Art in the public eye highlights community expression

Feb. 27, 2013

A public humanities project that began as an effort to help Latino youth express themselves through art has produced a gigantic mural, a moving documentary, and a new Madison youth collective, thanks to a partnership between University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate students and community partner Centro Hispano.

Photo: people painting a mural

Grad students working on a Public Humanities Exchange grant from the Center for the Humanities helped Madison-area Latino/a youth create a mural, documentary and ongoing collective to explore forms of creative expression.

During the fall semester, three Ph.D. candidates in UW-Madison's curriculum and instruction program — Eleni Schirmer, Jorge Rodriguez and Katrina Flores — worked with Centro Hispano youth and M.E.Ch.A., a UW-Madison student organization focused on Latina/o students, on Beyond Walls: Community, Meaning-Making and Murals.

Funded by the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities' Public Humanities Exchange, the project was intended to create art "for youth, by youth." The participants found it so inspiring, they joined together to form ExpresArte, a youth collective focusing on creative expression and storytelling to spur social change.

Flores says she and her fellow graduate students started out with their own ideas of how the project would unfold, based on instruction methodologies familiar to them. But they quickly discovered the value of listening and being flexible.

"We have learned a lot from the youth on this project," says Flores. "Not putting ourselves at the forefront allows us to be great allies, supporters and resources for them. It has been a joy to watch them grow and take ownership of this project."

ExpresArte, the youth collective that sprang from the graduate-student-led public humanities project, will show parts of the documentary, discuss the mural project, and share its vision for youth-fueled public art, on Friday, March 6, at the Public Humanities Conference, sponsored by the Center for the Humanities at the Pyle Center. The theme for the 6th annual conference is "Making Public."

The conference keynote will be delivered by Anne Pasternak, president and artistic director of Creative Time, a public arts organization based in New York City. The Wall Street Journal called Pasternak "an infectious visionary forging the path of public art." She's perhaps best known for Tribute in Light, two beams of light shot into the sky, mirroring the footprint of the World Trade Center after 9/11.

Also on the conference agenda: Faisal Abdu'Allah, interdisciplinary artist-in-residence at the UW-Madison Arts Institute, and Henry Drewal, professor of art history. Abdu'Allah is known for his iconographic imagery of power, race, masculinity, violence, and faith, intended to challenge values and ideologies. Drewal has studied and written on African art and thought, centering on the Yoruba-speaking peoples of West Africa.

"This will be a day to explore how arts and humanities shape different forms of public expression, particularly those that allow people to engage, through art, across cultural boundaries," says Lenora Hansen, coordinator of the Public Humanities Exchange program at the Center for the Humanities.

The annual Public Humanities Conference gathers scholars, community partners, and students at and around UW-Madison for a day that is dedicated to discussing the importance of literary, visual, and cultural engagement to the practice of public life. A complete agenda can be found here.

—Mary Ellen Gabriel