Witt Siasoco uses art to create home

If you take Twin Cities artist Witt Siasoco’s extensive body of work as a whole, a common theme emerges: home. Not home as a physical place, or even a symbolic one – “Home is where the heart is,” and all of that – but home as a concept that isn’t necessarily easy to articulate. Siasoco’s work is, in many ways, about examining that concept.

The multidisciplinary artist, designer, and arts educator has created a number of projects inspired by issues facing his community. Themes of collective community ownership, transportation and land use, underrepresented populations, and other social issues emerge continually emerge, again and again circling a larger idea of “home.”

After earning a visual arts degree from Iowa State University, Siasoco was “trying to decide if I can actually make a go of [being an artist]” when he discovered the Walker Art Center’s artist-led projects and connected with a group of teenagers in the Center’s Teen Arts Council, working as Program Manager of Teen Programs for over a decade.

“That really affected me a lot,” he says. “I was trying to figure out what [art] means to me and what it means to the community – what it means for an artist to have a vision for working with people that really interested me.”

He left the Walker Art Center in 2012 to earn a post-baccalaureate in graphic design at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. “I thought I was going to be a designer but I ended up making a lot of projects about my immediate neighborhood and issues affecting my immediate neighborhood.”

That initial project in 2012 was the Department of Change, and it laid the groundwork for much of the public art and community engagement projects Siasoco has been involved with since.

Department of Change began with a condemned house in his neighborhood. He created a realty sign and pamphlet to bring awareness to the building. The pamphlet outlined the reasons for demolition of this particular building, but also provided information for the preservation of condemned properties.

“I found out that condemnation doesn’t mean it’s going to be torn down; it means the community has a call for action,” he explains. “[That project] was really a step in the direction of [me asking the question], ‘What does it mean to make art in communities and how can it communicate to people?'”

In 2013, the City of Minneapolis launched a partnership program with Intermedia Arts called Creative CityMaking Minneapolis (CCM), supported by the Kresge Foundation Arts and Culture Program. CCM paired highly skilled community artists with City departments on in-depth collaborations designed to address complex challenges that the City faces. Siasoco was part of the first cohort of artists paired with city planners on a project addressing historic preservation: How does the city address historic preservation? What is the process of historic designation? Which buildings does the community feel need historic designation?   

His Intermedia Arts project Drawing on Minneapolis included a Mobile Tracing Unit – essentially a life-size door with a window on it – in which participants chose a photo from one of the 50 properties identified in the City’s Historic Capstone Report and “trace” a projected image of the photo. Through their drawings, participants were effectively “voting” for which properties they wanted the City to take a closer look at preserving.

Siasoco’s team did 25 community engagement events, then did a huge drawing for Intermedia, created a print series and billboard, and hung installations in storefronts.

Also in 2013, Siasoco was the Artist-in-Residence with the Kulture Klub Collaborative, an organization that engages artistic practice to provide opportunities for youth experiencing homelessness. Through this he created This is Home, a large-scale drawing/installation and zine created by asking youth participants to select a location that had provided them shelter, was a safe space, or a place they called home. The answers ranged from landscapes and landmarks to private residences and public spaces, and were visually depicted in the installation and accompanying zine.

This wasn’t the first time Siasoco directly examined the idea of “home” in a project. He first approached the theme through his work with YouthLink‘s Drop-In Center, also known as Project Offstreets, a safe space for homeless youth to turn to that also provides a variety of health and housing resources.

“I had been thinking about this idea of home and would try to come up with ways to really make art with [these kids], but I was having such a hard time really getting to talk to them,” says Siasoco. “I would just have fleeting moments – oftentimes the kids just want to grab food and don’t want to talk. I wanted to talk about their homes, where they are from, did they ever have a home. Using Google Street View I could punch up the addresses of where they had slept, then I used a projector to project this image of their ‘homes’ and they would sit there and trace and talk about that experience. When you’re in transition you forget about what [home] meant to you, and what you want to get back to.”

From this he created 30 drawings on a billboard displayed in front of YouthLink. He replicated this project in collaboration with fellow social practice artist Mischa Kegan for Artify‘s year-long community art project based on the theme “Home is…”, supported by Irrigate and led by artist organizer Oskar Ly. This version of This is Home focused on residents of the Hamline-Midway and Frogtown-Rondo neighborhoods and was displayed at the site of the Project for Pride in Living’s Hamline Station affordable housing development, a previously blighted section of a neighborhood that had been disrupted by the construction of the Green Line.

A recent project of Siasoco’s that also evolved out of Department of Change is THIS HOUSE IS NOT FOR SALE (THINFS). Conceived by Siasoco and his poet friend Molly Van Avery, founder of Poetry for People, and supported by a Jerome Project Grant through Forecast Public Art, THINFS took the image and vernacular of a realty sign and used it in a subversive way as both a symbol of the project’s themes and a structure for displaying site-specific art in front yards throughout the Twin Cities.

“Molly purchased a foreclosed home through the Lakes Community Land Trust. There were clothes and furniture and toys strewn about inside, [which made her question], ‘Who are these people and what does it mean for me to benefit from someone else’s loss?'” Siasoco explains.

The two artists brought together a team of local poets in partnership with the Lakes Community Land Trust to hold dinners at eight previously foreclosed homes around the Twin Cities. The dinners were held with the new homeowners with the intent to explore what it means to acknowledge a home’s history and make a life in the wake of someone else’s loss. Now the “realty sign,” the end product of each of these dinners, lives on in front of each of the houses as a symbol of the home’s history and a piece of public art for everyone to enjoy.

At the same time that he was working on THINFS, Siasoco was part of the inaugural artist residency with the Cornerstone Group, a progressive real estate development company interested in solving community challenges through collaboration and meaningful community engagement.

The City of Richfield, an inner ring suburb with an older population and over 50 percent people of color, had approached Cornerstone to build Lyndale Gardens, a transformational town center at a large commercial property that had become a source of blight for the city. During the initial project planning process for there was an outcry for more arts and cultural programming, leading Cornerstone to reach out to Forecast Public Art and resulting in RARE, the Richfield Artist Resident Engagement.

RARE brought in Siasoco and dancer Emily Johnson to live in Richfield for one year and deliver large-scale creative community engagement projects. He decided that the Cornerstone Group really needed to hear about how the neighborhood residents felt about the development happening around them. He started by talking to people and collecting their images and thoughts on Instagram under the title Roots in Richfield, a micro-scale Humans of New York looking solely at Richfield residents and what they want to see happen in their community.

“I’ve been asking people what is the future of Richfield,” Siasoco says. “There is concern that people’s rents are being raised; that’s a lot of the feedback I got. But on flip side [people said] we need to clean up this place and make s safer. It’s really indicative of [what’s currently happening in] the Twin Cities and it’s a really hard discussion. What does it really mean to do genuine engagement, and who do we bring [to the table]? What does it mean for their [neighborhood’s] growth, and is all growth good? As an artist those are the concerns I have and want [to address].”

Siasoco takes photos for Instagram then creates portraits based on those photographs. The portraits are then placed on a billboard by a bus stop that will eventually also have benches and swings, so that people “can sit and engage with some art.”

“I’ve built an incredible relationship with some of these people,” he says. “There’s a guy who’s been working here forever and everyone knows him. Another guy is a three-time felon living paycheck to paycheck. Then there’s Judy, a retired arts teacher who does an arts program here on site. I’ve developed these real relationships and enshrined them in these portraits.”

You could call much of the work Siasoco does “placemaking” because he is doing exactly that by all definitions of the term. But, he says, “For me it’s really about the person. The ‘placemaking’ – there’s a big conversation that’s happening within the arts community in the Twin Cities that’s important; we’re still trying to figure [out what it means and how to] navigate genuine engagement. For me art is a real excuse to talk with people and have a moment where we connect. It’s really essential to our deeper understanding of what it means to be in a community.”

Yes, you could say a lot about Witt Siasoco’s public and civic engagement practice and placemaking efforts, but at the root of it all is an artist using his practice to create “home.”