The artist Rick Lowe chose the spot for his latest piece when he saw the big oak tree. The tree hangs over a grassy area outside an apartment complex on Ridgecrest Road, in Vickery Meadow. The complex, like much of the housing in this poor neighborhood, is a dilapidated mess. Paint is faded, windows are boarded up. The oak, though, is magnificent. Its canopy shades the entire front of the apartment complex, offering a bit of bucolic serenity in a neighborhood otherwise filled with sagging buildings surrounded by moats of hot concrete and barred fences.
The day I visit the giant oak, a team of artists, volunteers, and neighborhood residents is busying itself with preparations for an event that evening. Lowe’s project, called Trans.lation: Vickery Meadow, is part of an initiative called Nasher Xchange, a celebration of the Nasher Sculpture Center’s 10th anniversary. The idea was to commission 10 artists to install 10 pieces of public art throughout Dallas. Lowe’s contribution is to help the residents of Vickery Meadow—a diverse community located less than a mile from NorthPark Center, one that includes 35,000 immigrants and refugees from more than 120 countries—organize a pop-up outdoor marketplace. That is his installation. It’s hard at first to see how anyone could consider it “art.”
Today is a trial run for the market, which will open in October and operate one Saturday a month through February 2014. Lowe’s team is putting together an outdoor potluck meal that will double as a neighborhood gathering and an information session. I arrive on the scene and am promptly put to work by Sara Mokuria, a UT Dallas policy researcher whom Lowe appointed project manager of Trans.lation. My job is to hang paper flags between the oak and the apartment building.
At length, Rick Lowe himself finally arrives. He pulls up in a dinged-up light blue Ford pickup, hanging out the passenger-side window. He’s in his early 50s and wears a blue, unbuttoned dress shirt thrown over a t-shirt. He has thick black hair that sticks up a bit, dark-rimmed glasses, and a gleaming smile. The second he climbs out of the truck, Lowe is peppered with questions. Where should the tables go? Where will t-shirt printers set up? How should we arrange the chairs in relation to the stage? Lowe answers most of the questions with “What do you think?” or defers to Mario Guerrero, a Mexican-born 24-year-old in charge of setup. Lowe sticks to menial tasks. He helps put out folding chairs and grabs a stack of fliers when he sees residents on the street. A teenage boy strolls up, and Lowe hands him a flier and then solicits his help. Moments later, the boy and I are busy with a screwdriver, putting together a Weber grill.
When the food arrives, the event begins to take shape. The aroma of a dozen cuisines drifts through the cool shade under the oak. At the base of the tree, an Ethiopian woman, wearing a yellow and green striped dress with yellow ribbons woven through her black hair, lays a blanket on the ground and arranges delicate, little porcelain cups on a tray at her feet. From a small pot, she pours rich, black coffee to serve alongside hunks of fluffy, sweet bread. The musicians arrive—a team of African drums, a DJ—and so, too, dozens of neighbors. There are Iraqis, Jordanians, Burmese, Ghanaians, and Sudanese. There are African-Americans, Mexicans, Hondurans, and Peruvians. Three Nepalese women take up folding chairs in the crowd, head scarves framing their ancient, leathery skin.
Around 7 pm, the rest of the people arrive: local art-world folk, media people, and administrators from the Nasher. The Dallas Morning News’ Michael Granberry wanders about in a suit, chatting with photographer Allison V. Smith, who is snapping photos of the colorful crowd. Smith’s husband, the prominent gallery owner Barry Whistler, stands with his arms crossed on the periphery, watching Lowe speak to the crowd. Lowe’s modest introductory remarks are overshadowed by the impressive sight of a line of young men up on stage with him, translating his words into Spanish, Nepalese, French, Swahili, Hindi, and Arabic.
As Lowe speaks about his hope for the project, to help show the city what a resource it has in this rich, diverse, and largely overlooked neighborhood, I overhear a local artist whisper to her friend: “Rick may be a better preacher than he is an artist.” The comment does poke at a certain disconnect between the forces at play in the potluck, an event underwritten by a major museum, but which, nonetheless, has all the makings of a backyard barbecue. If we are to think of Rick Lowe as an artist, and his projects as his art, then the potluck does invite that old “My kid could draw that” dismissal of contemporary art. After all, most of us have actually organized backyard barbecues.
Stepping away from the crowd and looking at its odd mix of art-world elite, artists, and social workers—volunteers, migrants, refugees—something strikes me as strange about the orchestration of activity. What is it doing? Preaching or presenting? Is it engaging or exposing? And who is it all for? The people of Vickery Meadow or the art patrons?
Rick Lowe is a Houston-based artist who won worldwide acclaim beginning in the early 1990s with a piece called Project Row Houses. It consisted, simply, of the renovation of a block of turn-of-the-century shotgun shacks in Houston’s historically African-American Third Ward. Lowe turned the old homes into artist residences and exhibition spaces, as well as a resource center that helps unwed pregnant women. Project Row Houses is now a nonprofit organization with a $1 million budget.
Project Row Houses is also an oft-cited cornerstone in the emergence of a new kind of art that is sometimes referred to as “art as social practice” or “social sculpture.” The term “social sculpture” was coined by the influential German artist Joseph Beuys. Beuys, who once locked himself in a room with a coyote for a length of days, claimed that all human activity could be considered art. More recently, curator Nato Thompson used the phrase “living as form” to describe work by Lowe and others like him, broadening and refining even further the definition of what could possibly be considered “art.”
Lowe has a simple way of describing what he does. It began when the Alabama native was visited in his studio by a teenager from an inner-city neighborhood. At the time, Lowe was creating socially conscious art, mostly paintings. The teenager was unimpressed.
“We know what the problems in our community are. We live with them every day,” the young man said. “You’re an artist. Why can’t you create a solution?”
The question prompted Lowe to put down his brush. Since then, his projects have inspired many other artists to forgo object-making and instead engage in activities like offering immigrant services out of vacant storefronts in Queens, salvaging buildings on the South Side of Chicago, and holding a town hall meeting in a museum to discuss race in St. Louis. For its part, the art world has largely embraced all of this as art.
“This explosion of work in the arts has been assigned catchphrases such as ‘social practice,’ ‘relational aesthetics,’ ‘new genre public art,’ and ‘dialogic arts,’ ” curator Nato Thompson wrote in an essay accompanying a survey exhibition devoted to this new work. “Yet, the projects themselves defy easy categorization, and raise contradictions regarding issues of authorship, and traditional notions of art. … Such efforts might not be described as artworks, but their collaborative spirit, investment in community engagement, and deployment of cultural programs as part of their operations compel us to consider what they do, not who they say they are.”
Again, Lowe encapsulates the idea more simply. “It is a story, a poetic gift to the community,” he says.
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Lowe’s arrival in Dallas could not have come at a better time for Abdul Ameer Alwan. Alwan is a 57-year-old artist who moved from Iraq to Vickery Meadow with his wife and daughter five years ago. In his home country, Alwan is a well-known figure. He has exhibited all over the world and supported himself for decades by teaching and selling his work. Since moving to Dallas, however, his career has stalled. He still sends some paintings to Jordan, where they are popular among the million or so Iraqi refugees now living there. Yet while the Dallas Morning News profiled the artist in 2010, he has had trouble finding support from collectors in the West.
One August evening, I visit the complex on Ridgecrest Road where Lowe has turned two units donated by North Park Terrace Apartments into a temporary community workshop and an artist residence. Alwan, a short, small-framed man with dark, deep-set eyes and stringy, slicked-back gray hair, is teaching three students in one of the bedrooms that has been converted into a painting studio. “How do you like my birds?” a fortysomething Hispanic man asks Alwan, pointing to squiggles at the top of his canvas. The artist smiles.
Later, outside, Alwan smokes a cigarette while sitting on a raised plywood platform that served as a stage for a talent show event the Trans.lation team organized the prior weekend. Most refugees only stay in Vickery Meadow for a couple of years before moving on, he explains, but he has been here for five. He likes the community. He likes grilling food and inviting neighbors to his apartment, and after eating, singing and playing his oud, a lute-like stringed instrument. But sometimes he gets depressed. He says his apartment is too cramped to paint. He puts his hand to his mouth and makes a swigging motion. Sometimes he drinks.
Looking at some of Alwan’s work, it is not difficult to surmise why his sensibilities haven’t translated to the American market. He paints watercolor landscapes of Baghdad or the Iraqi countryside, and rich, melancholic oil paintings. In one, a family of murdered refugees lies in the dirt near a tattered, rolled-up rug, their faces peaceful, as if they are sleeping. In another painting, a pretty young woman lies in a bed, her body lost in billowing sheets, her right hand extending out, clutching a plucked flower. While Alwan is undoubtedly a skilled painter, his work is flushed with melodrama, and it doesn’t seem to jibe with the interests or sensibilities of much mainstream contemporary art.
Since Lowe started his project, though, Alwan has been teaching classes again and making a little money doing it. His hope is that the market in October will bring new attention to his work. The project has already made him yearn for a studio of his own, with room for his materials.
“And a key,” he says, pinching his thumb to his forefinger, twisting his wrist, and locking an imaginary door.
Guerrero, too, has high hopes for how Lowe’s project will impact the neighborhood. Guerrero’s family moved to the Melody Park Apartments in Vickery Meadow after crossing into the United States a month after his ninth birthday. That turned out to be a lucky break for the boy. Unlike many of the apartment complexes in the neighborhood, Melody Park happened to have an after-school program run out of the complex’s community lounge. The lounge became Guerrero’s second home growing up, where he found help with his homework, discovered his love of drawing, and played pick-up soccer and basketball. He says it kept him and his friends from getting into trouble. It was also the place where he learned that if he worked hard enough, he could eventually go to college, even if his parents had brought him into the country illegally. He graduated earlier this year with an architecture degree from UT Arlington and is now spending his summer working here with Trans.lation as something of a right-hand man to a world-famous artist.
One Sunday afternoon, I go with Guerrero to Melody Park. The dirt and concrete courtyard adjacent to the community lounge that figured so largely in the life of the young man is hidden away from the faceless façade and parking lots that you see as you drive by the development. As we talk, two 10-year-old boys sit on a stoop across the shaded courtyard, watching us.
“Get a ball!” Guerrero yells. One of the boys returns with a soccer ball, and kids swarm out from the units surrounding the courtyard. In minutes, they have broken up into teams, fathers hanging over upstairs balconies watching, the children shouting for Guerrero to join in. Guerrero is shorter than some of the teenagers who have joined in, but his quick feet keep him steady on the ball. As he plays, he shouts encouragement to the younger kids, smile flashing between his high cheekbones.
“They swear less when I’m around,” he says. “You should hear them talk when they are on their own.”
Guerrero explains that one of the older teenagers, his cousin, hopes to play in college. College would have been an impossible dream for Guerrero had it not been for the after-school program operating out of his apartment complex. He likes to say everything happens in life for a reason, but I think what he really means is he has had a lot of breaks, a lot of luck, and a lot of help to get to where he is now. For example, he scored an internship this fall with the architecture firm HKS, in part, because right before his last year at UT Arlington, the Obama administration instituted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which allowed young undocumented people like Guerrero to get work permits.
He understands that opportunity in the United States is a product of both hard work and tangible support systems. So I ask him, even with the opportunities Lowe is affording him with the Trans.lation project, would he rather the money be spent on Lowe’s art project, or fund programs like the one at Melody Lane instead?
“Rick’s project is important for the community to kind of direct people to help this community,” Guerrero says. “But then, once people know that this community is here and it needs help, then we can be like, ‘We need money to fund these kinds of programs so that the kids in this community can benefit, get an education, and make a better life for themselves.’ But if I have to choose, I would probably choose funding the after-school programs and have a bunch of those in every apartment complex.”