Camp Washington's Art Is Growing From Its Soil

When you think of ways to view Cincinnati’s Camp Washington neighborhood, you probably wouldn’t consider looking at it using the lens of soil as a starting point.

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click to enlarge Wave Pool - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Wave Pool

When you think of ways to view Cincinnati’s Camp Washington neighborhood, you probably wouldn’t consider looking at it using the lens of soil as a starting point.

After all, it’s very much a built environment.

Yet soil is what Erin Colleen Johnson, the first Art Space Is Your Space artist-in-residence at the neighborhood’s nonprofit Wave Pool gallery, chose as the filter for exploring the neighborhood. The Atlanta-based artist is about to share the artistic results of her May residency Saturday.

Johnson, who holds an MFA (with a certificate in New Media) from University of California at Berkeley, is dedicated to social-practice art. “I think in all my work, there is a desire to connect with others,” she says. “Some of the work I have made is about people who maybe aren’t connecting with other people, but through the making of the work one is made.”

For instance, for one performative art piece, Johnson brought guests to a radio station in Marin County, Calif., to watch volunteers maintain archaic Morse code transmissions for historic reasons — even though no one is listening. She wanted to provide those volunteers with an appreciative audience, and also allow her guests to share in keeping a tradition alive by sending some messages themselves.

While in the Bay Area, Johnson met Calcagno Cullen, who runs Wave Pool as a “contemporary art fulfillment center” with husband Geoffrey. At that time, Cullen accepted a work by Johnson into a show she curated at Adobe Books Backroom Gallery. So she invited Johnson to apply for Wave Pool’s first ArtsWave-funded residency, and four jurors selected her.  

Before coming to Wave Pool, Johnson had been working on a video about Providence Canyon near Lumpkin, Ga. It is some 1,000 acres of gullies and ravines that developed in the 1800s as a result of soil erosion from poor farming practices. (Today it is an outdoor recreation area.)

She knew she in someway wanted to incorporate that video into her Camp Washington residency. Learning that Camp Washington in 1850 was the site of the first Ohio State Fair, she researched what occurred there and discovered there was an essay contest on how to prevent soil erosion.  

So she had her soil connection. 

Investigating further, Johnson discovered that Camp Washington neighborhood leaders have started an urban farm — complete with donkeys — on a two-acre site bounded by Valley Park, River City Correctional Center, Monmouth Bridge and I-75 (according to the farm’s website). In 2014, the farm harvested bok choy and winter lettuce. It also has an arrangement with residents of the nearby correctional center to work the farm. 

From 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, Johnson will be at the farm with Camp Washington residents — and anyone else who wants to come — to tour it and participate in a groundbreaking. She is having a ceremonial shovel made and there will be commemorative certificates available for participants. She will also talk to those present about an earlier, private ceremony that occurred for the correctional center residents.

Then, at 6 p.m. at Wave Pool (2940 Colerain Ave.), she has invited David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, to talk about the effects of racism on the criminal justice system. That connects to the fact that slaves were forced to provide labor during the farming practices in Georgia that caused soil erosion. 

You can probably see at this point how Johnson herself makes connections and tries to get others to join in. The final piece of her Camp Washington art project occurs at 7 p.m. at Wave Pool, when she will give a performative lecture in which she provides commentary while showing her Providence Canyon video. There will also be a gallery display of some of the objects, like the shovel, used in the urban farm groundbreaking.

Wave Pool already has its next residency lined up for July, when Sarah Hotchkiss and Carey Lin, the two members of a San Francisco art group called Stairwell’s, come to town. They will be working on art projects involving Cincinnati’s public stairways. The gallery is looking for funding for a 2016 residency program.

Johnson, meanwhile, will be going to Bowdoin College in Maine to be a visiting artist. 

“I believe in having a sense of history and seeing how it can relate to the making of contemporary art in all its various forms,” she says.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]

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