Show, Not Tell : Lucille Crelli, BFA Apparel Design ’17
I’m three classes into my project – and I already have upended ideas about myself, my community, my artistic practice, and my future. They’re not lying when they say the Maharam changes your life.
My name is Lucy (but my real name Lucille looks better on resumes, government forms, and WordPress blog posts), and I am a rising senior at RISD studying Apparel Design with a concentration in Gender, Sexuality, and Race. This summer I am working with the wonderful people at Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island (DIIRI) to implement a research project that explores the role of the arts in resettlement. DIIRI “empower(s) individuals and families, especially the underserved, immigrants, and refugees, to become self-sufficient and fully participating members of our diverse community through innovative programs and advocacy that promote education, training, and cultural understanding”. Every Tuesday and Thursday, I have the pleasure of meeting with a group of women who came to DIIRI from a number of countries and who represent a number of different identities and cultures. Together, and with guest teachers, we learn new artistry skills and make work about the process of resettlement.
I haven’t posted until late July because much of my work thus far has been preparatory and doesn’t come with visuals. I spent a lot of time writing the curriculum, establishing contact with outside organizations alongside my supervisor Brandon, working with Sagitta (an extremely helpful case worker at DIIRI) to recruit students, drafting documents to be signed that sounded as legal as I could possibly make them, and scheduling meeting after meeting with people from both DIIRI and RISD to hear their input on my progress. Two things I discovered from the early process work:
- It is very, very hard to be your own boss. Everything about this project is self-directed, so I found myself changing my lifestyle to accommodate a work ethic that got up at 9:30 am to beautiful sunshine and was drinking coffee and opening Google Drive before noon. Need I remind you that it’s summer vacation? I’ve discovered so much about my work process: I do my best work in the morning, and I have to do a little bit of work a few times a day every day to maintain all of my projects. I had to find this process out through trial and error, but I’m sure my senior thesis will benefit from this knowledge.
- Working within multiple communities to bring them together is very, very challenging. I had to juggle multiple people’s different schedules with the goals of my project and the limitations in the women’s lives. To sum it all up, let’s just say that the prep work is more challenging than the actual classes.
But, the wait is over, and here I am to update you all about my classes!
The first class was a mess. There was a massive thunderstorm which made my heeled sandals very difficult to walk in, and I needed those shoes to work because I was running around all morning printing documents, buying sketchbooks and snacks, and trying to catch a bus to make it to DIIRI at least 30 minutes before my class. That didn’t happen. By the time I hobbled into my classroom, with wet hair and 4 bulging bags, three women were already patiently waiting for me. By the end of the class, we had ten attendees.
Technically, I have 15 participants signed up. Some of them weren’t there on the first day, but were on the second or third. They range in age from 21 to fifties/sixties, and come from countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Morocco, Syria, Jordan, and more. Many of them said that they wanted to join the class to learn new skills, to improve their English, and to meet new people, but most of them had not done very much art before this point. Their level of proficiency in English varies widely, and two of the participants are even teachers who work at DIIRI. They were very helpful in teaching me how to communicate across language barriers and to keep the class moving efficiently despite the pauses for the interpreting.
I spent the time explaining to them who I was, what I hoped to accomplish through the project, and what the structure of the class would look like. I tried to hand out the “legal” documents and explain that to them, but it turned out to be far more difficult communicating than I had anticipated. I had hired one official interpreter and also made do with the help of some of the other students. I was exhausted by the conclusion of the class, though, because I had to constantly monitor my language to make sure I was speaking slowly, using simple English words, and pausing frequently enough for the interpreters to remember everything I said. But, of course the first class was hectic.
Class Two featured my dear friend and roommate, Laura. Laura is a rising senior at RISD studying Printmaking, and I asked them to come teach the first skill-sharing class with me at DIIRI. We opened the class by sharing Laura’s artwork and explaining the process: what the tools do, how to use them, how to master linoleum, how to ink the block, and how to make the final print. The women loved the hands-on experience, and many of them had a lot of fun creating their block. We even did all of this whilst munching on delicious cheesy bread from a tiny Colombian bakery that Laura and I discovered in Pawtucket, RI.
The structure of this project was loosely modeled after my classes at RISD. We would learn a skill, make a piece using that technique and following a prompt, and then share our work and talk about our experience and concept. I explained the first prompt to them, “Expectations”, which was to create a visual about how they felt about Providence before they arrived and what they thought of it. They all nodded, but once one woman started carving a flower, two more followed. That was my first signal that I needed to restructure the class a bit. Something is lost in our communication, and if I don’t adapt my project to reflect what I discover, then I won’t really be achieving the project goals.
I asked Laura about their experience afterwards, and they expressed how fun it had been. However, it was also way harder for them to communicate with the women than they had originally anticipated – just like me. Through talking it out, it became astonishingly clear that the way I had set up the program focused too much on talking. In reality, it was far easier to communicate effectively by showing, not telling. Using lots of body language and hand motions, drawing pictures and words on the whiteboard, and doing the activity alongside them made things clearer no matter how slowly I talked. Likewise, when they share their ideas behind their pieces and their feelings about their lives (we open each class with “One Great Thing That Happened To Me Today” and I hear about anything from recycling lessons to goals of pursuing nursing), the most that can be managed despite cultural and language barriers is a few simple sentences.
That is the number one lesson I have learned so far, and it just keeps getting reiterated. I came into this project not too worried about my ability to facilitate conversations, because I had been so successful in the past with my GI Chats, POSE, and ASB. But those conversations were effective because I was amongst people who thought like me, lived in the same environment as me, and underwent similar struggles in their professional and artistic practices, not to mention our mutual primary language. We easily connect because we can understand each other, but it is not that simple at DIIRI. I need to learn to tap into my creative visual side more to share my ideas.
Class Three has been my favorite class so far, but it was also a little unusual. Because I had come to the stark realization that I needed to restructure my class, I did away with my plan to spend the class talking about their work and the process of printmaking. But because the next class was only two days later, I didn’t have time to plan an entirely new skill-share. So, I mixed up the two.
We started as I had planned, sharing our work from the previous class. I had handed out sketchbooks for the women to sketch, write, paste, or whatever they wanted to do. That was an new concept to explain to them (how have they lived without regularly transcribing the contents of their brain? I can’t imagine not always having a sketchbook), but they quickly caught on. One student, Mariam (who is from Iraq and has an adorable three-year-old girl), used her sketchbook to design some beautiful gowns. Another student, Yomely (who is from the Dominican Republic and teaches a service-learning class at DIIRI), showed us her design process for her final print. She also drew a heartfelt picture of a woman wearing a hijab (see below) and expressed to the Arabic women in our group how much she respects and admires them and their culture. There was a lot of smiling all around.
We also shared our progress with the printmaking exercise. I asked them about how that process went, and we all laughed about how fun (and tiring) it is. The women who did manage to finish their block the previous class or who took the time to work on it outside of class then shared their blocks and resulting prints. One student, Soukaina (who is from Morocco, loves going to school, and wears very cool sparkly eyeliner) shared her block which displayed a face split down the middle, one half smiling and one half crying. She explained how worried she was to come to Providence: she didn’t know English, she didn’t have family here, she was leaving her family behind, and she worried too much about everything. But, after arriving, she discovered how helpful other people are and set about forming a new community in a new home. She is comforted by her family here (including a two-year-old boy), and is following her love of caring for people to pursue education in nursing.
Yomely created two block prints about how she felt coming to Providence. One of the blocks had “Happy Family” carved into it alongside long, wavy lines and a beaming sun. She described how coming here she was positive; she was looking forward to living a new life with her family and described her linework as “waves of change”. The other block was purely line-work, thick, spiraling, and full of energy. Yomely said she was “carving her feelings” with this one because she loved how relaxed carving into linoleum made her.
This part made me so happy, because they had taken in what I had tried to share and run with it. I had also made my own print and shared it with them. It was abstract but loosely shaped like a ball of fire and full of thin branching lines. I explained to them that my school was famous and very hard, so before coming to Providence I was tense and excited, ready to prove myself in this new competitive environment. I demonstrated how I used the energy I had felt to direct both the design of the lines and the physical action of carving. And I really think they got it, because then they showed me how they were using drawing and printmaking to express themselves. When they were sharing I could tell that they were proud of their work, and that in turn inspired the other women in the group.
Not everyone completed their “assignment” (because of the many responsibilities and duties that come with resettlement, I cannot ask the women to do anything outside of class), but after seeing other people’s work many of them pulled out their sketchbooks or their half-finished linoleum blocks and got down to work. We had a few Arabic women who missed the session, so I reenacted the lesson and they got to carving. One of them, Sadia (an older woman who is from Syria and likes to swim) also used her sketchbook to draw a picture of her idea of Providence before she arrived – it featured a slanting house on a hill with trees and rolling hills. Another student, Maha (who is also from Syria and loves to chatter in Arabic) practiced writing her name (and her friend’s name) in English and backwards. We ended the class by pining them all up on a board and standing back to admire our work.
For Class Four, my friend Natasha will be teaching us how to make puppets! Stay tuned.