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In all honesty, it’s hard writing about an initiative called, “Intentionally Welcoming Communities,” in our current political and cultural climate. On a local level, we are struggling with the controversy surrounding the violent arrest of Genele Laird, which has enflamed the community around issues of racism and police brutality. On a national level, we are grieving over the tragedy of the mass shooting and hate crime in Orlando, a cocktail of xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, and the fight over gun control. On an international level, we are trying to understand, while also arguing about, the many implications of Great Britain leaving the European Union, from the economic impact Brexit will have to the tensions over how the upcoming US presidential election could turn out.

This is hardly a time when anyone feels very welcome. In all of the splintering conversations surrounding race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration, religion, politics, and privilege, one thing we may all have in common right now is an overwhelming sense of insecurity and conflict. We are in many ways at a societal gridlock, we are heavy with grief, and yet more than ever, we have work to do and an occasion to rise to.

When art director John Steines started the collaborative, public art initiative called “Intentionally Welcoming Communities,” his primary goal was to get people asking themselves the question, “What am I doing to make this community more welcoming?” The project currently features artworks installed outdoors at Union Corners, where Winnebago Street and 6th Street intersect. This is the site of the current development of mixed-use buildings on Madison’s near east side.

Steines led the construction of a structure inspired by the communal longhouses of First Nations. He wanted to use the metaphor of the longhouse to bring together different people in one space. “It’s always a risk to do injustice to the subject matter,” Steines remarks. “This is First Nations land and look at what happened to them. So I wanted to bring this structure back, bringing First Nations people into the project. And it needed to not be my vision, but a collaborative, community effort.”

The structure is inspired by the First Nations' longhouses. It is constructed with willow and interwoven with painted canvas pillars.
The structure is inspired by the First Nations’ longhouses. It is constructed with willow and interwoven with painted canvas pillars.

Interwoven with the longhouse are 2-by-8 foot canvas pillars, each one created by a different community organization from Madison. Steines asked each organization to make a pillar in response to the question, “What makes you feel welcome in your community?” and for community members who view the work to ask themselves the questions, “What am I doing to work with these different groups?”

In discussing what it was like working on this project, Steines explained, “Many of these groups sense isolation. They know they’re not alone, but they’re not connected. And it’s hard with the structure of some of them to work collaboratively.

“Working with organizations like Badger Boys and Art Working was perhaps the most challenging because they expressed the feeling of not being welcome at all,” he continued. “But if we cannot address these experiences honestly, without sugarcoating, then we can’t heal. We need to talk about the tendency to be comfortable with our own groups, to be afraid of ‘the other,’ and to ‘protect’ ourselves by staying with what we know.

“There is a wellness component to this,” Steines adds. “We need to understand wellness from a community perspective, not only an individual perspective. For example, many of these organizations, they’re focused inward. UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence, for example, is culturally focused and addressing PTSD of their members. It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If the people in your community don’t feel safe and secure, they will have a much harder time connecting and contributing more greatly.”

Another piece, suspended and spinning in a tree, is Thomas Ferrella’s sculpture, 1World. The pentagonal sculpture features different portraits on each of its five faces. Ferrella photographed the subjects from behind frosted Plexiglas, so that their faces appear out of focus. “We need to stop emphasizing our differences and start talking about our shared values and common ground,” Ferrella says.

That’s true enough, and yet a world with high disparity is fertile ground for comparison and rampant discrimination. Democracy can become its own worst enemy and a different type of dictatorship via majority rule. In this way, art plays an uncomfortable, yet critical role, especially in tense political times. Art by its nature challenges the assumptions of the masses. It is frequently the messenger of “bad” or “unpopular” news. Maybe this is because of how art can act as a mirror for who we are, and right now, when we look at our reflections, we don’t like what we see.

Thomas Ferrella's 1World, metal & Plexiglas.
Thomas Ferrella’s 1World, metal & Plexiglas.

But art can also be a projector, a predictor for whom we wish to become. This is the role of political art, to tell the truths that marketers won’t sell to us, to bear the news that fascist regimes try to stamp out, and to guide us towards seeing critically without becoming hateful. We have to be willing to accept the current state of whom we are and to work with it. We have to be willing to see how we have all been complicit with recent crises, not to blame, but to each take our share of the responsibility.

The challenge is to be passionate about our shared goal of unity with diversity and to not allow ourselves to be leveraged against one another based on our biases. We all have biases, and as human beings, we have a choice to recognize the negativity they may bring out of us, and then to let them pass. “You need a healthy system,” Steines states. “A healthy system allows you to enter and to go through the necessary transitions to become whom you need to be, not somebody else’s idea of whom you need to be.”

In conjunction with the art installations, artist couple Johnny and Marie Justice have been interviewing people in Madison, asking the question, “What are you doing to make our community more welcoming?” They are creating a documentary from these interviews. The documentary’s premier will follow the end of the art installation and it will travel with the pillars from the longhouse to each of the participating organizations to review and discuss what it means to be a part of an intentionally welcoming community. Anyone is welcome to attend these premiers, and in the process, become introduced to these organizations and learn more about their role and needs in our city.

“The community will have to grapple with what the motto ‘intentionally welcoming’ means,” Steines says. “I wasn’t sure at first if we should use the word — intentionality — because a lot of people stumble over it. I wondered, is it blocking participation if people get stuck on that word? But Thomas and Susan (two of the artists in the show) argued that the intentionality is the important part.

Thomas Ferrella's 1World, metal & Plexiglas. The rudders catch the wind, enabling the sculpture to spin.
Thomas Ferrella’s 1World, metal & Plexiglas. The rudders catch the wind, enabling the sculpture to spin.

“Intentional implies work. In this case, a willingness to work on the issue that our communities are not fully welcoming in the way they could be,” he adds. “In other words, it requires taking an active role, despite whatever failings we might think we individually bring to a process/group/community. You need to trust that there are others who share your conviction, and that you can connect. You need a lot of trust.”

That’s a fair reminder. After all, our work is not done when we celebrate or praise the artist for making something beautiful, but when we find ourselves through the work. Art can destroy boundaries and aid us in bringing together different groups to work together. But it requires the observer, a willing participant, to go deeper. That is the beginning of the cultural echo, of the things we talk about as a community then shaping who we are nationally and internationally. “You don’t need to be scrutinizing the outsider,” Steines states. “You need to be looking at yourself. And you may find that you’re connected with others in a way you don’t even know about.”

The installation will remain at Union Corners until July 23rd, after which you can refer to the Intentionally Welcoming Communities Facebook page to learn where you can see the documentary and partake in this conversation.

Written by Jenie Gao

Jenie Gao

Jenie Gao is an artist and writer who likes to get to the root of how things work, a “Jen” of all trades, master of some, enough to be dangerous on others.

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