Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Studio--What Studio?

Maggie Leininger
Collaborator/founder of

Working in a studio space always seemed clinical, sacred and self-righteous all at the same time.  As an undergrad, I had the opportunity to visit and work in a fair number of established artists’ studios.  Although each studio was very different from each other, I never felt that it was a space that I could envision producing meaningful work.  Then, once out in the real world, I attempted to designate a space in which I could work first as a room in my living space then in a converted garage/artist studio. But no matter how many hours I worked in that space the studio seemed a fa├žade. I felt that the space between me and the place that I work was too separate, so I began working wherever I was comfortable. Eventually, this space expanded to everywhere I was…totally uncontainable.  Once I realized that the studio wasn’t or didn’t have to be this prescribed space, I took off making art in all sorts of spaces such as on the train as I went to and from work (the reality being that this was often the only time I had to make art) or in a tiny studio apartment balcony shared by three people while living in Japan.  I am, therefore I create was and is my motto to sustaining a dedicated practice to my visual and conceptual explorations.

Along with this understanding of my creative practice, something wonderful happened when I made art in public places.  People would come up and either stare at me trying to comprehend what on earth I was doing and what mental asylum I escaped from, or they would engage with me questioning my process and intent.  While at first these encounters were uncomfortable, I soon became addicted to these interactions.  I was getting direct feedback from real people, ones not often well versed in post-modern contemporary lingo.  Sometimes they understood what I was making or trying to say with a piece, other times they would just shrug, offer a “hmm” and walk away.  Simultaneous to this experience, I began teaching an intro to art class that attempted to explain why art is made, what function it serves and why it is valuable to approximately 240 students (all non-art majors) in one year.  This opportunity, as with many teaching opportunities, demanded a full understanding of subject matter.  For me, this meant finally answering a question that lurked around inside my head, “What is art and why is it important?” I was afraid to answer this question in fear that the whole house of cards, or purpose for my existence, would come tumbling down.  But these combined experiences of making art in public and teaching to non-art majors made me explore, delve deeper and find not only the answers I needed to educate students but also transform, sustain and enrich my work.

So, who is the audience?

By engaging with my students about their art experiences, I learned that while some do frequent museums and galleries, many do not.  Some students lived in Chicago their whole life and had never been to the Art Institute until I made it a mandatory field trip.  Other students who lived adjacent to Hyde Park had never heard of the Hyde Park Art Center, the Smart Museum or Little Black Pearl.  In another administrative position, I learned that one in four public schools in our city provide art education and many of them only partially through the year.  The last time that many adults had any interaction with art was as a pre-schooler when crayons and maybe watercolors were available.  The same students who I knew came from public schools with very little art instruction were the ones who grew up to be adults that only traveled within their immediate communities, not even aware of cultural resources on their campus let alone in the broader neighborhood.  It was during this time that the Stockyard Institute had a summer long exhibition/community dialogue at Hyde Park Art Center and I brought my students to experience something within relative proximity to them.  One of the exercises available was for viewers to fill in an outlined map of Chicago of where they situate themselves in proximity to the rest of the city.  All of the students lived within a 2 mile radius of 95th St., and all of them placed themselves in the center of the city—a place many had not even seen. 

Profoundly impacted by this experience, I knew then that while I still loved the precious moments of internal discoveries of playing in a private space, that a portion of my work must become dialogical and directly engage with people outside the art system of academia, curators, gallerists, collectors, colleagues, etc. If people are not exposed to art, then why would they vote for higher taxes to increase government funded programs that go into schools to enrich children’s artistic education and discoveries? Or seek out artistic explorations at the local arts center? Why pay money to see art in a museum? And how many people who visit larger institutions even understand what they are viewing?

Launching ARTivention

On a perfectly cool sunny mid-October day in 2008 I was sitting in a diner on the upper West side in Manhattan, and it hit me that what I needed to do was to start a movement—like the ones I always read about and drooled with envy that history placed me in this time and not in a prior one. While reading an article about Guantanamo refugees for the millionth time, I became so full of rage over the abuse of human rights, and the audacity of our government to presume that we had the right to overlook conventions that had been in place since World War II all in the name of terrorism.  I also felt very helpless.  After all, I was just an artist, what could I possibly do to make an impact?  But it was a time of great optimism as I headed off to work at a campaign booth and it was there that I knew that one person collectively could make a difference.  Out of this experience came ARTivention, a true collaboration between artist and public.  I say artist, because I want this to be about something larger than myself and invite others to take the lead as artist.  The goal of ARTivention is to connect to all community members and to not only gain insight to an artistic process or concept but to also provide a simple action to solving large problems such as human rights abuses, poverty, homelessness, environmental concerns, etc.  

The first project initiated by ARTivention was Care Packages.  Throughout November, December of 2008 and January 2009, I organized several workshops throughout the city inviting the public to help me construct 17 prayer mats for the Uighur refugees at Guantanamo Bay.  In addition to helping construct the mats, participants also were able to send a letter of protest via a link posted by the Human Rights Watch in opposition to the current practices of our government.  The mats were then packaged and shipped on the last day of the Bush administration.

The second project coalesced through ARTivention is Commune-ique.  This project began with the symbolism of wool for the three Abrahamic faiths and embodies communal diversity, individuality and awareness. Chicago maintains a diverse population, however, there is not a lot of crossover from one community into another.  Take for example the neighborhoods around California and Devon.  On one side it is a Hasidic Jewish population and on the other it is the closest proximity to India and Pakistan that many people will encounter.  Yet, these two worlds never seem to interact.  In response, Commune-ique is a portable structure made from hand-felted wool that is the site for durational art making experiences. 

The wool has been hand-felted by many individuals including transitional housing residents from Lincoln Park Community Services to visitors of the Arizona State University Art Museum.  The project also is an embodiment of collaboration between students from the School of the Art Institute and Roosevelt University.  On the days that the structure is placed in public, students from both schools will lead an interactive studio experience where the public will stitch individualized designs and marks onto cloth. What will happen to that cloth? It is hard to say, as this project is forever evolving and changing.  Will this structure and the resulting embellished fabric make it into the art system of galleries and educational museums? Probably.  But it will be in these direct public “non-art” locations that will sustain my interest as a maker, educator and member of society. As I write this one week prior to the installation of this structure, there are still many unanswered questions—all of which will only come throughout the actual experience itself.  And that is the best part about projects that leave the confines of the studio, gallery, museum or what ever establishment that they originate from.  They take on a life of their own.

Maggie Leininger is currently a visiting professor at Arizona State University in fibers and founder of ARTivention.  Previous experiences that have contributed to her outlook on art and the public include being manager of outreach and educator at Marwen Foundation, an artist in residence at Snow City Arts, and an adjunct faculty member at Chicago State University and Roosevelt University.  In addition to Commune-ique, ARTivention is also producing Found Objects that ask collectors/finders of miniature hand knit sweaters that are placed in public sites every day for a year to donate the value of the found object to the National Coalition for the Homeless. 

Link to ARTivention Blog:
Link to website:
Link to  ARTivention Face Book Page:!/pages/ARTivention/53594511312

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