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Concrete = Canvas: Project Buenos Aires

Project Concrete Equals Canvas. Street Art. Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo courtesy by Callie Humphrey)

Buenos Aires is not Chicago and Chicago is not Buenos Aires. Yet these two cities are connected in a strange way by a set of bleeding heARTS. Callie Humphrey and I met during an installation of a show about street art and graffiti art back in September of 2010. Realizing that we both had similar interests, we decided to keep our elbows within reach.

Last week via Skype, Callie indulged me with amazement by detailing the progress of her public art project Concrete = Canvas, which is set to launch in coming weeks in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The C=C Kickstarter campaign ends this week and funds from the campaign will be used to supplement expenses for the first C=C project, “Project Buenos Aires: From Concret to Canvas.”  Meet Callie Humphrey, the genius creative mind behind Concrete = Canvas, “Transforming concrete jungles into vibrant urban canvas, one building, one city, at a time.”

Callie, how is Buenos Aires? You have been down there for a few months now for the launch of your project Concrete = Canvas. Yes?

I have been here for two months. It is amazing! I love it! It is an amazing energy. It is just so open right now, creatively. I feel like I can do more here than any other city that I could have gone to for this project.

How long are you planning on pursuing the launch of your project in Buenos Aires?

I have a ticket from Rio back to L.A in mid-May but I am trying with all of my might to not take it and figure out a way to stay down here. There are a couple of job opportunities that I am trying to assess out. There is so much that is happening down here, I think I’ll figure out a way for it to work. As of now I am at least here another two months. If we can raise enough money through Kickstarter I can stay and keep doing this project.

What is your project Concrete = Canvas all about?

So far since I have been down here it has been all fundraising, doing artist research, location scouting and working with local agencies and arts organizations. There have been no executed projects yet. The first one is happening the second weekend of April and that is lead by an artist from Denver who is working down here named Mitchell Price. We are going to be collaborating with a ton of other local artists basically to create these stencils of guardian angels. We are working with the homeless population around the city and some other neighborhoods and we are going to be spray-painting these guardian angels above their makeshift homes, where they sleep at night. So obviously part of the preparation of this project is going to be talking to these people, establishing a relationship with them, making sure that they are excited about it and making sure that they want us to be there.

Project Concrete Equals Canvas. Street Art. Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo courtesy by Callie Humphrey)For the next three weeks or so we’ll be picking all of the locations, talking to people, getting the stencils cut and trying to secure some sponsorships from paint companies. Then we’ll be holding a stencil workshop with this organization called Graffiti Mundo. They have been super helpful with trying to put us in touch with the right people. We are going to put street teams together and in the middle of the night we are going to go around the city and basically drop angel bombs all over Buenos Aires. That is going to be the first part—establish the organization’s presence in the city. After that, we’ve got several other things in the works including very site-specific murals in some of the fringe communities and we are working with several different artists.

Right now we are looking for locations that would give an opportunity to work on several murals sort of in the same area so we can have input from several different artists affecting one single community. We’ll be staging events there during the duration of the execution of the mural for a day or two including local musicians, food, workshops and interviews with the artists, collaborations with the community members and kids teaching them how to paint and mark up portions of the wall and be involved. One of the criteria for choosing the artist that we are working with is the openness for collaboration and to really be able to articulate their artistic process.

We want it to be an informative thing to the community members and a peek into the creative process that a lot of times people do not have access to. We want to be working with artists that are interested in working with other communities and development and hosting this stage for dialog about the arts and about visual expression. I had a really great meeting with this artist from Columbia this morning this really young guy who is so enthusiastic and I was telling him that our money from Kickstarter wasn’t going to be coming in until April and he said, “Well that is okay lets just do something right away I mean I am going down to this neighborhood in La Boca today. And there is this community center and they want me to paint. We don’t need money we just have our bueno onda, which means ‘good vibes’ here.” My experience so far has been just that. Everything is just bueno onda, everybody is an artist here, everybody wants to create, everybody wants to get involved. It is not about the money they’re making or not making—it is about expressing yourself and working with other people. I am just constantly amazed at the audacity and creativity of these people down here. No matter where they come from it is all about just doing what they want to do. The money will come and it all works out in the end. I don’t know what I expected down here but it is just a different vibe in its entirety.

Project Concrete Equals Canvas. Street Art. Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo courtesy by Callie Humphrey)

That is really bold of you to start a project in a city that you have never been to before.

I actually didn’t know anybody down here either when I came and people would ask me what I am doing down here and I would say, “Well I am here to start this arts organization and we are launching the first project down here.” And they would say, “But we don’t get it so does your boyfriend live here?” And I would say, “No I don’t have a boyfriend.” And they would respond with, “Who are you staying with and what are you actually doing?” And I would say, “No that is what I am actually doing.” And they would ask, “So do you have a place to live?” And I would say, “I’ll find a place.” Everybody would look at me like I had five heads.

I guess I just sort of always had this sense that everything was going to work out and it has. Everything that has happened since I came here is just confirmation that I am in the right place at the right time because without even trying I feel like all of these wonderful people have just fallen into my lap. Everybody is so thrilled and I have gotten such a great response. It is funny because I don’t even feel like I am working here. There are people here that have tools and they just need somebody to implement things and get the organizational part done. Essentially, that is what this organization functions as; it is just the agency behind getting a ton of bodies together and making shit happen.

What was your initial inspiration to start this project and how did it develop?

It started from a conversation that I had with this guy named Michael Lindenmayer of The Caregiver Relief Fund who I sort of thought was going to be more of a collaborator in the beginning but he definitely just planted this seed in my head. I was working in a restaurant in Chicago applying for internships and entry-level positions and it was so mundane. I just graduated from Columbia and I was super excited, was super inspired and then I spent almost a year working in a restaurant wondering why I had just taken out one hundred thousand dollars in student loans for an education that was never going to give me a job that could possibly ever pay those back. It was a frustrating time.

Concrete Equals Canvas. Project Buenos Aires. (Photograph courtesy by Callie Humphrey)So this guy Michael told me that he knew this wasn’t really “me” working in this restaurant and asked me what I “really” would like to be doing and what my goals were. I told him that I had curated a show at Columbia College and really liked the idea of curating. So he asked me if I had ever thought about taking my traditional ideas outside of the box regarding curating outside of the traditional white space. Sao Paolo for example (the city where Michael is from), is a huge cultural hub. This city’s buildings were built with out windows in their stairwells so they have two absolutely flat concrete walls on every building. They had recently outlawed public billboards and advertisements so there are absolutely no visual stimuli on the walls. So basically it is like this blank canvas. So he said to me, “What if you thought about curating a city instead of just curating a traditional small gallery space?”

So that is kind of where the idea and inspiration came from and it became a new avenue of thought for me. I had never really saw before how education and the arts could combine themselves together like that. The next morning I bought the domain name ConcreteEqualsCanvas.com and for the next six months in Chicago I just sort of wrote out different proposals and different organizational charts as well as many lists and a manifesto. And I just sort of taught myself how to fill in all those missing pieces that I wasn’t necessarily trained at. Things just sort of happened in my life that just lead me away from Chicago.

I had applied for the Propeller Fund, which helped me really articulate my ideas because I had to submit a thorough proposal. I worked with several people to help me edit it and look over what I was doing and it just sort of evolved naturally. In August 2010, I decided that I was going to move from Chicago back to my parent’s house to save money in order to move to Argentina. I don’t know where Argentina came from I just knew that I always wanted to come down here. I felt a little bit insecure about traveling to Sao Paolo, Brazil as a single woman—and I don’t speak a word of Portuguese. Brazil (right now) sort of has a reputation of not being a super safe place.

I decided to come here and I worked my ass of for six months to save a ton of money. That is the money that I have been spending on different promotional stuff, the website, stickers made and business cards made and developing my Kickstarter website. I have been working from that and artists and organizations have been just falling in my lap. This next month or two we are planning on getting a ton of stuff done down here. We are working with photographers and videographers to make something to show the world to have some evidence of the projects. It has been really rewarding so far but no paintings are on the wall just yet.

Project Concrete Equals Canvas. Street Art. Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo courtesy by Callie Humphrey)

Are all the artists you are working with graffiti and street artists?

No actually the lead artist Price has never done any street art, graffiti or murals. In his proposal for the idea he sent me these beautifully rendered drawings of these angels and now he is working with some of the bigger street artists and taking his sketches over to them to figure out how to translate his more traditional works into something that can be cut on a stencil. The other guy Juan only works with spray paint. A lot of them are muralists and a few of them are graffiti artists.

How is street art and graffiti art received in a city like Buenos Aires?

It is interesting because the terms down here are so different for street art because it is a more widely accepted process. A lot of the political parties actually pay people to write graffiti and they are basically paid advertisements done with paint. That is how it started down here. They had a huge economic crash and the economy was in a total disaster and I think they went through like five presidents in one year. The whole country was in total upheaval and they had no stability. So what happened instead of the political messages because many people felt that they were not being heard by their government sort of became just painting pictures. The idea was just to paint to change the vibe to create this bueno onda that they had lost through this economic disaster. And through that people just started making a name for them through this street art scene.

Project Concrete Equals Canvas. Street Art. Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo courtesy by Callie Humphrey)

Because it was so generally accepted they didn’t have to worry about painting something really quickly and throwing up this simple stencil because they were afraid of being arrested. Everything became murals because they were allowed time and they could sit there and actually paint on these walls and buildings as if they were in their own studio. There is just a really rich street art culture here. There is definitely still vandalism and graffiti and a lot of tags but there is also this unwritten law that there are a few street artists in particular that you just don’t tag over their work. They are respected enough where people know that what they create are pieces of artwork. It is respected as a piece of artwork and not just a territorial signature and graffiti is very much territorial.

It is very different here; there are graffiti and street art tours that organizations are making money off of because there is so much profound artwork. Some of these artists are painting these huge walls – several a month. It is just incredible stuff and I was really inspired when I went around and looked at the stuff that has happened here and I feel that it is not possible in other places because of the fact that it is illegal.

I often wonder what Chicago would look like if we didn’t have such strict regulations in place prohibiting street art and graffiti art. I dislike looking at advertisements every day. Rather, I would choose to look at imagery that inspires me instead of imagery that is put there to influence my spending habits.

Project Concrete Equals Canvas. Street Art. Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo courtesy by Callie Humphrey)It is a powerful thing. You walk down the street and you think you are on your normal commute and then you see this enormous painting. These same artists that are painting on the streets own galleries, work as architects and are selling their work. They are trained, educated and really talented. It is just so wonderful that these artists are able to make a living off of their art and share it with the community and everybody on the street that doesn’t have the 5,000 pesos to buy a small painting from a gallery. So it is really a way to expand the level of access of your work. It is great for the artists, people and communities.

How do you see your organization growing long-term?

Right now the organization has sort of become its own beast and is discovering its own brains and eyes and soul. I would love to be able to take this organization all over the world but the funding is really what will determine the future of this project. Eventually, I would love to be able to see it function on its own and send out project managers to wherever the projects are happening. That will all be determined by what happens here. Right now it is one building at a time.

Do you think you will ever do a project in the States?

Right now that will largely be shaped by personal choices because as of this moment the organization is attached to me. I have San Francisco on my radar and Oakland is just a major target for us because there is a lot of opportunity there. It is a very innovative city. Detroit, Michigan is also another city that I am considering.

Have you had any situations where people were a little hostile to your project?

Project Concrete Equals Canvas. Street Art. Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo courtesy by Callie Humphrey)A lot of people just sort of look at me like I am crazy. It hasn’t been whether they are being receptive but more of a misunderstanding. For instance, this 80 year old artist living here in La Boca who is a revolutionary anti-Imperialist, started the first Rock n’ Roll magazine down in Buenos Aires in the 60s, was a comic artist and a really great artist that I was lucky enough to be invited to his home by my roommate. He just sort of looked at me like this young girl from the States and generally he wouldn’t allow anyone from America in his house. He felt like he must have missed something because what would a young America be doing here wanting to work on something like Concrete = Canvas?

I don’t know it is hard when I am faced with those very basic questions like, “Why am I doing this?” It just comes down to my love for humans and creative potential and to see other peoples’ expressions. Art is the language I speak. I wish I could come down here and give everybody the medical attention and food and money they need to sustain their communities but I don’t have those tools. I have the tools that I have been given and the tools that I studied, which is art. I can organize art. I can guide the troops and make it happen and that is what I am trying to do here. Ultimately, it is about figuring out how to translate that to people. Once I explain myself and they think they trust me, everything is really wonderful and they all want to participate.

One last question, how are you living?

Concrete Equals Canvas. Callie's Apartment. (Photo Courtesy by Callie Humphrey)I am living in a house in San Telmo, which is super Bohemian in a real sense of the word. It has a lot of old Colonial architecture that is semi-dilapidated, which I find beautiful. I am living in a converted old house with 8 other people including myself, a French girl and guy, a Brazilian chick and three Germans and I am also living with a Norwegian artist. We all cook together and speak in like five different languages. We drink mate and hang out and it is a really cool environment and nothing like I have ever experienced before. This was the cheapest apartment that I had seen so far and it was the best one. The room wasn’t even ready yet because they were building out a mezzanine loft area so they can put my bed upstairs and have a ladder. So I helped them paint and build out the space and they put me in a place for free for two weeks and I helped them build out my bedroom.

That sounds amazing and great Callie! It seems like everything is falling into place for you. We wish you the best of luck with everything.

Thank you for thinking of me!

For more information about Concrete = Canvas go to the official website.

For more information about the Project Buenos Aires: From Concrete to Canvas Kickstarter campaign go to the Kickstarter page.