Social Justice and Art: How Do They Interact

October 25th, 2020  |  Published in *, October 2020

Continuing my behind-the-scenes series is a look at smaller arts organizations and how they interact with the social justice movement.

Starting off is Wave Pool, a contemporary art fulfillment center where experimental art connects community and creates change.  Located in Camp Washington at 2940 Colerain Ave., Wave Pool offers a diverse menu of programs.

Cal Cullen, executive director, (pictured) reflects on how contemporary art responds to the world around us.  She said, “Art often acts as a megaphone for social justice.”  She cites The Welcome Project as an example. This project features immigrants, empowering them and connecting them across various barriers, including language.  Wave Pool partners with Refugee Connect, Cincinnati Compass, Casa de Paz, Heartfelt Tidbits to find immigrant and refugee chefs and artists.  The Welcome Project is open 11 am – 6 pm Wednesday – Saturday.

The Welcome Project in collaboration with Turner Farm and Camp Washington’s Community Board,  broke ground on the Welcome Garden in the summer of 2017. Beans, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage and flowers grow in the garden, just a few steps south from the storefront.

Some of the immigrants run their own businesses, teach others, navigate immigration and are now US citizens.  Cullen said, “Others have faced severe trauma, have lived in camps, have survived abuse, are socially isolated, lack jobs, housing and opportunities.  We often find it can really be empowering to simply connect folks to each other and to the community around them to build on the assets and strengths within this group.”

One project women work on is learning basic ceramic skills including slab building, coil building surface design techniques and much more.  Local ceramic artists are teachers who instruct the women in what they need to create for the home, friends and to sell.  Refugee and immigrant women are encouraged to attend.

Terence Hammonds, ceramicist, worked with immigrants creating a series of platters called Protest Platters as part of a series of editions called Welcome Editions.  Platters featured protestors from the civil rights movement, the suffragists and more contemporary protests.  Proceeds were split with the Cincinnati Bail Fund. Here is an example of multiple components of social justice interspersed with art.

The Teaching Kitchen and Market is open. It is operating at a minimum due to COVID-19, but the staff is still able to share ethnic foods and cooking classes with the community. From the kitchen the staff hosts online cooking classes, prepares take out dinners. sells produce from community gardens, everyday essentials and stocks dry goods in partnership with Dean’s Mediterranean Imports, Horchata LLC , Panaderia La Mexicana , Flower & Earth, and produces a frozen meal line called The Welcome Table.

The kitchen provides a community-centered and healthy option to those living in the food desert of Camp Washington where there is food scarcity in the neighborhood.  A food pantry existed during COVID. For the first 12 weeks of shelter in place, staff delivered groceries to Camp Washington residents.  They stopped delivery, but have a shelf of canned, dry and fresh goods free for anyone.  There are no requirements.  “If people say they need free food, we give it to them,” said Cullen.

On the first Tuesday of every month, the organization hosts a Produce Pop-Up with Freestore Foodbank and Community Action Agency.  Cullen said that these monthly events offer a much larger selection of groceries, fresh breads, fruit, veggies, milk, cheese and other items.  Feeding people is another example of Wave Pool’s social justice program.

On October 10, Wave Pool hosted the fourth annual Made in Camp art walk which featured artists around the neighborhood putting artwork outside and inviting a limited number of folks in for studio tours and programs.  That day, there was free COVID testing and free ice cream through the Popsicles to the Polls project.

This community engagement project consisted of an ice cream truck with volunteers giving away popsicles and voting advice.  The truck traveled to underserved neighborhoods such as Walnut Hills, Avondale, Fairmount, Camp Washington and Over-the-Rhine.  Wave Pool partnered with various organizations to visit scheduled events.  Volunteers handed out ice cream and talked about voting and registration.  In three recent sessions, over 400 people attended and received information.  Social distancing and masks were in place.

A current exhibition is Outcry, photographs of 160 screaming women taken by Whitney Bradshaw (pictured).  She created this exhibit in response to the long history of the silencing of women and girls.  It is an exhibit to encourage them to practice speaking up for themselves.   Since the Women’s March in 2018, she has photographed over 375 women.

Bradshaw said, “I invite groups of women who don’t know another to my studio for a gathering, effectively expanding our community while providing support for one another as we bravely let out feelings that have been silenced or dismissed in our culture.”

These intimate representations of individual power and expression become a monumental act of collective resistance when seen together, according to Cullen.  She talked about issues in our country this year and how Outcry speaks to the discontentment.

A photography show called The Journey and The Dream is also up.  Erika Nj Allen is the photographer from Guatemala.  She took pictures of immigrant families around Cincinnati.  The show explores stories of survival, belonging and the American Dream as it relates to Cincinnati’s rich immigrant community.

Cullen talked about noticing themes and ideas prevalent right now in terms of curating.  “They make a strong statement about the current art scene,” Cullen said.  She referred to current exhibits centering on how we make our voices heard.   All of the projects deal with that topic.

Artists form the core of Wave Pool and also run critique nights.  Cullen said “We can better support our artists when we partner with national and international artists.”

Yoshi Nakamura is the artist-in-residence from Japan from September 2020 – July 2021. A deaf artist, he does sound sculptures using sound as a medium.

Wave Pool supports artists in their professional development and helps them find their own voice.  As an artist in Cincinnati, there are opportunities for every kind of art according to Cullen.

Wave Pool does work with larger organizations such as the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Taft Museum of Art.  On October 3, there was a collaborative event with CAM on the Art Climb.  Artists and chefs from The Welcome Project gathered on the stairs for interactive activities.

Cullen remembered that she left Cincinnati after graduate school.  “I didn’t feel I had opportunities as an artist.”  Now, she is providing emerging artists a place to grow and develop.

“We work with so many partners and communities,” Cullen said to foster civic engagement.  Wave Pool is able to obtain support from the arts community.  We make art indispensable.  We have a lot of people reaching out to us from emerging artists to experienced artists.  We want to keep them engaged.  Demand is high.”

Another small nonprofit focusing on the arts is Elementz, an organization which features hip hop artists.  Located at 1640 Race St., Elementz has a staff of eight led by managing director Tom Kent.

Kent said, “Hip hop, in particular, is rooted in a call to social justice.  It is the amplified voice of those who are not in the mainstream, or at least, that is the way it started.  As hip hop goes mainstream, it still maintains the tradition of social messaging.  This is most obvious in the words of Spoken Word artists, but also can be heard in rap and the graffiti art medium.  Graffiti art has always been about making the invisible part of a community visible, particularly when it started in New York.  Today, when appreciated as an established art form, it is frequently used to highlight messages and people in our communities that have been overlooked.”

Kent said, “As curators of the local hip hop scene, we are locating and promoting talent from our culture that fits our message of respect and community.”

Elementz is primarily a music and dance organization, but there is a strong tradition of visual art in the hip hop culture.  Kent said, “As a result, we feel well-connected with local artists.  Many of our musicians and dancers are equally talented in visual arts and we teach visual arts (drawing, painting, sketching) as another form of artistic expression.”

“We like to use our art forms to interpret art from other cultures, which results in greater understanding among cultural traditions,” said Kent.  “For example, we have posted Spoken Word artists in the Cincinnati Art Museum to provide their own unique interpretation of traditional art works.  We have a long-running partnership with the Taft Museum in connection with their Duncanson artist series.  This summer, we co-created a work that combined a hip hop artist, Alex Stallings, with a violinist at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.  On October 22 they performed a piece for the Salon 21 concert series along with Mikael Darmanie, a guest pianist from New York.

Stallings is executive producer of the THRIVE concert series.  According to Kent, this initiative promotes emerging artists from hip hop culture to the community through concerts and this year through online performances.

Stallings moved here from Sacramento, California and wanted to retain his passion for the arts.  He did an open mic session at The Mockbee in Brighton for two to three years.  He did a series of pop up shows such as No Cool Kids Allowed every month.  Another series was called Lotus Room held at Kaze, now permanently closed, in Over-the-Rhine where there was a live sketch artist in addition to music. He started as an artist-in-residence at Elementz and later joined the organization full-time.

He referred to an example of social justice as murals that express what’s important such as Black Lives Matter located on Plum Street in front of City Hall.  Several artists who worked on the mural are connected to Elementz, including Brandon Hawkins, the mural’s lead artist.  Hawkins taught art at Elementz until COVID hit.  Asha White (pictured) is another artist on the mural.  She will soon be painting another mural at Elementz.

Stallings talked about what’s important in the city, such as police brutality, the LBQT community and bigotry.

Artists turn to boards and walls to convey their frustrations.  Stallings finds artists by walking around the city, having open mic sessions, going to shows and being involved with the community.  Kent said that there is a large group of hip hop artists who are known to one another, but many are unknown outside of smaller venues.

Elementz members created www.COVIsion19.org, a virtual display of words and dialogue from OTR residents, explaining the effect of COVID through words, music and visual art.  The exhibition provided a visitor an opportunity on a personal level to process what has happened since March such as working from home, the toll on one’s  emotional health, and new ways of interacting and socializing.  Also available are online videos on Instagram.  During COVID Stallings said people are enjoying watching the videos which introduce artists in the city.

Stallings said Elementz is a good place for emerging artists to start.  They know it is a haven where people can go.  There is also a hip hop orchestra which held auditions the week of October 19.   It will go into rehearsal in November.  Elementz staff have opened discussions with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for collaboration opportunities.

I also talked with Maria Seda-Reeder, a freelance curator, (pictured with her mother Kathleen) with deep roots in the arts.  Her undergraduate degree is in history (1999) and her master’s degree is in art history (2007) from DAAP at the University of Cincinnati.  She also has a certificate in museum studies.

Since 2011 she has taught a wide variety of art courses as an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati and has built a network of artists whom she respects.   She served on the board of Wave Pool from 2015 – 2017.  She left the board to become the exhibition coordinator at Wave Pool. She noted that Wave Pool pivoted quickly during COVID to offer groceries and voting information.

Seda-Reeder remains committed to Cincinnati as a place where artists can grow and develop.  She made a conscious choice to build community here.

She doesn’t see a direct correlation of art to social justice, but mentions that we are experiencing history now.  Artists who have lived a life of struggle are well aware of police brutality; but they aren’t necessarily depicting the violence in their art, according to Seda-Reeder.  She doesn’t always choose painting and sculpture, but looks for work that has an effect upon the audience and allows artists to speak their truths.

In addition, she is an independent curator in town and has launched several shows.  She averages two shows per year.  For example, in 2019 she curated two shows, Home Makers and The Blue Tarp. At the Contemporary Arts Center, she launched Into the Gloaming with artist Bubi Canal July – September 2019. The FotoFocus 2020 exhibition of Still They Persist:  Hindsight is 2020 is currently on view at DAAP’s Reed Gallery.  According to the website, “This show is a critical lens through which we may look at the progress (or lack thereof) that the United States of America has seen over the course of the past four years. This ever-evolving living archive features more than 300 unique objects of resistance, worn, carried, and made for activation in the streets: still our most democratic and accessible of all public forums.”

She curated a show, Love is Love:  Selections from the Michelle and Sara Vance Waddell Collection at Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and Museum in Hamilton from March – May 2020.  With COVID, several shows were pushed back to 2021.

She is regional in her art focus not competing with bigger cities, but stays connected to some of the larger markets.   Currently she is planning a show SHIFT:  Artists Thinking Globally and Acting Locally at the Riffe Gallery in Columbus July 29 – Oct. 9, 2021 where 14 – 16 artists who are socially minded use their images to reflect current concerns.

“My job as a curator is to support artists,” she said.  “I know their strengths and help them complete their vision.”  She works with living artists and values her relationship with them.  “We’re living in liquid times,” she added.

Curating for her is a slippery word.  While she focuses on contemporary art, the shows she curates vary according to the venue, artist, approach, subject and budget.  “You’re seeing the world through a different lens,” she said.  A curator has a complex task, including the show’s impact on the audience. When she sees the success of other curators, she said, “That’s a win for me when curators do well.”  They don’t always get the accolades.  As a freelance curator, she is beholden to the larger organizations which give her work.

“I look to larger organizations solely to act as an advocate for artists,” she said.  But, she noted that smaller arts organizations are more capable of pivoting than large ones.  During COVID, there is room to react.  Decisions can be made more quickly in smaller places.  “The larger places can learn from us,” she said.

How does she find artists?  “I talk to people constantly,” Seda-Reeder said.  She also has students who are sources.  As a result, she has five shows planned for 2021. She feels blessed to find the good in the art community and support from places such as The Weston Art Gallery and The Carnegie.  “I’m well aware of the long-term relationships in town.  I try to bridge the organization and the artists,” she said.  She doesn’t limit herself to visual artists in building a community.

Seda-Reeder says the power of art releases people from the drudgery of the world during COVID.

–Laura Hobson

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