Community Studio Spotlight: Ranch Icons

by Francesca Fiore

We can’t believe it’s already April and the Community Studio Program is about to start up again! In preparation for the start of Community Studios in May (stay tuned for more details), we will be highlighting some of our favorite projects/artworks from last year’s program.

The third installment of our “Community Studio Spotlight” series features our Ranch Icon project from last August (click the link to read more about the lesson in our original post). This project was inspired by the work of Mary Mattingly, specifically her 2013 series House and Universe (watch a video clip about the work from a 2013 episode of Art21, “New York Close Up”).

Sharing this work with the Community Studio artists meant a lot to us as Mary has been an important influence for Hillary and me. Mary visited our studios in her capacity as a visiting artist during our first semester at Parsons, and we both learned a lot from our conversations with her. I consider her visit to be a turning point in my practice, and the moment in which I started thinking more seriously about socially engaged art.

During her visit, I remember being especially moved by her sincere concern regarding the ethics of making photography, although she considered herself a photographer. She explained that she felt deeply conflicted about the materials involved in photography and their often violent and toxic histories. In addition to reducing her use of photography, she began to research the other objects in her life, revealing the complex and often fraught narratives of their making. She archived this process on the website OWN-IT.US as the first step toward parting with these objects. Of the process she wrote:

“Researching each item’s history is a way to begin an extended funeral prayer, illuminating rituals and tragedies embedded in objects in a precarious world. From the over-extraction of the earth, to the working conditions of the makers and distributors, to the chemicals that enter the air and water affecting everyone, each object is embedded with trauma.  After the item is archived I add it to a bundle. The courses of these bundles continue to be traced as they now face their own circulation.”

The next step for her was to bundle these objects together and perform a series of rituals with them: dragging them, suspending them, burying them, etc. Mary has referred to the bundles as “icons,” or representative symbols of a larger abstract concept. We focused on this idea for our August 2nd lesson and we invited the Community Studio artists to interrogate objects they found on the ranch as a first step in creating a series of “ranch icons.”

Mary Mattingly, Pull, 2013.

Artists were asked to group their found objects into four categories: hard, soft, man-made, and natural. Each category would become an icon representing a material iteration of the ranch’s story.


Before bundling the materials, however, we painstakingly photographed each one to create our own archive of objects. Although the artists didn’t have the time or resources necessary to research each object’s history as Mary had done, they wrote imagined stories about the items in their journals before adding them to their bundles.

The objects tell a story of labor and domesticity, and offer a window into the ranch’s complex history. Revisiting this archive of images now as Empower Youth prepares for a summer of transformative construction projects seems particularly apt. In retrospect the project was, indeed, a funerary ritual – but not a sad one. Getting rid of these objects was necessary to make space for a new future at the ranch.

Below are images from our inaugural art exhibition in October, in which the icons and the photographic archive featured prominently. We were so thrilled to see the pride on the artists’ faces as they encountered the affective power of their sculptures installed in the space. When we ask the 2017 artists which project they liked most, they almost always point to the ranch icons. We can’t wait to see what they create this summer!



Community Studio will begin its 2018 session in May! Stay tuned for more information!


SUPPORT THE COMMUNITY STUDIO PROGRAM: Become a monthly patron of a Community Studio Artist

As we gear up for the next session of Community Studio, which will run from May to August of 2018 and will culminate in another public exhibition, we are looking for a group of generous individuals to become patrons of our incredible artists so that we may offer them the best possible experience. A small monthly contribution on your part will go a long way toward providing our artists the resources they need.

To become a monthly patron, check out our Patreon or click on the link below:

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Other ways to give:

Another way you can give is by contributing using the button below. *Please note: At this time contributions to SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing are not tax-deductible.*

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You can also help us achieve our goals by donating secondhand books and art supplies, or by purchasing items off our Amazon Wishlist. If you have supplies you would like to donate, please contact us.


Thank you so much for your support and stay tuned for more updates about our 2018 programs!

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