Folk Art director leads community through life, art
Lauren Austin wants the Community Folk Art Center to be loud.
“Up to now, it has been very quiet,” said Austin, who became the center’s managing director in June. “Part of my job is to make it not quiet anymore, to put this place on the map.”
Her first experiences with art came when she was forced to make quilts as a punishment for her misbehavior.
“I would spy on my grandmother’s friends as they quilted. They would talk while they were working, and that talk was adult talk. It was gossip, it was politics, it was stuff kids usually aren’t supposed to hear,’ she said in her trademark low voice and calm demeanor. When she was found hiding underneath the quilt frame, her grandmother said she’d have to work if she wanted to stay in the room. Sixty quilts later, Austin is thankful for the admonishment that introduced her to a life of art.
‘When I was in college, it was something that I did to hold onto myself,’ she said. When Austin graduated from Dartmouth College in 1981, the school had very few minority students. ‘If there were 20 black students all together, that was a lot.’
Austin used distinct forms of art to make it through a less-than-diverse college experience. ‘It was a hard place, and sewing and quilting was a good thing for me.’
While at Dartmouth, she took advantage of the school’s open art studios to delve into pottery, woodworking and jewelry-making.
In addition to her heavy involvement in art, Austin majored in Latin-American Studies, excelling in anthropology, Spanish and chemistry. She went into the Foreign Service after college, issuing visas to citizens of Mexico and Uruguay.
“My mother was in it. She said it would be a good way to see the world and get paid for it,” Austin said.
She was a counselor and officer in the Foreign Service for 10 years, later returning to the United States to live in Washington where she became involved with Washington Women’s Self-Help, a group that taught women about birth control and advocacy in the medical community. After living in the legal atmosphere for a short time, she decided to go to law school.
“A lot of that work involved law,” Austin said. “I felt like I could get to know that and be more effective.”
An appetite for learning drew Austin back to Syracuse to attend Syracuse University’s College of Law. Upon returning to the city where she grew up, Austin volunteered for the Community Folk Art Center, 2288 E. Genesee St. She stayed in town to work at a law firm, then moved to Ithaca to work at the Human Rights Commission. A teaching position at the College of Law brought her back to Syracuse once again, and in July, Austin jumped at the opportunity to direct the center.
“She is absolutely wonderful for the center,” said Dr. Linda Carty, chair of the department of African American studies. “She has strong ties to the community and was the top candidate, by far, for the position.”
The center allows students, especially minority students, to use its gallery to exhibit their work. In April, senior painting major Mashell Black will have his senior show there. The show, “Transitions: student to artist,” will exhibit portraits and paintings he has done over the past four years.
The center’s mission statement includes the aim to teach the community about the art of people traditionally left out of the academy and museums, such as African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos and Indigenous peoples, Austin said. This month, the gallery has works done by students in the Syracuse City School District alongside West African sculptures and portraits of black leaders in America.
One of Austin’s personal goals has been to establish a more visible presence for the Community Folk Art Center among students.
“It is very important that students get involved and let us know what they need and that we meet those needs,” Austin said.
Starting March 15, Dave Hill will teach a weekly figure-drawing class. It is the only class in the area to use models of color, Austin said.
“Before she got here, we had few programs in place,” said Carty, who praised the work Austin has done in community schools. “She has taken the university to the community in a way it never has been done before, through the Community Folk Art Center and African American studies. This is an advantage to the profile of SU in the community.”
Currently, Austin is doing an artist residency at Levy Middle School on Fellows Avenue. She is working with the students there on a project called “Creating and Changing Oneself.” She encourages the students to express who they are through self-portraits, digital photographs, quilting and by studying Adinkra symbols, which are traditional Ghanaian patterns.
Austin thinks the Adinkra symbol “Sankofa” exemplifies the spirit of the times, saying that its heart-shaped pattern speaks to the importance of Black History Month.
”It stands for the idea that you need to know where you come from to know where you’re going.”
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