I was saying goodbye to a friend at their farewell DJ set in Deep Ellum when I saw Carol Zou for the first time. She was the only person dancing. I can’t recall the song that was playing, or the people we knew who surrounded us, but for a second, I joined her. It was a small space and we shared it.
The work of Carol’s life is to share spaces and change them, whether she’s helping an artist hang banners to further expose crisis-level housing inequality in West Dallas, teaching a painting and drawing class to immigrants in Vickery Meadow, or spinning at bring-your-own-vinyl nights in the city. For one, I was instructed to bring selections of femme-punk or shoegaze. Carol chose to play the Jesus and Mary Chain.
“Most people see their practice confined to a certain space or a certain medium. But I think that when your form or medium is social relationships that takes you to a lot of places, and they’ve taken me to places I didn’t expect,” she explains.
And the next one will be Philadelphia, where she’s taken a new position at Asian Arts Initiative. Her two years in Dallas ended this week.
Carol, 29, is a first-generation Chinese immigrant. She moved from Los Angeles to Dallas to complete her Masters of Fine Arts from Otis College in Public Practice, earning her degree in part as a volunteer for Vickery Meadow’s Trans.lation. She then became its director. Trans.lation is where her heart is: “arts education and programming as a way of cultivating leadership, economic development, and social cohesion amongst black, Latinx, immigrant, refugee, and communities of color,” as the mission statement reads.
Founded in 2013 by Rick Lowe, of Project Row Houses renown, Trans.lation started out as a series of six community market projects within the Vickery Meadow neighborhood. The community responded so well to the markets, they stayed and became a symbol of self-representation, empowerment and expression for Vickery Meadow and its residents.
“When I arrived in Dallas, I didn’t expect to go to OCA [Office of Cultural Affairs] meetings. That is not part of how I identified myself as an artist,” Carol says. “But as I got deeper into the work of fundraising for Trans.lation and thinking about how we were going to support artists in Trans.lation, and also outside artists that come and work with Trans.lation, I realized that if I wanted this to work, I had to go to the Office of Cultural Affairs. That’s where I started moving between different sectors.”
Carol found someone else trying to move between city institutions and artist- or community-led initiatives, and they leaned on one another. Darryl Ratcliff has worked most closely with Carol during her time in Dallas. They began a citywide conversation to push cultural equity in the arts with the Michelada Think Tank and directed large-scale projects together, most notably April’s Decolonize Dallas initiative. When the city censored that project — it removed banners by Angela Faz that gave voice to Hispanic and Latinx residents who hoped to stay in their West Dallas homes amid a surge of development — Carol and Darryl wrote an op-ed about it. They also threw double-birthday parties.
“I actually think that a lot of our more impactful work is behind the scenes,” Carol says, “not that producing exhibitions isn’t important but often when you think about transforming people in power or really transforming people to act on behalf of cultural equity, that happens on a one-on-one basis, that happens in sit-down conversations, that’s not something that’s performed for the public good.”
How to begin?
Carol’s purpose, no matter where she is, is to mobilize and affect change through art for underrepresented and marginalized communities in Dallas, and to create and enable cultural leaders.
“The average person who doesn’t think of themselves as an artist can start to see themselves as an artist by starting to see what they already do as art,” she says. “So, my aesthetic tends to have a very do-it-yourself, very media approach, because those are the forms that people start to work in. They start to work in zines, they start to work in printmaking, murals, etcetera.”
Crafting and DIY encourage affordable mediums for artists. Carol organized Yarn Bombing Los Angeles to impose text and images on public spaces, usually guerilla-style. The collective knit “BLACK LIVES MATTER” onto a chain-link fence outside the Craft and Folk Art Museum in 2015 to encourage those protesting the murder of black citizens by police officers, for example. When her work expanded in Dallas, she learned the ins and outs of fundraising and grantwriting.
The Decolonize Dallas project linked participating artists of color to other institutions that took notice of their work. And it gave Carol a chance to work closely with artists like Tamitha Curiel, who received a special support grant from the City of Dallas after a grantwriting workshop Carol led.
“I actually think that individual artists, do-it-yourself spaces and smaller arts organizations are the culture creators in this city. I think what I am seeing, which I’m super hopeful about, is a crop of artists that are really interested in the socio-political implications of their work. As someone who works in socially engaged art, that’s obviously super exciting to me and I’m super happy to have peers and colleagues working in the space.”
A lonely process
When Carol came to Dallas, she left behind a strong radical artist community and a connected Asian-American community, two things she felt nourished by in Los Angeles. In Dallas, Sara Mokuria was an anchor. She co-founded Mothers Against Police Brutality and was a project manager at Trans.lation. “[Carol’s] lived in other cities where she had more of a network of folks that were on the same page and connected and [so] could push her body of work further and I feel like being here, she was asked to and stepped up and created more. So she was more in a building stage,” Sara says.
“She grew a vegetable garden in hell. Not to say Dallas is a wasteland — we don’t have some of the energy and synergy that other cities have in both the organizing. In other cities there’s this connection and this vitality that exists between organizers, activists and artists and that energy and synergy isn’t here — or hasn’t been here,” Sara says. “She’s really helped cultivate that fertile ground for that to grow.”
“Sometimes it can feel very, very lonely,” Darryl says. “But there are like-minded people here who will be your community. So, seek that out as well because it gets lonely sometimes when you’re speaking truth to power.”
This week Carol moved out of her one-bedroom Vickery Meadow apartment where she very recently solved her rat infestation and caved-in ceiling caused by an ongoing leak that served as the backdrop to our second interview.
She’s headed to Philadelphia, to take on the role of Director of Programs for Asian Arts Initiative, an organization that started back in 1993 as a result of tension between the black and Asian populations due to the Rodney King verdict and the uprisings in Los Angeles that were felt across the nation.
The new position was created within the organization and sparked a prolonged national search. Carol quickly rose to the top, according to Executive Director Gayle Isa.
“From the beginning, we’ve been motivated by and committed to looking at racialized dynamics and seeking artistic and creative solutions to try to create a stronger sense of racial equity or justice, she says. “Interviewing Carol, it was very clear that she has a really smart political analysis and I think brings a lot of the social justice values that we have as an organization.”
“The fact that she comes from such a strong visual arts background and social practice perspective was something that resonated well with us as we were really looking for someone who would be able to manage the diversity of staff, and artist and community members who work with us as an organization.”
Carol’s first order of business in Philly will be taking on a key leadership role with a guest curator on Asian Arts Initiative’s 25th anniversary. This includes a city-wide exhibition featuring artist installations and performances at multiple sites throughout the city, to help her to get oriented and build networks in her new city.
the dallas way
Many count it a loss that Carol, the loud voice of Dallas’ Vickery Meadow neighborhood, social artist, decolonize-r of Dallas and, as I like to call her, an “aggressive unifier,” is leaving.
Carol wrote a poem over a week ago on her Texangelena blog, upon finding out she was leaving Dallas for the job in Philadelphia. It’s called “the dallas way,” in deliberate lowercase, not to be confused with The Dallas Way.
In it she explains that the “dallas way” includes, among other things:
“all lives matter”
“Sundays in the park that oil built,”
“did you know Richard Spencer grew up in Highland Park”
and my favorite:
“the dallas way is putting you in a straightjacket and punishing you for pointing out that you’re in a straightjacket.”
When we first sat down for an interview for this story, Carol was wearing a shirt with script in Farsi, made by one of her teen students at trans.lation. It read: we are happy despite not knowing the future.
Carol’s parting advice to Dallas? “Get off the goddamn fence! Educate yourself.” The Dallas Way for Carol has been showing up, making noise, moving on and making room for the next.