Freeport's Artist-In-Residence Defining Her Role

Aug 1, 2018

Credit Guy Stephens/ WNIJ

The Freeport Art Museum created an artist-in-residence position. So what does that mean, at least in Freeport?

In the city's downtown, a grassy vacant lot gets some attention. A group of young women, coached by several adults, spray-painted phrases like “good vibes only" and "women in power" on the exposed side wall of a building next door. 

Brian Nissen owns the building, where he and his wife run Abet Books & Games. He was happy to give permission for the mural.

"I think it’s cool," he said. "I have this great big ugly wall, and I’m glad to have something on it. And I’m excited for the message."

This project is part of the Summer Artivation program, which is funded by grants from the Freeport Community Foundation. It works with two youth groups, the Freeport Boy & Girls Club and the Norman C. Sleezer Youth Home, a nonprofit that serves young women with behavioral issues, to create public works of art. The latter group is the one working here. Modica said the idea is to help prevent so-called "summer slide," or learning loss, through creative activities.

"So they do better when they go back to school in the fall,” she said. "And also at the same time, they’re more part of this effort to beautify and vitalize their community. That’s another goal, is to have youth become a little bit more engaged with the community that they live in."

Modica said it also serves the museum’s desire to help the city positively transform what are perceived as negative spaces – gaps in the downtown’s teeth, she calls them - like this vacant lot.

Modica said the museum got additional support this year, and decided to fund a new position: artist-in-residence. She said the term might be a bit of a misnomer, at least this time around. Traditionally, she said, someone in that position comes from outside the community, and lives in a place provided by the host institution. The Freeport Art Museum’s first artist-in-residence, Melinda Cook, already lives in the community.

"But," Modica said, "she is doing quite a bit more work with the students than we’ve done in the previous year. She’s working the entire summer on a number of different projects with both our youth groups. In that regard, it’s like a traditional artist-in-residence."

Cook was busy this particular morning, moving from girl to girl, offering advice as they add details and color to the words they painted earlier. It’s not all technical. At one point, she talked to an agitated young woman who expressed frustration with some perceived mistake and seemed ready to quit. With a mix of admonition and praise, Cook motivated her to work through the difficulty.

Cook said the girls came up with amazing ideas right away. She said one of the most exciting things about being an artist-in-residence is the chance to help her students make those ideas a reality.

"Giving these kids this opportunity to have their work where they can drive by and be like 'that’s mine,'" she said. "Not just that 'I helped,' but 'I did that' and claim it, I think is just a really powerful thing."

FAM Artist-in-Residence Melinda Cook and FAM Director Jessica Modica
Credit Guy Stephens/ WNIJ

Cook, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a former art teacher in Freeport schools, has been doing street art for a while. She taught a class on lettering with paint last year, and approached the museum about expanding on that with several project ideas. They came back to her with a proposal to do a bunch of them, with her in charge as artist-in-residence. Cook said she isn’t much for labels. But this one has helped.

"When I explain it to people, I’m like, 'Can we paint on your wall?' that title helped with opening the opportunities," she said. "Because otherwise if you say, 'I want to grafitti on a wall,' people are not always that open to it."

Modica said the museum hopes to continue with the program and others like it. She said the museum will continue to mount exhibitions within its walls.

"But also move the arts out into the community," she said, "so that a broader range of people are exposed and have an opportunity to participate."

Including the girls working here on the wall, and others. In addition to programs like Artivation, community painting events and a planned arts plaza are also part of that vision.

Modica said Cook has done a great job. But she'd still like to expand the artist pool in the future beyond the city limits. Cook disagreed somewhat. She said there are talented artists right here.

But Cook does agree with what the Museum is trying to do to make the arts relevant in the lives of the city's residents. 

"It makes people excited about where they're at," she said, "which is all I want, people to love Freeport, appreciate where we're at."

She pointed at one of the phrases on the mural.

"Home includes me."

That goes for the girl who painted it, and everyone, herself included.

Getting that across to the community would seem plenty for any artist, in-residence or otherwise.