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Artist Jordan Weber explores the intersection of climate and racial violence in collaboration with Cedar Rapids museums

Panel Discussion with Jordan Weber

CSPS Hall -- Thursday, Nov. 5 at 2 p.m.

Exhibit Unveiling

CSPS Hall -- Thursday, Nov. 5 at 5:30 p.m.

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Jordan Weber –mural photo courtesy of the Des Moines Art Center, photographed by Rick Lozier

Jordan Weber first began meditating when he was a junior in high school, with visions of professional basketball in his future. He read the book Sacred Hoops by long-time NBA player and coach Phil Jackson, which in turn led him to seminal Western practice text Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

“I was extremely lucky to find it when I did,” Weber said.

Although he first used it to improve his game, as Jackson did for the players he coached, including the likes of Scottie Pippin and Michael Jordan, its value remained clear even after he switched gears to painting after a couple seasons playing on the Kirkwood men’s basketball team after high school didn’t pan out into a career. Weber’s mother was a painter, and had instilled a love of art in him as a child, teaching him to paint and draw from a young age.

His zazen practice has deeply influenced his art over the years, and his upcoming installation outside CSPS Hall is a prime example. Regeneration, which will be unveiled at a limited-attendance event on Nov. 5, sits at the intersection of environmental justice and the Black Lives Matter movement by activating and engaging the concept of breathing.

“The idea behind that work is to allow a space … to take a breath in,” Weber told me. “It’s so central to my practice with zazen meditation to take a breath in. … It’s really key to a healthy psyche.”

The installation was commissioned in a three-way partnership between the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library (NCSML), the African American Museum of Iowa (AAMI) and CSPS. It’s intended, Weber said, as the just the beginning of a “larger and more sustainable environmental justice project” for Cedar Rapids that will expand in 2021.

Piece II, from “Body Snatchers,” 2016, by Jordan Weber. Courtesy of the Des Moines Art Center, photographed by Rick Lozier

Sarah Henderson, associate director of lifelong learning at the NCSML, first encountered Weber’s work as an undergrad at Grinnell College. Lesley Wright, director of the college’s museum of art, took a group of students to visit his studio, and Henderson was among them.

“His work had a huge impact on me, and as soon as I was in a role at a museum I extended an invite to Jordan to work with us,” she said in an email.

That project, also in collaboration with the AAMI, was an installation related to the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“After the success of that collaboration, we knew we wanted to work with Jordan again in 2020,” Henderson said. “Jordan is very passionate about community building and healing. In his work he endeavors to find solutions to problems not just commentary.”
When they heard that CSPS was looking for new art for their building, “it was a natural collaboration,” Henderson said.

“We were so excited to have CSPS as another partner on this project. All three of our institutions have worked very hard to impact our community through uplifting the voices of creatives.”

CSPS, the NCSML and the AAMI have served the Cedar Rapids community for more than 100 years combined. They are cornerstones of the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District, which spans the Cedar River and is home to a wide array of retail and arts opportunities. It was formed in 2009, in response to the historic 2008 flooding, as a way to help with the revitalization of the two communities it encompasses.

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The gallery/venue and the two museums are exemplary of the district’s passion for weaving together history, art, music and identity — goals that Weber shares. Community activations, or “art as social practice,” like Regeneration, are core to his current output.

After five years working construction, he said, “It was an organic transition into building things … once I felt I had reached a limit with my painting.” The turning point, Weber told me, was participating in the protests that followed the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In response to “not being able to control my immediate environment,” he said, he began creating environments.

“I think that public art is extremely beneficial if it’s activated and made in collaboration with the communities that it exists in,” Weber said. He sees art installations as “one of the most exciting and innovative ways to build up and enact positive change” in “communities that are being left behind.”

And such work emphatically engages both environmental and racial justice.

“Violence on the land is synonymous with violence on Black, brown and Indigenous bodies,” Weber said. “I see them as one and the same.”

Redlining, for example, results in “land in Black and brown communities [that] is much more toxic,” he said, as they end up in the same locations as factories and other community pollutants: “that same mechanism of pushing unwanted elements aside.” That’s what makes creation so crucial, “to shift ourselves away from the very structures that have been oppressing us.” And the work needs to happen from both sides.

“There needs to be a shift that happens in landscape architecture,” Weber said, “in terms of making it more appealing visually.” But at the same time, it’s important “to push art in a way that will enable people to pursue a healthy lifestyle on their own.”

A community garden that incorporates art themed around a repurposed basketball court, for example, is more likely to draw the attention of teens than a garden alone, he said. Public art should be accessible, engaging and easily attainable for non-artists.

This dovetails perfectly with Henderson’s view of public art, and the goals of the NCSML and their partner organizations.

“In working with students, I have noticed that public art can be a source of pride in community,” she wrote. “Public art also serves in place-making, informing a communal identity that we can bond over and find unity in. Public art also inherently invites conversation and conversation can be very healing.”

Ultimately, that’s Weber’s hope for Regeneration as well.

“I really want it to be a point of decompression,” he said, “even if it is outside and we’re separated by these masks.”

Genevieve Trainor is Little Village’s arts editor. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 288.


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