While developing curriculum for the Bowers Museum and the Pacific Symphony a few years ago, I created a set schedule for 8-week and 4-week classes, which were planned for 50+ students. At that time, I found comfort in keeping a strict schedule; I liked having control over my days by having my lessons and dates lined up. I've also worked closely for lengthy periods of time with a handful of obsessive-compulsive individuals, and witnessed how their tightly-scheduled agenda resulted in their monumental accomplishments. (You know who you are, and you are just as much crazy as you are appreciated and loved! :)
When beginning the program at Heninger Village, which houses a large Latino and Vietnamese population, my detailed schedule did not go according to plan. At all. These seniors have busy lives with constant appointments, and many of them are isolated and disengaged like many of our elders, and this makes it challenging for them to open up to new experiences, which can include making time to attend class. I was a guest in their home, and so I felt it important to begin by taking part in their communal activities.
Then sprouted my fervor for Lotería, a Mexican Bingo of sorts, which helped me brush up on my Spanish vocabulary and allowed me to spend time doing the things that they enjoy. (And what they really enjoy doing is hustling me out of my laundry quarters!) During breaks, the residents eat together, and this is when I find joy in the eavesdropping as part of my Spanish lesson. (The other day, there was a lot of drama being discussed, but all I could make out was that there was a dog involved.)
[As I write this, mariachi trumpets blow out of the speakers at a local coffee shop.]
It had been a challenge organizing the class, and getting them to accompany me to the museum, which was planned as part of their program. I began feeling defeated. And then I had to rethink the situation. I was brought on board to engage in social practice first and foremost, a practice of connecting with the community. The goal was for me, the artist, to engage and collaborate with the residents of Heninger Village, in whichever form the process takes. I had to remind myself that it is foremost about the connection and stirring up a creative movement within the community. The art and sharing would find its way in, but the trust and the relationships would have to come first.
It was time to put the idea of *human first* into practice and apply it to the work that I would be doing with the Heninger Village. My art-making has always been the byproduct of my wanting to connect with life and all its details, with the people I love, with the past and the present, and with the ideas that swish around in my head like a steady tide. My work has been a documentation of the search and a means to the discovery. Such should be the same approach to working with the elders, yes?
YES. HUMAN FIRST.
And so I revisit the idea of social practice, think about what it means to me, and ponder upon the intention of it all, with some notes:
1. Building trust foremost through the connectivity and engagement with those in my community.
2. Learning to let go of the ideas that I have about what art is, how it should be created, and how the method “should work”. Instead, allow relationships grow organically and trust that the process will take form on its own time, in its own way, and varying with each individual.
3. The success is in quality of the relationships made, the way in which residents interact and come together, and how the time spent with one another brings light to their community. I will have faith that the art will find its role in this collective mission.
4. That my being welcomed into the Heninger community is a beautiful thing. And although the art projects are slow to come, we are indeed being creative together as we build these new relationships, and strengthen existing ones. After all, living life, and sharing our life with others, is one of the most creative things we can do, yes?
5. There is so much for us to learn from one other, and learning takes time. We are on our own time, and Time has been good to us. We're all still here living life, aren't we?
A quote by Howard Thurman, Educator, Philosopher, Theologian, and Civil Rights Leader, which I think sums it up beautifully ...
We can also say the same for one's own life. One's own life cannot for long feed on itself; it can only flourish with the coming of others from beyond, their unknown and undiscovered brothers and sisters. Thank you, Community Engagement, Grand Central Art Center, and neighbors, for coming into my life and walking with me on this journey!
February 2016: Recentering
Grand. Central. Art. Centered in downtown Santa Ana, I am working with the senior residents of Heninger Village. My project’s mission is to engage with this community through autobiographical art workshops in conjunction with oral histories to help the elders document their stories to leave with their succeeding generations, with the help of the format used by the Vietnamese American Oral History Project.
We now are proud residents of Grand Central Art Center, where the street is named after the trees that shelter our walkways. Equipped with four galleries, a theater, a flamenco studio, a wood shop, a cooking studio, a café, clusters of artist studios, and sharing a seven-minute-walk-radius with over a dozen other galleries, this is a place where artists are set up to thrive, succeed, and get inspired, be inspired, and stay inspired.
On any given day, we will be greeted with gallery-wandering guests, artists working through their installations, young painters en plein air, residents tending to their gardens, and sometimes with a knock on our door handing offerings of homemade lemon curd, spring salad, or freshly baked cookies. I must confess that as much as I've always wanted to be, I've never been neighborly. Even as a child, life always felt too busy for me in my little world, which carried on to my adult life, and I never made time to engage much more than with a sheepish wave hello. Now, living among 27 artist neighbors in a communal living quarter, the warm sense of home and neighbor has me making an extra cup of tea on most days.
When Mother came to visit, she wandered wide-eyed and in awe of what we had been granted as we gave her a tour of our quarters. She said, "Ti, this is your dream". But the truth is that I could not have ever thought this up to dream of it. I've been given this gift of creativity, and now I'm being equipped with a very kind, and most supportive team of collaborators to help me share this gift in service to the community? Now that's some over-the-rainbow, way-up-high, where-blue-birds-fly type Goodness. (Except here in Orange County, it's where green parrots fly. We wake up to them some mornings as they squawk their way through the neighborhood.)
As these hands have worked tirelessly through the years, it is those who are committed to community work and their organizations that have opened doors to continue stressing to me the importance of community service, and to show me what heights can be achieved while working together. Their dedication to focus on the importance of education, of putting people first, and bringing art to the community, have helped mold me into an active participant, helping life unfold further into one of fulfillment and meaning. One of the truest blessings in Life is that we will always be given an opportunity to be a blessing to others, yes? (*Rest in Peace, Dear Prince.*) I do want to be this for my neighbors, and I'm so grateful to have this chance to do so, to be given the abundant resources to help me, in a new community in which we all are learning together.
November 2015: Asking Boldly
I’ve never been claustrophobic, but its mass came over me, as my heart looked to Co Be’s chattering typewriter to find a steady pace, and every cell inside of me wanted to burst out of my body to gulp some new air. Even the safety of my own bed was no comfort to me. For eight months, I carried the density of these letters as burdens, and these inherited memories of a thick, humid jungle suffocated me. The birds were sent as our protectors, but their shrieks could not call off the bombs in the distance. We were deafened by the chaos and the silence, blinded by the night. The damp soil swallowed our feet whole and sipped from the blood, a foreboding that we would once again become part of the earth.
This is the weight that art, and love, sometimes must bear.
I have frequent conversations with God. Sometimes, it’s to ask for help with the simple things. God, please help me get there safely on time. And sometimes, it’s for the more important things. God, please help me be more patient with people. God, please be with Mother. She needs You right now. God, please help us get through this. And sometimes, it’s just to give thanks. God, Thank You for always providing. God, my plants are so happy right now. Thank you for flushing them with life!
But on this day, defeat, frustration, and anger draped heavily over me like a blood-soaked blanket as I sat in our tiny little apartment in Long Beach, feeling isolated from our community. I cried out to God. Pled, whined, and shouted.
"I CANNOT BREATHE! I NEED SPACE TO GROW!
WE HAVE IMPORTANT THINGS TO DO, AND WE CANNOT DO THEM HERE ANY LONGER!"
Just a few days later, I received a Call to Creatives from a friend, an opportunity that seemed much too good to be true, but in fact, was true. Community Engagement, a new non-profit, was searching for dedicated artists to help make lasting impacts upon underrepresented communities through art and social practice.
Sometimes, it's not enough to wish. Sometimes, we just have to ask boldly.