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Object of the Week: The Lost Boys

Artist Andy Warhol said, “Everybody has their own America, and then they have the pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there, but they can’t see…” Before getting started, it’s important to acknowledge the America that I live in: I am a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied woman who was born in the northeast United States during the 1980s. I am looking at a work of art created by Kerry James Marshall: a Black, cis-gendered, able-bodied man who was born in the segregated South during the 1950s. Both Marshall and I are artists and educators, but sadly I don’t have a MacArthur Genius Award or paintings in any major museums. I’ll be approaching this work of art using my own lens and the same facilitation strategy I use for my (now virtual) tours of SAM’s collection: Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS).[1] VTS is used to spark dialogue and empower people to approach a work of art using their own observations and experiences, asking three simple questions. I encourage you to follow along and ask yourself these questions, noticing where our backgrounds may overlap or differ.

The first question of VTS is, “What’s going on in this picture?” This is a portrait of a young boy––his skin is a rich, dark black matte, and his features are defined by white outlines. He has heavy-lidded, almost tired eyes and his mouth is neutral, conveying an expression that is difficult to read. Radiating outward from his head are straight thin lines, evocative of a halo. The background is divided horizontally: the bottom third is a golden color, almost a desert landscape; the top is a deep blue overlaid with white shapes, bringing to mind a sky with clouds, though closer inspection reveals that the organic shapes are actually white roses. The paint looks to be hastily applied, as evidenced by the drip down the forehead of the young man. The drip, although white, mimics blood, similar to depictions of Christ or another martyr and links this to religious iconography.

The next question, “What do you see that makes you say that?” challenges our assumptions and biases. As we conclude Black History Month after a year of increased visibility in mainstream media of the racial inequities for Black Americans, I’ve seen myself get caught up in the imagery of Black trauma, recounting video and photos of the brutal murders of Brianna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Aubrey. I start to wonder if calling this Black figure a martyr is Marshall’s intention, or my own prejudice? Marshall’s own words confirm that I need to dig deeper: “I paint things I care about. It would have been easy to represent these places (and situations) as zones of hopelessness and despair, but I know they’re more complex than that.” 

As I read the label, the curatorial voice chimes in and indicates that Marshall is memorializing Black boys who have lost their lives, stating that the leading cause of death for young, Black men is homicide. In fact, when comparing statistics among racial groups, Black youth (0-18 years old) are seven times more likely to die by homicide than white youth.[2] As an educator, I also can’t help but think about the school-to-prison pipeline and the fact that Black students are three and half times more likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled, and that Black youth disproportionately make up those youth incarcerated in juvenile detention centers.[3]

The final question is, “What more can we find?” The language here is intentional—creating meaning is a generative process. This is where, if I were actually speaking to people, I would hear different perspectives and my understanding of a work would evolve. However, when at home, I take this question as an invitation to start researching. After procrastinating on this blog post, watching hours of interviews with Marshall, I was especially struck by one quote by the artist: “If you’re constantly being reminded of the ways in which your history and your narrative as a people were rooted in loss and decay, then you’re in deep trouble. Once you make a certain kind of peace with the past, then you should be completely oriented towards speculation about the future.”[4]

I challenge my initial response to this work. I start to see glimmers of hope in the white roses— symbols of youth, innocence, and new beginnings. I begin to unpack the ways that this painting may embody Afrofuturism, the cultural movement that explores the intersection of the African diaspora with technology, science, and liberation. A few Google searches quickly link the Eurocentric religious iconography that I saw in my art history classes to contemporary icons such as Solange Knowles’s appearance on SNL

In asking, “What more can we find?” we open ourselves up to dialogue and start to imagine a different world, a different America––maybe one that’s fantasy, or maybe one that could be our reality? Marshall’s work gives me hope and I’m reminded of the contemporary author and educator bell hooks’s words, The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is––it’s to imagine what is possible.”

– Kelsey Donahue, SAM Assistant Manager for Gallery Learning

[1] “Visual Thinking Strategies,” www.vtshome.org
[2] “Health Equity: Leading Causes of Death – Males – United States, 2017,” Center for Disease Control, www.cdc.gov/healthequity/lcod/men/2017/index.html
[3] “Our Demands,” Black Lives Matter, Seattle, blacklivesseattle.org/our-demands.
[4] “Kerry James Marshall,” Art21, art21.org/artist/kerry-james-marshall.
Image: The Lost Boys (A.K.A. Untitled), 1993, Kerry James Marshall, collage of acrylic on paper, 28 x 30 in., Gift of the Collectors’ Forum, 97.32 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Lunchtime Artist Spotlight: Kristen Ramirez

Take a lunch break for a conversation and some art making with Kristen Ramirez, a Seattle-based interdisciplinary artist. Ramirez toggles between many media and practices and tends to use hard-edge geometric forms in her large-scale murals and public works. Ramirez’s work has a clear visual connection to artists like Anne Truit, Frank Stella, and Kenneth Noland, featured in SAM’s collections.

Want to make art with Kristen? Be ready with a piece of paper, blue tape (aka painters tape), and some mark-making tools (like markers, paint, or crayons). If you have scrap wood and old house paint, all the better.

About the artist

Ramirez is also an educator and arts administrator, championing aspiring artists and established artists alike. Ramirez has taught at the University of Washington, Edmonds Community College, Pratt Fine Arts Center, Path with Art, and Cornish College of the Arts. She currently manages public art projects for the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture and Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT).

SAM Performs: Cross Section Dances

“Moving images
When you stare at something for a while it starts to move.
When you focus/think on it long enough it will move you.” 

– Michele Dooley

Action painting is akin to an artist dancing around their canvas. In this video Michele Dooley, Nia-Amina Minor, and Amanda Morgan, three Seattle-based contemporary dance artists, reinterpret Franz Kline’s movements in Cross Section.

Cross Section came into SAM’s collection earlier this year as part of a gift made to the Seattle Art Museum from the Wright Collection in honor of the museum’s 75th Anniversary. Though it’s been on view before, it’s inclusion in City of Tomorrow: Jinny Wright and the Art That Shaped a New Seattle marks it’s debut as part of our Modern and Contemporary Collection. This exhibition presents 64 works, all from the Wright Collection, created between 1943–2003 that define bold and experimental art movements across the United States and Europe. City of Tomorrow features but a fraction of the many works that Jinny and her husband Bagley gifted to SAM over the years. Kline’s Cross Section is a striking example of the Abstract Expressionist art movement.

“There is movement present in a painter’s trace. In the remnants of each brush stroke one can sense action, physicality and gravity. What does it feel like to be a paint brush to watch and listen to it’s swipe and feel each stroke embodied. What does it feel like to move with and through a painting? In the wash of this physicality there are the inevitable left overs and spillages. That space of imperfection and slippage draws me in.” 

– Nia-Amina Minor

Like many abstract expressionist artists, Kline trained as a figurative artist but chose to work abstractly, believing that the basic elements of art—line, color, shape—could evoke a transcendent experience for a viewer. In Cross Section, thick strokes of black and white paint are layered, emphasizing movement in the composition. This work is often referred to as an example of action painting because it can be seen as a record of its making.

Though City of Tomorrow is closing on January 18, the impressive artworks in this exhibition will be on view again as part of SAM’s collection galleries—all thanks to the visionary voyage of Jinny Wright. Through her arts initiatives, donations, and fundraising, Jinny’s legacy lives not only in the art collections and institutions she helped build, but also in her staunch belief that contemporary artists define their time.

“When approaching making movement in response to this work, I immediately was drawn to how abstract it was. Only having black and white strokes leave so much room for interpretation and storytelling. I imagined I was a part of the black strokes, weaving in and out of the white portions. There’s a moment where I slowly slip my shoes off; this was improv, but I envisioned that I was leaving the black strokes to enter white strokes, intertwining them both, one not existing without the other.” 

– Amanda Morgan

Object of the Week: Leaves

Gloria Petyarre’s thirteen-foot-long canvas, Leaves, is a work that stops you in your tracks. It invokes the senses: hearing, seeing, and even feeling. The intricate, seemingly endless, white strokes evoke the movement and gentle patterns of leaves on, or fallen from, trees, the delicate movement of waist-high grass in a wind-swept field, or the long, waving fur of an animal on the move.

This feathery, leafy style that has become a common theme in Petyarre’s work was developed over decades. In the late 1970s, Petyarre came to prominence as a batik painter, before taking up painting on canvas in the late 1980s. Her use of sophisticated batik-making techniques, combined with the referencing of body markings associated with women’s ceremonies, shaped the unique forms of painting done in the Utopia area of Australia’s Northern Territory in the 1980s.[1]

In the 1990s, her work progressively increased in size and painterly precision. She began supplanting her dots and lines with elongated drop-forms in feathery layers “that move over the surfaces of her work with the velocity of wind in foliage or the fluidity of water currents.”[2]

This more painterly leaf design seems a natural progression.

“Petyarre grew up learning traditional techniques of reading the landscape to identify foods, medicinal plants, and everything else that was needed to thrive. Sitting under mulga bushes, helping the elder women prepare their seeds for small cakes, she would see the leaves swirl overhead. At the same time, she could listen to elders discussing the days when grasses and wildlife were more abundant.”[3]

Gloria Petyarre is part of an extraordinary family of women artists. Her six sisters—Kathleen, Nancy, Ada, Myrtle, Violet, and Jean—are all internationally acclaimed artists. Gloria’s niece Elizabeth Kunoth Kngwarray, and great-niece Genevieve Kemarr Loy, are well-known artists, as is her niece, Abie Loy Kamerre, whose work, Awelye “Women’s Ceremony,” is also in SAM’s collection. Petyarre’s and her artistic family’s work draws on the surroundings and rituals of their community in Utopia, in Australia’s Central Desert, Northern Territory. Gloria and her sisters had a classical education in an aboriginal world view that has survived tens of thousands of years in an arid spinifex country. Growing up, they walked across their vast estate, moved according to the principles of rotational land navigation, and honored the other species they learned from.

These Utopian women began painting to enlighten outsiders and rebel against the white cattle ranchers who took over their land. As these outsiders began moving in, they polluted water holes and demonstrated a disinterest in the features of the landscape. An inspiration to create came from recognizing that outsiders were ignorant of the depth of knowledge they had about their environment. These artists turned to painting to demonstrate how they had managed to maintain and honor their country, with all its species, foodstuffs, and medicines. They relied on a seed economy, and noticed that leaves had strong medicines to offer, with particular potency when they were falling off the trees. Petyarre’s work offers an urgent reminder of Indigenous knowledge of the landscape—what may seem like scruffy sandhills can be a utopian ideal, filled with vibrant resources that we need to learn to recognize better.[4] She created this work as a study of leaves swirling through space. With her knowledge of the medicinal properties of certain plants, “she takes it upon herself to focus attention on the moment that the leaves fly.”[5]

The next time you visit SAM, make sure to spend a few minutes with this work, you’ll see it right when you enter the museum. What senses does Leaves invoke in you?

– Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian

[1] Art Gallery of New South Wales, Gloria Tamerre Petyarre Artist Profile, https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/artists/petyarre-gloria-tamerre/, accessed December 2, 2020.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Pamela McClusky, Wally Caruana, Lisa G. Corrin, and Stephen Gilchrist, Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art: Kaplan & Levi Collection ([Seattle]: Seattle Art Museum, 2012): 114.
[4] Interview with Pamela McClusky, December 7, 2020.
[5] Pamela McClusky, “Completing the Map,” in Chiyo Ishikawa et al., A Community of Collectors: 75th Anniversary Gifts to the Seattle Art Museum (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2008): 76, 81.
Image: Leaves, 2002, Gloria Tamerr Petyarre, synthetic polymer paint on canvas
70 7/8 x 157 1/2 in., Gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, in honor of Virginia and Bagley Wright, and in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2012.21 ©Gloria Petyarre

Object of the Week: Map of the World

Brenna Youngblood’s abstract paintings are invariably more layered—literally and figuratively—than first meets the eye. Originally trained as a photographer, Youngblood works with an extensive personal archive of photographs and objects that she collages onto the surfaces of her densely painted canvases. In a 2013 interview she discussed the importance of this textured surface, and the integration of everyday objects into it:

“Surface is and has always been integral to my practice. The transformation of the surface of my paintings mimics objects, materials, and textures from the real world (i.e. rusted metal, wood). . . . I like introducing familiar objects like the light bulb, the door handle, and wood grain. The paintings are ‘a slice of life’, if you will. They definitely reflect the everyday not just for myself, I think for others as well. They are not only for looking at.”[1]

Youngblood is part of long tradition of artists who incorporate everyday objects into their work—we may immediately think of artists like Jasper Johns, with his thermometers imbedded into the canvas, or Robert Rauschenberg, with his photographs collaged onto their surfaces. In Youngblood’s paintings, the objects that she includes often go beyond the language of abstraction and allude to social or political topics. They are, as she says, “not only for looking at,” but speak to larger real-world issues.

In Map of the World (2015), a map of former colonial territories is embedded in the upper left quadrant of the painting, layered over an otherwise abstract, painterly surface. The political borders indicated on the map are long outdated, but the histories of colonialism that they represent still hold very real ramifications today. The sense of these histories bleeding into the present is suggested by the dripping paint that runs off the map, and the patchwork of rectangular forms just underneath that are themselves reminiscent of political boundaries.

We know that maps are never neutral—the distortions that privilege the northern hemisphere in most map projections are ubiquitous and well-documented, and the political claims they represent are contentious at best. However, they also become such a banal part of our everyday life that we stop looking at them critically, or consider what they really signify. In blending the map of the world (or one version of it) with the formal language of abstraction, Youngblood subtly but pointedly refers to these larger issues, asking us to dive deeper into the surface.

– Carrie Dedon, SAM Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

[1] Brenna Youngblood, interview with Rosanna Albertini, “Not Only for Looking At,” in Flash Art, September 2013, http://honorfraser.com/pdf/press/2013FlashArtBY
Image: Map of the World, 2015, Brenna Youngblood, map, acrylic, and construction paper on canvas, 60 x 60 in., General Acquisition Fund, 2016.7.1 © Brenna Youngblood Courtesy the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery

Object of the Week: Between Rabbit and Fox

Acquired last year and newly installed in SAM’s third floor galleries, Jeffrey Gibson’s 2017 painting Between Rabbit and Fox is a commanding and alluring work. Measuring 70 x 50 1/8 inches, the painting’s luminous acrylic and graphite surface, with its alternating and overlapping blocks and triangles of color, captivates from even across the gallery.

A citizen of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and also of Cherokee heritage, Gibson grew up between the United States, Germany, and Korea. Much like his personal background, which evades easy categorization, Gibson’s artistic practice engages a wide range of materials, ideas, and forms. He has characterized his mode of making in the context of anthropophagia, borrowing from Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954), whose concept centers on the idea of metaphorically cannibalizing, or absorbing, other cultures as a way to gain strength and assert creative autonomy.[1]

Abstraction is inextricable from the long and unique histories of Indigenous visual and material culture in America. Gibson, deeply invested in these histories, also forges his own connections to Modernist geometric abstraction. Whether he blends the hard edge abstraction we see in parfleche designs with the abstraction of Modernist painting, or reimagines traditional beadwork for entirely new applications, Gibson is able to succinctly explore complex themes of cultural hybridity and the history of abstraction and craft.

Gibson has, over time, learned to embrace and celebrate a certain state of “in-between-ness”—being between different cultures and different aesthetic histories.[2] And as the title of the painting Between Rabbit and Fox suggests, even the pattern we see is in-between. Like a highly abstracted Rorschach test or Magic Eye stereogram, our eye flits about the surface of the canvas, seeing both a stylized rabbit and fox flash before our eyes. This state of indeterminacy—of being in flux—is important for Gibson, and it’s important for us, as viewers, to experience and embody this hybridity (if even for a moment) as well.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

[1] “Innovation and Tradition: Jeffrey Gibson Interviewed by Emily Zimmerman,” Bomb Magazine, May 6, 2019, https://bombmagazine.org/articles/innovation-and-tradition-jeffrey-gibson-interviewed.
[2] Jasmyne Keimig, “Jeffrey Gibson’s Like a Hammer Strikes Today,” The Stranger, Feb. 28, 2019, https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2019/02/28/39366995/jeffrey-gibsons-like-a-hammer-strikes-today.
Image: Between Rabbit and Fox, 2017, Jeffrey Gibson, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 70 x 50 1/8 in., Purchased with funds from the Contemporary Collectors Forum and General Acquisition Fund, 2019.30 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Asia Talks: Artist Hung Liu with Laila Kazmi

Learn about the art and experiences of Chinese contemporary artist Hung Liu in this virtual artist talk. Hung Liu immigrated to the U.S. as a young adult to attend art school. Her life and artwork offer incredible perspectives on identity and migration, especially in the way she brings together China’s past with American experiences. While the Asian Art Museum remains closed, the Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas continues to offer thought-provoking virtual events featuring prominent contemporary artists speaking on some of today’s most pressing topics. Our hope for this series is that the work and words of the artists can help to sustain us through this difficult time.

Hung Liu is a primarily a painter who works with photography as part of her practice. Recently she has also worked with shaped canvases for painting that are assembled to create 3-dimensional work. She is also Professor Emerita at Mills College, where she began teaching in 1990. The National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC organized a large-scale retrospective exhibition of her work that was planned for this summer, but had to be postponed because of the virus closures. Instead it will be on view there next year, from May 2021 thru Jan 2022, titled Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands, 1968-2020.

Laila Kazmi worked with SAM’s Gardner Center to organize and host this talk. She is an Emmy-award winning filmmaker, a producer, and co-founder of Kazbar Media.

Coming up, the Gardner Center’s popular Saturday University Lecture Series begins October 3. Color in Asian Art: Material and Meaning features eight free talks that dip into dimensions of color and pigment. From legend and ritual, to trade and cultural exchange, to technical innovation and changing artistic practices—the use of bold colors has been considered alternatively excessive, precious, or brilliant throughout history. What rare pigments and closely guarded techniques produced some artworks, and what artistic innovations and social changes produced others? Join us to enjoy a spectrum of talks on colors produced from the earth, sea, fire, plants, and insects.

Rising Up with Daedalus

Listen in as DJ Riz Rollins discusses Daedalus/Upliftment by Fahamu Pecou. During SAM’s special exhibition, Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, the in-gallery audio tour featured Seattle area community members discussing works of art in SAM’s collections by Black artists.

In 2019 Rachel Kim, SAM’s Curatorial Intern unpacked this painting as part of our Object of the Week series. Kim writes: Daedalus/Upliftment alludes to the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus built wings of feathers and wax for himself and his son, Icarus, to escape their prison. Despite Daedalus’ warning, Icarus flew too close to the sun, melting the wax on the wings, falling and drowning in the ocean. Pecou reinterprets this classic tragedy and questions the actions of Daedalus as Icarus’ father. Daedalus/Uplifting provokes a meditation on paternalism and masculinity, in the artist’s own words, through “the breakdown of intergenerational communication and the emotional complexities within the Black male experience that trouble the desire and ability to take flight.”

We highly recommend following Pecou on Instagram to see more of this artist’s paintings and to hear directly from him on his work and current events.

Image: Daedalus/Upliftment, 2016, Fahamu Pecou, acrylic, gold leaf and spray paint on canvas, 84 × 48 in., Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, 2016.20 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

SAM Performs: Trapsprung Dances

In Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Trapsprung, a dancer reaches to the tip of their outstretched leg while balancing perfectly on the toes of their other leg. In Interview Magazine, the artist describes being drawn to “the very kind of visceral physical power and grace of dancers, and their occasional closeness to losing control.”

A split second before or after the moment in this painting, and the dancer’s balance will shift into another movement. Here, though, the dancer’s strength and poise are captured in an instant, while Yiadom-Boakye’s brushwork evokes the energy of the movement. Painted from memory and imagination, Yiadom-Boakye features portraits of Black people exclusively, creating images that explore “the wider possibility of anything and everything.” In the current socio-political climate, David Rue, Public Engagement Associate at SAM, initiated a project that celebrates and elevates incredible Black artists living and working in the city of Seattle through connecting them with this work by a prominent Black artist in SAM’s collection. Local artists Amanda Morgan, Michele Dooley, and Nia-Amina Minor, responded to Trapsprung in brief, personal dance works, and offered reflections on the artwork and their lived experiences.

It’s easy to assume that each and every work made by Black artists living right now will only be about police brutality, slavery, or protest. Plot twist! While these are important conversations to be had, it’s also critical to remember that we’re a very dynamic group of people capable of exploring a multitude of artistic experiences. 

What I believe is on the other side of this socio-political monstrosity is the beauty, power, and grace that exists within Black artists. These are qualities that I see within Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s work as well as within the dancers commissioned to respond to Trapsprung. Now is the time to celebrate and elevate their artistic excellence. 

David Rue

On my first visit to the Seattle Art Museum I immediately took notice of Trapsprung.  A Black ballerina dancing in a piece of art is not a common subject that you find in much of the art that is created, so I instantly saw myself in the work, being a Black ballerina myself. The aspect about the piece that I probably enjoy the most though is the perspective and action taking place within it. We are placed behind her and given her perspective as she moves; she moves with intent and direction as opposed to being static and placed in the space only to be seen. I think this demonstrates what women, and particularly Black women are capable of. We are not there to just be viewed or seen, we are a statement in just our being and use this as our power to go forth in all we do rather than let this inhibit us. I like to think the woman in that portrait would take on the world as such. 

Amanda Morgan

Amanda Morgan is originally from Tacoma, WA and is currently a corps member at Pacific Northwest Ballet. She joined the company in 2016 as an apprentice and was promoted to corps in 2017. In addition to dancing, Morgan is a choreographer and founder of her own project titled “The Seattle Project”, which aims to collaborate with multiple artists in Seattle and create new work that is accessible to the community. She has choreographed for PNB’s Next Step at McCaw Hall (2018, 2019), Seattle International Dance Festival (2019), and curated her own show at Northwest Film Forum this past February of 2020. She is currently continuing to still create and connect with artists during this time, and has a dance film coming out in collaboration with Nia-Amina Minor for Seattle Dance Collective this July.

Unstoppable.

Power and dynamic combined with softness and beauty.

Remembering all it is and what it feels like to be a Black woman.

Always acknowledging how much strength and resilience it requires to become the Black dancer in this artwork and the Black artist that painted it.

Michele Dooley 

Michele Dooley is a native of Philadelphia and began her dance training at The Institute of the Arts under the direction of Cheryl Gaines Jenkins. She graduated from the High School for Creative and Performing Arts under the direction of LaDeva Davis and earned a BFA in dance at The University of the Arts, under the direction of Donna Faye Burchfield. While earning her degree, she spent three seasons with Eleone Dance Theatre. Michele trained at Bates Summer Intensive, BalletX summer program, and DCNS Summer Dance Intensive, worked with choreographers such as Gary Jeter, Tommie Waheed-Evans, Dara Meredith, Milton Myers, Nora Gibson, and Ronen Koresh, among others. 

I see her and she’s flying.

Purposefully turned away from a world that is often drawn to her image partly because she makes it look so easy. But I see the effort, the commitment, and I can stand to learn something from the subtlety.  I remember reading that a bird’s wings have evolved to provide lift and reduce drag.  They use their strongest muscles to lift while their wing anatomy minimizes turbulence, friction, and all that would drag them down to the ground. 

I see her and she’s flying.

Nia-Amina Minor

Nia-Amina Minor is a movement based artist and dance educator from South Central Los Angeles. She holds a MFA from the University of California, Irvine and a BA from Stanford University. Nia-Amina is a co-founder of Los Angeles based collective, No)one Art House, as well as a Company Dancer and Community Engagement Artist Liaison with Spectrum Dance Theater.