Neighborhood Based Cultural Programs
and the Emerging Eco -Industrial Era
by Michael B. Schwartz community arts practitioner
This article explores the possibilities and challenges faced by community artists in the Eco Industrial Era. Issues of process, aesthetics and cross-disciplinary collaborations in works of participatory art will be investigated.We are standing in the dawn of a new era, a moment in time that challenges us to transform, mend and rebuild the world we co-inhabit. This is an exciting time to dream, create and organize. Economic, social and environmental challenges are being confronted through the retrofitting and repair of our nations infrastructure resulting in an increasing demand for high tech green jobs. Green job training centers are sprouting up nationwide, coupled by a proliferation of micro industries from solar fabrication and installation to water harvesting, development of new building materials, food and craft products. Community artists exist at the center of this change, equipped with the skills and sensibilities essential to focusing group creative energy and building grassroots social, cultural and economic networks. These overlapping micro networks constitute the backbone of America’s cultural and economic legacy. This is where the sound of music lessons blends with the smells of breakfast, in the cellars, garages and kitchens throughout our nation.
|©2016 Rocky Martinez/Tucson Arts Brigade|
Much of the popular attention paid to the arts revolves around the critically important and valuable work supported by traditional cultural institutions. In the world of community arts we seek to build a bridge between the kitchen and these institutions, to make cultural resources accessible and understandable. In the process of walking between these two worlds cultural workers have developed a unique tool box - one that may be more valuable than we think as the world reels from a ritualistic pattern of economic, political and social disasters.
How will we in the field of community arts contribute to the development to our nation’s aesthetic, cultural, environmental, political and economic development over the next 50 years? One solution is to find our seat at tables of power, to advocate for state and federal level cabinet positions. Additionally, we can organize and advocate for a funding structure that provides neighborhoods and community-based artists with the resources, training and skills needed to employ the arts in helping communities express identity, build community life, and inspire new creative green industries.
As we put America back to work rebuilding the nation's infrastructure community artists can contribute to the participatory design, building and animation of development projects. Examples might include wastewater treatment facilities, the development of interpretational community gardens, out-door education and human energy station parks, pedestrian centered plazas, roadways, bridges and public buildings. Classes, seminars and workshops would assist in the development of green businesses marketing locally produced crafts, services and materials.
The planning and administration of these projects would be participatory, transparent, and provide employment for numerous individual artists, members of small ensembles and organizations. As artists partner with green job training centers, each participating community would create industries unique to its bioregion, employing local potters, painters, performing artists, musicians and others who are part of the creative economy.
The practices, tools and techniques employed in community-based cultural development are symbiotic to the Sustainable Design job training process and struggles for self-determination. The process employed by community arts practitioners distinguishes us from all other cultural fields, and this is reflected in the end product of our work.
Process and Product: The aesthetics of participatory visual art projects.
Bringing together a group of people to conceive of, design, create and celebrate works of visual art is exciting, time intensive and dynamic. As community muralists we want participants to be empowered, inspired and have a feeling of ownership to the process and final product. Unfortunately funding all too often is directed towards outcome, product, rather than innovative new approaches to community arts process with unpredictable and magnificent results. The reasons given vary, but usually revolve around aesthetics and timelines.
Over the past 50 years many thousands of murals have been created using a broad spectrum of approaches to community engagement. (1) These practices are as varied as the artists who are employed. There are still challenges, unrealized opportunities and journeys to be taken in this realm. Opportunities include critically engaging communities in the planning, design and creation phases of murals using cross-disciplinary techniques, functional and eco-tech murals.
When we see a mural designed and painted by a single lead artist we marvel at the beauty and technical mastery of the final product. These works have a participatory component in terms of the aesthetic experience. When using a projection/ photo-shop technique we can teach almost anyone to create highly representational imagery, thereby demystifying the art making process. A paint-by-number approach to engagement is a gateway experience to the arts and may be a giant leap for some. In this model the artist often parachutes in to create a beautiful work with only a modest amount of civic engagement.
I feel that as community artists it is our responsibility to impart an understanding of individual creativity and poetic thinking. How can we observe or remember something, and then draw or paint it? How can we connect with our creative sensibilities through poetry, music or movement arts? What happens when we combine these creative sensibilities and modalities to orchestrate our voices, research and stories into a single work of art?
As community muralists we need to be able to step out of our traditional role as lead artists and into the role of lead artist facilitators. This means setting aside personal and professional aesthetic preferences and guiding others through the design and painting of a mural. The artist transmits technical information, leads the process and listens carefully to issues and ideas continuously dovetailing them into the process. We demystify the mural making experience through lessons on mural technique and history. Differences become strengths as we work towards visual and spoken consensus. This mix of dialogue and art making combined with peer-peer education, sharing of stories and research is dynamic. The work that emerges is not our own, it belongs to the group. The satisfaction here, for me, is in the process, in seeing eyes light up, walls of isolation melt and hope restored.
Murals are fantastic because they have a beginning, middle and end. Once the project is complete there is a palpable sense of collective accomplishment. Feeling connected and empowered many participants carry on the work. Evaluations of projects I have co-facilitated include numerous success stories. For example:
- Students at Pueblo Gardens Elementary School in Tucson created a comic book club after participating in a year long dialogue based mural project. The multi year, multi disciplinary Art Genesis’s Arts Build project resulted in dramatic improvement on test scores in reading, writing and arithmetic.
- Artists and business people in Newark, Delaware established the successful Newark Arts Alliance as a result of a participatory Grassroots Cultural Resource Assessment.
- Inspired and informed by a year- long participatory mural with the Rotunda in Philadelphia the Rite of Passage project is formed.
- Dunbar Spring, home to a number of our community arts programs, is described as one of the safest and civicly engaged neighborhoods in Tucson.
- The City of Tucson amended our building code to allow straw bail construction after a group of arts activists illegally constructed a straw bail house at the Pima County courthouse the night before an annual homeless encampment. (We removed it several weeks later transforming it into a gallery installation.)
During a participatory mural at Richey Elementary School in Tucson two fifth grade boys working on the image of a low rider together were arguing about the perspective of the car - a side view or front view. Each stated their case, why they felt strongly about this issue. And then one asked the other - to my delight - “so what is our compromise?” They decided they were both wrong and created a worm eye view in two-point perspective, together they came up with a better third solution.Participatory murals stimulate civic participation through a shared experience by providing a forum for creative integration of ideas. This dialogue to drawing process, combined with music, movement, writing and painting builds trust and familiarity. When a mural is finished people can see, hear, feel, smell and taste the change they have created.
Part 2: Participatory Models: Community Engagement Learning Labs (CELL)
The Community Engagement Learning Lab (CELL) is a laboratory for the development of innovative new practices involving groups in the design and creation of multi-disciplinary artworks. The curriculum for CELL is informed by dozens of successful collaborations with schools, community centers and a broad spectrum of civic and neighborhood that I have developed organizations over the past 24 years.
The CELL story includes a conference of community artists in 1995. At the event seventy-five of us shared skills, resources, stories and identified areas for growth. The group described a gap in cultural programming during after-school and weekend hours. A sub-group continued to meet and six months later our ad-hoc association became the Tucson Arts Brigade, an arts and education organization dedicated to the participatory arts with an emphasis on mural production and professional arts education for youth and adults. (2)
TAB grew organically, with one initiative leading to another. We produced murals, parades, puppets, prints, workshops, performances, publications, summer mural camps, arts education training, conflict resolution, nonviolence, consensus-based decision-making and curriculum development. We established the Community Arts Lab (CAL) that soon became a multi-lingual popular education center with presenters on topics ranging from permaculture design to border rights collaborating with artists in a variety of media. CAL was flooded with meeting notes, brainstorm charts, and works in progress. We had 7 year-old students inventing seed art paper with poetry, and neighborhood elders who came to share stories.
One of those stories was of a local Depression Era saying; “If you have nothing to do, make adobe bricks”. These adobe bricks made from the sand and clay along the fingers to the Santa Rita River were used to barter for food or services. Everyone needs an additional room or just a place to call home.
Process reveals stories that make us who we are. New stories are created and woven to the old. At TAB we brought arts education out of the classroom and into the community. We found that some people were better at expressing an idea or feeling through poetry, music or movement than in visual art. The process of expanding a mural project to include video editing, lighting, choreography and sound results in exciting projects with very unexpected results.
The projects described below speak to the topic of holistic practices in community arts that can be integrated into green job training programs. The first three took place in Tucson, the fourth in Philadelphia. Each project employs a spiral-based curriculum over an extended period of time. Most participants were involved in a variety of civic organizations ranging from activist and religious groups, to home-school associations and senior centers. Each of these projects integrated assessment and educational philosophies informed by theories of Multiple Intelligence's, the popular education movement as well as grassroots organizing and facilitation techniques.
1) “We Give Birth to a Choice Each Day” 1998
“We Give Birth to a Choice Each Day” received significant media. (3) Over 100 people participated in bringing this project to fruition, including 48 artists who helped to paint the mural every Monday for over a year. Participants ranged in age from 5 – 78 and included many cultures and perspectives. It was one in a series that included discussions about place, community and transformation. The wall is located in the Dunbar Spring Neighborhood, known for civic participation, progressive and environmental values. The core group working on this project included writers, gardeners, environmentalists, artists and neighborhood residents.
The design process took six months and included potlucks, benefits, meetings and break out projects facilitated by group members. One of those projects involved animating characters from our drawings and journals as large-scale puppets (including one that gave birth) for our annual May Day parade. There were a couple of participants who were pregnant and influenced the mural title and parade theme “Women of the Earth Take Back Your Birth”. Another break out project involved reproducing the final mural design in chalk during the Downtown with the Arts Festival. Dozens of us spent hours carefully crafting the piece. As the clock struck 11pm the night watchman emerged unannounced and started to hose the work down. It was a sad but hilarious scene. On one side of the mural artists of all ages and walks of life scolding while furiously attempting to finish their work and on the other a man with a badge hosing away the chalk.
Another ongoing side project was writing and group poetry as a way of developing our ideas or overcoming group creative blocks. This group poem was assembled over a series of months and gives voice to the images in the mural.
WE GIVE BIRTH TO A CHOICE EACH DAY
On this broken ground
We have common ground.
We can break this gridlock
into a new cycle.
With every contraction
of our city blocks of Industry
We can expand ourselves
by building on blocks of Nature
Turning our social classes
into classes of being social
Transforming our cycle
from subsistence in sustenance
from waste into growth
from contention into intention
from wheeling dealing into healing
from reformation into restoration
from overgrowth into growth
from impoverishment into nourishment
from descension into ascension
from coercion into cohesion
from justified into justice
from non-existence into coexistence
from complexity into simplicity
from city dwellings into homes
- Collectively Written by Tucson Arts Brigade, ©1998
Edited by Tina Huerta
The energy for this mural reflected a theme in many of our works: the duplicity of living in an urban environment, amidst a highly industrialized nation, while cherishing nature and a politics of meaning.
The final mural unveiling was a multi hour event starting with a meal, speakers, awards, gifts, poetry and music. (4) One of the bands was a metal band and it was exhilarating to see the youth body surfing and dancing wildly as elders stood by smiling. The music wasn’t too loud, and there was still plenty of food.
2) “Seeds of Life” 1999
Food seems to play a consistent role in my work. “Seeds for Life” was a project that emerged from the local practice of native seeds preservation. The work was designed and created by 26 people in the spring of 1999 during biweekly workshops. These artists ranged in age from 12 - 58 and came from a diversity of communities throughout Tucson.
The process involved the drawing of an elaborate design conceived over twelve weeks. Bevin Dunn, an artist who uses natural materials, Susan Silverman of the GREEN Project, Henry and D’ana Soto on the Davis Garden Project “El Jardin de los Ninos” each presented their work. The group drew and wrote individually in project journals, then mapped and discussed ideas. Each session new people joined the process of learning, dialogue, writing, drawing and painting. As our project and process evolved a group creative dynamic started to emerge. In those silent creative moments people began to draw similar imagery, using line, colors, textures and shading to connect various forms and shapes. We decided our ideas could be organized using the four elements; air, water, fire and earth. Breakout projects emerged like the creation of painted cardboard seeds with participant poetry written on them “planted” around our neighborhoods.
We decided to create a freestanding sunflower shaped mural with a billboard on the back for a local organic farm. Seeing the final product on site was exhilarating. As we planted sunflowers at the base of the work everything connected, from the birth of our idea to the garden food at the unveiling. As a result of this project we brought new volunteers to the small farm and established our first pigment garden.
3) “Gaia” 2002
The TAB Youth Arts Training Program (YATP) offered fine art classes, workshops and events involving arts education, training and development, after school and summer fine arts programs for ages 4-17 featuring visiting artists and innovative curriculum.
This project involved eight YATP youth, performance art instructor Navab Murnith and myself. Students expressed an interest in environmental issues and doing something for earth day. We invited board member and professor Bella Vivante to read, in Greek, the Gaia story. As a group we read the translation and discussed the origins and ideas revolving around the Gaia concept. Our small group size promoted an intimate dialogue while providing time to develop personal and collective ideas, ask questions and delegate visual research tasks. As a result there was a deeper understanding of the Gaia concept, of the earth as a living being.
Originally we had planned to design and paint a mural using movement arts to brainstorm and integrate our ideas. Many of the youth had been involved in past projects and suggested that we branch out into other art forms. They wanted to embody the idea of Gaia - literally become the art, the figures in the mural. We started to take apart the elements of a mural - community, people, action, color, form, space, place, movement, lines, smell and sound. This mixture of artistic techniques, holistic thinking and language was turning into a multi-media performance. We invited Jade Stokes, a local video teacher, to document our process and lead several video-editing sessions.
We discussed creating a performance with live audience, but decided that the video would be the final product. As in many of our projects we combined the use of storytelling, visual art and technology. The video was distributed to participants and aired on our local Access TV. (5)
This project demonstrated the power of eco-mythology to inspire creativity. The kids expressed a strong affinity for the theme, and saw the video as a personal way of documenting their experience and sharing it with the public. The video itself is powerful not only in that the youth created and directed the piece but as a stand alone work of environmentally themed art.
4) Collective Imprints 2008
Collective Imprints (CI) sought to animate the mission of the Rotunda in Philadelphia;
“Fueled by the belief that art is a catalyst for social change and that the arts can lead to the formation of meaningful partnerships between the University of Pennsylvania and its surrounding community, The Rotunda is a community gathering place for the promotion of arts and culture.”Over 300 events are presented annually, including live music, spoken word, theater, film, art, dance, and education.
CI started as a conversation with Gina Renzi, Director of the Rotunda about a participatory work of visual art that could build community among those who utilized the venue. We invited others to become part of our dialogue. After a series of meetings we agreed on two 4’ x 40’ murals on masonite panels to be installed in front of the venue’s two overhanging balconies.
We developed an organic curriculum, one that could twist and turn as needed. Working with movement artist Jodi Netzer we developed an important element to the design process. Integrating movement and theater helped build group affinity, cleared blocks to the creative process and clarified overlapping narratives.
“We created gestures, mimicked those of the people around us, traced imaginary paths along the floor, bent our bodies into untested shapes, and used movement to act out the themes that we've been developing throughout CI. All along, our movements were sharing stories that our words couldn't. Eventually, we formed smaller groups and chose themes such as West Philadelphia's origins, perceptions of the neighborhood, and local Hip Hop. Incorporating the Viewpoints principles, we created movement skits, each of which differed significantly from the last. In doing so, we taught and were taught”In addition to utilizing movement, dialogue and writing music became a feature during the workshops. Musician Bill Feiger shared a new instrument each week creating a live sound track for the project. Each session included structured group dialogue, painting time and a group wrap up where we would quietly reflect in our journals.
-CI participant (6)
“Joining CI was one of the more rewarding things I’ve done in the past year. Drawing and painting became for me what I always knew it would be - an expressive way to meditate and create. But, it also gave me something that I hadn’t expected- a tool of empowerment, a sense of confidence and a source of joy.” – participantThere are a number of thoughtful participant writings that emerged, several can be found on the project blog. (7) A group of University of Pennsylvania education students actively observed and wrote about the project, submitting their findings to the school president.
One year and over one hundred and fifty participants later the work was installed in time for May Day. The unveiling was a work of art in itself, with food, music, a video about the project, spoken word descriptions of the mural and finally a collective movement dance party.
Community Based Eco-Cultural Development
Reflecting on these projects I have expanded on a number of themes that correspond to the development of curriculum for green community arts training programs.
1) An Opportunity for Creative Training
Provide training in a variety of artistic media, in a creative and imaginative environment.
These skills include administrative and studio time for building artistic skills. Specific training areas could include;
- Creative facilitation skills for participatory planning and production of art projects, development of active-visual assessment techniques.
- Knowledge in a variety of models of cultural production and pedagogy.
- An understanding of the historical and cultural context for eco-industrialism that includes an analysis of cultural democracy and policy.
- Modeling empathy, holistic thinking, cross-cultural and non-violent communication.
- Multi disciplinary collaboration.
- Technical aspects of preparing and delivering a variety of proposals.
- Fostering and guiding creative, divergent approaches to problem solving.
- Design skills for workers entering into the field of remodeling and interior design.
A green arts training center would support, encourage and foster integrated training and collaboration among science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) professionals. Collaborations would seek to identify new opportunities for ecologically sustainable development including the development of agriculture, energy and building materials. Eco-villages such as Gaviotas, Colombia, Arcosanti, Arizona and Auroville, India, demonstrate that bringing together a mixture of artists, builders, ecologists and scientists can result in fantastic innovations. (8) Example projects might include:
- Development of new papers, local pigments, inks and dry media.
- Development of unutilized resources from waste treatment facilities, factories and land fills.
- Develop a formula to conduct a carbon count on community arts projects. What practices do we need to alter?
- Community Arts based conservation initiatives combined with Green technologies such as solar panels, water harvesting, growing food, composting, recycling and waste reduction.
- Provide high visibility green community arts projects through permaculture murals and interdisciplinary public works projects.
- Place making projects that foster stewardship through civic engagement.
- Develop, facilitate and evaluate green arts service and infrastructure projects.
Understanding the differences between visual and spoken consensus is something one has to experience to appreciate. There is no direct route to visual consensus within a community design group. Like all community arts practices it’s about building trust, honoring the individual voice, drawing upon an abundance of expertise and creating a safe place to express ones ideas. As a group learns to communicate it’s not uncommon to experience group visual epiphanies.
Imagine Barriers Dissolving
What are the challenges of participatory art making? There are a number of issues that revolve around trust, accountability and safety. Within participatory visual arts projects the sense of vulnerability is informed by previous art making experiences, perhaps being chastised or having some sort of negative “art-room” experience. Untangling this web of self -doubts and detrimental art instruction is part of the trust building process.
“The move from our journals to the panels was a scary one. Before that, it was okay for us to praise the whole “not an artist movement”, but that was cool as long as no one really had to see what we drew! On the panel, it was all you, and whatever you put on there would be there for everyone to see. Yikes. Armed with a pencil and a mighty eraser, we got down to business.
I decided to start drawing an idea I had with a couple of other women involved in the sessions. The idea began as a tree with various fists making up the trunk of the tree, and growing out into branches representing the growing movements and power that comes out of the Rotunda, and the community as a whole. Although initially intimidating, the vibe was perfect. “There’s a very supportive atmosphere, so even if someone is like, ‘Oh, I can’t do that’, it still connects to what maybe someone else is doing,” says another participant and facilitator. The idea overrules the insecurities you may have about it.” After a few weeks of drawing, it was time to bust out the paints. By this time, with the support of the collective, plunging into this next step wasn’t so scary.” –CI project participant (9)The group creative process can be intimidating at first. Creating a safe place for people to authentically share without feeling coerced, is critical.
Hand eye coordination and observation, visual intuition, teaches people to observe rather than name. This is a great metaphor for the change we seek. We have to be sensitive to the complex nature of individual creative process, memory and experience.
An example is described by another CI participant:
“My first (and only) memory of trying to draw is from when I was six or seven years old. I remember it vividly – I wanted to draw a sunset I had seen on the beach in Florida. The image was crystal clear in my head (and it still is), but I struggled to put that vision onto paper. It’s not my happiest memory, to be honest – it ends with me tearing paper and throwing markers, but I’m sure that the clarity with which I still recall it indicates the magnitude of its impact on my psychology.
Whenever I try to draw, or map, or chart my ideas into something visual, I feel like I run into a brick wall. I’m an okay thinker, but when it comes to the visual creative manifestation of my ideas – nothing.These stories of personal transformation are imbued in the spirit of the work we create.
I’m not sure what I was expecting him to do, how I anticipated he’d advise me. I assumed it would be an art lesson, a basic drawing tutorial, maybe even a concession that some people just aren’t visual artists. But instead of teaching and instruction, he offered me a diagnosis and a prescription.
We performed a few technical exercises designed to separate my hand (and the act of drawing) from my mind (and the act of thinking). And after just a few minutes, Schwartz told me the problem – I was too critical, too analytical, too concerned – not even concerned, but obsessed – with what the final image would look like, that before I even picked up my pencil, I had already stifled my imagination. And he was right.” (10)
Following our Intuition: Time for Action
Community artists are vital to the emerging eco-industrial era. Our participation, however, is not guaranteed. To seize this unique moment in history will require persistence. We must continue to dialogue, organize and reach out to colleagues in a variety of sectors.
So what are some things we can do to bring together the Green Jobs and Community Arts training movements?
- Collaborate with colleagues and job training centers to develop curriculum and offer new courses.
- Establish working alliances with local environmental groups.
- Organize community dialogues and projects.
- Develop, document and implement model projects based on community need. Present your findings to city council.
- Develop, maintain and shop lists of local site-specific “shovel ready” green arts projects.
Community artists have a vast wealth of knowledge and skills perfectly suited to implementing participatory green-arts projects that model stewardship for our planet. Integrating our practices, passions and talents with green job training centers can result in bountiful harvests. This dream may not be a far off. The realities of climate change, coupled with a global economy, are forcing us to alter every aspect of our lives. It is impossible to negotiate these changes without a conversation about cultural democracy and a need to reconcile our nation’s formal and informal cultural policies. The natural place for this conversation is within the green jobs and community arts movements where shared values for self-determination have tangible results.
|Seeds for Life Sunflower Mural|
Michael B Schwartz (MFA 1991, University of Arizona School of Art, BFA 1988 Tyler School of Art at Temple University) is a community artist whose work includes civic engagement murals, inter- disciplinary collaborations and cultural democracy activism. His life and work have been spent on the front lines of the community arts and activism movements.
1. William Walker, 1967, “The Wall of Respect,” on 43rd and Langley Streets in Chicago.
2. Tucson Arts Brigade www.TucsonArtsBrigade.org
3. Image of We Give Birth to a Choice Each Day Mural:
4. Near the completion of the mural Sean Burlew, a project participant and friend, was killed by a drunk driver. He was an irreplaceable member of our community who brought people together with gardening, bicycles and laughter. He led critical mass bike rides, planted gardens with kids and was active in numerous civic projects, including the mural. His death, sudden and unexpected had an impact on the mural and the ensuing celebrations.
5. Tucson Community Cable Corporation http://accesstucson.org/
6. Renzi, Gina “It’s simple. Move.”, 1/1/08Philly Creative Guide http://www.phillycreativeguide.com/guest/guest_columnist_20080101.aspx
8. Gaviotas, Colombia: http://www.friendsofgaviotas.org/Home.html
Auroville, India: http://www.auroville.org/
Arcosanti, Arizona: http://www.arcosanti.org/
9. Pierre-Louis, Marly “Square Rootz Tries: Painting a Mural” 4/28/2008
10. Richman, Peter “Catalysis”, 12/14/07, http://collectiveimprints.blogspot.com/2007/12/catalysis.html