The Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum hosted a panel discussion with the inaugural class of the The Berlin Residency Program, which took place July 2013 – July 2014. Executive Director Mary Heathcott moderated an hour-long discussion with artists Ricky Armendariz, Cathy Cunningham-Little, Karen Mahaffy and Vincent Valdez.

“Back From Berlin,” the exhibition that shines a light on the fruits of that residency, will be up through this Sunday, May 10.

2013-2014 Berlin Residency Program participants (from left) Ricky Armendariz, Karen Mahaffy, Vincent Valdez and Cathy Cunningham-Little. Photo courtesy of Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum.

Angelika Jansen, who lives in Berlin and San Antonio, was the lynchpin in creating this innovative residency.

“How wonderful for all of us involved in making this residency possible that our hopes were more than fulfilled. All four artists came back raving about their experiences, how they are looking differently at creating art. For them, there is a definite before and after Berlin. Their exhibition at Blue Star will allow a glimpse into this process,” she said.

The residency program, which will soon enter into its third cycle, has been called “astoundingly successful.” Each year, in partnership with Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Blue Star awards four artists the opportunity to live and conduct their studio practice in one of the world’s most significant art centers: Berlin, Germany. It’s one of the most original and ambitious artist fellowships offered in Texas.

Künstlerhaus Bethanien is located in the Kreuzberg sector of Berlin, which has transformed since the fall of the Berlin Wall from one of the poorest areas into a cultural center known for its alternative scene. As Ricky Armendariz noted, there is a very large Turkish population, and he reminded the audience several times that the food is not to be missed.

Inside a shared studio. Photo courtesy of Künstlerhaus Bethanien

Built in 1847, Künstlerhaus Bethanien was a hospital and functioned as such until the 1970s. Its survival was a tenuous thing, and at one point it was slated for demolition. Conservationists staged intensive protests and ultimately prevailed. Since then, the building has housed cultural and artistic institutions. Today, the artist-in-residence programs are recognized internationally, and are impacting the arts community in San Antonio in a significant way.

The recurring theme in this discussion was the way in which this program challenged the selected artists’ assumptions, about themselves as well as the pre-conceptions they brought to Berlin.

“I have done one-month residencies and I have done six-month residencies, and I would have to say that three months is the sweet spot,”Karen Mahaffy said. “It’s that perfect amount of time, to feel like you belong somewhere and that you’ve gotten to know a place well enough that you’ve lived there. You haven’t just visited there. Once you get to that three months you realize you have to sink in a little deeper or it’s time to go home.”

A sampling of work from the 2013-2014 Berlin Residency Program artists:

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The conversation was fascinating as each artist related their experiences. Although they differed, allowing for personality and work style, they all referred to the isolation that they worked in. There was very little contact with the 24 other artists that were in residence during the same period, mostly just interactions with the staff. They described a bare white space with no distractions and no dictates on their time, other than the personal drive that each felt to use the time to broaden their own horizons as scholars. Each artist determined the extent to which they interacted with the atmosphere. And each recognized this isolation as a tremendous luxury.

On the other hand, each artist shared personal interactions and immersion that took place outside the studio, painting a verbal image of Berlin as an amazing hodgepodge. The city is not at all homogeneous but a rich tapestry of cultures and experimentation. They all related warm relationships and opportunities to get to know the people of Berlin.

Sitting and listening to these wonderful experiences filled me with a sense of envy and curiosity. The opportunity to get a glimpse of the influences and to hear the stories was quite wonderful. The Berlin Residency 2.0 has been underway, of course. Justin Boyd, Chris Sauter and Adriana Corral have made the journey. Currently, Jessica Halonen is in Berlin and will return in early July. The cycle will repeat, and we look forward to experiencing how this next crew has been influenced.

At the end of the evening’s presentation, the latest recipients of the Berlin Residency honors were announced. Thomas Cummins, Jennifer Datchuk, Leigh Ann Lester and Julia Barbosa Landois. Many of these artists are veterans of residencies, some more than others. Residencies seem to have become an intrinsic aspect of any artist’s career in the early 21st century. The opportunity to travel, interact and experiment artistically in a broad variety of cultures is a boon to the artist.

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Another aspect of this immersion is what the artists bring back to their communities. Most of these artists are also educators. Travel and exposure to cultural capital changes these humans and, by extension, changes the lives that they touch. This is a tremendous investment in artists that will return to San Antonio riches that we can only imagine. In turn, we can only hope that San Antonio continues to feed and enrich these individuals, that they feel wanted and continue to feed us.

Lectures such as these are an opportunity to interact with artists and develop a greater understanding of the creative process – to understand how these individuals are moved. For a glimpse of what you missed, take a look at these videos of artists talking about their Berlin experiences on YouTube: Armendariz, Mahaffy, Cunningham-Little and Valdez.

*Featured/top image: Panelists discuss their Berlin residency experiences. Photo by Page Graham.

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Tami Kegley

Tami Kegley has lived the life of an artist. Through multiple careers — dancer, percussionist, performance artist, sculptor, goldsmith, gallerist — she has pursued her need to create. The Great Recession...

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