JULIE PATTON, UNBOUND Julie Patton / Cleveland
It’s not just that Creative Fusion Madison Resident Julie Patton is an open book—she’s several open books, pages fanning, fluttering, in motion. She is a pop-up book, 3-D and surprising; a matchbook, with all its spark and flame and heat and light and char and singe; a how-to; a cookbook; a book of poems; a world atlas, drawing from the places she’s been; a family album.
Patton is not concerned about what to call what she does, but she’ll settle at times on calling herself any of the following: “ethnobotanist,” “permaculturist,” “poet,” “performer,” “artist,” “eco-poet” (and, one time, “George”). Believing that the environmental movement has been coopted, she says she prefers the prefix “eco because it relates to ‘oikos’,” a Greek work that can refer to any of the related concepts of family, family property, and the house.
“This is a home ec project,” she says of the art-and-artist-filled three-story-plus-basement apartment building she occupies across the street from the Cleveland Cultural Gardens. Members of the Patton family have long lived in the building which was at one time an example of the African American co-op movement and is now own by a limited liability corporation called BluesTone Circle LLC. In addition to its life as an art colony and collective headquarters, it has become a museum, archive, and monument to her multimedia artist mother, Virgie Ezelle Patton.
“Because my mother worked in so many media, she was central to so many scenes here,” Julie Patton says. The younger Patton grew up in a heady atmosphere surrounded by culture and spiritual exploration.
Her mother’s world “often involved contemplative practice and meditation” she says. “You could learn traditional Zen practice here. A man from India taught meditation at my mom’s house.” Dance pioneer Marjorie Witt Johnson, who founded the Karamu Dancers, lived in the building, and Patton took advantage of the offerings of Karamu House. “Karamu was very dynamic,” she says. “It was like the United Nations.” Patton also explored the Cultural Gardens and spent nights visiting the Cleveland Botanical Garden, which at the time was not fenced in.
After the world was brought to Patton, she went to the world, first as a student at Antioch—whose co-op format emphasized real-world experiences in far-off places—and then as a professional artist. “I always morph between places,” she says. “My work isn’t easy to categorize in the U.S.”
Despite her self-professed “nomadic” lifestyle and extended periods in New York, there has always been what she calls “an unbroken connection” to Cleveland, particularly to the small patch of Glenville in which most of the members of her large family live. “New York was my town, but Cleveland was my country,” she says. She believes Cleveland is a good place for artists—“not too expensive, not too overwhelming”—and says. She was always able to find work as a consultant and artist at Case Western Reserve University, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and with art patrons such as Peter Lewis. She’s also inspired by the geography itself–“There’s a different space dynamic to Cleveland,” she says—and by the Lake Erie horizon. “That’s like a sheet of paper to me,” she says.
Much of Patton’s visual work is diverting—not in the adjective sense, but as a verb: she diverts the stream of objects on their way to landfills into her artwork. She takes the world as its made and remakes it. Curls of planed birch park wrap around light fixtures and decorate corners of her apartment. A bound, partly burned book sits in a glass-door built-in, its charred remaining pages rewriting the text. A three-panel screen with nearly identical images on each that depict a dress and legs emerging underneath, while at the top the sleeve straps resemble antlers, recasting the expectation as the eye moves up or down. An altar of assembled objects contains one of the several desert animal skulls apparent in the apartment, along with an electric typewriter, egg carton, artificial flowers, and a framed picture collage of animals surrounding a lion—an homage to her father (“He was a Leo,” she explains”). The art is the process more than the product.
Her written work is equally cut and pasted, words broken and mended into new words. Her contribution to What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America (University of Alabama Press 2015), includes “Notes for Some (Nominally) Awake,” a poem that stretches across 26 pages, one of which contains a copy of a wire service story about the shooting of a black bear in a New Jersey city. Her work often involves performance and sometimes includes collaboration with musicians. She recently served on the faculty of the 2017 summer writing program at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and she was featured at a Poetry and Music Festival at the University of Pennsylvania-affiliated Kelly Writers House in September.
One of her still-in-progress works is the very home in which she lives.
“This building is part of my poetic practice,” she says. “I don’t go to the art store except for glue and scissors.”
“You get a different aesthetic when you fix things over time,” she says. She’s even resisted upgrading the building, which would likely involve updates to mechanical systems, including heating and electrical. “No, baby,” she says. “I like steam.”
“If I had tried to think about an art project and planned it, it would never have turned out so magical,” Patton says. “The building is alive.”