UPNEXT is a comprehensive parenting program operating through Midtown Community Court that helps fathers to support their children both emotionally and financially. The UPNEXT program offers assistance to fathers who are struggling with unemployment and having difficulty paying child support; who are engaged in seeking custody of or visitation rights with their children; or are simply looking for ways to be more involved in their child’s life. For the past few years, we’ve partnered with the educators and staff of MCC in order to bring the arts into a wide variety of their programs, across a number of preexisting educational goals and frameworks. In this post below, MoMA Educator Shellyne Rodriguez reflects on a recent project she created in collaboration with this group. – Calder Zwicky, Associate Educator, Teen and Community Programs
Working with the members of the UPNEXT group it was hard for me not to think of my own dad, especially as so much about these men’s backgrounds and personalities reminded me of him. Good humored and boisterous, tough and tender, sometimes all at the same time. My father was not an active part of my life until I was older, and so much about their goals in this program mirrored my own experiences. My mother relocated to another state and my father, having spent some time incarcerated, struggled to rekindle a relationship with me, putting aside the pain of lost opportunities and the pain of missing out on large chunks of my formative years. So going into this, not only was I looking at this project through the lens of being a MoMA educator, I was viewing it through the lens of being a daughter as well.
That painful process of re-engaging in a relationship with my father required that the two of us get out of our individual comfort zones and dig a little deeper into the emotions and experiences that informed our past. (I am happy to report that, regardless of what we went through, the old man and I are still in touch regularly.) Having had this experience, and being both an artist and educator myself, I knew that the practice of “getting out of one’s comfort zone and digging deeper” is also what is required of a viewer who wished to engage with art. The parallels come in the form of patience, and in looking into something, as opposed to looking at it. They also come in the form of self-reflection and self-expression, as art often does as well.
So when the guys came to the Museum to begin our project together, we began with a candid conversation about how art might function in our individual lives and what we might think of as its parallels to the broader human experience. We talked about how art wants to “blow up” a certain level of truth, and how the act of looking at something closely is, in a sense, a peeling back of layers—a study in noticing what’s there beneath the surface, the so-called shadow that exists behind the artwork. The men shared their ideas of how this was relevant to them, and the discussion became centered around ideas regarding our exterior appearances versus the reality of our (more truthful) interior selves.
We put some of these ideas into play by introducing Kara Walker’s silhouettes into the discussion, and it quickly became apparent that she would become the focus of our project. We began thinking about power dynamics in Walker’s work and the power dynamics that we exist within today. We considered the silhouette as an agent of negative space or as a shadow of truer selves, but also as Kara Walker sees them. Walker writes, “The silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that’s also what the stereotype does.” What does this say about those of us working on the project, a group that happened to have been made up almost entirely of African American and Latino participants? We left this an open-ended question and used it to fuel our project; creating our own series of Kara Walker–inspired silhouettes, based on our own experiences as either fathers or children.
The men incorporated elements of theatricality into the work. Because the silhouette would describe so very little as far as specific details were concerned, they understood that it was important to think about how to say what they wanted to say with their bodies alone. The men decided on poses and how they should interact together, with each participant taking his role in the larger tableau very seriously, pushing through their comfort zones and going out on a limb in order to complete the collective vision. Each took turns posing, and a team of two would trace their shadow while another held the lighting in the best angles to draw those shadows out. Across the room we had a team of men with X-Acto blades carefully cutting out the silhouettes, working almost like an assembly line. In the end we put all of the silhouettes together against the wall. The group felt rewarded at what they had accomplished, and were surprised that we all had a genuinely good time doing it. Even though I was the teaching artist overseeing the project, I found myself feeling happy just being part of the team. We stood around taking in what they had made together and laughed at how uncanny these silhouettes were, each of us knowing just how much more there was buried, just barely, beneath the surface.
MoMA’s Community Partnership Program works with a variety of nonprofit and community-based organizations. More information on previous programs can be found HERE, HERE, and HERE. Information on the Museum’s Community Programs Department can be found on the MoMA.org Community Organizations page. Special Thanks to Courtney Bryan, Bo Twiggs, Jonathan Monsalve, Eric Rodriguez, and all of the participants in the UPNEXT program.