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Art In YOUnison builds community

June 29, 2022

“When a baby comes to the workshop – from Liberty City, Overtown, Miami Gardens, Richmond Heights – and they are comfortable putting that pen in their hand and writing in their voice about what they see on a day-to-day basis, that’s the part that I care about,” said In YOUnison collaborating artist Arsimmer McCoy.

She’s talking about her experience in this year’s monthlong summer program organized by Vizcaya Museum & Gardens and IlluminArts, for people of all ages to create art in different mediums, together.

Free community workshops were held throughout this month that culminated with a final community performance June 24.

The workshops were a blind collaboration to develop elements for a one-night performance that combined spoken word, music and fashion. All guests were encouraged to wear clothing that expressed their personality and culture.

Before the performances began, there were several stations where those who couldn’t attend the workshops were still able to create something and be a part of the experience. There was a poetry station where attendees could openly express themselves by writing their own poetry and sharing it at an open mic, and a singalong learning station where guests could write their own song and perform it. Guests were also able to decorate floating lanterns with a customized message to close out the show.

To shine light on Vizcaya’s rich history, last Friday’s performance kicked off with a parade following a Junkanoo band through the gardens to the main stage.

The artists and workshop participants performed their individual and community pieces for the audience through a carefully curated program created by the artists and Amanda Crider, IlluminArts artistic director. At the end of the night, all workshop and pre-show participants lit up the night sky with their personalized lanterns.

The leading artists of the In YOUnison summer program were spoken-word artist Arsimmer McCoy, fiber artist Pangea Kali Virga and tenor Kunya Rowley. While each artist held an individual workshop, there were also several workshops held with all three artists combining their talents to create a multidisciplinary environment and final performance.

Locals, from infants to adults, participated in the workshops, with multigenerational groups attending. That’s what organizers wanted, according to Rebecca Peterson, manager of community programs at Vizcaya. She said many were adults who yearned to make art and be creative.

The project aimed to unite the community and demonstrate how rich, diverse and multicultural it is. In light of the current state of the world, Peterson said it was crucial for the organizers to demonstrate that there’s room for all cultures to peacefully coexist.

The collaboration between Vizcaya and IlluminArts for the summer program resulted from their dual missions to showcase diverse voices in the community. Working together, they created a program where all participants would have a safe and comfortable space to express themselves without feeling judged.

Alina Mergelova, participant of three of Vizcaya’s summer programs, said this year was her absolute favorite because it was a “continuous, fluid art activity” that blended several artistic realms and brought in experts who were not only knowledgeable but also friendly and engaging.

Crider carefully selected each artist for their expertise. She said McCoy was the obvious choice for the spoken-word portion of the program because of her powerful message and voice.

Spoken word

McCoy is a writer, poet, educator, and performance and collaborative artist whose work is centered around identity, self-reflection, human connectivity, legacy, validation and transparency. She incorporated discussions on identity and advocacy into the workshops because she believes the two are closely related, as one advocates for issues they believe may infringe on or develop their identity.

In her workshops, participants practiced spoken-word performances. She said not everyone was an expert and some were simply there to try something new.

With unity as the goal, McCoy said she tried her best to think about what unification means, specifically in Miami, and how culture, food and language is what connects everyone. She also wanted to incorporate some of Miami’s history, which includes iconic locations such as Vizcaya and the neighborhood surrounding it, which has undergone “aggressive gentrification.”

Her biggest goal for the workshops, as an artist and educator, was to make sure people felt comfortable speaking in their own terms – she believes art has been turned into an elitist thing and that many, including herself, are still fighting for inclusivity in that realm.

McCoy said she was taken aback by how transformative and comfortable it felt on the first day of the program, and that instructors and participants built a community within a community because there were dedicated attendees who came to every workshop. She was pleasantly surprised to see a performance of a full-fledged concert by those who had never read poetry, sang, played an instrument or designed anything before.

Mergelova shared that the poetry workshops were her favorite of the program, and that she was deeply inspired by McCoy as a woman, a human being and an artist. The way McCoy was able to engage people in poetry from all different walks of life and celebrate them, she said, was amazing.

Wearable expression

Besides being a “nymph of positivity,” Crider and Peterson selected Virga – fiber artist, educator, designer, curator and producer – for inclusion as a workshop facilitator for her creativity and sustainability practices.

In her workshops, Virga focused on self-expression. She helped participants embellish their own clothes or pieces that were provided to create something that expressed who they are, their personality, culture and identity, as well as the special fabric lanterns for the final performance.

The goal was to “upcycle” clothes by bringing garments that were stained, ripped or well-worn and embellishing them with new material to change up the design or make them wearable without having to throw them out. She taught participants how to sew on buttons and other sewing and embellishing techniques by using materials donated from the community, stores, designers and bridal boutiques to accessorize their clothing.

Virga said this was her first massive collaborative garment and that she was delightfully surprised by the many different perspectives presented. She collaborated with workshop participants to create two garments that McCoy and Rowley wore at the final performance.

She had sketches of what she wanted the final piece to look like but also knew its ultimate iteration would depend on participants. Virga challenged herself to give up the control she typically has over a final product and said that process was a beautiful experience. She added that working with McCoy and Rowley was wonderful, because everyone brought something unique to the table and it was lovely to see how they all came together in the end.

“Collaboration is also an art form that many people do not recognize,” said Virga.

Unity in song

Because of his mission to use music to celebrate Black and brown culture, Rowley, an opera singer, artistic director of Hued Songs and director of music access, arts and culture at The Miami Foundation, was handpicked for the singing portion of the program.

Rowley said the workshops aligned with his personal and professional mission as they worked to “democratize the arts” and make sure everyone has access by providing free workshops that were culturally relevant and specific.

In the workshops, Rowley taught participants three songs: “One Love” by Bob Marley; “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson; and “Wangolo,” a Haitian folk song.

Rowley’s goal was to ensure everyone felt comfortable singing and using their own voice while understanding that it wasn’t all about singing but about everyone coming together. He hopes everyone left feeling they made a meaningful contribution to the community.

He said he was challenged as an artist – something he doesn’t get to experience often – to look for meaningful ways to connect with participants of all ages. He pondered how to create inclusivity while making the workshops engaging for everyone, enjoyable and not overly technical.

For him, one of the best things about the workshop was getting to see the community use music, spoken word and design to share pieces of themselves and cross cultural lines.

If you missed this session of the program, Vizcaya and IlluminArts have plenty of collaborations coming up for the 2022-2023 season, including a springtime performance series collaboration between the two organizations and Rowley’s Hued Songs that will incorporate music, dance and visual arts.

Peterson, who said the best part of this In YOUnison program was the way everyone was able to find similarities within their respective cultures, is looking forward to it.

“We don’t have to be the same to be together,” she said.

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