Boston Creates, Barr Foundation

Boston Creates Artist-Ethnographer: Shaw Pong Liu

The Company You Keep: Reflections on my time as a Boston Creates artist-ethnographer

What is an artist but someone who has been authorized to live in the cracks, to explore the spaces between and around conventional identities, roles and occupations?

While others working for Boston Creates had more task-specific, delineated roles, my directive as artist-ethnographer was open-ended: to “reflect and interpret” the community engagement process.

My three months as one of the City’s artist-ethnographers was full of new experiences: the long, challenging arc of an open-ended creative process paired with rock-solid support of a cohort of artists; unique insight into a citywide planning process; the opportunity to expand my own artistic practice to include bread-making parties and a visual art installation; and the chance to tap into my diverse networks of fellow artists, across disciplines.

I developed a citywide perspective. My experiences in Mattapan and Dorchester, and at the all-city youth meeting, led me to deeply question Boston’s racial and economic disparities, and the class privilege that informs my own ability to be a freelance artist and classically-trained violinist. On the other hand, a citywide perspective also validated the role of the individual artist for me. While non-famous or unaffiliated working artists may struggle as individuals for financial stability and recognition, I realized that from a citywide view, a strong community of working artists is essential to any city’s cultural life. For the first time in my life, I felt a bit proud to be a non-famous working artist!

At Boston Creates meetings in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Jamaica Plain, I was inspired by the people who came—hardworking folks from community and arts organizations—but also curious and concerned about the folks who were not at the meetings.

I wanted to help individual freelance artists, as well as seniors, veterans, and the homeless community (to name just a few) be informed of and included in this process.

I wanted to help individual freelance artists, as well as seniors, veterans, and the homeless community (to name just a few) be informed of and included in this process.

My first act of “interpretation” was to re-interpret and reshape the community engagement meetings as 1) concerts interwoven with conversation for seniors and members of the homeless community; and 2) a series of bread-making parties for artists.

Artistically, I was interested in how different contexts could encourage conversation and influence who was in the room. By billing gatherings as parties or concerts, would different people show up than those who would attend a “meeting”? Could the power of artistic engagement—fun, physical, and creative activity—enliven the output of the conversation?

I tested these questions in two ways. First, in concerts with Guatemalan guitarist/singer Cesar del Cid and myself on violin, I interwove the planning questions between songs in concerts at a Jamaica Plain senior housing complex and a South End homeless center. The power of Cesar’s gorgeous voice, with songs from all over Latin America, brought instant smiles, sing-alongs, and dancing sways to the audience. With the ice broken, we found folks excited to talk and share their ideas.

Next, I curated “What Artists Knead,” a series of bread-making parties in five different neighborhoods for local artists to gather, make bread, and share their visions for a better creative Boston. Recently gifted my first sourdough starter, I was delighted by the exponential growth and sharing possibilities of a little wild yeast and flour. This passion cross-fertilized with my concern about the racial and cultural segregation of our city. Could bread-making help bridge some of these divides?

Inspired by the Mobile Bread House, I reached out to local partners and co-hosts in each of the five neighborhoods, creating a physical chain of dough travelling across the city, with parallel batches of dough mixed at one party, kneaded at another, shaped at a third, baked and eaten on the fourth. This physical bread chain was a reflection of, and metaphor for, my hope that artists from around the city connect with, support, and learn from artists in other neighborhoods.

I curated What Artists Knead, a series of bread-making parties in five different neighborhoods for local artists to gather, make bread, and share their visions for a better creative Boston.

From recent college graduates to budding chefs to established senior working artists, five eclectic groups of self-identified artists and bread aficionados gathered for five consecutive days in Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Roslindale, and Roxbury. We convened across the city in kitchens (and backyards, with a homemade brick oven following Community Bread Oven’s guidelines) in intimate gatherings of 12 to 25, washed our hands, got floury.

Primed with shared excitement about breadmaking, the gatherings were energetic, fun, and connecting: distinct from just sitting in a room and talking. Some of the conversations felt like much-needed support circles for isolated individual artists, others sparked lively debate about the role the City should play to support artists. But in all cases I suspect the hot-buttered bread greased the wheels of conversation.

It was exciting to start a tiny network of artists, foment connections and conversations, in partnership with Mattapan Cultural Arts, the Haley House Cafe, the amazing artists at the Cornerstone in Dorchester, and woodworker Beth Ireland in Roslindale. In seeking partnerships in neighborhoods new to me, I also experienced important pushback and skepticism, which helped me to understand the history of distrust between residents and the City in some of Boston’s underserved neighborhoods.

In the second stage of my project, I reflected on an urgent concern that emerged from many Boston Creates conversations: the need for affordable housing and artist space (studios, gallery, rehearsal, performance) in Boston. How can our city foster a vibrant community of artists without sufficient affordable housing and arts spaces? How can artists help build a dynamic cultural life and sense of place without inevitably being “the first wave of gentrification”?

To amplify these questions, I curated my first large-scale, visual art installation: an interactive paper house titled “What Makes a House Our Home?,” made of hundreds of smaller paper houses folded from poster sheets of handwritten ideas from Boston Creates neighborhood meetings, with the help of a dozen volunteers and the counsel of origami artist Michael LaFoss and visual artist Janet Kawada.

The re-purposing of the handwritten posters in this installation honored the time, thought, and trust so many people volunteered in sharing ideas at more than 100 meetings across Boston. It was also an interactive experience for attendees of the November 2 Boston Creates Town Hall meeting. To enter the meeting, attendees had to pass through the installation, answering the question, “What Makes a House our Home?” by choosing which of the three doors they entered: “safety,” “affordability,” or “community.” Votes were tallied during the meeting and as attendees exited, they saw the results visually displayed as a whimsical crepe-paper “pie chart” roof.

Three months after the project ended, when I struggled to clarify my ideas for a new artistic project, I knew exactly whom I needed to call to my dining room table for help: my fellow artist-ethnographers, Kate, Maria, Heather, and Leo. This is the most incredible and lasting gift of this project—the relationships forged in challenging and exciting times will continue to feed our work as artist-citizens. When you work in the cracks, it is essential to have company!

Learn about Department of Play’s role in Boston Creates

Hear from Leonardo March, artist-ethnographer

Hear from Heather Kapplow, artist-ethnographer

Shaw Pong Liu

Guest Author Violinist & Composer

Boston Creates is a community-wide effort to harness Boston’s creativity and build a shared vision for arts and culture.