For the team at TEDxMtHood in Portland, Oregon (formerly TEDxConcordiaUPortland), the arts are a big deal. In a city famous as a haven for creative types of all kinds, curator Michelle Jones and her team make sure to connect with the booming arts scene in composing their event each year.
For three years, the team has worked with local creators through what they call the TEDx Artist in Residence program — a partnership between the event and a local artist, who — inspired by the TEDxMtHood event theme — creates a visual strategy for the event as well as a large-scale installation. The Artist in Residence then works with the team to develop their own TEDx Talk, and after the event, acts as a mentor for the incoming Artist in Residence.
This year, the TEDx Artist in Residence program was chosen as one of the 2014 TEDx Incubator projects. Every year, up to three projects created by TEDx organizers are selected to become part of the TEDx Incubator and be spread to local TEDx communities. You can see all TEDx Incubator projects here.
We discussed the Artist in Residence program with project lead Michelle Jones via email. An edited version of the conversation is below:
How did your team come up with the idea for the Artist in Residence program?
For our first TEDx event in 2011, we invited a local artist to create an installation that would serve as our backdrop on stage during the event. He salvaged materials from a demolition project across the street from our venue and created an installation out of salvaged wood. We enjoyed the experience of working with a local artist to add some unique elements to our event and to help us transform an otherwise dull space into a TEDx-worthy venue. We continued the practice for our 2012 event, selecting another local artist to create an installation piece that reflected our theme for that year.
In 2013, our Artist in Residence, Rebecca Shapiro, suggested we develop a more robust Artist in Residence program and worked closely with the planning team to educate about the differences between stage and set design and art installation. She also suggested that the exiting Artist in Residence mentor the incoming Artist in Residence for the following year, creating continuity for the program and strengthening community.
What inspired your team to take this project on?
For many artists, working with a TEDx team is a unique opportunity to reach a new audience and be able to speak openly about their work. It gives them a chance to showcase their work in a powerful way that isn’t available to many artists. Also, it was clear that a strong Artist In Residence program would help TEDxMtHood to create unique venue spaces out of ordinary spaces (an old gymnasium) and continue community building in new directions, which is one of our strongest values.
Who was the first Artist in Residence? How did the team find this artist?
Our first artist, Blaine Fontana, was a local artist who had recently done a show at the gallery where one of our planning team members worked and when this planning team member suggested we try collaborating with a local artist, we jumped at the chance. For our second artist, Crystal Schenk, several members of the team nominated artists they knew in the Portland community and we researched their bodies of work and styles and chose Crystal because her philosophy, passion, and focus on community resonated well with our team.
What is it like to work with an Artist in Residence?
The artists have all described an incredible sense of personal accomplishment because creating a piece of art at the scale is unique for many. They also have enjoyed a remarkable sense of wonder as the piece is installed and lit up. Traditionally, installation work isn’t complete until it is put in place so seeing it come alive for the event is an incredible experience. Many times it’s a challenge to translate process and visual work into words. Working on a TEDx Talk to articulate their big idea always results in growth both personally and in their work. Many have gone on to speak for other organizations, write books and continue to look for opportunities to show their work in non-traditional ways in hopes of encouraging engagement among others.
What does the program offer to your attendees?
Initially, our desire to work with a local artist stemmed from our desire to transform the gymnasium space we were using in a profound and meaningful way to give our attendees an unexpected and high quality experience. While our collaborations with local artists still serve that purpose, the Artist in Residence program now also gives the audience an opportunity to look into the life, work and process of an artist. Artists are visionaries and they have much more to convey than just a visual message. To have a forum in which to concisely describe their big ideas, process, struggles and triumphs is an unusual opportunity for the artist as well as the attendees. Art is a gateway for us to connect, offering opportunities for awareness about ideas, other people and our surroundings, that we might not otherwise encounter or consider. We have consistently seen the audience respond positively to the art, the artists and their stories.