Written by Brett Levine
Photo by Beau Gustafson
Celeste Pfau is an artist, but in a more nuanced world, you might term her a connector. Her project Living Room, at the Alabama School of Fine Arts’ Vulcan Materials Gallery, is a case in point as to why. “I like to cast a very general net,” she says. “Every now and then people realize that they have an open moment. When they do, you can do something spontaneous and serendipitous that creates a dialogue.” Living Room was precisely this type of project. Sited at ASFA, but not static, it invited ongoing community participation—and not simply from the creative or artistic community, but from anyone who wanted to be involved.
When she’s not painting, drawing, making prints, or designing jewelry (among other art forms), Pfau teaches as a summer camp instructor at Space One Eleven. “There is a strong focus on Alabama artists as part of the program,” she explains. “So I began to wonder what might happen if I were to focus on living Alabama artists, and how I could involve them in the teaching and learning processes in my class. I started to invite artists, designers, architects, a whole range of people across the creative community, and their support and enthusiasm were overwhelming.”
This resulted in Pfau becoming even more focused on the ideas surrounding social practice. “I realized that my interests were really in public engagement,” she says. “Having just recently moved back to Birmingham, I was making a deliberate effort to connect with people cross-disciplinarily, and inter-generationally. I wanted to work with people in any creative medium, and with anyone who was anywhere from 1 to 100.” As the power of community was demonstrated to her, she became part of the team who facilitated the East Lake Artists Village, a month-long festival of artists working in East Lake. Pfau describes the initiative as “raw and risky.” “We simply moved ahead not knowing if we would receive our funding, or how we would coordinate everything,” she remembers. “In the end we had 25 artists occupying spaces and I knew that there was an energy there that I wanted to see how I could bring to a show at ASFA.”
What has resulted is intriguing, not least in part because of Pfau’s willingness to give up a sense of authorship in favor of dialogues. “For three consecutive Thursdays, one of five artists has formed the foundation of collaborating in the space: sculptor and metalworker Heather Holmes; dancers Rachael Inman, Mary Foshee, and Amanda Miller; and multi-disciplinary artist Doug Baulos. But these aren’t all the people who have made the experience possible. I see projects like this like a potluck, where you simply trust that people will bring their most prized nourishing dish, in this case their art form, to feed one another and to see what kind of magic happens as a result.”
Pfau is excited by synergy—by what occurs when creative minds engage in unexpected ways. This is perhaps the most transformational aspect of her practice. “I want projects like this to simply be optimistic forces for creative energy,” she explains. “In many ways these experiences are like love letters to a city. You encounter them through the people who participate, and the true value lies in the connections, and in people getting to know each other. I believe that Birmingham is just the right size for this. Sometimes people say that one of the problems with the city can be that everyone knows each other. I know that isn’t true. But the idea that creative people can easily be connected is great.”
The results of Pfau’s emphasis on collaboration can be seen by her acknowledgement of everyone who makes positive contributions to the projects she is involved with. Shortly into the run of Living Room, Pfau had listed 19 separate contributors and was quick to note that the list would continue to grow over the month. Clearly, authorship and ownership were the least of her concerns. What matters more is the village participating in the creative energy of the city.
For now, Celeste Pfau seems energized by the opportunities she has to see how connected Birmingham’s creative communities can become. Working within, between, and across platforms, one of her goals is to ensure that these events simply remain forces for creative energy. For that, she should be applauded. Better yet, rather than clapping your hands, create. Don’t look. Do. Because in Celeste Pfau’s open space for experience, there will always be room for more.