Janeil Engelstad: Make Art with Purpose

“How I work, and how I’ve worked for my entire professional career,” Janeil Engelstad begins, “is there is something happening outside of me socially, culturally, or politically that I feel the need to respond to. That is my starting place.”

Janeil’s literal starting place was in Seattle, where she was born and raised. Now based in Dallas, she’s lived and worked as an artist, curator, and educator in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Bratislava, San Francisco, and elsewhere, each destination providing a chapter of her story, a shift in her worldview, and a cause compelling her to respond.

Janeil established herself as a global citizen early. At 16, she traveled to Europe as an exchange student and stayed with families in Greece, Germany, and Austria. In Yugoslavia she peered behind the Iron Curtain and, for the first time, she saw people living in truly desperate circumstances. It shifted her point of view. With her new perspective, she returned home to study English and Political Science at the University of Washington and began to write about causes important to her.

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Janeil moved to New York City for graduate school in the height of the AIDS and homelessness crises. Unable to ignore the people she saw on the street as she walked to NYU, she did exactly what she’d continue to do for the rest of her career: she responded. Janeil volunteered, spent the night in a local homeless shelter, attended ACT UP meetings, and taught photography classes to homeless youth. By the time she graduated with an MFA in photography from NYU and the International Center of Photography, she had everything she needed to trail blaze a career that bridged writing, photography, art, and social, cultural, and political response.

Janeil has responded to causes around the globe through multimedia artistic productions. One project recently lived inside the Dallas Museum of Art’s Center for Creative Connections, or C3. As the program’s first visiting artist in 2017, Janeil looked at every work of art on view from the DMA’s permanent collection. From here she identified works that were visually and culturally compelling in an effort to draw connections between the museum's various collections and cultures. She wanted to explore the hidden or untold narratives behind the art.

At the time, America’s narrative was focused on the Muslim travel ban and immigration reform. “I felt like I needed to respond to that as an artist,” Janeil said. “Here I am investigating different cultures and digging deep into their stories, and at the same time we’re having conversations about building a wall and banning people because they come from a certain place and a certain religion.”

What resulted was Translating Culture, a bilingual tour that began at a Geoff Winningham photograph—a black and white still from the ’70s of a car parked in the grass on the side of the road, doors open, covered with wooden bird houses. Inspired by this image’s themes of transportation and migration, Janeil’s edifying tour sent viewers on a journey through the museum. Her own prose gave voice to the untold connections between the works of art and the cultures who influenced them—between Dallas museum-goers and cultures around the world.

As a “cultural producer” (Janeil’s concise term for her role as an artist, educator, connector, activist, founder, and curator all in one title), Translating Culture is only one of many global projects Janeil has led. After the Columbine shooting, Janeil was living in Los Angeles and working on a project in Canada. While the world was transfixed in a conversation about gun control, no matter what country Janeil was in, she noticed that there was a voice missing from the conversation about school shootings: youth.

Of course, she responded. “I look for ways I can create spaces for new engagement--for new voices--especially those that are underrepresented and undervalued.” Working in partnership with Worldstudio, she launched a project that engaged her UCLA summer school students, youth, artists, and other influencers. They rolled out billboards and transit posters about gun violence and trained the youth, teens, and young adults in violence mediation. They hosted a peace parade and a peace festival, and youth spoke to California legislature about gun control. The California project spread to Chicago, New York, and to bus shelter posters in Washington DC. Janeil’s role in the massive production was, in her own words, as a “dreamer and partner builder.”

Since this project, her dreams and partnerships only continue to grow. At the heart of it all, “I work to do more than just talk about an issue or concern. My aim is to provide opportunities for people to reflect more broadly about something and perhaps expand the way they think and act to a space that is more inclusive and compassionate.” Janeil shared.

In 2006, Janeil was a Fulbright Scholar at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava in the Slovak Republic (Slovakia). She planted herself directly into her new community, seemingly immune to language barriers or culture shock. “I was interested in talking to my peers. I really made a point to learn Slovak and stumble through it.” As Janeil collected stories from the community, she led her international students through artistic projects that responded to current issues. Human Nature addressed the way people connect to the environment as a conversation about climate change emerged globally. A project entitled za plotom: beyond the fence was a direct response to a wall newly built around the local US embassy, located in the most important historic square in Bratislava.

By the end of her Fulbright, Janeil embarked upon a new project from the interviews she had  collected within the community. Voices from the Center revealed the story of Cold War socialism with untold narratives of local people from the former Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. From 2007 to 2009, Janeil led a team of more than 20 photographers, translators, artists, and collaborators, launching the multimedia website on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Beyond the web, the project lived through lectures, public art, and exhibitions. “It’s important to me that eachproject lives in different ways and has opportunities to connect with various people in different spaces.”

Her sentiment is echoed in the vision of the organization she founded after returning to Dallas. Make Art with Purpose, or MAP, produces transformative, artist led projects around the globe. MAP strives to make the same connections between Dallas and global cultures as Janeil did in her C3 exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art. The organization recently sent a North Texas artist to lead a mural project in Sudan, produced in partnership with the Embassy of the USA in Khartoum, and is facilitating a number of other local and global initiatives.

Janeil still leads projects around the world; she is currently working on environmental initiatives in Toronto and in Santa Cruz, California. But Dallas inspires her to continue local work.

“I appreciate that there are people in Dallas who truly want to have an impact on the place that they live. Artists, philanthropists, curators, council people who believe that they can come together or work individually and create a more enlightened, evolutionary place. I meet and work with many people who are committed to that and don’t get discouraged. That is inspiring.”

Through Make Art with Purpose, Janeil’s current Dallas-based collaboration is Hablemos, or Let’s Talk. The “zine,” a miniature magazine filled with photos, text, and poetry, highlights Oak Cliff’s narrative through an attempt to preserve local voices, traditions, and history in a rapidly gentrifying community. The content is produced in community workshops led by local writers, artists and community activists that promote creative expression and create empathy across cultures. This collaborative project is produced in partnership with local organizations, including Sunset Art Studios, Oak Cliff Cultural Center, Embrey Family Foundation and Communities Foundation of Texas.   

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It is exactly what she’s been doing all along: promoting creativity, creating empathy, initiating new partnerships, and building bridges. She has spent her career highlighting untold stories and amplifying quieted voices, but it is important to her to emphasize she has not done it alone. Perhaps the momentum she has built in each collaborative project has stemmed from her own guiding principle: “Energy follows thought.”

True to her artistic nature, Janeil summarizes this work in paraphrasing Toni Morrison: “If you’re not reading the book you want to read, write it.”

The book of Janeil Engelstad’s life and work is one that everyone should read.

Follow Janeil’s work on her website, or on the MAP podcast.

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Story by Liz Navarro. Photos by Hunter Lacey.

Mary Martin