Untitled project (Rogers Avenue 6 am on a sunday morning)
text by Knutte Wester
- Where did you live before you came here? I ask the kid as we are waiting for the others to show up. He’s called “J” and I guess he is about eight He came early yesterday as well. Now he’s been observing me as I prepare the tools for my third sculpture workshop here at the Pulaski Family Shelter in Brooklyn.
-Before we came here I lived in another shelter in Brownsville. And before that I lived in another shelter in Flatbush. And before that in another shelter in East New York.
I don’t know New York that well, but it’s like he’s drawing a map of poor neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
- And before that? I ask hesitantly.
Before that I lived in another homeless shelter, named Caroll or something. I don’t really remember.
Silence. I don’t know how to progress the conversation.
…but before that, he suddenly smiles, we had a real place, like a real home.
His mother Estha enters the backyard and sits down on the concrete stairs next to her youngest son. Silence.
How was school today? I ask as I clean bowls from yesterday’s modeling plaster.
- ah… not so good he says, the smile vanishing and his eyes darkening again.
He picks up a tool. - Is this a hammer? Can I use it? I have never used one before. This, can I use it? I want to make a house, look, like this. Go ahead, I say, take that marble cutter as well and try on the plaster.
He escapes into creativity. A good escape route, or at least one I know and can relate to.
-… you know how they are right? His mother looks at me as if trying to apologize for her son’s behavior, with a look saying this is how nine-year-olds are, right?
Yes, I know I say and smile. We talked about our children yesterday; she knows my eldest son is the same age. It is only a second; a silent look of understanding, but for a second it is like our differences in life situation are overbridged by the common experience of being a parent to a nine-year-old. When she speaks again, I have almost forgotten what we were talking about, and her words hit me like a cold wind.
- As soon as he gets rid of one bully another one comes along. I’ve kept him in the same school all the time, to give him some stability, but now I don’t know.
The other mothers and children show up. We work and cast hands, feet and faces in plaster.
In the beginning of June 2015, I more or less move my studio from NARS (New York Artist Residency and Studio Program) to a family shelter in Pulaski Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Two days after the episode with J, Estha and her son J show up before the others.
- Last night, I say, the story your son told me turned into an idea, a concept for an artwork. I mean, in my imagination, it turned into a project. I show her the small drawing in my sketchbook.
- In New York there is the tradition of Street art. I thought we could do that, but in our own way. We could make this cast of J and then, together, go back to that place where you once had a real apartment, and place it there.
Now I’ve said it. She is completely silent and I can’t read her face, so nervously I go on,
We could place it there on a wall at the right height, it would be like a symbolic act we do together. Like a catharsis act. We would leave it there like a fragment of a person who once lived there, like a fragment, a memory of a child who once lived there but was driven away. We would leave it there. It would be like a monument, but not like a real monument, it would be like a homeless monument, a small monument without having the papers in order. We would leave it there, and take a good photograph, and our metaphoric action would be over.
Like placing a fragment of J at the house where he once lived, where he could have been growing up. The place he had to leave.
She is silent. A single tear rolls down her left cheek. With the back of her hand she wipes it off and looks me in the eyes.
- Yes, I would like that. I really want to do that.
She looks at her son,
-Did you understand that?
-Yes. We’ll create something and then go back to Rogers Avenue.
The other mothers and kids show up and we are working intensively. We cast the shoulder and arm of J. A girl, T, her mother and the children of the security guard at the door, do the mold making. I fill the mold and we are done for the day. The guard comes to collect her sons. -Was it ok that they were here even though they don’t live here? I read the catalogue you left for the director. You see, I came as an illegal immigrant to New York; I was 9 and came alone. I understand your work.
In silence, I give her the plaster casts of the hands of her children, like small records of fragments of them, from that day.
A nurse, who sometimes volunteers at Another family shelter, tells me that many kids grow up in the shelters. They move from one shelter to another when the limited time at one shelter is up. They are US citizens but grow up like refugees in their own city, moved from one place to another. Some days I also volunteer at a soup kitchen in Manhattan. A reverend there, born right after the Great Depression in the 30’s, tells me that never, in his lifetime, has the homelessness in NYC been this bad.
Two days after the casting of J’s shoulder I return to the family shelter to continue our work. A few people show up but not J or his mother. I decide to leave the mold of J’s shoulder unopened. We cast hands and feet, a ballerina posing and a misshaped foot. On my way out I meet Estha, J’s mother.
-We came in late today, we’ll make sure to come next time, she says.
But they don’t show up to the following workshop a few days later. I begin to fear that my suggestion in some way has caused something.
The following week, while I’m setting up the sculpture workshop again, J suddenly comes rushing in. - Have you opened the mold? he asks, throwing his schoolbag on the ground.
No, I haven’t.
He spins around and runs back up the stairs, shouting to his mother;
- Mom, he hasn’t opened it! I told you he wouldn’t do it without us! I told you!
Estha, J and his big brother open the mold. I find myself holding my breath. Over the time that has elapsed since we did the casting the work has grown in my imagination. I fear the disappointment of J and Estha if the cast doesn’t turn out well. But what comes out of the mold is even better than I had imagined. J’s mother is trying to hide her emotions, J’s big brother is trying to hide how impressed he is and J is not trying to hide anything at all. He screams with joy with a straight from the heart rawness that none of us watching can defend ourselves from.
This is the last of the series of workshops I have planned together with the shelter. We decide that I will refine the piece and come back next week. They are keen on the idea of putting it up on the wall of the house where they once lived. We agree there must be a text there as well and that I shall try to write a draft.
I cover the cast of J’s shoulder in leaves of bronze and create a patina. I return with the piece and my draft for a text plate. Estha meets me and she is stunned when she sees the shoulder of her son now in bronze. I hand her a paper with the few lines I have struggled with. As she is reading, I can see how she doesn’t like it.
-Why does it have to be so many details? she says. Some of our friends don’t know we are homeless. People are going to know it is about us.
- We’ll change it, I say.
-Does it need a text? she asks. I fear the project is collapsing.
-And how do we place it on the wall? she asks. I tell her abut the epoxy glue I have bought. And I show her how I imagine we would put the shoulder up. I hold it up against the brick wall on the ruff backyard where our “studio” is located. I hold the shoulder at the same height, as the shoulder would be if it were J standing there. He is not home from school yet, but then, against the brick wall, we can almost see him, we can imagine the rest of him out of the shoulder.
- Oh my God… she says.
She starts to cry and then walks away without saying another word.
I sag back against the wall.
When she returns an hour later, I’m still sitting there, writing and rewriting a seven-line text.
She looks at me with a gaze I cannot read.
- I’m rewriting my suggestion for the text on the wall, if you can consider to maybe progress…
- I want to do it she says. It was just too much earlier. When you held up that shoulder, I suddenly remembered how small he was when we lost our home. It was like a physical memory of what it felt like to hold him by the shoulder back then, and then, to see that shoulder, he has grown so much. He looked so… big. I realized I hadn’t really in depth thought about what it has been like for him to grow up like this. It was just too much. Let’s keep the text. It is what it is. No need to be ashamed, we might as well spit it out. It is what it is. It’s real. Let’s keep it real.
I drop my notebook.
He’s gonna be so proud, he’s gonna tell the world. He’s gonna bring his friends and tell them he did this. Even with the homelessness out in the open, he’s gonna tell the world. Or at least the street, the neighborhood, the school.
- Are you sure? I say. She nods. She comforts me with a silent look, that look saying “you know how nine-year-old boys are”, as if she were reaching out to that small island we actually share, that one formative experience we have in common. She hears something and smiles with her whole face.
-Here we go, she whispers. Then I can hear him too, her son J, coming running trough the building. Still running he smiles when he sees us, but stops when I hold up the bronze cast of his shoulder. – Oh, Snap! he screams. He runs to touch it. Have we made this? Is it for real? It’s great. Look. Look mom, this is me. We made this.
Rogers Ave, 6am on a Sunday morning.
-I have never ever seen him up at this hour on a Sunday; Estha laughs as her older son, J’s eighteen-year-old brother, squeezes his tall, tattooed, basketball player body into the small Honda Civic of the photographer Magali, who has agreed to be the driver for this illegal action. It is June and it’s already hot, even though the sun is not up yet. I have come to the shelter on my bike, riding trough the abandoned streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant with the epoxy and the camera in the toddler seat.
- He was the one waking us up; Estha says pointing at her eldest son. He wanted to be in on this.
- If the Police comes, I say, you must all blame me. Just step away and leave me with the epoxy glue on my hands.
They all laugh, but also agree. J says he’s nervous. When I tell them that I have been so nervous that I haven’t been able to sleep they laugh. Estha seems a little bit nervous as well. J’s big brother seems proud of his mother and little brother, out in the streets in a “getaway car”, on a secret mission making street art. The only one who seems calm is our driver Magali, the photographer.
We get to the address well before 6 am. There is a small brick wall between the house were they used to live and the building next to it. That’s our spot. We set up cameras and pull out the tools. While waiting, J’s big brother bounces an imaginary basketball, and moves towards an imaginary basketball hoop. His mother Estha steps sideways and blocks him in his path. She obviously knows how to play basketball, or at least once she did. But she is not that fast really. Maybe the move from her tall and almost adult son never was intended to succeed, maybe it was a cover for taking a step closer to her. I count the years and realize that he was 13 when they were evicted from here. It can’t be all that easy coming back.
I mix the epoxy glue and J measures out the height on the wall using himself and his own shoulder as a measuring tool. He steps back and I press the piece to the wall. The epoxy is supposed to cure in 5 minutes, but it feels like there is something wrong, it takes too long. A cab driver pulls over, and I fear we have a problem. But it turns out he just wants to give us credit. Estha proudly tells him the details. Before I can remove my hands from the sculpture a man comes walking in the early morning light. He and Estha apparently know each other and start talking. Apparently he used to be the janitor of the building when J and his family lived here. “No, it wasn’t fair, how they treated you, just turning off the electricity like that!”
J asks his mother; I don’t remember there being a basement in the house? Was it a basement when we lived here?
- It was so full of rats I tried to keep you away from it. Now look at the place. This place is changing. J picks up Magali’s Hasselblad camera and starts shooting. Estha’s proud look upon him, now suddenly the director of the scene. The glue finally cures and we escape across the street. We give high fives, take photos and drive away. When we get back to the shelter, it’s time to say goodbye. In a few days I’ll leave New York and go back to Europe. It’s about 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning, the sun is coming up and we hug in the street.
- So what’s up now, I ask. J’s big brother smiles and replies:
- Now mom has promised to make pancakes for breakfast and then back to bed!
They walk away, together, up the stairs to their room at the Pulaski Family Shelter and as the security woman closes the door, the city slowly awakens.