announcement, review

Happiness, the Elusive American Dream and Lots of Cardboard

Artist-in-residence Kirsten Leenaars engages children in the search for home and happiness on Milwaukee’s Near West Side.

By Megan Knowles

Students display protest signs exploring the American ideal of happiness and proposals for a new Constitution.

On a vibrant and sunny June afternoon, an enthusiastic bunch of middle school students chatted on an empty lot near 27th street. Holding onto white balloons and gathering around the remnants of a large structure made of decorated cardboard and brightly colored tape, they brought a DIY-scrapbook vibe to a street where underused spaces are giving way to development plans and relatively new arrivals such as Daddy’s Soul Food & Grille.

Overcoming the feelings of awkwardness and skepticism young teens can bring to group projects, the students formed a line, balloons in hand, amidst conversations about TV shows and summer plans. Each balloon carried a piece of the cardboard construction waiting to be sent to the sky, many scribbled with personalized messages ranging from smiling cartoon faces to pointed political messages.

What appeared to be an activity for a day at summer camp was part of a larger ongoing project by Chicago-based performance and video artist Kirsten Leenaars, who was commissioned earlier this year by Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Art to continue her project in Milwaukee’s Avenues West neighborhood. The result is a video-based exhibit at the Haggerty that runs through December 23, 2016. Leenaars will join fellow artist Fo Wilson in a public conversation about “House/Home” at 3 p.m. on Thursday, October 6 at the Haggerty.

So why all the cardboard and duct tape?

The American Dream comes in all shapes and sizes, but at the heart of all those dreams is one central concept: Home. Leenaars’ project, (Re)Housing the American Dream, explores the search for home and happiness through the eyes and words of students from two schools on the Near West Side of Milwaukee: Highland Community School and the International Newcomer Center at the Milwaukee Academy of Chinese Language.

Working in the 27th St. storefront studio, students plan construction of a large cardboard structure (see triple-photo panel just below) reflecting their collective ideas about home.

In particular, Leenaars set out to talk with students about their own experiences with home, family and ancestral homelands, examining the slippery ideal of happiness and the ever-present notion of the American Dream.

“The image of the American Dream is owning your own home, white picket fence and everything,” Leenaars says. “What does that mean and how does that all tie together? I think it’s about getting at the notion of home not just necessarily as a building or house or structure, but also thinking about what you need to feel at home or safe, and how are they related?”

That’s where the cardboard construction comes in. During the two and a half weeks Leenaars worked with the students, they shared their ideas of home and imagined their dream houses, crafting and personalizing each piece while thinking up narratives to sell their ideal homes in commercials that would become part of Leenaars’ exhibition.

“I think what was amazing to see is how much both groups loved making. As soon as they were really making something, building those houses, they were completely engaged,” recalls Leenaars, who with support from the Haggerty turned an available storefront space on 27th Street into her studio for this fieldwork phase of the project.

In the video installation, viewers can catch a glimpse of their ideas and dream homes through the form of a quick commercial the students narrate, selling the audience anything from a home with a movie theater and a yard full of trees to a house containing an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

More than that, the exhibit includes video interviews of the students defining the American Dream, speaking to their perceptions of America and sharing snippets of their home lives.

A Highland Community School student observes fellow participants sharing their views on home and the American Dream in a Haggerty video installment.

“Having a house is part of the American Dream because you need a house,” a 7th grader at Highland Community School shared. “Home feels like a place where I feel safe with my family and friends.”

Discussing the home where she’s lived since she was one, the same 7th grader shares a story of stability that’s distinct from some of the other narratives in the video. A number of students lived as refugees moving across multiple countries, such as Malaysia and Somalia, before moving to Milwaukee.

Several refugee students described America as a place they could be with their family and have an opportunity to go to school, but still kept their homelands close. Detailing a castle with bright colors, flowers and trees, one student, who lived in Somalia and Uganda before coming to America, shared, “I hope one day I can build this home in my country.”

For the Haggerty, Leenaars’ exhibition is another example of Marquette’s engagement with its surrounding community, an area with a diverse population and housing that ranges from tenements and small efficiency apartments to grand rehabbed Victorians in the Concordia Neighborhood. Though the neighborhood is just one corner of Milwaukee, it serves as a microcosm of some of the larger problems and challenges confronted by the city.

“In particular, we’re pursuing and developing exhibitions that explore Social Responsibility through Community Engagement. The arts can be a powerful catalyst, elevating and amplifying the voices of those most affected by injustice,” says Susan Longhenry, the Haggerty’s director/chief curator.

“Museums can and should be forums for this dialogue,” Longhenry adds. “And when they partner with an artist whose work embraces collaborative social practice — as Kirsten’s does — the result is powerful.”

Asked what she would like the audience to understand about (Re)Housing the American Dream, Leenaars emphasizes the effort involved in living together. “Living together is within your own house with your family members, within your community or even within the world. It’s a complex, very layered thing, but I think it’s possible,” Leenaars says.

“I think these kids are proof…that there is room for all of these individuals with their own personalities to live and exist and play together.”

(Re)Housing the American Dream will be exhibited on the 2nd floor of the Haggerty Museum of Art through December 23, 2016. Learn more about the exhibit or upcoming opportunity to hear Leenaars discuss the project.