East Austin Studio Tour

Nia Orakwue, Entertainment Editor

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The quiet, contemporary rooms of the gallery illuminated as the artists presented their work to viewers. Hundreds of artists set up their booths and exhibitions in different locations around East Austin in mid-November. They all gathered together to help encourage and celebrate free self-expression through art, using art as a way to connect different people and to help engage communities in difficult, but necessary conversations.

East Austin’s values and identities are expressed through various outlets, including music, communal gatherings, dance and art, all four of which are expressed through Big Medium’s East Austin Studio Tour (EAST), an annual series of art events throughout East Austin. The free, self-guided events feature local artists of all mediums, allowing them to showcase their artwork to the public and engage with viewers.

The forms of art displayed at EAST vary from acrylic on canvas to dance or collage. Visual artist Chelsea Amato draws her inspiration for her collage pieces from various religions and their beliefs about the afterlife.

“I get it a lot from religious artwork, so all types of folk catholic and Hindu works, secret societies, greeting cards… It’s about the spirit world and religion and that type of esoteric content,” Amato said. “It really draws me in and I think it’s really powerful.”

East Austin’s artistic environment has served as a starting platform for artists like Amato to freely express themselves through their art. Amato began displaying his work in Cherry Cola Dog, an art studio and roller rink located on E 5th St.

“I think it’s very good for artists… because I started in Cherry Cola Dog and they allowed first-time artists in their gallery and it was a good opportunity to get yourself out there, you don’t have to be established,” Amato said. “There’s also more of an openness to not just do derivative stuff, like elephants and birds, or something. There’s more room to do some weird stuff.”

Visual artists Julie Ahmad, Jennifer Pate, aka Maridad, Claire Vendetti aka Billie Claire, and jewelry designer Haley Lebeuf, collectively known as Femme-Easta, participated in EAST with individual exhibits as well as a collaborative art installation as part of their campaign to destroy oppressive societal views. The installation was a wall decorated with drawings of different types of chests and breasts, the slogan “We Have Something to Get Off Our Chest” and Polaroid photos of participants holding up signs. On their signs participants wrote their frustrations or contradictions with harmful ideas that are reinforced by American society.

“We just wanted to get together,” Pate said. “In the environment we’re in right now, it’s really great to give everybody the chance to share something about what’s going on in our society.”

Femme-Easta and their art installation want to help encourage free expression and more conversations about controversial issues. They achieve this by letting people connect with each other through shared grievances about societal norms.

“You can read one of the posts and say ‘Oh my god! Me and that person share the same idea,’” Pate said. “You could even find their sign, hold it up and share that with them or you could make your own… but it’s really nice because it gives both people a chance. People who want to share something or maybe people who feel timid can read what other people said and find solace through it.”

Along with being able to know that the viewer is not alone in their feelings, posting on the wall is designed to give the participant a feeling of release. Vendetti said that expressing these feelings can be hard to let out or be seen as taboo.

“I think with our focus of breaking social constructs some of these issues are things that aren’t super talked about,” Vendetti said. “They’re a little taboo sometimes or there’s a stigma behind them and so I think giving people a chance to just say it, like ‘Get it off your chest!’ … it’s really important.”

Femme-Easta’s art installation reflects East Austin through its theme of community and by allowing people to share a part of themselves in a creative outlet.

“I think that Austin as a whole and East Austin specifically is a really special place to be because we have a space to say some of these things,” Vendetti said. “Being able to offer all these people an even playing field and an equal voice has been really a cool part of it as well.”

Arts educator and collage artist Simone Monique Barnes embodies the true identity and spirit of East Austin through her fabric collages and personal experiences as an East Austin resident. Barnes, who comes from an artistic background, said she sees art as a second language and helps her processes the world. She enjoys collage making because it connects things that seem like unlikely pairs.

“I really like that collage making takes different parts of you, different parts of things that are around you and repurposes them and puts them together,” Barnes said. “So it’s kind of like who we are as people. There are all these different things that don’t feel like they go together and suddenly they go together.”

The inspiration behind Barnes’ art comes from frustrations she has about the world or anger at unnecessary killings of African-Americans by the police. She uses her work as a way to process those feelings.

“I transformed [playing cards] into these little memorials to a number of people who have died over the years like Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice…” Barnes said. “Anytime I’m feeling really stressed out or frustrated about the world, it’s really easy to just put stuff on social media. it’s another thing to say, you know what, I’m gonna put that into my artwork.”

Barnes values art and sees it as a another way for her to express herself, similar to the way that feelings can be expressed differently in various languages. She coordinated a “happening”, an interactive event as a part of EAST. Called the Art of Community, this event is held for people to come together and create their own fabric collages and self-portraits.

“The reason I call it the Art of Community is because there are a lot of spaces in East Austin that look public, but they aren’t,” Barnes said. “There are less and less art spaces, less and less gathering spaces, less and less community spaces for people who live here… So that’s what’s important to me, to create spaces for both artists and the community to gather.”

Because East Austin’s reputation in other parts of the city can be based on people who don’t live there or have personal connections to the community. Barnes feels that it is important to showcase the way East Austin sees itself and how it expresses its own identity.

“What’s really frustrating is that a lot of time what I read in magazines or advertisements about East Austin tend to come from a very negative viewpoint or it’s an ‘Oh look! It was so bad and now we fixed it,’ but it doesn’t at all reflect anybody who lives here,” Barnes said. “What I like by doing the self-portraits is that it gives people a tangible way to say ‘This is what we think of ourselves.’”

However negative their reputation may be, the portraits made during this event show East Austin residents in a positive light.

“People are smiling they’re happy they’re interested in art, they’re amazing artists, they’re interested in soccer, they’re nerdy, they wear glasses, they’re confident!” Barnes said.

The portraits made are not only important in encouraging artistic expression, they also aid in the preservation of East Austin’s identity and showcase the diversity of the people that live there.

“We’ve seen many of our murals and artwork and things in East Austin get whitewashed and disappear and that’s why these [portraits] matter,” Barnes said. “You can look and see the different kinds of people that we’ve had in this space. The different hair textures, their different representations, their different nationalities, ethnicities, communities and they’re all East Austin.”

The Art of Community and the portraits that are made from it aim to increase the community and
unity of East Austin and the people who live there, Barnes said.

“East Austin is really into community, really into neighborhood, really into culture, really into supporting each other,” Barnes said. “And I feel like that’s our norm here in East Austin.”