26 February 2007

Polycultural Collaborations

Jewish, African-American, and Hispanic Legacy Thrones

In 1990, I was invited to be Dean of Visual Arts of New World School of the Arts in Miami, a new school created by the Florida State Legislature as “A Center for Excellence in the Arts,” a joint venture of University of Florida, Miami-Dade College, and Miami-Dade Public Schools. As part of a BFA program in environmental public art that I created at NWSA, I collaborated with Miriam Benjamin on an intergenerational art project, Legacy Thrones. My wife Miriam is a high touch counterpart to my high tech leanings, with a MFA in ceramic sculpture from Pratt.

Elders from the three largest ethnic communities in Miami worked together with art students under our artistic direction to create three colossal thrones reaching twenty-feet high and weighing more than two tons. We brought together African-American elders from the Greater Bethel AME Church, Hispanic elders from Southwest Social Services Program, and Jewish elders from the Miami Jewish Home for the Aged to work with New World School of the Arts students to create three Legacy Thrones facing Biscayne Bay in Miami. Through aesthetic dialogue between these elders and young people, valued traditions of the past were transformed into artistic statements of enduring significance. Together, young hands and old shaped wet clay into colorful ceramic relief elements collaged onto three monumental thrones, works of public art constructed from steel and concrete.

Elder-student dyads collaborated creatively with Miriam and me one day each week for a full academic year. All sixty participants worked simultaneously in one huge studio space. At their first meeting, each student listened to an elder tell about her life experiences and cultural roots. Life review methodologies facilitated elders looking back and reaching inward to trigger reminiscences of events and images of personal and communal significance. The challenge at the next meetings was to explore ways of transforming reminiscences that reveal cultural values into visual images that can be expressed through clay. The eminent psychologist Erik Erikson explains: “For the ageing, participation in expressions of artistic form can be a welcome source of vital involvement and exhilaration…. When young people are also involved, the change in the mood of elders can be unmistakably vitalizing.”

Working parallel to each other in one large studio, the three culturally different groups of elders continually engaged in dialogue with each other, an opportunity that rarely exists outside of the studio. African-American, Hispanic, and Jewish old people in their ethnically specific homes for the aged and senior centers seldom encounter one another. Working alongside each other and learning about each other’s cultures, they came to realize how much they shared in experiences and in values. In Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America, Lucy Lippard describes our art project’s values: “I am interested in cultural dissimilarities and the light they shed on fundamental human similarities…in art that combines a pride in roots with an explorer’s view of the world as shared by others.”

The elders worked with clay to make relief sculptural statements of images from their personal and collective past. They painted them with colorful glazes creating numerous collage elements that were cemented to the thrones until the sculptural surfaces were entirely clad in ceramics. Our role as the artists was to integrate all the elements into aesthetically powerful expressions of each ethnic community. Although the elders had no prior experience working with clay, they developed their technical prowess and aesthetic judgment during their year of participation. While the students facilitated the elders’ growth artistically, the young people’s lives were enriched through creative collaboration with partners blessed with a long life of fertile experiences. By sharing their stories with the students, transforming them into artistic images, and leaving a legacy for future generations, the elders added deeper layers of meaning to their lives.

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