Art for a Change
Shelves at the Art Garden are overflowering with art supplies, making the space resemble a candy store for creativity. (Recorder/Trish Crapo)
Pastor Susannah Crolius of Montague, artist Gineen Cooper of Springfield and dance and movement therapist Jenna Holzman discuss strategies for implementing their ideas during the "hatching" segment of November's Art for a Change workshop at the Art Garden in Shelburne Falls.
Images of home created by people who have visited the Art Garden will be strung together into an installation entitled "Mobile Home," and exhibited at the "Where the Heart Is" community show opening Dec. 14, director Jane Beatrice Wegscheider said. Submissions of artwork and performances on the theme of home are being accepted through Dec. 6. (Recorder/Trish Crapo)
Bottles on display at the Art Garden were part of "The River Within Us," a 2012 community project that gathered stories about our personal connections to our watershed.
What would a large-scale participatory public art installation on the theme of forgiveness look like? How could you market small, brightly colored inspirational paintings or help people tell the stories of their cultural heritage through dance?
On a bitterly cold night in November, seven women gathered around the tables at the Art Garden in Shelburne Falls to help each other “incubate” and “hatch” ideas for projects that bring the fields of social activism and the creative arts together.
“The group mind is a powerful force,” said Conway artist Phyllis Labanowski. She and Art Garden founder and director Jane Beatrice Wegscheider of Buckland conceived of their seven-month series of Art for a Change workshops as a forum for “artists who want their creativity engaged in service to their local and global community, for activists who want their work to be even more creative, and for community members who want to be a part of it all,” according to the Art Garden website.
Funding from the Xeric Foundation, a Northampton-based private, nonprofit corporation established by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book co-creator Peter Laird, made it possible to offer the Art for a Change workshops free of charge. November’s session was the second workshop in the series, which continues through April. The next workshop will be held on Dec. 11, 6 to 9 p.m.
Seated around tables wrapped in white paper that still held the markings of paint and felt-tip pen from previous art projects, Art for a Change participants watched slides of work by artists that Labanowski and Wegscheider hoped would provide ideas for the creative use of text, November’s topic. This 1-hour “inspirational” segment was followed by an hour of “incubating,” during which participants could describe their ideas to the group; and an hour of “hatching,” during which smaller groups tried to devise strategies to bring specific projects to fruition.
Though the dark of winter had settled outside, the Art Garden felt warm and sunny. Paintings and drawings were tacked to the walls. Shelves and bins overflowed with every imaginable art supply, making the large, bright room resemble a candy store for creativity. And the attention of the group encouraged workshop participants to explore their ideas freely.
Laura Davis, who works at Clinical and Support Options, a community mental health center with offices in Franklin County and throughout western Massachusetts, was attending her second Art for a Change workshop.
“I’m very excited about this topic,” Davis said. “One of the biggest sources of mental distress is that people feel disempowered, so if you want to talk about art for change, that’s definitely a vehicle to help people feel more empowered in their lives.”
“I’m here because, what the heck, it’s fun,” said Laura Iveson of Shelburne Falls. Though she didn’t present a specific project that night, Iveson said she is interested in issues of body image — how women perceive their own bodies as compared to what the world of fashion presents as beautiful.
Susannah Crolius of Montague’s idea was to launch a one- or two-month, large-scale participatory art installation that would “invite the public to engage in some way on the theme of forgiveness.”
Crolius, a pastor, has received a grant through the Haydenville Congregational Church for a new project called Art and Soul, a community-based project that seeks to connect creativity and spirituality. The installation on forgiveness would be one outgrowth of this project, Crolius explained.
“I’ve been looking for a long time for ways to reclaim the words that come out of religion and faith that have either ceased to have meaning, or bring pain to people, or shut down conversation,” Crolius said. The word “forgiveness,” was one example.
“For a long time I have wondered how to connect people with the things that are holy and sacred in their lives, which I think the language of faith tries to name. How do we reclaim those or discover them and then share them with each other?” Crolius asked.
The group responded with suggestions and questions that ranged from philosophical to practical: How would the installation address the fact that people might have different ideas about what constitutes forgiveness? Given that the installation would be up for so long, how could Crolius design it so that it was self-directed and not dependent on a staff person to explain to viewers what they were supposed to do?
Maybe she could rally a group to help “jump-start” or “seed” the exhibit with the type of work she hoped others would add to the installation over time. Writing a one-sentence mission statement might help her focus her intentions; imagining the colors and textures that come to mind when she thinks about forgiveness might give her a more visual sense of what the exhibit might look like.
Crolius, who was busy taking notes throughout, seemed energized by the discussion. “Thank you, this is fabulous!” Crolius said.
Gineen Cooper, from Springfield, had brought a series of small paintings that included handwritten inspirational messages. Cooper described their bright palette and simple, narrative style as “very naïve and fun and silly,” compared to previous work she’d done on topics such as eating disorders, the Trail of Tears and “the genocide of thousands of Native Americans.” That earlier work had been “very serious, very dark,” Cooper said.
“I’ve been a maker of images for a long time,” she said. And though painting was one of her “great loves,” she had stopped for six years before beginning again recently “in this little gentle way.”
She was still exploring the new direction the work offered to her and was looking for ways to market it. “I really want to share them with others,” Cooper added.
Ideas tossed around by the group included reproducing the images on notecards or a calendar, perhaps an online calendar that would provide subscribers with an inspirational message each month.
Cooper described getting feedback from the group as, “Amazing. Just hearing people’s reactions to the work allows me to step closer to it,” she said. “The inner critic is too loud sometimes,” she added.
Jenna Holzman, a dance and movement therapist who had attended October’s workshop, was interested in the idea of using movement to help people preserve their cultural legacies.
In October, “We were talking about the uni-culture,” Holzman reminded the group. “I was lamenting that the uni-culture, especially our United States uni-culture, tends to infiltrate into so many other cultures and is so strong, it takes over and becomes the value, the value of status, so to speak.”
In contrast, Holzman hoped to provide a format for people to rediscover and recreate their cultural stories through movement. Holzman said she was still deciding whether her project would take the form of a series of participatory workshops or a performance.
“I think it’s worthy of piloting,” Labanowski said of Holzman’s idea, adding that, “I think a lot of storytelling, we assume, is through words.” But images can tell a story, Labanowski pointed out. Why not explore what kinds of storytelling could happen through movement?
“Call it an experiment or a pilot,” Labanowski said with aplomb. “It takes the pressure off.”
Taking the pressure off seemed to be a large part of what the Art for a Change workshops were designed to accomplish. If two heads are better than one, as the old adage says, why not six or seven? And even though no one took Wegscheider up on her offer to dip into the art supplies and start working on their project through visual means that November night, there the art supplies were, exercising their not-so-subtle creative influence.
Art for a Change is just one of the Art Garden’s many projects. In addition to open studio hours Mondays through Saturdays from 1 to 5 p.m., where, for a sliding scale fee of $5 to $10 an hour, anyone can create art from the abundance of supplies, the Art Garden hosts figure-drawing and other programs.
The Friday after Thanksgiving, during Shelburne Falls’ Moonlight Magic night, Art Garden hosted a “Bizarre Bazaar,” at which 10 local artists sold arts and crafts, and teens from the ARTteens program sold crazily decorated cupcakes to raise money for art supplies.
Art Garden is also soliciting submissions for “Where the Heart Is,” a community exhibit about home. All types of artwork, including performances, can be submitted by Friday, Dec. 6. All work that addresses the theme will be included, space permitting. (Performances must be appropriate for all ages.) An opening celebration will be held Saturday, Dec. 14, from 5 to 8 p.m.
For more information on its many programs, contact the Art Garden at 413-625-2782, firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the website: http://theartgarden.wordpress.com
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She can be reached at email@example.com.