Engagement

Not mine; wish it was!

Five years ago, a newspaper article was written about me and my efforts to help the homeless through visual art experiences. It never would have happened if I hadn’t walked into that shelter at the right time, and met the right kind of executive director who believed that the homeless have gifts to share with the community — and believed in me.

When people believe in you, you can move mountains, and I felt like I did during the three years I devoted time, effort and care to the homeless in my community by working directly with them, building trust, encouraging them to engage and take artistic risks when they spent most of their days being told by others what to do and how to do it — or else. I helped the homeless engage in three fundraisers (not just be the recipient of proceeds); I created an art-based economic empowerment project that for a short period of time helped the homeless earn while making art AND made them feel part of the community via art sales in local galleries; I made for them a peaceful, safe artistic space separate from the stress of the day shelter; and last but certainly not least, the homeless helped ME create a beautiful mural that I hope will stay on that smoking yard wall to remind staff and guests that the homeless have abundant gifts to give, if we just offer them the tools, and the chance.

M on wall with camo

Five years later, after almost three years living in a new community in Kentucky, I am finally feeling the urge to be engaged again. There are a lot of reasons for what caused this lengthy delay — such as the death of a marriage, the death of a loved one by suicide, health compromises, and what it takes to recover from those traumas as well as the length of time and energy it takes to rebuild ones life in middle age. It wasn’t hesitancy though. It was knowing what I could handle and what I could not. It was taking good care of myself. It was survival.

Now I am ready to begin helping the homeless again — but not via a program that makes shelter available to some instead of all, and not in alignment with any agenda, only as an artist. I am ready to engage my community in public art projects — and that means all of the community, not just the artistic or able. I also hope to spread an engaging message: That art is not just about teaching it, making it and selling it. Art is a resilience builder and a survival tool and I know this, because that is how Art has helped me.

Sweetheart Flying, 2017 Ink, marker, colored pencil and watercolor on paper

Pride

I recently sat in on a prospective AmeriCorps KY READY Corps member interview, during which she was asked to share a most significant project, most complex project or a project she was most proud of — and my heart went out to her and her struggle to find a story to relate. Though I had no doubt she would discover something, and she did, watching that struggle and hearing her openly confess: “Pride? I never really thought about anything I did as something to be proud of…” touched me and made me remember the shame of the homeless in terms of where they lived, what they did and how it got them there. It also reminded me of me as a kid and young adult without any self confidence or pride in myself or my family or where I came from.

That is why it was soooo amazing to be a part of helping the William Wells Brown kids last fall to create these panels because they are all about pride in themselves and the history of their community. But the best part was hearing that the panels would be part of a new exhibit at the Kentucky Horse Park, honoring the long history of African American jockey and trainer involvement in the horse industry.

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The panels have also been made into a fundraising poster!

I plan to be at the Park on 7/5/18 when many of the William Wells Brown kidz will be present to see their work on the walls. THAT’s going to be empowering!!

Photography with LEXengaged & at-risk youth in Lexington

Here is the first installment of a photography project I am facilitating with college students and at-risk youth in Lexington.The focus is on symbolism and metaphor as portrait.

 

ArtVention Installation, September-November 2017

I’m Still Here banner, collaborative art from ArtVention September 2017

Gallery on Main, a community gallery in downtown Richmond, KY, invited SAFE project coordinators/facilitators to install ArtVention artworks for viewing from September to November.

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ArtVention is an art empowerment and healing project focused on suicide education, prevention and awareness, funded through the EKU SAFE program within the Psychology Department at Eastern Kentucky University. I coordinated and supervised the ArtVention event on 9/13/17, in which suicide bereaved and survivors engaged in three visual art projects, one of them collaborative, creating a sense of community and healing from suicide experiences.

ArtVention at EKU, September 13, 2017

On 9/13/17 I had the pleasure (and awe) of helping to create an art-based, post-suicide prevention experience at Eastern Kentucky University’s Noel Studio For Academic Creativity. Held in honor of World Suicide Prevention Day (a concept I am only beginning to tolerate and consider, since my own loved one’s suicide), ArtVention is a unique art experience for all who have been impacted by suicide. Participants are encouraged to identify and visually express feelings about suicide via guided visual art activities. It’s not art therapy — it’s art empowerment led by a working artist who uses art to help herself and other vulnerable  people survive and thrive.

We began with a hand “sign in” with medium on a blank sheet of muslin, which disappears when it dries — like the loved one we lost. Halfway through ArtVention we hit it with paint to make our marks reappear, a metaphor for the love we will never lose.

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Participants also created  a “before/after” collage guided by words and materials chosen for their positive/negative impact.

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Lastly, ArtVention participants made Tribute Flags for themselves or the person they lost.

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The best part of all, as usual, were the revealing and healing conversations that struck up while I interacted with participants, and they interacted with each other.  Both the flags and the collages will be part of suicide awareness exhibits coming up in 2018.

Thanks to the EKU Suicide Awareness and Focus on Education (SAFE) grant, the volunteers who helped with ArtVention, including recent EKU graduate Abigail Emerson who came up with the idea, Crystal West who found and transported the cardboard and fabric (cut out lots of collage material!) and Dr. Melinda Moore who invited me as a teaching artist to make it happen.

 

My artwork at Kentucky Crafted: The Market, 4/22/17

Thanks again to the folks at the Kentucky Arts Council for jurying me into The Illustrated Word. The exhibit traveled to the 35th annual Kentucky Crafted event at the Lexington Convention center last weekend. It was a real thrill to see artwork about O in public for the first time.

Marching, Marching

In the last week my art and creative activist self marched twice.

MLK Day of Service, AmeriCorps VISTA:

VISTA Volunteers and AmeriCorps members participate in two National Days of Service, and MLK Day is one of them. We began by joining Berea College and the Berea community at Union Church for several speeches and inspirational music.  Then we marched down Chestnut Street.

In the afternoon, my fellow VISTA Leader organized a letter writing campaign for women at the New Opportunity School for Women and seniors in local high schools, with the help of KyCC VISTAs from northern KY.

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I also joined the historic Women’s March in Lexington, KY on 1/21/16. I really wanted to be in the original, in D.C., but the time and cost became prohibitive. Lexington did not disappoint though!

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Highlights: Getting there early and walking to Cheapside Bar in order to sit the same booth I sat in with O in August.  On my way I saw a rough looking character setting up to play street music. He had several musical instruments: guitar, harmonica, something on his foot that looked like a little cymbal but I didn’t want to stare.  I must have been oozing activism because he smiled and asked “goin’ to the march?”

Cheapside was almost empty at first, but by the time I was scarfing my salmon it was full of sports fans bleeding blue, and women wearing glowing pink pussy hats. The waitress called me “lady bug” — an endearment I haven’t heard since living near Owensboro.

By the time I got back to the square in front of the Fayette Circuit Court a vast crowd was gathering. I was so inspired by the mix, a beautiful balance of and young/old, single/couples, men/women, able/disabled. Everyone was waving clever, pointed, vicious, hilarious signs – except me, it seemed. So I found a group with stacks of Planned Parenthood signs and was gifted a big red one with a message to the current administration about keeping their hands off my uterus.

The speaker line up was impressive, but the talking went on too long.  They almost lost me and most of the crowd after #6, when I milled around a bit and found a couple of fellow co-workers as well as my old friend April, who is recovering from a loss similar to mine, of O.

But I decided to walk alone. A great surge of us finally started moving to the march route, right in the middle of downtown. While walking we chanted, we sang. Our numbers were so many we could see streams of ourselves moving in opposite directions at the end of the long side streets. Later I heard we had over 5,000 marchers.

So amazing, so much fun and felt so good I couldn’t believe it took me 58 years to march political.

 

The Lone Tree Planting, 11/12/16

The Owen quote

The Owen quote

On November 12, 2016, friends and loved ones had a small memorial ceremony for Owen Chaney in downtown Evansville, Indiana.  This world lost Owen on August 22, 2016, when he chose to take his life in Berea, Kentucky after a long battle with addiction, mental illness, and three years of chronic homelessness.

Everyone who knows me knows I loved Owen, and I join many who knew Owen to be a loving, kind, generous, talented person even while plagued by the stresses and illnesses of his adult life. Or maybe in spite of them.

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In memory of Owen we planted a sycamore tree on the lawn of the Zion Church opposite the homeless shelter where Owen and I met and made art between 2013 and just a few short months prior to his untimely death. Owen loved nature and he loved sycamores, which he called “ghost trees” in keeping with Native American lore, and in reference to the color of their trunks and limbs. They literally glow in the dark on moonlit winter nights. Sycamores are also called “trees of life” because they have tremendous longevity, up to 600 years, and symbolize intuition, shelter, nurturing…among other things.  They also grow very fast and, to me, symbolize the surviving and thriving that Owen was never able to accomplish in this life.

A pack of Marlboros, the smokes Owen preferred, will show up at the base of The Lone Tree now and then, so those of you who are desperate for one can help yourself. I often witnessed Owen giving away his last cigarette to someone he thought needed it more than he. You are also welcome to stop by and put a memento on the sycamore, which will be nurtured by members of the Zion congregation. Many thanks to them, Pastor Kim, and the generous donations of Owen’s friends in attendance for making the tree planting possible.

Mountain Day 2016, Berea College

On 10/10/16 I participated in my first Mountain Day at Berea College. See more about the history of Mountain Day here.

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My Mountain Day began before dawn with a traditional mile-long hike up to the East Pinnacle at Indian Fort, an historic and sacred Native American site. I would estimate that close to a hundred other individuals — including an entire choir — joined in. They broke into song at sunrise. It was quite a moment.

I took my time coming down in broad daylight, however — and needed to shower and change (because of the unusually warm for eastern Kentucky weather) before returning to help man our AmeriCorps VISTA and Partners For Education/PartnerCorps table. We enticed Mountain Day attendees to learn more about AmeriCorps and VISTA by offering a raffle for VISTA Jeffrey Carpenter’s artworks — and an art activity that involved making cards with rubbings of fallen leaves. I “trained” several AmeriCorps VISTAs in creating these rubbings, and they in turn instructed table visitors in making their take-away card.

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It was a beautiful, productive and instructional day. My most valuable lesson: what an amazing community Berea College is, evidenced by the enthusiastic participation of so many of its students (more than I ever witnessed at any other higher ed institution during my sixteen years of formally teaching art) — and its commitment to the arts, evidenced by the several musical performances — and a drum circle! — at Mountain Day 2016.

 

Visiting VISTAS, Cumberland, KY, October 1, 2016

Alexia  Ault showing me sorghum processing

Alexia Ault showing me sorghum processing

Many thanks to Partners For Education/Berea College Higher Ground VISTAS for inviting me to the Kingdom Come Swappin’ Meetin’/Black Bear Festival on October 1 to watch sorghum processing — and attend a lively and hilarious performance of Life Is A Vapor at The Godbey Appalachian Center at Southeast KY Community and Technical College.

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I missed the milling part, but no big deal…it was done by machine instead of the usual mule! Alexia, our Higher Ground VISTA showed me how the sorghum is cooked and reduced, and the green gunk and foam at the top of the boiling/simmering vat skimmed off. Eventually a smoky/sweet tasting molasses is produced — which I got to taste with a “dipper”, a piece of cane hacked off with a knife by Applachian Center Director Robert Gipe.

I also got a tour of the festival as well as of the fine arts building — which is graced by this beautiful text based and storytelling themed mural. The second, figurative mural was created by many hands, each taking charge of a tile, which gives the overall piece an authenticity and energy not found in more “technically perfect” murals. I loved them both.

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Then, at 6:30 p.m., I attended a Higher Ground performance of “Life Is A Vapor”. According to VISTAS Alexia Ault and Cassidy Wright, Higher Ground productions are written by the performers themselves, and based on real people known by the cast and community — so they are really about life stories. And by the way, I didn’t think I was up to seeing a play about a funeral — but it was hilarious and touching.

 

Higher Ground about to perform Life Is A Vapor

Higher Ground about to perform Life Is A Vapor

Life Is A Vapor poster designed by Cassidy Wright

Life Is A Vapor poster designed by Cassidy Wright