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photo Hannah Hess

SZ  Milenko, I’ve done a lot of work in the community as a healthcare artist and workshop leader. I find that after these excursions out to the community I need to draw back into the private world of my studio and create art to refresh my inspiration so I can go out again.
Do you feel a similar need? If so what do you do to recharge your batteries?
Or is the work itself energizing enough for you?

MM  I could do better with refueling. Having a small nonprofit means hustling for grants, giving talks, doing business development, participating in the larger network of volunteers and non-profits, and, of course, doing projects.

In the last year alone we built six gathering places and, in addition, led community engagement processes in several more neighborhoods. Last year’s work created copious stress; now we are taking steps to slow down and pace ourselves a little better.

For me personally, that means spending time with family and friends. I also bicycle and walk, and I disengage my brain by playing and watching soccer. I also do watercolors and ink drawings—quick art making that can be squeezed into my tiny periods of free time.

SZ How do you see the relationship (if any) between ‘art as calling’- passionately devoted mature artists working to high standards, vs the democratization of art where everyone is an artist?

MM Both modalities are important; in my work I practice both. The goal of my community work is to create shared ownership and for that to happen I do not present myself as an artist. I do not want people to feel they are my assistants. Rather I treat them as colleagues whose artistry may be different from mine, but is equally important and valuable. I invite their input at every stage of the process and together we figure out things faster.

I define success by how much we can accomplish with the limitations of each project: budget, site, available time, volunteers, contributions, and talents. Within that larger process, my artistic skills are called forth and I engage with that process deeply and passionately just as any artist would. So I don’t see that ‘art as calling’ and ‘everybody getting to be creative’ are in conflict.
Although many artists work in solitude, I work with many people in situations that are often chaotic and require constant adjustments and flexibility. But in the end, we are all artists.

I strive for conditions where the best of each of us can coexist, where people are talented together. When I can, I gladly draw on the talents and expertise of others.

photo Hannah Hess

SZ The art academies I‘m familiar with are oriented to producing star artists, and the students have that goal too. They are learning about competing and entrepreneurship. What should art education look like in our changing times?

MM In the Seattle area, where I live and work, this isn’t the case. The design schools at which I give occasional talks are all about community and sustainability.

I think the age of egomaniac artists, just like the age of political tyrants, is winding to a close. Collaborative practices will gradually become the norm, and schools will teach collaboration.

Collaboration’s purpose is to relate to each other in such a way that typically irritating differences can be transformed into valuable gifts.

To turn differences into gifts requires strength and flexibility. It involves the confidence to express ideas and the humility to adjust them to those of others’. This requires us to stand in one’s center while falling into the unknown-a demanding circus act.

I feel the hands and bodies are getting neglected in art training. Kids in the United States spend eight or nine hours a day staring at screens – computer, phones, TV – that ultimately function as a buffer through which life is perceived. This creates a more virtual brain circuitry, and the delusion of the familiar, meaning that if I read about something I’ve done my part about the issue.

Art is not about information, it is about meaning, about taking intuitions and information and making internal sense of them.

This is hard and courageous work, and demands that our whole beings are involved. Artistic work should produce three results: a new artwork honoring a new insight, a new artist who uses the process of creation to ‘incarnate’ this new insight into her enriched being, and a community renewed by the artwork. This, in essence, is the purpose of any creative act and hands must be an integral part of the work – something different happens in the brain when the hands, heart, and brain work together.

I feel myself to be less the artist leading a project and more the chef at a community feast: the ingredients are brought to the table by many participants and someone needs to figure out the recipe, one that won’t poison people, one that will be tasty and nutritious. It comes down to synthesizing the gifts of a lot of people.

Continued in Interview part 2

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This is the second article in the Artists Who Care series.

Milenko             Photo by Hannah Hess

The first and second parts of this article introduce Milenko and his current work, based on material found on his site and a number of online interviews. (Sources given at the end of the article.)
The third and fourth parts are an interview.

Sarah’s introduction to this series of articles

I believe that art is so much more than a commodity to hang on walls, and that the artist’s function in this society goes beyond making products to sell. Rather it is vital and transformative, and added to initiatives in other disciplines, can contribute to healing our broken society.  An increasing number of creative people are working as activists in bringing societal change through community building, consciousness raising, and other activities which directly and positively impact individuals and their communities.

I want to highlight some of them here because a lot of this activity is ‘below the radar’, ie not picked up by the media. And all these initiatives together form a surge that is growing, powerful and important.

So I’m happy to be able to devote several posts to the work of Milenko Matanovic. He has been gracious with his time and cooperation for this article and I feel what he has achieved is so worthwhile and important, I’d like to share it as widely as possible. So please feel free to tweet and Facebook copiously!!! There is enormous potential in us as artists and anyone working with creative processes to really make a positive difference. We just need alternative models, and they are out there for sure.

Milenko Matanovic    Building community through art

Recently completed 10 day project, a gathering place in Tuscaloosa, Alabama- built in part with debris from a tornado which did a lot of damage to the city last year. Photo by Hannah Hess

Showing walkway with tiles made by volunteers from the community. Photo by Hannah Hess

I first met Milenko Matanovic

during a conference at Findhorn Community where I was living at the time. He was an all-round artist: singing, performing, and lecturing on art as a transformative force in the society.

His book, Lightworks, Explorations in Art, Culture, and Creativity, was published in 1985, and is still highly relevant. It is a collection of interviews with creative people of stature from a number of different backgrounds, including Suzi Gablik, John Todd, Madeleine L ‘Engle, Matthew Fox, Ellen Burstyn, Philip Glass and others.
What this diverse group of philosophers, historians, educators, and artists has in common is the conviction that the arts are crucial to cultural change and can provide solutions to the many complex problems facing our world.

I came across Milenko’s work again recently on YouTube in a video where he was speaking about art as a mode of community building, and that led to this article.

Milenko began as a conceptual artist in his home in Slovenia (formerly a republic of Yugoslavia) as a member of the celebrated OHO group. Even as his success as an artist grew, he became increasingly disillusioned with the separation of modern art from everyday concerns.

Walking out of a museum one day where an installation of his work was featured, Milenko experienced a crucial tipping point. He was so struck with the dissonance between the interior of the museum and the world outside that he literally walked away from his career as an artist.

This launched a period of re-evaluation that took him out of the conventional art world for 15 years. At the end of that period, he emerged dedicated to exploring ways to practice his art that would positively impact the world.

In 1986, he started a non-profit organization called Pomegranate Center.

Milenko:

I founded Pomegranate Center to connect community participation with art, education, and the environment because I felt that separating them into exclusive compartments was no longer productive.

By integrating art into the fabric of the community, Pomegranate Center gets people involved in creating gathering places in their neighborhoods.

To get an idea of how Milenko’s projects work and what they look like, see the video mentioned above and the Pomegranate site.

The projects themselves are inspiring and worth devoting an entire article to. But I’ve chosen here to highlight another area of his work, without which none of those projects would have even got off the ground.

This area concerns the question that inevitably comes up in any project involving the creative process, ‘How do you balance the vision with the practical side?’ And more importantly, ‘How do you manage a diverse group in such a way that the strongest idealists and realists don’t get stuck in conflicts and end up sabotaging the whole project?’

Milenko calls this, ‘Managing tensions,’ and agrees that is usually the most challenging part of any project.

continued in Part 2

Continued from part 1,
this is the second article in the Artists Who Care series

Milenko

Managing Tensions

So, the community has come up with an idea, and Milenko and his team are going to help them to realize it. In the first meeting, some people are excited about all the possibilities and the energy is high as the ideas fly around the room; there is also another group focusing on the practical considerations- the small budget, the planning restrictions, and the short time frame in which a lot has to be accomplished.

In a later phase, during the work on the project, the practical or ‘realist’ group will push to finish regardless of reaching the optimal solution; and the idealists will, ‘want to think forever before they decide to do anything’.

The tension that results from these conflicting approaches feels uncomfortable, and many people want to release it as soon as possible by choosing a quick solution.

Milenko says that the leadership in such situations needs to embody a kind of flexibility that supports both modalities.

Milenko:

‘As a student of creativity, I believe tension is a constant condition, we may temporarily resolve it, only to uncover a new tension.

It is always this dance between doing it fast and doing it thoughtfully; doing it with lots of people and still achieving excellence’.

He speaks about the tools they have developed over the years for dealing constructively with this dynamic.
First of all, the normal ground rules of meetings apply; ‘Listen, be respectful, and don’t hog the floor’.

Then, as a facilitator of the community’s vision, he goes further and asks people to consider these questions:

‘Are you willing to change your mind in view of new information someone else brings to the table?

Are you willing to turn your No into a Yes – if you don’t like something, are you willing to discipline yourself to come up with something better?’

When people are invited to participate under those conditions, the group dynamics improve, ‘they are capable of being considerate, creative, imaginative, and accomplishing great things in a short time’. The project moves forward.

Project in progress      photo by Hannah Hess

The operating working philosophy in all these projects is ‘tough on ideas, gentle on people’:

‘Focus on the essence of what we can do together and don’t sweat the details. Let’s trust that the details will emerge from this fertile ground of lots of people who already know what they’re doing.’

I feel that this inherent trust and respect for the participants from the community is communicated from day one, and contributes greatly to the success of the projects.

Milenko sums up the deeper mission of his work this way:

‘ What we’re doing is collectively creating conditions where we can come togetheracross our differences and where we can be our best.’

Perhaps this describes a common journey being made by people in diverse fields who are using their expertise to find positive solutions to social problems.

This is what art can do, and what Milenko and his friends at Pomegranate Center are accomplishing with their community building creative work.

Art heals. This is not just an idealistic, abstract concept. In many communities crime, drug abuse, and violence have replaced the safety of close knit small neighborhoods.

If you then can observe, from close by, the pride people begin to take in their neighborhoods after a project is finished, and how they change from just people living there to involved members of a strong community; then we’re seeing art working effectively as a powerful tool for positive social change.

Sources for this article:  Pomegranate Center site, Grist site article on Milenko ,  and The Seattle Times article on Pomegranate Center by Sonia Krishman.

Stay tuned, In a few days, I’ll be posting the personal interview I had with Milenko and a slide show of some of Pomegranate’s recent projects.

Accountable art

July 14, 2012

Making art was always my calling; but making art to sell never made sense to me as a life path.

From an early stage in my career as an artist, I knew things could be different. The givens for being an artist in this society felt out of synch with who I was inside and what I aspired to, yet there were no alternatives at the time.

For years I’ve been an advocate of transformative, healing art. Standing for these ideals in today’s hard sell art milieu, one is seen as a lesser artist, as someone unwilling or unable to do what’s needed to sell one’s art, or simply as a harmless crank, irrrelevant to the ‘important’ things at hand like promoting one’s work and getting more hits and followers.

Lily Yeh in front of a mosaic mural made with volunteers in one of her community art projects (pasted from this site )

But a change is a comin’, surely it is! I recently ordered a book by a long-time art heroine of mine, Lily Yeh. She founded the Village of Art and Humanities in Philadelphia.
The book I ordered, ‘Awakening Creativity, Dandelion School blossoms’,  is about a school for migrant children in China.  Over a period of several years she developed a creative program which transformed not only the physical environment of the school but the lives of the teachers, students and their families. What lifted my heart yesterday was reading the words of the foreword by Robert Shetterly. He confirms everything I’ve known deep in my heart about where art is and where it should be going.

Many people choose careers in art seduced by the notion that art is all about self-expression and that an artist’s success depends on becoming a cultural icon. An artist tries to discover a style or a niche that separates herself from other artists and promotes her career and commercial success. This is not necessarily a bad model for an artist, but it can lead to elitism, gimmickry, and an acceptance of art being primarily valued for its ability to generate money and fame- like so much in our culture. It’s a model that pits artist against artist in a heirarchy of value…

One word we never hear used to measure art’s value is accountability. What does it do for the welfare of the community?…did it promote ssocial, economic, and environmental justice and equality? …

Lily Yeh has rejected the model of artist vying with artist for gallery space and recognition. Instead she uses her talents to elicit art from distressed, depressed, and broken people in order to rebuild community. Her art is for communal self-esteem and hope, for affirmation of the spirit rather than for commodity…  Accountable art.

We’ll be talking more about community building art and accountable art in the next months here. I have a great new ‘Artists who care’ interview lined up. And I’ll be talking about new books and insights concerning art in service of social and transformative goals.

The gift

September 19, 2011

I’m still little more than half way through Lewis Hyde’s ,’ The Gift’  but I want to write about my impressions so far.

Though I hadn’t read it before now, his book has been known to me for over 20 years. In the early ’80s I read an article excerpted from it called ‘The Gift must move’, and I have saved those brittle photocopied pages all this time.
His quote concerning art being a gift rather than a commodity opened Suzi Gablik’s, ‘Has Modernism Failed’, and has been a central question for me as ana rtist and for many thinkers on the dilemma of art vs market.

I bought the book hoping to find answers to the last part of this question, (paraphrased) ‘If art is a gift and not a commodity, then how are artists to survive in a primarily market oriented society?’  I admit that some passages are pretty tough going, dealing with subjects such as usury and philosophical meanings of interest on money exchange, nor are the answers to my questions presented on a silver platter. Read the rest of this entry »

We got this rice paper lamp for the shop from Ikea. It was open on the bottom and the light bulb glared through. I solved the problem by searching for an interesting piece of similar paper to seal the bottom with.

The decision was easy when I remembered Annet’s wonderful letter to me when I finished work on my book. It was written on her special ‘Applause’ paper (the description is in Dutch, but the image gives the idea).
The cleverness of this product plays on a Dutch pun-  clapping is ‘Klap’ in Dutch. Coincidentally, the poppy flower is called a ‘klaproos’, ‘roos’ means ‘rose’.
How are these related?
In her ingenious concept, Annet printed the word ‘klap’ repeatedly on the paper along with images of clapping hands. The paper is specifically meant for sending someone a letter of applause for something they have accomplished, or simply a letter of appreciation.  The punchline? (and why it doesn’t translate into English), is that if you then PLANT the letter and give it water, it sprouts in ‘klaprozen’or poppies. If you look closely at the first photo, you can see that the paper is full of tiny poppy seeds.

I felt bad about cutting up the beautiful letter, but since it was meant to be planted anyway, it was ok. I should have copied it, I suppose, but the words are planted in my heart, so I don’t think I have to add more papers to my ever growing pile of memorabilia.

Also, using words and handwriting from friends in collage projects like these gives them an extra charge of love and connectedness. Every time I go in the shop, every time someone admires the lamp with its tiny books hanging down, Annet willl get a little shot of ‘applause’ right back again!!

Spoonful feature

May 4, 2011

 

Balloon by Jesophi, Jewellery Designer

I’m thrilled that the shop is featured on the blog of a delightful little zine I ordered, called Spoonful, a happiness companion. Thanks Anthea! It is, as the title suggests, a bite sized helping of food for the soul.  There are hearty little snippets of literature, art, and musings on happiness, enhancing the everyday, creativity and more. 

I ordered it to include in my shop as part of the mission of bringing in inspiration from all over the world into this tiny little village where I live. There are just so many wonderful things happening on a grass roots level in the area of creativity and community building that people here would never get exposed to without a guide. So I guess that is what part of the function of this shop is.  Anyway, Spoonful is reasonably priced and beautifully presented, with a nice layout and colour artwork. I’m enjoying, after having read my 3 issues, dipping in and following some of the links, to say, Denise Sharp a creator of whimsical works in paper and calligraphy. Have FUN!

Click for Jesophi Jewellery designer’s Etsy shop