Adapted from “LISTEN: A Case Study in Socially Engaged Art”

In January 2017, Cal Cullen from Wave Pool and Steven Matijcio invited me to create a work of socially engaged art in Cincinnati.

Dear Caroline Woolard,

The Contemporary Arts Center and Wave Pool Arts Center are working in partnership to pilot a new Socially Engaged Arts program this year for and with the city of Cincinnati, Ohio entitled ‘Shouting Distance.’ This program will bring a prominent artist to Cincinnati to respond to community needs, facilitated in deep partnership with an organization and a specific neighborhood or community.

We’re very interested in your work and were wondering if this might be of interest to you?

A few guidelines to note:

–This project can begin at any time but must be completed by November 1st, 2018.

–Depending on your proposed project, we will work with you to find a compatible community partner and assist in building this connection.

–The final project must have a strong visual presence.

–We have accommodations at Wave Pool for you (or can set up alternative housing if that location doesn’t make sense), but are willing to work with you to figure out how much time you would actually be in Cincinnati for this project.

–At least one artist talk or public performance would be expected.

–We have an honorarium to offer the pilot ‘Shouting Distance’ artist as well as funds for supplies, travel and hospitality, and production/facilitation assistance.

If you are still reading this and are interested, we’d love to invite you to send us any thoughts or ideas you have. We’d be interested in hearing what concepts you’re looking to expand on or if you have something that you’d love to try for which this might be a good fit. By understanding a little bit about the direction you’re interested in heading with your work, we’ll be able to think more deeply about opportunities, histories, and groups here that might be relevant and worth exploring. We’re hoping that we can make this project as constructive and productive for you as it will be for us and the city of Cincinnati.

Thank you so much and we look forward to your reply,

Cal Cullen Executive Director Wave Pool: A Contemporary Art Fulfillment Center

In March 2017, after three or four phone calls with Steven Matijcio from the CAC and Cal Cullen from Wave Pool, I proposed that the group adapt the Center for Urban Pedagogy’s approach to bringing graphic designers and organizations together to support the organization’s graphic design needs. Adapting this approach to socially engaged art means asking local organizations what they want, rather than assuming they want to implement a visiting artist’s ideas. It took us a few months to come to consensus on this approach, and to shift the budget to match it. We hired MC Reitz, a local artist who was excited to facilitate daily engagement with the groups throughout the process, as I am based in New York City. MC's background in community organizing and ongoing work at a local level gave her the ability to engage with people in ways that would be impossible without her support.

asking local organizations what they want, rather than assuming they want to implement a visiting artist’s ideas

In May 2017, I proposed four ideas to local groups aligned with her efforts around economic justice: The Welcome Project, MORTAR, CincyStories, and the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative. The Welcome Project’s mission is “to engage, integrate, and empower marginalized and at risk refugees and immigrants by providing community connections, employment, education and skills training.” MORTAR “exists to ensure that all entrepreneurs and small businesses, regardless of socioeconomic status, gender, race, or background, have an opportunity to participate in the rejuvenation of our city.” Cincy Stories exists “to build community through story. We do this by host- ing live storytelling events, creating people based documentaries and working in neighborhoods to engage communities using the tools of story.” The Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative (CUCI) is a non-profit that “partners with individuals and organizations to create worker-owned businesses that sustain families and help create an economy that works for all.”

I spoke with each group on the phone, first introducing myself and discussing possibilities and requirements for the project, which was commissioned by arts organizations who needed to demonstrate the project’s impact to funders through an arts-based framework. A commissioning organization may support an invisible or less visible process, but always needs a public event, and often physical objects, to photograph and document that the funds were well spent. This project would have to fulfill the requirement for a “strong visual presence,” even though the medium of social engagement is often about building relationships, a process that is not in itself visually compelling.

I then gave the groups a series of options to choose from, based on projects and platforms I had already developed, including a set of tools for listening, a peer learning space, a sculptural installation based on conceptions of time, and a wild card idea that would be developed together, from scratch, and made sure each group knew that they would be paid for their time. The groups then had time to determine which projects, if any, were of interest to them. (A longer version of this idea is here)

A commissioning organization may support an invisible or less visible process, but always needs a public event, and often physical objects, to photograph and document that the funds were well spent.

Here is the email I wrote to the partner organizations, to let them decide if we could work together, given the context, my skills, the schedule, and the budget.

April 30, 2017 Dear Sheryl, MC, Derrick, Bonnie, Mary, Katy, Lela, and Kristen,

I am so grateful for your time and support in speaking to me over the past few weeks. As you know, I am trying to do something that moves between art and social change in Cincinnati, and I would love to hear your feelings about my ideas in progress, if you have time. If you’re too busy, that’s ok!

I am very sensitive to the fact that many of you are overworked and under-resourced in a time of urgent social emergency, so I am offering 3 PROPOSALS for you each to weigh in on, over the next month, from now until June 1.

Please let me know what you think by June 1st, so I can begin to incorporate your feedback to make one project that most people here feel is relevant.

I appreciate any and all feedback by email: or phone 929-522-9064 by June 1. Before I share 3 proposals with you, I want to reiterate the Background, my Skills, the Schedule, and the Budget, below.

If you don’t have time, that is totally fine too. I want to hear from you if you have a strong feeling that one of these ideas is best.

Thanks so much!


PS: I’ve pasted the proposals below and also attached this writing as a PDF, for easy printing.


As you know from our conversations, I have been invited by Wave Pool and the Contemporary Arts Center to do a “socially engaged” art project in Cincinnati. The project should relate to the social issues facing residents today and must have a visual arts component. After I hear from you, I use your feedback to determine which project I feel will be of mutual growth for residents of the area, for each of you, and for the arts organizations. I will try to combine the feedback into one project. That project must be approved by Wave Pool and CAC. The project must also be documented for the funders of this project.



I facilitate the opening of a learning space that runs on barter, training the trainers to run the school using open source software and community organizing skills.

TradeSchool is a non-traditional learning community that runs on barter. We celebrate local wisdom, mutual respect, and the social nature of exchange. It works like this:

1) People offer to teach a class about something they know.

2) They decide on a list of barter items they're interested in receiving. Barter items can be in the form of goods or services, both tangible and intangible. For example: jars, music tips, clothes, vegetables, or help with something like finding an apartment.

3) Students sign up for their class by agreeing to bring something from their list.

You can see the online platform I developed at work here, and the sign up system: (we also have a robust back-end system where teachers propose classes and organizers approve them, as well as an email system to remind students).

You can watch a video about it here:

The groups were most interested in the proposal about communication and listening (in their membership, in their organizations, and between members, organizations, and the public).

This became the actual timeline for our work together.

January–May: Designing the Process of Working Together

  • Conversations with all partners and proposal creation

  • 5 hours of MC's work / 20 hours of Caroline’s work

May–June: Design Questions

  • "Do you want an artist to create an object for listening (or contemplation) in your organization?”

  • To work with: Heartfelt Tidbits (Sheryl), CUCI (Kristen), MORTAR (Derrick)

  • 5 hours of MC's work / 5 hours of Caroline’s work

June–July: Interviews—Specific Questions

  • When you hit obstacles, what is missing in communication? What is your desire for communication?

  • To work with: Welcome Project/Heartfelt Tidbits (Sheryl), CUCI (Kristen), MORTAR (Derrick)

  • MC emphasizes in-person Aug 13–20 meetings and confirms their availability then. $100 per group × 3 groups = $300 / 5 hours of MC's work

July–August: Synthesis of Interviews

  • “What is wanted?” Resonant quotation

  • 5 hours of MC’s work / 3 hours of Caroline’s work

August–August: Week-long Visit

  • “Would this object speak to your desire for, or obstacle to, communication?”

  • Prototyping/dialog all week in gatherings with partners

  • $100 per group x 3 groups = $300

  • 5 hours of MC’s work / 40 hours of Caroline’s work

September–November: First Round of Designs from Caroline

  • 80 hours of Caroline’s work

November–December: First round of Feedback from Partners

  • $100 per group x 3 groups = $300

  • 5 hours of MC’s work / 5 hours of Caroline’s work

December–March: Production of Final Objects

  • 5 hours of MC’s work / 80 hours of Caroline’s work

  • $100 per group x 3 groups = $300

March: Final Presentation/Celebration (In Person, with Caroline)

  • 40 hours of Caroline’s work / 10 hours of MC’s work

  • $100 per group x 3 groups = $300

April: Reflection Document

  • 20 hours of Caroline’s work / 10 hours of Cal, Steven, and MC’s work

MC started by conducting in-person interviews using questions about listening practices that we designed together.

LISTEN — Interviews for Community-Engaged Design of Objects for Listening

Your group’s experience with listening

Was there a moment when people in your group were able to listen to one another deeply enough to change their minds?

If so, what allowed that to happen? Did it have anything to do with a process or a facilitator?

Was there a moment when your group was listened to (by the board / outside group / important figure) deeply enough to change their mind? How did this happen?

If so, what allowed it to happen? Did it have anything to do with a process or a facilitator?


Are you available to meet with Caroline between Aug 14–18? This is the only time she can be here in person between now and the final presentation, so she really hopes you can meet!

What days / times might be good?

Do any of your members / staff create objects / crafts / art? If so, what skills do they have and what kinds of objects do they create? Do you think they’d want to work with Caroline to create an object?

Do you think any of your members / staff would be interested in making objects for listening?


Workshops: making things with Caroline from Aug 14–18!

Paid contract work: Caroline working with members / staff to make things from December–February.

Thank you!!!

MC wrote up key anecdotes from the interviews to assist me when I visited for the first time, in-person, in August. After a week-long visit in August, when the groups brainstormed with me and then confirmed what ideas for tools for listening were most interesting to them, I began to prototype sculptural tools, and to refine these objects in dialog with the partner organizations in the fall and winter.

Each object is a response to an organization’s unique way of listening: a storytelling game using small bronze objects for MORTAR and Cincy Stories, sets of ceramic cups for Welcome Editions, and a card game about cooperation for the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative. The final objects were presented first at the Contemporary Art Center, at a private, intimate event with the participating organizations and people who teach, fund, or participate in socially engaged art in Cincinnati, and again at the Cincinnati Neighborhood Summit, an annual civic engagement event with 400+ attendees.

Each object is a response to an organization’s unique way of listening

The final objects live with the groups, and come with facilitation guides.


Purpose: This teaching tool helps people learn about the ten principles of cooperation.

Timing: 30+ minutes, depending on the group

Participants: 2+ Listening tool: cards

How it works:

  1. The facilitator gathers people and places all ten cards on the table, showing the ten principles of cooperation. Each card has one principle of cooperation on the back of the card, and the definition of that principle on the other side.

  2. The facilitator asks a participant to mix up the cards and pick one.

  3. The participant will read the card they have picked aloud to the group, and talk about what that principle means to them.

  4. The group can talk about how they sense or don't sense that principle of cooperation in their group, and how they might emphasize that principle in their group, even more.

  5. Another participant picks a card, reads it aloud, and talks about what it means to them.

  6. Repeat.


Purpose: This is a game that helps participants get to know one another.

Timing: 30+ minutes, depending on the group

Participants: 2+

How it works:

  1. The facilitator asks the participants to close their eyes as the facilitator buries the objects in the box so that only the spheres are showing.

  2. One participant selects an object and picks it up.

  3. This person tells a story based upon the object they are holding.

  4. Another participant selects an object and tells a story based upon that object.

  5. Repeat.


How it works:

Drink tea with an open heart. Notice that the cups have two sides. When turned over, the underside of the cup becomes a vessel for a flower, a candle, or a water-clock.

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