Dec 16, 2015

Creative Neighbors: The Make Sew Weave Sale at Southeast by Southeast

by: Carly Rapaport-Stein

Artist Shira Walinksy has been with Mural Arts’ Southeast by Southeast since its earliest days. As we gear up for the first Make Sew Weave Sale this weekend, Shira shares some background on Southeast by Southeast, and highlights some of the fantastic artwork inspired by the rich cultural traditions of the Southeast by Southeast community.

Carly: Tell me about the origins of Southeast by Southeast.

Shira: In 2011, Jane Golden asked if I wanted to be involved in a project with new refugees from Burma and Bhutan, and I jumped at the chance. I began my work in collaboration with Melissa Fogg from Lutheran Children and Family Service, and sat in as she interviewed refugee families about life in Philadelphia. Many talked about the challenges of learning English, adapting to a new culture, and finding employment, and all spoke of leaving their home countries after facing persecution. There is a large amount of trauma that comes with leaving home and adapting to a new place, and for many cultures, traditional Western therapy may not be a comfortable fit. We sought to create a place, Southeast by Southeast, that used art to deal with trauma through the eyes of a refugee.

Many of the refugees came here with a high skill level in traditional crafts, things like weaving and sewing, and out of this strength, artistic ideas for Southeast for Southeast were born. We would look for artists and leaders from the refugee community and put them in the role of leaders, teachers, and artists. We would have a skill exchange where we brought in skills needed by the refugee community and also created a framework for artistic expression through traditional crafts. Our first space, located at 7th and Dudley, started by holding workshops and also looking for members of the refugee community who could teach classes. Our programming expanded to include monthly events like a weaving demonstration, Burmese food night, and Bollywood vs. Breakdance, and another artist, Miriam Singer, and I created printing workshops and also developed murals. Melissa began programming social services and art therapy in the space, and along with other volunteers, I began to teach English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Today, the space is located at 8th and Snyder, and our programming has grown in scope and consistency – we now offer ESL four days a week, hold regular sewing classes, and much more.

Carly: What sorts of traditional arts and crafts have you explored at Southeast by Southeast?

Shira: We have found so many great refugee artists and craftspeople living in South Philadelphia. Weaving, in particular, is something I have been blown away by. In Burma, many weave their own clothes, and the patterns and colors used in weaving are specific to the many ethnic groups living in Burma. The weaving is a symbol of who you are, whether you are Chin, Karen, Kachin, Shan or another group. In Philadelphia, we have an incredibly talented Karen weaver and teacher from Eastern Mountain Burma, and her work is just stunning. And there are so many artists, filmmakers and others whose work deserves to be seen by the rest of the city!

Carly: And you’ve been facilitating specific craft workshops over the past month as well as you prepare for December 20th’s Make Sew Weave Sale. What sorts of art and ideas have come out of these workshops?

Shira: We have had some amazing workshops this month. We were so lucky to have MADE studio owner Rachel Ford and designers Senpai and Kohai work with Karen (Eastern Burmese) fabric to create beautiful jean jackets and vests sewn by Nepali and Karen Burmese women. We have also had a group of Mexican women reinterpreting bags with beautiful fabric from Mexico, and in the same room Iraqi women created headscarves from block prints and screenprints. We are a true melting pot of cultures and talents, and I’m excited for the public to come in and see the many unique items, like woven skirts, shirts, bags, jean jackets, and prints that our talented neighbors have been working on!

Last updated: Jan 25, 2016

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