Durham News: Community

Brushstrokes: Catherine Howard’s incredible journey

Catherine Howard, 27, a creative communications consultant with the Durham Arts Council, stands next to a giant metal artwork by Tripp Jarvis in front of the Liberty Arts area at Golden Belt near downtown Durham.
Catherine Howard, 27, a creative communications consultant with the Durham Arts Council, stands next to a giant metal artwork by Tripp Jarvis in front of the Liberty Arts area at Golden Belt near downtown Durham. hlynch@newsobserver.com

In 2013, Catherine Howard, curator at the Center for Advanced Hindsight and interim artists’ services manager at the Durham Arts Council, took an incredible journey.

“I had gone to Cape Town, South Africa to do an art residency program in March 2012,” Howard said. “I met a lot of artists and learned how art impacts communities.”

When Howard returned, she came up with the idea to spend 2013 exploring how artists around the world were affecting their communities and to create a sketchbook from each experience.

“I had envisioned this project as active and creating big works of art but then Finland, the country that I visited first, squeezed that expectation out of me for which I am very grateful,” Howard said. “Finland taught me how to sit back and relax, observe, listen, and not be in the thick of things.”

Go to 131313sketchbookproject.com and click on the Finland sketchbook (all of Howard’s work from her experiences are free to download).

“The Finland Sketchbook is very sparsely illustrated,” said Howard, who was in Finland in January when it is dark almost 20 hours a day. The colors are very muted at the beginning, and as I got crazier and crazier with the quiet and the snow, it becomes this explosion of color on every page with abstract designs as that was the only color that I was seeing, the color in the sketchbook.” This experience was not in any way what Howard had anticipated.

“I learned that my life is not in my controls as much as I pretend. I can have grand visions, but they will never be what they should be,” Howard said. “I let go of my need. It ended up allowing me to let the organic changes happen to the project. It ended up being much more fulfilling that way. It seismically changed my internal landscape.”

Howard left Tampere, Finland, and went to Berlin, Germany; Johannesburg, South Africa; and then Harare, Zimbabwe. Her experiences there affected her more than all the others in the year.

“It is a country that has very few resources, and I watched artists use what little they had to encourage children to think outside the box and promote critical thinking in a country where censorship is rampant,” Howard said. “The artists were using painting and drawing to challenge kids to actually think and not accept what they have been fed about what the political ideology there.”

After her time there, Howard went to Moca in the Dominican Republic and then to Toronto, Canada to stay with Elicsr, a well-known graffiti artist and friend. While there, Howard met with Kristina Hausmanis, the Project Lead of StreetARToronto, a program that supports awareness of street art and how it adds beauty and character to Toronto. A program goal is to stamp out illegal painting of city property. Kids who are caught doing graffiti are offered mentorships to create street art. “This is a way of talking about how your desire to put your stamp on your city is good but here is a way to do it that is legal and beneficial for everyone. The devotion of the street artists who work there struck me – this idea of being able to put your mark on a city is a way of showing your devotion to it. Marking your city as your own so you can do more for it.”

This idea also profoundly altered Howard.

From Toronto, Howard traveled to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Beijing, China, and then Hong Kong. Her second to last stop, Oct. 1-31, was in Durham.

Here she spent time with and interviewed Stacey Kirby, Heather Gordon, Luis Franco, and Randy “Freedomclay” Rogers, all of which are in her Durham sketchbook.

Each community that Howard visited, including Durham and Raleigh, which was her “final” stop, had an essential element in common. “I was asking these artists all over the globe, ‘how are you talking to a general audience, who is your audience, are people listening?’ Artists the world over wanted to use their voices to make their communities more compassionate places, places that function better. “They want to be able to help communities celebrate their diversity in a way that is meaningful,” Howard said.

It was this reiteration, in so many languages, that rode on Howard’s shoulders and danced in her head.

“There are plenty of people talking to artists about how to make a living, how to live a meaningful life, but who is giving the artists tools to have an impact on their community?” said Howard, who decided to fill this void by writing a book and creating a website with free videos for artists, among other things.

The book will be done this summer. The website is up now ( conversingfire.com).

“What sets Catherine apart from the mainstream ‘art business as usual’ is her capacity to be vulnerable,” said Carter Hubbard, a Triangle visual linguist. “She acts from an authentic place that clearly elicits what is at the core of every human being. This is the basis for engaging and meaningful dialogue giving way to a true sense of connection, something of which the world, and especially our culture, is in dire need. I look to Catherine for giving artists another way of looking at how being an artist is more faceted than meets the eye.”

Howard believes that artists are the key for developing sustainable communities. “Artists have the best visions of how to build sustainable communities. This means that artists need to learn how to speak up so that they are heard and their visions are shared,” Howard said.

“I would say that the most important thing is that if you want to clearly communicate your vision, you have to take the time to make your visions clear for yourself,” Howard said.

Deborah R. Meyer writes monthly about the visual arts. You can reach her at writetoeoloise@gmail.com