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Artist highlights power of community-based art at Cal State LA

March 5, 2019

By Jillian Beck | Cal State LA News Service

Los Angeles artist Kim Abeles spoke at Cal State LA on Tuesday about the power of community-based art to bring attention to important societal problems.

“I realized that—wow—you can make this art and it can actually have a social impact on people,” said Abeles, also a lecturer for Cal State LA’s Department of Art in the College of Arts and Letters. Her remarks were part of the Sixth Annual Academic Senate's Distinguished Lecture on Engagement, Service, and the Public Good on March 5.

Academic Senate Chair Veena Prabhu welcomed the university community to the lecture, emphasizing the importance of Cal State LA’s commitment to serving its students and community. “Engagement, service, and the public good—over the years, the way these three words have manifested themselves from the curriculum to the projects we are doing, the way they have impacted our students, our community, they are indeed three powerful words,” Prabhu said.

The Academic Senate dedicates one meeting per academic year to a formal presentation by a distinguished lecturer.

“This lecture gives us an opportunity to reflect on and recommit to the mission of Cal State LA and its connection with engagement, service, and the public good,” Cal State LA President William A. Covino said before introducing Abeles.

Abeles walked guests through her extensive body of work that involves a vast array of issues including air and water pollution, recycling and domestic violence. Her art explores biography, geography and environment and focuses on the urban environment, feminism, aging, HIV/AIDS, labor, mental health and collective memory.

One of Kim Abeles' sculptural suitcases on display at the eventIn 1987, she innovated a method to create images from the smog in the air. These works of art, known as Smog Collectors, brought her national and international attention. She recently completed a series of sculptural suitcases, which were on display at the event, for Camp Ground: Arts, Corrections and Fire Management in the Santa Monica Mountains that embeds artists in the Los Angeles County Fire Department to work in collaboration with the paid and inmate workforces.

Abeles has created art with women and children who have experienced domestic violence, local students and others in the community. She has also created community-based projects with the California Science Center, air pollution control agencies, nonprofits, health clinics and mental health departments, and natural history museums in California, Colorado and Florida.

“We talk about this a lot—there’s a moral responsibility and an emotional responsibility you have working on these works because you are working with real people,” Abeles said.

She received the 2013 Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and has received fellowships from the J. Paul Getty Trust Fund for the Visual Arts, California Community Foundation and Pollack-Krasner Foundation. In 2018, Abeles was artist-in-residence at the Institute of Forest Genetics; her project entitled, Resilience, was funded by the NEA and administered by the El Dorado Arts Council.

Her work is in public collections including MOCA, LACMA, the Berkeley Art Museum, the California African American Museum and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and was on display in the Cal State LA Fine Arts Gallery as part of the School for Endurance Work exhibit, which closed in February.

“Community-based art takes you to so many places,” Abeles said. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Photos: Above, Los Angeles artist Kim Abeles speaks at the lecture. Middle, Several of Abeles' sculptural suitcases were on display at the event, which she created for Camp Ground: Arts, Corrections and Fire Management in the Santa Monica Mountains that embeds artists in the Los Angeles County Fire Department to work in collaboration with the paid and inmate workforces. (Credit: Ty Washington/Cal State LA)

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California State University, Los Angeles is the premier comprehensive public university in the heart of Los Angeles. Cal State LA is ranked number one in the United States for the upward mobility of its students. Cal State LA is dedicated to engagement, service, and the public good, offering nationally recognized programs in science, the arts, business, criminal justice, engineering, nursing, education, and the humanities. Founded in 1947, the University serves more than 28,000 students and has more than 245,000 distinguished alumni.

Cal State LA is home to the critically-acclaimed Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility, Billie Jean King Sports Complex and the TV, Film and Media Center. For more information, visit