversation as well, with a painted cardboard sign that read, “Ask me about my genitals.” In exchange for a drawing of their imagining of AJ’s crotch, visitors could ask AJ any question they liked about the trans experience.

A masculine person sits to the right of a cardboard painted sign reading "Ask me About my Genitals."

AJ Gerick’s installation.

“Being visibly trans, people feel comfortable asking me questions whether I want them to or not,” AJ explained. “I anticipated that a lot of these questions [asked today] would make me uncomfortable… It’s important to sit with that discomfort.” AJ chose to ask people for a drawing because it created an exchange of mutual discomfort, as opposed to the lopsided form these questions usually take.

Other clear themes among the pieces were family history and the immigrant experience. Matthew Harris created an elaborate labyrinth of twine, clothespins, and printed images of loggers posed in old growth redwood forests. Madi Ballis invited visitors into a bread banquet served in complete darkness and accompanied by a soundtrack of Italian and Italian American voices. Isabelle Baim Her lined the stairwell of the theater with chalk-on-wood quotes, canvas illustrations of Hmong women, and white paper designed to hold visitor’s stories. Ben Weil explored the legacy of the Holocaust with an exhibit that invited viewers to make tick marks in chalk in an outline of the words Never Forget.

A cardboard sign reading, "where did you arrive from?" sits on a red brick floor next to a colored legend with different number limits.

The legend for Natalia Piela’s map installation. 

Spanning two floors, Natalia Piela’s piece investigated her parents’ green card lottery win and subsequent journey from Poland. She created a massive, color-coded world map and encouraged participants to share their own “green card stories,” by folding little green colored paper cards into airplanes and sending them over the edge of the second floor balcony. “I’ve struggled my parents’ story,” Natalia said, “because when I’ve asked them if they would do it again, they always say no. It was really hard for them to leave their whole family and all of their friends.”

Other students chose more abstract explorations of identity in the United States. Across the hall from Ben Weil, Freddie Simmons created a room sized collaborative painting, soundtracked by Solange Knowles’ A Seat at the Table. Kristen DaSilva built a waiting room for the “Center for Missing Women.” As the receptionist for the fictional center, Kristen offered visitors forms to complete describing the missing women in their lives, and provided waiting petitioners with headphones and devices cued to a powerful spoken word piece she had pre-recorded. Natalie Klemond’s light projection and soundtrack in PH+T’s theatre space asked participants if they felt they were in a sacred space, and Brigid Higgins’ painted glass installation asked them to pause and examine interactions.

A person in a black velvet shirt looks into a Polaroid camera.

Liza Gorman Baer takes aim at a participant. 

Back in the first floor lobby, Liza Gorman Baer filled a family photo album with the help of strangers and friends, asking guests to create captions for Polaroid photos and to pose for photos of their own. The photos, new and old, were placed alongside pictures of Liza’s own family. “I’m always thinking about family photos,” Liza said. “When I take a selfie on Facebook, I think, is this the photo my descendants will see?”

By the end of the two-hour-long open house over 100 people had attended the exhibit. The students were ready to pack up, debrief, snack on a few leftover cookies, and prepare for their next installation piece, a collaboration with nationally-recognized photographer and public artist Wing Young Huie.

The second Art for Social Change exhibition will take place Thursday, April 6th, from 7-9pm, at the Third Place Gallery, and you are all invited. We hope to see you there!




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