In the summer of 2022, Professor Joe Ostraff brought a group of Department of Art students and faculty to Mesa, AZ to collaborate on a project centered around natural inks and community.
Professor Joe Ostraff has a history of collaboration. Over the years, the current Department Chair has found many ways to work with others; whether it is traveling to Tonga to teach and learn bookbinding and Tapa skills, memorializing a glacier in Iceland, or sitting earnestly with art students in his West Campus office to hear their stories, his drive to connect has become something that is not only central to his practice, but who he is as a person.
“In my early career, I started out seeing art making as a solo process; this was a common view held by most of the artists around me,” Ostraff recalls. “Over the past three decades, I have split time between a solo practice and collaborative projects. I am working off the premise that each person I meet changes me. One of the only real constants in my life is the compulsion to be changed and shifted.”
Inspiration for a new project struck Ostraff in the early summer of 2022, while working together with his wife in the fields around their home in Fairview, UT. Melinda Ostraff, an ethnobotanist, had been studying and practicing the making of natural inks. Working with materials like turmeric, onionskins, and cabbage, the Ostraffs couldn’t help but think about the connection between these materials and the land, and the connection that land held with its community.
“The idea of using homemade inks was connected to ideas of materials that have been used for hundreds of years, are mostly botanical, and can be made at home,” Professor Ostraff said of the concept. “[The project began] with the idea of dismantling some of the barriers that separate a community from art making, and seeing themselves in respected art venues as valued contributors.”
The idea of the project was straightforward: over the course of one week, with a group of collaborators, naturally-made inks would be brought to public art spaces, and used to make drawings on sheets of paper. The local public would be invited to collaborate. Once drawings had been made, they would be cut out and uniquely installed in a space, as a response to their direct environments.
Drawn Together: a Collaboration would find its home in Mesa, Arizona. Professor Ostraff had exhibited in the Mesa Contemporary Art Museum in Mesa years prior, and had established a friendship with museum director Tiffany Fairall. With her help and the support of other local museum directors, Drawn Together would take place in three spaces downtown: The MCA Museum, the Arizona Museum of Natural History (as overseen by director Alison Stoltsman), and the i.d.e.a. Museum (dir. Jarrad Bittner), a specialized space geared towards helping children learn about and engage with art. Joining the project were a group of sixteen faculty and students from Brigham Young University, two from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, local artists from the Mesa area, and any passers-by who showed interest in participating.
Each space presented unique opportunities and challenges. The MCA is a part of the larger Mesa Arts Center, and places emphasis specifically on emerging contemporary work. Patrons of this space were likely to be older, and would probably have some familiarity with art already–which meant their participation may be a little more hesitant, given institutional attitudes towards “touching the art.” Jorge Lucero, Chair of the Art Education department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and fellow collaborator, worked largely at the Mesa Contemporary space.
“At the MCA Museum, people were interacting with the work the same way they might interact with an object at an institution,” Lucero said. “Because it’s a fine art museum, they may not know that they can touch these things, work with these things. One of the challenges we faced in that space was inviting those patrons in to help us.”
As a contrast, the i.d.e.a. Museum sessions functioned like creative workshops. Days would typically begin with large groups of children rotating in and out of a large creative space, sitting down to carefully prepared sheets of paper and ink trays. With the help of students and faculty acting as educators and moderators, the children created beautifully chaotic drawings in batches of dozens at a time.
The Natural History Museum was perhaps the most unlikely locale, as the museum has not typically dealt in the arts. But Museum Director Alison Stoltsman and the staff were interested in programming that explored nature’s influence on the humanities, and it was hugely successful with the local community, with the clientele mostly children who were accompanied by parents and museum docents. Here, the focus was largely on the materials themselves: making ties to the natural materials that contributed to the making of the inks and the land that produced them.
This experience provided an opportunity for students to get engaged with local communities, and in the project at large, student involvement played an important role. While much of the process was planned in advance, there were still many unpredictable variables. Patronage at museums, techniques for application, installation layout in each space, and general problem-solving strategies had to be reactive to their environments. As a result, boundaries between instructor and student were broken down, and everyone had an equal say in how things went.
Another collaborator, Professor Linda Reynolds of the Design Department at BYU, speaks to this: “In all of my dealings with the Art Department over the years, one of the best, most compelling, and most spiritual components to what they do is the involvement of students…in this experience, the students engaged with each other in terms of the planning, the execution, and the implementation of the ideas as they worked together.”
Professor Fidalis Buehler echoes those sentiments: “Seeing these students react to challenging situations, or situations where a methodology was designed and was falling apart – a lot of this was me getting out of the way of that, and letting them solve those problems on their own.”
The final installations were unique to each space, acting as a response to their immediate environments. Those environments were built up from many components; not only the physical location, but the subject matter each museum dealt with, the experience of the patrons, the practices employed through collaboration by the students and the community. All of these came together to achieve the goal that Professor Ostraff envisioned at the beginning of the process: “a constellation of ideas, of processes, of complications.”
DRAWN TOGETHER PARTICIPANTS:
Special thanks to the collaborating museums:
The Arizona Museum of Natural History
Alison Stoltman, Acting Director
TJ Gaudelli, Volunteer Coordinator
Ali Smurawa, Education Assistant
Michael Ramos, Graphics & Multimedia Specialist
Chad Amos, Communications/Marketing Manager
Ardyn Shepard, Visitor Services
The i.d.e.a. Museum
Jarrad Bittner, Director
Jeffory Morris, Curator
Mike Goodwin, Exhibits Designer/Preparator
Dena Milliron, Curator of Education
Cassandra Bruner, Marketing and Communications Specialist
Mesa Arts Center
Tiffany Fairall, Chief Curator
Frank Gonzales, Exhibits Designer / Preparator
Colette Pacenka, Curator of Exhibitions and Education
Judy Dahms-Brouillard, Registrar
Laura Jacobson, Curatorial Office Assistant