On the 14/05/2014 I wrote a blog entry about the work of Melbourne artist Ilka White. Her website describes several Socially Engaged Art (SEA henceforth) projects which I was really interested in as they use textiles as the mode of engagement in a similar way to how I hope to engage people in my own practice. I really wanted to find out more about these project and Ilka’s work so, as promised, I made contact with her and she kindly agreed to share a meal with me and to discuss her work (the perks of living in Australia’s most creative city!). In this post I will share a bit of what Ilka and I talked about, including how she got into working with community and her insights into the sometimes challenging world of SEA.
Please note: I have italicised the parts where I am paraphrasing Ilka’s own words, and I had Ilka herself look over this text before posting it.
Firstly however, lets recap:
As it says on her website: Ilka White is a visual artist who works in textiles and sculpture. She is also a socially engaged practitioner, who works with community groups and other artists to create work. Direct engagement with the natural world (and the forces at work therein) is central to Ilka’s making process. Her current work explores relationships between the mind, body, time and place, and questions the separation of these elements.
Ilka holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Monash University and an Associate Diploma in Studio Textiles from Melbourne Institute of Textiles (now RMIT). She taught Contemporary Art and Design, Weaving and Textile History at RMIT University for 12 years (1999-2011), and was teaching artist in residence at the ANU School of Art in 2012. She has exhibited internationally and her work is represented in the public collections of the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, RMIT University and private collections in Australia, U.K. and U.S.A.
Ilka’s work appears in a variety of publications including Textiles: The Art of Mankind (Thames & Hudson, London. 2012), Art Textiles of the World – Australia Vol. 2 (Telos Art Publishing, U.K. 2007), The Melbourne Design Guide (Lab.3000, 2006) and Handmade in Melbourne (GSP Books, Melbourne 2006).
So how did it all start?
Ilka White talks about coming from a creative and musical family and growing up in a close-knit community where as a young person she regularly attended the Turramurra Music Camp. She spoke fondly of her time at these camps where her own creativity and creative aspirations were nurtured alongside a strong sense of community. After graduating from Monash and RMIT, Ilka’s first professional job was to create a banner for The Boite’s world music café concerts, not a SEA project but a piece made in consultation with/ for a specific community. She shared with me the old adage that ‘its all about who you know’ when you are looking to get work as an aritst, particularly when working in community. Reflecting on the fact that the networks and relationships she has build over time have really been the key to her SEA practice.
Another banner project followed the Boite commission. This time created with Cultivating Community, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes and supports the development of community garden projects. This banner, produced with community members at the Hoodle St Neighbourhood House, proved a formative experience and taught Ilka a great deal about trust in group process and informal skills exchange.
Ilka’s next SEA project came several years later and was a Cane and paper sculpture project called the ‘Turra Mahal’ which she facilitated at the very same Turramurra Music Camp Community which she attended as a teenager. As a long time member of the community the camp organisers were keen to get Ilka involved and share her skills with the community so they invited her to deliver a workshop as part of the two day camp. Often one of the challenges of being a SEA practitioner is that it takes time to build connections within a community, gain trust and come up with ideas that are sensitive and appropriate for that community. However when working within your own community these issues can be almost totally avoided and Ilka found that taking her practice into the context of the camp was a seamless progression outward from her personal practice. The sculpture project went really well and she has gone back to deliver workshops at the camp several times since that first project, doing something a little different each time and progressively collaborating more with the camp’s participants.
Since then she has worked on several SEA project including a “Ghostnets” shadow puppet performance on Moa Island in the Torres Strait with the local indigenous community, a community arts project called “The Four Seasons Wall Hanging” with multicultural ‘Loving Threads Sewing Circle’ who work together in the Factory, Belgium Avenue Neighbourhood House, a collaborative “Suzani “ embroidery project with the Fitzroy and Collingwood Afghani Women’s Group. Most recently she returned to the Loving Threads Sewing Circle to create a culturally sensitive burial shroud to be used by the local funeral home that services a population with a high number of culturally diverse people.
Talk to me about Textiles:
Ilka needs no further promoting to talk about her love of textiles: “Working with community using textiles is absolutely fantastic!” Textiles as a medium isn’t caught up in the traditional art hierarchy but rather are seen as a vernacular craft. While this is a “bummer” in art world, it is really useful when working in a community context because it means textiles are more accessible. People don’t feel they need to be an ‘artist’ to work with textiles as they are familiar and all this means that you don’t need to build up people’s courage like you would if say you were using the mediums of painting or sculpture. Textiles have a long history in many different cultures which involve the process of people meeting and making together and many people already have excellent technical skills which they learnt from their parents, grandparents or someone within their community.
As a SEA practitioner I see my most important role is being a good facilitator and drawing out of people the skills and talent within them, providing them with an opportunity to shine. Depending on the project, the community you are working with and your agenda, it is then possible to really push people a little, move them out of their comfort zone and into the learning zone. However, I believe that pleasure and enjoyment are the most important outcomes of a SEA process and again I see that textiles lend themselves beautifully to this aim. Where people shy away from seemingly simple creative tasks like drawing when working in textiles there seems to be less hesitation and fear.
What is it like to lead SEA projects?
Ilka’s SEA work blurs the lines between art, teaching and facilitation and she said that this balancing act can sometimes be very tricky. While she feels it is critical to focus on the facilitation of SEA projects in order to ensure they are successful and that people have a positive experience, Ilka is always conscious of her position and influence as the ‘artist’. While most often the focus of community art projects is that participants have a good experience and learn something or connect with others as a result of their involvement, with SEA project there is still the expectation of the project achieving artistically accomplished outcomes in the form of physical art objects. This fact can sometimes lead to conflicting agendas and ideas between stakeholders.
While none of the participants in the groups Ilka works with are being assessed on the quality of artistic outcomes, often the success of a project as determined by funders and the public does depend on its artistic outcomes. These outcomes in turn are then understood as a reflection of the artists capacity, vision and skill which can lead to challenging questions about authorship, ownership and decision making when collaborating with groups- not all of them comfortable. While Ilka finds the most exciting part of a SEA project to be the dynamics of the group and how they are developing and growing- as opposed to how beautiful work is, the public audience of a work as well as project coordinators and funders are often concerned with the finished project and their judgment affects your reputation. “I’ve learnt that you have to decide who you are trying please at the beginning of a project and make this clear to everyone at the outset. While your reputation is being assessed – success should be judged as much on the social outcomes of a project such as group dynamics then on material outcomes.”
Ilka shared with me a sense that there is a tendency amongst community workers to “bulldoze” artists who are interested in SEA with criticism about being naive and unaware of the complexities of what they are trying to do. However, she feels that artists are generally incredibly sensitive and actively listen and respond to what is happening in community in ways that not many other professional practitioners would take the time to do. Money is also an ongoing tension when working in community, with many people expecting artists to volunteer their time and services. In some cases the fact you are being paid (even if it is way less then you should be) brings up uneasy tension between the artist and the community they are collaborating with. Despite all this Ilka feels there is an understanding that artist’s help people achieve things they wouldn’t otherwise do/make/achieve and that paying artists to facilitate SEA projects is an important way to help artists sustain their professional practice and ensure that communities have greater access to participating in creative projects.
What do you get out of it?
bWhen I asked Ilka why SEA work is so meaningful to her personally, she answered that the crux for her is the same as what her participants describe as the real value of the work: gaining a sense of community and belonging; taking part in a process which brings me into contact with people I wouldn’t meet otherwise socially; seeing how much can be achieved within a short space of time when people work together – that is really exciting! As the facilitator/artist for me one of the most moving and humbling things about the leading SEA projects is how collaborative making inevitably builds a high level of respect for one another within a group of potentially very different people. For me if a project is done well it is always enjoyable. It flows often much more easily than my individual work does, and it’s a pleasure. I feel fortunate to be paid to do this type of work, particularly as the rest of my work is largely solo. While I do collaborate with other artists, it’s a very different experience. It’s more about negotiating your individuality and authorship than co-creating something as a group.
I really enjoyed having the opportunity to talk face-to-face with Ilka, it was really insightful to hear about her personal journey and to take heed of the warnings and lessons she gave me about the challenges of working in community. While it is only a small part of her practice, for me Ilka’s SEA work is some of her most interesting, not because of the artistic outcomes per say, but because they speak with a voice greater than any one person on their own could command. They really do show what people can achieve when they work together with a common goal and exemplify how the art of textiles can bring people great joy. So thank you Ilka for taking the time to meet with me, and thank you for your words of advice.