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West Side Stories: Part Four

Bridging the gap: Art as social practice

In honor of the opening festivities surrounding the new Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, SMU Meadows brings you this five-part Web series exploring our connections with architect Santiago Calatrava, the new bridge and West Dallas. Stay tuned for a new story every day this week, leading up to opening celebrations on the bridge March 2-4. The bridge will open to vehicular traffic in late March or early April 2012.

Read Part Three: Meadows students help preserve heritage and culture of West Dallas

Josh Kumler spent a lot of time in Dallas as a first-year SMU Meadows theatre student, but he never ventured to the Trinity River or West Dallas.

That all changed his sophomore year when he enrolled in a new course called “Art as Social Practice.” Led by recent SMU M.F.A. (’11) graduate and artist-in-residence Bernardo Diaz, a handful of SMU Meadows students spent two days a week at the West Dallas Community Centers working with schoolchildren, focusing on collaboration, self-awareness and reflections of their West Dallas community.

On a typical day, the SMU students would spend an hour with the children playing games and helping with homework, followed by an hour engaging the kids in an activity, usually involving discussions about their community and learning to express their thoughts, feelings and observations through art and performance.

“One day we talked about what sorts of sounds they heard in their neighborhood,” says Kumler. “I led them in a theatre exercise where they created a symphony of sorts by recreating those sounds with their voices and adding rhythm. We later used this work when the kids collaborated with the Meadows Scholars for an installation at one of the West Dallas Community Centers.”

Kumler says the class pushed him to new levels. “I was taken out of my comfort zone, in both an artistic and personal sense,” says Kumler. “But I learned techniques for teaching elementary school students how to temper frustration and exude support, how to communicate with means greater than language.”

Diaz brought the Art as Social Practice class, which is part of the SMU Art Division, out into the community with events such as the “La Chilangaleria Invitational,” held at a local tacqueria. “We became very interested in the peculiarity of the space and the extensive vocabulary of its visual culture,” says Diaz of the “La Chilanga” tacqueria, where the event was held. Amid the shelves of canned food, toiletries, flower arrangements and curios, the students decided to organize an event where other artists were invited to create a work of art inspired by the wide variety of objects, colors, forms and patterns within the tacqueria. The art exhibited included drawings, paintings, prints, performance, video, writing and a makeshift instrument ensemble that the public was encouraged to play.

“The project emphasized the visual culture of the space as a positive element of the broader communal culture,” says Diaz. “We were able to bring attention to the small business while also bringing attention to that fact that it was in danger of displacement due to the impending urban renewal brought about by the new bridge.”

Mixing public art with urban planning dovetails into recommendations made to Dallas arts leaders by Creative Time, a New York-based arts incubator and Meadows Prize recipient, which issued a report in 2010 outlining best practices and recommendations for the Dallas art scene.

“For me, ’Art as Social Practice’ bridged the gap between the Meadows and West Dallas communities,” says Kumler. “I’m fairly positive I learned way more from teaching the children than they learned from me. But I’d like to think that maybe our being there, even just to one young person, illustrated the infinite possibilities of art and the beauty that each person is capable of. Ultimately I think that is the goal of the class and of any artist involved in social practice: proving to others they are capable of powerful self expression with voices that deserve to be heard.”

West Side Stories: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

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