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Michael Tillyer

Alice and Pretzel

Carved pine

Labor of Love: Alice and Pretzel Belong in Providence
by Elizabeth Maynard

Alice and Pretzel have had a long walk to the grounds of the Wedding Cake House. In Providence by way of Vermont, courtesy of Massachusetts-based creative worker Michael Tillyer, the cheery pair join the neighborhood as part of the Streetside Sculpture installation. Assembled and carved from reclaimed wood, Alice and Pretzel are charming: Alice’s welcoming smile, her strong, tender hands, Pretzel’s perky tail and eager gait are guilelessly sweet. Flush in the peonies and lilies of early summer, my first meeting with the pair felt like a delightful surprise, a chance encounter with friends in the neighborhood. 
Photo by Avery Shaw, 2023
Co-curator Xander Marro points to executive director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council Roberto Bedoya’s definition(s) of Creative Placemaking as a guiding principle for the Streetside Sculpture series. Bedoya describes the labor of placemaking as the “cultural activities that shape the physical and social characteristics of place,” with a crucial attunement to how such installations resonate with our sense of belonging (or dis-belonging) in such places. As Bedoya points out, placemaking is work: it “enacts identity and activities that allow personal memories, cultural histories, imagination, and feelings to enliven the sense of ‘belonging’ through human and spatial relationship.” It’s not enough to drop a sculpture in a space and cross our fingers for transformation; the hope and plan is for artwork as an opening to relationship—through memory, culture, history, imagination—to elusive “belonging.” 
This resonates with Tillyer’s conception of himself and the function of his works. Like the spirit of the Works Progress Administration artists or the Art Workers Coalition of the 1960s and 1970s, Tillyer is more comfortable describing himself as a “creative worker” than an artist: “it is artwork, after all.” Lately, he resonates most with Honoré Daumier, the nineteenth-century satirical illustrator and cartoonist, so influential to the French Realist and Impressionist movements. Known for his incisive political critique, certainly Daumier’s lithographs, paintings, and sculptures and cartoons do something, which is what Tillyer wants more than anything else from artwork.

Tillyer works on different registers. He is the Founding Director of the New England Visionary Artists Museum, located in the Anchor House of Artists in Northampton, MA. The Anchor House, founded in 1997, works toward “just equity and financial parity,” supporting artists with neurodiverse conditions and fighting associated social stigmas. The House offers subsidized studio spaces so that artists can “redefine their lives for who they are as artists.” The New England Visionary Artists Museum conserves the legacies of “artists who lived on the vividly prescient edge of life,” educates on the artists’ lived experience, and provides opportunities in the research of visionary art. The mythos of the divergent artist is all around us, but the conditions of the artworld which might fetishize such makers is not necessarily the same that will support and preserve them. Finally, the Open Creative Education Center offers art instruction and support from professional artists, regardless of income status. In short, Anchor House is a place for belonging.
In her 2011 book Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam Era, Julia Bryan-Wilson details the Art Workers Coalition “embrace of artistic labor as a radical practice.” Like Bedoya’s call for Cultural Placemaking that accounts for the dynamics of marginalization and (dis)belonging, she situates the framing of art/work in moments of political and cultural tension, when there is great strain on our social fabric, including artists engaging in feminist and institutional critique, such as Lucy Lippard and Hans Haacke. Redressing such gaps in access to/of artistic practice is a driving principle for Tillyer in his organizing work. As we find ourselves in iterations of culture wars thought long over, as we fear the bodily precarity for trans and BIPOC folx, to people with uteruses, the displaced, the incarcerated (to name just a few), as we are bombarded by violently divisive rhetoric in an age of ecological disaster, this is a time for the art worker.

But/And there is a more intangible work that Tillyer strives for, that miraculous process of translation of the visible world into a manifest artwork, through the imagination of the artist. To me, the palpable sweetness of Alice and Pretzel really embodies this. Or, as Tillyer remarks, “the part about making a painting that is amazing to me is that I can do it at all… I can look at something in nature, dream 
Photo by Avery Shaw, 2023
something, or erupt with a spark of an idea… with these things I can even imagine something… basically, the whole world is an imagined thing.”  Tillyer is sincere in his amazement of creativity, which is the key ingredient in a project as bold as imagining a possible future of belonging; There is an earnestness in both form and expression of Alice and Pretzel, that feels so generous and welcoming; Alice herself isn’t waving as she walks Pretzel, but as I write this I always seem to remember her that way.

Placemaking is a process, cultivating belonging is a process. Community building is work, it takes mettle and steel, but also generosity and sweetness. Let’s welcome Alice and Pretzel to Providence! Let Alice and Pretzel welcome us! 
Michael Tillyer founded the Anchor House of Artists in 1997, whose mission is to subsidize the studio lives of artists who live with mental illnesses, to represent their artworks, to promote artistic collaboration, and to bring new art into the community. He is currently the Founding Director of the New England Visionary Artist Museum, located inside of the Anchor House in Northampton, Massachusetts. He has exhibited widely throughout the northeast and is the recipient of the 2011 Dynamic Impact in the Arts Award from the Northampton Arts Council.

Liz Maynard is an art historian, the editor of Providence Arts & Letters (operated through Providence College Galleries), as well as a licensed massage therapist, meditation facilitator, and yoga teacher. Her art historical work on the representation of trauma and the body led her to pursue trainings in somatic education and explore embodied epistemologies. She teaches social art history, art theory, and writing at RISD and Rhode Island College. Her current interests include the intersections of dance and material practice in the 1960s, embodied and inclusive pedagogies, and discerning the rich possibilities of a somatic approach to intellectual and creative pursuits.
Photo by Avery Shaw, 2023
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