Scion: A Community Metaphor-Maker (July 2018)

Scion, a cob-construction sculptural form and community metaphor-maker, was developed and designed to catalyze, via process and product, an extended community performance in metaphor-creation and personally, and variously personal, meaning-making through observation, text-generation, collaboration, and exchange. The piece was conceived in response to Montalvo Art Center’s invitation, in the fall of 2017, to develop a public art camp to pilot a summer program for teens, and it manifests and illustrates some of the core challenges of socially engaged art. It performed inheritance in unexpected ways.

A scion is an heir, a descendant. A living

part. A bud or stem. Cut

from a plant. Joined to another

in grafting.

Premise: a diverse group of Bay Area teen campers collaborate with artist Ashley David to build and install a piece intended to create a conversation with an avocado tree, a persimmon tree, and a community, one that references Silicon Valley’s agricultural heritage and disrupts the formal order of the Italianate garden in which the piece is installed. The garden itself serves as a metaphor in this arrangement, for the “silicon” that replaced the seedling, and much like a chance seedling might, Scion arrives as a serendipity, a vehicle, and a fusion to ground community, via metaphor and invitation, in history and possibility.

Form: The cob form—a curved wall roughly 6’ tall at its highest point and 42’ long—incorporates glass bottles that collaborate with the sun to create light and color play on both sides of the form and invite community participation. Shielded by curve and tree trunk, the most private part of the form is shaped into a small writer’s desk. An opening above the desk, at eye-level, reveals the adjacent persimmon tree. Finally, as a key feature, this piece relies on collaboration between the artist and a diverse group of Bay Area teens and evolves as activity and process dictate.

Materials: Clay, sand, straw, and water supply the base for the form. Colored glass bottles installed throughout the form serve multiple functions. The form’s larger entrance features wooden decking to create the porch-stage. On this deck, an Adirondack chair. Inside, at the writing nook, a small wooden chair, writing paper, pencils, and prompt.

Process & Performance: The key players include teen collaboration with the artist and public engagement with the form.

Collaboration: During a week-long Public Art camp, a diverse group of Bay Area teen campers collaborate with the artist to carve space for introspection and sharing. As part of their camp experience, students participate in daily poetry and writing workshops responding to the form as it emerges, to the context in which it emerges, and to their own experiences in, and from, their respective communities. Together, the group creates a shared “third space.” Collective and individual texts emerge from this third space, which students share from Scion’s porch-stage as a performance and literary reading during We the People, Montalvo’s Art on the Grounds 2018 Opening Festival. Muscle memory and shared experience inform the collaborative text that serves as the foundation for the community text the piece will catalyze when visitors participate.

Public Engagement: Scion invites the public to engage with, and contribute to, the piece in several ways. Much as a labyrinth would, the piece invites visitors to enter. Once inside, the writing nook entices visitors to create a text of their own and to contribute it to the piece by installing the text into the form as “a message in a bottle.” Additionally, visitors may pause on the porch-stage to read or to contemplate the tree that anchors this piece/peace grafting. Finally, visitors may stroll around or sit outside the piece and drink in the play of light, form, and resonant metaphor catalyzed by the elements—both natural and imposed. By placing their piece in a glass bottle embedded in the form, visitors contribute their work to the community text Scion is built to catalyze, and by inhabiting the space, they embody the metaphor the piece performs.

Post-mortem: After months of planning and preparation, a perfect storm of factors changed the trajectory of the piece. The piece relied on the participation of twenty teens, half from underserved communities, but only three campers were registered when the week began, all from adjacent privileged communities. It relied on a specific quantity of materials, and in the eleventh hour, funds were not made available for the entire list. It also relied on an alignment of stakeholders, and the week prior to the build, conversations began to hint that constituents had dramatically different ideas about the project. For the final straws, two of the three campers backed out, after the first day, and the artist received word that she must have abdominal surgery. The project, as designed, collapsed.

The piece and its collapse, however, reveal something about social practice and its potentials and limitations within the contexts a piece inherits. I have yet to understand fully what this inheritance might be, but I take heart that that it will be revealed in the spaces between what I intended and the social, personal, and economic relations that collaborated to yield what is. As Pablo Helguera writes in Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook, “It is when we position ourselves in those tentative locations, and when we persist in making them into concrete experiences, that interstices become locations of meaning.”