Sculpting stories: Shifting Ground workshop connects immigrant communities with visiting artists


CEDAR RAPIDS — Cris Garcia’s tree sculpture wasn’t coming together the way the 14-year-old had first envisioned it.

But that was OK, said the rising freshman at Linn-Mar High School as he carefully sculpted clay during a workshop at the Iowa Ceramics Center and Glass Studio in Cedar Rapids Wednesday.

“It’s changing into something else. It’s banana peels, now, wrapped around the tree,” he said. “When I was little I used to climb trees, in the Amazon, and I picked up bananas ... It was peaceful up there. There were no problems; it was just nature.”

Garcia, who was born in America, was sculpting a memory from a visit to his parent’s native Ecuador when he was six. He was one of several Latinx teens taking part in “Shifting Ground,” a two week workshop hosted by the Ceramics Center, Mount Mercy University Emeritus Professor Jane Gilmor and artists Antonio Gorgel Pinto and Paula Reaes Pinto of Portugal.

The first week of the workshop focused on Latinx youth, and the second week will include adult East and Central African immigrants and will take place at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. Cedar Rapids is home to a large community of immigrants from Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and St. Paul’s has services in Swahili and Kirundi languages.


The work from both weeks will be unveiled for the public at a celebration and exhibit at the Cherry Building on July 27. The event will feature music by the St. Paul’s African Nationals Choir, projected video documentation and international food.

Gilmor met the Pintos when she was in Portugal on a Fulbright grant in 2003, and has worked with them since then, including with an exhibition of Portuguese artists at Grinnell College in 2008. The idea to do workshops with immigrant communities sprung from conversations with them and with community organizations in Cedar Rapids, including the Catherine McAuley Center and Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.

“The church said there wasn’t programming for Hispanic youth, particularly children of immigrants,” Gilmor said. “They have this between-cultures experience.”

The workshops, organized by the Ceramics Center and international artist collective CREATURA, received funding from the Iowa Arts Council, the City of Cedar Rapids and other sponsors.

Gilmor said her hope is partnerships between places like the Ceramics Center and the local churches and immigrant communities can continue.

“Art makes you see things in a different way. It helps you look at things from a different perspective,” she said.

The name Shifting Ground came from the idea that for many people, the conception of where home is has shifted multiple times as they have left the places where they were born in search of a better life.

“It’s a metaphor for the way the ground has shifted under them, and asks how that effects identity and your sense of place. Home becomes something entirely different,” Gilmor said.

The goal is to give the workshop students the tools to express their own stories, memories and emotions, Antonio Pinto said. The artists started by encouraging the students to think about a memory and an object related to that memory, and then worked with them to translate that into sculpture.

“They don’t have to be literal in construction of their objects,” he said. “This is a way of representing their context.”


The workshop also aimed to build community, both between the participants and with the broader community.

“I think it’s important — the dimension of working in a group, talking about their cultures and experiences, of using art as a tool to have a voice,” Paula Pinto said. “I think art is a very good way of growing. It’s good even for self esteem. It’s good for them, and it’s good for us.”

The art created in Cedar Rapids will connect to a second phase of the project, which will be held next summer in Evora, Portugal. The Pintos will take molds made from the sculpture created in Cedar Rapids with them to engage with immigrants in Portugal. Evora has a large population of African and Syrian immigrants, Antonio Pinto said.

Teens working on clay sculptures at the workshop this week were crafting things like a soccer ball hurtling toward a goal, a pet turtle and a volleyball net.

“My favorite sport is volleyball. I’m making a net sculpture in the form of a ball,” said Estephany Perez, 14, a rising freshman at Jefferson High School. “It’s about the first time I made it over the net when serving it. It makes me feel happy.”

In other words, the student’s art was simply about their lives as American teens. How they continue to express their identities and create art in the future will be up to them.

If You Go


Shifting Ground exhibit and celebration

Where: The Cherry Building, 329 10th Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

When: 1 to 4 p.m. July 27



“Corky Solutions: Repurposing culture to create sustainability” reception and presentation with Paula and Antonio Pinto

Where: Whipple Auditorium, Cedar Rapids Public Library, 450 Fifth Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

When: 5 p.m. reception, 5:30 p.m. presentation, Wednesday

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