The Art of Life: An Interview with Guadalupe Cultral Arts’ Orlando Graves Bolaños
Though he had been a visual artist for over a decade, Orlando Graves Bolaños was frustrated with the disconnect he saw between his artistic intent and the way that the public received his work. As a result, in the early 2000s, he searched for a way that art could serve as a more effective tool for communication. This search lead him to art education, and Madrid, Spain where he worked as a teaching artist and administrative leader for the Yehudi Menuhin Foundation Spain. These days, Graves’ approach to teaching kids about the arts is centered around connecting kids with artists in holistic, hands-on experiences.
As the new Deputy Director of Education at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas, Graves directs multiple programs for kids. These programs are not only creating future generations of painters, actors, filmmakers, writers, and researchers, they’re also giving kids from 5 to 18-years-old experiences they can use throughout their lives, with whatever they decide to do.
This February, Graves spoke to Sampsonia Way about how art can get kids to critically engage with their community, why it’s challenging to design programming for San Antonio’s diverse Latino population, and what changes the Latino arts community needs to consider for the future.
How did you get involved with the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center?
I got involved with the Guadalupe a year ago. At the time I was living in Madrid, Spain and working for the Yehudi Menuhin Foundation in art education, inserting artists from all disciplines into classrooms to work with schoolchildren through art. My area of expertise is investigating how we can learn and teach things through the arts and, as I was finishing my thesis on Latino art, my research lead me to the Guadalupe. I was following them from abroad when I saw that there was an opening for the Education Director position, but I imagined that working here wouldn’t be possible—I was so far away. In the end it was certainly possible and I’ve been thrilled with my first year here.
One of the newest programs that the Guadalupe will convene in July is the Macondo Writing Workshop, a week-long program that’s open to minority poets, novelists, journalists, performance artists, and creative writers of all genres. The program is the only one of its kind in the country. Can you talk about what makes it so different?
The workshop is unique for the fact that the selection process is not only focused on a writer’s literary excellence, but also their social engagement and how they’re using their writing for the betterment of society.
The other element that makes Macondo unique is that once you’ve attended the workshop you’re known as a Macondista, and once you’re a Macondista you’re always a Macondista. That means writers are able to come back year after year. A Macondo workshop in action is not just a selection of seven to ten workshoppers and one leader. There’s three workshops taking place simultaneously and potentially 100 Macondistas coming back each year. As of now we have 175 previous participants from all the way back to when the program was started by Sandra Cisneros in 1998.
Youth programming is a large part of the Guadalupe’s focus. As Deputy Director of Education, you’re responsible for the many programs that the Guadalupe puts on for kids. What are some of the programs that you’re most proud of?
There are two programs that I’d like to highlight. One is the Museums Connect Project, which is a state department-funded project through the American Alliance of Museums, which administers grants to organizations that partner with organizations outside of the country. In our case we’re the host organization and our partner organization is the Museum of Contemporary Art (MACAY) in Merida, Mexico. We’re halfway through a project with them that involves ten students in each country working with three professional artists to answer the question, “What feeds us?”
In San Antonio the kids have made an effort to represent their thoughts on what nourishes them and have gone out to get a cross-section of the city’s opinions on this question. At the same time, the students in Merida, Mexico are doing the same thing through the MACAY; they’re also exchanging thoughts about what the question means to each culture as well. Next they’re going to create an installation piece that represents their conclusions and conclusions from the interviews they’ve conducted.
In May and June both groups of students will be traveling. Initially, MACAY will come to San Antonio and in June our group will travel to Merida, Mexico. This really attends to a need to give kids an experience related to professionalizing their craft, as far as visual arts is concerned. At that age—our kids are 16-17 years old, and the Merida students are 18-20—being able to show your work in a museum is a great experience. Not all of them will become professional visual artists, but this experience will certainly provide some of them with indications about if this is really what they want to do with their lives.
Another program that is special to me is Teen Arts Puentes Project (TAPP), which uses the arts to get kids to engage critically with what’s around them. TAPP is a theatre program, but it’s more about process than product. The kids do learn acting skills and get to act on stage, but before they do that they engage with issues here in San Antonio and the nation. Recent examples of those subjects include gender issues, being a Latina in San Antonio, health, poverty, or recognizing historic figures such as Emma Tenayuca or Willie Velásquez. TAPP students then work with their peers to learn about those subjects, and to do this effectively they need to educate themselves and position themselves within that context. It’s not about Guadalupe or the instructor giving them a position; it’s up to them to come up with diverse positions on one issue. Once they’ve done that, they take those ideas and write a script, ultimately bringing their ideas about the issue to fruition with a finished theatrical presentation.
There’s another program, called the Escuela Project, that’s similar to the work you did in Spain with the Yehudi Menuhin Foundation.
That program’s dear to my heart. It allows us to insert Latino artists of all disciplines into San Antonio classrooms. These artists partner with a teacher in elementary, middle, or high school and do a workshop that uses the arts for whatever objective the teacher would like. That means it might be a math and dance class. It might be a combination of science and visual arts. It might be theater and social studies. It might even serve as a testing proposal: “My kids are really weak in math. How can we make a curriculum that’s fun, engaging, and has an emotional component?” The arts engage us emotionally, and that helps us remember more. So the question becomes, how can we use the emotional artistic experience to engage children with the issues that teachers have proposed? This program is really important in general, but for children who come from at-risk situations, where they’re dependent on school for all of their educational experiences, bringing in an artist that can give them diverse experiences and show them different role models is very important.
What are some of the rewards and challenges of working in San Antonio’s West Side neighborhood?
A long-lasting challenge for the organization is how we can use the arts to improve peoples lives, to nourish them, to present to them different visions of life, and be a role model for that kind of interaction. How can we do that when there are so many other issues on the table? We make an earnest effort to engage people through different activities and programs, and we have a diverse audience of Latinos from all over the San Antonio area, from many socio-economic backgrounds. When we talk about our immediate neighborhood, we do programming that’s free with content that’s culturally relevant, and some of those events are really successful. But it’s a challenge to create opportunities that mix the publics. Museums Connect is a program that works. When we bring in teens from different parts of the city to engage with each other through the arts, they find the things they have in common, not their differences. Still, at the end of the day, sometimes we hit the nail on the head and other times we have to go back to the drawing board.
How would you define the current state of Latino arts in the US?
From a general cultural arts perspective, there were moments were our organizations were extremely well-funded, manned with a lot more staff, and able to attend to all artistic disciplines with more activities. Now that unfortunately isn’t the case around the nation. Having said that, with our population explosion, the waking of the Latino giant, we’re coming around to a moment when we really have to change our perspective.
There are continuous struggles, but we just need to push forward. We certainly could still spend our time centered on respecting our traditions, but we have to make sure we’re preparing young Latinos for future careers in the arts by giving them the skills they need. This includes training related to the “traditional,” but also includes training that allows Latinos entry into contemporary artistic vocabularies and skills. There’s a lack of that. Though, other organizations are doing that work too. The National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures is at the cutting edge of preparing young Latinos for leadership positions. Like them, we need to think long-term and prepare young people for the future. What follows from that is the issue of artistic quality. We can’t just say “Oh it’s Latino art,” and that’s enough. We need to be demanding of ourselves so that our work can stand in the mainstream with the same quality, the same production standards, as other populations.
While we’re talking about the future, what are some specific plans that you have for the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center?
We need to increase the visibility of all the things that we do. People who know us because of CineFestival don’t necessarily know that we provide art education or that we have a film class. Those that come for Dance Academy might not attend our Tejano Conjunto Festival in May. We’re doing different activities that are all culturally relevant to different Latinos, but people still need to understand that we have a holistic approach to Latino art and the broad diversity that exists.
As far as education is concerned, there’re a lot of things that we need to do in the future. We’re exploring ways we can engage our immediate community, which might be through art, but providing ESL classes or a GED class. We’re open to creating new entry points into our organization and we’re always asking: “How can we create a space for people to make what they want?”
How do you define success for the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center?
For me, art is at its best when it confronts us emotionally. That confrontation can be used for education, but it’s also a profound experience that we all need to have. We’re looking to create as many instances of that experience as possible so that people can rejoice in their cultural heritage and see successful models of Latino arts in dance, film, visual arts, and writing. At the core of that, we’re looking to establish a moment of emotion, pride, and satisfaction. For example, when we have an academy recital, and the children go to our historic theater and get up on the stage, it’s not about them achieving artistic excellence at that moment; it’s about being together and rejoicing in the learning process. That’s the definition of success for me.