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Young activists create artwork exploring children’s issues

From left, Kasi Hohbach, Naaman Cordova-Muenzberg and Jillian Foster are geared up for First Friday’s Transcendence Project. Artists and social service agencies teamed up to produce art that highlights children’s issues as part of April’s Our Kids: Our Business initiative. (Jesse Tinsley)
From left, Kasi Hohbach, Naaman Cordova-Muenzberg and Jillian Foster are geared up for First Friday’s Transcendence Project. Artists and social service agencies teamed up to produce art that highlights children’s issues as part of April’s Our Kids: Our Business initiative. (Jesse Tinsley)

The rotten economy produced one fruitful thing this year: an influx of young adults participating in Our Kids: Our Business, a local monthlong focus on children’s issues.

“Many are college graduates, and the best jobs they could get were AmeriCorps volunteer positions,” explained Mary Ann Murphy, executive director of Partners with Families and Children: Spokane.

“In my generation, we always had to join the Peace Corps and go to some other country. But now we know America needs saving.”

On Friday, the Transcendence Project opens in downtown Spokane. Artists and social service agencies collaborated to create 11 art pieces for First Friday, Spokane’s monthly art and cultural event.

Children’s issues – abuse, neglect and saving children from that abuse and neglect – are interwoven into the artwork.

Here’s a look at three of the young, prime movers behind the Transcendence Project.

Naaman Cordova-Muenzberg, 25, has spent the past several months in search of 500 pair of children’s underwear.

He’s the originator, along with artist Jillian Foster, of the entire Transcendence project. He also created an art installation for the event with his team, Boys Who Like Butterflies.

The installation explores sexual violence toward children. But the underwear, strung on a clothesline, depicts not the violence, but the innocence before the violence.

“To take you back to a time when you didn’t have dirty laundry to air,” he explained. “When we’re children, we’re supposed to experience safety and hope.”

Cordova-Muenzberg, a Gonzaga University graduate, was an AmeriCorps volunteer last year with Washington State Mentors. He created a mentor database used in Our Kids: Our Business.

After his AmeriCorps stint, he was hired by Goodwill Industries of the Inland Northwest. He matches kids with mentors in the agency’s Mentoring Children of Promise program.

Through Goodwill, Cordova-Muenzberg continues his participation in Our Kids: Our Business. His mantra this year: “We need to engage more kids in Our Kids. We need more of the youth voice in the campaign.”

That voice has been appreciated by the men and women toiling forever in social-service trenches.

“We’ve been considering this stuff for at least 40 years, and we think in boxes,” said Roy Harrington of Spokane, who has been involved in social service work for nearly 42 years.

“The young people understand that (abused) kids are really not very different from them. They think, ‘We’re in this together.’ ”

Cordova-Muenzberg soon discovered that finding 500 pair of white, new children’s underwear was nearly impossible in this Spiderman-underwear culture. He consulted Murphy, so well known in social service circles that he saw her as a “kind of demigoddess.”

When he told Murphy his vision for the artwork, he felt nervous. An installation featuring children’s underwear could be misinterpreted, but Cordova-Muenzberg said that Murphy “got it right away.”

Together, they’ve collected about 200 pair of underwear, enough to finish the installation. The underwear will eventually be donated to children helped by Partners with Families and Children: Spokane.

“He’s determined to make a statement on the issue of sexual violence,” said Murphy, who has advocated for children in Spokane for 35 years.

“How many words have I written over the years trying to explain to people what it means to be a child violated? All those words – they are nothing compared to an image that touches people so deeply.”

Jillian Foster, 32, together with Cordova-Muenzberg, brainstormed the Transcendence Project into existence.

Foster isn’t an AmeriCorps volunteer. But like many young artists, she works a day job – produce manager for Fresh Abundance – and lives and breathes art the rest of the time.

The Eastern Washington University fine arts graduate says of the Spokane art scene: “There are alternative spaces that push the envelope, but we’re not going to have a gallery full of something controversial in Spokane.”

The mother of a young son, Foster knows society would like to shut out painful realities about children’s lives. Children are abused, abandoned, murdered in body and soul. Some of Friday’s artwork will depict that.

“When you go into a gallery and see something that offends you, it’s pushing you into a different place,” she said.

“We need to be pushed there.”

But Friday’s art works will also feature children’s hope and resilience.

Artist Tiffany Patterson, for instance, teamed up with at-risk children and their mentors on a collaborative painting, and Patterson is doing a stop-motion film about the creation of it.

Both will be featured in the exhibit titled “A Brighter Future” at the Music City Building, 1011 W. First Ave.

Jim Kolva and Pat Sullivan, longtime Spokane arts supporters, opened up their Kolva-Sullivan Gallery to the Transcendence Project. Crosswalk teens will display their art there.

“It was an easy call, because Jillian initiated it,” Kolva said. “I said, ‘Whatever you want to do, go ahead and do it.’ I trust her judgment.”

Kolva said the art scene in Spokane needs artists such as Foster: “It will die if you don’t bring in younger groups and energetic ideas.”

Kasi Hohbach, 23, is an AmeriCorps volunteer with Volunteers of America. She is getting the word out about the Transcendence Project – and all Our Kids: Our Business events – through social media networks, including Facebook and Twitter.

When she first walked into the Our Kids meetings, she felt intimidated. She was surrounded by Spokane’s social service warriors. She often met for coffee with Cordova-Muenzberg, and he advised her to speak up.

She did. Hohbach, along with other young people involved in Our Kids, questioned the use of the campaign’s iconic symbol: plastic pinwheels made in China. Could the group go greener?

It has. Reusable banners are slowly replacing the pinwheels.

“None of us thought of that,” said Marilee Roloff, president and CEO of Volunteers of America. “We love our pinwheels, but they were right.”

Hohbach, a Gonzaga University graduate, also started an Our Kids blog.

“When she brought up the blog, Facebook and Twitter, I psychologically rolled my eyes, because I didn’t know what she was talking about,” Roloff said. “But it’s been a huge success.”

Roloff has worked in social service here for 35 years. She said the warriors are still enthusiastic, but weary.

“The established leaders sometimes feel discouraged,” she said. “When I’m feeling like, ‘Oh, we’ve tried that, and it won’t work, why bother,’ I look at Kasi and she’s just ready to try it, whatever it is.

“The young people want to do more, not less. They are aching to contribute.”

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