Spring has officially sprung here at Root Division. Our latest exhibition Back to the Garden–curated by yours truly–opened on April 8th and turned the gallery into a verdant landscape. Back to the Garden–which featured stunning work by sixteen local artists–explored the motivations and methods by which human beings shape the natural world into a reflection of their identity, societal values, and projected ideals. From Erin Mallea and Whitney Aguiniga’s examinations of plants as symbols of exoticism and expansion, to Kelley O’Leary and Ryan Richey’s contemplation of garden aesthetics, to Dionne Lee and Natasha Carlos’s consideration of their own bodies within the natural landscape, the work in this show was lush, intriguing, and totally immersive. It was such a pleasure to work with all of the artists involved and even more exciting to see their work up during Root Division’s annual TASTE fundraiser last Thursday evening. Check out the photos from TASTE 2017 on Facebook to see how the gallery came alive.
I am incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to curate this show and I certainly would not have been able to do it without the guidance and support of the Root Division staff. At the 2nd Saturday event for this exhibition, I couldn’t help but reflect upon my past seven months here at Root Division. Back to the Garden is my last curatorial project as RD’s Exhibitions Fellow and my fellowship ends this week. Maybe it’s overly sentimental of me, but seeing the gallery alive with plants and flowers feels symbolic, not only of all the personal and professional growth I’ve experienced during these last seven months, but of all that Root Division and its staff do to help grow and nurture the careers of emerging artists and curators.
In the Bay Area, where rent is high, space is limited, and creative spaces are dwindling, Root Division is an essential part of the city’s landscape. In the short time I have worked here, I have witnessed the difference Root Division makes in the careers of its studio artists and in the surrounding community. I began this fellowship curating the Frank-Ratchye Project Space–reserved for Root Division studio artists to display their work–and interviewed each artist for our blog. Most of the artists I interviewed were fairly new to Root Division, but they all spoke of how grateful they were to be part of the studio artists program. With affordable and accessible studio space, studio artist Eliza Dennis was able to “expand [her] practice and create larger installations.” With twin one-year-old babies at home, studio artist Margaret Timbrell is thankful that “I can lay my materials out around my studio floor, leave for the day, come back and everything is just as I left it.”
Besides studio space, having more opportunities to exhibit work, both on-site in the Frank-Ratchye Project Space and main gallery and off-site at various affiliate venues gives RD studio artists significant exposure to art world professionals, local art supporters and philanthropists, and the general public. In fact, at Root Division’s two main fundraisers, TASTE and their annual Art Auction, the artists keep their studios open so that event attendees can wander in, discover new work, and even make a financial pledge to support any artists they connect with. This kind of exposure is amazing for the emerging artists in the studios program, but also allows Root Division to act as a seedbed for local contemporary art. If you want to see fresh work by both established and up-and-coming Bay Area artists, look no further than Root Division’s walls.
Root Division also provides free arts education programming for neighborhood youth, affordable art classes for adults, and the opportunity for studio artists to gain invaluable teaching experience. Studio artist Shisi Huang, who taught at Cesar Chavez Elementary school as part of the Youth Education Program, expressed how lucky she felt “being part of this great art community, and also gaining teaching experience” after recently getting her MFA from SFAI.
Recent Root Division alum Nicholas Hullibarger, who teaches a number of adult education class here at RD, noted that “Root Division is one of the few places in the Bay Area that will take a risk on you as an emerging artist, it’s part of their mission. They’ll teach you how to teach, you can pitch different ideas, you can flesh out your syllabus, and that has been one of the major benefits for me.”
For me personally, Root Division has been a place where I can take chances, try new things, and learn by doing. Before this fellowship, I had worked on exhibitions in college and graduate school, but was struggling to develop my own curatorial practice outside of a classroom setting. With the guidance of Amy Cancelmo, Root Division’s Arts Programs Director, and with access to a large gallery and around thirty emerging artists and their studios, I have been able to write and publish artist interviews, install solo exhibitions in the Frank-Ratchye Project Space, and for the first time in my career, single-handedly curate a group exhibition in a professional gallery space. Root Division took a chance on me as an emerging curator and allowed me to develop my own voice. I have no doubt that the skills and experience I have gained here will serve me well in my future curatorial career. I was introduced to so many local artists and their work, plus Root Division’s tight-knit community of friends and supporters. Root Division is an important part of the Bay Area arts ecosystem, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity they have given me to grow here.
Studio artist and Outreach and Programs Assistant Susa Cortez summed it up nicely when she told me that she considers Root Division her home: “I have been with the organization for 3 years–we’ve had highs and lows, this place is like a little child that we all are helping grow and succeed in this drastically changing city.” The relationship Root Division has with its artists, friends, and community is a symbiotic one. For all that this place does to sustain the artistic community in the Bay Area, its supporters pay back in volunteer hours, donations, and advocacy. The Bay Area needs spaces like Root Division, and Root Division needs its community. Whether it’s by taking an art class, checking out a 2nd Saturday opening, attending a fundraiser, or just telling people how wonderful my experience was here, I know I’ll continue to cheer Root Division on in all that they do to enrich the Bay Area through visual art.