Community is something I never thought I was deserving of. I wanted it so bad that I joined places and people I thought were community, and it always ended in heartbreak because structures like white supremacy prevented cross-cultural communication and understanding.
For a long time, I was in white spaces ingesting white sentiments about art and life. I’ll have to add the caveat that I’m a biracial (white/Puerto Rican) queer person. Folx always reminded me of this. I never entirely belonged in these white spaces–which was fine by me—but folx gave no other option.
My Italian side, growing up, was the predominant identity celebrated in our house. My dad, who was Puerto Rican—passed in 2007—was patronized by other folx in our Italian family for this reason, which was why I’d never learned about being Puerto Rican from him. I feel he was ashamed of it. We were, my siblings and I, always “not quite Italian enough.” The community and support my family should have given me dissolved because of racial stereotypes and white supremacy. My identity took the hit.
When I came to Maine in the summer of 2014, I was thirsty for a new sense of self and a deeper understanding of my identity on the heels of graduating with my BFA. I wasted no time in trying to make these connections which would foster a deeper understanding of my artistic practice through communal events. My attempts proved to be lackluster—folx just wanted to make their art and be left alone. Fair enough, but I was going to keep trying. My work began suffering because I wanted to work with folx around me so badly.
Fast forward to 2021: the pandemic is upon us; I lost my job and then quit because the community I cultivated for almost the past five years couldn’t say Black Lives Matter without caveats and asterisks after the murder of George Floyd.
It was a mess, steering me back into my lone artist graduate school phase for a long time. I had a two year-old, so it wasn’t like I had time to make a community, but having a child made me want this community more.
An email from a good friend introduced me to Stacey Tran and talked about Tender Table, an organization dedicated to celebrating Black and Brown folx through storytelling and food.
Stacey writes about Tender Table: “We hold space for BIPOC folks to feel inspired and empowered, share experiences, relate to each other, create and deepen cross-cultural connections, and feel a sense of belonging.”
From this introduction, I was invited to a “make your own ramen” night, all via Zoom and with care packages lovingly made by Stacey. I remember feeling so touched that someone had crafted a box with a note, a ramen package, jelly cups, a message, a recipe card, and a pen to share a recipe with another. It was a beautiful sign of reciprocity and joy. At that moment, I knew I wanted to help Stacey build a loving community in Portland. We started working together not long after that.
I began to see how this work with Tender Table started to bleed its way into my work. I felt like my heart was opening up again.
In late 2021, I started an ongoing workshop series called “Braiding Circles.” These workshops are intimate community gatherings focused on braiding three-strand braids while holding conversations about identity and belonging. These gatherings started as a way to create material for large sculptures. However, the repetitive act of braiding revealed itself to be a great facilitator of open and honest conversation. The Braiding Circles became a place of communal healing through the actions of storytelling and braiding.
The stories shared and community interaction are as integral to the creative process as the sculptures themselves. There is a longstanding history of community-building through oral storytelling in Black, Latinx, and Indigenous cultures. These histories are passed orally through generations to preserve history and social practices. Storytelling is essential to keeping histories alive and can help with feelings of loss, grief, isolation, and loneliness in the community. The works, created with braids from the workshops, become a form of communication to understand cross-cultural connections between us. The sculptures became these monuments to grief, love, loss, identity, experience, and existence with not just my voice but a cacophony of voices behind me.
Community keeps my work within the community and in a realm of understanding, humanity, and acceptance. My work is now made in, for, and by the community because we thrive as one.
Coming from spaces where I supposed you’d feel that you’d be supported—home, school, fellow artists’ cohort—but realizing that only applies to white folx in white areas, and that any deviation from that is immediate banishment from that community, I realized how much I not only cared about my community, but how much the community cared about me as well. It’s the interdependency that will get us through.
Addendum: I held Braiding Circles at different locations in Maine with a focus on BIPOC-led spaces. One of these places was Indigo Arts Alliance, which is a Black-led organization focused on uplifting artists from the African Diaspora.
I received the David C. Driskell Black Seed Studio Fellowship and grant in February of 2021. When I began working in the Black Seed Studio, the crux of my work changed dramatically. I was able to focus on stories of identity and community without the usual covering of “whiteness” surrounding the work. The concepts I approached were thoughtfully and carefully considered by the folx brought into the studio.
Working with and alongside people from Indigo Arts Alliance propelled my work forward because in that space, I was able to make the work honestly, without fear of people not understanding where I am coming from. Indigo supports artists not only through their artistic practice, but they have an approach that broadens the breadth of what art is and can be.
*Created in community: this term references folx in the community that assisted in the creation of the textiles and braids outside.
Image at top: Braiding Circle (photo: Christian Kayiteshonga).