Sharing stories: Finding paths from the outside in
My name is Joanne Grüne-Yanoff. I am an artist.
I am also an immigrant. I came to Europe 16 years ago for family and work, eventually settling in Stockholm. Although it is difficult for me to imagine that I will never again live in my original hometown, I have established work, family, and network here, all of which are incorporated into Swedish society. Consequently, I function as an outsider/insider in my former and present homes, and how I perceive the world is informed by this binary state.
I employ this perception in my artistic practice, where I explore the charged relationship between individual and society. Perhaps typical of an immigrant, I often think about what home is, how community can be constructed, and ways that the mysterious cultural grammar of new environments can be decoded, understood and assimilated. Such reflections thread themselves through my days and eventually find space to coalesce in my studio.
These ruminations also accompany the community building art workshops I lead.
As an artist, I tap into my thoughts and hands to build things, and construct social connections to sustain energy and hope. The workshops are an outgrowth of tools I use instinctively as an artist and immigrant: reaching in to find stories, reaching out to convey them and, resultantly, establishing new connections. In my workshops, people with different life experiences gather, share stories, and create together, ultimately forming community.
In the spirit of Reimagining Migration Narratives, I present the evolution of this practice through the lens of sharing stories around migration, and illustrate how the process continues in my studio, where elements of workshop narratives weave into artworks that perform as aesthetic objects while generating connections with audiences around the world.
In a continuing reshaping and refining of my practice, each workshop brings new information, every artwork creates additional ideas, and all exhibitions come with feedback. Accordingly, this project is constantly evolving.
This story begins in 2014 when my children, then ages 5 and 8, came from school troubled by tales about refugees. Specifically, they worried we would invite people to come live with us. This recurred for weeks. No matter how often I maintained we had no such plans, and these were just people like us, their worries, based on circulating school stories, remained. Their anxious narrative, based on some knowledge and some fear, had embedded itself deeply in them; they were not dissuadable.
Eventually I contacted a center for people seeking refuge in Sweden and arranged to do an art workshop, with my kids along as helpers. The workshop went well, and after we left, my daughter said: ‘This word – refugee – I’m never using it again. They’re just people!’
After months of apprehensively using precisely that word, she spent one afternoon interacting with displaced individuals, and recognized them as ‘just people’. It got me thinking - I knew native-born Swedes and recent émigrés. Maybe, if we could gather for a workshop, we might create connections.
Some weeks later, fifteen people gathered in my studio. We introduced ourselves, had some coffee and cake, and settled into our mismatched chairs. I spoke about my work process, how I translate ideas to visual symbols with which I create artworks, and demonstrated with a story and corresponding piece. The story I chose to share was personal, and soon there was a sense of connection established in the small room. When I showed how the story connected with the artwork, people were comfortable enough to ask questions, and give comments. I then asked people to communicate their own stories, and we would engage the same process.
To my surprise, people readily revealed their stories, from banal to traumatic. I had worried over how to encourage people to share, and so chose my own contribution with care, in the hopes that it might be relatable enough to encourage similar participation. As it turned out, people were so eager to share that I had to find ways to stop some from imparting more than one in order to make time for everyone. However difficult (or comparatively trivial) people might have felt their stories were, their desire to speak and connect prevailed. After everyone shared, elements from each story were assigned symbols with which we constructed drawings.
Afterwards, many voiced relief at sharing their stories. Some credited the power of having (painful) words transformed into symbolic drawings, allowing different stories to emerge visually. I was happy about this regarding a single workshop, but I hoped this would be a basis for creating community, and I wondered if the experiences recounted were so divergent, we might have created as much distance as connection. Could the recent high school graduate who shared a story about fighting with her parents and feeling subsequently isolated as she stared into a star-filled sky connect with the teenager who left his family in the middle of the night, walked through several countries to take a boat across rough waters, watched someone drown on that journey, and arrived to an uncertain future in Sweden?
I believe sharing our stories connects us profoundly – to ourselves, each other, and the world around us. I imagined if I could provide a safe space, people would assemble, communicate, and build community through small moments of understanding. I hadn’t considered that people often tell stories they assume hold currency for the group: neighborhood participants might share artistic vignettes, imagining they held worth, while displaced individuals might relate harrowing stories, believing those carried value.
If the narrative choices were governed by such perceived social norms, we needed to overcome this by revealing their existence or by guiding the discourse more carefully.
Building narrative communities
In the next workshop, I tried a new tack. We sat in a circle, and I asked people to remove their shoes and trace their footprints on paper. In Sweden, people remove their shoes upon entering homes. I had the idea if we removed our shoes in this more anonymous space, it might establish a similar comfort. It seemed to work. With this gesture, sometimes accompanied by awkward giggles, we created an intimacy inside our circle. I spoke a little about how I live far from my homeland, and how the word ‘home’ brought a specific picture to mind. Soon everyone shared stories about what pictures the word ‘home’ brought them. The narratives revealed were sometimes dramatic, occasionally funny, and often touching. People nodded as they listened to stories they could understand and even identify with. Our small circle filled with connections.
Reaching new audiences
After running workshops for 6 years, I am still amazed that when individuals with such different experiences assemble in an open, safe environment, and are asked to talk about something so formative as home, the same phrases come up repeatedly: ‘Home is family’. ‘Home is laughing in my language’. ‘Home is the smell of my mother’s cooking’.
In my studio, such phrases thread through my work. My aim is that audiences walk up to a piece and recognize in these words their own sentiments.
Further, if they read about this process, they might learn that this recognition connects to someone they imagined was unlike themselves.
Ultimately, both the workshops and the artworks endeavor to activate understanding and community. The circles we construct can ripple outwards, where new audiences may find themselves reflected in the artworks, and along with that, a recognition that, despite differences, we aren’t so unalike after all.
Joanne Grüne-Yanoff is a visual artist internationally recognized for poetic multi-media works that examine the individual’s charged relationship with the outside world. Her practice also incorporates workshops with people from a variety of backgrounds to help create community through dialogue and art. She constructs safe spaces in which participants can step away from prejudices, cultural expectations, and social norms, explore personal histories, and convey their own resonant narratives. Filmmaker Charlotta Hayes is creating documentaries on Grüne-Yanoff’s workshops, one of which has just been produced:
Born in Philadelphia, USA, 1966, Grüne-Yanoff lives and works in Stockholm, Sweden.