When I get to Open Windows Cooperative, it’s exactly how I remember it. The old industrial building. The cold hallways. The warehouse windows. A woman and a man weave pieces of fabric into a loom as I walk in, wrapping Ava in a long-overdue hug. Light music drifts around us in the background. Her dog, Iggy, stretches out on the floor.
I met Ava last year during an event in her space and I still think she is one of the kindest people I know. Her presence feels light and lovely as she laughs and moves unrushed in her light pink sweater, yellow beanie and jeans. She’s patient, compassionate and has an unwavering belief in making art equitable and the power of art to heal.
She tells me that someone asked her about her freckles the other day. She laughs. “They were like, ‘Do your freckles go away in the winter?’ I told her they do. They’re just summer freckles.”
About halfway through the interview she gives me a pin that says “Listen to Women.”
“It’s one of the rejects,” she says.
I think it’s perfect.
On friendship and business:
I’ve been friends with Alexandra, the co-founder of Open Windows Cooperative, since high school. She is my creative partner. We get stuff done together and we collaborate so easily. We know each other really well and we’re almost always on the same page. We went to college together at University of California, Santa Cruz where I studied writing while she studied art and printmaking. That’s where she learned book binding there and taught me how to bind my first book.
At the same time, my poetry teacher was a printer for many years and he told me about this secret letterpress printing class he taught, which is where I learned how to print. When it was over I wanted to do more but I had graduated and lost access to all the equipment.
Alexandra became a commercial bookbinder and worked at a bookbindery in the city. I went to Mills College in Oakland for book art and creative writing. When I finished, I bought all this printmaking equipment. I formed a collective at a warehouse with other printers and when it disbanded after a year or two, Alexandra offered to join forces and have a shared studio. That’s when I moved back to San Francisco and from there it all fell into place.
On the birth of Open Windows Cooperative:
It was our personal studio for a while. Then at some point we felt like it was something we should share. We started having art shows and then Alexandra moved to the east coast. I was like, “Okay, what now?”
I decided to keep the cooperative going and find people to share it with me. Since then it’s been a serious learning process. (Laughs)
So much of my practice has become about simply managing this space and trying to build community around it.
On what defines a collective:
In my mind a collective is just any group that’s working together toward a common goal -- as opposed to it being only one person’s gallery and workshop where they are the sole decision maker.
Even though I’m the lease holder for the space, I don’t have all the decision-making power. I want everyone’s input. So it’s more consensus-based, decision-making processes rather than hierarchical ones.
Our space just feels like a great opportunity to get people together. Even getting people in a space together can be so hard and such a challenge. (Laughs) Especially in this city where everyone works their asses off just to survive, it doesn’t leave much extra room for creative work. That’s why it doesn’t really feel like I have a personal practice anymore. I’m so not focused on making things but instead facilitating community and collaboration.
On valuing your own well being:
I feel like creative work is so crucial -- at least for me and my mental health.
If there was more space culturally for making creative practice as adults -- if it was more normal to doodle or go on a walk and collect some leaves that you think are pretty or engage in anything that connects you with something outside of yourself that’s using your body and your mind -- I just feel like that would be a game changer for the world.
I feel like that would have a ripple effect into everything that we do. As kids we often get that, but at a certain point it just stops and we don’t have access to that anymore or we’re not encouraged to do it. As adults we don’t often have access to a creative practice or working together on something that’s not goal or outcome oriented but instead is just about the process of doing it. And that’s a huge deal.
Art is just seen as this extra -- this privilege or this perk you get to do if you have extra time or money. It falls by the wayside in adulthood but art is everyday life, although I think there’s still a strong culture of art only having a place in museums.
I feel like this misconception of what art is speaks ultimately to personal wellness and not valuing it as a culture.
Because if we did value art as a culture, we would be doing shit like this our whole lives. But because careers and money and whatever are “more important”, we stop. We run ourselves into the ground and then retirement comes just barely in time. It’s so ridiculous that it’s set up that way. Let’s just retire now. (Laughs)
A lot of times we also don’t feel like we deserve these things or to do nice things for ourselves. When Alexandra invited me to join this space I said no at first. All of my complexes came up and I said things like, “No I don’t deserve that, I don’t make enough art to do that, I’m not a professional artist, blah blah blah,” because this studio truly is a huge gift to myself. Alexandra is so great because she said, “I totally hear you -- and you are allowed to make this investment in yourself.” That’s when I was like, “Oh you’re totally right.”
On daily life at Open Windows Cooperative:
On any given week, there may be individuals coming in to work on their own projects. The letterpress might be going, there’s a few people joined recently who are photographers so there’s been a lot of photoshoots happening, there’s a woman who does performance and dance in here -- whatever else you can think of. (Laughs) We also have strangers that rent the space cycling through. Sometimes we light candles for shabbat. We do everything.
On the changing neighborhood:
I grew up in San Francisco yet I had never, ever spent time in the Bayview neighborhood as a kid. So this space feels like a new and yet very familiar space for me. It’s not rare to have that but I do appreciate it when it happens.
This is one of the last affordable spaces for artists in the city because it’s industrial and because it’s not gentrified yet. This is a historically black neighborhood because black people worked on the docks and in the shipyard and were able to buy their homes. So these families have been here for generations and generations. It’s awesome and one of the last places in the city like that.
Now the Bay Area feels extremely gentrified. I basically avoid the Mission altogether because it’s unfamiliar now -- which is so weird because all my friends in high school lived there and it’s where I always used to hang out. But I feel like a stranger there these days.
This area feels better in that way. But in another way, there’s always that thing where when you’re occupying a space that’s not gentrified you’re kind of moving that along. It’s a very fine line.
On community-engaging art projects:
The weaving project was really just a way for us to talk to people in the neighborhood.
It originated because we wanted to have a rug for this space. (Laughs) I’d been wanting a rug because I want it to be comfortable for people to gather here, and Kirstyn Hom said she’d be down to weave a rug with me because she does textile art. We had this plan to turn the room into a loom and then we were like, “Maybe we should invite other people to do it with us.”
It evolved into us building a giant loom that we could roll out onto the street, which was a whole trial and error process. Then we had to find the right spot on the street. We went to a bunch of different spots each with their own vibe before we finally found a good spot.
We said, “Hey we’re doing a community weaving project, will you help us? We’re using this scrap fabric. You just pick a fabric that speaks to you and we can show you how to weave it in.”
It was very much a social experiment because everyone reacted in a different way. We got a lot of really positive feedback and reactions from people who said things like, “Oh, my grandma used to weave.” Some people would just do one and then leave. Some people would hang out with us for a while. A lot of people were very open.
Some people were skeptical of us and what we were doing and couldn’t understand it. “You’re doing what?” they’d say. (Laughs) One time we had a really negative reaction to us being there. He said, “Who the fuck are you? You don’t know how to weave or what this is all about.” Then he actually told us about slaves weaving and it basically being part of the history of slavery and he felt like it wasn’t a project for us to do. We just asked him questions and to keep telling us more. We said, thank you for sharing that. We hear you.
Afterward, we questioned our project but ultimately we decided we should be here because there are conversations we should be having and these are things we should be listening to and we can hold space for that and that’s okay if that comes up. But overall, most people thanked us for doing art on the street. Even people on the noisy thoroughfare were just yelling out the cars, “Cool! Thank you!”
On social, racial, economic and environmental justice:
I’m not an outspoken activist, per say. Although lately I’ve been realizing that my way of contributing to all those justices (laughs) is through promoting community and personal healing.
I’ve personally been very focused on the environmental justice piece. And you know, these things are so overwhelming and dark and it’s hard not to feel like, “Well what can I do?”
This whole zone on the water is completely contaminated -- the soil, the water, the air. There was actually a design firm that reached out to people in this building. They were working on a proposal for an annual design challenge that, if they won, they could get funding and see their sustainable project through. It was really cool because they actually asked for our input as artists. That felt really right.
So I’ve been really engaged in stuff like that. This past year I’ve come to understand that if we could just -- and it’s not a just, it’s huge and difficult -- but if we could just make people more mindful of themselves and feel more connected with other people and their environment, maybe we wouldn’t be destroying everything without caring.
I feel like my part is changing the way we do our art practice because an art practice can be a really wasteful thing that can harm the environment.
How do we choose materials that are sustainable? How do we not produce as much? Do I really want this thing to exist in the world? And if I do, do I want fifty of them or do I want one of them?
On the projects chosen for Open Windows Cooperative:
I think our focus on justice has a lot to do with the people we attract here. We very intentionally included that our mission statement, and the Bay Area is really receptive to that. Often we print quotes that inspire us and make us hopeful, which is stuff that we need to remember and that we want other people to remember.
The “Listen to Women” pins were originally co-created with Mia Christopher, an artist who showed her work here after the 2016 election. It felt really good to be making something that was super accessible and also with a message that was very timely and that felt like something folks could agree on.
Two years later, we’re still making the buttons because the message is still painfully relevant.
In 2019 our message is evolving to, “Listen to Womxn” to include trans folks and gender non-binary folks. As we grow and learn, the things we make also grow and learn, and that’s a beautiful thing.
On making art accessible:
When I say make art accessible, I mean in the sense it’s very affordable. These buttons are one of a kind and still handmade and small and not precious or delicate. It’s more democratic in that sense. That’s also representative of our mission behind using this as a gallery space.
This is not a white walls gallery. I mean, we kind of have white walls, but it’s not white walls in the traditional sense of a gallery based on capitalism and the whole reason behind showing art in that sense, which is to sell it. Because it’s in the system of profit. That’s the purpose of those galleries. That’s not the purpose of this gallery.
I can never afford art when I go to a gallery. Also, I don’t like going to galleries because they’re stuffy and pretentious. Art museums are only accessible to certain people and only inviting to certain people in terms of what they’re showing and who runs it.
Someone took a workshop with me once and her entire job is to get museums to hire people of color to be curators.
A lot of art museums are like, “We want people of color to come. We want more diversity.” It’s like, “Okay, well then why don’t you hire some people from that community to build that there?”
And that’s her whole job -- just to say “Try hiring people of color.” It’s that thing -- they say they want to do that, but what are they actually doing about it?
All that is to say -- art often exists in this realm of inaccessibility or higher class. If you have extra income you can afford an art studio but if you don’t, you have to do it in your room at home. If you’re working to make ends meet, you can’t go to an art show or have art in your house or whatever. We try to make things more accessible here.
When we have an art show, let’s make it a fundraiser for something. Let’s do auctions and price the art really low. The artists we work with are stoked that their art actually goes home at the end of the day. Otherwise they’d have to figure out what to do with it and it usually ends up in storage. And that’s not the purpose of art. People are very receptive to this because it’s not the norm.
It’s the norm for art to exist in a sterile space. Why can’t it feel homey? Why can’t it be fun? Why can’t it be a little rough around the edges? Who cares? It doesn’t actually matter, you know?
We don’t want that pressure of having to sell art at high prices, which is why we have our day jobs and don’t sell art for profit. We want to celebrate the art and have the space where it can be seen and enjoyed together because all the artists are emerging artists and often times have never had a solo show. And we’re just happy having people in here with us hanging out. So it’s a win, win really. It’s a lot of work, too. (Laughs)
On expression through music:
I’ve actually been playing music lately. I’m in a band and it’s so fun. I play bass and I sing and that’s where all of my creative juices have been going.The act of singing feels so good and music is inherently collaborative if you’re in a group, which I love. Our band is called Galore. We’re pretty loud. We like to harmonize.
I grew up playing a lot of instruments by myself, like piano and stand-up bass. I fell in love with the stand-up bass but after a year I realized, “I think I’m too small for this.” (Laughs) Like, my body was being destroyed. I couldn’t even pick my instrument up. I bought my new bass about six years ago and have been dabbling in it ever since. It’s just a fun, cathartic release.
On a memorable collective experience:
One of the first times we had an interactive weaving workshop in here was with an artist named Ricki Dwyer right after the presidential election. We basically deconstructed American flags and then wove them into weavings. Ricki had made a bunch of small looms that we shared and we actually shredded up flags.
It was so fun because amazing people came, most of whom I didn’t know, and they were so open and excited. We got burritos and drank Tecate and sat on the floor and hung out together doing something with our hands that was also this material. Everyone’s turned out so different.
It felt like we were transforming something and to see that with your eyes as a physical thing is so powerful -- versus all the talking and inner processing we do that sometimes destroys us. (Laughs) So just to move it outward into the physical world with people who were also feeling really upset was really comforting and powerful.
On life since the election:
It’s been hard. (Laughs) I’ll find myself going about my day and then I’ll just have a moment of despair, thinking, “What the fuck is this world that we live in?”
For the longest time I had this mantra of listening. I just wanted to understand what other people said and understand their point of view because I don’t want to breed more hatred. But that only goes so far.
To be complicit in voting for a person with a racist agenda is not excusable. Even if you’re not racist, voting for someone with a racist agenda means you’re prioritizing your taxes or whatever over someone’s life. There’s no way around that. I can’t be like, “I’m trying to understand.” I just can’t.
On advice for young women:
I am so impressed by the young women I know. Seriously, they are going to save the world. They’re strong and informed and ready to kick patriarchy’s ass. So I think the advice I have for them is to find your people, your kindred spirits, and start working together.
Start small. Notice something in your daily life that needs some love that you have the power to affect. Then you can start thinking bigger, but don’t forget about self-care.
Being in service to our communities is important, but this isn’t possible unless we are serving ourselves, our own needs and desires. Find what fills you up and make a practice of it. Share that practice -- or keep it to yourself! You deserve it! And when you’re out there fighting the good fight, don’t forget that you are not alone.
I love the metaphor of the flock of geese Miriam MacGillis talks about -- no one goose can be at the front of the V cutting the headwinds for the whole journey. When one gets tired, they just fall back and another goose takes their place. And, she says, they don’t have an identity crisis.