Courtney Bowles and Mark Strandquist (The People’s Paper Co-op) Workshops


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Goal: Courtney and Mark were invited to be artists on this project for their deeply-rooted social practice art. Leading the first series of workshops with project collaborators, they set the foundation for artist’s engagement with the Syrian and Iraqi families that committed to the project. They created activities—at times painful and at times uplifting—that allowed collaborators to share their pasts, presents, and collectively imagine their futures.


They will be creating a variety of books out of these workshops, including a codex of poetry on collaboratively-made paper and other items using a combination of writing, photography, and videography. One of the main pieces they will create is a resource guide filled with information that collaborators wish they had known or had when they first got here. This English/Arabic resource guide will be collectively made with collaborators with the input of resettlement agencies in Philadelphia. It will be printed for NSC and HIAS to be able to provide to new refugees to Philadelphia, recognizing there are fewer numbers of refugees being admitted into the US, particularly who are Arabic speaking or from Muslim-majority countries. The resource guide will have the potential to be reprinted in other languages as well.

Workshop 1:

Every workshop is a family affair. Each selected collaborator was free to bring the entire family, so often spouses and children were there and/or participated. Courtney and Mark began by dividing the group into two—collaborators and family members—and facilitated story-circles simultaneously. This was followed by a mapping exercise about the project that looked at content, audience, reach, and product collectively. They used worksheets to guide everyone through a set of questions that led into an exercise about skills and interests. Mark photographed people acting out how they would like to use that skill in Philadelphia and they were printed. Using transparency, they drew out the rest of the image they were acting out with an accompanied statement. These are all used to inform the resource guide.

Workshop 2:

Courtney and Mark continued to use photography in this workshop, this time having collaborators act out different words they wished they had known, were confused by, or surprised by when arriving in the U.S. They also took photographs of everyone’s hands that will be used with poetry about the past, present, and future that can be remembered and seen in the hand. Collaborators were given disposable cameras and asked to photograph their lives and bring the camera back later.

Workshop 3:

This workshop included both a reflection and critique, as well as a process of renewal. Collaborators were given back images that were made by Courtney and Mark based on the responses to questions in previous weeks. Everyone had a chance to comment on the content and composition of the images and what they represented. They brought “news” that depicted and reinforced nasty stereotypes for each collaborator to write about an incident in which they experienced discrimination in their lives because of where they are from. This was an emotional exercise that included sharing the experience with the group, if one was comfortable, and then immediately ripping it up into a bin. The act of ripping the paper filled with negativity in a shared experience was a source of collective healing and health. After ripping the paper, Courtney led the group in making new usable paper that will be used to display the collective poem created from worksheets that used the five senses to describe home.

Workshop 4:

The last workshop happened the day after the U.S. bombed Syria and there were a lot of mixed emotions felt by all involved with the project for various reasons. Everyone was asked to address a letter to someone that expressed their personal feelings/emotions about the state of relations in the world, particularly as it relates to U.S.-Arab relations. Each person read their letter or poem out loud in a circle, if they desired. The sharing ended with holding hands and repeating together:Friends, Peace, Sanctuary. It was a powerful moment in which the group bonded together even though disparate views were expressed. The second part of the workshop included reviewing the rough draft of the resource guide. Omran—the son of one of the collaborators—read the poem created from the words of the collaborators to the group. This workshop took place at the Parkway Central Library on Vine Street, a generous partner in programming and providing Summer 2019 exhibition space.

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