Taking art to communities: Saraga is site for exploring diverse culture 

Saraga International Grocery is the kind of place where anything seems possible. Hoards of ceramic vases as tall as a third grader share floor space with palettes of toilet paper. Rows of geographically arranged aisles offer up such diverse items as pesto paste, sushi plates, quail eggs, tazah jam, 50-pound bags of semolina and 49-liter tamale steamers. And that doesn't begin to fathom the fresh fish tanks or meat freezers.

From this big box store's bounty, you could throw an amazing party or start a small commune. Or you might make art.

"Learning about the World at the Grocery Story," a Spirit & Place event hosted at Saraga this Saturday, represents a cross-cultural collaboration between Portland-based artist Harrell Fletcher, Indy's own Big Car art collective, and Saraga shoppers, employees and neighbors. Unlike a traditional art show or other forms of public art, "Learning about the World" is a form of art in which artists engage the world around them.

Social practice art

"Art and social practice art functions in the opposite way that most people think of artists who make studio/gallery work," explains Fletcher, in an e-mail interview from Portland State University where he founded its Art and Social Practice program. Social practice artists often work with non-art mediums to create educational or site-specific events. Instead of calling on originality and individuality, it calls for artistic collaboration and public participation. Instead of creating a product for display or sale, it creates an experience.

For the Saraga experience, local artists worked from an idea by Fletcher to explore the diverse cultures represented within Saraga and its surrounding neighborhood, Lafayette Square. They talked with several area residents about their native and ancestral homes. Then, artists and "non-artists" prepared informational tri-fold poster boards (the kind usually reserved for school science fairs) on Venezuela, Mexico, Korea, India and other countries. Saturday, they will team up for bilingual presentations and food sampling at several stations throughout the store.

Though Fletcher created the structure for the art and will be in attendance on Saturday, he readily admits that in this and other community art events he has fostered around the world, local artists provided the content. In Indianapolis, he has found especially fertile ground for his work. The Saraga event is the last of eight community art projects created by Big Car artists in their yearlong series called "Made for Each Other."

Taking art to communities

Funded by a grant from Great Indianapolis Neighborhood Initiatives, "Made for Each Other" proposed to move public art out of the realm of cultural tourism in downtown locations to eight communities: the Southeast Side, the Near East Side, Martindale-Brightwood, the Binford Boulevard area, the Near West Side, West Indy, Crooked Creek, and Lafayette Square.

As with the Saraga event, each "Made for Each Other" project had community input and participation from conception to completion. Artists met community leaders at community centers and neighborhood association meetings and engaged residents directly in their schools, libraries, churches, senior centers, stores and even neighborhood pitch-in dinners. Final fall projects and celebrations in the series included a resident exhibition in a new community art space on the East Side and an environmental art installation and festival in Skiles Test Nature Park to the northeast.

"Art isn't just for 'other' people," says series curator Jim Walker, who launched "Made for Each Other," in part, to share his love of art with parts of Indianapolis that don't have direct or easy access to galleries, museums, and other art organizations.

As co-founder of Big Car, whose gallery is housed in Fountain Square, Walker has seen how art can enhance community life and how community can enhance art. Since 2004, Big Car has co-sponsored the neighborhood's annual Masterpiece in a Day art and writing competitions. Last year, Big Car gallery drew one of its biggest crowds with their community Big Foot Show, in which more than 500 Indy residents drew their own versions of the mythical monster.

The point of "Made for Each Other," Walker says, is not just to grow an audience for art, but also to explore the possibilities of art to grow communities. Can art create community conversations? Can it help residents tell their own stories?

In one "Made for Each Other" project, the community told their story through dance. Set up as a sort of artist in residence at the Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center, Melli Hoppe of the Susurrus performance group interviewed residents about West Indy's history and recorded them with videographer David Yosha. She then created a five-week rehearsal schedule bringing regular Susurrus performers together with residents, four children and one senior adult.

The group began rehearsals with a theme that emerged from the resident interviews, the pride West Indy residents take in working together, whether helping individual neighbors or raising funds for a neighborhood health center. Children in the troupe took turns interviewing the elder of the group to learn more about what connects West Indy's past to its present — good school days and bad ones, new bikes and family heartaches. Then, residents paired off with experienced performers to improvise movement that would become the base of two public performances.

Making collage creatures

"The kids never questioned the improvisational aspect," says Hoppe. Although some of them were used to hip-hop dance steps, the middle-school-aged group quickly adapted to the idea of using movement to tell a story.

Another "Made for Each Other" project, on the Near West Side, began with a brainstorming session in the Hawthorne Community Center. Community leaders were seeking ways to help unify three ethnically unique segments of their population: the predominantly African-American Haughville neighborhood, older residents of Appalachian heritage and newer Latino neighbors. Piggybacking on two annual community-wide events, Walker and artist Tom Streit offered to work with residents on two community ice-breakers: a collage exhibition and neighborhood mini-magazine.

While Streit and other writers researched magazine stories about community activists and Latino-owned businesses on Washington Street, Streit and Walker recruited residents at the Near West Side's fall picnic and other community spots to make "collage creatures" out of magazine clip art. Each collage creature was split lengthwise and connected to another resident's rendering. Each creator received a ticket for free dinner at Hawthorne's Hootenanny-Fiesta fundraiser, where the collages would be exhibited and magazines distributed.

"There's a light bulb that clicks," says Streit of adults returning to the art that many left behind in elementary school. He recalls that one man said emphatically that he couldn't do it, but then became immersed in creating a collage for more than an hour. "At the picnic, there were two other guys in their forties or fifties and one says to the other, 'Get out of yourself! Do something different.'"

Both Streit and Walker say that "Made for Each Other" has helped them get outside of themselves, too. Streit, who lives on the East Side, got to know and love the West Side through his magazine work.For the Saraga event, he got a taste of the immigrant life, as he struggled to understand someone else's language and how to cook their food.

"It's exciting to ask questions and to explore what's unexplored," says Walker, who likens social practice art to journalism in the way it gets artists to seek out new and diverse points of view. For residents, these varied neighborhoods are simply home. To the artists involved, they represent a new medium and a broader palette.

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