En Plein Air: The Harrisonburg, VA, Imagining

On a sunny May 23rd afternoon at Ralph Samson Park in Harrisonburg, VA, Cultural Agent Jon Henry hosted one of 15 USDAC Imaginings this summer and fall. Harrisonburg, a college town in the Shenandoah Valley, has a population under 50,000, nearly 85% white. About half the local populace comprises students on one of five college campuses. Jon is pursuing an MFA in Studio Art at James Madison University (JMU), the largest of these. He also heads the Old Furnace Artist Residency

The Imagining used multiple spaces in the park—a pavilion, a lawn—to engage people from many communities in envisioning a future they want to inhabit. Jon was interviewed by Chief Policy Wonk Arlene Goldbard who spoke with him during his residency at Ruth’s Garden in Fjellerup, Denmark. 

Arlene Goldbard: What interested you, Jon? What moments stood out?

Jon Henry: Several did. A grad student, Nate St. Amour, did plein air painting throughout the Imagining. [“Plein air” means “open air” in French; plein air painting takes place outdoors, capturing the moment.] The plan was not to make it an actual plein air painting, painting only what you see. We said, “We want you to take suggestions from everyone at the event about what to paint in the landscape.” 

It was kind of a time-capsule throughout the day, because at the beginning it was kind of standard. But by the end, you can tell that people’s imaginations had opened up because there were floating libraries and water slides in the town. And zeppelins. Since we were in the public park people would come up to Nate and be like, “Oh, what are you doing?” It was a way to get folks involved. I think seven youths got involved in the rest of the day through him. Now the organizers are actually trying to get the painting donated to City Hall so it would be in the art collection of the city.

That connects to another moment that stands out for me. I always get really nervous about when to open an event because you always have those stragglers. We had a group of folks who were doing kind of a traditional African drumming circle. It was inter-generational and interracial. Like the painting, this was something that people could encounter in the park. If people didn’t know what part of the park the Imagining was in, the sound attracted them. We originally said to the drummers, “Oh, do that for ten minutes.” It ended up being like thirty or forty minutes because they were really going well, they were having a lot of fun, everyone was really enjoying it. They brought extra instruments and other people started playing with them; it became a collaborative project. 

And then the closing was amazing. We had Steve B.I.K.O. Thomas, a local hip-hop rap poet. He wrote kind of a rap/slam poetry piece based on the entire chat from that day. It was really, really good. That was a really powerful way to end, with him kind of rounding it all out with his poem. A faculty member from JMU came up to me afterwards and said, “How do I get him to speak at our school?” 

Arlene: I gather the town-gown issue is alive in Harrisonburg, is that right? Conflicts between the university’s and community’s perceived interests seems to be an issue in most university towns.

Jon: Yes. We definitely didn’t solve it, but I saw a good mingling at our event. Even so, I wish more university people had come. 

Arlene: So what did you do with this mixed group of people to spark their social imaginations?

Jon: We did some guided visualizations out on the lawn, like a visual stroll through Harrisonburg. In our own minds, we left our house and walked to the library to return a book and then walked home. 

Arlene: What did people see on their journeys?

Jon: I was really surprised that environmentalism was a guiding commonality throughout all the groups and all the sessions. Everyone talked about the city being pedestrian-friendly. There were all these creative ideas around public transit from zeppelins to water slides to community bikes. A lot of non-university people talked about wanting access to the university: they imagined it being free and having more class offerings, continual learning. That was a really nice moment. It also turned out that a lot of people found the Imagining really relaxing, kind of a self-care activity. We did have a lot of activists and community organizers at the event. I think it was nice for them to dream and lay in the grass on a blanket, to share some chips and do some coloring activities. 

Arlene: Who were your allies in organizing the Imagining?

Jon: Stan Maclin, director of the Harriet Tubman Cultural Center, was our lead co-organizer. He’s been very influential in the town and the state organization on confronting white supremacy and developing culture and connection for the local African American community. Through him I learned about Steve B.I.K.O. Stan was also really instrumental with the drumming, because he has that background as a drummer. He was teaching some youth about the instruments—they’d met Nate doing the plein air painting, so it all came together. And then Steve B.I.K.O. was involved, Larkin Arts—our local arts store/arts organization—helped with advertising and supplies and that’s also where we had all of our meetings, so they were good. And then Southerners On New Ground, a regional LGBTQ organization in the South, helped do a lot of outreach. And the JMU Sculpture Department promoted the Imagining too. 

Arlene: What do you see coming after the Imagining?

Jon: I know people were talking about what happens after this event. That’s what led to the Twitter conversation on art and ecology on June 17th. (You can read a recap here.) I’m really excited by the idea of opening up a USDAC Field Office. I’m hoping to have some meetings in July and August about firming up the Field Office.

Arlene: Harrisonburg would be a super place for a field office with the work that you’ve been doing there. We’re ready to help!