Artist adds new perspective on the meaning of community

There has been much discussion of how Issaquah will evolve over the next 10, 20 or even 50 years. Community leaders are developing parks, evaluating marketing ideas and enticing businesses. But are these steps taking us in the right direction?

There has been much discussion of how Issaquah will evolve over the next 10, 20 or even 50 years. Community leaders are developing parks, evaluating marketing ideas and enticing businesses. But are these steps taking us in the right direction?

One local man has been asking these kinds of questions for more than 20 years. Milenko Matanovic, an Eastern European artist, established the nonprofit Pomegranate Center in 1986 as a vehicle to encourage other artists to become actively involved in improving their communities. He was reacting to the observation that people in modern cities were becoming increasing isolated, and he wanted to explore ways to change or enhance our vision of what community means.

A long way from Issaquah

Matanovic’s journey to Western Washington began thousands of miles away in Slovenia, a republic that was part of the former nation of Yugoslavia. Born in the capital city of Ljubljana, he grew up in a community with a farmer’s market two blocks from his home and with a symphony just down the street.

While studying art, Matanovic joined forces with other experimental artists to develop a group called OHO. During the late 1960s and early 70s, the four founding members collaborated with people from all artistic disciplines, including filmmakers, poets, photographers and sculptors.

”It was kind of an unstructured coalition who, I believe, shared a basic dissatisfaction with the status quo,” he explained.

From 1969 through 1973, the OHO collaborations produced mostly temporary or transitory displays, which became permanent only through the use of photography. It’s these photos that are still studied by art students today, and are on display in museums and art galleries.

At the end of an intense four years of work, the group disbanded and Matanovic found himself questioning the traditional role of artists, asking whether or not there might be a different way of doing things. He felt that museums and galleries were “the artistic equivalent of a zoo.”

“These artist creatures should roam free,” he said. “It’s fine to have zoos, but it’s probably more important have nature where they can live.”

He knew he wanted to take art out of the museums and bring it into communities, but at the time he couldn’t articulate exactly what that meant. So, at the age of 24, he very consciously stepped out of traditional work in the art world and began traveling.

“I never intended to leave, but I did feel that the society where I lived was not offering much hope for the future,” Matanovic said. “I was trained as an art historian at university and what I’ve been trained in is completely irrelevant to what I think the future is calling for.”

Though he was raised in communist country and many of his ideas went against society’s rules, Matanovic doesn’t consider himself a political refugee and his work was not politically motivated.

“I just went traveling and then ended up here,” he said.

Turning communities into artwork

When Matanovic came to the U.S. he learned about American nonprofit organizations, which are very different than their European equivalents. While most nonprofits work to address issues of hunger, homelessness and disease, a small percentage work on research and development.

“I started Pomegrantate Center as a research organization that would explore this idea of a different expression and role for artists,” he said. “And that’s what I’ve been experimenting with ever since.”

At the same time that Pomegranate Center was finding its legs, Washington state was trying to keep urban sprawl from destroying the natural environment. In 1990, the state enacted the Growth Management Act (GMA), which mandated that communities prepare themselves for growth and establish urban boundaries as a way to reduce uncontrolled growth that threatened to endanger nearby ecosystems.

The environment had always been of concern for Matanovic, and it had played a key role in his OHO artwork, so being involved in the local discussions of how to preserve Issaquah’s environment was a natural fit for him and for Pomegranate Center.

“We inserted ourselves in that conversation because the law required community participation,” he explained. “I attended one of the meetings trying to understand what Issaquah was. I felt at the time that community had no voice.”

Even with active solicitation of public input, citizens can feel that the process is simply for show and officials are only listening because of legal requirements or perceived involvement instead of with a genuine desire to collaborate with residents.

“Artists can be at the table solving other problems, and I continue to be committed to that idea, but not only artists,” he said. “I think many perspectives are need to solve the problems facing our communities. It cannot be done from one point of view anymore.”

People need communities to be multi-faceted – safe, attractive, efficient, inviting – but Matanovic feels that many of our cities have become one-dimensional. They’re designed better for cars than for people.

“At Pomegranate Center, we think of communities as artworks rather than of communities as places with artworks in them,” he explained. “The qualities associated with an art object need to be spread throughout what we create. It’s not a radical idea, but it is sometimes challenging for people.”

In 1991, Matanovic and a colleague were invited to Mexico to build their first community gathering place. The idea was to bring together area residents from all backgrounds to create a public places that meet the needs of that community.

When the developers of Pickering Place heard about the Mexico project, they contacted Pomegranate Center and the first Issaquah gathering place was built, the Pickering Place Amphitheater. This project led to the development of Ashland Park in the Issaquah Highlands. And now, nearly two decades later, Pomegranate Center has worked on more than 20 community projects around the world.

The organization’s success is due to the members concerted efforts to bring together sometimes opposing groups like government agencies, civic organizations, artists and developers and help them identify and address positive solutions to the community’s problems.

Back to the Balkans

Having left his homeland more than three decades ago, Matanovic will be returning to Slovenia and neighboring Croatia this September to participate in two events honoring the work of OHO. This will be his first opportunity to bring his current work to the people there, the core of which “is a far trajectory from that art and it challenges their definition of what art is.”

The first event is part of the opening celebration for a contemporary art museum in Zagreb, Croatia. The curators have dedicated one of the days to honor the work of OHO during its heyday, which Matanovic considers playful and exploratory. While OHO’s work may not have drawn as much attention in an artistically welcoming city such as New York or Paris, amid Yugoslavia’s communist regime, the contrast in thinking had a much greater impact.

“Because it was so unusual for that culture, I think that’s the reason why we’re still famous there,” he said. “Because we broke the boxes and gave a lot of people the permission to do the same. The reputation we have is part on artistic merit and part on the social narrative. We showed there was another way of going about life.”

The second event is more personal. In his hometown of Ljubjana, at the modern art gallery where most of OHO’s work is on permanent display, he and another group member will be doing presentations that are really a day of conversations for the citizens of Ljubljana.

“This will be the first time I will actually have a chance to show anyone in Europe what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years.”

No rest for the famous

Immediately upon his return from Slovenia, Matanovic and his group from Pomegranate Center will head to Walla Walla for the final stage in their Washington Park project. Over 10 days, they will work with approximately 100 volunteers to transform a misused open space into a community gathering place.

Like many of Pomegranate projects, the Washington Park Gathering Place is an attempt to combat negative and illegal activities that often sprout up in cities. By including local people in the process, neighbors become invested in the project and take pride in its successful outcome.

Pomegranate Center hasn’t completed a project in Issaquah for several years, mostly because they haven’t been asked, but that doesn’t mean Matanovic has turned all of his attention to other communities.

“I think Issaquah, like many communities, is not intellectually curious enough about the future. That is purely from Pomegranate Center’s prospective,” he said. “If it’s true that the environmental factors are going to be an issue…if it’s true that communities need to be more self-reliant…if it’s true that health needs to be reintegrated into our lives so we decrease obesity…and if it’s true that fresh food is important…if it’s true that seniors have something to contribute…if it’s true that children learn through osmosis and therefore everything in the environment that they absorb influences them forever…if all those things are true, we would start creating towns, cities and communities very differently.”

From his point of view, Matanovic thinks people don’t have enough courage to face these questions and not enough imagination. With all the planning and project development going on in Issaquah, the citizens and community leaders need to be brave and ask the difficult questions.

“It takes a lot of intellectual curiosity and moral courage to start facing those issues,” he continued. “Communities can change for the better under the right conditions. We have lost the habit of creating those conditions. We need to artificially bring them back to life.”

Do you want to learn more about Pomegranate Center and contribute to their projects? On Saturday, Aug. 21, the center will be hosting a Carve-a-thon. People can stop by between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. to watch and even learn about carving, sanding and staining artistic designs into wood. If you don’t want to carve yourself, you can contribute by purchasing one of the personalized works of art. More details are available on Pomegranate Center’s website.