During an open house at Mana Contemporary, I converted an office space into a tea room. In the past when I had attended open houses, rather than just wandering from room to room, I wanted to meet more people. The tea room was meant to offer a respite during the busy day, and to facilitate socializing and community-building among the guests. I served lemon verbena and mint tea, olive oil cake, freshly baked bread with butter and honey, and fresh tangerines. It also had a strict set of rules: 1) there was no to-go tea, so you had to sit down to drink it; 2) only six people were allowed at one time; 3) if the room was full, you could come back; 4) you had to sit next to someone you don’t know and introduce yourself; 5) be present during the conversation.
Keiki Club Chicago
Keiki Club is a plant clipping exchange club started by Brooklyn based artist and florist Aviva Rowley. The word keiki is Hawaiian for "baby" or "child", literally "the little one." Her vision in creating the club, was to build plant knowledge, collections, and community through the exchange of clippings. Rowley said, “I’ve always loved the idea of trading clippings, growing a plant from another plant, extending a legacy.” In this spirit, I organized and hosted a Keiki Club at Mana Contemporary Chicago with plant enthusiasts and artists Amanda El-Khoury and Linsey Rosen. We decorated a gallery space using organic materials and plant clippings. People gathered to share stories of their plants and collect clippings, and we all brought new plants home to nurture.
Future Timeless is a research project by Chad Kouri and Courtney Schum exploring the general public’s every day relationship with clothing. Inspired by conversations around modular garments, uniforms, androgynous styles and cross seasonal pieces, they attempt to address the feeling of having nothing to wear in an overflowing closet by creating garments that can be worn multiple ways; dressed up or down, draped or knotted, loose or fitted, expressive or simplistic. During their event, hosted as part of my residency at Mana Contemporary, they invited the public to play with various patterns and concept garments in a workshop designed to foster conversation around the future of everyday clothing.
Meditation is an increasingly popular way to retreat and heal from our busy and constantly connected lives. Many meditation options require solitude, stillness, and have spiritual overtones. Chicago artist and designer Adam Geremia takes a different approach. His meditations are collective experiences that often engage or disconnect our senses. They allow us to simultaneously be active, and relax our minds. At Mana Contemporary, I collaborated with Adam on a sensory meditation exploring sound, scent and touch. Immediately after the meditation, we hung the work in a gallery to explore their creations as works of art.
[Some of these photos were taken by me, but most were taken by Adam Geremia]
During 2015-2016 I was a curatorial programming resident at Mana Contemporary in Chicago. Earlier that year, I had done a trend exploration in Berlin, and was inspired by the art canteens serving creative communities. Because Mana is in a food desert, and I have a great passion for cooking, as part of the residency I asked to join artist Eddie Parach's ongoing series of community lunches. Together, we collaborated on eight lunches for weekly crowds upwards of 60 people. Our strategy was to develop a weekly theme and split the responsibility of the meal - generally he made the meat based center of the meal, and I made vegetarian alternatives, salads and/or appetizer, and a dessert.
The goals of our collective Mana community lunches were: to build community among the artists with on-site studio spaces and to offer nourishment and creative inspiration through experimentation with menus and flavors.
Some sample menus included:
Week 1 Kibbeh meatloaf Mashed potatoes Roasted cumin carrot salad Raspberry and rose water icebox cake wine coffee
Week 2 Vegetarian pho Bahn mi crostini Mango and coconut icebox cake wine coffee
Week 3 22 Pizzas (vegan, vegetarian, and meat) Giant spring salad: arugula, sunflower sprouts, chervil, asparagus, breakfast radish, chive blossoms Panna cotta with bike-a-bee honey, and sea salt wine coffee
Based on recent inspiration from artist studio visits, I wanted to create a food experience that enhanced creativity. I developed an experimental art canteen as part of an Art Camp in Boulder Junction, Wisconsin.
I was the camp cook, and aspired to make food that enhanced the artist experience. The breakfasts and dinners were meant to connect them to each other, and were held at a communal table. The goal of lunch was to connect to the food and the natural setting. The colorful multi-sensory lunches were on-the-go and served in brown paper lunch bags. Each lunch had a typed reading to contemplate beforehand, for example, instructions “How to Eat Lunch” or poems like “Ode to Apples” by Pablo Neruda.
Here is a sample menu:
Breakfast _baked oatmeal with blueberries and bananas _bacon, chicken sausage, or veggies sausage links _peaches _coffee
Lunch _savory quick bread with brie, prunes and pistachios _orange, yellow, and purple carrots _breakfast radishes _hard boiled egg with sea salt _small chocolate peanut butter candy _apple
Dinner _patatas bravas w/ fried garbanzo beans and aioli _arugula salad with parmesan, almonds, and dates _octopus with capers, lemon, parsley and olive oil _chocolate brownie cookies with walnuts and pecans _peaches with thyme and honey
The scent experience was a collaboration with Adam Geremia where we aimed to connect people to their sense of smell, memory, emotions and culture, and to begin a larger shift in their experiences with scent. We removed products with distinct scents from their branded packaging and placed them into numbered brown jars. Participants were asked to smell the contents of the jar one at a time and then write down an emotion, association or anything they felt. They were also asked not to guess what the scent was, only to make these associations. We then had a discussion about the scents and the similarities and differences in their responses. We found major differences in responses from people across culture because of the different associations. It drew attention to the simultaneous objective/subjective nature of the scents – while they were smelling the exact same molecules, their experiences with them varied greatly.
Collective Reading Dinners
In an effort to rethink reading groups, I've developed the idea of a collective reading experience. In Chicago, I invited 5 people to my house for dinner. I selected 6 books and wrapped them up. Each person selected a wrapped book and then opened it up to see what they would read. They left and read for 45 minutes. The expectation was that they could start anywhere in the book and only read a fragment. After the reading session, we all came back to my dining table, ate dinner, drank wine and discussed our books. I will be hosting more of these in different settings throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin.
[photos by Adam Geremia]
Final Resting Place
The moment my dog Bunni died, I was devastated. A lump formed in my heart. I felt such emptiness knowing I'd never again experience her rhythmic snoring, attitude filled side-eye, and the way she'd watch me from around corners. Caring for her was a central part of my life, and she brought structure to my otherwise very unstructured routine. In her last two years alive, she’d suffered a lot of health problems including Cushing’s disease and chronic eye ulcers, which meant we had an extremely structured routine of medications, vet visits, and frequent emergency vet visits. Once she was gone, the routines we had established were gone.
When I got her ashes back from the veterinarian, I started to look for a beautiful urn. It didn’t make sense to spread them as she was never bound to one place. Bunni, that was her name when I got her, came to me as a rescue dog. She was born in 2003 in Budapest, Hungary (seriously this is true), brought to Sacramento with her sister, and cared for by a couple who, if nothing else, had good medical records for the first three years of her life. Then, as far as I know from the rescue group, the couple broke up, the husband took the dogs, and badly neglected and abused them for several years. Bun (that was her nickname and also BunBun and a million other things) was a very high maintenance dog in terms of her health so caring for her was not for the undetermined or faint of heart. When she came into my life she was 8 years old and weighed 20 pounds when she should have weighed 27. She had terrible parasites including giardia, a kidney infection, and a paw that had been broken. She was very skittish with so much insecurity about people’s movements and any noises. And like many neglected and abused dogs, she also had aggression toward other dogs. It took her about a year to build up her confidence, and some serious long term positive reinforcement training to break her aggression problems. At the time of her adoption, we lived outside of Los Angeles, but within a year, we moved to Chicago. For five years we lived in Chicago until the stress of such a big city became too much for me, and we moved home to Minneapolis. She died a few months later, three days before her 14th birthday. The closest I was to spreading her ashes was in my parents’ suburban Minneapolis yard, which was her favorite place on earth. Yet I still couldn’t commit to that; I wanted her to be with me.
As I started looking around for urns, I realized nothing was right. My first goal was to find the most beautiful urn possible, which turned into an impossible task. There was website after website filled with hideous industrially produced ceramics or simple-but-not-well-designed boxes. I began to wonder about the strangeness of the whole urn industry. Were people just willing to settle for what they could find online or in catalogs? Why was there such a standardized aesthetic for the dead? Why didn’t people expect something more meaningful and personal for those they’ve lost? This part of our culture is in desperate need of new forms and traditions or deep dives into artistic and cultural histories.
What I really wanted was something that embodied our routine, and the care at the center of our relationship. What if the urn could have a small ritual? What if it could hold a single flower? And when I started asking these questions, the first person that came to mind was the French ceramicist Cécile Daladier. I proudly own a couple of her pieces, one for which I have even developed a new after dinner tea ritual. In a bowl-like vase with the top ring perforated with small individual holes for single flower stems, I place mint or lemon verbena sprigs. Throughout dinner it appears to be part of the centerpiece, but during dessert, I bring hot water and tea cups and instruct everyone to take a sprig from the vessel and make their own tea. It is always a delightful experience. Cécile has an extraordinary and intuitive relationship to plants and nature, a completely visionary point of view on beauty, and a knack for creating the right kind of imperfection. She is one of the few people to whom I would surrender creative freedom.
I had recently seen one of Cécile’s pieces on Instagram that struck me as point of inspiration. I went back through her Instagram feed, saved the photo of a cube like vase that could hold a single flower, and circled the piece in Photoshop. I then wrote Cécile the following email along with the picture:
I am writing to inquire if you ever do custom pieces? I own a few of your pieces and I treasure them.
Recently my beloved 14-year-old dog passed away. She was the light of my life, and I miss her dearly. I want to get an urn made for her ashes, and I am wondering if you might ever consider a custom project like this? I love the idea of an urn that allows for a single flower or plant to be a part of it - like in the one I found on your Instagram pictured below. It would likely have to be a layered piece or something side by side to accommodate both ashes and flowers. Or if you have any existing pieces that might work in this way, I'd love to see them.
I realize this may be way outside the scope your work, and that you likely don't do custom pieces, but I had to ask. I also hope this particular request doesn't feel too crazy! I know not everyone has the same feelings toward pets.
I love how your work is so deeply connected to nature, and I want to have a piece for my dog that connects to the natural cycle of life and to beauty. Two things which she brought into my world.
Thank you so much!
I was certain she’d think I was crazy, but I sent it anyway. My career as a designer and researcher requires me to do a lot of unknown exploration so I will basically email anyone to make wild or unexpected requests. I am fine with getting rejected or hearing nothing.
A few days later, and to my delight, she responded. I was so nervous about her response it took me several days to open the email. One night I sat down with a glass of wine, opened her message and couldn’t believe my eyes: SHE SAID YES. She had never done a project like this before, and was intrigued by the possibilities. She said she would put together some ideas and get back to me.
A few email exchanges followed with questions and check ins. She wanted to know things like what was the volume of ashes, and she let me know they were experimenting with two different concepts. And then a couple weeks later, she emailed that the experiment had been quite an adventure, and that one of her ideas worked out. She sent a series of photos and this description of the piece:
It is divided in three sections: one for water and flowers one for earth, flowers, candles, etc. one for the box of ashes with a cover
I was so touched by her thoughtfulness creating this beautiful piece. Once I saw the finished piece, it made me realize the ritual of tending to this urn/art piece would allow me to hold a space for Bun, and so would its organic physical presence.
The urn now sits beautifully in my home. The middle compartment holds earth from my parents’ house, a special beeswax candle, and a rose quartz crystal. And, at the time of writing this, the front section holds two ranunculus flowers – one pink and one yellow. Once I own a home, I plan to grow flowers that can continually be a part of the ritual, and in the deep winter, I’ll use pine branches. Nothing will ever replace Bunni, and I’ll miss her forever, but at least I know this sweet girl who brought so much joy to my life and was one of the most important and special things that ever happened to me, who suffered greatly during her early life, and also learned to be a little diva when she came into mine, will have a beautiful resting place.
All photos by Cécile Daladier, except those of Bun, and the final photo of the urn in my apartment were taken by me.