By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
Ask someone to draw something and chances are the person will break into a cold sweat and declare an inability to draw even a straight line. “I’m no artist” is the common refrain. This denial is one of the impulses underlying a new artist residency project at Art Produce in North Park.
Funded by a California Arts Council grant, resident artist Bhavna Mehta is conducting a series of free workshops and open studio sessions at Art Produce, intended to engage community members in the arts.
“To involve people who don’t think of themselves as artists, to involve them in art, is something that I feel very strongly about,” Mehta said in an interview with San Diego Uptown News. “I was born and raised in India, and because of the overwhelming amount of color, patterns, and stories that we were surrounded by in our everyday lives, I have realized that I was surrounded by people who did not call themselves artists, but they were. We need to access that in our communities. I really want to bridge that gap.”
For Mehta, the project is also about drawing people into the creative process by exploring their stories.
“Storytelling is a huge part of my personal practice,” Mehta said, “so I always like to start from that point and then give people a trigger. The workshops are a way for people to come in, talk to me, talk with each other, and work together so they start the process of discovering their own stories.”
Workshop participants are encouraged to bring a personal item that has some meaning. Mehta guides expression of that meaning through various media, but particularly paper, as she explained: “Paper is a very accessible medium. People can pick up paper and scissor and they don’t feel intimidated. People just enjoy cutting paper. It’s not like drawing and it’s not like painting. I feel like the medium itself is really interesting and it’s helping me realize that there’s a lot that can be done in terms of reaching people and hearing their stories.”
Paper is also the focus of the works Mehta plans to create as part of the project. She will interpret the stories participants share as the basis for wearable paper artwork, visible connections between participants and the artist.
“I’m interested in connection in stories,” Mehta said. “As an immigrant, I’ve been interested in connection for a long time, figuring out how you are going to use your art practice to connect with other people. It’s about connection and about community, which ties into the use of paper. If you take a single piece of paper and you fold it and cut it — everything is connected. Like a paper snowflake.
“As an artist I’ve been able to reach across differences and have a conversation that has nothing to do with all the minority categories I belong to — woman, immigrant from a poor country, I have brown skin. If you can see somebody who is different from you, doing something that you love, that’s huge. It’s a bridge. It’s not why I became an artist — I became an artist because I love what I do — but the bigger picture is the connections that come with art.”
Lynn Susholtz has embraced the concept of connection since she founded Art Produce 17 years ago with community engagement in mind: “There are a lot of people in the community who can’t afford art classes or don’t have it in the school or can afford to go to museums.
“We provide opportunities for low-income families and seniors, immigrants and refugees. We have activities for 7 to 90 years olds.”
The eclectic nonprofit includes a restaurant and beer garden, studio spaces and a gallery that faces the street, inviting the community to come in.
“Typically the work we show in the gallery has some sort of community engagement component,” Susholtz said. “It’s designed to be as much for the community as for the artists to challenges themselves, to experiment in ways that stretch their practice.
“Most artists are used to being alone in their studios. This is an opportunity to engage the public. Art is a universal human experience. It’s what makes us human.”
On Nov. 18, the gallery will host an exhibit of works created during Mehta’s residency.
—Kit-Bacon Gressitt writes narrative nonfiction and commentary, published at ExcuseMeImWriting.com and is a founding editor of WritersResist.com. She formerly wrote for the North County Times. She also hosts Fallbrook’s monthly Writers Read authors series and open mic, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.