Clay Culture: It Takes a Village

1 Penelope Eleni Gaitanis-Katsaras working on building the installation, Halloween Harvest Festival, 2015.

Public art seems intimidating to attempt because so many people are involved. One artist navigated the process to bring art to her community and local kids.

I gave birth to three children in less than two years (yes I have twins). Needless to say, my life changed. From then on, everything I did, everywhere I went, I was accompanied by three babies in a big triple stroller.

While we almost never hired babysitters, during the first summer of the twins’ life, we had a sweet art student named Emily Nagle-Grundy who helped me out. One day I suggested to Emily that we visit the Noguchi Museum in my Queens neighborhood in New York. Excited, because neither of us had ever been there, we put the babies in a double and single stroller and headed to the museum. When we got there, we were told that strollers were not allowed in the museum. Facing the impossible task of carrying two babies and one toddler in our arms, we unfortunately left.

New to Queens, I quickly discovered Socrates Sculpture Park diagonally across from the Noguchi. For the next few years, Socrates became my haven and connection to contemporary art. There, my young children could run around on the grass and touch or climb the ever changing sculptural landscape.

Reflections on Public Art

I began to think more about public art. Public art exists directly in the path of our everyday life. Children can interact with it. Strollers are allowed. It makes our neighborhoods more interesting and visually stimulating. And public art has the potential to build community and reach a wide audience.

2 Children working on decorating their tiles for the Rainey Park installation project Neighborhood Stories, 2017.

3 Andrea Gamero (l) and Adrian Guerrero (r) with their finished tile plaques, fired to cone 05, for Neighborhood Stories, 2017.

Transformation

As an artist with a BFA from Alfred University and an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in ceramic art, my previous facilities and resources no longer existed. Besides having three babies, I didn’t even have a studio in the big expensive city of New York.

Yet, sometimes restrictions inspire creativity by forcing us to work out of our comfort zone. They show us new meaning and understanding. Ultimately, we create in ways we never thought possible. This was my experience.

In my living room, I conjured and conveyed countless oral stories to my children. Moreover, I began drawing, surrounded by my children, with their juvenile art making material. My audience shifted from adult gallery audiences to children and families. My beloved studio was located in shoe boxes on the shelves just above the children’s toys. My ceramic sculpture evolved into living, storytelling, and play dough.

One of my many stories was about visiting Socrates for their Halloween Harvest Festival. With markers on card stock, I began illustrating the story. In 2013, I completed 10 sketches and, as a long shot, applied for a Queens Council on the Arts grant. My proposal was that I would recreate my sketches and story on ceramic tiles to be displayed as public art. It was a pipe dream since I had been out of the art loop for a few years. To my shock, I got it. I had one year to create a public mural.

There was so much to do. I didn’t even have a studio. I had to clean out our rented unfinished basement to work in while my husband, Anthony, hooked up my hand-me-down kiln in our rented garage. Then I had to find a location to exhibit.

Facebook led me to a community volunteer organization called The Friends of Astoria Heights Park. It was run by two mothers, Lynn Kennedy and Lauren Biniaris, whose intent was to better their local park. They were interested in hosting a public art exhibition. We submitted the proposal to Jennifer Lantzas, the Public Art Coordinator of New York City Parks, and the road was paved.

Yet, there was still an obstacle. I had to figure out a way to install tiles temporarily since the parks department rarely displays permanent art.

It was suggested that I use a small piece of land on the outskirts of the playground called the butterfly garden. In other words, I had a plot of lumpy land to work with.

4 Unfinished ceramic tiles (to 12 in. (30 cm) in height) by Gaitanis-Katsaras for Halloween Harvest Festival, 2015.

5 Completed tiles by Gaitanis-Katsaras, 12 in. (30 cm) in height, ceramic, fired to cone 6, for the Halloween Harvest Festival installation, 2015.

6 Detail of finished Halloween Harvest Festival, tiles, cinder blocks, plants.

After much research and effort, I figured out a solution. I would install the tiles flat on a cinder-block garden. I used a product called Tavy 008 Easy to Eliminate which is like goo that never dries out. I mixed it with both the mortar and grout, hoping that someday I would be able to remove the tiles.

The result was a sculpture, book, and garden in one. It was art for the children to walk around and on, to touch, and to explore. But I was missing one element. The children did not help make the tiles.

Two Years Later

Two years after receiving the Queens Council on the Arts grant, Kennedy called me. The Astoria Heights Park was given a large sum of money for community enrichment. She asked if I could do a collaborative tile installation with children. While I was interested in the project, I let her know that it was complicated because we needed a kiln and work space. A Friends of Astoria Heights Park community organizing meeting was held. A minister named Larry Mayberry who was at the meeting said, “I know where there is a kiln.” The kiln he referred to was in a community center at a New York City Housing Authority building. A meeting was set up with the director, Diane Adlam-Ferguson. When I saw the space, I was blown away. It hadn’t been used in years. It was dirty, full of unfired projects, and used as storage; however, under the mess was dry clay, hundreds of jars of commercial glazes, and a big beautiful kiln. I immediately stepped in and orchestrated the collaborative tile event.

Cleaning and organizing the space was a lot of work and took weeks to complete. Then the children and I met about 8 times to make and decorate the tiles. I did not know where or how the tiles would be displayed. I textured the back of the tiles in case they were glued and also punched holes in the corners if they needed to be hung instead.

7 Dimitra Katsaras with her Queens’ inspired tile plaque for Neighborhood Stories.

8 Alternate view of the Halloween Harvest Festival, ceramic tiles, cinder blocks, plants, 2015.

9 Alex Coln with his finished ceramic plaque installed at Rainey Park for Neighborhood Stories, 2017.

The assignment I gave to the children was to create Queens. They made the subway, people, cars, buildings, and even a unicorn.

Again, we had to work out the temporary exhibition details with Lantzas from the parks department. She suggested we display in Rainey Park, located next door to Socrates Sculpture Park, where my journey began. The park was ideal. Lantzas thought the tiles could be secured to boards and hung from the fence. Another local artist and mother, Rebecca Van Kessel, volunteered to help out with the hanging. She suggested using plumber’s strap to secure the tile boards to the fence.

Public art is best when the community is involved. One connection leads to another. This link of abilities and ideas is what brings success. I could not have completed the projects without Anthony, Lynn, Lauren, Larry, Diane, Jennifer, Rebecca, and others. There is an expression that says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Let me rephrase it: “It takes a village to make public art.”

the author Penelope Eleni Gaitanis-Katsaras lives and maintains an studio in Queens, New York. She is a former professor of art and former elementary school art teacher. Gaitanis-Katsaras received a BA in history from Rutgers University; a BFA in ceramics from Alfred University; and an MFA in ceramics from the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

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