I was the first artist-in-residence at the Sanitary Tortilla Factory in Albuquerque, NM. Here are the residency basics and reflections on my personal experience.
Sanitary Tortilla Factory houses over a dozen artists’ studios, a sign shop, a wood and metal shop, a gallery, and, now, a five-week artist-in-residency program. I came across the call for proposals on NYFA. It solicited proposals around social practice and/or sculpture. There were two residents selected: Alex Branch and I. (Coincidentally, we both happened to be female NY-based artists who also daylight as art handlers.) I was the first AIR. Alex’s residency is scheduled to start in mid-August. The residency entailed:
- The use of the 500 s/f gallery as my private studio.
- Access to the shop.
- On-site living quarters.
- A $2k stipend ($1,500 materials and $500 for travel).
- An exhibition in the gallery following the residency.
The gallery/studio: My project was not studio-oriented, so it sometimes felt like an embarrassment of riches to have a 1,100-square-foot gallery to work in. I was grateful, though, to address the gallery early on, when I had more slack time as I was waiting for submissions to come in. I drew oversized maps and hand-lettered questions for a response wall. The public could interact with them at an artist’s talk in the beginning of the residency, as well as throughout the exhibition following the residency. This was helpful since a major component of my project was located at various sites around town.
It was very helpful to have a large space for two workshops with a local youth arts organization.
STF was very kind in not asking me to open my studio to be public outside of scheduled events. I really appreciated the flexibility to work when and where I saw fit: in the gallery, in the apartment, or at other locales.
The shop. The wood shop has a table saw, and a chop saw with 16’ fence with measuring tape and adjustable stop. There’s also a band saw, a drill press, a belt/disc sander, an air compressor with brad and construction-grade nailers, a table router, and a joiner. There’s also a forklift. There’s welding equipment but my knowledge of metalworking is so limited I shouldn’t attempt to describe it. I borrowed sheri’s Makita impact drivers and drill on an as-needed basis. I brought my own small hand tools and PPE. Getting the dust collection system up and running is sheri’s next project.
sheri trusted my self-assessment of my skills, and we didn’t do a shop orientation. Sometimes orientations are welcome, and sometimes scheduling them can become a hurdle to getting your work done.
The apartment is a beautifully appointed studio, with a full kitchen, WIFI, a washer and dryer, and a dishwasher. (I donated an exercise mat for yoga and stretching.) The apartment is located on the side of the STF building with a private entrance off an alley. They installed a cute sculpture/cactus garden in front.
Just across the alley is a beautiful patio shared by Sidetrack Brewing and Zendo Coffee, both quality purveyors. Their spaces became a mini-extension of the residency—they’re great places to read on cool mornings, and meet up with local artists in the evenings.
Just two blocks away is grocery store with a pretty good selection for its size. I was happy to find almond milk, organic carrots and kombucha there. They had really cheap (conventionally grown) cherries and cantaloupes during my visit.
Alternatively, you can get pricy but farm-fresh produce (including great salad greens grown in ABQ), eggs, and fancy bread at the Downtown Grower’s Market on Saturdays and the Railyards Market on Sundays. Both are within walking or biking distance.
Friend of STF Rebecca lent a red girl’s bike (I brought and donated a helmet and bike lock). Coming from NYC, I found Albuquerque to be bike-friendly. Nobody honked at me or drove too close. The North Diversion Channel Trail is a neat bike path (where I spotted a roadrunner) that runs between a channel and the I-40.
sheri provided transportation as needed in her capacious cargo van, to the lumber yard, to/from the airport, etc. She also spent a day driving around and installing signs with me. It was possible to install these signs alone, but I was very grateful to have a buddy.
The exhibition. My project had three components: story collection, the offsite signs, and the zine—and the timeline and budget just covered them. I didn’t plan an elaborate a solo show for the exhibition. The exhibition showcases the zine, and has a looped slide show about the process, with photos of workshops, signs, and the sign locations. There are also interactive elements, where the public can post thoughts about what belonging means, and collectively map their roots and their places of belonging in Albuquerque. I’m grateful that sheri was supportive of keeping the effort for the exhibition minimal.
Albuquerque’s art scene is highly geared towards First Fridays. There are lots of galleries open, and audiences in droves. Launching the exhibition on the First Friday in July was a great send-off. I left town the next day.
STF is located in Downtown Albuquerque. To the north just a few blocks is Central Ave./Route 66, and the main strip for night life and Kimo’s quirky Art-Deco-meets-Southwest movie theater. I was lucky enough to arrive just as a film festival started; I really enjoyed an evening of local shorts.
To the South are the Railyards and Barelas, a historic, largely Latino community that is also home to Working Classroom, and a few scrappy artist-run spaces.
If future residents haven’t spent much time in Albuquerque, I recommend renting a car and visiting Meow Wolf and other cultural offerings in Santa Fe and going for hikes in wilderness areas. I really enjoyed visiting Taos Pueblo and Casa San Ysidro in Corrales. It was a great way to learn about New Mexico history, and experience how places help tell the stories that happened there.
My residency was from June 1 to July 8. It was hot. The daytime highs were usually in the 90s, and sometimes in the 100s. I was very glad I brought a sun hat. The advantage of summer is the great farmer’s markets. But some resources—like the clay studios at UNM and Barelas Community Center—were closed for the summer.
STF is staffed by the director sheri crider. In addition to running the STF studios, gallery, and residency program, sheri is also a practicing artist and contractor. If it sounds impossible to juggle all three, you haven’t met sheri. She’s an absolute dynamo. She’s indefatigable. I immediately liked her. She’s down to earth and has lived a lot. She is pretty chill, and you don’t get the sense that she likes rules or will enforce boundaries awkwardly. I got the impression that she doesn’t have time for bullshit, but she never made me feel that she didn’t have time for me. Someone assisting sheri is also helping with STF’s social media, and I’d accidentally mistaken them for STF staff. I was initially concerned about lack of staff capacity, as I’ve experienced the impact that good and bad studio managers and/or residency coordinators can have on residency experiences. I think it helped to adapt accordingly, by trying to be more self-sufficient and creative about who I asked for help.
Barb Bell, sheri’s partner, helps out, especially with events. Michael Apolo Gomez is helping me out with photography.
The lines between STF and sheri crider are blurry. I lightly hitched rides on expendables in the studio, shop, and the de-facto STF office—sheri’s studio. Sometimes I asked, sometimes I intuited. I hope that what I gave in return—intangibly via the project, and tangibly with expendables I reintroduced into the shop ecology—is a fair trade.
There was only one resident artist at a time. I was very grateful for the friendliness and welcome of STF studio artists, especially Travis Black, Beau Carey, and Karsten Creightney. Travis and his assistant/studio mate Ani Bea were ever friendly and caring. Beau was nice enough to share his work with Working Classroom interns when they came by for a workshop, and let me tag along when he went to the art supply store. Karsten brought a truckload full of scrap lumber for forthcoming AIR Alex Branch. Tami Abts and Josh Stuyvesant of A Good Sign were instrumental in receiving shipments and getting them picked up, loaning me a grommet press, and also sharing what they do with Working Classroom interns. When you are new to a town and a shared space, being around people who are happy to help is immensely reassuring.
As Lucy R. Lippard was a juror (along with Bill Gilbert, who had to leave for Japan), sheri was kind enough to invite her over for lunch. I’d been reading “The Lure of the Local” and it was tremendously helpful in thinking through the complications and paradoxes of doing work about being an outsider and making work about the local.
I’d heard sheri say one of the goals of the residency is so artists from elsewhere learn about the art happening in Albuquerque. While New Mexico history is incredibly deep and complicated, I definitely gained an appreciation for the art community, as well as various people, culture, and places here. The list of reasons that this place is special is astoundingly long. There is space, physically and creatively, for artists to take risks here.
I heard others express an interest in increasing the production and visibility of social practices and community-engaged art in Albuquerque. ABQ seems to have many drawing-and-painting-oriented artists and community muralists. I think Ellen Babcock’s Friends of Orphan Signs is lovely in it site-specificity and community engagement.
For me, I applied because its offerings matched my goals and interests. I was intrigued because there are few residency opportunities focusing on social practice, and I’d wanted to return to New Mexico since my first time visiting seven years ago. Having my proposal reviewed by Lucy R. Lippard was a bonus. Moreover, it provided an opportunity to realize a new project that merged my interests in participatory projects, research, and community engagement. I really wanted to do something as an artist that formed an alternative to divisive, hate-mongering rhetoric.
My projects often have an emotional touchstone. For this project, the touchstone was the feeling of welcome and pride I find in a newspaper clipping that my mom has kept for over 30 years. It’s an article announcing the naturalization ceremony that welcomed 50 “new Americans,” including my parents. I am not an immigrant, but I identify with immigrants, and I really love how this project encompasses how different people find places where they feel belonging. For example, Zahra Marwan, a Kuwaiti-New Mexican UNM alumni and illustrator, said that when she first heard the cante, or singing, in flamenco class, it reminded her of the call to prayer in the Middle East. Barbara Bell wrote about being of service to her elderly Hispanic New Mexican and Mexican neighbors. (You can read excerpts from all the stories in the Belonging zine).
This residency cycle was supported by the Fulcrum Fund in partnership with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and The FUNd at Albuquerque Community Foundation. Without funding, I couldn’t have done the residency or project. I wouldn’t even have applied to it. (Some folks in ABQ danced around the question of if I have a day job. I do—in fact, more than one: art handler/crew lead, freelance designer, and artist’s assistant.) As you might have guessed, the residency is also subsidized with sheri’s labor, resources, and generosity.
I had a rough start—I flew in from NYC with a woozy-making head cold. The 5,000-foot elevation, sun, and dryness took a toll, too. I was a mess. Thankfully, Travis, Ani, and sheri checked in on me, and cued me in to the prevalence of local allergens, and I switched from cold meds to allergy meds.
As I’ve written before, residencies offer new resources while removing you from many of your own. That includes the emotional support of people who love you. Setbacks can test your resilience and how you bounce back from self-doubt, isolation, and uncertainty. It really makes you appreciate people who offer genuine care, encouragement, help, and enthusiasm.
This was my first residency project in which social practice and community engagement were key components. Soliciting participation for this project was challenging, and at times, frustrating. There were many factors: I have few connections to Albuquerque, and the residents of a place nicknamed “The Land of Mañana” can be noncommittal or slow to respond. Quite a few contacts were away on vacation, and some services were closed for the summer. A service organization scheduled a workshop but did not show up. I’d emailed refugee groupsw and attended their events, but didn’t receive any stories from them. I posted an open call to which people responded with enthusiasm online and at the artists’ talk, but few followed through with submissions. Sometimes I was frustrated with the small returns in light of so much outreach effort. Other times, I rolled with the city’s leisurely pace. Perhaps one social practice skill is mono-tasking being patient.
The lifeblood of the project became partnerships with Working Classroom, an arts and education program for young artists from historically ignored communities; and Saranam, a two-year housing and education program for homeless families in Albuquerque. My connections to these organizations were quite happenstance. I mentioned going to ABQ to Ronny Quevedo, an artist who I rarely run into in NY. He connected me with Working Classroom. I was connected with Saranam via Erin Fussell.
I also suspect that the topic of belonging is both sensitive and uncommon—identifying your place of belonging may take time and be uncomfortable. You have to risk exposure and vulnerability.
As a result, I kept the story submission open until three weeks in to the residency.
This left two weeks for production—painting 13 signs, installing most of them, having a hand in 6 of the 7 activity sheets, building and painting 5 boxes, and writing, editing, and designing the 24-page ’zine. There were many late nights. I was pretty exhausted by the end.
In past residencies, I learned about the need to simplify, let go of unnecessary details, and not make myself crazy. I took that to heart, using it like a mantra. It was helpful. For example, I made mini signs for the oversize map in the gallery, and then I started making miniature activity boxes… How cute would it be to make an actual mini box with a hinged lid with mini activities inside? I wondered. But with priority components still in progress, I knew enough not to fall down that rabbit hole.
Though this project was similar to past projects involving a survey and zine, it also involved a higher degree of social practice and public art. I’m satisfied with how the project came out, yet I still look forward to more critical distance and feedback from participants and audiences. On one hand, I aspire to be free of the need for external validation. On the other, validation is gratifying, and moreover, this is a community-engaged project, in a new place. How it goes over is important. I was really moved when one audience member said, “using art to give people a voice, to start a dialogue, to ask questions and most importantly to listen” is “most relevant today.” I suppose this comes back to patience as a social practice skill: how the zine will be read, if and how the signs live on, and if participants and places are affected—these all will play out over time. The residency has ended, but project’s new phase as a publication and public artwork is just beginning.
Overall I had a wonderful residency experience. I’m especially grateful for sheri and her easygoing manner, her openness to my project and suggestions, and her help and encouragement.
Find the zine and activities at BelongingABQ.com. Photos will be posted soon.