This essay by Josiane Keller explains a remarkable project she undertook with Portland’s street youth. It is one of the most poignant and creative of all posts submitted to CFile. In addition to this easy, the full project is illustrated and annotated in other posts in this issue.
My original training is in functional pottery and I also hold a Masters in Contemporary Studio Arts with a focus in Painting but I also trained and worked in other media, for example performance-based work, but I have little background in lens-based media. I won a small award in the London Photographic Awards 1999 for two photographs I had entered on a whim, and through that I got a position as a stage photographer for the contemporary theater director Tony Chen. But aside from that, I neither trained nor worked in photography until 2102.
This project was born partially out of frustration with the marketing of ceramic figures in the US.
My training in the UK encouraged me to base my art on a psychological or sociological topic. I am not at all design-orientated.
From 2004-2008 I lived in Oregon. There are many well-known figurative ceramic artists in the nearby Seattle area. I saw plenty of their work and met some of them in person. I had taken time out from painting and the high profile art market and instead sold semi-functional ware mainly through a gallery in Seattle. Since I love making figures the question soon came up as to whether I should make figures in ceramics as well.
What I saw mainly in the galleries were ceramic figures that didn’t match what I wanted my own work to do. They were over-decorated and the discussion pivoted around how they were constructed, glazed and fired, rather than what the final piece was supposed to communicate.
At the time I was also teaching several painting classes, often to society’s outsider groups such as mentally ill clients or young offenders, but also to regular housewives. With German Expressionism being one of my big influences I tried to draw the students away from the notion that they had to create with the visual information learned from exposure to color photographs. Rather, I suggested they raise their awareness and use their personal visual experiences and visual memories.
As the instructor the classes were an eye-opening experience for me, because in order to teach my students I had to first clarify my own questions of visual experience and visual memory. Interestingly, around New Year 2012 I learned that I am face-blind and I have been very nearsighted since early childhood. Although I am using contact lenses, a certain blurriness in an image looks always more natural for me than an image in focus.
I realized that I could and should apply the same optical experience in my ceramic work. This in itself was an important realization, because looking back at bodies of work I had completed in the past, the topics that had most interested me were reoccurring, irrelevant of media. So I might just combine different media into one process. This was the birth of making and using ceramic figures as models in my photographs and later in stop-motion animation films. But the thought-process and the solutions took time, two years to be specific.
The other reason to work this way was pragmatism. I wanted to work once again with street youth from Oregon, whom I had met in particular at a social program in Portland called p:ear. I had in the past been showing my artwork in their gallery and also been teaching workshops, in one case painting on small ceramic items. In 2011 they offered Barista training at p:ear.
My first idea for a collaboration was to transfer designs made by the youth onto coffee-cups, fire them and send them back to p:ear for the Cafe-cart they were running at the time.
That way the kids would experience the complex process of planning, designing and finally creating a piece of art, albeit a cup. But the project fell through because of irregular participation and a budget shortage. However from a couple of designs submitted to me, I could already see an interesting diversity emerging.
In 2012 I had decided not to do functional ware any longer but to return to Fine Art. I came up with the idea to do an interview project with the kids. Although people teach workshops there and exhibit along with them in art shows there is little discussion about each youth’s personal history that caused to him or her to become homeless at such a young age. I think the interest is there, just perhaps a certain shyness that prohibits questions.
I wrote a simple interview structure of three main questions: personal history, daily life routines and -if a person wanted- a particular story or statement. Instead of me doing the art all by myself I decided to include the kids as much as possible in the process.
The kids gave me instructions, as detailed as possible, for making a small-scale figure as their stand-in. The figure could be true to nature or alternatively, if wanted, also an alter ego.
Originally I had planned to travel to Oregon and collect the interviews in recordings, but as the mother of a young daughter that turned out to be impossible for me. Sending a recording device turned out not to be feasible for many reasons. So I came up with the simple solution of writing paper-questionnaires, which I sent to p:ear where any person who wanted to participate could fill it out. The completed questionnaires would be sent back to me by mail.
I soon realized that the great advantage of written questionnaires is that I could neither see nor hear (and thus identify) the participants. They could maintain complete anonymity, which allowed the freedom to talk openly about any personal, intimidating, embarrassing or controversial topic.
This project, as opposed to the cup-decorating project the year before, turned out to be a success. I collected 20 questionnaires, of which five were filled out by staff or volunteers working at p:ear. Most people stated their street names, only one person, as far as I know, used an alter ego. Whilst the staff and volunteers generally mentioned somewhere during the texts that they were actually working at p:ear it struck me that in many ways their personal life history matched that of the street youth. Many did mention that at times they either had lived on the street or were close to doing so.
Reading the experiences made it clear that there is no single type of person who could end up on the street. Also it seemed to be not very difficult. It takes only a few factors to end up on the streets in the USA. There was a great variety of characters and life histories. An additional bonus was that the kids had filled in the questionnaires by hand, which gave an additional sense of a certain character. Some people wrote a lot, others drew and doodled. One person hardly wrote any words, but responded to every question with a drawing.
I worked on the other side (literally the other side of America) trying my best to tune into the various stories I had received and trying to find a way to express the narration and the personality in a ceramic figure. I had reserved only one element: that each of the figures would be wearing bunny-ears, a symbol I used in all my artwork from 2008-2012.
I first developed this during a research year in the Manga department at Seika University of Art in Kyoto/Japan, where I had developed a body of work on “the role of woman in Japan.” Originally the bunny-ears were used as symbol of faked female submission, but over time I expanded it onto all my human figures, male and female, as a symbol of human naivety, false hope, but also being proud and brave. I felt these characteristics matched very well with the character of adolescent youth. For that reason in early 2014 I held a “de-earing ceremony” of all the ceramic figures (which I had kept in storage), which I also documented in a body of photographs (“I’m going into the forest”) as a “coming-of-age ceremony.”
I had asked the youth not only to describe how they look (or better how the figure representing them should look), but also to describe to me their favorite surrounding where the figure should be set (and “live”). At this point the project took on a strong element of doll-play.
The kids came up with all sorts of surroundings, an overhang on a hill overlooking a train station, Burnside Bridge or the Portland Public Library. This raised two issues I had to solve: first all the kids described specific landmarks in Portland. But by this stage of the project I had moved once more, this time to Cleveland.
Instead of superficially reassembling the scenes the kids had described, I decided to find places that could symbolically stand in for the settings. This made the project even more interesting as I had to look around a city very different from Portland and attempt to translate visually their equivalent location somewhere else.
The second issue was that the figures were small, about 10 inches tall. The settings I chose were not miniature but life size. This produced the surreal quality of the photographs, and I developed a style I am still using now, staging a form of street photography aesthetic working in black and white with strong contrasts and a lot of “motion blurriness.” Of course since the figures are static, I achieve this effect by moving the camera.
By turning a 3-dimensioal object into a 2-dimensional object I could eliminate all the aspects that had annoyed me so much in the discussion of figurative ceramic, but still use the figures as the essential element within an artistic image.
As mentioned, I have neither formal training in photography nor did I have a pre-set idea of what shape this project was to take. It developed as I went along. I felt very much in touch with this part of the project even though the subjects were far away.
Writing a daily blog on my website allowed documenting every step for each questionnaire I was working on, from initial sketches to references within traditional and historical art history, forming the figures, bisque fire, decorating them with iron-oxide (hence the part in the titles “painted”), firing them again and setting out to take the pictures. Generally I took between 30 to almost 200 photographs per figure to achieve the perfect shot. I also wrote this blog so the kids, who often use the Internet, could follow what I was doing with their interviews.
The whole project took nine months (from the original sending out of the questionnaires to the final exhibition in Portland), exactly the same time as a pregnancy. It sounds like a lot of work and it was, but I consider this project also as potentially my most important and most eye-opening art project to date and I am deeply grateful to the youth for their trust and time.
After the show I sent out follow-up questionnaires to find out how the participants felt about having taken part in this project and if they considered it successful or not. To my great excitement this time some of those kids who had earlier been very reluctant to opening up, wrote very interesting thoughts in the feedback forms. Generally they were proud and happy about drawing attention to their situation as youth living on the streets and would be happy to take part in a similar project again, which was a great personal satisfaction.
By now most participants have moved on to other states or have outgrown the p:ear program, which can only accommodate youth until age 24. Meanwhile, I developed an experimental stop-motion animation technique based on the photographs taken from the ceramic models. I generally do not favor any particular story over another one, but I feel they all belong together as a whole.
I am hoping to make a particular stop-motion animation of one the participants, “Cookie,” who is Native American. He was instructed how to cook meth by his father on the native reservation where he grew up until he left at age 15. When I read details about Cookie’s life it became so clear there are bad situations in which it is pointless to look for the “culprit.” The culprit is society and often, like in this case, it goes back many generations. I only wish that people become aware of this and consequently assume responsibility to make life fairer for everyone as a (diverse) group, instead of the privileged ones who match elitist criteria.
Josiane Keller is a Cleveland artist working with photography and with ceramics in a 2-D environment.
Above image: All the subjects in Josiane’s project rendered as ceramic sculptures.
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