It's no small thing that the Tucson Pima Arts Council provides the opportunity to individual artists to receive grant funding unattached from a formal group or troupe or collective. In fact, of the four artists granted money—$2500 each—from the 2016-2017 New Works Grant most were quick to note the rarity of a grant to solo creators is just what makes the opportunity so special.
This year, over 30 applicants were whittled down to four recipients by a panel designated by the arts council. According to Debi Chess Mabie, executive director at TPAC, the panel is made up of "community people," meaning they may or may not be formally tied to the arts scene, which offers a unique element of non-insider engagement and vetting.
Chess Mabie says those chosen this year have a common thread:
"There's more work on the border. I think the projects are reflective of where we are at this moment in time and what's going on in society with immigration issues nationally and here in Arizona. That's what makes art in general so wonderful for a community: it allows us to express ourselves and our ideas. It encourages healthy debate."
Perhaps no artist awarded for this year more exemplifies this theme than Wes Creigh's animated telling of the death of 16-year-old Nogales resident Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez at the hands of a border patrol agent. She says official narratives painted Elena Rodriguez's death as reciprocal action as a result of the boy throwing rocks at the agent. However, as the case was further investigated, protested in Nogales and researched by Creigh, that story seemed to have holes, and some witnesses said no rock was ever even thrown.
"It's important to ask questions of society," Creigh says, "like, 'why is a rock equal to a bullet?' and, 'why does killing become so much more complicated when the shooter is a uniformed officer?"
Though her four and a half minute animation—set to an instrumental piece by Vox Urbana that tells Elena Rodriguez's story—is still in its very formative stages, Creigh has spent time with Elena Rodriguez's family and plans to weave their voices and stories into the piece. Through that, she seeks to raise awareness prior to the border patrol agent's trial, which is set for this fall. Unlike other similar cases, the man who shot Elena Rodriguez 10 times from behind is actually being indicted. She seeks to sift through the official story and discuss abuses of power, internal cover-ups, unreleased surveillance footage and the rare opportunity for justice in this case.
"This is a groundbreaking case on many levels," she says.
Though, per the rules of the grant, Creigh's work can't be released until 2017, she hopes to offer sneak peeks before the official release to bring attention to this unprecedented case in the pursuit of justice for Elena Rodriguez.
"We're all holding our breath about what the verdict will be," Creigh says.
In terms of process, her plan is to start everything on paper, scan those drawings into a digital format and also incorporate stop-motion effects and collaging to "create movement and flow."
The grant, she says, has helped her monetarily as much as it has given her the necessary encouragement to keep going.
"It's been really essential, not only in terms of financially, but it's also really important to get that validation that, yes, this project is important and means something," she says.
Creigh's joined by Alexandra Jimenez, whose plan is to create a "talking mural" to help tell the stories of South 12th Avenue. To be located on the side of the now-closed Save-More Market off 12th Avenue and Ohio, Jimenez will incorporate QR codes into her mural, which will link to sound clips of area business owners telling stories depicted in the murals. In this way, Jimenez is blending technology with visual art to preserve the cultural legacy of a very special part of Tucson.
"What's beautiful about the concept is that I am employing technology to engage the public in a practice that has existed for all of human civilization: storytelling," Jimenez said via e-mail. "Storytelling used to be how history was preserved within a community and it's how my family continues to share our history with each other. But I think our society has sped forward with technological advancements and these have actually distracted and separated us from our past and from our elders. We've arrived at this point where people my age are looking around dissatisfied where we've arrived and disconnected from the past."
Her interest in preserving this stretch of Tucson specifically stems from several things, not the least of which is having grown up on the city's southside and driving down the South 12th with her family. Her work forming an alphabet based on the unique signage on the southside, titled "Abecedario del Sur," showcases the beauty of this part of town.
"Having come from the southside, I've been aware how most Tucsonans view it as dangerous, ugly and poor. I think it's important as a Mexican-American artist to use my work to re-frame these notions. In particular, this notion that this side of town is ugly and poor really fosters an idea that the community doesn't care about their streets and this serves as a reason for this side of town to be continually overlooked for public art projects, park projects and any real public service money," Jimenez says. "As an artist, I have used my work to address the disparity and to call-out the falsities by actually showcasing the beautiful parts of the southside of Tucson."
Jimenez isn't the only one looking to preserve a piece of Tucson's streets in this year's New Works lot: architect and artist Bill Mackey seeks to showcase the land, buildings and people of the Old Nogales Highway in a combination book and bus tour. While his project is still in its very formative stages, Mackey plans to walk, drive and talk his way down the road, supplemented by some solid library research days, to grow his concept. The New Works grant pushed him to commit to a project after a brief hiatus, which was invaluable motivation for him as an artist.
"When I heard about this, I just thought, 'Well, what do I want to work on?'" he says. "TPAC is awesome because there are very few arts programs around the country that give away money to individual artists...It's pretty special in that regard."
The fourth and final grant recipient for this year is videographer and photographer Nika Kaiser whose place-centric art is rooted in surrealism. Her video installation, titled "Threshold," will explore the desert and sea of Sonora through a unique transformation.
"The meeting of the desert and the sea is a location of opposition and similarity—the plant and animal life is more diverse than many other locations on the planet. Similarly, humans and dolphins exist separately but parallel to one another, both sentient beings within their adjacent environments," Kaiser explained in an e-mail. "In this piece, a woman and a dolphin will become one another—I wanted to express a dialogue between these environments. I'm using these diverse cultural and ecological zones to communicate a magical story that represents a necessary need for humans to acknowledge animal, plant and ocean as an inherent part of themselves. Though the surreal narrative, a suggestion of ecological consciousness underlies the literal story."
While the four projects all offer something very different, storytelling threads are strong. The accessibility of the grant to individuals allows for different stories to be told and preserved—ones that may not have otherwise been properly funded or supported to execute. It should be good news, then, that, according to Chess Mabie, the county and city government has not cut TPAC funding for the first time in five years.
"This budget round from county and particularly the city was burdened by so many issues," Chess Mabie says. "The fact they made a decision to continue to support TPAC at the level they did the previous year—it felt good. I can tell you it's still not enough, but we are thankful."
She's quick to add, though: "They're not off the hook, though. We're going to continue to ask for more because the public sector has role in supporting art. We're all in it together."