Hand-in-Glove: Shanai Matteson

As one of the lead organizers of Hand-in-Glove 2015, my first impulse is try to write something for this social response about what I think the process of creating this convening might have to do with the (still indefinite) field of artist spaces and projects. If I did, I would look to the complex, challenging, productive questions that came to the surface through conversation among participants. But I’m not going to do that right now. And I might not do that later, because after Hand-in-Glove, I’m even more uncertain than ever that this is my role. And because I’m very tired.

What I do want to write about now is my family.

In the session on Aesthetics, Relevancy and Social Context, Tricia Khutoretsky of Minneapolis-based gallery and social space Public Functionary reminded us in a very candid and vulnerable moment that this field is not trendy. Real lives are at stake, and to acknowledge that fact means we now have a responsibility to act with intention and care.

Though Tricia was intentionally talking about lives lost to racialized violence, she also mentioned the importance of self care, and the importance of caring for each other in a community of practice, especially at a time when any number of things is pressing us to behave otherwise.

I’d like to build on what Tricia said, but in another direction, and hopefully bring into this social response other conversations that I had during Hand-in-Glove that were meaningful to me on very personal level.

First, I want to share my notes from the final session that took place on Sunday. This session, an open space for discussions generated by participants about the future of our artistic and organizing field, was facilitated skillfully by Katie Hargrave. The problem is that I still don’t have any notes. I didn’t get a chance to attend any of the small group conversations, much less record them, because I was caring for our children.

That morning, I decided to bring both of our children along to Hand-in-Glove: Our daughter Esli, who was born less than 2 weeks ago; And our son Amasa, who is almost 3-years-old. The reason I decided to bring them is very practical: I didn’t have a babysitter, and my partner Colin was at another meeting.

My mother had been staying with us for a few days, and before she came to town, Colin’s mom had been with us. Both of them helped to care for our children while we organized the Hand-in-Glove convening, had meetings with Common Field and The Soap Factory, and tried to continue the many other projects we’re currently working on. And actually, while we had our baby, they cared for us too – making food, bringing us things we needed, and just helping us to celebrate the life we’d created together.

But my mother had to leave yesterday, returning to the small town where I’m from and where she still lives, because she works the night shift at a nursing home that doesn’t pay her a living wage. And like many low-wage service jobs, it doesn’t allow her (or any other employees) to work full-time. Instead, peers compete for part-time shifts in a process that’s pretty opaque. Ultimately, the supervisors just decide who gets scheduled, and for how many hours.

She couldn’t miss any more shifts this week or there might be consequences. She might lose her job, and in the rural community where she lives, there aren’t many others. Or she might not get the days off that she needs next time, and that’s important, because she wants to be able to participate in the lives her children are making, lives that include things like new babies and planning convenings around the concerns of artists, but also things like college graduations, weddings, new and lost jobs.

It’s also important right now because my mom is trying to save up enough money to afford her own home. When I say that, I don’t mean she’s saving up to own any property, that’s not even in the universe of possibilities. She just wants to rent her own place to live.

Right now she’s staying with a friend she’s known since childhood. Some might say this makes my mother technically homeless, though I know she would never use that term. The most resilient person I know, my mom doesn’t need me or anyone else to tell her their creative solutions to these problems. She just needs a living wage, and a little more time.

Even though she would never call herself an artist, I wonder if my mom might be able to join our cooperative/union/movement/evolution-for-full-economic-citizenship, when we figure it out? Would that make it not artist-centric, but something-else-centric? What exactly? Does it matter? How quickly can we learn the answers to some of these questions? I don’t know how much longer my mom and others like her will wait.

What matters is that we pay her to care for our children, even though I know that’s always a little awkward for her, because society tells us that moms should always work for their children for free (because they love their children). Artists, does this sound familiar?

I don’t mind bringing my kids to the art projects and programs we organize, especially when I’m in the company of other artists and organizers, who can often relate better than other people I know – if not to the experience of having children and also having an artistic practice – then to the experience of having a lot of people and things to think about and care for at one time. Which is another way of saying that they can relate to love and all of its complications when we start to think of relationships (and everything else) as just another transaction.

Back to my notes on the final session: In the middle of the first round of introductions, after I’d volunteered to lead a breakout group on the topic of documenting and archiving this Hand-in-Glove convening, my 2-year-old son started to get very emotional. He was angry, and sad, and he didn’t want to be in a room full of strangers.

Who could blame him? In just over a week his mother had given birth to a new baby, which is probably a bit overwhelming for him (it sure is for me!). Then both of his parents disappeared to finish hosting a conference, coming home late every night a little bit drunk, ready to sleep and not much else.  

“Mommy,” he whispered, “I want to go home.”

“Honey,” I said, “We can’t right now. We’re here, but we will go home soon.”

And then his eyes filled up with tears, and he looked sadder than I’ve ever seen him, and he got very close to my face with his face, and he whispered, “I want to go home now with you.”

When the breakout groups began to form, I was feeling torn, and I could have cried myself. Torn between what felt like an expectation (but was really just an expectation I’d placed upon myself) that I should stick around for the conversation I’d proposed; And between what I knew I actually had to do, which was go outside for a walk with my son.

I chose the walk, and we went to the park by the Mississippi River, one of his favorite places to be, and mine too. It felt good to be in the sun. On the way back, we stopped so he could take a piss behind the dumpster of a newly-built condo, because there are few public restrooms in that neighborhood anymore. And because I’m teaching him what I learned growing up: When you’re trying to reach, a sense of humor can be a survival strategy.

Over the course of the weekend, a lot of people I know said something to me that sounds like a question, “I don’t know how you do it!” They’re referring, I think, to the fact that I seem to be doing whatever I’m doing at that moment, in spite of what looks like an insane juggling of different priorities.

How do I do it? It seems like some strategies, if I could articulate them, might be helpful to me and maybe other people too.

So, very practically, in this case: I did it (taking a walk with my son) by handing my newborn daughter to a friend, another artist organizer, Jeff Hnilicka. Next, I asked someone else to take my place, Susannah Schouweiler of Mn Artists. She gladly offered to host the breakout group I’d proposed and ended up taking much better notes than I would have. And then, after I’d asked for help and gotten help with what I needed, I helped my son with what he needed. That was easy, we just took a walk.

When we got to the park, we sat on a bench next to a man who was playing a really soothing song on a flute. My son started to feel better, and I started to feel a lot better too. So in a way, my son also helped me by encouraging me to slow down, and to sit down, and to listen.

What kind of help do you need? I like that question. I like it even more when something – who knows exactly what? – compels us to answer it honestly and without fear of what others might think. I’m contributing this story to the Hand-in-Glove social response because I believe we have a lot to learn from ourselves, and from each other. Maybe that is obvious, but maybe not?

The ways we manage to hold together complex artistic projects and spaces and organizations is not really that different from the ways we hold together our families. Sometimes it’s beautiful and simple and surprising: You hand your baby to someone you love (who also makes really cool shit you admire), trusting them with the most valuable pieces of your world. Next you walk to the park, and because you suddenly feel so much lighter, you notice more of the details of what surrounds you, and that leads you toward a flute concert for two.

Other times, things don’t work, even though you work day and night. No one seems to notice how hard it is. You start sobbing, or you send and receive and send angry text messages into the ether. Or you perpetuate passive-aggressive gossip, engage in unnecessary competition, and some of your relationships fall apart for awhile.

This is not to suggest there is one right way, and another wrong one. This is only to say that we’re all just figuring it out as we go. Relationships, like artist organizations and projects, are difficult. Some of them are not sustainable. Others will challenge and nourish us, if we let them.

For me, and I imagine for some others too, this suggests something profound about that common field we keep mentioning. What if our common field is, well, common?

In that case, what it needs might be less focus on professional development and career trajectories, less organizing and advocating for a specific art industry, less connecting existing organizations and already-identified leaders. It might actually be simple, just a means for making and sustaining the right relationships between people.

What if all we have to do is find ways to open up those fragile, tenuous, complicated, overwhelming spaces where we learn how to better trust ourselves, and trust our friends and families (however we define them).

Mona Smith, Dakota artist and one of the lead organizers of Healing Place Collaborative, introduced some Dakota language and ideas to Hand-in-Glove over lunch on Saturday, when she spoke about this place, bdote, the center of the universe. She also spoke about the very idea of place, and placing one’s self: Know who you are and who you are with, or at the very least, pay attention.

Mona used the phrase mitakuye owasin, which translates to all my relations. For Dakota people, this means more than just human family. It also means animals, plants, forces of nature, the elements. All of these things are interconnected. The challenge is not to organize and connect them to serve us, but to see the connections that are already there, and to keep wrestling with how those connections might help to grow a whole new world.

What does this mean for our community of practice? What is our field, and what does it need?

I want to encourage us all to think deeply about these questions – both the possible answers to them, and what kinds of assumptions they require. And most importantly, let’s keep making this process of deep thinking and questioning as public as possible.

Some practical things that I think might be good to consider for the future: Is Common Field a platform that could allow us to form mutual support networks specifically for artists and organizers with families, in specific places, in order to help us share time and energy and the responsibilities of caring for eachother? And in the process, can we also share strategies pertaining to our art, our activism, our organizing, or our other concerns?

I know that I need more spaces where I can have honest conversations about what is really at stake in our lives and our art, and what lives are really at stake within the work we do. Maybe we need this as a panel topic at the next convening in Miami? And while we’re at it, maybe we need a way to self-organize childcare for those who require it to participate?

Before we all left the Soap Factory and Hand-in-Glove 2015, I proposed a final breakout session (outside, on a restaurant patio) that would be about the complications of collaborations with our most intimate people – those friends, lovers, partners, husbands, wives, parents – and now I would add, with our children. This was a continuation of a conversation we’d started at the bar the night before with James McAnally and his partner and collaborator Brea, a conversation that really began (again) when we finally acknowledged that a difficult collaboration between us several years ago was just the result of things going on in all of our personal lives at that time.

This breakout session finally materialized as a group of about eight of us Hand-in-Glove attendees, and three children, all went to lunch with these questions in mind. Instead of talking about this exactly, we just had a really nice lunch. The weather couldn’t have been better. We chatted about parenting styles in Minnesota and Mexico, about affordable housing for artists and others, about the challenges of intimate collaborations, and (just a little bit) about the art we make or support, and why and how we do it. We took turns holding the baby, kept the pre-schoolers away from the street, and in between all of that, we ate good food and passed a nice afternoon. I don’t think we could have planned an ending so perfect to our own Hand-in-Glove experience.


This essay is part of a larger social response to the Hand-in-Glove 2015 conference. Read the full response here.

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