Eddie Dominguez is Professor of Art at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, who does a significant amount of creative work with members of the community (or, I should say, members of different communities). I first encountered one of Eddie’s pieces when travelling through the Phoenix airport a month ago. The piece is entitled “Collaboration” and is a mosaic composed of ceramic pieces. I was intrigued enough to seek out Eddie to ask him more about his work.
I had a wonderful conversation with Eddie about his collaborative work with community members across the entire span of his long career. Eddie was honest and sincere about his passion for this aspect of his creative work. I found him inspiring and refreshing.
JW: When did you first involve the community with your creative process?
ED: When I was a youngster in a small town in New Mexico, I committed to myself that if I grew up to be an artist, one of the things I would do is pay back. I would find some kids or someone else who needed some mentoring or guidance or inspiration. That has always been in the back of my mind. I studied how to become an artist, and while I was doing a visiting artist residency at Ohio State University one of my classmates was doing art in the schools. She invited me to go to a small town on a project.
Through that experience I became more interested and reminded myself that one of my primary goals in life was to bring art to people and try to make a difference through creative work. I’ve done it ever since, over and over. It’s really my preference. I don’t care to make public art that is about me or my philosophy. I prefer to make public art that’s about a place, about a community, and a group of people.
Over the years I’ve been privileged to work with people who were dying of AIDS in hostels, kids at risk, incarcerated children, old folks in nursing homes, grade school and high school kids, the whole range. My work with the community has been about what I feel – a passion, a sincere passion. I am an artist and I do creative work and I like all of that. But I genuinely enjoy reaching out to the community and working with people who will have me.
JW: Can you give me some examples of how you “involve the community”?
ED: I’m involving people in the process. I picked a discipline that is accessible. I do mosaics. That’s something that anyone can do. You don’t have to be an artist or even have to have made art before. I’ll describe a nursing home situation. I went in there and there were people who had stokes and Alzheimer’s and whatever. We brought them into an area that would be considered for recreation and we made a mural that we put on the wall, called “Hearts On The Wall.” I also brought in kids from a daycare center to that location so there would be children working alongside the elders. It was just a beautiful thing to watch and be a part of. I don’t claim any of that. I’m just there to facilitate. I’m there to motivate and help, and to show the technical stuff – basically to guide them in their creative pursuits. For the moment, people are making art, and I’ve always felt very passionate about making sure that art was presented and became part of their facility or in their hallways or living spaces.
Over the years I’ve become better at this, being able to create a quality image, with whatever situations I’m engaged in. I try to empower people working with me and not make things overwhelming or difficult. I encourage people to be fearless, and make their work possible and visible. That’s really important to me. I rarely go into a place and just have an experience. I really want there to be evidence of their effort.
I’m not really an activist. But I may sound like one when I talk about this kind of work because I’m passionate about it. It’s as big thing as anything that I do. I teach, I make art, and I think about public art works. I’ve done a project almost every year for all my life.
JW: How do these events come to be? Do you just walk in to a place and say, “This is what I’d like to do”?
ED: Ha! Well, there have been times that I’ve done that. But usually I’m invited. There was a time when I was just volunteering, trying to get my foot in the door. I wanted to see if I could motivate a group of people to do some creative thing. It was easier in the schools because schools have creative programs and you can work with a group of kids and a teacher who is interested.
My practice in this area has led to opportunities. I’ve been funded, sometimes with a little, sometimes with a lot. If I get a lot of money I can do a very large project. But even if I don’t get a lot of money, I can still do a pretty large project. When you involve community, you have a lot of hands, and a project can become monumental fairly quickly. It’s really great.
JW: What do you get out of these projects, on a personal level?
ED: On a personal level, I just feel lucky. Lucky to be working with people, strangers. It enriches my world. It’s not about profits. It’s not about reputation. It leaves all that stuff behind. It is a time of making. And it’s wonderful to witness. I feel awake. I feel driven. I have all the energy I need for it. It makes me feel….worth. I don’t always feel uplifted when I sell a cup or plate. You know. I don’t feel that.
I remember doing a project in a local school in a pretty devastated area of Albuquerque, New Mexico. All those children were at risk. Even though it’s trying and it’s difficult and you wonder, “Really, Eddie? This is hard. Is this worth it?” But at the end I remember asking a girl who worked on the project, “How do you feel?” And she said, “Important!” And that is what I needed to hear. That’s what I want to hear: “I feel good about myself.” “I feel proud.” And this is coming from children that don’t have a lot of access to anything. They don’t always feel pride. It was a moment of realization for me, that the work I’m doing with these people is affecting them.
JW: You mentioned a project that you’re working on now. Can you tell me about that?
ED: This is a commission work here in Lincoln, Nebraska: a public art project that’s a celebration of first responders at two local hospitals. One object will be a planter at a hospital that you can sit at. The other piece will be 3 columns that you can stand by. I’m getting information from many different people who want to participate. I’m collecting stories. These stories will be transcribed and I’ll go to the facility and work in the rec room. The language will be put into cloud forms on one side and incorporated into a garden on the other side. There will be flowers and vines and animals from all around Nebraska in the garden. If people want to drop in and see me at work, or help me work, that will all be part of the project. I’ll have them make a flower for the wall, things like that. I’m very excited about it. I want it to have community involvement, not just the words of different people. I’ve hired 4-6 students to help on the project so far. So there’s already a community forming. And I’m working with engineers and architects. They’re excited about making this too.
I don’t usually apply for commissions. I did one commission before, in Arizona. I worked with over 1,000 people putting a mural on the side of a Martin Luther King apartment complex. It was my first time entering the whole world of involving community. Over 1,000 people came into my life. Some just came for a day, others came back and worked on it multiple days. At the end we had a big dinner and I cooked for people. We made art. It was wonderful. In the end, that mural is owned by those people. It’s been up there for 32 years.
JW: Are there any suggestions for other artists who might like to involve community in their creative life?
ED: I talk about volunteerism in my classroom, and how that’s important. I talk about giving back to the community so you become an active member in it. I talk about my experiences. I think if a person is interested in community-based work, they kind of know that. I knew it. I had a feeling about it. And I thought about it. There was a connection between the heart and the mind. Some students weren’t interested at first but then became interested. They needed permission to try this. And then they became engaged. It doesn’t have to happen fast and it doesn’t have to happen right away.
JW: Any final observations about how you’ve managed to do so much community-based art work in your life?
ED: I’ve felt lucky. I understood what my goals were and what my dreams were and I did them. I did them all so far. And I’m not dead yet, so there are still a few more I’m going to do. I don’t know what they are yet. They’ll reveal themselves to me. As I get older I’m starting to reimagine some things that I didn’t have time to do before. I will definitely do more volunteering. My students ask me all the time: “How do you make a living as an artist?” And I tell them, “There’s making a living and there’s living a life. You’ve just got to decide how you want to live your life and you’ll make a living. I tell them, ‘It’s not just a job – it’s a lifestyle!’”
Some of Eddie’s personal work can be seen at Kiechel Fine Art.