An Exercise in Empathy and Trust: Collaborating with Lions

Ten photographers were paired with ten local hosts – political leaders, activists and supporters of the city’s arts.

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It was the basis of the exhibition Floating museum: a lion in every house. After a series of conversations, each host was asked to choose one of three photographs from the Art Institute’s collection. A copy of this work was sent to the host to display in the place he called home. Each photographer then made a portrait of the host with their chosen work, and finally these works were exhibited at the Art Institute in an installation created by Floating Museum.

We asked host Joann Podkul-Murphy and photographer Kirsten Leenaars to shed some light on their shared experience.

Joann Podkul-Murphy: A few years ago, while cutting the lawn in Calumet Park on my way to volunteer at the history museum, I saw two men, Faheem Majeed and Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford, putting up a structure for an art project. They told me about the floating museum and its function to bring art and culture to areas of the city that are not easily accessible to cultural sites. Amazed, I invited them to visit our Southeast Chicago Historical Museum in the fieldhouse. Of course, they befriended not just museum staff, but Kevin Murphy, my husband, who posted several videos of the project on YouTube, and our artist friends Roman and Maria Villarreal and Jim Klekowski.

My involvement in this project happened completely by chance. Of the excellent photos I chose to animate after my interview, this triptych by Milton Rogovin was closest to home and more broadly representative of our working-class community.

Copy of Michael Rogovin’s triptych on the sofa in Joann Podkul-Murphy’s house

Photo by Kirsten Leenaars

Mr. Rogovin focused on working-class people and returned periodically to continue to capture their progression over time. The picture hanging at the main entrance of our house, just inside the outer door, depicting the kind of house one enters. I was comfortable with it at first and it got stronger over time. And it was quite cozy with our other art and photo work in our house, mostly done by family, friends, and former students.

Kirsten Leenaars: When I came to Joann’s on the south-east side and got to know her and learned more about who she is, it was very clear to me that she is above all a community, a bringing together of people . Looking more at Milton’s work, I saw that he told stories about communities and cared a lot about them. He often photographed the interior spaces of working-class families, so it made sense to do it indoors at first.

I thought it was really nice that Joann put the photo where everyone would immediately see it.

Joann Podkul-Murphy in her living room, the triptych on the door

Photo by Kirsten Leenaars

Joan: People living in rental apartments are not likely to hang artwork on hooks nailed to the wall. Fortunately, art can take other forms. Henry, my older brother (who enlisted in the army and was in Pearl Harbor but survived the 1941 attack) took carpentry classes in high school and made bookcases for us. Art and literature came with the books that he and my other older siblings provided. A book introduced me to Frank Lloyd Wright. It was always fun to say “I had lunch with Frank Lloyd Wright” or to quote an author whose book I had on the kitchen table.

Kirsten: I don’t come from an artistic background, but my father has always been a family photographer, documenting us. He had a darkroom in the attic. So I’ve always been drawn to it as a way to relate to the world or learn about other people or places. And the more I studied it, the more I started to think about this relationship between the person behind the camera and the person in front who decides how a story is framed.

I really wanted to document Joann’s idea of ​​making this photography accessible to a lot of people. And I wanted to honor Rogovin’s work by also creating a triptych. But above all, it had to be specific to Joann and the story she wants to tell.

Portrait of Joann’s arms and hands

Photo by Kirsten Leenaars

Kirsten: In photos of working-class people in Rogovin, the hands are often very prominent. You can kind of tell he thought about the way people hold hands. And I thought a lot about the idea of ​​hands that care for your community, stories about your community. I noticed that Joann had very nice hands.

Even though her house was very photogenic, I realized that she was very uncomfortable with the idea of ​​it being a portrait of her in her house, with herself being the central person of this picture. “Well, what about a group portrait?” I said. I suggested including all the people she had talked about and cared about so much. She felt really excited at the idea. “It makes more sense,” she said. “It’s more who I am.” That’s why we decided to do it outside.

Joan: Kirsten was pure bliss. Not only did she focus on the objects in the house, but she was also willing to visit the country house to take photos of park and museum staff and local artists – all friends who helped with the previous project of the floating museum, including one with health problems.

the triptych

Center panel. Front row, left to right: Roman Villarreal, Carolyn Mulac, Maria Villarreal (with coyote). Back row, left to right: James Klekowski, Paul Linta, Carlos Salinas, Robert Quinones, Rod Sellers

Photo by Kisten Leenaars for Floating museum: a lion in every house

Kirsten: These are the hands of Joann in the left panel, gently removing the triptych from the door to bring it into the public space. I really like the way she holds the image in the right panel, showing it to the people she worked with at the museum.

Joan: Look closely and you will see a stuffed coyote in the hands of Maria Villarreal in front of the photo. Faheem said a coyote was always on hand to wait for them early each morning they worked on the previous floating museum project in the park.

Kirsten: It was really great that Jeremiah and Faheem didn’t put any restrictions on what we could or couldn’t do. They really trusted all the decisions we made about what that image should be. I know it sounds a bit cliché, but I hope this work captures a humanity that people connect with, that they will see the work and maybe stop and reflect for a moment on Joann and the other people depicted . Maybe from there a change can come or at least a different way to relate to each other.

The collaborative process, especially with multiple people, is the ultimate exercise in empathy and trust.

Joann Podkul-Murphy in her living room by the window

Joan: Art is the thought of the heart. Sometimes it is shattered by battlefields and other forms of destruction. Other times, he brings nature and love to people who rarely experience it. Hope for the future is “the lion in every home”, where all are touched by good things from the heart and at hand.

—Joann Podkul-Murphy and Kirsten Leenaars

The Chicago Art Collective floating museum—co-directed by Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford, Faheem Majeed, Andrew Schachman and avery r. young — uses art to explore the relationships between community, architecture and public institutions.

Learn more about Floating museum: a lion in every house.


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Charles P. Patton