In room 126 of Biggin Hall, a group of students meet with a purpose that extends beyond a class grade. The class is Social and Community Engaged Art and is geared toward making a positive, long-term impact.
The class is taught by professors Wendy DesChene and Rick Lowe. Lowe is a 2014 MacArthur Fellow and a 2015 Breeden Scholar recipient. Lowe’s work includes community-engaged revitalization projects such as Project Row Houses in Houston, Vickery Meadow in Dallas, and the Watts House Project (WHP) in Los Angeles.
“There were flyers for the class everywhere on campus and after my advisor told me to check it out, I was intrigued,” said Lane Gower, junior in studio fine arts. “I had never seen anything like what Rick and this class offered.”
Lowe was trained in visual arts, but over the past couple of years he has been working with and developing community-based projects that are now seen as social practice art. He focuses on intersecting historic preservation, art, human empowerment and community relations to create a lasting effect.
“After our first class I was so impressed by Rick that I had to look him up and see how what he was doing was considered art,” said Emily Cox, junior in studio art. “It took a while to sift through all of the information on him. After reading the articles I realized that he was doing some amazing things.”
In the class, the students have been working toward a goal rooted in Social Practice Art. The German artist, Joseph Beuys states “everyone is an artist.” He defines “social sculpture” as that which can manifest itself through social activity. The students were wrapping their collective heads around this new idea for Alabama with the guidance of their new mentor, Lowe. It was Beuys concept of “social sculpture” that inspired Lowe’s work with Project Row Houses and led to social engagement becoming a recognized form of art.
After a few weeks of working with Lowe and community research, the class found a partner organization to work with.
“Because of the kind of work that I do it takes a while to develop long-term, impactful projects and that’s especially hard to do in one semester,” Lowe said. “I wanted to really create a structure in the class so they can get a taste of what it’s like to identify a project to work on and to actually implement some strategies around a community project.”
When looking for a project, the class was searching for a place or group that they connected with and who needed to be heard. They found that in Macon County. The class has been working with Tuskegee Youth Safe Haven (TYSH), a program geared toward mentoring youths in the community and “maintaining or improving their academic performance as well as building power in families.”
The TYSH staff use multiple development programs with their students that emphasize focus in areas such as Family Empowerment, Mentoring, Life Skills Training, Physical and Recreational Activities, Educational Reinforcement and Health Training.
“People have forgotten about the rich history that Tuskegee has right down the road from here,” said Britni Arrington, senior in studio art. “The students in Safe Haven are wise beyond their years. They are so involved in their communities through Safe Haven and even interview elders in their community to find out more about their history.”
Lowe believes the key to this class is the ability to select a project that encourages modesty rather than tackling a big project with not enough time to fulfill all they want to.
“For the students, they need to learn to try and do work in a community that has to somehow fit the possibility of garnering resources,” Lowe said. “One resource we don’t have is time and with this project they can continue utilizing it after we’re gone.”
Lowe said the biggest part of this project, and the whole class, is the communication between each student. Much of the class revolves around students converging into small groups and planning their upcoming exhibition. Another part of the class involves frequent trips to Tuskegee to bond with the TYSH students. In a word, it’s collaboration.
Arrington and Cox talked about how impressed they were with the students of Safe Haven. The TYSH students that the class have worked with are involved with maintaining a website, video production of reenactments they produce and video clips of interviews with town locals that they conduct.
“The questions they ask are very serious and they act so professional when they conduct interviews,” Arrington said. “They think of these interesting questions that I would never even think of. They definitely do their research.”
The partnership with Safe Haven will culminate with an event and exhibition, “Sammy’s Colorful Poetic Artistic Performance,” on April 29 from 5-7 PM at the Fieldwork Projects Gallery, 420 South Gay St. in Auburn.
“We want to use this event to build a lasting bridge between Auburn and Tuskegee,” Cox said. “Britni, Lane and others work as the interview team. They venture out to Tuskegee as much as possible to shoot video, photograph and collaborate with the students and staff of TYSH.”
Forrest Babington, sophomore in studio fine arts described all of the different aspects that the class “Speak Easy, Listen Hard” will include in the event.
“We’re trying to incorporate videos and interviews that we have gathered over the semester,” Babington said. “Audio from around Tuskegee will be playing throughout the event. We will also have performances from the TYSH students that will be civil rights reenactments.”
Photography and artwork done by the TYSH students will also be on display along with refreshments. The TYSH students visited Auburn and painted with the class as one of the many bonding activities the class and TYSH have participated in together.
“We will also have a publication piece available that includes some stories and art by the students of TYSH that people can take away with them after the event is over,” Gower said. “It’s something tangible that will help people remember the history around them and what TYSH is doing.”
Several businesses will be collaborating with the class “Speak Easy, Listen Hard” during the event. Perch Jewelry Studio will be hosting a session with the students of TYSH during the exhibit.
“We are so excited to be a part of this event. We’re having a craft where we teach the children basic jewelry skills by building little people charms for them to hang on a necklace,” said Barbara Birdson, owner of Perch. “We’ve also stamped the phrase ‘Speak Easy, Listen Hard’ into metal and designed a necklace we’ll be selling. All profits will be donated to their cause.”
The necklace will be available that night at the event as well as on Perch’s website.
The class’s end goal focuses on enhancing the culture of Macon county through their exhibition and strengthening the ties between the two communities.
“There is a huge cultural divide between people in Auburn and in Tuskegee,” Arrington said. “We’re trying to burst that Auburn bubble and get out there and show people that there is this huge racial divide between the two and also show them the amazing things that TYSH is doing for their community. People need to see that the two communities have much in common with many things to offer.”