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!!

O’s Cover Art

Late in April, the facilitator of my bereavement group asked if I had any artwork of Owen’s — or any artwork we made together — that might suit as cover art for a book she co-edited and is about to be published. And I immediately thought of this stained glass mosaic Owen created in 2015, and finished in early 2016.

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Owen’s Omega RedWolf Flying, 2016

This, and many additional stained glass mosaics were part of an economic empowerment project I created at the homeless shelter where Owen and I met in 2013. Dozens of artistic shelter and Art In The Annex guests engaged in the project, and were willing to have their mosaics shown and sold (with a percentage of the proceeds going to the artists) at an area gallery, then a special sale space called AIM (Art In The Margins) in the church across the street from the homeless shelter.

Here are images of Omega RedWolf Flying in progress, including two of Owen working on it:

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It was so painful to shut down that space in the fall of 2016, and collect Owen’s artworks from it as well as the Annex at the shelter, and bring them to Berea. It was also painful to read the title of Dr. Moore’s book: The Suicide Funeral or Memorial Service.  But there is also something incredibly redemptive and hopeful in that image of a wolf flying through a blue portal, and in knowing Owen, through this artwork, will live on and hopefully be of help to others impacted by suicide.

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Book cover, with Owen’s Omega RedWolf Flying.

My work with LexEngage

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Through a fortuitous meeting with staff at the Lexington Living Art and Science Center, I am now connected to University of Kentucky’s unique LexEngage program.

LEXengaged is a first-year residential program on UK’s north campus, close to downtown Lexington, in which civic engagement is applied to students’ day-to-day life. Through course readings, discussions, guest speakers, and off-campus tours, participants gain a greater understanding of the larger community, focusing on engagement, service learning and social justice.

My job as a teaching artist is to help UK students interact with students at William Wells Brown via unique visual art experiences that focus on the topic of homelessness — something near and dear to my heart.  Our first project was “Who I Am” in which students built trust and understanding via tracing each others’ bodies and filing them in with name designs that expressed who they are using color, line, shape, placement and size — basic design concepts.

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Our second project on February 15, 2017, was based on the Cardboard Stories collected by Orlando Florida’s ReThinking Homelessness project.  UK and William Wells Brown students made a list of words associated with the homeless, then discussed how those things — dirtiness, torn old clothing, etc. — are just superficial signs and are, in many ways, the way we look at times and for reasons other than homelessness. This pressed home the fact that the homeless are indeed “just like us”.

Then students brainstormed a list of things about themselves that no one would know by just looking at them.  They picked a few and transferred them to cardboard, and we hung them up and talked about the funny ones, the sad ones, and especially the unexpected ones.

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.