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The Whitney Independent Study program (ISP) is a rigorous, yearlong program where participants develop their practice in one of three interrelated fields: curatorial, studio art, and critical studies. This year’s Curatorial Fellows presented an exhibition entitled Common Spaces at the Kitchen, examining the politics and nature of public space in a time of increasing privatization. In June 2014, Community and Access Programs organized a collaboration between ISP Curatorial Fellow Joo Yun Lee, exhibiting artist Mary Mattingly, and youth in the Hudson Guild’s Beacon after-school program to offer workshops that engaged some of the issues raised by the exhibition. Hudson Guild, a community-based social service agency supporting families in need in the Chelsea area, has been one of the Whitney’s downtown community partners since 2011, but it was their first time collaborating with ISP.
For the project, titled Useful to Useless: Transforming Stuff, Mattingly asked students and community members to donate discarded and unwanted items that would be transformed into art and given a new life. In the process, the students would learn about sustainability and recycling―themes that figure prominently in Mattingly’s work. The workshops were designed to foster collaboration between the participants. First, students had to barter with each other for materials and tools. They also had to work with adults to figure out how to construct their objects and make sure that they were structurally sound. For example,Tony, a Beacon youth worked with Whitney intern,Brandon Serpas to convert an old box of tissues, an egg carton, and a broken umbrella into “Tania,” a hybrid sculpture that blended elements of a spider, a scorpion, and pop musician Nicki Minaj.
At the end of the program, the Beacon students had an opportunity to present their works and share their thoughts on the process. From their vivid descriptions, it was evident that the students loved their work―so much that they weren’t ready to let go of it! Many took their sculptures home or planned to give them as gifts to friends and family. Just as Mattingly intended, the unwanted objects had been given new life. Tony found a home for Tania the umbrella-spider at the Hudson Guild Fulton Center gallery. Another student, Jalisa donated her artwork―which resembled a small carpeted birdhouse―to Community and Access Programs, and it is now proudly displayed in the office. Working with Mattingly and the Beacon Program youth was deeply inspirational for me, and gave me considerable insight into the potential that objects have―to be transformed into art, and to transform how we think about them.
By Edward Salas, Community and Access Programs Assistant