It’s satisfying to identify the first seeds of what we become, and to what we commit. The mentor who sowed my life into a fertile ground of art and travel is clear: Uncle Bob gave me my first art history book in 1962 upon return from one of his many international adventures. A Renaissance man, he drew and painted, sang, wrote, and acted in theatre at Ohio State University, where he also professed a seminal marketing history and theories that were shared internationally through his much-translated textbooks. Robert Bartels gave a generous gift to the Columbus Foundation for support of the arts when he passed away in 1989. From our first survey of that art book together until his ultimate departure, he impressed upon me the fun and value of getting out into the world, discovering the differences and similarities between American and other ways of thinking, living and doing.
For those with similar inclinations, one easy gateway to cultural interactions can be found via Sister Cities International, established in 1958 by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Conceived to reroute conflict and misunderstanding, the SCI network of partner cities encourages citizen diplomacy, professional and educational exchanges among individuals and organizations. It has a volunteer/non-profit dynamic that is inclusive and entrepreneurial, so people can take the experiences and educational opportunities as far as they wish. The challenges and benefits are many, but with a formal understanding established through committee work on both sides of the relationship, there are helping hands to be grasped that might not be found during personal travels.
A Table, Tout le Monde!
Facilitation of an art exchange is really not so difficult. My personal approach to project design and management has been akin to planning and hosting a potluck dinner for gourmet chefs: Prepare the kitchen and dining place, select a theme that all can enjoy, invite a good mix of souls that can play well with others (even if they are sometimes known to run with paring knives.) For the Cincinnati gatherings, the smogasbord includes offerings from our seven Sisters: Munich, Germany; Nancy, France; Kharkiv, Ukraine; Liuzhou, China; Gifu, Japan; Taipei Hsien, Taiwan; and Harare, Zimbabwe.
The Invitation to My First Project
A project can be launched by proposal or by invitation. When asked in 1999 by the Munich-Cincinnati Sister Cities Committee to organize a half-dozen Cincinnati artists for a cultural expo in Munich for the Heim und Handwerk (Home and Craft) 2000 conference, it seemed perfectly natural to pitch in. I had just observed earlier that year the quasi-miraculous organization and realization of SCPA’s “Book of Five Rings” tour to Gifu, Japan, masterminded by my old high school classmate and Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati founder, David White. My daughter was enrolled at SCPA in her sophomore year, so as a parent I could volunteer as an assistant to David Warda in his costume and set design shop while the production came to life. Inspired over an entire school year by his Ecology of Design methods, my husband and I joined the 130 students, teachers and other chaperone parents for careful orientation and migration to Gifu for 13 days of performance and cultural touring. Witnessing the protocols and preparations for this highly complex and broadly populated endeavor, Munich’s request for organization of a few local artists for a two-week stint in Germany seemed like a cakewalk.
My previous travel for study and recreation on three continents (including residency in two of them) emboldened me to face the complexities in getting from here to there, lodging comfortably and establishing working agreements. And having already organized hundreds of artists in the TriState for scores of projects during Art on the Square and other commissions, I felt ready to stretch my arms a little longer to embrace our international art “family.” As it turned out, the Munich expo organizers wanted much more than a half dozen artists. They wanted a “sketch” of Cincinnati’s cultural scene, a service normally provided through a city’s department of cultural affairs. (Perhaps you’ve noticed that we have none.) Not wanting to cave in before the challenge, I rallied participants from the Cincinnati Park Board, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the Cincinnati Flower Show, J. Miles Wolf as local photographer, and four porcine ambassadors from the Big Pig Gig (two decorated, two un), just launched back home but with origins in Switzerland. The expo project served as yeast for new relationships, many of which have continued in cooperation to this day with major and minor projects.
Just as a golden, poufy souffle requires quality ingredients, so does an artists exchange. The managing artist partners on each side need to be experienced, well-respected, organized professionals, committed to the project. I ask the Sister City committees to help find the best project manager/artist match in the other country, which is not always easy, because the impulse to volunteerism, so familiar to us, is patently American. A lot of personal investment is required in successful exchanges, with professional stimulation and life experience offered as the only guaranteed returns. Since I am incapable of communicating in anything but English and French, my lead artist partners must either be fluent in English, or able to find a volunteer translator. All participating artists understand that they will either self-fund the project costs on their side, or find sponsors. These points can be stumbling blocks at the very least, and deal breakers at worst. Still, we have a nice slate of accomplishments to report over the past eleven years. The largest projects have cost hundreds of thousands of US dollars (or equivalents matched by the other city) to create, and grant writing for support has been largely successful.
There are a few simple qualifiers for artist participants which help to minimize operational and diplomatic “landmines”: They should manifest 1) excellence in professional practice and product, 2) an active interest in the other culture, 3) the desire to travel to, and to host partner artists from the other city, 4) a generous nature that is more interested in the group than in oneself. Careful selection of participants is more than half the work towards success. Sometimes I am responsible for invitations, and sometimes others familiar with the exchange process invite artists they believe are ready for the work and commitment.
Our List of Projects
Below is a complete list of the art exchange projects we’ve generated and managed over the past 12 years, with my sincere appreciation to all of our Sister City art exchange artists, designers, ambassadors and project sponsors. The artists who have enjoyed these exchange projects tell me that they re-experience a feeling of challenge remembered from Masters classes. The goals are to fully express oneself while being mindful of the international audience, and to stretch beyond usual subjects, materials and processes in the company of peers. I enjoy working with others towards successful outcomes, and the volunteer activity fulfills my enjoyment of community service.
2000 – Sondershau at Heim und Handwerk, with 15 days in Munich at a national trades and craft show. The artists: Kay Hurley, Paula Wiggins, Michael Manning, Terri Kern, Eugenie Goggin, Jan Brown Checco. Six working artists from the Pendleton Art Center set up housekeeping along side hundreds of German exhibitors in the cavernous Riem Convention Center, showing their works, demonstrating their art-making, and creating relationships with Munich artists. Michael Manning was introduced to painters Eckhard Zylla and Reiner Graumlich, and they formed the group GraZyMan, which has exhibited 6-hand paintings throughout Europe and North America. Angelika Stiegler and Willi Holderied began sharing their support and advice to Cincinnati/Munich artist partners. (Photo 001)
2002 – Angelika Stiegler, ceramic master artist, Munich, teaches for a week in the ceramics studio at DAAP UC. She leaves her entire body of work for display at Suzanna Terrill Art Gallery, and donates the remainder for use as gifts to sponsors of the Clay, Color and Fire project. (01 – 02 photos)
2002 – “Clay, Color and Fire” is hosted in the Ceramics Department of DAAP UC during the month of July, thanks to permission extended by Jonathan Riess, Acting Director, and Roy Cartwright, Professor of Ceramics. Master Artists from Cincinnati’s seven Sister Cities are housed and fed for a month by host families, and supported in the workshop by scores of apprentice artists. The resulting 15,000 art tiles are installed on the columns and hearth of the Friendship Pavilion in the TM Berry International Friendship Park on the Ohio River. Artists: Kirk Mayhew, Workshop Manager; Katie Swartz, Assistant to Workshop Manager; He Zhenhai (Liuzhou, PR China), Steven Lin (Taipei-Hsien, Taiwan), Marjorie Wallace (Harare, Zimbabwe), Ikuhiko Shibata (Gifu, Japan), Philippe Pasqualini (Nancy, France), Vladimir Shapovalov (Kharkiv, Ukraine), Eva Sperner (Munich, Germany) and Jan Brown Checco, Project Designer and Director. Grant writing and sponsorship engagement gathered $150,000 of support for the project along with 150 volunteers, sponsors and apprentices. (03 – 07 photos)
2003 – “Clay, Color and Fire” Master Artists return to Cincinnati to view and dedicate the finished project, and to lecture at the Cincinnati Flower Show about “Art in the Gardens of the World” – a slide show of the important public artworks in their cities.
2004 – Suzanne Buehler and Jan Brown Checco each design and fabricate 6-foot diameter handmade mosaic medallions for the Cincinnati-Munich Friendship Park at Riem Park for the BUGA 2005 national horticultural exhibition. Cincinnati Park Board wins a gold medal for their garden design. For me, this project became a lesson about when not to experiment with materials. I had learned how to fuse glass shards into clay from Nancy, France ceramist Philippe Pasqualini in 2003, and this had worked beautifully for the double phoenix hearth design at the Friendship Pavilion in Cincinnati. But it did not work for the outdoor ground plane installation at Riem Park. Just after installation, the harshest winter on record for a quarter century caused the glass insets to pop and the fine relief onlays to spaul. My technical partner, Angelika Stiegler, retouched the surface of the plaza mosaics with acrylic paint every Spring for 2 years until I could negotiate the replacement of the artwork, which I provided free of charge. The Munich Park system graciously covered the cost of shipment and reinstallation. The second design was a twin of the artwork created for the Liuzhou Friendship Garden, only 12 inches smaller in diameter. I have not experimented since with anything ceramic to be installed outdoors! (08 – 11 photos)
2005 – Ikuhiko Shibata, Gifu, comes to Cincinnati to exhibit his body of Oribe ceramic art at Krohn Conservatory. He donates all proceeds to Hurricane Katrina relief through the American Red Cross, and leaves the remainder of his body of work to the Cincinnati Park Board for future fundraising and project support. (12 – 13 photos)
2005 – Thin Air artists Kirk Mayhew, Chris Daniel and Rich Fruth partner with Wolfgang Friedl of Munich Gartenbau, and with the support of a dozen Munich arts friends they create a temporary public artwork at Riem Park for the BUGA expo. (14 photo)
2006 – Nine Cincinnati Artists and nine Munich artists devise plans for “A Change of Perspective.” This innovative draw-redraw exchange results in 180 original drawings that are exhibited at the UC Galleries on Sycamore, and subsequently at Munich’s Amerikahaus. Artists: Cincinnati – Gary Gaffney, Terri Kern, Kurt Nicaise, Saad Ghosn, Matt Reed, Katie Swartz, Halena Cline, Suzanne Fisher, Jan Brown Checco. Munich – Traude Linhardt, Sonja Weber, Gabriele Huber-Thoma, Hertha Miessner, Karin Soika, Karin Bergdolt, Gabriele Stolz, Reinhild Gerum, Angela Broehan. Pictured: Halena Cline’s original drawing and 3 redraws by Munich artists (15 – 18 photos)
2006 – In the course of Camp SEE, an English language summer camp in Liuzhou, China, an art workshop for 200+ high school students and teachers is designed and operated over 2 weeks at LiuGong High School. All materials are packed into a suitcase for transporation, including dozens of handmade embroidery forms. The resulting Friendship Tapestry is displayed in a local public library. Lead artists: Jan Brown Checco and Amanda Checco, with the participation of hundreds of debutante artists. (19 photo)
2007 – He Zhenhai, Liuzhou, and Jan Brown Checco, Cincinnati, each design and fabricate 5-foot diameter handmade mosaic medallions for the Cincinnati-Liuzhou Friendship Park at Longtan Park, Liuzhou. These are incorporated in the garden design created by a volunteer team of seven professional landscape architects, graphic designers and artists organized by the Cincinnati Park Board and Cin-Liu Sister City Committee. A parallel creative and construction team is organized by the City of Liuzhou and Longtan Park, overseen by park director Madame Liang. The garden design features Dragon and Queen plazas, a bridge and gazebo that were inspired by the Roebling and Eden Park structures. (20 – 23 photos)
2008 – A mayoral delegation of 60 Cincinnatians travel to Liuzhou, China, in November to dedicate the Friendship Garden in Longtan Park. At the same time, an exhibition of 234 drawings created for the draw-redraw project “Triangular Drawings” is presented in Liuzhou. In the previous August, Xavier University Galleries hosted the same exhibition which centered on a week-long visit by seven Chinese and two Munich artists in Cincinnati with their artist partners who provided homestays and local transporation. The artists are: Cincinnati – Farron Allen, Saad Ghosn, Terri Kern, Kymber Henson, Amanda Checco, Jan Brown Checco; Munich – Traude Linhardt, Gabi Huber-Thoma, Gabi Stolz, Johannes Veit, Arno Backhaus, Birthe Blauth; Liuzhou – He Zhenhai, Qin Jigang, Huang Jing, Huang Chao Cheng, Liu Xin, Lei Wu Wu. This project won an international prize for Innovation in the Arts from Sister Cities International in Belfast, Ulster, in 2009. (photos 24 – 30 Pictured: Gabi Stolz’s original drawing and two redraws by He Zhenhai and Jan Brown Checco.)
2010 – Gifu, Japan, is represented in the educational displays at Krohn Conservatory’s Butterflies of Japan 2010 show, through their generous gift of traditional fine craft items for display and sale, and photographic posters and calligraphy from students.
2011 – Cincinnati/Kharkiv, Ukraine “ReArt” – this draw-redrawing and photographic project entitled “World Garden” recreates the dynamic of the past drawing exchanges. Running between six Cincinnati artists and six Kharkiv, Ukraine artists, each will create an original image of choice, followed by the creation of six new originals by each artist in the partner city, based on digital reproductions of originals sent from the other country. The resulting 84 original drawings will be exhibited at the Krohn Conservatory during the 2012 Butterflies of the World exhibition April – July before traveling to Kharkiv for exhibition in Autumn 2012. The artists: Cincinnati – Alan Brown, Guennadi Maslov, Gina Weathersby, Michael Wilson, Amanda Checco, Jan Brown Checco. Kharkiv – Roman Minin, Uliana Bychenkova, Alexi Yalovega, Konstantin Zorkin, Taras Kamennoj, Alina Kleitman
Jan Brown Checco has been organizing artists exchanges among professionals from our network of eight sister cities since 1998. With two new cities poised for twinning – Netanya, Israel, and Mysore, India – additional opportunities beckon. Her other current professional responsibilities include design and direction of regional community-based projects and art administration for the Cincinnati Park Board on selected projects including design of annual Butterfly Shows at Krohn Conservatory, and conceptual design and art direction of the Black Brigade Monument for The Phyllis W. Smale Riverfront Park in 2012. Jan has been the owner of Brown Checco Fine Arts, an independent visual arts studio, since 1975. Contact her at [email protected]
To see the photos associated with the texts above please visit my Facebook page. Thanks for checking out the artworks that have been generated by these exchanges!