KAREN RILEY and the Joys of Collaboration
and Performing Arts Coordinator
Collaborating is one of my favorite methods of making art. There is something satisfying about creating side by side with a fellow artist, with each of us bringing a unique perspective and talent to the work. This also holds true in my professional life, which involves working with students.
One of my favorite collaborators is Karen Riley, founder and Executive Director of the SCRAP Gallery. Riley’s mission is centered on children and creating works of art from recycled items. Her artmaking is beautiful, practical and environmentally friendly.
I had the pleasure of getting to know Riley about seven years ago, when she first suggested a project to me. Of course, I knew she was busily involved in our various schools on a number of endeavors, but I hadn’t worked with her personally. She pitched an idea for a 16–foot-square, one-day installation made entirely from recycled products. The piece was to be based on the work of Vic Muniz, and was highly ambitious in scope and scale. We ended up creating it with students at Cathedral City High School, and the results were phenomenal! I became a big fan of Riley’s, and that was the beginning of many collaborative projects to follow.
Last year, Riley and I organized a Studio Day with a group of girls from Rancho Mirage High School, where we put together an homage to the work of Yayoi Kusama. (Making homages to various artists has become one of our signature approaches!) The student artists created costumes and a matching backdrop, and were photographed wearing wigs and holding a student-created papier-mâché pumpkin. This project later showed at College of the Desert’s Walter Marks Gallery as a series of 10 large-scale photographs, along with an installation of over 100 pumpkins that were made by students in schools across the Palm Springs Unified School District.
This year, Riley wanted to do a project based on the work of European artist Clet Abraham and involving artists from five of our high schools that we had pulled together on a Studio Day the preceding October. We called the project “Sign of the Times” and we set out to create playful street art using discarded traffic signs from the area. As always, we were surprised and delighted by the students’ interpretations of the text in new and different ways. Not only were students that wouldn’t normally meet collaborating on a larger project, they were working with a concept that challenged their thinking and led to greater discussion.
Working with Karen Riley is a treat for me and for the students. She is one of the valley’s quiet, unsung heroes in the arts. I feel it’s important for students to create as much as possible, and I’m even more enthusiastic when we enhance their learning through meaning-making in art. The street signs we created showed at College of the Desert in May and June of this year, and once again were a vibrant and engaging display of student art and potential. Riley and I are already planning next year’s project, so stay tuned!