Nuestro Lugar: North Shore is the first resident-designed, culture-driven, community development project in the rural, migrant community of North Shore, California. Throughout its efforts, Artbound will chronicle Nuestro Lugar's various physical improvements, economic activity projects, and multi-faceted arts and culture initiatives that will use North Shore's assets as catalysts for change.
I watch Maria hold Cesar's baby sister during the community premiere of "The Salty Bottom Show," picking her up, letting her play with her hair and glasses like she might be her own sibling. The sense of community is strong here in North Shore, and after a week of working closely with our core group of summer attendees, I'm feeling pangs of sadness along with pride and excitement. The North Shore Yacht Club is packed with guests, friends, and attendees for our first official showing. In a short week, the kids of North Shore have come together to create a living testimony of the combined knowledge and value of their community.
For over two years, Kounkuey Design Initiative has been working with North Shore community residents to design a five-acre public space through a participatory design process. At the core of this process is an effort to reveal the community's natural, historical, cultural, and human assets. KDI's artistic directors Shannon Scrofano and Evelyn Serrano have been working with residents to develop art-centered initiatives to identify and support community assets. The summer program, now in its second year, is one of such initiatives.
This summer we spent two weeks working with North Shore youth on our Media Makers arts program. In the beginning we spent a long time talking with the children about what the community of North Shore has to offer the world, as if there were some hidden physical attribute that could sway people's preconceived notions about the Salton Sea. We sat in the Yacht Club on folding plastic chairs listing our ideas on a large imposing whiteboard.
"We have a banana museum!" someone declares.
"There's really good tacos," says another.
"I think those are in Mecca" someone counters.
It's slow at first, coming up with ideas about what you can offer a larger community to change their speculative notions. And yet, as we are all sitting in that wonderfully air-conditioned room looking out over the beautiful landscape of the desert and sea, I am struck by a sense of calm.
What is it about North Shore that we want to share with the world? What is missing from the media coverage that over the past 60 years has built up so many negative perceptions about this striking place?
"The birds," someone says. "We have lots of nature." Then our list starts and doesn't stop until we have collected enough ideas to drive a full-fledged TV program.
I've worked with many kids in many different places and communities, but the young artists of North Shore are truly something else. On day one, we presented them a challenge that would have stumped most adults: create a trailer for a show about the community of North Shore that will get people excited about watching. In five minutes we had a name for our show, "The Salty Bottom Show." In two hours we had three trailers to share with the world, all of them dramatic declarations of this new and not-to-be-missed TV show.
Our filming process was unique, as each child involved took on multiple roles throughout the week to create the show. The common goal always stood at the forefront of our process: to create and share a show that highlighted the culture, history, individuals, and community of North Shore. Underneath and driving all of this however was the hidden gem of the community, the children.
I remember turning to Kate Hoffman, a fellow teaching artist in the program during one of our brainstorming sessions and asking her incredulously, "Have you noticed how these kids work with each other?" For a classroom teacher in the arts who is used to the difficulties of mixed-age groupings, the collaboration we were witnessing on day two of our program was remarkable.
The sense of calm and purpose that these children embodied was visible to everyone who witnessed the creation of "The Salty Bottom Show." When Park Ranger Rick came to visit and interviewed with that day's host, Maria, on a segment about the biodiversity and ecology of the sea, it was obvious he was surprised by the professionalism of our crew.
Two camera-people, a sound engineer, lighting director, set designers, an interviewer, a director, and a rapt audience had transformed the linoleum-tiled space of the Yacht Club recreation room into a bustling TV set. iPads on tripods captured all the action, while our sound engineer monitored levels and our interviewer posed questions for our guest that elicited responses about the migration of over 400 species of birds to the preserve every year and the recreational potential of the sea.
We learned that the Salton Sea is in fact safe to swim in, that the tilapia who have survived the increase in salinity of the sea over the years are safe to fish and help sustain the population of the over 4 million birds who visit the nature preserve each year.
Our guests were fascinating. They walked us through the earliest histories of the sea. It's creation through irrigation canals diverting water from the Colorado River, and the boom of the 1950s that established the sea as a premiere resort destination.
Embedded in the show are interviews with a historian, a ranger, an activist. These interviews are informative, and engaged our crew throughout the filming process. However, the segments directed and lead by the children of North Shore, interspersed throughout, will give viewers yet another sense of the hidden assets of this community.
As you watch you will see an array of talents on display. Singers, comedians, a classic and thrilling foot race, as well as the more unusual of segments: an interview with the pet owners of North Shore where Timmy the turtle will reveal his hidden talent, and a cooking show performed by two sets of actors -- one providing the functioning arms cleverly hidden behind the back of the other set of actors -- about a maniacal chef and an unfortunate guest.
The earnest enthusiasm, humor, and creativity of "The Salty Bottom Show" crew exposes the aliveness of this community in a palpable way. If we wanted to, I feel certain we could have kept on filming for weeks, maybe moths, efficiently documenting our processes, brainstorming ideas, honing in our skills, and working as a community to keep "The Salty Bottom Show" and its vision alive. As it were, we had a week, four iPads, a microphone, and a common goal of translating the inherent goodness of this community and the surrounding sea to the wider more speculative world.
So what makes a community worthwhile? How can we measure its value through reinforced imagery of decay and lifelessness?
Through the people that live there. The children that call it home, who spend summers running in sweltering heat with oblivious joy. The families that come together to support a cause of much-needed activism surrounding the state's largest lake and a central hub of agriculture. Through authenticity, conversation, humor, and as always, the core of any community: the families who call it home.
All images by Daniel Morando.