by Francesca Fiore

This is the second installment of the “Francesca’s Notebook” series, which looks back at mine and Hillary‘s work on SOIL SERIES over the past six months through entries in my recently-completed notebook. In Part 1 of this series I looked at our activities from September – November, which were focused largely on finding creative ways to address food insecurity in Bethel. This post will focus on our work from November to now and point to what we will be working on this summer.


Visiting New York/Philadelphia Assembled

After our talk at MVNU in November, Hillary, Matt, and I headed to New York for the first time since leaving in June. Then five months into SOIL SERIES, we realized in order to be most effective at working towards sustainable nourishment in Bethel we had to remember to nourish ourselves. Matt and I wanted to spend time with our families in New Jersey and Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving and Hillary was eager for us to reconnect with our art community in New York. We were so excited to spend time with our friends in the Parsons studios and witness the exciting new choices they were making in their work. Seeing their welcoming faces and celebrating their progress was refreshing and necessary. We also visited a number of exhibitions that we felt might have resonance for us. These included UPROOT at SmackMellon featuring the work of our friend Sara Jimenez, and Jimmie Durham’s show at the Whitney: At the Center of the World. The latter was a happy accident as we had intended on meeting our friend and former Parsons professor, Christine Howard Sandoval at the Whitney where she now works, but at the last minute she was called away and we wandered through the exhibitions instead. The Jimmie Durham exhibition proved to be deeply affecting, darkly humorous, and materially exciting, and we have been thinking about it ever since.

In addition to meeting with former Parsons classmates, we made a point of meeting with professors who had been integral to our development as artists. Lydia Matthews is a former professor and now a close friend whose work as a curator and educator focuses on collaborative socially engaged projects in the US and abroad. Our meeting with her was immensely generative and she suggested that we all go together to see an exhibition in Philadelphia called Philadelphia Assembled.

According to the description of the exhibition on the Philadelphia Museum of Art‘s website:

Philadelphia Assembled joins art and civic engagement. Initiated by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk and shaped by hundreds of collaborators, it tells a story of radical community building and active resistance. Challenging, inspiring, and as big as the city, Philadelphia Assembled asks: how can we collectively shape our futures?.

I was personally very excited to see this particular exhibition because I grew up just 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia. Growing up in the suburbs, we didn’t make trips into Philadelphia very often, and although I was raised in the shadow of this historic, complex, and changing city, I feel like I hardly know anything about it. I expected my conceptions of Philadelphia to be challenged in attending this exhibition, but the experience turned out to be truly transformational.

The exhibition was located in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Perelman Building, which I had never visited. We were greeted by five colorful banners adorning the building’s impressive Art Deco facade. Each banner was emblazoned with a word: reconstructions, sovereignty, sanctuary, futures, and movement. These were the five principles of the project and the basis for a series of conversations that began in 2013 and manifested in spring 2017 as programs, meals, and installations throughout Philadelphia. The exhibition brought together the works and ideas that formed from these public actions, and transformed the Perelman Building into “a civic stage where the city is performed” (Philadelphia Art Museum website).

Reconstructions: How do we rewrite our histories?
Sovereignty: How do we define self-determination & unity?
Sanctuary: How do we create safe spaces?
Futures: How do we reimagine our tomorrow?
Movement: How do we share knowledge?

It is impossible to describe fully the experience of Philadelphia Assembled, and although we spent almost five hours in the Perelman Building we felt like we only just scratched the surface of the work. Our first experience in the exhibition was with PHLA Kitchen in which local cooks and storytellers shared their culinary interpretation of survival, resistance, and victory. When we attended they were on the last menu: victory, which featured dishes made by Nia Minard (Bite Curious),  Pascale Boucicaut, Frances Rose (K Is for Kitchen & West Philly’s Community Supported Kitchen), Acorn (K Is for Kitchen & West Philly’s Community Supported Kitchen), Robin Broughton-Smith (Sweet Nectar Dessert Kitchen), and Sister Nefertari Muhammad and her daughters (Sister’s Original Supreme Pies). We opted for the Victory Platter, which offered a sampling of all the items on the menu, and while we ate we read through the booklet that accompanied the installation. The stories, recipes, and images in the booklet greatly enriched our experiences of the food, and we were even able to listen to one of the chefs talk about her personal relationship with the food she was serving as she cut slices of cornbread and drizzled black-eyed peas on top.

We were so fortunate to then be treated to a special tour of the exhibition by the artist/project initiator herself, Jeanne van Heeswijk. Lydia and Jeanne are personal friends, and we felt incredibly honored that Jeanne would spend so much time with us and share with us her experience making this work. The exhibition was staggering in its scope, and in addition to PHLA Kitchen, there were stunning mural maps layering the multiplicity of Philadelphia’s histories, galleries showcasing work surrounding the five concepts, a “soapbox” on which anyone was invited to discuss a topic they care about, numerous booklets and other ephemera, and tables lining the hallway at which local organizations held workshops, activities, demonstrations, and conversations. Hundreds of individuals and organizations were involved in the project, and the work of Philadelphia Assembled was the connecting and mobilizing of this chorus of voices.

Thank you so much to Lydia Matthews and Jeanne van Heeswijk for sharing this work with us! We came away with so many ideas and new connections that will sustain us into the future.


Bethel Historical Society Partnership

This page in my notebook perfectly captures our excitement coming out of our trip to New York. We had so many thoughts swirling around in our heads and a plan started to take shape. When Hillary and I arrived in Bethel we were fresh out of Parsons where we had been thinking and developing new ideas daily. This energy fueled us as we tackled the Barn Studio and fostered relationships, and our imaginations ran wild with how to confront difficult issues plaguing the community. We quickly realized, however, that our enthusiasm and vision didn’t always translate well, and part of our work this winter has been finding new ways to communicate by developing more effective language and images around ideas. We remembered that Lydia had asked us, “why don’t you think about forming a collective?” Thinking about the group of young people we had become close to during the summer, the idea of a collective suddenly seemed necessary – we just needed a site for our thinking and making together.

The Bethel Historical Society and Museum immediately came to mind. We had visited the museum for the first time in July, and we were struck by the extensive collection on display and the members’ knowledge and enthusiasm about the history of Bethel. One of the surprising facts about Bethel’s history we learned early on was that the village was founded in 1798 as a haven for abolitionists. Even Hillary, who had grown up in Bethel, was unaware of this fact. Learning about Bethel’s radical roots caused Hillary to think differently about her home and its history, and as we thought about the collective we wondered, “could Bethel have a radical future too?”

We decided to initiate a partnership with the Historical Society, and over the course of a few months, we were able to connect with them and set up meetings to discuss a potential youth collective. It turned out to be perfect timing, as they were in the process of figuring out what to do about their Young Historians program, which was not growing as they had hoped. We proposed merging our idea with their program and they enthusiastically agreed. Stay tuned in the next few days for more information about the Bethel Historical Society Collective (participants will choose a name very soon)!


Christmas Cookies

Although winter was quiet in Bethel, we made sure to reconnect with our friends and former Empower Youth interns over the holidays. We invited them to Hillary’s parents house to bake Christmas cookies and make paper snowflakes. It was such a fun evening and we loved seeing their faces again. Thank you all for a lovely time!


New Friends and the Newport/Bethel Project

Back in November we visited the Cincinnati Art Museum and saw Ana England‘s Kinship for the first time. When we learned the artist lives and works in Felicity we knew we had to meet her, and we were excited to find we have a mutual friend who was able to connect us. From there we were able to develop a relationship with Ana and her husband, Steven Finke, and Ana generously gave a tour of her exhibition to a group of Bethel residents.

Our relationship with Steven and Ana also led to a series of speaking engagements at Northern Kentucky University where Steven is a professor and Ana a professor emeritus. We love having the opportunity to share our work with art students, and we really enjoyed our visits.

During one of these visits Steven approached us about collaborating with him on a summer project. Over the next few weeks we worked together to develop a program that would connect high school students from Newport, KY and the Bethel, OH area to create artwork that generates dialogue between the two sites and asks important questions about history, identity, and place. By placing these two sites in relationship to one another we are reaching across historic borders and calling attention to the area’s complex history of abolitionism and segregation as well as inviting communication between the area’s urban and rural communities. Students will make artwork in NKU’s spatial arts studios and the resulting artwork will then be exhibited at both sites, inviting the local communities to participate in the conversation.

We have been working hard on this program and we are so excited to announce more details about it soon. Stay tuned!


Looking Ahead

As I approached the final pages of my notebook, Hillary and I were in an intensive period of research about Appalachian history and identity. We had been invited to speak at Open Engagement (OE), an annual artist-led conference dedicated to expanding the dialogue around and creating a site of care for the field of socially engaged art, and we hoped to use the opportunity to introduce a largely New York audience to a more nuanced image of the Appalachian region based on our own experiences over the past year. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia became a very important resource for us, and we had the incredible opportunity to hear the author, Elizabeth Catte, speak in Cincinnati (thank you Amanda Stegemiller for inviting us). When we arrived to hear her talk, I realized I had run out of room in my notebook and so I flipped to the front and took notes on the inside cover. It seems fitting to me now that my notebook begins in this way – covered with hastily-written notes about Appalachia’s history of struggle and resilience and hopefulness for its future.

As these two posts demonstrate, we see many ways forward for the community of Bethel, and in looking ahead we hope to mobilize the community around imagining a beautiful, radical, and innovative future. Whereas last summer the focus of SOIL SERIES was on getting to know the place and its people, this summer’s focus is on language and image-making that will propel us forward. We invite everyone to join us in uncovering Bethel’s history and imagining its future.

Posted by:SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing

SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing was a process of serial socially engaged research facilitated by artists Francesca Fiore and Hillary Wagner in collaboration with the rural community of Bethel in Appalachian Ohio. From 2017 to 2019 SOIL SERIES took many forms including conversations, public programs, projects, and collective imagining. A drawing in the most expansive sense, SOIL SERIES was an exercise in relational mark-making. By creating the conditions for new conversations and possibilities around artmaking, the public, and social imagination, SOIL SERIES proposed social drawing as the generative engine for community-initiated action.

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