Nurturing a Community of Practice with the Joan Mitchell Fellows

A group of over 30 people of various dress, age, and skin tone gather on the steps of a Creole cottage style porch.
Joan Mitchell Fellows, staff, and facilitators at the Joan Mitchell Center, photo by Melissa Dean.

Earlier this month, we shared space with artists from the 2022 and 2023 cohorts of Joan Mitchell Fellows for a three-day convening at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans (June 6-9, 2024). Centering conversations about making and living with intention, the convening was designed to nurture relationships among the Fellows; to introduce skills and frameworks for balancing their professional, personal and creative lives; and to get them thinking about what they most need, want, and have to give to each other and their communities.

The annual Fellows Convening is the cornerstone in the artist engagement component of the Joan Mitchell Fellowship—a five-year program that encompasses long-term financial support, skills development, and community building. While virtual offerings keep the Fellows connected throughout the year, there’s nothing quite like what happens when we can gather in person. We are so grateful to the attending artists for taking time away from their studios, deadlines, and personal lives for three days of culture, exchange, self-reflection, and shared meals.

Shaddai Livingston and Solomon Matthews of Ashé Cultural Arts Center. Photo by Melissa Dean.
Performance by Kumbuka Dance and Drum Collective. Photo by Melissa Dean.

On Friday, June 7, to kick off the convening and welcome the artists to New Orleans, we invited Ashé Cultural Arts Center to curate cultural offerings that reflect the rich diversity of local cultures and histories that meld together in the city. The opening festivities included a ritual performance by Kumbuka Dance and Drum Collective and an indigenous land acknowledgement presented by Scierra LaGarde, a member of the Bayou Lacombe Band of Choctaw.

To break the ice and get the conversation flowing between the Fellows, Solomon Matthews, Ashé’s Community Programs Director, invited the attendees to write two questions for the other artists on a piece of construction paper, make it into a paper plane, write the city they came from on the wing, and fly it across the room. Each artist then picked up a plane and broke into pairs to discuss the questions written on it.

Fellows fly paper planes. Photo by Sarah Dhobhany.

Following this exercise, the group transitioned into a session centered around artist wellness: “Resist Rest Repeat,” led by native New Orleanian multidisciplinary artist Asante Salaam, a former Joan Mitchell Center Artist-in-Residence. Asante reflected: “Art is a calling, not a career. Art is not something you retire from.” Given this reality, and using the framework “resist, rest, repeat,” she invited the Fellows and guest artists from the local community to meditate on what rituals they have or can create to care for themselves and support their creative practices. Asante asked: “What do you want to tell your yet to be born grandchildren about art, rest, and resistance?”

New Orleans-based artists Mama Ausetta Amor Amenjum (left) and Fred Johnston (right) share what resting and resisting means to them. Photos by Melissa Dean.

The responses from artists in the room ranged from questions about what it even means to rest to offerings of self-care practices that have supported individual artists’ practices and lives. Some expressed resistance to the idea of taking a break to rest, feeling called to create and to take advantage of opportunities when they come. Others asserted that self-care can itself be an act of resistance.

Javier Orfón, Demond Melancon, Awilda Sterling, and Chiffon Thomas present their work. Photos by Melissa Dean.

Following these rich and thought-provoking sessions with Ashé, the group began the first of four Fellows Workshare sessions, which were interspersed throughout the Convening. Consisting of five-minute presentations by each of the attending artists, the Workshares are an informal and low-stakes opportunity for the artists to get to know one another through their practices. Many of the Fellows reflected that experiencing each other’s work and hearing about it in the artists’ own words was a highlight of the Convening activities.

Sharon Louden speaks with the Joan Mitchell Fellows. Photo by Melissa Dean.

After a lunch break, the Fellows reconvened for a session with artist and arts consultant Sharon Louden entitled “Needs, Wants & Gives.” Sharon asked the artists to reflect on what sustainability means to them. What do they need? What do they want? And what do they have to give to other artists and their wider community? Louden noted that the more specific we are in answering these questions, the more clearly we can communicate our needs, values, and assets with others in our community.

The Fellows reflected on these prompts and then shared their responses around their tables. Reporting back to the group, some artists noted that the exercise felt difficult, as they were used to putting the needs of others first, or working within the resources available, that it was difficult to parse their needs from their wants.

As the session concluded, Louden advocated for a model of artist exchange in which artists freely communicate their needs, wants, and assets—what they have to offer to others—in this way, breaking away from a mindset of scarcity and competition that the commercial art world can perpetuate to embrace an ethos of abundance and reciprocity.

Café Reconcile's General Manager, Brandy Trepagnier, shares an overview of the non-profit's workplace training program. Photos by Melissa Dean.

That evening, we wound down with dinner at Café Reconcile, a restaurant that operates through a non-profit workforce training model, preparing young adults for careers in the city’s celebrated hospitality industry. The Fellows appreciated learning about the mission of this New Orleans institution from General Manager Brandy Trepagnier—and the food was delicious.

Mikayla Patton, Awilda Sterling, Jacqueline Kiyomi Gork, Kathy Liao and Rocío Rodríguez in discussion.

The Fellows returned to the Joan Mitchell Center on the morning of Saturday, June 8, for day two of the Convening sessions. To start, the Foundation’s Artist Programs team introduced a methodology for peer learning circles. One artist at each table presented a concern to their tablemates and were then instructed to sit back and listen—to receive the feedback and advice of their peers, without responding or evaluating whether or not they would implement it. Coming back together as a group after the break-out discussions, the Fellows shared their thoughts on the methodology and reflected on how they might use this approach in their lives, as a group, and with other artists in their communities to solve problems and seek feedback.

Kathy Liao shares during Sheetal Prajapati's session, "Mapping Your Practice." Photo by Melissa Dean.

Following another round of Fellows Workshare presentations, we welcomed artist and consultant Sheetal Prajapati, Founder of Lohar Projects, to present a session entitled “Mapping Your Practice.” Sheetal introduced a range of mapping and goal-setting exercises designed to help artists reflect on all the roles they play in their lives, how they spend their time, and how they WANT to spend their time. She noted: “Mapping is a tool for maintaining balance.”

Prajapati offered a prompt to the group: “Why are you an artist? What drives you?” The Fellows peppered back responses: Because it’s my liberty. It’s my spirit. It’s the language I speak. It is who I am. Sheetal reflected that the sentiments shared went beyond the pragmatic: “Being an artist is not just a job, so this kind of planning work helps support you as a person, with your art being a part of your life.”

Sheetal Prajapati (right) in conversation with Raheleh Filsoofi. Photo by Melissa Dean.

Among other practical tools, Sheetal led the Fellows through a short-term goal setting exercise, discussing the importance of setting goals that are specific, measurable, and attainable. Sheetal encouraged the artists to write their goals down and return to them regularly, without judgment or guilt. She noted that it’s okay to change goals or timelines, and to give yourself agency and grace as you reassess your priorities.

Joan Mitchell Fellows and staff visit to Prospect site, Nanih Bvlbancha. Photo by Melissa Dean.

As the Convening sessions at the Center concluded, the Fellows split off into groups to take in some of the cultural offerings of New Orleans. These field trips included a visit to the Backstreet Cultural Museum, a haven of history and material culture of New Orleans’ culture bearers, including the Mardi Gras Indian tradition; a tour of the Tina Girouard exhibition at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, presented by the exhibition organizers the Rivers Institute and Amistad Archival Center; and a visit to the Prospect site Nanih Bvlbancha, an earthen mound that honors the indigenous histories of the area. We are grateful to all the institutions who hosted us and shared the context behind their work with our group.

From left: Kalea Cook of Prospect New Orleans and Dr. Tammy Greer share about development of Nanih Bvlbancha; Backstreet Cultural Museum, with Dominique Dilling Francis; Jordan Amirkhani and Jade Flint lead tour of Tina Girouard exhibition at Ogden Museum. Photos by Melissa Dean and Jenny Gill.

We’ve seen that each of the Fellows Convenings are the moments where things start to synergize within the program, the artists, and our team, helping us see what might be possible to achieve together. Our hope for this gathering was that the Fellows would leave with not only actionable steps, some new tools to implement, and maybe one or two new accountability buddies, but also with a little more peace of mind, knowing that there is a community of care and practice to call on when in doubt.

While the Convening only occurs once a year, the tools and frameworks provided at this gathering are foundational content that many of our virtual offerings build upon throughout the program as we form a national community of artists. With that in mind, we will continue to unpack and share out the learnings and “a-ha” moments that surfaced at the Convening over the coming months, recognizing the value that this process of reflection and revisiting may have for the Fellows, as well as for other artists in our broader community, as they work towards sustainability and balance in their lives and creative practices.

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