As I walk into Richard and Michele Fritz’ home studio I am greeted by a handmade stop-motion set that takes up most of the entryway. It is composed of carefully detailed streets, buildings and overpasses, and is as brightly colored as a kids’ television program. Its purpose, however, is to tell a darker story.
The intention behind the Art is Long, Life is Short project is to call attention to social injustice, poverty, broken systems and the people who suffer through these deep-rooted issues on a daily basis. While a childlike set may seem an odd backdrop for such weighty concerns, it actually reflects the team’s focus on the children who are caught up in such cycles of neglect and abuse.
Richard and Michele, along with their partner for this project, Crystal Gould, worked for years in the juvenile justice system as both mentors and teachers. They engaged with kids in the programs through teaching art, audio engineering and simply being available to listen to their stories. Not only did they get to know the children, but in some cases their families as well, and the issues they encountered ranged from typical conflicts amongst teenagers to dealing with grief and the loss of friends and family members.
Michele recounts one among many memorable incidents. She used to pick up a student she worked with for several years from their family home. Across the street was a car that had bullet holes in the side and appeared to never move. One day Michele was told that the car had belonged to the student’s uncle who had been the victim of a fatal shooting. The family was unsure of what to do with the car so they simply left it on the street, a constant reminder of their heartache and loss.
This presented the artists with a challenge – how do you make art about such trauma? How do you process situations that many people go their whole lives without having to face? How do you deal with knowing that you can only do so much and that it will never really be enough?
Michele started making collages. She pieced together items from grant/government/social work documents with drawings made by children and her own illustrations. The unmoving car, for example, is included in an early work. Collage seems to be the perfect medium for what is happening in Art is Long, Life is Short. It is reminiscent of cut-n-paste, a happy childhood memory for so many, yet it simultaneously alludes to the many overlapping layers of societal problems.
As a project, Art Is Long, Life is Short incorporates some of Michele’s handmade works, but is also in itself a collage. Layers of several elements are at play. Fritz is using animation to bring the artwork to life and local writer and long-term collaborator Marcus Meriwether also joined the team. Meriwether contributes powerful perspectives to the plot line as someone who has experienced many of these situations first-hand.
The first chapter was released in the format of a video/writing combo on the team’s website. Originally it was going to be released as a webisode, set up like a “choose your own adventure” story that allowed the audience to direct the main character, Darian, through his day. That has now changed in order to include more possible outcomes.
The original intent for audience engagement is still present; however the concept has expanded to include a short film and a digital book that includes segments of writing and oral narration. The writing is completely collaborative, pulling not only from the program participants’ experience but also from the personal lives of Richard, Michele, Crystal and Marcus.
They wrestled with including current events in the story line, so Darian’s story changes to reflect the community discussion surrounding these topics. Yet, while the tale is both deeply personal for the contributors and represents the real world, it is also fictional. It is the absence of specific details that makes the plot relatable to many – since situations just like these are passed from generation to generation all across the country. It’s everyone’s story, though not everyone pays attention to it.
The Art is Long, Life is Short team is aiming to drive more awareness and to encourage others to see beyond themselves and their immediate social circle. The hope is that online interactions will ultimately lead to participation in conversation and engagement with others, and that these could then lead to real world action and involvement.
The team is bringing their arduous project to a close now, and hope to release the final work this summer. For these artists it will all have been worth it if they have contributed in some small way towards breaking the negative cycles in which our communities have become stuck.