It's only been a year since Oolite Arts launched the Ellies, a grant program that funds work by local artists, but already the results are impressive.
“The first year results of the Ellies have surpassed our expectations,” says Dennis Scholl, president and CEO of Oolite Arts, formerly known as ArtCenter/South Florida. “We knew how much our visual arts community had grown, and we thought the city was ripe for this type of awards program, yet we had no idea that over 500 artists would apply.”
Named for Oolite Arts’ founder Ellie Schneiderman, the program offers funding for Miami-Dade visual artists and art teachers. In the inaugural year, 44 working artists received grants, and this year’s award winners will share up to $500,000 in financial support. Applications for the 2019 awards are now open, and artists have until May 20 to apply.
“We want artists to use the Ellies to take chances, to grow, and most importantly, to elevate their careers,” says Scholl. “Based on last year, I am confident our artists will achieve that.”
So, what are some of last year’s winners doing with their grants? Their projects, which span a variety of mediums, couldn’t be more different or more fascinating.
Working with charcoal was nothing new for Gonzalo Fuenmayor, but winning an Ellies Award helped him scale up his ambitions — literally. His two massive drawings, which will make their West Coast debut in San Francisco’s Dolby Chadwick Gallery May 2, measure about 12 feet wide and eight feet high apiece, and took more than two months to make.
Fuenmayor has long been interested in drawing Victorian-era, Rococo-style rooms, “as a way to explore how power is camouflaged,” he says. The gilded, decorative ornamentations of a palace room, for instance, can act as a sort of disguise, masking an uglier truth. “For those rooms to gain so much power, perhaps there was exploitation, colonization, and very questionable dynamics in other parts of the world,” he says. Working in black and white, the Colombian-born artist also hopes to challenge stereotypes about Latin American artists — like the expectation that they always use a palette of bright colors in their work.
“We’re always struggling between negotiating time, money, and studio time,” says Fuenmayor of receiving his grant. “The Ellies was a blessing in the sense that it provided the resources to pay my rent, buy materials, and just focus on making the work.”
Project: Vivarium Meconium Laboratory
Franky Cruz didn’t set out to have a butterfly lab as an artist’s studio, but when a YouTube video about healing broken butterfly wings piqued his interest, there was no turning back. That video led to a performance piece, which led to an exhibition, which became a whole process of catching and releasing butterflies and bringing them into his studio. It was there he discovered that the butterflies secrete a pigmented substance called meconium when they emerge from their chrysalises. “I decided to slip watercolor paper under there and start collecting it, like collecting abstract data,” Cruz says. “Each splatter is a portrait of the metamorphosis process. I realized the butterflies were already making this beautiful abstract painting.” In this way, his work is a collaboration with them.
Cruz started with Monarch and Painted Lady butterflies, and estimates that his first two paintings featured secretions from about 420 of the insects. He’s since expanded the species he works with, focusing particularly on butterflies native to the Miami area. He raises the caterpillars from freshly hatched larvae through their metamorphoses, and then releases them in community gardens, often partnering with neighborhood groups and local schools. Funding helps keep his lab active, and the money from the Ellies grant also allowed him to set up at the Spinello Projects’ Free! art fair in Brickell City Centre last December, turning his process into a sort of performance art.
Above all, the work comes from curiosity, respect, and appreciation for the natural world. “My process now is the most honest to the kid in me,” he says, “the curious kid that would walk around and look under rocks and seek out these other worlds.”
Project: Water Rights
Last Memorial Day weekend, Johanne Rahaman had a plan: She would launch “Water Rights,” her installation exploring black history and its relationship to water, by displaying the photographs on a floating LED barge, which normally projects advertisements for alcohol, club promotions, and shops. An unexpected storm forced her to cancel, but this year she’ll use her Ellies funding to bring the floating show to life on May 25.
Part of a larger project called BlackFlorida, “Water Rights” travels through history from the transatlantic slave trade to segregation to the present day, using Rahaman’s photography along with archival shots she’s compiled. “It’s a combination of all these things,” she says. “To be able to access water, to counteract that narrative that black people can’t swim or won’t swim, to look at how swimming pools are still segregated to this day in some neighborhoods. I use a lot of this imagery to tell that story of where we were then and where we are now, and how we continue to show up to the beach, because to be black and proud of it is an act of resistance.”
For Rahaman, the topic has personal resonance as well: Raised in Trinidad’s Laventille Hills, “I grew up with a view of the ocean,” she says, “even though it’s one of the poorest neighborhoods with the highest crime rates.” More recently, people with higher incomes have been trying to purchase the property from those in the area.
When Rahaman learned about the LED trucks and barges, it felt like the perfect platform for her show, allowing her to challenge the traditional narratives created by the flashing ads. Since last year, she’s used the trucks to take her show through the streets of Wynwood, Overtown, and South Beach, and more travel plans are in the works for after Memorial Day. Despite last year’s setbacks, “the show must go on,” she says.
Project: Levels and Bosses
You might not expect the worlds of fine art and video games to overlap much, but Leo Castaneda is uniquely positioned to bring them together and explore how they intersect. “Since I was little, I was always drawing characters from comic books and video games, and creating worlds,” he says. About ten years ago, while an undergrad at a conceptual art school, he started exploring the structure of games from the early ‘90s in which players progress from one level to the next, passing through a series of environments. “I thought that would be a good way... to work across any image, and absorb film theory and art history and video game history, and basically have this progression hierarchy where I could explore anything,” he says.
What started as a painting and drawing series eventually grew into the basis for an actual video game, and despite his mostly fine-arts background, Castaneda began teaching himself how to build one. He found out about the Ellies after becoming a resident artist at Oolite, and the funding he’s received has helped him get more training. He’s attended two video game conferences and even flew a programmer to Miami to work on the game for a week.
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He’s also learned more about what video game creation really entails, which is helping him think critically about his process, intentions, and next steps. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to combine all the concepts and all the potential of the game,” he says. “I realize there’s so many different possibilities of what a game could be, but also so many possibilities for what video game development could be.”
Ideally, Castaneda envisions his work as a game people will play at home and possibly also interact with in an exhibit. He also hopes the project will introduce something new to both gamers and art enthusiasts, and challenge their expectations about one another. “Many times even people that are into artsy video games just think of fine art as pretentious or inaccessible,” he says, “so it would be nice to find a balance there. They have a lot to offer each other.”
Find more information about the Ellies winners and this year’s application at theellies.org. Applications will be accepted through 6 p.m. Monday, May 20.
Correction: This post has been updated to correct the name of the area of Trinidad where Johanne Rahaman was raised.