Drawing Lines - Tin Can Trust

By Larissa Nemeth

In the world we currently inhabit there’s this strange paradox - we have more means than ever before with which to communicate, but it seems humanity is becoming less adept at this every day.  What is the root of the cause of this breakdown? Where can we identify the issue(s)?  These questions are for now, rhetorical. All I can know for sure, is that in my life, I strive to create more real, honest connections on a one to one basis and find the common ground that sets the stage for friendship or simply lends itself to further understanding of another human life.

 In this vein, Cristina, our Junior Dibs correspondent Vivienne and I visited the Allentown Art Museum on January 27 to feel the place out and to take part in an exciting project working to bridge the types of gaps I mention above.

 Wandering the galleries (free admission for ALL on Sundays? Yes, please!) set alight places in our brains long-sleeping since the “rise of the screen”.  The type of work displayed spoke to various backgrounds, cultures, epochs, etc.  We were enchanted especially by Stephen Antonakos’s Room Chapel installation featuring bright neon light spewing out from clean white edges in an enclosed space. Also, the Carrie Mae Weems photography exhibit sparked joy, terror, anguish and a range of other emotions that we babbled about as we moved around the selection of images.

What we sometimes forget, is that art is a form of communication. By sharing what we do and make, we are opening lines of conversation for ourselves and others, just like what happened between the three of us as we ventured about the museum space.

Our final stop in the museum brought us to the Crayola Learning Center, which Vivienne had been vying to reach so we could channel energies stimulated to the surface by interaction with art and CREATE!

The open room created a wonderful high-energy atmosphere, and it is here that we made our contribution to the Tin Can Trust - this was the reason for our mini-posse visiting the museum that day.  I had read about this interesting concept of creating art to share between Allentown and Puerto Rico as part of this project. My family had travelled to Eastern Puerto Rico about three years ago for vacation and we were all fairly intoxicated by the so called “Isla Del Encanto” (Island of Enchantment). Also, it turns out Cristina’s parents lived on the island for several years before she was born. It seems the tiny island and US territory has lines to many mainland people that exist in different ways. In addition to painting and collaging, before we left, we were able to “make and take” pins- one to send to the people in Puerto Rico, one to take home as a token of our experience and both a piece of shared art and communication between cultures. 

I was lucky to be able to speak with Linda Fernandez of the Amber Art and Design Collective who was facilitating the project at the museum that day.

 1.           Tell us a little about Amber Art & Design

Amber Art & Design is an art collective of 7 Philadelphia and New York-based artists: Ernel Martinez, Keir Johnston, Charles Barbin, Willis "Nomo" Humphrey (RIP), Linda Fernandez, Martha OConnell and Siddhartha Joag.  We have a collective 20 years of experience partnering with local communities, nonprofit orgs, museums, academic and cultural institutions, and public entities to realize trans-formative projects.  While our roots are in public mural projects, our collective work is committed to facilitating robust community engagement processes which engage local leaders and collaborate with local musicians, historians, poets, and artists who can share their skills and expertise in our processes. Our work approaches community-based engagement with a commitment to informing all processes by a community’s existing resources, expertise, and inter-generational knowledge. Through our collaborations with social researchers, community organizers, and community institutions, we work to bring institutional resources into neighborhoods that have seen resource depletion for many decades. We use our artistic, creative, and innovative skill sets as a team to facilitate interactions that allow for relationship and trust building, upending traditional frameworks of community input processes with the goal of creating a more radically just and equitable city and society.

2. How did the idea for Tin Can Trust come about?

When we were invited to be the 2018-2019 Long Term Artist in Residence with the Allentown Art Museum one of the first things we needed to do was figure out the focus of our work in Allentown. We began to do some research into the history and demographics of Allentown, looking at census data. What we discovered was that Allentown has a very large percentage of residents that identify as Hispanic or Latino and within that population, the majority identify as Puerto Rican. You can also see when you walk or drive around downtown there are so many Puerto Rican flags, there is a huge sense of pride and identity that Puerto Ricans take with them. I (Linda) identify as a person of mixed background, including Puerto Rican decent, so this was also in connection to my culture. The idea for the Tin Can Trust came about through conversation with our collaborator, Siddhartha Joag, a journalist who works for an arts media outlet called Arts Everywhere. He had been traveling to Puerto Rico to write about the work that artists have been doing in their communities’ post-hurricane Maria. The idea emerged from thinking about how aid packages were being shipped to Puerto Rico, many containing canned foods and items. We started to think that aid can come in many forms to meet basic human needs and we began to ask: can solidarity expressed through art and culture be a form of aid? We began to work with people in Allentown to host T-shirt making workshops at The Caring Place and at the Allentown Art Museum where participants would silkscreen shirts with messages of love, friendship, hope and solidarity. One shirt they would keep and one shirt would be sent to someone in Puerto Rico.

3. Explain the idea of the tin cans – what do they represent?

The cans represent the history of factory work which brought large numbers of Puerto Ricans to Allentown during the Industrial Era. Cans were designed to preserve perishable goods like food, we were working with this concept when we thought of cans as a means to preserve art and culture. But on the most basic level, the cans are simply the vessel for transporting the artwork.

 4. What are you hoping to achieve with this project?

Our practices as artists are deeply rooted in collaboration and community engagement. We wanted to create a link between two places to create dialogue, connection and solidarity. Puerto Rico is technically part of the U.S. but residents can't vote in presidential elections. They are considered a state or territory of the U.S. but how much do we on the mainland know about what is going on there? There was an economic crisis in Puerto Rico before hurricane maria devastated the island. Sadly it took a natural disaster causing many to lose their lives, homes and livelihood in order for the rest of the country to become aware of the situation. We want to raise awareness of these issues and collaborate with local artists to share resources and encourage creativity to flourish.

 5. What has been the most exciting or rewarding part of this process?

Definitely the connections we have built with people in Allentown and in Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico we have teamed up with artists Esteban Figueroa, Karla Sofia Betancourt, Francisco Gonzalez and Jorge Gonzalez. Esteban was a professional basketball player who lives in a neighborhood called Puerto de Tierra. He owns a beautiful colonial style two story building that is in need of repair and we are working to help him secure grant money to make the repairs needed and transform the space into a museum for jazz music and a hub for community art. In Allentown we have been working with The Caring Place, an organization run by Mary Griffin which offers amazing resources to the community such as a food pantry and afterschool classes for youth providing academic resources and leadership development. Inside The Caring Place there is so much going on and we have been working to bring awareness to all of the great community work that they do.

 6. What do you hope people both in America and Puerto Rico will learn by participating?

I think it is an opportunity to exchange ideas and messages across geographic boundaries. My hope is that it expands the way that people see the world, imagining what life is like in another place and creating a sense of empathy for participants. For people on the U.S. mainland side who are part of the Puerto Rican diaspora, this is a way to connect back to culture, identity and pride in being Puerto Rican. For people living in Puerto Rico, this is a way to express, share and preserve parts of their unique culture and Caribbean identity.

 7. Do you see any continuing future for the Tin Can Trust? If so, where do you see it going? 

Yes, we have developed a partnership with the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo (Contemporary Art Museum) in San Juan and they are very interested in having us host workshops in partnership with their program in the Loisa community of Puerto Rico. We are seeking partners in Philadelphia such as Norris Square Neighborhood Project and Taller Puertorriqueño, who will be interested in having us host workshops in the Puerto Rican community. The final piece of the puzzle is to seek funding for this work to happen. We are looking into possible grants to support this work as much of our travels and work in Puerto Rico has been self-funded.

For more information-

Our names: Linda Fernandez & Keir Johnston

Our collective: Amber Art and Design | www.amberartanddesign.com 

Social Media:

Facebook| Like Page - https://www.facebook.com/Amber-Art-and-Design-194391044000713/

Friends Page - https://www.facebook.com/amber.art.79 

Instagram | @amberpublicart

 The exhibition opening for Tin Can Trust will take place on February 24 2019 at the Allentown Art Museum - all are welcome to attend!