Marguerite Joyce Wood (MJ Wood)
The spirit of this residency is to DO GOOD! This is a short phrase my grandmother would say to her family as she sent them out into the world. My grandmother, who survived the Depression Era as a child, always had enough food and an extra place at the table for someone who had nothing and she always had her hand in a creative act: ceramics, painting, sewing, singing. She had a wall of shelves filled with parts, if something was broken, she could fix it.Marguerite Joyce Wood was very much of her generation and understood hand-work on an embedded level . . It was understood that you would do the best you could, make things the best you could, and you would strive to DO GOOD everyday.
Red Lodge Clay Center’s mission is to “Support art in everyday life”, which can be a profound means of social engagement. No doubt, the interest in socially engaged craft will continue to evolve and will not always have it’s current hot topic status. However, in this little town of Red Lodge, Montana, there is an opportunity to examine socially engaged work with diverse layers of community: townsfolk, ranchers, native populations, miners,etc. Here, we have a chance to make the genre better. . . . We have a chance to DO GOOD!
There is a current spike in the desire to investigate and create art that carries the classification of ‘social engagement’. It is a complicated classification and it is sometime treated as a new idea, but it’s not a new idea. It is sometimes mixed-in and mixed-up with craftivism, relational aesthetics, or performance art. It is definitely a genre that is interdisciplinary. An artist interested in developing socially engaged work needs to navigate the quality of the object(s) and the object(s) role as catalyst vs. an object’s inherent nature to stand on its own. Socially engaged artists also need to navigate community and develop an ear for listening to the community they wish to serve. Where and when does the object cease to be significant in that transaction? Art, craft, and fine craft objects, do plenty on their own without taking up the mantle of social justice. The act of creation is an act of autonomy, resistance, and/or celebration in and of itself. The idea of socially engaged art is fraught with peril and plenty of critics. . . and it should be. The genre is ripe with opportunities for bad craftsmanship and exploitation. But there is hope.
And there is a precedent for art to be used as a tool to turn the hearts and minds of individuals, of institutions, and of governments. Look up the work of Thomas Nast and see how a political cartoonist used imagery to break up the nefarious and corrupt Tammany Ring in the late 1800s. In 2004, Francis Alys walked along the armistice border in Jerusalem carrying a can filled with green paint with a small hole in it. As he walked the border, he physically marked it, drawing attention to an invisible wall. This work generated dialogue more than it changed policy. Theaster Gates brought a choir of 80 gospel singers and the work of Dave Drake into the Milwaukee Museum of Art in an act of recognition and retribution. In doing so, Theaster brought the face of the ‘other’ to the museum audience. There was dialogue, but was there systemic change? Countless ceramists have now created farm-to-table projects to draw attention to the plight of the farmers, the need for organic foods, the need for attention to slow crafted processes in tableware, vegetables, and dialogue over the table. Such events are so common now we need to start asking ourselves, who can actually afford to sit at that table? If we take the handcrafted wares to a soup kitchen, does that audience really need a handmade plate? Are we listening to need or forcing an elitist agenda? . . . Social engagement gets complicated quickly, but complications lead to questions and questions lead to the need for a safe space to explore . . . And so, the DO GOOD residency at Red Lodge Clay Center is here to serve in that capacity.
During my time in Red Lodge, I came to know various communities in and around Red Lodge, and recognized their receptive nature, their commitment to bettering the world and preserving it, and their active participation in upholding values they cleave to. For all of these reasons, the town and surrounding area seemed a great incubator for artists who wanted to develop or test socially engaged projects. I am counting on the community to keep makers true in their quest, that is, steering clear of exploitation. It is not so important that the projects in development be for the community of Red Lodge. The community is meant to act as a critical tool for the artists to utilize. The community is a mirror. The community will let you know when a project is plumb. It is up to each DO GOOD resident to reach out and utilize this resource independently.
RED LODGE CLAY CENTER:
One aspect of hosting a socially engaged residency at an organization like the Red Lodge Clay Center supports the need to focus on the quality of the objects, even if the object’s ultimate role is as a catalyst or by-product. Every step of a project should be well considered, including the objects. If the object is a by-product of an action within a community the artist is still the curator of the visual impact. Where are these objects going to live? Around a community garden, so the participants (who will know the story) will be reminded of the action? Perhaps the objects should be destroyed? Sometimes, socially engaged artists need to acknowledge that the object doesn’t matter. I think having the residency in a place where objects matter so much, can help keep DO GOOD residents honest about the role objects will play in their work and about the quality of the objects.