Oct. 8 2014 01:18 PM

'Exploring Engagement' focuses attention on the community's service members

Geoffrey Cunningham’s project engages service members he encounters in barbershops.
Photo by Geoffrey Cunningham

Oceanside is rumored to have more barbershops per square mile than any other city in the United States. On weekends, young Marines line up outside the shops, waiting to get their hair cropped to meet strict regulations before returning to work on Monday. It's one small way in which Camp Pendleton affects the North County coastal community.

The military presence is vast and palpable in Oceanside, but artist Geoffrey Cunningham, who's lived in the city for 15 years, says there's a definite disconnect between civilians and service members.

"We don't engage them because they represent something we don't necessarily want to talk about," he says. "They represent war, and they represent death, and a lot of times in this country, we know there's a war going on, but we live in denial of it or have a sense of apathy toward it."

Cunningham saw the Oceanside Museum of Art's "Exploring Engagement" artists-in-residence series as an opportunity to finally interact with the military men and women he sees every day. The Exploring Engagement Fund is a James Irvine Foundation grant that asks California nonprofits to take risks and respond directly and creatively to changing and evolving demographics and technologies. The grant requires museums to reach new audiences by providing art experiences outside traditional settings, engaging people by making them active participants in the creation of art.

OMA was awarded the grant last year and split it into five separate projects meant to reach distinct audiences in the contexts of retail and shopping, the military, transit, the waterfront and the general public. The museum kicked things off with artist Armando de la Torre's residency at a Carlsbad shopping mall last December. De la Torre's stint caused some run-ins with mall security and complaints from nearby shop owners, but the museum ultimately called the inaugural residency a success, because it got attention and introduced an unsuspecting audience to contemporary, interactive, process-based public art.

Noted local urban theorist and architecturally trained artist James Enos was recently named director of Exploring Engagement and runs the program with Dinah Poellnitz, one of the founders of The Hill Street Country Club, an alternative arts space and initiative based in Oceanside. Enos and Poellnitz helped select Cunningham and three other local artists, Mark Jesinoski, Claudia Cano and Charles G. Miller, and their diverse, military-themed projects.

For the last few weeks, Cunningham's been collecting questions that the Oceanside community had for its somewhat transient military population. He put together a quick questionnaire and hit the streets of Oceanside, stopping by barbershops and approaching as many military members as he could. Many declined, but those who did answer the questions were also asked to show the artist the most valuable or meaningful possession on their body. While some had nothing of particular significance, many would pull out family photos, engraved watches or other keepsakes. Cunningham then photographed their possessions as they held them in their hands. Both the photos and the completed questionnaires are anonymous and on display as part of the Exploring Engagement exhibition at The Hill Street Country Club (212 N. Coast Hwy.) through Oct. 26.

"We all seem to support our troops, but we don't engage on any level," Cunningham says. "The project, it's just a starting point—something to start a conversation, really, even if it's in someone's own mind or people talking to each other about this."

The other artists' approaches to engaging the military have been less direct than Cunningham's.

In a small room in the basement of a building on the UCSD campus, Jesinoski, an abstract painter who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, is leading a workshop with a group of postdoctoral psychology residents. Two painted Styrofoam heads are on a table in front of him, and he repeatedly picks them up to help illustrate the differences between the emotional versus intellectual brain. He's talking about people who've suffered major trauma in their lives and eventually zeroes in on military members who, whether they've seen battle or not, have been trained to ignore their emotions in order to fight and kill. The toll that combat and even just intense training can have on veterans returning to civilian life can be hard to overcome, he says.

Mark Jesinoski conducts a workshop for "The Rebirth Initiative."
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Over several weeks, Jesinoski has been leading similar workshops and holding small meetings with groups and nonprofits around town, hoping to inspire community leaders to think about reaching out to veterans. He's using his training in psychology and his knowledge of art and its many emotional benefits to plant a seed in those able to provide quality, long-term arts-for-healing programs to veterans.

"I want to reach out to one nonprofit at a time and say, ‘Hey, do you want to support local veterans?'" he explains. "If the answer's yes, then I ask, ‘Do you want to use art as a medium for connecting with them?'" 

Jesinoski says he'll continue with his community-outreach project long after OMA's grant runs its course, but he says Exploring Engagement was exactly the support he needed in order to get it off the ground.

Cano's project has her performing in public as her alter ego, a Spanish-speaking immigrant who works as a housemaid and cleans common spaces while dressed in a traditional Mexican maid uniform. Her proposal to perform at Camp Pendleton was rejected, but, through public performances elsewhere in Oceanside, she's bringing awareness to immigrants, domestic workers and other types of maintenance employees whom she believes deserve to be identified with a name and a face.

Miller, too, initially had some difficulties accessing Camp Pendleton for his project. He eventually got access and captured an iconic landscape shot that shows the stark border between Oceanside and the base, but the correspondence with officials on the base is actually a major part of his project. He's making zines that include transcriptions from his correspondence with the military, and the text helps highlight the profound politics embedded in the militarized landscape.

During the next few weeks, OMA will release short videos on each project. The museum will also record a live, public podcast on Oct. 26 and host a panel on Nov. 18. While the impact and reach of each project varies, Enos says the overall concept behind the Exploring Engagement program presents a much more interesting and dynamic example of public art.

"I feel like we're the front lines of what public culture should be and what it can look like," he says. "We wanted to put forward a multi-pronged approach to engagement, and I think our artists are doing that."

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