This essay was written by curtorial assistant, Regan Shrumm, as a part of her summer internship at Open Space. The photos, taken by Valerie Salez, are of the children the artist worked with during her residency. For more photos, go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/99220472@N08/
Play, Fall, Rest, Dance- the Untraditional Territory of Delight and Frustration
By: Regan Shrumm
As you enter Valerie Salez’s ever-changing studio through a black velvet curtain, you are transported to a world of childhood dreams. Along one wall is Salez’s own cabinet of curiosities, a collection acquired throughout the years from small town thrift shops. Some items are made specifically for children — a baby cradle, swatches of multifarious 1950s fabrics, a cornucopia of paints and strings. Yet among these items is also an assemblage of organic objects, including animal bones and furs, some of which are painted florescent pinks and oranges or ensconced in lace, making them accessible to the average child or the eccentric adult.
As this description demonstrates, Salez does not uphold the traditional role of an artist during her Open Space artist-in-residency, Play, Fall, Rest, Dance. Instead of creating new artworks herself, Salez facilitates the artistry of others. The artist welcomes children to enter her studio and construct their own work from her hodgepodge collection, as well as the artist’s past art. One work, Fourth Nature is a medley of fabrics bursting with stuffing, creating a misshapen, but colourful cloth landscape. In fact, Salez’s collections of cotton, lace, and knitted fabrics, along with the artist’s engaging voice, compliment the once empty space, establishing a homey, domestic area where children of any age can feel comfortable.
When a child arrives inside Salez’s studio, shouts of delight mingle with the occasional flute melody echo throughout the building, further enticing an audience to observe the young artist at work. Instead of a planned activity, Salez allows the children the freedom to select their own medium and materials. The child is left with limitless possibilities, encouraged to use their boundless imagination. Salez does not interrupt their direction, but instead acts as an interviewer, inquiring as to why they chose a certain piece and what it means to them. Some children even request Salez to work as their assistant, bidding her to hold up particular items as they step back to examine the their art with a more critical eye. Salez records the whole creative process with video and photographs, while keeping the pieces on display for a couple of days before the next young artist enters the gallery. When I first heard about Salez’s artistic practice at Open Space, I was a little astounded that the artist had taken such a radical approach by simply being the adherent. However, I soon realized what a significant opportunity Salez was offering.
The children produce a variety of art, but each creation tells an individual story that only a child could imagine. A spider web made out of string and yarn; the spider itself is already dead, killed by a ceramic bird. The only remaining evidence of the arachnid is red tulle fabric that represents the spider’s blood. A piece of fox fur, sitting in a decayed cradle, attempts to capture a real bird’s nest, all situated above a set of fabric clouds. A fairy palace complete with plastic and ceramic vassals, while the artist herself is dressed as the pixie queen, complete with a pink tutu and silver crown. When parents arrive to pick up their child, they are astounded that their own child could make such creations. While other adults might emphasize how small and dependent children are on the older generation, Salez demonstrates their independent creative potential. As Salez explains “parents don’t even trust their kids to do very basic things. Society doesn’t trust kids to do very basic things— there is all this safety. But give a kid a job, responsibility, and a precious space, and they will take it seriously.”
The experience is not all about delight for the child. Often the participants enter the studio space with tension based on how society has treated them in the past. They initially perceive Salez as the superior leader with a set of rules and guidelines, but the artist simply wants to treat them as equals. Within a half an hour, the children realize that anything is possible in this sacred space. They are free to explore art in any direction, an intimacy that they may never had before. Even once the children discover their freedom, Salez explains how there is still an undercurrent of disappointment: “…[the kids] feel they are not being perfect enough, not being able to make that thing stay where they want it— that they think doesn’t look like what they thought it would look like... there is doubt, there is frustration, there is insecurity.” However, this discouragement is exactly what Salez hopes her participants recognize — the fact that art is not about the product, but about the artist’s core process. This is a lesson which I often forget about in my field of art history. Our imagination never can fully shape what we hope to create, thus the final product, the art piece, can be disappointing after the fulfilling process.
Valerie Salez promotes creativity in a time when funding for the arts is constantly being cut from both primary and secondary education. Even the art education that does remain is often highly structured and does not encourage free exploration. Administrators and conservatives assume that the well-documented benefits of art does not solve problems immediately, yet art frequently reveals the existence of problems. Art is a fundamental part of self-discovery and a communication tool that can connect people more deeply to the way they see the world around them. Salez asserts that “projects look to the creative and social potential of directionless meanderings, spontaneity, obsession, dreams, the unknown, and the yet-to-be-discovered as a means of investigating cultural structures.” The experiences that Salez’s young colleagues will partake in will not only affect their love of art, but also their whole growth as a person. Art is a life force, and one does not need to be an artist in order for their lives to be enriched by it.
Art has been an essential part of my life which has influenced me to this day. In elementary school, I remember making collages out of leaves to depict First Nations stories, creating a mask out of a mold of my face, and emulating Wassily Kandinsky’s famous circles with oil pastels. Though I now only doodle for fun, my appreciation for art has grown both into a passion and a career, as I enter a master’s program in art history. If I had received an opportunity to create within Salez’s studio, to dive into a paint trough or cover an entire wall with a ferocious monster; to do what every child has dreamed of, but few have actually executed, I’m sure my love for art would have grown tenfold. However, I think there would also be a hazard, to have so much freedom with art in Salez’s space, but then to be once again restricted by age and art boundaries. How would a child react to such polar opposites, to be moved from a sacred space of artistic freedom back to a classroom of craft plans taken from a Martha Stewart magazine? How would even I return to rule-filled life if I was given the opportunity to work with Valerie.
Every now and then I occasionally wander into Salez’s space to gain a feeling of harmony and repose after a chaotic work period. My body seems to shrink down in size, forcing me to look up at the windowsill at the charred wood enveloped in hardened resin. Once, while Salez was working, I entered her domain, and spotted a metal cigar box full of bedplate music boxes. I cranked a rusting music box, which produced Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake Theme,” and imagined the mechanical ballerina figure that usually accompanies the music in a jewelry box. I twisted another box that generated Strauss’ “The Blue Danube.” Placing both operative apparatuses back into their metal container, the music boxes produced a metallic chime as it hit the cigar box.
Salez instantly stops what she was doing to comment on how she likes the robotic reverberations and inquires how I generated the sound. She seems to encourage me to explore my artistic production in the same interest as she does with her younger participants. Before I can answer, attention turned to another young artist who has just entered Salez’s area. As I leave through the black velvet curtains with a meager amount of jealously, I hear Valerie encourage the young girl, “Just experiment, it doesn’t have to be right or wrong. Just have fun.” These words of wisdom continue throughout my head as I bicycle home, where find myself forming a hand-crafted journal out of scrap fabric, tea-stained books, and cooking twine. Lost within my own thoughts and imagination, my urge to create, a passion which has not been ignited since primary school, is re-inflamed.