In the first years of publishing Hidden Leaves, we often featured thoughtful commentary by friends and colleagues who shared Ilan-Lael’s goal of putting creativity to work as a catalyst for positive change. Never has this notion seemed more compelling than in these challenging times.
And so we turn once again to long-time friend Milenko Matanovič for insights on the times we live in, and the ways we can heal fractured communities. Milenko and James piloted a joint community-build exercise at Kuchumaa Passage on the grounds of Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Baja California, in 1989. James took the lessons learned and went on to create the Pacific Rim Park series. Milenko took another path, founding Pomegranate Center, a non-profit that teaches the principles of democratic engagement around the building of community spaces. While our current feelings of isolation and polarization will take years to overcome, Milenko gives us a valuable reminder that democracy is fundamental to a civil society, and it starts at home in our own communities.
“Heron Rising,” was a painting made with hand- and fingerprints of 300 students, teachers, and PTA members in Medina, WA.
Was there a moment that made creation of Pomegranate Center most compelling?
There were many moments. When I grew up in former Yugoslavia, in what is now Slovenia — a country of only two million people with its own language — I rebelled against the conventions and attitudes I encountered with adults and leaders. It was all one-sided. Power was flowing from them to us. The teachers were like that, and the leaders, and at the time I had no words for this, but I had a sense that something different must be around the corner.
So, I rebelled and tried to find my own way. Initially I was only able to say “no” to things. This was not what I wanted. I felt it enough to recognize it by the absence of certain qualities. Then, after a while, I started to discover art and music and they started to tell me this was more like it.
One of the things that bonded me to the United States was Benny Goodman’s Big Band. For some reason his 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall recording was sold in a local store. It was a revelation. Not just great music and fun music; it was celebratory. It had qualities that I lacked in my social environment. More importantly, I saw a different kind of leadership, how power was used. It was not centralized in Benny Goodman where everyone had to follow his commands. Musicians could claim their solo time. Suddenly this image of how the collective and individuals can coexist became very powerful for me. I saw it in that music. It made me fall in love with a particular layer of the U.S.
When I came to the U.S. in the 1970s, I had this idea that people here would gather, consider various ideas, select the very best ones, and join forces to implement them. That was my ideal of how American democracy works. I read Walt Whitman, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his second inauguration speech, the Declaration of Independence — these were very noble and powerful ideals of democracy. I saw something in the U.S. that was not just great for this country but universally applicable to where we humans need to go next.
I started to attend public meetings to see how the democratic ideal plays itself out. I was bitterly disappointed. I found people who were only looking out for their self-interest or particular point of view or ideology. They were unable to hear anything outside their own talking or thinking points. People would argue and not be interested in an improved future, as I was. That was the moment when I probably decided that maybe with my innocence and idealism, I should do something about it. That was the beginning of Pomegranate Center.
A park in Tuscaloosa, AL.
Many people would have thought that a Pomegranate model would be in a policy or business arena, but you chose art. What made art the driving force behind Pomegranate in addition to your ideals?
I had a very short but fiery burst of artistic life in Slovenia: very avant-garde conceptual/land art that made the group OHO that I worked with pretty famous. It still is considered one of the more important artistic groups in Eastern Europe.
I exited that world when I was 23 because I could not visualize myself in the marketplace of art making. I came to the U.S. in 1970 to prepare for an international exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The museum put my colleague David and me in touch with American artists. I met Christo and Walter De Maria and other well-known artists. They told me how the business of art works. One had a private foundation supporting his salary. Christo put an endless amount of energy into doing sketches that he sold, and gathered enough money to implement the ideas behind those sketches.
Since I was from socialist Yugoslavia where there were no foundations or wealthy individuals, it was impossible for me to visualize making a living as an artist. But more importantly I felt I could not channel my emerging interests through art alone. So, I decided to travel and learn about ecology and intentional communities, and I got married and had children. I made music, did manual labor, conducted occasional workshops. My wife and I did many different things to help the family survive. During that time, I sought out people who were doing interesting work on the edges. I put the interviews with these individuals into a book. James was one of the people I contacted. We met in 1984 and became friends and collaborators.
When I started Pomegranate Center in 1986, I wanted to bring art back into focus, but in a very different way. Instead of pursuing my artistic career — “Milenko the artist” — I decided that, whatever meager artistic skills I had, I would make them available to communities. The model my colleagues and I developed was that community members would decide what they need and desire, we would help with design which they would need to approve, and at the end they would work with us in building the park or public art piece.
There are lots of benefits to this model. One, it’s very specific. If we would have a conference about safety and identity and democracy, the talk would be never ending and second, it would be abstract. But when we transform a specific piece of land to replace negative activities (like drug dealing and dangers to children), with positive ones, these shared concerns and solutions make it easy to ask people to help us transform that place.
We built 60 such projects over two and a half decades. In the last four years it was really hard to move beyond doing one project at a time. I was not able to persuade foundations to support this work. In 2011 we built five projects in one year. It was a tremendous accomplishment and I wanted the world to know about it. I sent a press release about the five projects to TV stations, newspapers and magazines, and not one was interested in reporting on our work. I realized that our work was not perceived as something valuable or important — we were ahead of the curve, providing answers to questions not yet asked: how to collaborate with diverse people, how to strengthen community, how to do great work where people thought it was not sustainable.
We gradually shifted into educational work where we now offer training workshops to transfer our hard-earned skills to the hands of others who want to improve their communities and engage citizens in the work.
“Butterfly Park” in National City, CA features a monarch-wing theme created by hundreds of volunteers who turned unused land into a community gathering space.
One of the goals of our conversation is to make Ilan-Lael readers more aware of Pomegranate Center and see if they can replicate this model to improve their own community.
We find that the lessons learned with the work of 60-plus projects behind us are applicable to just about any community project. We are working with a new library campus. We worked on town centers, main streets, bicycle paths, schools, regional plans … anything of community value. We have already trained more than a thousand people in Washington state, Oregon, California and New Zealand. These days, when democracy is sputtering, we find that our experience can be put to greater impact in improving democratic processes.
“Sumner Gathering Place,” 2011 – transforming an empty alleyway into a festive space in four intense days. A young volunteer (above) stands in front of a banner-mural she helped create.
When people meet Jim and take the time to delve into his life and accomplishments beyond his own art and amazing compound near Julian, California, they soon discover his work in Mexico, his parks around the Pacific Rim. Do his methods differ from yours?
There are a lot of similarities. We first collaborated on Kuchumaa Passage at Rancho La Puerta. That project inspired James to start applying the participatory methodology around the Pacific, and inspired me to do it with American communities. The biggest difference is that Jim invites selected people who come as guests to build the projects. I was a part of the first few projects (such as these) as an educational director, overseeing the process that took us from zero to design.
In the Pomegranate projects, people we work with are not just artists and architects, but ordinary community citizens from all walks of life. We wanted to work with people who would be most impacted by the place we were creating. If it was going to serve their community, they needed to be involved.
I recognize that working with communities is not easy. There are tensions to negotiate all along the way. For example, how to move the project along while including many people with many different ideas? How to achieve artistic excellence while encouraging participants with little or no experience? I had to learn how to convene meetings, how to facilitate so people feel involved and therefore have ownership for the project. I wanted to create conditions in which other people could excel. It became clear that creating artistic projects was an excellent way to build community, to connect people in new ways, and to offer hope.
San Diego Foundation, through a private funder, sponsored some projects of ours down in the San Diego area. They commissioned an evaluation of one, and it confirmed that in addition to having a built project, the benefits included an increased sense of safety, new willingness to get involved with the community, a stronger sense of ownership, and many new friends and colleagues made.
This was music to my ears. The results were outstanding, especially against the backdrop of cynicism that prevails in so many neighborhoods where people say their ideas don’t really matter. Now ideas and contributions did matter. I realized what we were really doing was kick starting new connections in a community. Terrific, right? I am now focusing on grafting these lessons into others’ projects and organizations. I work as an advisor on how to turn any project into a laboratory for collaborative democracy.
“Manzanita Gathering Place,” the second of the San Diego Gathering Space Projects. Designed and to be built by the community of City Heights in November 2013
You make me want to be involved with a project right now! I saw Kuchumaa Passage happen. The camaraderie, the hard work.
It was a splendid project and we all learned a lot. I wanted to transfer that same spirit and approach with citizens at large. The greatest challenge was how to manage that tension between lots of people participating but still keeping the quality of work high.
In our model the people who live there, next to a piece of land wherever it is, have to tell us what has to happen. Right from the beginning. We will design it around their vision. This is being a servant artist rather than saying this is an opportunity to show my stuff, “Milenko’s stuff.”
That was a big shift, and that’s where we probably are different from what Jim is doing.
This takes away the barrier of most people saying, “I am not an artist.”
Yes, and there are tricks we learned to overcome that. And Jim is very good with that. You must sense who can do what. For example, we had to give very basic jobs to some volunteers depending on what kind of shoes they were wearing. If they are in sandals, we might put them in the kitchen or making fine art. Only people with steel-toed boots go on the construction site. We make quick judgements and make sure not to put the wrong people in the wrong spot where they can hurt themselves.
We developed very user-friendly techniques. If too sophisticated, only specialists can do the job. We had to simplify the form enough so amateurs could step into being artists or construction people for four to 10 days. There was some magic that happened in those moments. People would say, “You don’t want me to … make awful art.” But we learned to give them some very simple tools.
For example, we developed a way to do murals or banners with dots of color because paint brushes were technically too demanding; people had a hard time controlling them. We designed the negative space and put a sticky plastic over the area we wanted untouched. We minimize the mistakes. In the case of making dots, they used little bottles with foamy tips. No drips. And then we told volunteers to ‘feather out’ [around the negative space] with dots, in certain colors, warm or cool. They learned how to do that very quickly and, in the end, we still had a very interesting design made with lots of hands, just like tile work.
If we had four days only on a project, we could not do tile work that might take a month. So, we had to invent quicker folk versions of tilework like simple wood carving and banners.
We also didn’t give people tools that could damage the artwork or hurt the volunteer. We had one person injured in all of the 60 projects — only one! — because we made our techniques safe.
FOSTERING “I DID THAT” MOMENTS
We want volunteers to see that “… today I am an artist” — how wonderful it is to leave the park with pride that they’ve done something worthwhile, that their hands were in this project. I once created a painting of a heron where all students at a school, and their teachers and PTA members, touched the painting with their hands and fingers. They still come to that painting 15 years later, point to the dot that was their finger, and say, “I did that.” We discovered that the fuel for bonding people together is the co-creative process.
Again, the challenge is always to create structure that people feel ownership of at the end, rather than saying, ‘I’m helping Milenko do his work,’ they say ‘We are doing our work, we are creating this!’
I had to learn how to step aside and be almost invisible. I did not even call myself an artist. I realized early on that some people automatically assumed that I would do my own stuff and they would be reduced to helping me, they would not have their say. This stepping aside was a powerful lesson for me: I made a pledge to hear their ideas first, before I would insert my suggestions, and to design around their wishes.
Those are some of the methods and practices that are a little unorthodox for artists who are accustomed to a solitary journey and making a name for themselves.
I’ve seen your work as an artist, especially some of your watercolors, and the inclination would be to stand back and expect amazing things from you while the rest of us watched and followed.
These dynamics play themselves out in every project. I had to learn to adjust my skills, whatever they are, to the situation that I encountered. That was an early lesson in Yugoslavia. I could make art objects that every artist does, but instead I invented art that celebrated collaboration with nature and coworkers. I would ‘collaborate’ with a wheat field or a river and we would create something together. But I would first pay attention to where I am, to the setting. I had a lot of training in that, so …when I came to the U.S. there was an opportunity to say, “Can I understand the community here, not just the site, so that we create their artwork?”
Banners celebrating oak trees show how “non-artists” can create beauty with a dot techique.
Are we coming to a point at which changing how people live is art in itself? Has art moved beyond being a physical object to become the way people live in that neighborhood?
When I exited formal art (the world of museums and galleries and so on), I was very young at the time, 23. I imagined that … I must commit to the idea that art needs to move into life at large rather than ‘art-making.’
Now I think that art making is a quickened schooling. Art miniaturizes larger processes and we bump into important lessons along the journey. It starts with learning to listen and imagine what is possible, the poetry of the beginning. To listen to one’s intuition is an important part of artistic practice.
How to express that? How to incorporate the situation, the setting? What are the structures through which intuition now will travel?
How then to craft, to create forms that are translucent, like stained-glass windows where the light of the initial intuition still comes through.
The reverence for materials and your coworkers is a part of the practice. And learning how to let go of one’s own work and create space for new beginnings.
After 50+ years, these lessons became second nature to me. I am always looking at the relevance of those lessons to the society. For example, if we really took an attitude of attentiveness to the site like James does with his buildings would we have cities as we do now? Would the cities change? Would we create different kinds of neighborhoods? Probably. In that sense our land use [today] is just poor art, right? Not well-executed.
The same lessons belong to economy, education, health, governance … all are waiting for refinement, to be infused with extra energy and extra light. I wish to infuse artistic lessons into everything. How can we build a new hospital? New town centers? Everything becomes a structure through which some of these ideas can flow.
Wonderfully put … and very idealistic.
Yes, I wouldn’t be doing the work if I was not naive and idealistic.
We live in a time when some artworks, usually located in parks, are dividing our nation: symbols of oppression, such as Confederate generals. These are being destroyed or moved into warehouses, out of sight. What are we learning about this type of art? Is it useful for art to portray our society’s worst sins?
They’re also testaments to a particular period’s thinking and attitudes that need to be transformed. I would prefer to see them collected somewhere and used as a touchpoint to learn powerful lessons. Recently I heard that someone wants to change the name of the state where I live — Washington — because Geo. Washington was a slaveowner. It’s like taking only one part of his huge personality and making it the whole thing. It is focusing on flaws and mistakes only, while ignoring everything else. With that philosophy we would all be discredited because we all are fools, we all have done some stupid things, and we all are brilliant in other moments and do wonderful things.
I would prefer … that we looked at the awful stuff to see what lessons they offer. Some, like slavery, are truly awful. “What can I do to prevent it from ever occurring again, in any way, shape or form?” To answer this, we need to unpack our prejudices and assumptions. It is hard, courageous work. To get rid something without an accompanying inner work is just destruction. But with lessons learned we have an opportunity to really grow our society, our democracy.
Milenko’s daughter, Katya Matanovič, (leading a workshop above right) is now CEO of Pomegranate Center.
At Ilan-Lael our mission is to explore the relationship between art and nature. One generates the other. Can art exist without nature?
You’re bringing up such big questions here for a short discussion! One way to look at it is we ARE nature. [The goal of art] is not so much to mimic nature as something external, but to be in touch with something very natural, organic, something very universal that flows through every human being. There are artists and whole traditions of philosophy and a way of thinking…that celebrate that moment when we are in alignment, in a flow, a natural celebratory condition with what is happening around us.
I feel an affinity with Taoism. The goal is to live by doing nothing that goes against nature. The Tao – the way of life – never does anything, yet through it all things get done. So, it is about the nature that flows through us, not just nature out there. If we understood this better, we would not be destroying the planet. We would see nature as a collaborative partner, and would know that going against nature means destroying ourselves.
In great art you recognize those rhythms and patterns and juxtapositions and contrasts that live within oceans and trees and birds and clouds, and in deep human emotions and feelings. We can hear them in pieces of music, see them in good architecture, or admire them in a great garden. I would also like to see them in our economy and education and health and politics. Maybe we’re all in a kind of kindergarten trying to learn what collaboration with nature and other, different humans, really means. And it may start by realizing that ‘I don’t need to do things to show how brilliant I am’ (that is part of the problem) but if I can align myself with those bigger forces, it all flows naturally. Our society is so far from that right now, hopefully in the last gasp of a mindset that sees power as something to control and hold, and not as something to share.
Yes, I think there is a transfer between art and life, and if we don’t recognize it, we should. The sooner the better.
You can learn more about Milenko’s work at milenkom.com
Inspirational interview Milenko…very well encapsulates your journey!