Finding Her Place in the Broader World

Posted by: Michele Cohen

“It really blew my mind!” That’s what textile artist Rachel Wallis said about reading the description for Graduate Studies at Moore’s MA in Social Engagement program.  Rachel lives in Chicago and teaches in a community art center so the low residency nature of the program was really important for her.  She’s on campus during the summer and takes courses online during the other seasons.  “That I would be able to keep working on my projects at home and integrate my studies into the arts and organizing work I was already doing made it such a perfect fit for me,” she said.

Rachel went on to say, “I don’t really work on my own as an artist. I’ve always worked in collaborative environments. I really thrive on this ability to have people to bounce ideas off of, to challenge you, to stretch your understanding of your work, or to bring in different perspectives. I can’t imagine making a project that was just about my ideas and my experience. To me, making has always been a very social practice for me.”

In Chicago she has been busy organizing a number of quilting projects with members of the community and is currently in the middle of a project with the grass roots organization We Charge Genocide that is memorializing individuals killed by the police.  Moore’s program has allowed Rachel to integrate how she thinks about this work into her studies.

“A lot of Moore’s program is thinking about what kind of engagement you want and the quality of that engagement. Do you want people to participate in the end product of the art you’re creating? Do you want people to participate in the conception of the art or the creation of the art? Are you talking about an intentional collective of people, who come together to do a work or are you talking about a geographic neighborhood?” These are the questions Rachel is considering so that instead of stumbling into collaborations, which is the way she says she’s worked in the past, the graduate program has allowed her to be more intentional  about who she collaborates with, how she gets them involved and how she engages them with a project.

The Graduate Social & Studio Practices programs, including Social Engagement, are ideal for people who are busy with work and other obligations in their lives and Rachel really likes that.  “Most of my days are half days here in Philadelphia. This morning I was calling potential sites for community quilting circles in Chicago, emailing collaborators and thinking about venues for showing the finished pieces. I have a chunk of time that allows me to keep up with the work that I’m doing independently. Then, in the afternoon, I may have a class. Today, for example, we’re looking at artists who saw themselves as artist activists, and who were directly engaged in movements for social justice and making art for those movements.”

Those enrolled in the programs with Rachel come from the work from all different directions. “You have people that have a fine arts background and who don’t. Who have a practice that involves making or who don’t.  That’s been challenging for me, honestly, in a lot of ways.”

She comes from a large and strong activist community of artists who are engaged in politics with their work.  “It’s a struggle for me coming from this community where people have a similar vision, to being in a mixed room and talking about why I think it’s vital to have a critical lens for the work that you’re doing, or why starting conversations isn’t just enough, or what does systems change look like, or how do we link our work to movements that are already organizing. That can be really frustrating, but ultimately it will be good for me as an organizer and an activist, to step out of this really strong community that I’m in, and try and figure out what my place is in the broader world.”

Gallery photos by Salome Chasnoff and Martin Macias