“Language is flawed. We sort of set ourselves up by relying purely on it,” posits Melissa Raman Molitor. I’m talking with Melissa and Angela Lyonsmith, both Evanston artists-educators-therapists-activists and co-founders of Studio 3, a new art studio and community gallery that opened in Evanston last month to center young artists, Black, Brown, Indigenous artists, LGBTQ artists, artist activists, and anyone who uses art as an expression, exploration, or act of social justice.
“So how can we use other ways to connect and communicate with each other?”
We’re sitting in Studio 3’s bright and inviting space at 617C Grove St, just up the alley of Grove. Colorful piles of wool intertwine on the table, almost-ceiling-high cubbies boast an inviting array of art supplies, an arrangement of tree branches that have been wrapped in yarn by Evanston young people and adults is framed on the wall. Melissa’s question is, as we say, the 64-million-dollar one. Our kids are growing up in challenging times. While Evanston’s public schools are working courageously to implement antiracist and equitable curricula and culture in the classroom--there’s also pushback and resistance. Sharing our pronouns has become rote for many of us, more of us are catching up--but some parents and guardians remove their kids from school during LGBTQ week. And with Covid-19 stress pushing us to our limits (to mask or not, to vax or not, to send our kids to school or not), gun violence taking too many of our young people’s lives, persistent racial inequity at school and in the community, and global issues such as climate change and immigration--children, parents, teachers, and caregivers need all the help we can get to discuss deeply difficult subjects in ways that help us push our limits while building bridges not walls. And, Melissa and Angela believe, art is the answer. “That’s our vehicle,” says Angela, who, along with Melissa, is committed to addressing social-emotional learning, socio-cultural awareness, self advocacy, and community activism with young people through collaborative art and an antiracist, intersectional approach. “Art helps young people and adults bypass the over-intellectualization of the courageous conversations we’re trying to have,” Angela explains. “While you’re creating, engaged with each other that way, it can feel a lot less threatening when it comes to having conversations about race and equity and bias, discrimination.” Even when it's complicated, or you’ve wandered into a place where you’ve hurt someone else, or you’re feeling defensive, says Angela, “How do you still hold on in that? We both believe that art is a profound way to do that. Art holds space for conversation and keeps the people in that room together, even through the difficulty.” Pointing to the colorfully yarn-wrapped tree branches on the wall, Angela says that one of the things she asks the folks of all different ages and backgrounds as they’re together winding the threads around the branches, is to think of something they care about in the community and share that with each other. “So a young person will say, ‘I like the raccoons in my neighborhood,’ and another person will say, ‘I like to bike on the lake.’ Then a parent might say, ‘It's really hard that such-and-such a Facebook group is so contentious. I'm really concerned about what's happening in our schools and incidents of racism, but it’s so hard to discuss anything there,” Angela says.
“It holds space for lots of kinds of conversations people slip into while wrapping.” Melissa agrees. She says that in a communal art project, participants are physically helping each other as they’re having challenging conversations. “There's some breathing space that it naturally brings to the process. It's a different kind of rhythm,” she says. “It's not perfect, but we have to find many different ways to do this work. And we believe that art is sort of a natural way to do that.”
Studio 3 comprises and combines the artists' individual projects: -- Kids Create Change, which they manage together, facilitates programs on-site or at schools and community centers that use multimedia, sensory-based storytelling to center identity, culture, community and care; -- Kitchen Table Stories Project, Melissa's initiative that uplifts and centers the voices of Evanston's ASAPIA community; and -- Art With People, Angela's art practice that focuses on slow-craft activism, engaging families and community members in addressing actions we think are important to raise courageous, antiracist children. After years of outreach into the community and working within Evanston’s schools, the women, both of whom have Masters degrees in Art Therapy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, decided last year that they needed a place of their own where they could store and set up supplies, make their own art, help supplement the antiracism work that had begun in District 65, create community, and … change the world. “We really believe that this work needs to start from day one,” Angela says. They began to envision and plan for Studio 3. The name, they decided, was a perfect expression of their belief in the power of 'third spaces,' a term coined by cultural and post-colonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha and sociologist Ray Oldenburg that applies to communal spaces that are established outside of home, work, and school to foster the sharing and co-creation of new knowledge, amplify the voices of people who lack social privilege, and provide communities that are typically marginalized a sense of place. But Covid-19 had its own ideas for third spaces: their opening was thwarted by the pandemic, and like so many other community-minded residents, the women pivoted. “We put that all aside and said, okay, how can we work together to use our skills and serve whatever needs there are in Evanston right now,” says Melissa. An immediate need emerged for art supplies for Evanston students who were now going to school via Zoom without access to markers, crayons, paints, and more. They received seed money from Northwestern University, community members donated gently used art materials, and the two assembled 1,000 art kits. Collaborating with Connections for the Homeless, Family Focus Evanston, and Books & Breakfast, they distributed the kits to families who needed them, including the families experiencing homelessness that Connections helped house at two Evanston hotels.
Soon, summer loomed and parents and guardians were anxious about how their children would stay engaged as Covid-19 stopped all activities and school wasn’t in session. So Molitor and Lyonsmith collected and distributed books and puzzles--always ensuring they included books that represent stories of Black, brown, and indigenous children--and built an online platform with free arts activities and suggestions for adults to do with their kids. Lyonsmith did a virtual art program with kids and families at Family Focus. They realized that if they wanted their work to be sustainable, they’d need to increase their funding and become an organization. So they did. They found their studio space last October, began remodeling it in January, and they’ve begun to put new programming in place (within Covid-19 guidelines):
-- Art workshops for kids and families that explore art-making and storytelling as community building and care.
-- Art-based professional development for adults who are raising, caring for, working with, or supporting kids and families.
-- Creative Community Conversations (C3) for resident and neighborhood groups, parent-teacher groups, local community groups, and local organizations and businesses that use the arts to facilitate dialogue that promotes anti-racism, anti-bias, equity, and healing justice in our community.
-- Exhibitions that seek to elevate the work and amplify the voices of young artists, Black, Brown, Indigenous artists, and artists activists.
But--and it’s an important one--they’re looking to the community to guide their classes and events to ensure that they’re responsive and relevant. So they’ve created a survey that they hope can be disseminated widely, asking everyone to weigh in. .
For completing the survey, you’ll be entered into a drawing to win 2 tickets to a future concert or performance at Evanston SPACE.
“We want to learn what people identify as the role of art,” says Angela. “We want to find out what's already known about art in the community and where we can grow in filling out the picture of how art can be meaningful in new social movements and in challenging racism.” The survey, she added, will also drive the kinds of stories they share in the gallery space, and the kind of courageous conversations they can facilitate. "This is very personal work for us," says Melissa. We're both parents, we have kids in District 65 and Evanston Township High. It's how we exist in our community. How we parent. How we engage in relationships with other people in our community. It's how we bring people together."