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Works of Art(Works)

By Kathy Y. Wilson · September 17th, 2003 · Your Negro Tour Guide
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Society rarely consults youth culture except to blame them. I linked with ArtWorks a few years back to shadow poet and actor Saul Williams when he came here to lead ArtWorks' apprentices in workshops. The following summer jessica Care moore, Williams' publisher/fellow slam poet and slam survivor, was commissioned to lead a new group of writing apprentices.

She's a flashpoint of controversy based mainly but not solely on her working mantra that "all language is lethal." And a controversy erupted over an apprentice's poem and its unflinching depiction of ArtWorks honcho Tamara Harkavy.

It was clash of the bitches. Delicious to watch.

And the media -- including and especially CityBeat -- fed frenziedly. It unfolded issues of censorship, control, artistic freedom and expression and communication between employer and employee.

Not to digress. Harkavy herself will cop that she's controlling -- a bitch, even. So what?

I don't think she feels maternal about ArtWorks, her eight-year-old arts employment program. She is protective and anxious. Every dollar, every job and every contact counts.

That she's been dissected in the media for administrative decisions -- including her choices of public art exhibitions -- has something to do with gender bias but more to do with her vulnerability to criticism because of her moderate profile.

This year Ursula Rucker, a Philadelphia-based poet, came to teach the writers. In addition to writing the requisite article, this summer I was a part-time teacher with Dean Blase in the Editorial Ink project, one of ArtWorks' 11 arts-based employment programs. (See Generation Vexed for the cover story on Editorial Ink.)

Imagine the rant of this column in Technicolor, and that's what it was like in the corner womb of an emptied Cincinnati Art Museum gallery.

Our six writers started a little meek and mumbling, and Dean and I pounded and questioned. We pushed and encouraged.

In turn, they helped me be less lazy. It's one thing to present a finished column. It's quite another to explain, defend and illustrate the arduous path leading to what's finished.

If growing up I'd had anything remotely similar to ArtWorks, I'd have saved a decade of my life lost to the tic of "Who am I, what is my purpose and will I ever get paid to create?" For its faults -- and there are plenty -- the end result is that ArtWorks validates and employs.

In between soliciting apprentices, interviewing, reviewing portfolios and planning events and programs that ultimately birth books, paintings, pigs, poems, clothing and benches, administrators struggle toward diversity among themselves and within the ranks of apprentices. Its staff resembles a gaggle of Stepford Well-Educated White Girls, and in this way what ArtWorks most fights against is also what it most resembles -- sameness.

But have others made themselves known?

At summer's end, the year's planning is deconstructed and flipped over and Harkavy and her team do better next time. Still, complaints remain.

I've heard from the black creative class who previously worked for Harkavy, and they say she basically doesn't get it.

When I was 14 years old, I wrote sentences but there was no controlled environment, no professional writers and no other geeky teenagers around me to tether, to nurture, to teach. That's what ArtWorks does.

I'm thinking now of barely 14-year-old Jocelyn Nicole Taylor, our youngest editorial writer, who's already learned to see life in sentences. She's got an eye that doesn't ignore the reappearing trash in her neighborhood, the shopping cart affixed to a telephone pole or that the tail-wagging-the-dog-days of war says she's supposed to be caught up in post-war guilt.

She barely spoke all summer, and I don't think I saw her smile or laugh. But she can write.

Then there's Miles Wolfley, a wild-haired 15-year-old editorial cartoonist I took to calling "The Monster." He killed me with his renderings and subject matter -- all blunt trauma and unfiltered truth.

His fellow teenaged cartoonists are some of the most talented young visual artists I've known. Like Wolfley, they stood beside their work and explained their processes during our weekly crits.

Along with Thom Shaw, Mike Maydak and Ramsey Ford, Blase and I put it down on these kids. Even if they don't pursue what they were paid this summer to do, I know they emerged with something, if only a new idea.

Teaching is exhaustive. I did it only twice weekly, and I'd take the days between to decompress. I was on overdrive with our apprentices because I recognized the significance of standing at the intersection of time, attention and talent -- theirs, not mine.

We're only as good as our children. We fail them when we find only fault and don't bother to work with them to discover their redemption.

Call Harkavy a bitch if you wanna. But I saw ArtWorks work wonders.



Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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