Art will be in full bloom Friday at the Access Center Gallery. The downtown space will present the first display of “1,000 Wildflowers and the Women of Arvin,” a three-year community art project made possible in part by the Arts Council of Kern.
But before we get too far afield, take note that the name is a bit optimistic. Although artists/project coordinators Michelle Glass and Hataya Tubtim have worked tirelessly with a sewing community that stretches from the Kern farm town south to Pasadena, the current tally is around 500. An additional 200 stories, which provide the template for the intricate hand-embroidered poppies, have been collected and work will continue through the year.
“After awhile it got easy to get the designs,” said Tubtim, who with Glass reached out to residents at community centers, libraries, churches, classrooms and homes.
But it was slow-going work in 2013 when the pair started looking for life tales from women in the community. Both from Southern California — Glass lives in Santa Paula, Tubtim in Los Angeles — the duo first came to Arvin in 2011 to bid on a public art project in a park. Although that didn’t work out, the artists undertook their community engagement project under the DeColores banner.
Drawing inspiration from residents who attended workshops, the pair constructed 27 triangular canvases made from sail cloth, stretched over triangular frames fitted with magnets. Community members then embellished the canvases with collages of their families, histories, memories, and symbols of Arvin.
In 2013, Glass and Tubtim, bolstered by the enthusiasm of the Arvin residents with whom they had connected, developed the “Wildflowers” project. Then a motivated group of women, who had already started their own Zumba group based on the lack of exercise options in town, wanted to do a sewing project.
Inspired by the poppies that once populated the hills of Arvin, the pair took to drawing stories to illustrate wildflowers in fabric. The poppies reflect individual experiences of “multi-generations of mothers, wives and daughters of Arvin.” They are drawn either from the subject themselves or family members.
People started with a template asking for a memory, wish or description of their life. Tubtim and Glass provided prompts for those who wanted to focus their story. Then people were able to draw up to four designs for the petals, which would be stitched by the artists or their sewing groups.
Participants range in age from as young as 6 to a woman in her 80s. Tubtim said some had to be coaxed to share.
“We would ask people and they would hesitate, saying ‘My English isn’t very good.’ So we have bilingual flowers, flowers in Spanish. ... My Spanish has improved a lot over this last year.”
Most of the sewing was done by a group of 10 women in Arvin, six in Pasadena, Tubtim, Glass and fellow collaborator Shatto Light.
When interest grew beyond the town, the pair extended the project to southern Kern County. And the pair found a universality in the stories, which touch on issues such as immigration, family life, drought and pesticides in food, that they continued to think bigger.
“This is beyond Arvin,” Glass said. “This is our California story.”
So in December, the exhibit, which the duo said will grow as they complete more flowers from the remaining stories, will have another display at Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park. The gallery offers rotating exhibitions by Latino artists as well as workshops.
“It’s an opportunity for us to expand the conversation,” Glass said. “We think we’re so far removed from a place like Arvin. But we connect in terms of our humanity.”
At today’s reception at the Access Center, Glass and Tubtim expect some of the women who helped with the project to come out and see their work, which will be mounted on a curved wall, mimicking a hillside of flowers. In addition, a project documentary by Light will play on a loop in the center’s meeting room. And the community art won’t necessarily end with this project.
“If there is interest, we don’t see an end date to it,” Glass said.