Living Art: Creativity Inspires Community
Everywhere in the U.S., people are gathering for artful togetherness---cooking or painting, storytelling or gardening, drumming or dancing. These initiatives can transform a city of neighborhood's well-being on multiple levels.
When we say someone or something is creative, do we mean imaginative, innovative, inventive, artistic or fantastic? Creativity is about being inquisitive and open to new ideas as well as new ways of putting those ideas together. Individual artists, who are naturally inventive, are central to sustaining the creative spirit for society as a whole.
However, a larger creativity comes alive through collective art making, where the creative impulse requires interaction between the artists and audience. Such animating experiences, which often take flight from the creation of familiar objects, bring people together in body, mind and spirit, and work to keep us connected.
Yielding to the Moment of Creation
“Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.” ~ Pablo Picasso
Communal creativity exists along a continuum between spontaneity and structure, and gives birth to myriad forms that are sometimes stunning in their simplicity. The most poignant of these remind us of just how very human we are.
Take, for example, the fourth plinth (think pedestal) raised in 2009 in London’s Trafalgar Square by Antony Gormley. This piece of public performance art, entitled One and Other, encouraged anyone interested to ascend and stay atop the empty plinth for an hour to get a different view of the world. For 100 days, contributing individuals could do whatever they liked for the assigned hour, but the most astounding revelation for all was the ways in which life came to life before their eyes (www.OneAndOther.co.uk).
Consider the inspired vision that prompted residents of Fort Collins, Colorado, to devise a traveling pop-up art gallery that transforms empty downtown storefronts into vibrant art spaces until tenants are found. Since 2009, The Art Lab has filled Old Town with art, innovation, music and smiling faces. Anyone can come and create in the space, display their arts and crafts or just sit, talk, brainstorm and share the good energy. This laid back, yet intimate, contribution to community life ranges from plays and exhibitions to communal paintings (www.ArtLabFortCollins.org).
Tom Borrup, a creative community builder in Minneapolis, sees such everyday cultural expressions as crucial reservoirs of community spirit (www.CommunityAndCulture.com). He notes that festivals, recurring gatherings in parks, gardens or community centers and artistic activities of all stripes that generate and sustain group traditions build community and contribute to everyone’s quality of life.
Working with the Senses
“Art has been the means of keeping alive the senses of purpose…”
~ John Dewey
Artful togetherness is woven into the very fabric of community life through what often appears to be everyday utilitarian activities, such as group gardening, sewing, building, painting and cooking. In sharing time and space, we gain a sense of nurturing and realize ways to hold onto the distinction of a place. In the best scenarios, we honor cherished traditions and remain open to learning and reinvention by accepting and incorporating new ideas from unlikely places.
… Putting our hands to work
Visitors are likely to be surprised by the hive of activity they encounter in local sewing and knitting supply shops lately. Take the Yarn Shop and Fiber Place, in Bozeman, Montana, for example (www.BozemanYarnShop.com). The owners host monthly knit-alongs, spinning and weaving circles and knit-for-a-cause events. In New Jersey, a community of volunteers with the Blankie Depot has crafted some 147,000 blankets and other comforting goods for needful youngsters since 1999 (www.BlankieDepo.org). The Sewful Austin group in Texas, on the other hand, just gets people together to have fun and share ideas for sewing projects (www.Meetup.com/Sewful-Austin).
Coffee shops, too, can get in on the act. Dogleg Coffeehouse, in Bandera, Texas, (www.DoglegCoffeehouse.com) is the site of a free monthly art class led by local artists. They’ve sparked a growing community of folks creating new life for repurposed and re-found items.
Spontaneous expression is commonly found in open studios or houses, as groups of artists and others meet to paint, draw, sculpt or mold. Community art collectives like Rock Paper Scissors, in Oakland, California, are hot spots for activities ranging from art walks and talks to writer readings. A volunteer-run organization, RPS fosters all forms of community arts, crafts and performances through collaborative sharing of ideas, skills and resources aimed to strengthen a sense of community (www.rpsCollective.org).
Other artists, like Susan Wood, of SusieQ Art based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, move outside the studio to facilitate the co-creation of art in public spaces (www.SusieQArt.com). Her favorite sites include parks, science museums and natural health expos. Anyone within earshot can get a no-cost creative charge by simply picking up a paintbrush to “add a dab.” To date, the largest ad hoc painting party was 115 people strong, all venturing beyond self-imposed boundaries.
… Unleashing indwelling voices
Beyond the creative command of our hands, it also feels good to unleash our bodies and expand the scope of our voices. The modern-day resurrection of drum circles, for instance, is giving new life to dance socials. Based upon one of humanity’s most ancient forms of gathering and sharing within and across communities, loosely structured drumming events around the world leave plenty of room for spontaneous jamming.
Fans view the drum as an especially powerful instrument relating to the human body, as it mimicks the beat of the human heart. Waleska Sallaberry relates that their Natural Awakenings’ Drumming Circle in Puerto Rico tops 600 participants a month. (Find existing drum circles by state or find out how to start one at www.DrumCircles.net/circlelist.html.)
Another ancient and global form of community building resides in the power of words—whether sung or spoken. We have come to understand that stories sustain our values, myths and belief systems. The National Storytelling Network helps locate master storytellers in the community (www.StoryNet.org).
We can also create a storytelling event of our own. Ask any informal gathering of new and old friends to each create their own six-word memoir in a round robin event and be amazed at what memories are instantly created. Enjoy checking out and sharing such six-word autobiographies at Smith Magazine (www.SmithMag.net).
Finally, there are celebratory events at which all kinds of vibrant creative forms come together in one place. In Naples, Florida, Live Art meets in various places around town for on-the-spot performance music, painting, fire-spinning, poetry, dance and body painting. It’s a constantly evolving work in progress, sometimes scheduled and sometimes spontaneous, but always full of people having fun together.
In New York, the Horse Trade Theater Group is well known for its independent talent and events, featuring open mic, improv, dance and other “drafts in development,” as they nourish the organic advancement of community (www.HorseTrade.info). The Windmill Market, in Fairhope, Alabama, offers yet another twist—bringing food, textiles, film, antiques and plants together. Part farmers’ market, part craft fair and part community garden, it’s all about nurturing the fiber of community (www.WindmillMarket.org).
Of course, the ultimate in structure and spontaneity may be the extraordinary Burning Man Project, an annual art event and temporary community based on self-expression and self-reliance in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. This year’s theme is “Metropolis: The Life of Cities.” (For details of the August 30-September 6, event, visit www.BurningMan.com.)
Expanding and Amplifying Interconnections
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” ~ Albert Einstein
While the Burning Man Project is significant for its magnitude and sheer eclecticism, it is temporary, its existence imprinted mainly in the memories of participants. But most creative communities exist like Russian dolls, nested inside other communities and networks of creative activity. These orchestrated inter-community initiatives can transform a neighborhood’s or city’s well-being on multiple levels. Vehicles vary widely, but here are a few examples to get the creative juices flowing.
One Book, One City local reading programs, like the ones in Chicago, Denver, Malibu, San Diego, Philadelphia and Seattle, engage a whole community in choosing a book to read over a period of time. Readers then come together to participate in a variety of related events. The idea was the 1998 brainchild of Nancy Pearl at the Washington Center for the Book at The Seattle Public Library. Many communities choose to feature a local author, and this decision is often socially transformative.
At the other end of the spectrum, Flash Mobs entail large groups of volunteers who appear to spontaneously perform a clever act of theater in a public space for a brief period of time. Initially designed as a combined social experiment and form of performance art, the first flash mob occurred at Macy’s in New York City in 2003, organized by Bill Wasik, of Harper’s Magazine.
Flash mobs have since appeared all over the country; some more structured than others, but always evoking the feeling that they are happening on the spur of the moment. Whether dramatic or musically inclined, they’re always designed to make us become truly present in our environment; their brilliance is the connection they spark between the actions of the mob and the place we inhabit as an audience. (See YouTube.com, search Frozen Grand Central Station.)
Public participation is the name of the global game with International Pillowfight Day, as communities come together with pillows to play. Part of the Urban Playground Movement, the idea is to reclaim public space for play, away from advertising and consumerism (www.PillowFightDay.com).
Taking a cue from “A Day in the Life” photography projects, World Pinhole Photography Day (PinHoleDay.org) recruits everyday people to create a pinhole camera and take a picture of something in their local community. It happens on the same day, usually the last Sunday in April. Everyone then loads their images onto the collective website to beget a global gallery of images.
Finally, the Global Mala Project demonstrates what can be accomplished with a worldwide, inter-community, consciousness-raising event (GlobalMala.org). Here, yoga studios from many nations gather local individuals to form a “mala around the Earth,” as they perform ritual practices based on the sacred cycle of 108, to raise funds and awareness for pressing global issues. This year, the mala will be held September 18-19. Tune in for an “Om” heard ‘round the world.
Kirsten Broadfoot has lived and worked in New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Japan and the United States, granting her a profound appreciation of community life. She has created and coordinates two online communities, the Good Work Circle and COMMUNEcation, and has written numerous conference papers, academic articles and essays. Connect at [email protected]