Community Engagement Brings Art to Affordable Housing Communities in Santa Ana

Art shouldn't have to be a luxury, so Community Engagement, a local nonprofit organization in partnership with Grand Central Art Center, has gathered some of Orange County's best artists to bring engaging and collaborative “social practice” art to underrepresented communities in SanTana. 

“We want it [social practice art] to be self-reflective and meaningful for the community, the residents and the artists,” says Jessica Preboski, Executive Director of Community Engagement, which started in 2015 and currently provides an artists-in-residence program in the Santa Ana affordable housing communities of Triada, Warwick Square, Heninger Village and Sullivan Manor. Preboski co-founded the org after working for Affordable Housing Access, Inc. (AHA), a non-profit corporation with over 30 affordable housing communities in Orange County and over 120 throughout the state of California (take note, OC: affordable housing is possible!)

Each artist in residence implements “social practice” art which means the community's art workshops are more socially engaging rather than instructional. “When I was thinking of social practices, it could be so simple as just me spending time with them, and that's the change,” says Trinh Mai, a classically trained painter who now works in mixed media installations. Mai brings her knowledge of art history to explore weekly themes with residents of Heninger Village, a low-income community for seniors.

Many Heninger Village residents expressed that art was never something they thought they'd ever excel in. “I've learned that I do know how to paint,” says Maria Cupa, a resident of Heninger Village, “I never tried before.Cupa says as she adds some finishing touches to her vividly colorful self-portrait reminiscent of a Frida Kahlo painting. 

While Mai noticed that some Heninger Village residents initially lacked enough confidence to pick up a paint brush, Dino Perez, a SanTana native son and fixture in the city's art scene, discovered that the kids at his residence in the Triada community never realized being an artist was a viable occupation.

“It's also about closing the opportunity gap,” Preboski says as she notes that extra-curricular art activities are now more of a parental responsibility rather than a school one, which leaves children of low-income families deprived of the arts. 

Perez's project, called Coloring With The Community (which has expanded to include the patrons on Scoops Ice Cream and Maz Café Con Leche), has him designing coloring sheets for Triada children and parents to fill in. Popular design requests among Triada kids have included Kylie Jenner, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Shopkins. A simple activity such as coloring brings some refreshing and youthful innocence to a community that has faced some dark times recently.  

“The Lacy neighborhood this year has suffered from a lot of violence,” says Perez, “I found it even more important for me to be here because I myself grew up in a similar situation.” Perez grew up near Century High School during the peak of SanTana's gang violence in the 90's. “As these kids get older, they'll move out, they'll do their own thing. But I think they'll always look back when there were coloring events with their parents.” 

Angel, a 16-year-old resident of the Triada community and a regular at the Coloring With The Community events says, “everyone gets to know each other,” and that coloring offers him a break from his cell phone. Judith, who is 11-years-old and sat by Angel, shared that she's recently thought about becoming an artist. 

Not all Community Engagement sites involve conventional art. The longest standing and largest site in Warwick Square hosts a thriving community garden. Angelica Gomez and Joseph Linnert are the leading green thumbs at Warwick Square which grows native and edible plants. Preboski says this residency pushes “gardening as an outlet and as an art.” Meanwhile, in the diverse community of Sullivan Manor, a glass artist named Rebecca Chernow is building an intricate community mosaic with the help of parents and children.
Community Engagement artists-in-residence are provided with a project budget, housing and a stipend to support their mission. “It's just as important to us that the residents have something but also that the artists are compensated fairly,” says Preboski, who encourages artists to share their talents with local communities rather than solely pursuing art shows in galleries. “There is value to this art and artists should want to do this kind of work.” 

“Collective action is the foundation of a vibrant community,” says Chernow, “and artists are particularly adept at inciting enthusiasm in others for the creative experience that draws individual together.” 

For more information visit Community Engagement will have a fundraising mixer tonight at AKORN, 305 W. 4 St., Santa Ana, register for the event here. If you can't make it out tonight, you can still click here to donate to Community Engagement.

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