Community Studios: Week 3 Highlights

Week three of our Community Studio Program in the newly renovated Barn Studio at the Empower Youth Ranch was a success!

Community Studio is a free art program for all ages led by SOIL SERIES artists. Our Community Studios provided a dedicated time and place for creativity, inviting participants to broaden their definitions of art and follow new pathways of thinking and making.


Community Studio: Drawing / Monday, July 31st



We started Monday’s session of Community Studio: Drawing by thinking about the word “spect-actor,” a term coined by Augusto Boal. Boal was an experimental theater practitioner who, in the 1970s, created the Theatre of the Oppressed, which invited participants to inhabit simultaneously the dual roles of “spectator” and “actor.” By asking participants to play both roles at once, Boal aimed to break down the traditional barriers between “audience” and “performer” and promote social and political change.

Boal said, “Theatre is a form of knowledge; it should and can also be a means of transforming society. Theatre can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it.”


After giving our artists some time to consider the “spect-actor” role, we switched gears to discuss artists as “observers.” We began by looking at the work of John James Audubon, the 19th century ornithologist, naturalist, and painter known by most for creating The Birds of America. The color-plated book contained illustrations of a variety of birds, including 25 new species Audubon himself first identified. It is considered one of the greatest ornithological works ever completed.

While looking at Audubon’s paintings, we considered the lengths to which he went in order to accurately depict these birds. He traveled far and wide collecting specimens for his paintings. He had to master the art of observation, paying close attention to detail and deeply engaging with each subject.

We compared Audubon’s work to that of local painter John Aldrich Ruthven, sometimes considered the “20th-century Audubon” because of his similar subject matter and style.


What we wanted to know was this: What happens when the observer intersects with the spect-actor? How can the artist’s careful consideration of a subject be transferred to the viewer, allowing for a shared experience or even shared action?

To answer this question, we turned to Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, who have been collaborating on sound installations and immersive works since 1995.

Cardiff created the first of her “audio walks,” Forest Walk, in 1991. She says of the work:

I was doing a residency at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, experimenting with some various technologies, and I created what became my first audio walk. It didn’t have very good instructions and the quality of my mixing was terrible since it was mixed on a 4-track cassette deck, but the work really inspired me and changed my thinking about art. Probably only 10 people heard it at the time, but it was the prototype for all the walks that followed. When I listen to it now, I can appreciate the freshness and looseness, even with all of the bad editing.

Cardiff’s audio walks combine a virtual, recorded world with the physical one, collapsing time and voicing tensions between absence and presence, reality and fiction.

During the audio walks, Cardiff’s audience is invited to participate in her experience of a place. Donning headsets, they listen to Cardiff’s pre-recorded instructions for navigating the place — where to go, what to look for, etc. Throughout the walk, Cardiff interrupts and enhances the experience by sharing fragments of narrative, memories, and sounds. Occasionally, she’ll add physical props to the place itself. For example, in the 2000 audio walk Taking Pictures, Cardiff included photographs for participants to encounter during the walk, some of which included her mother in the landscape.


The 2004 audio walk Her Long Black Hair follows a similar logic, taking the listener on what Cardiff’s website describes as a “winding, mysterious journey through Central Park’s 19th-century pathways, retracing the footsteps of an enigmatic dark-haired woman.”


After discussing Cardiff’s audio walks, we looked at Cardiff and Miller’s 2012 Alter Bahnhof Video Walk for dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany. Here is an excerpt from the work:

While watching the video, we considered how Cardiff and Miller used close observation to heighten the viewer’s experience of the work, calling attention to important but easily overlooked details and emphasizing the subtle changes in the space. Afterward, we gave our artists their task:


  1. Find a partner and take paper and drawing utensils.
  2. Plan your walk anywhere on the ranch as long as it is safe.
  3. Make a map of your walk. Make sure other people can follow it. Include important points, landmarks, and information.
  4. Write a script for what you will say in the recording of your walk. Use your five senses. You can narrate what you are seeing, feeling, smelling, and hearing. You can tell stories or make up new ones. Use the ranch as your inspiration. You can make texture rubbings, drawings, and objects to help tell your story. We can make these into a booklet later which your audience will see.
  5. When you have your script finished, film you walk. The video should be all one take. One person should hold the camera. Try to hold the camera as steady as possible and take your time.

The finished walks will be featured at our exhibition in the fall. Stay tuned!


Community Studio: Sculpture / Monday, August 2nd



On the morning of the August 2, our artists entered the Barn Studio and faced a journal prompt:

“you have 5 minutes

make a list of EVERYTHING you own


We knew it would be a struggle. It is not easy to account for the entirety of one’s belongings, especially under pressure.

This writing prompt was inspired by the artist Mary Mattingly. Mattingly’s work explores themes of home, travel, and cartography. She is particularly concerned with how human beings relate to one another, to the environment, to machines, and to corporate and political entities. Mattingly is known for her photographs and sculptures depicting futuristic and obscure landscapes, her wearable sculptures and “wearable homes,” and her ecological installations.

In class, we looked specifically at Mattingly’s 2013 series, House and Universe (the clip below is from the 2013 episode of Art21, “New York Close Up”):


(You can view Mattingly’s online inventory of all of her belongings, mentioned in the video, here.)

Looking at images of Mary’s work, we discussed what might have motivated her to make these objects, photographs, and performances and what they might mean to us viewers.

We asked ourselves:

“What kind of story does my own list of belongings tell about me? About the world?”

Our discussion eventually led us to examine mass production in our postmodern, postindustrial society and our ethical and political responsibilities as consumers.


Following that important digression, we returned to Mattingly’s work. At one moment in the video embedded above, Mattingly refers to her sculptures, composed of bundles of objects, as “icons.” In response, we reviewed a couple of definitions:

Icon (n.): a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol of something.

Symbol (n.): a thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract.


Here, we introduced the day’s project: “icon-making.” We started by making a “material inventory” in which we sorted the materials found on the ranch into four categories: hard, soft, man-made, and natural. We would craft four different icons representative of Empower Youth Ranch, one of each material category.

We began scoured the ranch for materials, then returned to the Barn Studio to document what we found through photographs and written narratives.

Next, the bundling began:

By the end of class, we had four icons — four material iterations of the ranch’s story.

The final works will be on display at the upcoming exhibition at the Empower Youth Ranch this fall. Details forthcoming!


ANNOUNCING: COMMUNITY STUDIO SATURDAYS – Led by Francesca Fiore and Hillary Wagner

Join us in our Barn Studio at the Empower Youth Ranch for the Fall Session of our Community Studios!

Every Saturday beginning September 2nd:

10:00am – 1:00pm –

A guided art workshop with Hillary Wagner and Francesca Fiore! We will work with diverse media and make something new every week. ALL AGES!

1:00pm – 6:00pm –

OPEN STUDIOS. Bring your ideas and imagination with you for a period of free, self-directing art making! Francesca Fiore and Hillary Wagner will be available to talk about art and help bring your ideas to life! All are welcome.

Also, stay tuned for an exciting new Thursday evening event at the Empower Youth Ranch for high school students!

Details will be announced soon.

**We are also still looking for donations of art supplies and books to stock the Barn Studio. You can find some of our needs listed on our Amazon Wishlist, but we are also happy to accept donations of second-hand goods. If you have supplies you would like to donate, or if you would like to receive updates on upcoming workshops and events, please contact us.**

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