New Haven community members ranging from elementary school students to professional artists will reflect on violence through art starting next month.
“Through the Trees,” an interactive public art installation curated by New Haven-based artists Nick Pfaff and Hannah Plotke, will open in late November in ‘The Lot,’ a small park and exhibition space at the intersection of Chapel St. and Church St. The installation, which will feature artwork related to the theme of violence in New Haven, will include works donated by local artists, but visitors will also have a chance to create art on site. The donated pieces will be hung from the branches of eight “reconstructed” trees — trees that curators have assembled by combining sections from different tree species, such as cedar and mountain laurel. The project will provide a platform for the New Haven community to reflect on the issue of violence within the city, Plotke said.
“We are interested in why this topic has not been approached from an artistic perspective in New Haven,” Plotke said. “There is a lot of gang violence and trafficking of guns here. It is a big part of the culture for younger people.”
Many students in New Haven know victims of urban violence or have witnessed it themselves, said Helen Kauder, the executive director of Artspace — the New Haven studio, exhibition space and gallery that owns ‘The Lot.’ Plotke explained that in urban settings, it is difficult for individuals to grieve for loved ones who are deceased because there is not enough space for them to express their emotions publically. Many people choose actions such as writing on the side of a building to reflect on the loss of a loved one, she said, adding that the installation will provide a space for community members to pay their respects without invading private property.
“Through the Trees” will feature artwork from all age groups. Plotke said one adult artist is making garlands of origami cranes while the students in a creative writing class at a local school are working on pieces they hope to physically assemble into one object for the exhibit. Johanna Bresnick, the Visual Arts department chair at the Educational Center for the Arts, said she pushed her students to explore themes such as loss and loneliness in their contributions to the installation, noting that she thinks the students’ artwork should be applicable to all audiences, not only those who have experienced or witnessed violence in the community.
“We ask them to make artwork that is not overly didactic and not so subject-driven that it ends up explicating really obvious themes about violence,” Bresnick said.
Plotke said she thinks the most important part of the project will be the art that community members will create on site. Public art projects such as “Through the Trees” target “the accidental audience” — the people who happen to come across an installation and decide to spend a few minutes exploring it, Kauder said. She said ‘The Lot’ is particularly suited to hosting an installation that promotes community engagement given that four local bus lines stop near the park.
Pfaff and Plotke curated an exhibition at the Connecticut State Legislative Building in June as a response to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. They asked schools across Connecticut to reflect on questions pertaining to community safety and contribute artwork to the exhibition. Pfaff and Plotke found that students from schools in areas with high levels of violence submitted barely any art. Plotke said she thinks that in many schools, students and teachers were not discussing the topic of violence in the community because they were discouraged or even prohibited from talking about it. She added that in general, isolated tragedies such as the Newtown shooting tend to receive more attention than the consistently high levels of violence in cities, which further contributes to the lack of discussion.
“Larger than the problem itself is the problem of how little it is talked about,” Plotke said. “I think many students have been waiting for an opportunity like this.”
‘The Lot’ hosted its first official art installation in 1999.