DFM at Siena College – Engage for Change Conference

1synder hall imageOn Tuesday May 19th, Drawing from Memory will be up and running again.  During Siena College’s Engage for Change Conference I will be offering a presentation titled: “Drawing From Memory – A Creative and Visual Community Engagement Tool.”  Key aspects of the project will be spotlighted including adaptability, inclusivity, building community, and using accessible technologies in new ways. Drawing from Memory will be live during the conference.  Conference-goers can call the toll free number during the lunch hour break.  Artists will answer and translate the personal stories they have listened to into wonderful drawings.   Because the artists will be off site, participation will be broad and include artists from the Siena community and throughout the Capital district.  Images of the drawings and links to recordings of the accompanying stories will be available on the image/audio page after May 22. Want to tell your personal childhood memory? Here are the themes:  My Neighborhood, Primary School, or Family

 Need more info? drawingfrommemory(at)gmail.com


11 Weeks, 31 Artists, 129 drawings….

final blog image

Artists drawing story teller memories during the final night. From top left: Victor Stanwick, Jack Gerney, Nina Shalla, Kim Salt, Meredith Sladek. (Artists Phillip Mitchell and Kristi Pfister also participated. Photos by Shani Mitchell.)

As the project Drawing from Memory – Staten Island comes to a close there are lots of numbers, drawings, and interactions to process and consider.  The title sums up the totals but what these numbers can’t reflect is the amount of support the project received from so many of you: Artists, members of the public, staff at Culture lounge, and my friends and family.  Without your willingness to help, support, participate, and collaborate, none of this would be possible.  So thanks! (BIG.)

This project worked in large part because of the place and people of Staten Island. The words “place” and “people” can be interpreted literally or conceptually.  Memory exists in a mental space, yet it shapes and defines us.  Our perceptions when we are young are interesting to us as adults in part because of how different we understand the world and our place in it.  The opportunity to have an artist translate this experience adds in another layer of consideration and perception.  The artist process is spotlighted and elevated to a realm of recognition and necessity I believe we all benefit from.

And continuing this theme, during my time in and out of Staten Island, I fell a little in love with the place and people. Coming from a small Village in upstate New York, I was continually surprised at the small town connectedness and pride of place.  Each week, as I looked at the drawings and edited the recorded stories, I learned a little more about Staten Island neighborhoods and people, both past and present.  I have heard that Staten Island is sometimes called the “forgotten borough” or worse.  From my outsider perspective, perhaps the physical/geographic isolation of Staten Island has created a long term plus for it’s residents.

Though this iteration of the Drawing from Memory is now over, the project may happen again, in a slightly different form or in a new place.  For now, this blog will serve as an archive, or a memory that later can be looked back on with a new perspective where fresh insights are possible. Onwards!

Into the end…the final week and some final thoughts

In progress drawing by artist Julie Goetz.

In progress drawing by artist Julie Goetz. (Still image from a movie by Shani Mitchell.)

Certain aspects of this project were left deliberately open ended and some aspects, it could be argued, could have had a tighter framework. Sometimes artists forgot and added in more than one color to their drawing for emotional emphasis.  Sometimes story tellers chose a memory that occurred after childhood.  The crux of this project was to set up many opportunities for informal yet intimated connections between strangers.  How this brief event transpires is between the two individuals.  This means there is the possibility of uneven outcomes.  For me this is OK.  Most things related to real life have a messy side and this is often where things get interesting.  Any adjustments to the human system I put into motion would make a completely different piece.  One critical take away for me is how important it is to trust my fellow collaborators, in this case a fine group of Staten Island-based artists.  Their attentiveness to their craft lingers long after the phones stop ringing.

An orderly week with just two more to go….

#220 Justine drawing for Qahir

Drawing made by artist Justine Lordo for storyteller Qahir

What do you get when there are plenty of storytellers and enough artists to answer their calls to make beautiful, insightful drawings of their memories?  A great week!  Now that there are just two more weeks when the phones will be live, the well-oiled human system is humming along just as it should.  Every experience of the project is unique, whether from the perspective of a story teller or an artist.  After talking to both groups this quality is what brings the artists back, and compels the storytellers to call, sometimes more than once.  Here is the response from one storyteller after receiving the drawing of her memory:

Of course I will call back.

Thank you for putting this event together.

It’s hard to describe, but participating in it was full of surprises- 

I experienced so many feelings in the brief course of my participation- the feelings associated with the memory, talking to the artist, thinking about It afterward, then when viewing the artwork. Unexpectedly exhilarating to see and know how an artist saw my experience. I felt honored, like the special person we all are. The whole event affirms humanity & life., all of it, in my opinion 

Hope that makes sense. 

Stories, stream of consciousness and a few doodles on the side…

Artist Victor Stanwick, waiting for the phones to ring.

Artist Victor Stanwick, waiting for the phones to ring.

As the final month of the project begins, it would seem likely that the systems in place would work like a well-oiled machine with everyone in their place at the appointed time.  As has been mentioned before, human systems don’t always operate like this.  These challenges often provoke the exciting stuff and the surprises.

Because of the scale of use of the Staten Island Ferry with approximately 70,000 people moving back and forth between Staten Island and Manhattan each day, offering something to all of them was never part of the plan for Drawing from Memory.  Getting people to participate can be difficult as our attention is constantly being asked for elsewhere.  So what happens when you have a room full of artists waiting for the phones to ring?  This week during a lull in phone activity artist Victor Stanwick made what he called an “unauthorized” doodle during the down time.  Even when “off duty” ideas are being processed.  Translation is wittily articulated with visual and verbal puns.  The unknown, the waiting, and the attempt at meeting expectations in spite of this is what the artists have signed on for, most find it interesting enough to do it more than once.

(Excerpt from a recent phone conversation with Judith Hugentobler on why she chose to participate more than once and how this project relates to her own art practice)

“I liked hearing people’s stories and how particular they were about certain elements in the story especially when in a relationship with other people.  Because I work with figurative elements and like drawing figures, it was a real challenge to try and visualize how the relationships (as told by the story tellers) were important in the drawing.  Also just trying to think about who the person was, in my imagination, who was telling the story.  I liked hearing the sound of their voice and trying to visualize the face of the story teller as a character in a way.  There is a quality to the person’s voice that makes you imagine certain things about them.

It’s nice that the artist is able to ask a question of the storyteller so you feel there is a connection there.  There was a particular story I could relate to because something similar had happened to me during my childhood.

Inclusivity, Exclusivity and Accommodation

vertical drawingThis week there were six artists present to answer the phones and make drawings of strangers stories, a record.  All did their best and enjoyed the challenges and serendipity of taking live calls from strangers and translating their stories into tangible drawings.

When setting up this project, no jury process was put into place to filter which artists are allowed to participate.  Any person who is at the South Ferry terminal in Manhattan on a Wednesday between 4:15 – 7 pm and happens upon a postcard could call in with their story regardless of what their story is, or how well they tell it.  Chance is an important collaborator in this project. With this elaborate and complex human system, there are always new surprises that ultimately can be learned from.

Is inclusivity possible?  In a public art project? All sorts of subtle and not so subtle effects infiltrate a system which may appear to be open to all. This is inevitable.  Can accommodation or “the process of adapting or adjusting to someone or something” be considered part of an art practice?  Would a more exclusive system allow for “better” artists or drawings?  Or more interesting stories and storytellers?  This project is not about sensationalism, but instead it promotes and fosters intimate moments between two strangers where something is shared and trusted with one another.

Here is excerpt from an interview of Jack Gerney, an artist who participated on 2/18:

First it’s an opportunity to make art which I don’t have a whole lot of time to do so that was great.  I am always interested in symbols and stories and psychology.  I love listening to people’s stories anyway and talking to them about them.

The art that I make when I do have the time generally has personal symbology so in that sense this project is a new source of interesting narratives and interesting symbols and psychology, etc. 

When I am making art a lot of it is personal and about me – it’s hard to be the storyteller and the artist and this process is nice as it’s separated, you get something (the story teller’s memory) and it’s interesting and then you get to put your own take on it. You discover it the first time from the person telling the story and then you rediscover it through your own making it into an image.

Art, Altruism, and…..can you spell that for me?

Artist Meredith Sladek working on the details of a drawing.

Artist Meredith Sladek working on the details of a drawing.

What happens when a system is set up that involves humans, art making, and memory? Well, as it turns out, miscommunication (all kinds,) with a good sized dose of altruism.  In this week’s Drawing from Memory in spite of a few no show artists and the usual issues that occur when humans interact with technology they are unfamiliar with, a few artists choose to go above and beyond.  One artist I was in contact with a day or two after his participation (Victor Stanwick,) let me know that he had a much better idea for drawing a particular story teller’s memory.  He asked if it would be alright if he made a new drawing to give to this story teller. Of course my response was a resounding YES!  And I have heard similar requests from artists during previous weeks.

The brief, informal and perhaps intimate exchanges that occur between artist and story teller, over the phone, clearly trigger something in the artist that lingers.  This may be difficult to categorize or even describe but it is definitely there.  Although the artists are offered a modest honorarium for their participation,* the desire to do more or better I would define as an altruistic impulse.  This generosity and public spirit is exactly what I hoped all participants in Drawing from Memory would be able to access.  There is still time for you to get in on this.

 *too often artists are asked to offer their skills and talents for free!  Why are our culture producers – those that make all aspects of living more interesting and vibrant not recognized and compensated more fairly?

Flavor for the night: Chance


The gallery wall filling up with artist drawings of strangers memories.

The gallery wall filling up with artist drawings of strangers memories.

As the second month of Drawing from Memory begins, I continue to be struck by the artistry and inventiveness of the artists.  Each Wednesday has a different feel than the one before. This is determined by what could be described as a recipe of random ingredients that include: what artists show up to listen/draw, what storytellers call, and the content of their stories. Add in a dash of the weather, what’s happening in the world, and how well the technology is working, combine and you have the flavor for the night.  Setting up a framework where chance has room to flourish is a component that I am particularly interesting in.

“…..Hearing home grown stories of the human condition and memories from complete strangers gives me the chance to stretch my artistic boundaries.  When I would draw in college in art classes and even after that, it would be observation-based and not really very much from imagination to the paper. So this is another way to stretch myself in my practice of art.”  –Meredith Sladek, artist participant.

Some artists come back week after week, or at least come back again as their schedules permit.  To keep the story recordings brief all of the memories told by the storytellers are edited down to just their voices.  Often the parts edited out are equally interesting.  Because of this I have started conversations with the artists, while they are “off duty” from Drawing from Memory.  These conversations happen in the same way the artists receives information from the story tellers, over the phone.  In the coming weeks their ideas about the project and how it relates to their art practice will be added in to the mix.

Week 3: A Multi-Generational Night..

Abraham making a drawing of a storytellers memory.

Abraham making a drawing of a storytellers memory.

This week a young artist joined in at Culture Lounge, listening and making lovely drawings of storytellers memories.  His participation added another dimension to the project: multi-generational.  It also serves as a reminder: often, I find I learn more from people many years younger than me by simply being open to what they have to offer.

We are all limited by our own experiences.  If we have never seen the ocean, it is very hard to picture.  An artist, even without this first hand knowledge may take a risk that the non artist won’t take: filling in details by using their understanding of materials and technique in an aesthetic way.  When a nine year old artist makes a drawing, he has less life experience and perhaps less technical training.  What he has more of is confidence in his own imagination. (And maybe there is no nagging, self-critical voice in his head!)

Many of the memories told to the artists come out of this same mental space and perspective, when the world and everything in it seemed bigger, brighter, and more mysterious. Thanks to ALL of the artists for offering such thoughtful and imaginative drawings that taps into this wonderful and inexplicable world of memory.

Week 2 – Co-authorship and Collaboration

Photo by Deirdre Haber Malfatto

ErinKelli Kilbane and Robert Paternostro Jr working on a drawing together.

During the second Wednesday for Drawing from Memory the phones were live despite a small technical glitch.  Calls came in and artists listened and made interesting and wonderful drawings.

In the image used for this week the notion of collaboration seems very obvious – two artists are literally working together to complete one drawing.  In socially engaged art parlance collaboration and co-authorship have additional meanings. A project may be conceived by the artist but all participants have a stake in the outcome. A framework for the project is set up but without the input of all participants, this framework becomes flimsy, and even useless.  By some socially engaged definitions, this project may well sit on the outer edges of this genre of art as the kind of social change it promotes is intangible, (i.e. kindness, generosity, humor.)

The relationship that develops between each caller and artist is their own.  The artist’s translation of the storyteller’s memory into a tangible drawing is governed by their own skill and interpretation of the story.  And this is what keeps the experience fresh each week, making room for unexpected outcomes.