Artists look beyond bars and borders at Coral Gables Museum
To produce “The Art of Compassion,” a heartfelt fusion of art and social change at the Coral Gables Museum, Starr Sariego gathered 20 fellow photographers — most of them local, some internationally known — and paired them with women just released from prison. She collaborated with the Miami-based Ladies Empowerment Action Program (LEAP), which provides instruction in life skills and entrepreneurship to incarcerated women preparing for transition. Upon release, graduates are greeted with transportation, a cell phone and other tangible necessities, plus employment and housing resources. And in this case, the women also met their volunteer photographers.
According to Sariego, recidivism among LEAP participants is lower than 5 percent after three years. The national failure rate for former convicts exceeds 70 percent.
“The Art of Compassion” presents photo portraits, audio commentaries and written testimonials that attest to broken family relationships, addiction and other misfortunes, while also celebrating triumphs over adversity. Liz, one of the project’s subjects, wrote, “Think what it’s like to live in a world where you divulge your life’s worst decision to everyone you meet.”
Branded with a scarlet “F,” felons consistently face mistrust and rejection. The exhibition raises questions of how society can improve their fate. More than second chances, many women — having suffered abuse when they were young — made one or more bad, life-shattering choices. Now, after paying dearly for those bad choices, they really need first chances. Sariego’s mission through this project is to help them overcome society’s biases and get on with their lives.
The women represent a diversity of age, race and demeanor. Some, like Tarshea, photographed by CW Griffin, look poised and determined, aglow in tropical finery. Others, like Sariego’s model for “No Perfect People Allowed,” are more contemplative. The majority of the images and testimonials reveal gritty acceptance of past mistakes and firm commitment to persevere. or the epitome of resolve, there’s Leesa Richards’ photo of Crystal.
Another subject, Rebecca, wrote, “God has truly taken my wrong choices and turned them into blessings. I am a dog trainer that specializes in breaking bad behavior. I love animals and I love giving back my training service dogs for wounded vets.
“The Art of Compassion” isn’t all smiles, balloons and high-fives. Not everyone overcomes. One photo is dedicated in memoriam to Gina, who succumbed to a drug overdose. At least one subject is living on the streets.
Alexandra Vivas and her sculptor husband, Elio Diaz, collaborated to create an artistic tour de force. First, Diaz fabricated a gritty replica of a prison phone booth, fitted with two decrepit handsets and stools, separated by a glass pane. They submerged this prop in a swimming pool, and the brave portrait subject Christie dove repeatedly to model herself both free (engaged, hair streaming) and incarcerated (curled up, hair bound, hiding her face). The watery “prison” creates a dramatic setting for “The Last Conversation” photograph. The phone booth itself, streaming recorded messages through its handsets, commands the Abraham Gallery floor.
Sariego and her colleagues created this project out of goodwill and hope. Among her most fervent wishes is that visitors will overcome their bias and offer these women jobs — even just for a trial period. “They really want people in our community to welcome them back,” she says.
“America Weaves,” also on view at the museum, was organized by independent curator Adriana Herrera, co-founder of Miami-based Aluna Art Foundation. She selected artists from North and South America, spanning ancient indigenous traditions and distinctly contemporary approaches. Stella Bernal de Parra’s three-dimensional “Bell Tower” tapestry from 1971 anchors the show. As museum chief curator Yuneikys Villalonga explains, Parra’s education in Colombia was influenced by the renowned German Bauhaus school (1919-1933), which promoted interconnection among art, architecture and popular traditions.
Parra’s pioneering work embodies that spirit, encompassing domestic handwork, spiritual grounding and contemporary inventiveness. Her translucent “Solar Eclipse” pairs humanity’s probing of outer space with pre-Hispanic astrological symbols.
The artists utilize a formidable range of materials: canvas, corduroy, henequen and pita fibers, wool, cotton, wire, clothing scraps, shoelaces, felt, burlap sacks, light tubes, human hair, plastic mesh, tape and bags. Weaving is more a conceptual notion than a literal technique, as materials are also bundled, interlaced, dyed, wrapped and stitched.
Numerous works hang dramatically from the Fewell gallery’s 20-foot ceiling, encouraging visitors to delicately navigate as if among spiderwebs. Maria Angelica Medina created her “Woven Conversations” project on the streets of Bogotá, speaking with passersby while knotting a tunnel-like net that’s suspended in multiple loops.
Aurora Molina’s “Geometric Cosmogonies” also involves social practice. It’s simultaneously a weaving demo and a contemporary exercise in trompe l’oeil. A traditional backstrap loom hangs vertically, its striped weaving incomplete. Sets of warp threads remain separated, and the shuttle is suspended in midflight. In a mischievous and loving tribute to handwork traditions of her collaborators at the Trama Textiles Coop in Guatemala, she has superimposed life-size hands, created in virtuosic stitchery, that are themselves stitching into the fabric.
In “Union Charge,” Pip Brant’s short, feverish strokes of yarn capture a detail within a frantic Civil War drama. She dismantles misguided, heroic depictions of warfare, rewriting history with the tools of its domestic victims.
Marcela Marcuzzi uses lush appliqué embroidery to amplify — even explode — the courtly stories of Marie Antoinette and her cadre, presented in a set of vintage illustrated books. Luis Arroyo, Juan José Olavarría and Sonia Falcone also apply stitchery to existing materials to create philosophical texts, migration maps, insignia — and in Carrie Sieh’s sophisticated urban scenes — pointed commentaries about Miami’s environmental and social perils. Although loud and large, Guerra de la Paz’s 1999 “Atomic” mushroom cloud, made of recycled clothing, today seems almost quaint in its dire warning.
Often, preconceptions shape perception. Frances Trombly’s “Leaning Canvas” spotlights assumptions about “blank” canvas, “waiting” to be painted on. Do we take the utilitarian canvas for granted, examine it for subtle interventions by the artist, or value its intrinsic beauty? Raquel Schwartz has audaciously knotted together thousands of feet of cassette tape to create a shimmering fabric that hangs from the wall like a luxurious gown, then flows onto the floor like a river.
Diminutive but potent, Gego’s pioneering 1978 sculpture has the tense agility of a family of acrobats. Using stainless-steel wire to draw in space, she fabricated structures that resemble organic webs and geometric matrixes. As Villalonga explains, “Gego created this work in Latin America at the same time her contemporaries were working with traditional techniques — but bringing them into the contemporary.”
That thread is unbroken. Fortunately, many of these artists are represented by Miami galleries.
“The Art of Compassion” and “America Weaves” are on view through Sept. 23 and Nov. 10, respectively, at the Coral Gables Museum, 285 Aragon Ave. Hours are noon-6 p.m Tuesday-Friday; 11-5 p.m. Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $10 for adults; students and seniors $8, children $3 and free to Museum members, military families, and children under 6. Call 305-603-8067 or go to CoralGablesMuseum.org.
Top photo: Alexandra Vivas’ “The Last Conversation” is featured in “The Art of Compassion.” Image courtesy the artist and the museum.
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