"What is happening in DC is happening in Chicago, Brooklyn, and Miami. It is artists that turn undesirable spaces into places where people want to be. We have power and agency. I would like to see the DC arts community use that power to create new spaces where we can flourish."
Charles Jean Pierre is an artist working from Union Arts, a studio + retail space currently located at 411 New York Ave NE. Home to Nomad Yard, Mousai House, and much, much, more, the A Creative DC team was in attendance this past Saturday for a conversation about creative S P A C E in Washington, DC (and re: convo, ACDC's Ayana Zaire live-tweeted and Periscoped her perspective). We arrived a little ahead of the gathering and caught up with Charles during installation of "Shelter In Place," above – read on for more about the V E R Y site-specific piece, and his personal take on the creative community's role as the city continues to develop.
I've been showcasing my work in Union Arts consistently for about 8 months. I helped work on some creative programming in the Mousai House and Nomad Yard.
This weekend’s live art installation was the first major sculpture that I created at the Union Arts space.
I LIVED PRIMARILY in NE for the majority of my Artistic career here in the District. I had the opportunity to witness a great amount of development firsthand in Trinidad, Brookland, and Ivy City. I currently live East of the River in Anacostia. January will mark ten years since I moved from Pilsen, which is Chicago's burgeoning art hub.
I CREATE ART that is based in community and education. I create with the intention to reflect, critique, and inspire society. I have a sociology background in addition to arts. I view art creation as a practice that allows me to better explore my existence and connect with community.
I GREW UP creating out of necessity as opposed to creating for arts sake. My large Haitian family was limited on space, so I had to literally configure spaces for myself to grow and play. It was either build out the attic, basement, or space under the staircase or share a bedroom with my great aunt, grandmother, or two sisters. I consistently chose to build. It gave me agency, ownership, and privacy. My first art teacher was a carpenter by trade, so installation art comes naturally to me. I’ve always enjoyed using repurposed and recycled materials to form my art. I believe the interactive components of my art installations are the most meaningful aspect. More and more I am allowing participants to add to the structures and tell their stories. It is a grand exercise in trust of community and disregard of ego. I look forward to constructing larger more visible spaces in the near future.
"The role of the arts and the artist in social justice movements has long been a topic of debate. I recently had the opportunity to contribute to that conversation during the White House National Arts and Youth Justice forum this past October. I see my role as a recorder and an advocate in some cases."
You created an installation downtown for the Justice Or Else! March – can you speak a little about that? I erected two sandstone painted obelisks to capture the energy and vibrations of the 20-year social justice movement through the arts. It was a beautiful day full of positive energy, and the 10ft tall structures on 4ft by 4ft wooden pedestals became living documentation of that spirit. The U.S. National Park Service granted us a permit at John Marshall Park, which was wedged between the Justice or Else March and The Taste of DC. It was the perfect place for an inclusive live art installation. The structures resembled temples of antiquity and were made of a lightweight reflective insulation material that absorbed heat and light.
I set out to create a sanctuary for individuals to reflect on the moment. After bending down to cross the low entryway, visitors rose inside the structure to meditate on four key questions. What is your definition of justice? Where we go from here? What do you fear most? What can we do creatively to facilitate change? The walls inside the obelisks were collaged with information from my personal library that ranged from Egyptology to thinking with the right side of your brain. Participants were given the opportunity to write modern-day hieroglyphs and reflections on the walls of the communal structures. The safe spaces represented self-determination, collective work, peace and solutions. Well over 600 visitors entered the portals.
THE ART INSTALLATION [outside of 411 New York Avenue], titled “Shelter In Place”, was created with repurposed materials that were being thrown out of the Union Arts Space. I wanted to create something beautiful and meaningful for community that highlighted the need for safe creative spaces within our communities. Space is especially limited here in the District. The Ivy City Corridor is not only a home to a number of artists; it also functions as a refuge for a large population of homeless men in the district. I’ve had the opportunity to fellowship with these men and wanted to create something that artistically spoke to the changing dynamics of the community. I’m encouraging artists, visitors, and other displaced individuals to share their stories on the installation’s walls. I would like the piece to serve as a visual record of what is currently happening to the people by the people.
"I would love to see some quality affordable art space throughout the District. I think space, material, and human capital are the three key components of means of production when it comes to arts. If one is missing or out of reach the other two suffer critically. Expensive rents make materials inaccessible and impedes on an artist’s ability to make a sustainable living from his or her craft. It is my opinion when we devalue and or underfund arts by taking away space we are simultaneously underfunding and devaluing community. It is my belief that the arts, aside from religious institutions, are the heart and souls of communities."