An Exercise in Empathy and Trust: Working with Lions

Ten photographers were joined by ten local hosts – political leaders, activists and arts supporters in the city.

from Joann Podkul-Murphy AND Kirsten Leenaars

This was the basis for the exhibition Floating Museum: A lion in every house. After a series of conversations, each host was asked to choose one of three photographs from the Art Institute’s collection. A copy of that work was sent to the host to display in the place they called home. Each photographer then took a portrait of the host with their chosen work, and ultimately those works were displayed at the Art Institute in an installation created by the Floating Museum.

We asked presenter Joann Podkul-Murphy and photographer Kirsten Leenaars to shed personal light on their shared experience.

Joann Podkul-Murphy: A few years ago, I was mowing the lawn in Calumet Park on my way to volunteer at the history museum when I saw two men—Faheem Majeed and Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford—erecting a structure for an art project. I was told about the Floating Museum and its function to bring art and culture to areas of the city that are not easily accessible from cultural venues. Impressed, I invited them into the South East Chicago Historical Museum at the field house. Of course, they befriended not only the museum staff, but Kevin Murphy, my husband, who posted several videos of the project on YouTube, and our art friends Roman and Maria Villarreal and Jim Klekowski.

My involvement in this project was quite by accident. Of the excellent photos chosen for me to present after my interview, this triptych by Milton Rogovin was closest to home and most broadly representative of our working class community.

Copy of triptych by Michael Rogovin on sofa in Joann Podkul-Murphy’s home

Photo by Kirsten Leenaars

Mr. Rogovin focused on working-class people and returned periodically to continue to capture their progress over time. The picture hanging in the front entrance of our house, inside the front door, represents the kind of house you are entering. I was comfortable with it at first and it got stronger over time. And it was quite cozy with our other artwork and photography in our house, mostly made by family, friends and former students.

Kirsten Leenaars: When I came to Joann’s home on the Southeast Side and got to know her and learn more about who she is, it was very clear to me that she is all about community, all about bringing people together. As I looked at more of Milton’s work, I saw that he was telling stories about communities and that he cared deeply. He often photographed the interiors of working-class families, so it made sense to do it indoors at first.

I thought it was really nice that Joann put the picture where everyone would see it right away.

Joann Podkul-Murphy in her living room, the triptych on the door

Photo by Kirsten Leenaars

Joann: People who live in rented apartments are not likely to hang art on hooks nailed to the wall. Fortunately art can come in other ways. Henry, my oldest brother (who enlisted in the Army and was at Pearl Harbor but survived the attack in 1941) took wood shop classes in high school and made bookshelves for us. Art and literature came with the books he and my older siblings gave me. A book introduced me to Frank Lloyd Wright. It was always fun to say “I had lunch with Frank Lloyd Wright” or to quote some author whose book I had on the kitchen table.

Kirsten: I don’t come from an art background, but my father was always a family photographer, documenting us. He had a dark room in the attic. So I was always drawn to that as a way to connect with the world or learn about other people or places. And the more I studied it, the more I started thinking about that relationship between the person behind the camera and the person in front of it and who decides how a story is framed.

I really wanted to document Joann’s idea to make this photography accessible to many people. And I wanted to honor Rogovin’s work by creating a triptych as well. But most importantly, it had to be specific to Joann and the story she wants to tell.

Portrait of Joann’s arms and hands

Photo by Kirsten Leenaars

Kirsten: In Rogovin’s pictures of working-class people, the hands are often very prominent. You can kind of tell he thought about the way people hold their hands. And I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of ​​caring hands for your community, about stories about your community. I noticed that Joann has really nice hands.

Although her home was very photogenic, I realized that she was very uncomfortable with the idea of ​​this being a portrait of her in her home, with herself as the central person in this image. “Well, how about a group portrait?” I said. I suggested including all the people she talked about and cared about so much. She felt very excited about this idea. “That makes more sense,” she said. “That’s more who I am.” So we decided to do it outside.

Joann: Kirsten was pure joy. Not only did she focus on the items in the house, but she was also willing to visit the field house to photograph park and museum staff and local artists—all friends who helped with the previous Floating Museum project, including one with health problems.

the triptych

Central panel. Front row, left to right: Roman Villarreal, Carolyn Mulac, Maria Villarreal (with coyote). Back row, left to right: James Klekowski, Paul Linta, Carlos Salinas, Robert Quinones, Rod Sellers

Photo by Kisten Leenaars for Floating Museum: A lion in every house

Kirsten: These are Joann’s hands in the left panel, gently removing that triptych from the door to bring it into the public space. I love the way she holds the photo in the right panel, showing it to the people she worked with at the museum.

Joann: Look closely and you’ll see a stuffed coyote in the hands of Maria Villarreal in the front of the photo. Faheem said a coyote was always on site waiting for them early every morning they worked on the previous Floating Museum project at the park.

Kirsten: It was really great that Jeremiah and Faheem didn’t put any restrictions on what we could or couldn’t do. They really trusted whatever decision we made about what that image should be. I know this sounds kind of cliché, but I hope this piece captures a humanity that people can relate to, that they will see the piece and maybe stop and reflect for a moment about Joann and the other people portrayed. Perhaps from this can come change or at least a different way of relating to each other.

The process of collaboration, especially with many people, is the ultimate exercise in empathy and trust.

Joann Podkul-Murphy in her living room, by the window

Joann: Art is the thought of the heart. Sometimes it is broken by battlefields and other forms of destruction. Other times it brings out nature and love within people who rarely experience it. The hope for the future is “play in every home,” where everyone is touched by good things from the heart and within reach.

—Joann Podkul-Murphy and Kirsten Leenaars

Chicago art collective The Floating Museum – co-directed by Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford, Faheem Majeed, Andrew Schachman and Avery r. new—uses art to explore the relationship between community, architecture and public institutions.

Learn more about Floating Museum: A lion in every house.


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