2015 Visual Arts Scholars Retreat

Alternate ROOTS Joan Mitchell Visual Arts Scholars getting silly at Azule.

Article and photos by Lauren Hind (New Orleans, LA)

I feel like a proud mother. Maybe that’s the residual effect of coming off the mountain from a weekend with a group of ROOTers. Or maybe it’s because Alternate ROOTS just gave birth to another group of Joan Mitchell Visual Arts Scholars. Nominated by ROOTS members, seven scholars were selected to present and participate in ROOTS Week this year, contributing to our growing visual arts wing.

We spent the last weekend of May at Lutheridge, home of the Annual Meeting, orienting the scholars to the grounds and preparing them for their first experience of ROOTS Week. Coordinated and facilitated by Val Lyle and Joseph Thomas, both visual and performing artists, we were in good company. We also got to meet Ashley Davis and Wendy Shenefelt, who helped the scholars envision themselves as visual artists within the context of a predominately performing arts culture at ROOTS Week: our task at hand.

We were also very fortunate to be in the presence of veteran ROOTS members Omari Fox, Camille Shafer, Jeff Mather, Dan Brawley, Sage Crump, and Jean Marie Mauclet. Both informal and formal conversations with those who have been there, those who have struggled for a long time to uplift the visual arts within ROOTS. We shared honestly about our paths as artists, our process and our aspirations. Val spoke to the importance of searching for the places where we are stopped from doing (societal forces) and where we stop ourselves from doing. Omari shared his role as not a gatekeeper, but as someone holding the keys, having access and using that access to help others unlock the gates. Sage reminded us of the dandelion and how we can look to complex science and the natural world for ways to organize and build social movements counteracting oppression. 

The scholars work represented a diverse range of mediums from painting and printmaking to photography, videography, curatorial practice and design. While primarily visual artists, each scholar presented their work creatively, inviting us into their dynamic worlds as community organizers, documentarians, social workers, archivists, and healers. It was clear they, in traditional ROOTS fashion, were hungry for critical dialog, ready to challenge themselves and expand their already beaming consciousness. By the end of the all-day presentations, we were bound by our circle and the powerful, and yet simple act of bearing witness to one another.    

On Saturday, we took the afternoon to retreat to Camille Shafer’s living, breathing artwork: Azule. Situated among the hills of the Appalachian mountains, just outside of Hot Springs, North Carolina, Azule is an artist’s dream come to life. Built over time with the help of countless others, using harvested or reused materials and traditional techniques, the space is filled with the history of its inhabitants and its surroundings. Camille’s emphasis on collaboration has enabled the structure to continue to grow organically. As an incubator for skill shares, open mics, residencies, and inspired meetings, Azule foments community making amongst the artists it hosts.


Visual Arts Scholars mid-walk in the woods. Photo: Lauren Hind, 2015.

Well fueled by our lush surroundings, Azule fostered the sharing our ideas for collaboration and presentation of work during ROOTS week. It was evident the scholars were inspired by the legacy of ROOTS members and the grounds of Lutheridge, ready to share their work with the larger community. It was then Jean Marie raised a “red flag,” insisting he was not going to show work during ROOTS Week as he saw ROOTS as a time to explore our practice as social justice innovators — as artists who do not work within the confines of the market-based art economy. He offered instead, to use the time and space to collaborate with fellow ROOTers, and ask ourselves the ultimate question about any art work, as he quoted the late great ROOTer, Nayo Watkins: “What does it do for my people?” 

Jean Marie’s critique seemed to echo the already bubbling collaborations in the room. The scholars were already deep into plans on how to work together, interact with the larger community, using every available moment to deepen the questions of how art work is shown, interfaced, and framed (literally and metaphysically). Equally important were questions of the privilege not to sell art work and how one sustains themselves without buying into the big business of art selling and collecting?

The three day retreat proved to be just enough time to get conversations rolling, ideas challenged and shifted; a tease for what is to come. In a follow up conversation, Camille pointed out that, although the retreat was the place for showing work to one another, it had not quite touched upon the question of how, why, and where visual artists would bring ‘their difference’ to ROOTS week.

It left me to wonder: Is there a difference between a visual and a performing artist?     

Before heading back to Lutheridge, we were treated with a healthy dose of creative genius from a visit to DeWayne “B Love” Barton’s Peace Gardens in West Asheville. Situated in a lot once filled with discarded 40-ounce bottles, fellow ROOTS member, B Love, along with the help of many others, have created a living outdoor sanctuary. In addition to growing and selling produce, the garden offers educational, agricultural, economical, and communal opportunities to their neighbors. The Peace Gardens are a true community garden: reflecting back images, text, space, and offerings of racial, social, economic, and environmental justice in the form of found object sculptures, signs, gathering space, and altars. B Love graciously infused us with his passion and dedication to serving his community, giving the scholars a feel for the creative spirit of our beloved ROOTS membership.   

A group photo outside Azule. Photo: Lauren Hind, 2015.

A group photo outside Azule. Photo: Lauren Hind, 2015.

As is the process of giving birth, it is not without pain and discomfort that we are able to bring life into the world. The Joan Mitchell Visual Arts Scholars embodied this strength and determination: stepping into a world unknown, courageously leading with their hearts and generously giving with their spirits.

I am still feeling like a proud parent, though now I realize I have not given birth to anyone but instead experiencing a rebirth of my spirit and the encouragement to keep on keeping on.

In gratitude and peace,

Lauren Hind 

Alternate ROOTS supports the creation and presentation of original art that is rooted in communities of place, tradition or spirit. We are a group of artists and cultural organizers based in the South creating a better world together. As Alternate ROOTS, we call for social and economic justice and are working to dismantle all forms of oppression—everywhere.