Akito Tsuda, center Credit: Carolina Sanchez

In early 2016, when Wendy Clinard first saw an article in the now-defunct magazine Chicago Voz about the Japanese photographer Akito Tsuda’s photographs of Pilsen in the early 90s when he was a student at Columbia College, she felt an immediate spark of recognition. As a creative person who has raised a family and developed her art in the neighborhood—she founded her company, Clinard Dance, there in 1999—Clinard saw Tsuda’s Pilsen pictures as documenting her own life as much as those of the people who posed for him. She reached out to Tsuda—who hadn’t been back to Chicago in about 25 years—and they decided to collaborate on a multimedia project.

Last fall Tsuda returned to Chicago, sponsored by Cultura in Pilsen, a coalition of organizations that foster creative exploration in the neighborhood. There was an exhibition of his photos at La Catrina Cafe and a performance by Clinard Dance. Cultura has also put the handsome limited-edition monograph Tsuda made of his Pilsen pictures back in print. Many of those who had posed for photos in the 90s (as well as surviving relatives) came to see their younger selves on the walls. It was a moment of celebration for the whole community.

Tsuda will come back to town this week in order to keep developing his collaboration with Clinard. On Thursday, April 5, they will lead a workshop at the Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago. Then, on Sunday, April 8, there will be a one-day exhibit of Tsuda’s photos at the National Museum of Mexican Fine Arts, followed by a performance featuring flamenco dancers Clinard and Marisela Raymi Dalila Tapia, hip-hop dancer Christopher Courtney, beatboxer Yuri Lane, violinist Steve Gibons, guitarist Marija Temo, and photo projection and lightwork by Christine Shallenberg, along with street sounds and audio captured in laundromats, city buses, and the like.

Clinard’s working title for this piece is Everyday People/Everyday Action. She thinks that she will need at least another year of workshopping, rehearsals, and brainstorming before this new production is fully built.

I’ve known Clinard since 1990, when we were both painting students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. We renewed our acquaintance in the early aughts when I randomly picked her up in my cab. I was still painting, but she had shifted her focus to flamenco dance and choreographing and creating pieces that incorporate visual art, poetry, and a variety of musical instrumentation. She was first drawn to flamenco after seeing a friend perform. She tried to draw the dancers but found the drawings corny and unsatisfying, so she started taking flamenco classes herself. Now Clinard bristles at being categorized as a dancer; she still thinks of herself as a painter, one who composes with movements, beats, and the human body rather than brush strokes, canvas, or line.

Wendy ClinardCredit: John Boehm

In her restless search for authentic gesture and expression, Clinard has told me, one of the biggest challenges is not to fall back on learned skills. This is why, although her work is rooted in flamenco, she’s just as likely to find new moves watching a bus driver steer his or her vehicle down Halsted as in a performance hall or theater. She finds the repetitive gestures of everyday working people a fruitful source for generating choreography. Mastering her art involves constantly pushing herself and her collaborators out of their comfort zones.

Around 2012, Clinard asked if I wanted to work on something with her. Two years later, Chicago’s Watershed—A 156-mile Choreography premiered at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts. The piece incorporated Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, my video-projected ink paintings, and the movement of three dancers to poetically evoke life on the Chicago River. As with much of Clinard’s work, it is a difficult piece to summarize. Her method is to incorporate many disparate elements—be it a passage from a book, a favorite drawing, or some unassuming gesture of some passerby on the street—into productions that, at their best, have their own internal logic.

The challenge of cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural collaboration consists not only in bridging the gap in differing working methods but also in contrasting modes of communication. During Watershed, it took some time for Clinard and me to understand one another enough to form an effective working relationship. Clinard tends to speak in metaphors that often left me scratching my head. But the more time we spent together, the closer I got to picking up what she was putting down. Clinard is looking forward to Tsuda’s Chicago visit so that through face-to-face time they can refine the way they communicate with each other creatively.

Flipping through Tsuda’s book, Pilsen Days, last week at Pleasant House Pub on Halsted, Clinard pointed excitedly to a picture and described it as “so hydrating for your eyes.” She often makes a sound or hand gesture, dispensing with words altogether, to get at what she wants to say. I’m still puzzling over what she meant when she said that another of Tsuda’s photos was “like a carrot for habituating desire.” I think it was that she found the image inspirational, but don’t quote me on that.

As this new piece continues to evolve, Clinard will keep returning to stacks of color-coded index cards on which she keeps her manifold ideas and inspirations. Tsuda’s scenes of Mexican-American life in a Chicago neighborhood in the early 90s have served as the springboard for a poetic meditation on life and labor in the city. It can’t be a coincidence that these photographs date back to the time and place that Clinard herself was just beginning to find herself creatively.

Attendees on April 8 can expect a searching, ambitious melding of sounds and images. Familiar forms such as photography, flamenco, and hip-hop will clash and cohere with car horns and spoken-word poetry to evoke Clinard’s vision. If it’s anything like her previous shows, it will be, by turns, beautiful and puzzling, but always engaging. Or, to paraphrase Clinard, it will be hydrating to your eyes, your ears, and your mind.  v