A smiling person with short hair and chunky earrings
Program Coordinator, Public Art

Continuing in our "Artists Learn-and-Share" series, we recently connected with Masschusetts-based artist Yara Liceaga-Rojas to hear how the Public Art Learning Fund has strengthened her public artmaking practices this past year.

Despite pandemic-related travel disruptions, Yara leaned into virtual learning opportunities through the Allied Media Conference and Americans for the ArtsPublic Art and Civic Design Convention, as well as a mentorship with Diana Nucera (Mother Cyborg).

Kamaria Carrington (KC): Tell me about the professional development opportunities your accessed through the Public Art Learning Fund. And, in this COVID-19 reality, what has this professional develop opportunity meant to your practice as a public artists/creative?

Yara Liceaga-Rojas (YLR): In the Americans for the Arts’ annual convention on Public Art and Civic Design—very specifically—I received information about issues with permits, developing projects, installations, and how the chamber of commerce  can support cultural work. The highlight of that was getting to know the Monument Lab. I didn't know they existed and was blown away by how they were doing work and at that specific moment in the pandemic . Black Lives Matter was very visible and present. I began to rethink the way I consider public space and existing—who gets to simply exist, and how I practice embodying those spaces. How do I relate with the outdoors? COVID brought a clear sense of what indoors and outdoors meant.

I was able to become an Americans for the Arts’ member with the Public Art Learning Fund. So, that membership lowered the cost for the convention which was always too expensive for me in the past. And that meant I could go back to my original Public Art Learning Fund proposal and do all three professional development opportunities when I re-calculated the costs. I didn’t need to travel to conferences or pay for my stay.

The online Allied Media Conference showed me how you can be really inclusive in terms of abilities, neuro-diversity, and almost all of the sessions and content was BIPoC led and Queer/Trans led. I could see that it could be done! What I was initially looking for was related to physicality... but what I did find was strategy and how I could translate that into public artmaking. What are the measures for inclusion? And how do I think outside of my own framework and community to imagine possibilities? And those that specifically have to do with well-being: food, physicality, pleasure, mental and emotional health...?

Having access to funds for a self-designed mentorship was an added benefit to this funding. Diana Nucera (Mother Cyborg) is an extraordinary human, DJ, tech person, and spreads knowledge around building systems outside of usual infrastructure, in places that don’t have the benefits of internet infrastructures. Not only does she share her knowledge, but she actually builds the infrastructure needed as well!

We talked about how to build relationships further out into communities. I embody a lot of intersections. We talked specifically about how do I occupy space through sound! OMG! Wow! We are still working with this. I am training with her to focus on what I always have done individually (doing everything) and shifting this practice to be more collaborative.

In a dark gallery space, Yara reads from a text, while an audience member holds a flashlight over the document.
A Yara Liceaga-Rojas performance | photo by Luis Cotto

KC: What was something surprising you learned about yourself, your practice, and/or public art making through accessing these opportunities?

YLR: The Public Art Learning Fund grant allowed me to hold space for deeper conversation about how my creative practice contributed to expanding space for well-being on the land for public artmaking. That is the work I want to deepen. I refuse to put my body in the middle of everything unless it is for the better. Even if it’s catharsis, how can I aesthetically push things so that we can live together, and are we socially and culturally ready? Are we ready for that as a society? As a site-specific society. The climate for me while I’m in Puerto Rico makes me aware. I t’s very present how climate changes the way you create. How do you invite the outdoors into your practices and how does the outdoors impact your practices? Knowing how climate injustice, environmental injustice, and gentrification works: the central questions of who gets to enjoy the outdoors and the art making is always present for me. For example, the outskirts in Cambridge is where most BIPoC community members live, while the city center is mostly white. And that is how it generally works in wealthy hoarding nations. How do I create from the outskirts? Am I invited into those spaces? How do I create relationships within those spaces? I have been specifically thinking about who is art for, and what is expected of me and what am I calling in?

And then there is the conflict of public art that is so associated with gentrification and the process of gentrification, and now the pandemic is doing that work along Mass Ave. Disaster capitalism is doing that work... So how do we as artist not contribute to that process of gentrification and is it possible? What are the kinds of work that I want to put out there that don’t contribute? How do we concretely and with self-awareness make gentrification unwelcome in communities where we create in public? As a person from Puerto Rico, I am super aware that I do not want to keep inviting land grabs away from local residents in my country. I don’t want to do that in the place(s) that I live.

KC: What has this opportunity opened up for you? Would you recommend other artists accessing it?

YLR: At the beginning of the pandemic, imagination was so hard. I didn’t have the energy or space to create. I was in crisis response-mode.  What this specific grant helped me with was giving myself the tools to eventually give myself the space to imagine. So, when the opportunity came to apply to the Collective Imagination for Spatial Justice, I was ready! I was ready to share a vision for what I wanted to contribute. I was invited into Mar Parilla’s work for the Collective Imagination for Spatial Justice grant proposal. Mar is doing work around soil and land and finding herself again from what has been taken and cut off from our lineage. Luana Morales—also invited into this team—is a healer and death doula who is well versed in dealing with the impermanence of life. It's truly beautiful to have had the support to be present at a moment when it was really difficult to be present mentally, emotionally, and psychologically—collectively this time has troubled our imaginations. Fortunately, this was also the right time for me to evolve my practice in ways that I was longing for.

I would definitely recommend other public artists accessing this opportunity. One conversation I have been having so much is how much autonomy do we have as artists. And who is supporting where my creativity is going? Who is providing funds in a way that cares for and promotes artists? The Public Art Learning Fund has definitely been a great experience that’s allowed me to be my own creative guide during a particularly devastating time.

KC: Wow! Thank you for sharing your experience with us Yara!

For more "Artists Learn-and-Share," read our interview with Chris Battaglia and Shey Rivera Ríos.

Apply to the Public Art Learning Fund

Visit nefa.org/PublicArtLearningFund to learn more about the April 20, 2021 deadline, including eligibility, funding priorities, and more.

Yara Liceaga-Rojas (she/her/hers)

In front of large pads with text written on them, Yara smiles. Yara has thick curly hair and wears a sweater dress with her nametag on her chest.
Yara Liceaga-Rojas at a workshop in western Massachusetts | photo by Erin Long

I am a queer Afro-Caribbean Puerto Rican mother. My art projects revolve around the visibility of marginalized subjects. I write, perform, and create multidisciplinary arts projects and workshops in response to my urge to keep on building the world I’m interested in: sustainable, just, loving, kind, inclusive, honest.

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