Today on Tuesday Tours we’ll look inside the studio of artist and owner of Cosmic Butterfly Design Tia Chianti Richardson, who’s studio is part of the Kunzelmann-Esser artists lofts in Milwaukee—an apartment building that offers galleries and a workroom for the residents to use. Tia refers to herself at a Community Integrated Artist because a large portion of what she does centers on the process of creating the work in collaboration with community members. Working together, Tia and her group paints large colorful murals that incorporate issues that are of concern to the community where the mural is being created. During these residences Tia also teaches people new art skills, helps build relationships among the participants, and offers art as a tool for healing in the community.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your creative medium.
I call myself a “community-integrated artist”. I’m a muralist. My approach is holistic in that I facilitate making art—specifically murals—by group listening in a way that integrates the voice of the community and the collective spirit of working together to build a new vision. I work with youth and adults of all ages. I’m less interested in working on my own paintings in my studio. I get occasional private commissions like portraits and paintings in oil and acrylic but I prefer to work on community art and teach people how to do something they’ve never done before, by working together around issues they care about.
I like to do this by using talking circles and group exercises that build relationship during our design planning phases. In this way art becomes a tool for healing community. That is my practice. The final, permanent mural is done in acrylic. I’ve led over 25 residencies around Milwaukee in public schools and community organizations. Three murals are outdoors.
How long have you had your space and how does it affect your creative process?
I’ve had my space for nine years. My building is a renovated furniture factory turned into artists live/work apartments. If I’m working on a painting late in the evening I get to take breaks by lounging on my couch where I still have a view of my painting, cook dinner, eat and watch my painting until I see how I need to approach it again. Plus I like to multi-task. I might do home-stuff while working on a painting. I wouldn’t feel as relaxed if I weren’t in my own home.
Describe a typical work day.
If I’m not scheduled with a school that day, its open for planning, appointments with any potential clients, or relaxing. A typical day during a residency involves preparing any props that I make so the students have a 3D example of their project. Making a class outline. Transporting materials/props to the school where I leave them in storage, if I can, to minimize hauling. I ‘ll do an hour in-class with anywhere from 8-24 students, guiding them each step of the way. The first half-hour might be an introduction, a talking circle or brainstorming, followed by a demonstration and instructions for that day, followed by work— individual sketching or group painting. I always close with each student saying something they appreciated about the day or about something someone else in the room did. Sometimes I have two or three classes back to back. Repeat weekly for three to eight weeks. I have managed up to six different residencies at five different schools in one semester.
What do you like to nibble on or drink while you work.
At home I have water or hot tea—my favorite is Egyptian Licorice and Equal Exchange 85% dark chocolate—nothing tastes better.
If you could share a studio with anyone in the world, who would you pick?
Kofi Annan. I know, he’s not an artist, but he’s an exemplary ‘artist of bringing humanity together’ and that is what I strive for in my work. Second choice: Lily Yeh. Third choice: Milwaukee’s Sara Daleiden because I like the way she listens, and her ability to put inner processes into language I can relate to. That would make for some great conversations.
My red micro-suede futon couch, my colored turkish wall tapestries given to me by my mother from her travels, and my six-foot high, 10’x15′ wooden loft that my dad built—all add coziness and warmth.
What would you say is the most useful tool in your studio?
Probably my laptop and wifi. I use google and photoshop a lot for image references, photo-manipulation and research. It’s a lot quicker to mock-up a mural composition or portrait in photoshop for me than by hand and takes less resources.
What advice do you have for people who want to make a personal space where they can be creative?
Allow space for self-care. Having my futon, bed and kitchen nearby means I can sleep, eat real food and relax when I need to. Personally, organization is ultra important for me so I have storage that ‘hides’ because I like the feeling of openness and not clutter. Understand your unique work style and design your workspace accordingly.
As an art educator, how do you use art to inspire youth–is there a story you could share about someone that was inspired after your workshop/residency?
Many of the teachers I work with are inspired. I often see young people I work with around town after a residency and enjoy hearing their feedback about how their family or parents responded to a project they took home, or how they kept creating after the residency. I co-facilitated a group of adults on the STITCH Milwaukee community mural project, many of whom did not have art backgrounds. I got feedback from someone who had no prior art experience who was deeply inspired by the meditative space that happened when we were painting, and did not know painting could feel like that. She says the 3-month long process catalyzed a sense in herself that an artistic identity was starting to form she never knew she could identify with. I know her personally and she continues to nurture that creative expression through photography and poetry.
What’s coming up for you and where can we find out more?
I’m currently doing a bookmaking residency at Pierce St School. We are making traditional hand-bound illustrated books used as autobiographies or journals. The highlight of my year happened the weekend of October 4th when I collaborated with a group of four other artists through BeIntween, and with international community artist Lily Yeh, on a project called Urban Alchemy Phase I. We were trained in her methodology of using art as a tool for bringing community together. In one day we transformed the swing park under the Holton Bridge with temporary art made with the help of many community members. Urban Alchemy Phase II recently happened Nov 15th; community members and the core artist team shared stories about family and painted story sticks and built a large chandelier made of the sticks that we installed in the Swing Park.
That same weekend Playback Milwaukee Theatre Company, of which I’m an active member, hosted a separate event with Lily in person and screened her documentary using playback as tool for facilitating the workshop. In Playback, an audience member tells a true life story then watches as its played back by trained playback players using spoken word, movement, visual art, music and… magic!
Lily Yeh’s film documents her journey to honor and heal personal pain in her own family and how that has strengthened her authenticity and solidarity within the communities she serves around the globe. Those of us who attended are community artists and activists who wanted to use her film to inspire and inform our own work here in Milwaukee. Playback Milwaukee Theatre Company’s next public performance will be Amani United Uplifted! Everyday Heroes and Sheroes of the Amani Neighborhood Tuesday, December 16th, 2014, 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society in Milwaukee.You can find out more about me on my website.
Thank you, Tia for sharing your amazing studio space, as well as all of the inspiring work you do in our community!