I believe artists have the power to change the world. They can revamp a space, advance a neighborhood, and revitalize whole communities. Vision, belief, collaboration, encouragement, and empowerment are the skills they possess, and when these ingredients are put together and given a chance to steep and simmer, then presto, piece of cake, transformation.
There are many good things happening in Birmingham, the Magic City, my city. One recent cause for celebration is the Cultural Corridor at UAB (University of Alabama at Birmingham). The new Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA), the Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center (ASC), and the Department of Art and Art History (DAAH) together have commissioned Brooklyn-based artist Amanda Browder to create Magic Chromacity, a large-scale fabric installation to adorn the fronts of the AEIVA and ASC buildings. An artist lecture and an opening reception will be held at the AEIVA on August 28–29, and the works will be displayed through September 5.
I’m looking forward to the installation and events, but it was the community sewing days that I most enjoyed. Amanda Browder, fine-artist, fabric sculptor, installation and visual artist, is a master of crowd-sourcing and amassing a work force for her large-scale fabric art installations. When DAAH Chair, Lauren Lake, planned for Amanda to come to Birmingham and to collaborate with the AEIVA, ASC, and the community, word of the project quickly spread. From Jared Ragland (Visual Media & Outreach Coordinator), to art professors and students, to Lillis Taylor (Bib & Tucker Sew-Op), and to all of Lillis’ sewing extraordinaire friends, press releases, blogs, and emails, the word was out. When Amanda flew in to the Magic City to work on the project and lead the community sewing days, people showed up to work. Community sewing days were held at the beautiful new and modern AEIVA building and ArtPlay, a large Victorian home converted into an art center.
The artist welcomes the art viewer to become the collaborator, and she has a friendly style of inviting the public into her artwork. She explained her concept of Magic Chromacity to everyone who entered the door. She empowered people to take on whatever task they felt comfortable with, and she exuded positive energy and words of encouragement throughout the hours and days of the group sewing sessions. She had simple rules so that nobody felt intimidated or insecure. She trusted that people were going to work hard and do a good job. The work sessions were not quiet. There were conversations, lively and enthusiastic laughter, and at times, belly laughter. Each time someone came through the door, they were greeted by Amanda’s big-kid smile and a hug. She was giving, encouraging, and nurturing.
Even the names of some of her large installations are welcoming and friendly — Good Morning!, Hello Niagara!, Chromatic Hi-Five. While her collaborative construction process is comfortable and friendly, I believe it has a deeper meaning as well. There is a common thread (pardon the pun) in her work. She is constantly challenging the significance of cultural ideals, relationships between art, artist, and patron, artist identities, and dichotomies of fine art and popular culture. Browder’s interactive art creeps into your psyche and gets you to think about things in a different way. People are so familiar with fabric and relate to it on a daily basis — the colors, texture, and patterns. Fabric invites a level of comfort, to open one’s mind to evoke memories and emotions from the get go.
Amanda’s community artwork is site specific. Each piece is made of donated fabric and made by volunteers from the community. Each piece is of course incorporated into a collective body of her work, but each project belongs to where it was made. Magic Chromacity is made in Birmingham, by Birmingham, and will stay in Birmingham.
I am looking forward to the installation of Magic Chromacity, the bold colors and stripes hanging from the two buildings, flowing with the wind. I know spectators and passersby will be wowed, and I will be too, but I am most looking forward to seeing Amanda again, seeing the women, men, kids, and the UAB students I got to meet and spend time with during the sewing workdays. I want to watch people point out the fabric they pinned or sewed together. I want to see people smile and laugh and be proud of each other.
While there might not be an Amanda Browder coming to your town anytime soon, surely there is someone who is leading a community effort nearby that you may get involved with. Go and gather with other folks, make some art, plant a garden, or build something! I guarantee it will be fun and educational.
This post is part of our new Making Good series about makers who use their DIY skills to better their communities. Check back for more Making Good posts, including ideas you can bring to your own community.