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Class Led by MacArthur Fellow Rick Lowe Uses Art to Build Up One of Dallas’s Most International - and Challenged - Neighborhoods

Art and Social Practice class helps Vickery Meadow express experiences of immigration, isolation and the unexpected arrival of America’s first case of Ebola.

Tasby Middle School Principal Anthony Mays (in middle, with hard hat) meeting with SMU Meadows students. Photo courtesy of Sally Kim (B.F.A. Art ’15).

The “Culture Quarantine” class project logo is an interpretation of the biohazard icon.

Ethiopian woman at “The Lucky Pot” community gathering in 2013 in Vickery Meadow.

Residents gathered for “The Lucky Pot” community event in 2013.

Rick Lowe. Photo licensed under a Creative Commons license. Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

This was not your typical classroom.

Meeting weekly in a storefront in Vickery Meadow, SMU Meadows students taking Art and Social Practice (ASAG 3315) in fall 2014 with Adjunct Instructor and 2014 MacArthur Fellow Rick Lowe spent a semester forging unforgettable experiences in one of Dallas’s most international – and challenged - neighborhoods.

Vickery Meadow is a high-density patchwork quilt of low-income families from diverse backgrounds. It is home to people from 120 countries who speak over 25 languages, including Spanish, Nepalese, French, Swahili, Hindi and Arabic, among others.

Lowe, best known for his “social sculpture” work with the Project Row Houses initiative over the past 20 years in Houston’s Third Ward, brought his practice of community-shaping to Dallas in 2013. With the help of a grant from the Nasher Sculpture Center’s “XChange” program, Lowe spent months establishing the “Trans.lation: Vickery Meadow” initiative.

One of the first things he did was listen to the residents. He learned that many felt a sense of isolation as they struggled with language and cultural differences. Early on he noticed that the neighborhood had no public spaces where people could gather and get to know one another.

To help the residents form a sense of shared community, Lowe, along with artists-in-residence, donors and community members, worked to open three “white cubes,” small outdoor galleries where residents could get together to make, display and sell their art. In spring 2014, Trans.lation created a potluck-style event where residents brought native foods from their countries to share with others. And in summer 2014, Trans.lation opened a storefront next to small businesses frequented by the residents.

By fall 2014, Meadows’ Art and Social Practice class was ready to learn how to use art and community engagement to foster social change in the heart of Vickery Meadow.

Responding to the unexpected

Lowe urged the students to take charge of shaping the class project. They started out talking with the residents as they worked to figure out a way to embrace, promote and spread the word about the cultural diversity of Vickery Meadow.

They decided to ask local schoolchildren to draw art depicting their heritage, which would be displayed at the Trans.lation white cube galleries and then be turned into postcards.

But before the Meadows class could approach a local school, the project shifted abruptly after Thomas Duncan, the first patient to come down with Ebola in America, was admitted to nearby Presbyterian Hospital in September 2014.

Duncan, who had recently arrived from Liberia, had been staying in a Vickery Meadow apartment while he visited with family. His diagnosis touched off a chain reaction of fear throughout Dallas, most intensely felt in Vickery Meadow. Residents started staying indoors. Some kept their children home from school. School volunteers stopped coming. Businesses surrounding Presbyterian and the Vickery Meadow areas reported a noticeable drop in business.

The sense of isolation in Vickery Meadow was amplified.

The Meadows students recognized that their initial idea of focusing on heritage needed to shift to address the immediate and significant impact that the Ebola scare was having on the neighborhood. They dubbed their class project “Culture Quarantine” and developed a logo reflecting hope amid fear – an interpretation of the biohazard icon, only with gentle colors and flower petals emanating from the familiar circular rays.

According to M.F.A. art student Anansi Knowbody (’15), once the local Tasby Middle School got the “all clear,” the SMU class went to talk with Tasby Principal Anthony Mays. They wanted to work with the Tasby students by asking them to create art that expressed their experiences with the Ebola scare.

“He was excited to see us,” says Lowe. “Even though the Ebola scare was way behind them, the school had been stigmatized by it. He was relieved to see visitors at the school.”

Mays says the Meadows class project allowed him to see the inside of his students’ minds. “They provided me with a visual depiction of what it felt like to deal with such stress and trauma,” he says. “I was surprised and amazed when I saw students depicting images of Grim Reapers and dark clouds with the word ‘Ebola’ throughout, or even images of the low-flying helicopters hovering over our campus.

“I am appreciative of the students from SMU encouraging my students to reflect and share their perspectives.”

Although the semester came to an end before the art project with Tasby could be completed, Knowbody says that six of the Meadows classmates will follow up with Tasby, show some of the middle schoolers’ artwork in a Trans.lation white cube, and include some of the images and comments in a blog they are creating about their class project experience.

Takeaways

The Meadows students say the class has broadened their thinking and their understanding of how art and relationships can help a community.

“The art of the project promotes not only thought or perspective but community engagement and action,” says Sally Kim, a sophomore pursuing a B.F.A. in art. “The great aspect of this art practice is that you know that whatever the project is, the goal of it is to do something. The motives of the project are not going sit in a gallery or be a one-time thought, but actually engage people in a direct way.”

“I learned how to work collaboratively with other people,” says Alex Monroe, a junior double majoring in art and in advertising. “People were … completely transparent in sharing what their experiences living in Vickery Meadow were like.”

Kim concurs. “Rick really gave us a real-life simulation of how it is to conduct a social art project,” says Kim. “He gave us a lot of insight into his past experience working with Project Row Houses and all of the variables of social art. He loosely guided us through our project but really left us to implement the project on our own. It's difficult to work with people and communities, but that was the point: to give us a raw experience of social art as an art and a project.”

Lowe said going through the process with the 12 Meadows students was a good experience. “The students were smart, compassionate and enthusiastic,” he says. “I enjoyed working with them very much.”

About Rick Lowe

In 2014, Lowe was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. In 2013, he was appointed to the National Council for the Arts by President Barack Obama. Lowe is a board member at the Menil Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation, and was on the artist council at the Hammer Museum at UCLA. Lowe has received awards from a number of prestigious organizations including Creative Time, Skowhegan and the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has been the subject of numerous scholarly studies and critical debates, especially Project Row Houses, which he founded 20 years ago, and the Trans.lation project in the Vickery Meadow area of Dallas.

As an adjunct instructor during the fall 2014 semester at Meadows School of the Arts, Lowe taught Art and Social Practice using the Trans.lation project as a training ground. Students combined practice with theory, readings, research, project planning and execution, and in-person relationship building with residents of the Vickery Meadow neighborhood in Dallas.

Lowe attended Columbus College and studied visual arts at Texas Southern University in Houston. He is an artist-in-residence at the Nasher Sculpture Center and a Mel King Community Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His work has been exhibited at such national and international venues as Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum and Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, and the Venice Architecture Biennale. His other community building projects have included the Arts Plan for the Seattle Public Library, the Borough Project for the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina and the Delray Beach Cultural Loop in Florida, among others.

Read more about the Vickery Meadow Trans.lation project on Facebook or in a Dallas Observer article; read more about the Division of Art at SMU Meadows School of the Arts; read more about conceptual artist Rick Lowe.

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