Community Art in the time of COVID-19

Almost finished Hold Up Hold On panel, February 2020

a HUHO! panel from February 2020

Just as the Hold Up Hold On! team was successfully engaging participants in Berea, Kentucky middle and high schools…COVID-19 happened.

First, Berea College sent all students home in early March, which meant I lost one of my artist assistants. I remember thinking this might be a slight overreaction but as large area higher education institutions followed suit, including the one where the AmeriCorps program I manage is housed, as well as the area public and private K-12 schools, the surprise and disappointment I was feeling quickly turned to disbelief and then despair. I honestly and pretty quickly was no longer thinking about HUHO!; I was agonizing about my health and the health of my family and the sheer magnitude of the crisis.

The over three months that the pandemic has panned out to date, weeks and weeks of adjustment and survival, coupled with the recent onset of the racial unrest, has finally propelled me into a state in which I must reach out, act out, and figure out how to transform HUHO! into something that can be completed as intended, and further expanded and used by my community to help handle these uncontrollable situations and help heal from them.

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Initial movement in that direction happened in May when the Berea Arts Council, of which I am a board member, offered their windows for a HUHO! display.

I have since made an ask of the BAC, for support in 1) finding a building owner or city government entity willing to donate an exterior wall on which to install these panels; 2) hosting two upcoming events in which the Resilience panel is finished by area artists and in-progress panels are finished as well — with added elements that address equality and diversity.

It is my hope that I can directly partner with the BAC to make HUHO! a success story as of this fall, 2020.

Thanks again to the Kentucky Foundation for Women for helping to make this community art project happen!

The Kentucky Foundation for Women

 

I’m a KFW AMA Grant Recipient again!

In February 2019, I met with two high school girls and a Mom, and over art making talked about the mental health crisis at a local high school. This led to a brainstorming session about a collaborative community mural project involving at-risk girls, a contact with the dedicated therapist at one of the high schools, and a swiftly researched and written Art Meets Activism Grant to the Kentucky Foundation for Women. See the description here. Yup. I got the grant.

Writing the grant was scary though. The last time I got an AMA grant was in 2015-2016, and I was never able to produce a finished product from it. Owen Carl Chaney, lost to suicide on 8/22/2016, helped me with the project, was in many documentary photographs of the project, which also involved at-risk youth, and I just could not face the raw material while feeling so raw myself. For the first time in my artistic life, I felt paralyzed, blocked.

The KFW was extremely understanding about this. They gave me two extensions, and a retreat at Hopscotch House, hoping to help. It didn’t. To this day, when I think of that raw material, hours and hours of interviews of elder women and young girls and the projects we did together with Owen at my side, my throat still closes in panic.

I was truthful about the situation with my teenage artist partners. I warned them I might not get the new grant because of my failure to follow through on the last one. But not only did I get the grant, $3280 to engage teenage girls from Berea high schools in a public mural project focused on youth mental health and based on photographs of their hands holding objects that help them feel safe, secure and empowered. I got the best acceptance letter ever, full of compliments and encouragement. My hands shook as I opened the envelope. Then I read the contents and cried.

Since that Sunday morning early in June I have been able to do additional, formerly unthinkable things. I reached out to the new volunteer coordinator at the homeless shelter where I met and made art with Owen and offered to help her get our yard mural touched up and finally finished. I also attended a mural festival in Harlan, Kentucky, where I worked on a wall for the first time since before Owen died. I cannot describe the joy I felt when my body and mind effortlessly remembered how to do this, and remembered doing it with Owen.

So I want to thank the Kentucky Foundation for Women from the bottom of my aching, singing heart for this healing, growing, opportunity.

Upward Bound Arts Outreach, Summer 2019

Upward Bound students, Summer 2019 on collaborative mural art project.

I am once again partnering with Upward Bound at Eastern Kentucky University to facilitate helpful and team building art projects with youth. I have several returners, pictured here, from last year. Youth enrolled in my class are both driving and creating the panel designs as a group, using words and images that relate to Resilience — the theme of our multi-paneled mural.

But as always I started with a visual ice-breaker of sorts, from an idea I borrowed from an amazing photography project in which an artist interviewed homeless and photographed them holding a cardboard sign that educated the public about how the homeless are just like us — former dancers, businessmen, professionals. Instead, I had UB kidz write something about themselves that isn’t obvious to someone who doesn’t know them well. The answers were funny, touching, and sad.

Muralville!

This is just a sampling of the mural projects I facilitated and worked on with under-represented and marginal artists between 2013 and 2016. And there’s more to come!!!

I am thrilled to announce that I will be facilitating another public mural project after a three year hiatus, and it will involve young women and girls and focus on mental health awareness. More to come as the grant announcement is released!!

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