Sponsored by the Mary Pickford Foundation, this Designmatters studio teamed up ArtCenter students with high schoolers from the Ramona Gardens public housing development to create an art-filled event at Alvarez Park that would celebrate and connect the Boyle Heights community with its cultural and natural surroundings through projects that explore self-expression and ideas of environmental justice.
Collaborating with Legacy LA, a community-based nonprofit focused on youth development, the studio provided students with hands-on experience as they engaged in behind-the-scenes planning and execution to produce a socially engaged art event/project to their neighborhood. Additionally, students had opportunities to work side-by-side with representatives from North East Trees and Outward Bound Adventures on their cumulative project.
A continuation from previous Socially Engaged Art studios that connected ArtCenter students with developmentally disabled artists as well as underserved artists, this Designmatters studio focused on engaging ArtCenter students through a collaborative large-scale public art project with high schoolers from Ramona Gardens housing development who participate in the after-school programs at the nonprofit Legacy LA facility.
ArtCenter students teamed with the East Los Angeles youth for dialogue, participation, and action as they imagined, designed and created a community event at nearby Alvarez Park. Throughout the hands-on design process, they learned the intricacies of collaboration and proper planning; student teams ideated and executed real-world concepts that resonated with residents and inspired the neighborhood. At the afternoon celebration, student teams showcased various art installations and nature-themed interactions that engaged the local community.
“So often, it’s easy to create art in a bubble, in a studio by yourself at a private school. The only true factor is what I bring to the table. It’s just my concept. But when you are in a socially engaged practice, like what we are doing here, we are trying to leave a lasting impact within the community. It can be a complicated endeavor, but today makes everything worth it.”
– Rueben Torrres, Student, ArtCenter
Founded in 2007, Legacy LA reaches out to youth living in Ramona Gardens and the surrounding neighborhoods by offering positive activities and alternatives to gangs and violence that has deeply affected this East Los Angeles community.
Through its ongoing programs and projects, including a leadership partnership with the LAPD as well as an afterschool mentoring and academic support, Legacy LA provides young people with the tools to transform their lives and their communities. Youth are engaged in social justice, community issues and organizing along with environmental justice and improving relations between youth and law enforcement.
“The collaboration between the Legacy LA and ArtCenter students was great exposure for both groups. The Legacy LA youth were introduced to areas of environmental design, fine art, and other options that may be available to them at ArtCenter – this is something that would never have occurred to them. This studio is just the start of something really groundbreaking for everyone. I’m excited to see what this space can be transformed into.”
– Joseph Laskin, Projects and Development Manager for North East Trees
For the studio kickoff, ArtCenter students delved into the work of Legacy LA, the history of Ramona Gardens, and the scope of the collaborative project they would undertake.
To get a first-hand experience of the neighborhood, students traveled to Ramona Gardens for a walk-through of nearby Alvarez Park and Ascot Park Nursery. These valuable experiences encouraged students to examine, with an investigative lens, the unique aesthetic qualities of these Los Angeles neighborhoods.
Students considered the recent and longtime history of the area, honing in on Ramona Gardens, which started as a public housing development project in the 1940s. Since its inception, the community has seen its share of cultural representation from Jewish residents of the past to its now predominate Latino population. Beginning in the 1970s, residents have witnessed a dramatic increase in gang violence, illegal drug activity and police tension not to mention deaths and murders. Students were encouraged to continue to research the background of Ramona Gardens searching for additional questions and insights that could be artistically utilized for the event.
At the next class, ArtCenter students met their collaborative counterparts on location at Legacy LA where they learned more about the work of the nonprofit, their successes and challenges along with their goals for the project event that aimed at improving the quality of life of community members. With the stakeholder influence of North East Trees and Outward Bound, the studio encourages projects that would nurture stewardship for the Earth through an appreciation for native plant species and reclaim neglected spaces.
Students were introduced and, through a series of group exercises, learned more about each other. These group dynamic “get-to-know-you” experiences paved the way for the student teams to feel more comfortable and connected with each other. All participants discussed general concepts for the event; with ArtCenter students shared initial ideas for possible micro-businesses (selling native plants, map kiosks, podcasts, etc.).
Before meeting again with Legacy LA high schoolers, ArtCenter students had a deep examination into the nature of Socially Engaged Art, learning how individuals are altering, updating and pushing the art form into new territories. Students examined the works supported by the Socially Engaged Art Programs, including of A Blade of Grass, Creative Time and Open Engagement, immersing themselves into the specific details of how art expression is produced and manifested as well as the role of artist in this socio/political time and location.
Additionally, ArtCenter students analyzed the fine details of project budgeting and how to effectively use finite funds for maximum impact. Organizational skills were also examined as guidelines for how to properly and smoothly run art-centric events.
After presenting rough proposal ideas and budget breakdowns, ArtCenter students broke into teams with high school counterparts who shared similar interests. Teams divided up the work load, realized which aspects of their project needed additional research, charted the necessary next steps and assigned tasks for all members. Teams discussed the creative and technical characteristics of their project. Teams also considered possible collaborations, and how they could engage with the studio stakeholders, especially North East Trees and Outward Bound.
In addition to their own research, student teams as a whole observed culture and art in public places via field trips to Watts Tower and Community Center as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum at East L.A. College. Both groups also watched videos about the life and work of the writer urban activists Jane Jacobs and Ron Finley. This research offered students a deeper sense of how art can be presented to reflect social issues and engage viewers for action.
There were also workshop opportunities that focused on gardening, and the construction of two raised garden beds, one to be placed around the Legacy LA offices. Another workshop on screen printing gave the students hands-on experiences with that specific art form.
Throughout the course of the studio, ArtCenter students were encouraged to actively engage their high school teammates and to co-create with them, understanding the dynamics and skills of collaboration.
At mid-term, student teams presented their concepts for the afternoon event, itemizing out the smallest details as much as possible. To support their overall concept, they offered construction diagrams, materials list and cost breakdowns and tools needed to produce item. Students showed a working budget that would include a list of supplies and possible purchases; teams discussed the ethics of utilizing funds for non-direct purchases, questioning a range of issues such as if funds should cover transportation or applied to coffee and snacks during the execution phase.
Some teams projected possible problems that could arise during the production as well as in the day of project execution. Here was a chance to solve problems before they became a surprising unmanageable incident.
Student teams presented pros and cons of certain aspects of their preparation thinking – (e.g., is it cheaper to buy the kit or make it ourselves? Do we hire professionals to fabricate? How do you equitably divide the artwork?). They outlined their proposed process, charting each action step from start until the day of event and set-up/break down. They sketched out the location in the park where their art installation would be set-up, noting proximity to other exhibits and the natural landscape of the park.
Finally, many teams discussed option for their art projects after the event, offering ways these pieces be used in alternate ways in other public places.
Teams discussed additions that could be brought into their concept, keeping in mind the overall concept of the event was to celebrate and share the history, natural landscape and cultural community of the Ramona Gardens neighborhood.
As the event day grew closer, teams continued to prep their project and re-adjusting their to-do lists. Posters and other communications were also created to alert and invite the community to the free event.
“At first nobody [from Legacy LA] said they were interested in art. One person described putting objects together and decorating for fun for friends’ parties. But that is art; that is aesthetic and installation. As the studio went on, it turns out they are all into art. They are interested in gentrification, in ecology and how to uplift the green spaces around them because that will increase their quality of life. And those ideas ended up being a tool to get them into art. That became their way to express themselves.”
– Olga Koumoundouros, Faculty, ArtCenter
At “Viva La Loma,” residents of Ramona Gardens and the surrounding neighborhood congregated at Alvarez Park (commonly known as La Loma Park), a long strip of green space that is hidden from the street. Among the trees and steep hills that border the park, participants were welcomed to the celebration with a DJ playing upbeat music on the basketball court.
Volunteers at a welcome booth gathered names and email addresses in exchange for tickets to use for a free dinner and as a raffle ticket for the gardening box. Children raced around the park, couples wandered from booth to booth, neighborhood dogs trotted the landscape and families chatted with one another on the warm spring day. The relaxed mood set the tone for the event that kicked-off with short speeches from stakeholders and leaders as well as comments from both Legacy LA and ArtCenter students. The rest of the late afternoon/early evening was spent enjoying the park, experiencing art and connecting with neighbors.
Constructed at the gardening workshop, one elevated wooden garden box was on display at the event alongside potting soil and other garden hand tools. At the end of the event, this prize was raffled off to a resident from the ticket they received at the welcome booth. Tomato seedlings, easily transportable in hand-folded biodegradable newspaper containers, were handed out to residents to encourage them to grow their own food. A short how-to manual was also distributed.
Residents were each invited to create two indigo tie-dye flags, one which would be taken home and one left fluttering in the park with other creations. Indigo is one of the oldest dyes known and a number of cultures employ it in their crafts and art. Residents used rubber bands to wrap around the folded piece of fabric and then soak the pieces in a bucket of dye. When done, the flags were drying on nearby large sheets of plastic.
Sharing stories of Ramona Gardens, audio podcasts captured the memories from old-timers as well as the hopes and dreams of youth who live in and around the housing development. At the event, residents were encouraged to stop and share their own personal reflections.
To build on the foundation and relationships created at this studio, the Pickford Foundation has plans to support a future extension of the studio in Fall 2019.
“I do not live at Ramona Gardens, but I have lots of friends here. It’s a place to come and have fun and feel like a family. Where I live, I don’t have a lot of fun. But here is a community where you can make friends, engage with everyone, and talk to someone about a problem. Today was about bringing the community together for a peaceful, fun day at the park.”
– Sandra Flores, Legacy LA Youth
“There is such a need for these big bonding experiences. This is what builds community, builds trust and keeps us engaged and allows for sustainable movements to continue.”
– Jacquelyne Rodriguez, Legacy LA