Friday, November 15, 2013

Mills College Journal Project for Jamaica

What are our responsibilities as artists? I wondered about this in the previous post, "Just Ruminating: Art to Change the World," but I didn't have any specific projects in mind. I've been seeing how social media has changed our attitudes toward community, how artists are using the process of artmaking with a group as the focus of a group, that the notion of "giving back" is prevalent. How, as book artists, can we do this? Certainly by teaching and sharing. Then I heard about a way that makers can work in a social situation and contribute to those in need.

Kathleen Walkup, Professor, Book Art & Director, Book Art Program at Mills College in Oakland, California and Julie Chen, Professor, Book Art Program, recently worked on a project together with the Book Art Club at Mills. Kathy's daughter is in the Peace Corps, and the club met for two hours to make journals for a group in Jamaica. I asked Kathy and Julie about the project.

photo by Veronica Sutter-Handy

—Kathy, can you tell us about the kind of work your daughter is doing?

KW: Claire Martin is a Peace Corps volunteer in her second year of service. She is working with a Jamaican governmental health agency doing HIV/AIDS education and outreach in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. This work has taken several different forms, many of which she has initiated, often by writing grant applications. Her core job is intervention: She visits sites such as strip clubs or other sites where sex workers operate, for instance. Claire has started after-school clubs for middle school children and ran a summer program that included sports and theatre activities around AIDS education. The journals will be used by an adult AIDS support group that she facilitates. This group, in addition to meeting for mutual support, is fund-raising through a variety of activities such as raising chickens for eggs and meat. The journals will be used by the group for their own writing and drawing. 

BTW, she has a cool tumblr: Jamaican Sartorialist. Nothing to do with her work, but she is getting some neat photos of the wild and crazy dress in Jamaica.

—What inspired the journal project? How did it become a community event?

KW: When Claire told me about the support group it occurred to me that they might appreciate something like simple journals. I visited Claire last year and saw how little many Jamaicans had in the way of possessions, and the idea that the group might like to have something to record their thoughts and feelings in just crossed my mind. I had worked with some adult community classes at various points in my career (for instance, with the adult literacy program through the Oakland Public Library and some continuing ed classes through City College of SF) and remembered how meaningful the journals were that we made in those settings.

—What was the purpose for restarting a Book Art Club? What did it do previously? What do you envision for the future?
JC: The book art program already consists of a pretty lively community, but the students in the individual book art classes don't often get a chance to get to know each other. One of the functions of the club is to allow the community as a whole to do things together. We also wanted to give the book art minors a chance to take leadership roles in book art-related campus activities. Lastly, we hope the club will allow interested students who have not yet taken a book art class to find out more about our program and about book art in general.

—What did you tell the students about the journal project? What level of skill did the students have?
JC:  The students were told that this event was all about making journals that would be used in the Peace Corps by Kathy's daughter. I think the service aspect of this project was definitely a draw for a lot of the students who participated. This event was open to all skill levels, including people who had no book experience at all. The students had varying level of binding skills, but Faith Hale, our grad TA who helped organize this event, and who taught everyone the sewing pattern, said that once everyone finished the their first journal, they were all eager to continue on to the next one. The 2-section exposed sewing binding that they used was chosen to suit all skill levels, and also, because it's really good-looking as well.
—What kinds of materials and binding did you use? How many journals did the group make? 
JC: The journals consisted of 36 pages of text weight paper with brightly colored folded paper covers. The students were able to choose contrasting colored thread to go with their cover papers. Each student signed their name in the back of the journal. I was not at the meeting, but the report I got from Faith was that they finished 18 journals for the Peace corps plus journals that they could take with them. And one student took parts for a couple of journals home with her to finish up and bring back to send to Jamaica with all the others.

—They got to make one and keep one? Did anyone donate theirs as well?
JC: I do not know if anyone donated their own copy, but I did hear that several students made more than one journal for the Peace Corps.  

photo by Kathleen Walkup

—Have you used bookmaking in a social context or as a community service project before this? Do you feel like this is a new path or something you would like to pursue?

KW: In addition to the instances I mentioned, I have also taught bookmaking skills to elementary school teachers in East Palo Alto and worked in many classrooms when my children were in school.

At Mills the Book Art Program has done community service from time to time, and it is always something I am interested in pursuing. We worked fairly extensively with the adult literacy program at the Oakland Public Library, as I mentioned, printing broadsides of writing by new readers/writers, inviting them to campus for a visit to the library and a chance to pull a print on the press, etc. We worked closely with a neighborhood Muslim school (no longer located in the area), having the kids come to campus to print and bind books in the studios.  Our studio director, Lara Durback, does a good deal of community-based work, often printing for community groups and the like.

Following the success of this Jamaica project, I would love to identify more ways that the Book Art Club can do service projects.

photo by Veronica Sutter-Handy

—Do you feel that Mills has a culture of community work or social outreach? How popular has social artmaking been on your campus? 

KW: Mills has a very strong commitment to social justice and community work overall.  Ethnic Studies, Education and Anthropology have all had ongoing programs of social engagement with the Oakland community. There has been social artmaking on campus from time to time, more in the sense of hosting craft fairs for Mills community makers.

—I hear the concept of "giving back" frequently in the culture today. Would you like to comment on that?

KW: I think many students at Mills and institutions like it are very interested in giving back, although they often are not sure how to do that. Our students are aware of their privileged position as students at a small private college and when given the opportunity to reach out to the larger community (local and otherwise) they are eager to do that. The population at Mills is diverse in a number of ways, generally do not come from highly privileged backgrounds themselves, and understand and are sympathetic to needs of the community outside the college.

—Anything either of you would like to add?

KW: Watching the students around the bindery table, chatting and sewing, I was aware of how natural it was for them to be generous with their time and talent despite the pull of school, work, family and all of the other responsibilities these students carry. This may be the entitled generation, but I wasn’t seeing any of that, only their collegiality and their generosity. It was inspiring.

photo by Veronica Sutter-Handy


Anonymous said...

Any thoughts on bringing the tools to Jamaica to teach the local people to make their own journals from found materials, i.e., change the nature of the "giving back" to an empowerment focus?

Alisa said...

Good point. Of course, if the population is interested, and the person working with them is skilled, that is ideal. Having taught a couple times in homeless shelters myself and using simple, found, or "humble" materials (as some people like to call them), I've seen the joy people can take in making something of their own, particularly if making something at all is new to them. In this case, the person who is actually working in the Peace Corps has other skills, but does not have the bookmaking skills for this project. I think the focus in Jamaica is on writing in the journal; the making of them was an afterthought. But integrating both is worth consideration for future projects.