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I Wanna Hug You: Dave Eassa on Community, Connection, and Covid

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In order to see Dave Eassa’s new show, I Wanna Hug You, I drove to a quiet, tree-lined residential neighborhood and let myself in through someone’s back gate. Bags of soil were stacked next to the garden beds—evidence of a family’s weekend activities rather than an art gallery—and I walked past a firepit, a hammock, and an A-frame treehouse before I reached The Shed.

The Shed is a new exhibition space run by artist Bonnie Crawford, located in her backyard. (It’s also a literal shed, built by a previous owner of the home.) The untraditional setting allows for an intimacy we’re all lacking these days. When Crawford emailed me directions, she told me to help myself to jalapeños and sugar snap peas growing in the garden, playing host in spite of the fact that I couldn’t see her on my visit.

That need for connection echoes throughout I Wanna Hug You. The show consists of a large sculpture by Eassa—three gestural figures, painted in dandelion yellow, raspberry red, and cerulean blue, hug each other with blissed-out smiles on their faces—along with an interactive element. Visitors are asked three questions: What do you miss the most? What are you leaving behind? What are you taking with you?

Eassa has been asking those questions himself. As an extrovert whose life is centered on people—he works at the Baltimore Museum of Art as Manager of Community Engagement, and he’s an active member in the city’s skateboarding scene—the shutdown triggered an intense period of self-reflection. In addition to dealing with the shock of the pandemic, Eassa faced limited mobility while recovering from knee surgery, and he grieved the loss of two friends. His best friend Ron, who Eassa grew up with and describes as one of his brothers, was killed by gun violence last March. Around the same time this year, his friend Andrea also died. 

Eassa doesn’t think he’s alone in that process of self-reflection and reckoning, and he wants his show to provide a space for people to make sense of their emotions. A desk in the corner offers paper and crayons and pencils for people to doodle, and visitors’ answers line the plywood walls of The Shed: “I miss sanity and freedom.” “I am going to leave behind judging others.” “I am bringing with me a renewed sense of energy in how I show up for myself.”  (Writing utensils are separated into clean and dirty bins, and visitors are provided with hand sanitizer and disinfectant to sanitize surfaces.)

“I’m a huge geek for art and what it can do for people, and I feel like seeing those messages has been a testament to the power that art still has, even in the pandemic,” Crawford says. “Dave’s piece, I think, really strikes a chord with people right now and where we are emotionally and psychically. It’s a very joyful looking and feeling piece and I think it feels safe to explore some of the more difficult feelings that we have about the pandemic… in the context of the colorful smiling sculpture.”

 

The Shed started as a way for Crawford to display her own work—“a modest way to get feedback from friends,” she says—when most galleries were shut down or restricted by the pandemic. Her dental floss weavings formed the space’s inaugural exhibition, Signature Care, back in June.

It was also a test run for future shows. Crawford shares her Beverly Hills home with her partner, JB Hunter, and two sons, and she wanted to ensure that she could host a show in a way that was Covid-safe and wouldn’t unnecessarily impact her family. “They’ve been really accommodating and supportive,” she says. “We all, as a household, have a shared vision for this being a very creative home and welcoming space to people.”

“There’s a deep need right now for opportunities for artists to show their work, and for opportunities to view artwork in person,” she says. “I wanted to provide that opportunity if I could.” When Crawford opened up The Shed to artists’ proposals, she liked that Eassa’s wasn’t “just about meeting that need of wanting to view art but also engaging with people in a direct way that’s really powerful.”

Connecting with people has always been a cornerstone of Eassa’s practice, whether it’s through his art practice as a painter and sculptor, his work at the BMA, or his past role as the Founder and Director of Free Space, which brought art classes to Jessup Correctional Institution. In August, he co-organized the event “Skateboarders for Baltimore Ceasefire” to raise money and awareness for the local movement which combats gun violence through “ceasefire weekends” and celebrations of life. 

I spoke with Eassa (who, full disclosure, is a friend) about I Wanna Hug You, what he misses the most, what he’s leaving behind, and what he’s bringing with him post-pandemic, when we can hug each other again. 

 

Nora Belblidia: How did you develop the concept for this show? What were you thinking about at the time?

Dave Eassa: This whole time has been a massive reflection. Totally revisioning, reimagining every single aspect of our lives, from our jobs, to how our government works, to how our communities work, to how our families exist with one another, to ourselves. I’ve worked so hard to build my life to center people in all aspects, so I’ve been reflecting on everything that’s missing, all the voids, and also where I want to exist in micro and macro ways on the other side of this. 

In my day job, I was doing over fifty public events a year, interacting with over 12,000 people. It’s just people all the time, it’s beautiful. Then, all of a sudden—knee surgery, Andrea, the shutdown, Ron. I got knee surgery March 17th on the last possible day that Hopkins did any elective surgeries. The world shuts down. Ron’s day—the year anniversary of his death—was March 28th. My friend Andrea died on March 29th. Everything happened at once. The whole shift that happened with the shutdown can already make you feel insanely alone but then I’m on crutches, I can’t do anything. I have a full-on identity crisis. This massive void really just bulldozed me in March and it took me months to get out. I didn’t make any art for months. I focused on my house, I focused on cooking, things with tangible outcomes. I couldn’t deal with any uncertainty.

Covid hit like a ton of bricks, but also a bunch of other things hit like a ton of bricks all at the same time. As I started to process some of those things, and also as I started to use my body again—being able to move, being able to be active is such a huge part of my identity and how I operate in this world—all of these deep reflections came out.

What was your process creating the installation for The Shed? How was the location important?

The Shed was kind of perfect because we’ve been able to be really safe and really adhere to Covid restrictions, and all of that has played into this idea [of isolation]. Most people pull up to this neighborhood that they may not have been to before, they walk into a backyard of an obviously lived-in home. Then, they are able to have this solitary experience in this small space. It’s bare-bones but it’s just enough. It doesn’t overtell the story and it allows people to bring their own perspective to it. And when you’re in there, it’s kind of overwhelming. The sculpture is big. You can’t really see the whole thing unless you’re outside of the shed. You’re forced to reckon with it. For me, as the idea formed seeing the space, it just became the best possible place for this to be.

 

Can you talk more about the sculpture itself?

In the beginning of quarantine, I was so into tangible things, like cooking and working on my house. Sculpture almost feels like solving a problem, like when you’re doing a home renovation project or something. It was such an exciting challenge to figure out how to build these things. That’s the best part about sculpture, you have to learn every time.

I go back and forth [between] bodies of work in painting, bodies of work in sculpture. Sculpture, just from a purely logistical standpoint, is much more expensive and if I’m making something large-scale, it’s going to have a home.

Visiting the installation, I was really struck by the void or the absence of people, which I wasn’t expecting. Seeing the pieces of paper on the wall, there’s this record of people having been here. Can you talk about how you ask people to participate in this installation?

As I was reflecting personally, I was really digging into everything that I do, and it’s all people-based. The best part about all the work that I get to do is those relationships, hands down. So I started thinking about just how lonely this has felt this whole time. I guess I’m an extrovert [laughs] and this is how I have very intentionally built my life. I think I’m not alone in the feeling that it’s lonely as hell. FaceTime is wonderful, Zoom is wonderful, all these things are wonderful, but it’s not the same. It just can’t be the same.

I’ve just been doing a lot of thinking about what has been serving us. Covid has fractured open what’s been good in the world and what has just never worked for us. It’s brought everything up. There’s no hiding, the veil has been gone. And, for me, I’ve been thinking about what am I OK leaving behind and what am I going to bring with me? Because this has been a moment where I’ve been cutting the fat. What hasn’t worked for me that I held onto before? And also thinking about, what do you miss the most? What is the thing you can’t wait to get back to?

I think those questions are the simplest way to ask someone about their experience with the pandemic. I know I’m not the only one reflecting and reimagining and re-envisioning and questioning what could be taken from this experience. ‘Cause the world ain’t going back. It’s going to be new and there’s an opportunity—individually, collectively—for the world to exist in a better way. We’re humans, so stuff is going to get reimagined that’s actually going to be harmful and bad and shitty, but then stuff is going to be reimagined in ways that will be better for us in the future.

I wanted to give people the opportunity to reflect on those questions in a space that felt super open. You were talking about the void of people, but I wonder, as the show goes on, when the walls gets covered, if it feels less like a void and more like a hug. One thing I really wanted people to think on, as they’re seeing and participating in the show, is that you’re not alone in this deep thought, you’re not alone in this reflection, and you’re not alone at all. Even though it feels like we are and it sucks. 

 

So what are you leaving behind?

I think I’m leaving behind expectations of who I am and what I do, and really allowing myself to answer that question on my own. I exist in a lot of different spaces and worlds and there are different ways that people build a relationship to what I do, either through museum work or previously the prison, or through my artwork. I’m bringing a healthier relationship to myself. I’ve been making so much lately and really have enjoyed this renewed robust relationship to my personal creativity. 

What do you feel like you’re bringing with you?

A renewed commitment to myself, and a commitment to a better balance.

What do you miss the most?

People. I miss it, man. I miss random chance encounters. I miss sustained relationships. I miss my friends. I miss not feeling so conscious of your body, you know what I mean? I really miss physical activity. I really miss playing soccer. I cannot wait to skate again.

How have you been able to connect with your community through this time?

There’s a bunch of different areas of my life where I’ve been really lucky to still have connections to people and build relationships. First off, my job. I run community engagement at the BMA and we have pivoted to continue to show up for our audiences. It’s way different—a virtual event can’t ever really be the same—but I think we’re still able to find a lot of joy in what we’re doing.

Skateboarders for Baltimore Ceasefire was huge ’cause a lot of times skateboarding has existed on the periphery for me. I haven’t really ever brought my work or how I organize or run events into skateboarding because it’s what I did to get back to life. But skateboarding has that beautiful connective energy that is like nothing else. It’s literally the foundation for my entire creative life.

Skateboarding is going through a super interesting time and it’s messy but it’s also really beautiful. For so long, skateboarding prided itself on being this very inclusive space, at least when it came to racial demographics. And it was, you know, my crew growing up was such a diverse set of young men—keyword: “young men.” It’s been a boys’ club. We all know this. But it’s beginning to open up to the queer community, to female-identifying skateboarders, and that transition hasn’t been super clean. Some people are hanging on to the old way of life and they’re feeling some type of way about it. This is happening locally, regionally, nationally. In Baltimore, Queer Skate has done the lion’s share of the work to make the skate park a really open and beautiful space.

This year some really great skateboarding organizers created Skate for Change, and asked our community to show up, not just for a day where we’re all coming together and skating, but also a day where we’re showing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. We met at the curbs, which everyone knows is the place where they see a bunch of skateboarders gathering at 29th and Charles, and we skated down to City Hall. That movement and energy was really amazing and beautiful, so I reached out to a bunch of folks, like “Yo, we need to build on this momentum.” I wanted to do this Ceasefire event. It’s what I felt like I need to be doing but also, I’m not the only skateboarder who’s lost somebody to gun violence, I’m not the only skateboarder who has been a survivor of gun violence here in our Baltimore community.

We pulled together a crew and the Ceasefire organizers came through and our next mayor [Brandon Scott] came through. We signed up 40 households for the census and registered over 25 new voters. I designed a shirt that we sold, and we raised $3,200 for Ceasefire. We gave out 300 meals from Mera Kitchen Collective. There was music all day, hundreds of skateboarders. The energy there was magic. This was not a boys’ club. There were young women, the queer community was there, there was young men, there was old dudes, there was everybody. I had a really large crew who really helped me push that through that all came together to make this happen.

I think my work has always been about building relationships and creating healthier communities and I’m seeing more and more just how the arts and how something like skateboarding can be used and leveraged in a way that promotes peace.  

 

My work has always been about building relationships and creating healthier communities and I'm seeing more and more just how the arts and how something like skateboarding can be used and leveraged in a way that promotes peace.
Dave Eassa

How has your work at the BMA informed your art practice?

I think it goes back to when I was teaching in the prison system. For me, the work that I do has always been a way to leverage art to challenge and ask questions and to connect. When I was teaching in the prison system, that was the ethos of the class, like how do we use art to connect with ourselves, with each other in the class, and to provide a different view?

For so long, I saw my work with people and my work in my studio as two separate things. And then I had a studio visit with Jasmine Wahi. She was a consultant at The Contemporary’s artist retreat and I can guarantee she probably doesn’t remember it. It was like a 15-minute meeting where I was sharing my work with her and she said, “This is all questioning, this is all challenging, either with yourself or with others or asking more of systems. It’s all the same. You’re not two, you’re one.”

I never was a person who found any identity in museums prior to that or frankly spent any time in museums. I was always running around skating. But through the initiatives that I work on at the BMA, along with my brilliant colleagues, we’re able to question and expand and challenge. I’m proud of the stuff that we’ve been able to do there.

My work has been very very very much informed by my work at the BMA. In my piece, you see museum education. I’m always interested in pushing the envelope of what is my work and then what am I asking people to do with my work? What am I asking them to contribute and what am I giving to them? Where is that line? And a lot of that comes straight from museum education.

As I get older the picture of what I want to do and how I want to show up in the world just gets clearer and clearer and clearer. You know, I’m about to be 30. I’m looking at the past 10 years of life and looking at everything that’s happened, and it’s been nuts. That’s also been part of this big reflection. I’m staring down the 3-0, dude, and I’m like, what’s coming with me? If you think about what our lives have been from 20 to 30, it’s huge, and there’s so much growth. We’re honing in on what is super important to us, we’re honing in on exactly how we want to exist in this world that will then change more and more and more and more. All this shit that we’ve been put through this decade, what is that going to bring into fruition the next decade?

It’s that process that you were talking aboutrelated to the pandemic, related to turning 30it’s cutting the fat and figuring out what you’re leaving behind and what you’re bringing with you.

I think that’s what a lot of us are doing right now, is figuring out what we give a shit about.

*****

“I Wanna Hug You” is on view through December 18 by appointment only. To schedule a viewing, sign up here.

 

Installation photos by Kevin Eassa; details by Bonnie Crawford

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