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Art w/o Borders


Features: April 2010 – Let’s talk about frames.

Because if we start discussing “art,” many will picture rectangle frames bearing painted and processed works, stuck on the static walls of galleries or museums. A display, well defined. And in this part of a story about art, as we’ve learned to expect from journalism, the readers should get a distinct idea of what exactly they’ll spend the next 1500 or so words dragging their eyes across. The story should be framed: subject matter, subjects, timeframe–the Ws in a drunken pyramid.

Free Art School–or Free (@rt) Sch001, or F@S, or whatever typography dictates–defies such framing. It hates it. Alas, some definition is required. So?

“Free Art School is not ‘art’–it happens to involve art, but I’m conflicted about calling it Free ‘Art’ School,” says Eric Asboe, a co-art director and gallery coordinator at Public Space ONE (PS1) at 129 E. Washington St. in Iowa City–F@S’s home base, maybe, if it needs one.

Or perhaps:

“Free Art School is an amorphous, fluid idea,” says Katie McGowan, an intermedia MFA student who is writing/performing her master’s thesis on Free Art School. “We’re more into the idea of spreading goodwill and fun and art. It’s not anything rigid. I don’t think it’s a movement, but it’s an idea, a name for the energy of the projects we’re trying to do.”

And also:

“Free Art School has been around for as long as there have been art schools,” says David Dunlap, an associate professor at The University of Iowa’s School of Art and Art History. “It’s an incredible, beautiful thing that bubbles up from the heart of art schools. Not something delivered on high, but something that spontaneously bubbles up from students–the true art of any art school.”

So let’s abandon frames and start talking about projects–which are, at least, corporeal. First would be the Free Art School classes, which have a substantial, $3000-plus Johnson County Community Foundation grant to back them up. John Engelbrecht, and Asboe, the full PS1 coordinating team, won the grant earlier this year and have been holding these classes, or sessions (another nebulous term), a few times each month. Situated mostly in the largely open gallery space in the basement of the Jefferson Buidling downtown, topics are as diverse as its students’ interests.

Sessions so far: A class on making a bicycle safety light turn signal shirt. (Yes: a shirt that had LCD turn signals.) Another class on fragile art making–using ephemeral materials, participants made armatures to hold eggs in which they tried sugar crystals (the crystals didn’t quite crystalize). Future classes include teaching the “lost” art of letter-writing to elementary school children, exotica record collecting, making and growing cultured food, and sushi making coupled with ping-pong. Because of the grant, all are literally free. For the details of future outings, visit publicspaceone.wordpress.com/free-rt-sch001.

“I want it to encompass anything and everything,” Asboe says. “If someone wants to teach a class on taxes, great, or building scientific glass–why not? I want it to be a place that people can teach and learn whatever they want. It may have something to do with ‘art’ or it may not.”

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They’re still trying to negotiate “what can fit under the umbrella of Free Art School”–a term that fluctuates to fit the spirit of its members and whatever that they touch. “At a certain point everything blurs together when you’re working with us,” Engelbrecht says.

Even the physical space of PS1 is only a gateway. Engelbrecht and Asboe took over the art side of the space last August, curating new exhibits each month from local and national artists. One of the March shows, Emily Barwick’s “Stations of Her Undoing,” features gold-painted barbie dolls arranged as if Toy Story’s mutilating Sid constructed the Stations of the Cross; another exhibit lines the walls of the next room. PS1 is another community venue to hold art, if a little off-beat–though while the co-directors are excited to show work, that’s not where their passions lay.

“One of our goals for Free Art School is propagating it as a thing beyond PS1,” Engelbrecht says. “I like that it has given us this base to initiate it from, but Free Art School has ideas behind it that can transcend the space.”

A paragraph, somewhat a mission statement included in any F@S publications, contains a key F@S doctrine: “Eric Asboe says Richard Wiebe says Andrew Peterson says…[insert 19 more names here]…says David Dunlap says Kay Miller says “FREE Love, FREE Art, FREE Money.” We all thought she was using free as an adjective. We were all wrong. She was using it as a verb.” The names collect and coagulate many of F@S’s core members except the final entrance of Kay Miller, an artist Dunlap knew from decades before. F@S’s interpretation of her words stray from the first read: art at no cost. Instead, F@S takes its mission to free art, to unleash it back into the arms of the community.

“As much as I enjoy making art and showing it, I’m also interested in who isn’t interested in seeing art and why they wouldn’t be,” Engelbrecht says. “A lot of times people get set in their routines and their way of looking at the world. Art has been something that has constantly jarred that or broken that up for me, so I’m interested in confronting people, in some ways. I’m interested in how we define art as a cultural thing, and how art here is different than art in Africa.”

He explained that if you look at art forms like African mask dancing, the art becomes an event that involves the whole community, that affects the whole community. Western art often, in contrast, stays confined in pre-established academic and gallery space. F@S, through all their efforts, want to break out of what McGowan calls “lame elitist art hierarchies.”

Luckily for its adherents–and those of us who will stumble across their work–F@S’s mission isn’t preachy, even if they identify themselves as “missionaries.”

“The people that are drawn to this idea of free art school are people who are gentle and have kind hearts,” McGowan says. “Our joy comes from making things, from reacting against the negative energy that oftentimes exists around professional art making.” In her MFA thesis project on F@S, McGowan goes further: “Embracing hypocrisy and laughing in the face of up-tightness, Missionaries work to highlight the joy of learning and making artwork and hopefully inspire others to do the same.”

Missionaries are art students and former students, long-time community members and Iowa City newbies: anyone, really, who touts enthusiasm for F@S’s inclusive artistic ideals. It’s a big tent, so-to-speak, one that certainly resembles a creative circus.

Thus, F@S projects are birthed as odd, dynamic events that are bound together more by energy and idea than subject matter or form. Each, too, is likely worthy of its own story–though due to space constraints, a partial list will have to suffice: A Literal Letter Service, run by Asboe and Engelbrecht, who write letters to whomever one desires. The Gathering of the Gulls, hosted by the F@S-sparked Seagull Society–a monthly storytelling event held at PS1. A robot-making workshop and parade held as part of McGowan’s thesis project. The Soup, a $5 potluck and ideas-sharing event which helps provide small funds for a chosen art project (like Asboe’s translation of book-into-semphore. He used the money to buy the semiphore flags). The Writers’ Cafe, a twice-weekly impromtu coffee house hosted by workshop students. A mid-March missionary trip/happening at Nashville’s Open Lot gallery/community. And more to come.

Perhaps the best illustration of how Free Art School operates is my personal experience with F@S’s ever-present efforts to break down barriers, even between journalist and subject. After interviewing Dunlap and asking if I could access his Facebook profile for artwork, I recieve this message: “Hello. Free @rt sch00! at Walnut Farms just drew you into a flag soon to be flying at Studio Arts. yr. pal., David.” I’ve never been drawn into a flag before, so such notification was a strange surprise.

Sure enough, an hour later, an album entitlted “Dear Paul Sorenson” appeared along with a flag announcing, “FREE @rt sch00! in Little Village by Paul Sorenson.” Surrounding the words were multicolored shields, rays of yellow, intersecting triangles and what appears to be a skull on a podium on a black table. The flag was composed by artist Jesse Albrecht, part of the Paintallica Painting Club happening that “builds, performs, then cleans up, presents, some time Wednesday, April 14, 2010, morning,” becoming part of F@S’s cannon. Dunlap made clear that F@S’s mission had little outward boundaries, even if it threatened my journalistic desire to appear unbiased.

Which brings us back to frames. Because this story tries to encapsulate whatever Free Art School wants to be about, it fails for the very fact that it wants to capture anything. Present a definition to its members/missionaries and they will retract, or add, or bend the definition to encompass more and more until even this Little Village article becomes part of F@S–which is exactly what Dunlap contends. Everything can be an organ.

“Free Art School is like a commune on fire,” Engelbrecht says, and laughs. “I’ve been waiting the whole time to give you that quote.”


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