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Building Artistic Communities

by Alice Lovelace
Atlanta, Georgia

Alice Lovelace.
(Above) Alice Lovelace. (Below) A series of photos taken at Horizon School in Atlanta, Georgia during a class to learn about , write and read poetry. The class is part of the Atlanta Partnership for Arts in Learning. The class was taught by Alice Lovelace. Photos by Nic Paget-Clarke.

Landry Smith
Landry Smith reading a poem he has just written.
Leah Bingham
Leah Bingham writing a poem.
Joshua Garver.
Joshua Garver.
Jeremy Nichols and Alice Lovelace.
Jeremy Nichols and Alice Lovelace.

The following speech was delivered by Alice Lovelace as the Opening Plenary Address to the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts Conference, November 14, 2002. ©2002. Footnotes appear in a separate browser window for easy viewing.

Thank you for inviting me to assist you in opening your 65th annual conference. Thank you for choosing the South. I have to make a confession. Contrary to general belief, I am not from Atlanta. For me, moving my family to Atlanta in 1976 was a calling.

I had to witness for myself the South my parents escaped. Imagine my surprise when Atlanta and the South grounded me in art, culture, history, and spirit and became my home. Then Atlanta became my community of choice. The communities that welcomed us to Atlanta were various and diverse. So, now I want to welcome you South. Welcome home. Welcome.

Actually, I was born and reared in St. Louis. My parents came to live in St. Louis by way of Ripley, Tennessee and Pine Bluff, Arkansas. My childhood was an unorthodox blend of European, Southern Black, Native, and Ozark cultures. My favorite memories are of great art and grand architecture come to me through those cultures.

My childhood hangouts included Forest Park for cookouts, then on to the zoo, the botanical gardens, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Art Museum. But, the Vashon Community Recreation Center was my main hangout, more than a second home.

The Vashon Community Recreation Center sat on two square city blocks directly across the street from my house. It sat on Market Street, a great man made highway of traffic and commerce. You could walk out my front door, into the doors of the Vashon Community Center. For me, crossing that one street was like a journey to a New World.

At the Vashon Community Recreation Center Miss Helen, Mr. Bailey, and Mr. Westbrook taught me how to crochet, weave a rug, and sew by hand. I learned how to swim, to build a lamp, and to tumble. I was encouraged to join the drill team, the rifle club, and take boxing lessons. They provided acting classes and the opportunity to perform in productions that toured other community recreation centers.

Over the years, I studied jazz, soft-shoe tap, ballroom dancing, and ballet. My dance ambitions died after my first class on point -- in those incredible shoes with steel in the toes. Thereafter, I concentrated on square dance competitions and the drama club.

All this was mine. Everyday after school and all day during the summer. They never mentioned money. All that was required was my time and attention.

All of you have these memories. That is why you are here today. The arts played an early role, a friendly character in your life. You grew to believe there was something democratic about the arts. Something about the ability to change, and the power to say, think, and to be. You are here today because you are possessed by art.

Our youthful experiences led us to believe all children did art. We fashioned in our mind a vision of "the artist" as people who were supportive and kind, creative and enlightened. People who wanted to pass something on to the next generations. Now we have arrived in this place, for this gathering. Art has brought us here.

The theme for this year's conference is "Building Artistic Communities." BUILDING -- not just the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts, but that elusive harmonious community of art that we envisioned in our naive youth. Today we are here to talk about the work necessary to construct such a community. For we are all examples of what community based arts programs are capable of inspiring one to become.

We not only make art; we write proposals, evaluations, and final reports essays and commentary, poems, plays, and short stories. We teach poetry class, expressive movement, and photography. We work for and with children, families, the elders, the disabled, the sad, and the jubilant.

I look around this room and I am reminded of a poem by The Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda titled “La Sebastiana.” (1) I apologize in advance for the few liberties I will take with Neruda's poem.

He begins with the line "I built the house" -- today I would like to begin "We built the house."

[We] built the house.

[We] made it first out of air.
Later [we] raised its flag into the air
and left it draped
from the firmament, from the stars, from
clear light and darkness.

It was a fable
of cement, iron, glass,
more valuable than wheat, like gold --
I had to go searching and selling,
and so a truck arrived.
They unloaded sacks
and more sacks.
The tower took anchor in the hard ground --
but that's not enough, said the Builder,
there's still cement, glass, iron doors --
and [we] didn't sleep at night.

But it kept growing.
The windows grew,
and with a little more,
with sticking to plans and working,
and digging in with knee and shoulder,
it went on growing into existence,
to where you could look through a window,
and it seemed that with so many sacks
it might have a roof and might rise
and finally take firm hold of the flag
which still festooned the sky with its colors.

[We] gave [our]self over to the cheapest doors,
doors which had died
and been pitched out of their houses,
doors without walls, broken,
piled up on scrap heaps,
doors with no memory by now,
no trace of a key,
and [we] said, "Come
to [us], abandoned doors.
[we]'ll give you a house and a wall
and a fist to knock on you.
You will swing again as the soul opens,
You will guard the sleep of Matilde
With your wings that worked so much."

Then, too, came the paint,
licking away at the walls;
it dressed them in sky blue and pink
so that they might begin to dance.
So the tower dances,
the doors and staircases sing,
the house rises till it touches its crown,
but money is short --
nails are short,
door knockers, locks, marble.
Nevertheless, the house
keeps on rising
and something happens, a beat
starts up in its arteries.
Perhaps it is a saw, seething
like a fish in the water of dreams,
or a hammer which taps
like a tricky condor carpenter
at the pine planks we will be walking on.

Something goes and living continues.

The house grows and speaks,
stand on its own feet,
has clothes wrapped round its skeleton,
and as seaward the spring,
swimming like a water nymph,
kisses the sand of Valpara'iso,

now we can stop thinking. This is the house.

Now all that's missing will be blue.

All it needs now is to bloom.

And that is work for the spring.

For me, this poem is all of us accompanied by all those we bring with us and all the houses of art we left to gather here. Today, we are a community attempting to create itself out of air, with meager materials and little money. However, our vision is large enough to make our dream our reality. The communities many of use serve are like Neruda's doors --- doors which have been tossed out, with no trace of a key and what we bring is that fist to knock on them.

Kate Hammer describes us as "Artists of great depth and commitment, professionals with training, experience and vision" yet we are invisible to many of our colleagues and possible patrons because our mission takes us away from the mainstream. (2) We are individuals and partnerships, collectives and collaborations, academies, schools and centers of the arts. We are one yet we are many.

We may never get the Sunday cover of the Arts Section with color pictures above the fold. Look for us beneath the folds. Yet, what we do with, for, and in communities across this nation is important because "Art is the community's medicine for the worst disease of mind, the corruption of consciousness." (3)

What does it take to Build Artistic Communities? We must become activists in our own interest. We must act with purpose and certainty in the best interest of our collective communities. We must protect our house.

Do not allow those who do not care about our health, our survival, our profession to set our agenda then consume our passion and time. Our powers lie in our diversity and our numbers. Think about how we can support each other. Think about new models-new ways to make and deliver Art.

The foundation of our community is our collective history. The history of human art and architecture begins as early as 28,000 years ago. The earliest examples of art are images of animals painted in caves or cut into rock walls. This art depicts our collective ritual activities: preparation of food, extracting medicines, and herding. Later we began to create clay heads and human figures. Today, very little of our earliest art survives because we used it in our ceremonies and in daily life. In our collective history, art is an adjective -- not a noun.

I have a dream. I call it the Lovelace Theory of "atomic art." In this dream, we are inspired by how rich and diverse our communities are. We are motivated by how inspiring it is to work together and assist each other in reaching our goals. We are energized by the role we play in building community working on an individual level making connections and contributions to the civic life of our nation. We are building artistic communities that extend beyond geographic, ethnic or class boundaries to include all artists and all arts organizations. Spreading across the land like a giant mushroom cloud --- but instead of destruction --- we bring enlightenment.

Pete Seeger said it best, "The artist in ancient times inspired, entertained, and educated his fellow citizens. Modern artists have an additional responsibility -- to encourage others to be artists. Why? Because technology is going to destroy the human soul unless we realize that each of us must in some way be a creator as well as a spectator or consumer. Make your own music, write your own books," Pete Seeger warns, "if you would keep your soul."

I stand before you--members, friends, and associates of the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts -- to issue this call to community. Let us raise a flag into the air and let it drape from the stars, from the clear light of our unity. A community flag festooned with your three prone action plan: Advocacy, Partnership, and Sustainability.

Through advocacy, we help to create a healthy and inclusive national policy on the arts. In your own words -- Advocacy is built upon alliances with our various constituents, these alliances must be cultivated and maintained through accountability and follow-up. Advocacy goes beyond issue specific relationships and extends to building strong foundations and long term alliances.

We make our case by writing letters to the editor; local, state, and national politicians--letting them know what's going on. We make our case by attending school board meetings and city council meetings to let them know that community schools of the arts; the artist who sustain them; the participants that give them a reason for existing; the administrators, funders and supporters that make them possible are vital contributors to our national community everyday.

Effective partnerships are built upon a common vision and shared values. We know effective partnerships and collaborations with public schools, community clinics, and homeless shelters must be authentic, honest, and mutually beneficial.

Sustainability will come as we build our capacity: Human, Physical, Spiritual, and Financial. Sustainability speaks to developing thriving artistic communities. Not only creating something new, but also supporting what already exists.

Human Capacity
Sustainability of human capacity requires us to seek out, support, and mentor emerging artists and administrators. We are nested -- with smaller organizations existing under the broad umbrella of larger organizations; and we are connected, community by community, in our efforts to build a people's movement in the arts.

The National Guild is one of those invaluable nests. A resource supports our efforts to connect offering programs and informal guidance to all that seek assistance. The Guild supports community arts and arts education efforts through the NASCENT program.

The NASCENT program helps to promote excellence. From seed grants, to training, to the Adopt-a-School program nourishing emerging schools and centers and fostering artistic and administrative excellence.

What must we do to build our thriving artistic communities?
We must provide resources and opportunities for the youth to assume our role. Because, somewhere along the road to adulthood, we came to understand that too many children do not or can not, share our youthful experiences with art.

In Atlanta, the United Way recently announced they would pilot a youth internship in the arts program. High school students will be paid to spend their summers working with arts groups. We are being offered the opportunity to mentor young artists, designers, and program administrators. Find out what is happening in your community to introduce young people to not only the making of art, but also the administration and curating of the arts.

Physical Capacity
Physical capacity is defined by our ability to purchase our own space. One of my proudest accomplishments was the negotiation on behalf of the Southeast Community Cultural Center d/b/a the Arts Exchange to purchase the Grant Park Elementary School, making it our permanent home. We need to identify new spaces--be it in the corporate sector, at a community college, or as part of our community of faith.

Financial Sustainability
Financial sustainability will depend on our ability to diversify our funding, to create businesses under our control that will fund our community work, and our ability to win new converts to the arts. The truth of philanthropy in America is that the little people, the working, poor and middle class folks give more money annually to non-profits than all the wealth of corporations and foundations.

One of the enduring images of my childhood are the Friday afternoon collection of dimes from students in my third grade class for the Red Cross. We need to build our support from the base and if we have to, raise our money a nickel, a dime, and a quarter at a time.

Spiritual Sustainability
Our spiritual sustainability, I believe, rests in the formation of an association of associations. A place to bring all the varied and disparate voices together and to commit ourselves to uplifting the arts and artists no matters who they are, how they work, or where they work. We must remain firm about the intrinsic value of the arts. We are not all called to be community artists nor to see and value art in the same way and that is okay. For we are still all part of a special calling.

One of my sixth grade students expressed this calling---to help the people to see that we are all called to art. Janita Rainey is a 6th grade student at McCracken Middle School in Hilton Head, SC. She wrote this poem January 26, 1995.

This poem was inspired by the painting “Untitled Abstractions,”
by Clarence Morgan.

Art has the freedom of the bird.
Art has the weight of the limitations of society.
Art with all of its colors, bright and dull,
a drawing could mean life and death all at once.
A blue could mean coolness or extreme cold.
For Art has the freedom of a bird, and yet
have you ever see a picture
of a dying fish, toxic waste in the water.
Or a teacher being proven wrong.
Or maybe a portrait with all of the features
of a celebrity exaggerated.
For art has the limitation of society.
Art can be a dance, a sculpture, or a song.
Art is a hairstyle, a drawing, or an abstract painting,
but only the true Artist can fly away
and get out of the cage of the limitations of society.
I draw
I sing
I sculpt
I dance
I paint
and I style
in any way I want.
For I am an Artist!

We will make a change by promoting our belief that art teaches us the desire to pursue knowledge. That the arts are essential to expressing our humanity. That the arts offer us a lens through which to learn about our community, our world and ourselves. That the arts give vision and voice to our challenges and triumphs, our fears and aspirations. That art fosters creativity and brings with it the innovators of the next generation.

Let us learn from others. In the words of Marian Wright Edelman, "We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which over time, add up to big difference that we often cannot foresee."

This is a call to my creative community. This is a call to stir up the melting pot, the callaloo pot, and the gumbo so that the rue can rise to the top. For it is in the rue that the rich flavors live; the nutrients which can and will bring about qualitative and quantitative change -- social change for artists, artists' organizations and the rest of our nation.

We are the creative community. We want to know-it-all -- everything from ancient history to eighteenth century philosophy, ancient tea ceremonies and the stock market. We need to know because the creative person knows that one day three or four of these ideas will come together to form a new idea. It may be ten minutes later or three years down the way. We have a faith that it will all come together.

In need to share with you the words of eighteen artists from various mediums who gathered in a cabin in Jackson, Mississippi in 1995 to talk about building a movement of community based arts in Mississippi. They would say, we are gathered here today to talk about how we can Pass It On.

Pass It On (4)
© Alice Lovelace, 1995

We came hoping to share better ideas for our work.

We came to get some rest. To get back in the swing.
'Cause the price was right. Looking for some place we might fit in. Looking for opportunities.

We came to dance on the square the first Saturday of each month.
To learn how to pass on what we've learned, how art can make a difference in community for all those people who wanted to dance but never did.

We came, southern natives and transplanted Yankees suffering from culture shock and in the end, "We just real glad to be here!"

We are storytellers all spreading the myth of our existence
through a Blues riff, a Jazz improvisation, a quilt, some poetry,
or clay fired and hung on the wall for your approval.

Doing it all. Teaching the old, mentoring the young,
singing rap songs in dirty bars. Anything that will get us paid
and we work hard for our money.

Take it back and share it -- the culture of the Blues.
Take it back and share it -- a knowledge of rare music.
Take it back and share it -- talent god given.

'Cause art is creation centered in the symbols of god.
'Cause art is life, 'cause life is failure and success,
two boats on the water.

A bridge.
A tree in winter.
A red crayola crayon that captures the heart throb.
Social commentary hidden in the common.
'Cause the common can draw your attention.

Life is a traffic signal -- choices every second, every minute.
Caution, stop, go, yield, turn here - -these are your rites of passage.
A generation passing on survival skills.

Look up -- look beyond, you possess the power to change life
by changing your mind.
The key is in the door and it's on your side.

First light -- it is the children who
must contemplate the future
living through the sorrow.

Our house is on fire.
Dirt daubers in three, mimosa blossoms,
a grave in the backyard, angels in the air,
three in attendance.

Drums and guitars for friends who have died.
All the dead bearing crosses and drums.
Onions blooming.
Baskets flying in the air.

Throw in your pennies, wiggle back and forth,
go through the process, and art will let you in

Pass It On!
Art is something elemental like water and fire, air and earth.

Pass It On!
Teach them to fish

Pass It On!
'Cause life is a post card.
The original process.

Pass It On
Pass It On
Pass It On

This is what we are called to do. We must do all these things and we must do them in the sprit of Harambee, which in Swahili means, "let's all pull together."

Therefore, when I say Harambee I want you to join me in making a strong downward pulling motion.

We will do this three times. Okay? Are you ready?


Thank you for allowing me to salute you!!

Published in in Motion Magazine, November 25, 2002.

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