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Arts & Culture

Two Art Labs Examined: "Picnic" And "(In)Visible"

Alexander and Savannah Jarman stand at the opening to their Hillcrest studio and hold sections of their picnic blanket.
Angela Carone
Alexander and Savannah Jarman stand at the opening to their Hillcrest studio and hold sections of their picnic blanket.
Two Art Labs Examined: "Picnic" And "(In)Visible"
If you ever wondered what San Diego’s visual artists are up to, this is your weekend to find out. A contemporary art fair inspires over 150 local artists to set up satellite events showcasing their work. Two of these events focus on San Diego’s civic life.

On a recent Saturday, I visited the studio of Alexander and Savannah Jarman, the brother and sister team behind one of this weekend's most engaging Art Labs.

The Jarman studio is actually a garage, stuffed with fabric, debris, a shopping cart and other found items. Jarman says they joke that the studio "is becoming more of like a hoarder shack of all the found objects that we’re holding onto that will one day, we tell ourselves, become art pieces."

One of those art pieces is about to become a reality. The Jarmans are constructing a 1,000 foot picnic blanket that will be rolled out on the lawn of the Hilton Bayfront in downtown San Diego this Sunday. The Hilton is also hosting this weekend’s Art San Diego Contemporary Art Fair.

The Jarmans’ picnic is one of 18 satellite events, known as Art Labs, taking place during the art fair. Their Art Lab is appropriately called "Picnic."

They offer to show me part of the picnic blanket (it's in sections) and Savannah proceeds to wrap her small frame around a massive scroll of fabric and lug it outside. This is only one small section of their picnic blanket but it has to be unrolled in the parking lot where there’s enough room. As it spreads out, one can see it’s made up of things like jeans, beach towels, colorful silk dresses.

"It’s conceptually important that everyone understands it’s entirely found fabric from San Diego neighborhoods," explains Alexander. "And that could be dumpsters and alleyways. It could be the box that someone puts on their front steps that says, 'FREE. PLEASE TAKE.' So the entire blanket is made up by the citizenry of San Diego."

But for the Jarmans, the blanket is just the platform. The art lies in the dialogue and social interaction that will happen on the picnic blanket this Sunday.

Alexander says he was interested in exploring what the intersection of social engagement and visual art looks like.

"And so we want people to come down with a picnic basket and a few friends, be ready to talk to people that they may have never met before, talk about issues that are relevant to them, that are relevant to other people and about San Diego. About their own lives," he said.

The San Diego Foundation is collaborating with the Jarmans on "Picnic." Representatives from the Foundation will be on hand this Sunday to spark discussion about San Diego's civic life. They'll be recording interviews with those at the picnic, asking questions like: "What should San Diego look like in 50 years?"

Another Art Lab is hoping to engage the San Diego citizenry on the topic of homelessness. A multimedia installation called "(In)Visible" will be on view in the lobby outside of the Art Fair. It includes audio and large, black and white portraits of 37 homeless men and women. A total of 97 homeless were interviewed for the project.

Bear Guerra is a still photographer who worked on the project with a handful of other artists. Guerra spent six weeks taking portraits of the homeless in downtown San Diego.

In addition to full body shots, Guerra says he has several really tight headshots where you can see everything about a person - their eyes, wrinkles in their face, their hair.

"For me, it’s a pretty powerful experience seeing them, because you can really get a sense of this person," said Guerra.

As people walk through "(In)Visible, they’ll hear the voices of the homeless. The artists Guerra collaborated with interviewed the men and women, asking questions we can all relate to, like: What is your favorite place? What are you most proud of? What were your dreams or hopes when you were a child? Who is your favorite person?

The questions yielded an array of answers. One woman responded by saying, "When I was a kid, I used to dream about flying. About my body flying and being above the earth and just being free from all the pain and agony of the world."

One of the men interviewed shared his frustration at the way homeless are treated. He said, "The problem is this, people see us as outcasts, they treat us like outcasts, so we end up becoming like outcasts."

Guerra told the story of man who transferred here from Mississippi to work for NASSCO.

"He lost his job six months later," said Guerra. "He didn’t know anyone, didn’t have any savings. And one of the things he said, and this is a sentiment echoed by a lot of people we talked to, he feels like people no longer see him as a human. And you know, that kinda breaks your heart."

Guerra says he was continually surprised at what they learned about the men and women living on San Diego's streets.

"I was surprised by how many people were college educated or had some college experience," he said. "How many people had decent paying jobs until recently, how many people are on SSI, disability income, but it’s not enough to rent a place here in San Diego. I was surprised by how many people are living in their cars. I was also surprised at how many families are on the streets these days."

Guerra says he hopes that after seeing (In)Visible, San Diegans might think differently about homelessness and take some active role in finding solutions.

Tune in to San Diego Week at 8pm on KPBS-TV to see an interview with photographer Bear Guerra.

Here's a handy guide to many of the Art Labs happening this weekend that are free.

Last year was the first year the Fair sponsored the Art Labs. Check out some of my photos from last year's event.