Studio Pause is an art and bookmaking studio located in the Gates of Ballston affordable housing community in Arlington, Virginia. Below, founder and director of Studio Pause Sushmita Mazumdar shares the details of her spring 2020-2021 community bookmaking project, We PAUSED!, made possible in part by a Virginia Humanities grant. As she explains, the project provides a creative outlet and a source of social connection through the Coronavirus pandemic, while at the same time, documenting people’s experiences of the virus and providing a new kind of access to the studio.
First, tell us about yourself and the work that you do. Has your mission changed because of the pandemic?
SM: As an artist, writer, and educator, I work across stories, book arts, and mixed media to explore my memories of home, heritage, and my migration from India. I do this work from my community space for art and stories, Studio Pause, which is located in the Rinker Community Center in AHC Inc’s Gates of Ballston affordable housing community.
Studio Pause has been in this community for five years now, and I still wonder about what brings people here and what keeps them from coming here. These questions of access became huge during the pandemic. With the community center building where the studio is located closed to the public, I wondered how residents of the housing community were managing this sudden isolation. Did they find solace or connection in the arts?
How does your bookmaking project address that question?
SM: We PAUSED! is a collaboration with the affordable housing nonprofit AHC Inc. At the start of the pandemic in 2020, as the AHC Inc. resident services team worked tirelessly to get rent, food, education and health assistance to this affordable housing community, I realized that the Studio could help with socio-emotional care. What if we put all our expressions together, turning the Studio space into a book that could be sent to each apartment?
We PAUSED! is 2020 documented by children and seniors, internationals and Americans, in English, Spanish, and Arabic. Told in words and visuals their stories will be shared on the inside pages of the book, sewn into a print of a map of the property created by our intern, artist Ella Endo. With the funding from Virginia Humanities, we’re creating this unique handmade book and giving a free copy to each of the 460 households in the Gates of Ballston community.
The project will help readers connect with the PAUSErs (what I call the people who frequent the studio space) but also unlock their own expression and give them a reason to share. Then we are not isolated anymore, and we are free to connect with ourselves in new ways. It’s almost too exciting, really!
How did you get into bookmaking? And in your experience, how does bookmaking bring people together?
This is a 15 year-long story, if not longer. I had worked as an art director in the advertising world in India and the US before giving it up to stay home with my kids when they were little. Raising American children, I wondered how different their childhood would be from mine, having grown up in India. Could I teach myself to make storybooks showing my children how wonderfully different lives can be across the globe? I knew no publisher would make just two copies of any book, so I taught myself to be a writer and a book artist.
Then I started to teach bookmaking to others. Storytelling can be empowering for parents who are raising kids outside of their hometowns. In my bookmaking workshops, we could all connect with each other when we felt comfortable, knowing that we would be heard and not criticized or laughed at. Sharing stories creates spaces like that.
What drew you to Virginia Humanities? Why did you apply for a grant here?
I first got to know Virginia Humanities and the work you support when I was invited by [Virginia Humanities grantee and Fellow] Kim O’Connell to be part of the 2016 We Are All Arlington! project. [Grants director] David Bearinger and I discussed many aspects of my work with community storytelling, like how we can invite immigrants to share their stories, and how we might make them feel comfortable doing so. In 2019 I was invited by photographer Lloyd Wolf to join the team of another VH-supported project in Arlington, Transitions: the Columbia Pike Documentary Project. For this project I interviewed seven people about their experiences of living on the Pike. By 2020 I had an in-depth understanding of the kind of work Virginia Humanities supports and so when I came up with the idea for We PAUSED!, I asked David what he thought, and I applied. It’s the first time Virginia Humanities has supported a project in an affordable housing community, the first project you have supported by Studio Pause, and your first collaboration with AHC Inc.