THURSDAY AUGUST 24th, 2011
When the idea was raised to remove benches from Pekich Park in an attempt to combat the illegal activities often taking place in the public ‘pocket park,’ Grand Rapids artist and community activist, Hugo Claudin, took a stand. “I thought it was a terrible idea. How is the park supposed to be inviting to the community if we remove the benches?”
Claudin’s live/work artist loft dubbed Mexicains Sans Frontieres, (translates literally to “Mexicans without Borders”), is located across the street from the park, and though he agreed that some action should be taken, he was adamant that bench removal was not the answer.
An active member and longtime resident of Avenue for the Arts, an area in downtown Grand Rapids along South Division Avenue that also encompasses the park, the painter/musician proposed a different idea. “Let’s have some concerts and use the space for something else that will hopefully stop some of that bad behavior,” said the artist/activist. Claudin, along with others in the community, worked together to secure grant funding and held the first concert in late July. Since then, shows have taken place every other week, and the benches won’t be going anywhere.
Claudin has long been a catalyst for bringing music and other art into public spaces. He regularly hosts underground bands from all over the globe in his loft, and is a member of ArtPeers, a local nonprofit that encourages community patronage of the arts. The group holds a variety of events where exhibits and performances are held in local businesses, parking lots, and empty spaces. “I’m trying to meld the idea of being an artist and doing community-based things,” he said. Originally from Mexico, Claudin migrated to the United States following the death of his father to study art at Kendall College of Art and Design. Since settling in Grand Rapids two decades ago, he has become an important link between art and the community.
Claudin provides outreach service as a natural helper for the city’s Believe 2 Become Initiative, a collaborative effort of the Grand Rapids Public Schools, the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Douglas & Maria DeVos Foundation.
The aim is to close the achievement gap between inner-city students and their suburban counterparts. The project focuses on engaging community members across four different neighborhood zones in Grand Rapids. Natural helpers serve as liaisons between the community and the programs offered through LINC Community Revitalization, Inc., one of the partner organizations involved with Believe 2 Become.
“I’m kind of like a foot soldier for the operation,” he explained. Foot soldier is an apt description for the artist whose work incorporates themes of revolution and ‘real life superheroes’. Claudin is engaging West Michigan’s Latino community, encouraging them to not let fear keep them from having active roles in their children’s educations. “The Latino community is kind of naturally guarded,” he said. But, he believes, as the program becomes more visible, these walls are coming down. “We’re working to engage the community through a series of meetings. We want to get a dialogue going about what the obstacles are that might be keeping the children from graduating.”
His current series of paintings bears the same name as his loft and deals with themes of immigration and the barriers frequently encountered by members of the Latino community. Claudin paints warrior-esque men and women, all of whom sport the traditional face-masks of the Lucha Libre wrestlers, an institution in national Mexican pop culture. Claudin describes the images as a metaphor for the unseen communities of undocumented people living in the US that go uncounted and misrepresented in the media.
Although his work with Believe 2 Become spans across the city of Grand Rapids, it is his own Heartside District, which continues to struggle to attract businesses and residents, that truly has his heart. “As a resident of this zone, of course I’m interested in the revitalization of this area. I think it will be a natural process,” he said. “Nobody expected this to be revitalized overnight. We’re very committed, especially the people who have been here a long time. We’re almost there. It’s a matter of persisting and getting the message out.”