Better living through art

mschultz@newsobserver.comJuly 5, 2014 

  • The USDAC: What it is

    Here is how the USDAC describes its mission:

    Whereas access to culture is a fundamental human right; culture is created by all and thus should represent all; cultural diversity is a social good and the wellspring of free expression; a deep investment in creativity is critical to cultivating empathy and social imagination; art and artists are powerful forces for accomplishing social change and strengthening social fabric; We, the people, do hereby create The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, a new citizen-powered initiative to cultivate the public interest in art and culture and catalyze art and culture in the public interest.

    Find out more at http://usdac.us/

— “The revolution will not be televised,” beat poet Gil Scott-Heron pronounced in 1970.

But if it were, the TV stations might have wanted to start filming at the ArtsCenter on June 29, where a group of artists and the artistically inclined began planning a future they would like to live in.

“The Great Southeastern Imagining” was one of 17 similar events taking place across the country this summer, organized by the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture.

And no, that’s not a federal entity.

And yes, that’s precisely the point.

Local “cultural agent” Lynden Harris put together Sunday’s gathering, an afternoon aimed at envisioning the world in 2034, when the power of art and culture has helped people create a more just, sustainable world. In between performances, small groups gathered at “conversation stations” to talk about how creative collaboration could improve health, housing and neighborhoods, foodways and other systems.

Part celebration, part call to action, the Imagining was a fun exercise that organizers hope will build communities, collective power and eventually public policy.

But first folks had to get to know one another.

“My goal is that everybody comes here and meets somebody they would not have met otherwise – not just somebody new – and that they come away invigorated about the arts,” Harris said.

The Cedar Grove resident’s Hidden Voices project has already helped underrepresented groups including immigrants, the incarcerated and illiterate, tell their stories on different media platforms.

“I think as a culture we have tended to remove (art) from our lives and made it into something separate,” Harris explained. But all people can be artists, and art can transform lives.

It has already transformed Anita Woodley, a journalist turned playwright and performer who channels her great grandmother and other characters in inspiring stories about survival.

Woodley and her son had just returned a few years ago from the funeral of her great grandmother, who had lived to 101, when her son told her how much he missed her. Then he turned to Woodley and said, “She’s here. She’s inside you.”

Woodley’s eyes widen as she tells the story.

“He said, ‘Just open your mouth and she’ll come out,” she recalled. And then in a deep rasp, she said, ‘Good morning, sweet boy. How you? Great-great Grandma loves you, and I miss you. Come here and give me some suga, baby.’”

Soon after that Woodley created “Mama Juggs,” a theatrical show that spreads the message of breast health. She is now working on a play about HIV in which she’ll portray male characters.

“Everybody has that inner artist in us, we all have it,” she said. “Maybe you’re a decorator. That’s art too. I think that’s what this is about: to remind us.”

But out in the lobby, Nate “The Magician” FitzSimons struggled with calling himself an artist.

“This is just deception,” he said after enthralling a trio of young girls with three disappearing and reappearing red, fuzzy balls.

“Magic by itself is nothing. Only the audience makes it art,” he explained. “They invest their lives in it. ... My only job it to make them see the miracle.”

But somewhere, as Harris and Woodley said, many people forget they too can perform miracles, that art is not restricted to the “creators” and the critics.

Tarish ‘Jeghetto’ Pipkins, a puppeteer who teaches art to children and young people with disabilities, saw Sunday’s event as “artists taking control of our future.”

But it’s artists with a small “a,” he agreed, because everybody can be an artist if they just open themselves to the possibility.

“You have to create it. You have to imagine it,” he said, as he high-stepped his latest wooden creation – a Star Wars inspired, laser-toting robot he called Babyhead the destroyer – on the floor.

And you have to keep going..

“Ooh, I used to paint” or “I used to do puppets,” people will sometimes tell Pipkins when he performs.

“It saddens me,” he said.

Schultz: 919-932-2003

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