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Mildred Beltré Considers Intersection of Art and Politics

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"Here I Am" - COURTESY OF MILDRED BELTRE
  • Courtesy Of Mildred Beltre
  • "Here I Am"

During a talk for her 2014 show "Dream Works" at the BCA Center in Burlington, artist and University of Vermont associate professor Mildred Beltré told the audience that a small cross-stitch displayed on the gallery wall was a last-minute addition to the show. It was also the first time she'd ever done cross-stitch.

Since then, fiber has had a large role in and influence on her work. Beltré's latest show at the Kentler International Drawing Space in Brooklyn, "Science of the Word," includes silk-screen prints, tapestries, weblike black crochet and large, colorful drawings that display abstracted text. In photos, the drawings could easily be mistaken for quilts; large images pieced together with tiny blocks of color form words — but only if the viewer is looking closely.

Beltré will discuss the Kentler show and more during her public talk as a visiting artist at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson on Friday, July 26.

"Part of my interest in working in fiber was to also think about the political as residing within the home," Beltré said in a phone interview, "and to think about, 'How do politics function and resonate within the domestic setting?'"

We often think about revolution, political or otherwise, as something that takes place outside the home, Beltré said. But her work explores how it forms in our interpersonal relationships, in the kitchen or in the bedroom.

She also reflects those domestic themes by displaying her work in galleries on clotheslines. This idea, Beltré said, actually came from former BCA curator DJ Hellerman. He visited her studio, saw that she hung work on clotheslines there and suggested letting gallery visitors experience it in the same way she did every day.

"I Feel (Brown)" - COURTESY OF MILDRED BELTRE
  • Courtesy Of Mildred Beltre
  • "I Feel (Brown)"

Beltré, who has worked in community organizing with grassroots political organizations, said she's always been an activist. But her art straddles a delicate line: suggesting a political message without shouting it. It takes some time to decipher the text in some of her drawings, but once you can read it, you still find yourself without all the answers. Phrases such as "I feel most colored when I am up against a warm brown" and "I am a rainbow, too" seem like social commentary but aren't necessarily explicit in their message.

"I'm more interested, always, in eliciting a conversation," Beltré said, "so, putting something out that can be discussed with someone rather than telling someone what to think. It's not very interesting to just be told things."

She doesn't want her work seen as a puzzle to be solved. When viewers free themselves from the guessing game of the meaning in a piece of art — "getting it," so to speak — there is new space for conversation, questions and for understanding of the work to evolve.

"I don't want to put out anything that's so prescribed that it has to be understood within such narrow parameters," Beltré said. "The meaning of those texts changes over time for me ... I think artwork that can also do that, that can sort of shift and grow with you, is nice."

Mildred Beltré - COURTESY OF MILDRED BELTRE
  • Courtesy Of Mildred Beltre
  • Mildred Beltré

For years, Beltré has taught in two very different settings. She's been at UVM since 2008, teaching drawing and printmaking in the Department of Art and Art History. She's also a cofounder of an ongoing public art project called the Brooklyn Hi-Art! Machine. There, along with her friend Oasa DuVerney, she's taught silk-screening, poster making and weaving, literally on the streets of her neighborhood in Crown Heights. The two have woven fabric into fences to form text; one of their weavings, reading "DO NOT DISAPPEAR INTO SILENCE," was installed on the front façade of the Brooklyn Museum for nine months.

Teaching, Beltré said, has hugely influenced her work and freed up her thinking about what ideas can go into the work, especially as her art has increasingly become text-based.

"The fence weavings came from the cross-stitches that I was doing," she said. "It's not like we knew how to weave into a fence."

Next spring, Beltré will merge her teaching in New York and Vermont with a new NYC-based program for UVM students called Arts in Action. Students will intern at art institutions, learn about how art reaches different audiences and communities, and take a course from Beltré on the history of art and activism in the city.

It will be "like a study-abroad program, but a semester in New York," she explained.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Subtle Messages | Mildred Beltré considers the intersection of art and politics"

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