Coocoons, community, (other) artists

Yes, some of my favorite words. AND, I’m not even talking about my own art.

I mentioned this at the end of my last epic novel post, but I wanted to highlight it a bit more.

The other day I had an INCREDIBLE conversation with the amazing artist and also Hampshire Alum, Kate Browne. I saw her work featured in a Hampshire Newsletter a couple months back and it said how she was a community artist working on a project in Mississippi involving making a giant cocoon made from bamboo and giant cane and a willow structure. OH-EM-GEE. this is an incredible combination of interests! We are surely destined to be best friends.

I emailed her and it took a bit but we finally got the chance to connect and have a really great phone meeting this past week.

It was just SO GREAT to have this conversation with someone who gets where I’m coming from, artistically and community-building-ly and hampshire-y. She was just so casual and easy going and fun — if you want to create a project, just go out and start creating it. I asked, “how do you start a project like this?” and basically she just starts. She starts talking to people in the place that she wants to work (SHE chooses the place — she doesn’t wait for the perfect arts organization to approach her with a big grant and a huge desire to make cocoons and community art… hmmm….), she keeps asking and talking until she connects with the person who is willing and interested to take on this project, or part of it.

She builds her team of installers, of workers, of planners, of community organizers. She navigates between the people who totally get the project and are willing to not know exactly what it is going to look like but still advocate for it, and the people who have a “great level of anxiety and can’t bear the artistic process”.

I spoke about my ongoing internal debate:  being the “outsider artist” coming into a community I am not a part of, deciding what we are going to do and what is important to that community and then executing that project based on my desires and artistic leanings VERSUS having my work to be very organic, based in the community member’s concerns, talents, passions and a true expression of them. The conflict arising when I present a project with lots of room for others’ input and end up with very vague and intangible projects where I have more difficulty enrolling people in participating because they don’t know what I’m talking about or how specifically and concretely they can participate — people want direction and a leader of some sort.

She laughed and said that yes people do want order and structure and direction. For her, “the materials and the humans are different; the project and the design is the same (for each project).” And she doesn’t worry about it being of that community because it always will be because it will be made from their material and with their histories, their inputs, and most importantly, their mini cocoons filled with something that is important to them. The shape of the project almost isn’t important — it’s just an event, an object, a project to work on which brings out these people and issues and histories — an opportunity to interact.

She spoke about some of the really really interesting social interactions and layers of the projects: how different people interact with the project and their fellow workers and project participants, and how people relate to the installation work itself. People end up focusing their anxieties about the social / racial / historical tensions that are playing out in the making of the project onto the object itself – getting frustrated at the weaving or the speed of progress or the materials instead of acknowledging (at least immediately) the deeper issue.

I loved how casual and non-judgemental Kate was about all these layers. Like an observer and a knowing parent, she lets the process of making the cocoon work itself out.

She reinforced what I’ve been seeing happen to myself in real life this week: you go door to door (or in my case email & phone call to email & phone call) and share yourself and your project and what you’re committed to and what you’re creating. You enroll people in what you’re up to and ask them to play with you. It also reminded me of Greensboro and walking door to door every week — it felt pointless and stupid for a while, but after about a month and a half, there was this shift, and suddenly I was just one of the neighborhood people, slightly recognizable, and credible as someone worth talking to, even just for a bit. “Some people think that community organizing is about ads or commercials. No; community organizing is about talking.”

Kate said I should move to Detroit, that’s where her next project is going to be and she just loves it. She thinks that since it is the first industrial city that collapsed, it will be the first to come back in our new, future-city way. There’s lots to learn from that city. I totally get that!

So, that was amazing. And I’ve been emailing and calling all kinds of people I admire or aspire to be like or just want to talk to, and amazingly they are responding, despite being busy and important and beautiful! despite me sending them a brochure that had the word “TITLE” on the top of the first page because I still haven’t come up with a good name for my workshop! Things are moving, I just need to keep talking.

more updates soon.


p.s. i just got this 5-year journal I’m super excited about (inspired by mz. Adrienne Skye Robert’s 5-year journal). You write about 1 paragraph per day, and you write on a new page each day. so the next year, I can look up one paragraph and see what I wrote about one year prior. and then the last 2 years. and 3. and 4. These are going to be a good/interesting next 5 years.


  1. Kerianne

    After reading this, I totally bought a 5 year journal. I’m so excited! Yay!

  2. nanci (mom)

    i love the conversation you had with Kate – really, really cool!

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