Called to Lawrence: A Great Film and Field Office Visit

By Arlene Goldbard, USDAC Chief Policy Wonk

The last weekend in February, my husband and I took a train trip from our home in Lamy, NM, to Lawrence, KS, for the premiere of Called to Walls, a film that tracks a series of community mural projects led by Cultural Agent Dave Loewenstein of the USDAC Lawrence Field Office.

The filmmakers—Nicholas Ward and Amber Hansen—first got involved as mural assistants on this Mid-America Arts Alliance Community Mural Project, which supported half a dozen three-month residencies in small towns chosen by competitive application. In Tonkawa, OK, Newton, KS, Joplin, MO, Arkadelphia, AR, Waco, TX, and Hasting, NE, Dave oversaw community design and painting processes open to participation from anyone and everyone.

I greatly admire this film for many reasons. Dave is a model community muralist who genuinely respects and honors each community’s right to self-representation while managing to remain relaxed in the face of every challenge such projects throw up. (See Dave’s blog for a running account of his work; there’s a particularly nuanced discussion of the mural process in Tonkawa, OK.)

And Called to Walls explores just about every possible challenge. In Tonkawa, the project had to cross a yawning divide between the tribe that gave the town its name and the overwhelmingly white community. In Joplin, the start of the mural project coincided with a devastating tornado, and the project had to contend with local powers-that-be who wanted a mural that focused on attracting visitors rather than depicting people’s experiences of loss and hopes for healing.

There’s a remarkable passage that turns on whispered opposition to the central image in Arkadelphia’s mural, a commanding figure of a brown-skinned woman. We see Sammy Blackmon, a local artist who is depicted in the mural, talk about the education he received at the Peake School (a collaborative project of Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, itself the subject of a new film). We see local residents struggling to bridge the racial divide as they discuss how their history should be depicted. And then a TV reporter shows up at the mural site for a meeting called when a member of the design committee says there’s feeling abroad that the complexion of the central figure should be lightened. When no one arrives to defend that viewpoint—when everyone assembled in the hot sun to debate the question turns out to be on the same side—my heart lifted.

From a Dream to a Promise  in Arkadelphia, Arkansas

From a Dream to a Promise in Arkadelphia, Arkansas

All the themes central to this type of inclusive, collaborative public art are explored: who has the right to tell history; how the textured truth with all of its contradictions can be depicted; what are the responsibilities of an artist who sets out to help a community answer such questions?

Called to Walls is on the festival circuit right now. Once that’s done, I hope it has a long and successful life in educational distribution, because it is exactly the film that aspiring community artists and everyone who wants a part in weaving cultural fabric should see. And I’m not just saying that because I have a small part in it. [Full disclosure: I’m featured as an on-screen commentator and credited as the “Voice of Reason,” a title I’d really love to keep.]

Dave, Nicholas, and Amber are all stalwart members of Lawrence’s USDAC Field Office. I spent a richly satisfying afternoon with fifteen or so Field Office folks talking through their plans for the next few months.

Coming right up is a collaboration with Lawrence Ecology Teams United in Sustainability (LETUS), Haskell Indian Nations University (HINU), and the Lawrence Percolator: a series entitled “HEATING UP: Artists Respond to Climate Change,” encompassing many events including an exhibit, workshop, panel discussion, and performance “intended to bolster a community conversation about climate change and what we can do about it.”

Field Office folks are thinking about cultural issues that need their attention. Where can they be most strategic and effective? Right now, gun violence is on people’s minds. Kansas has long allowed concealed weapons to be carried in public spaces and buildings so long as the owner has a permit. But now the state has adopted laws allowing people over 21 to carry concealed weapons, without the formerly required permit or gun safety training. Although guns were previously forbidden in schools, beginning in July 2017, they will be permitted in public universities, which is making many students, parents, and faculty members nervous about on-campus safety. How can cultural organizing help to shift support from privileging gun owners to privileging the safety and well-being of all citizens?

As in many other communities, displacement of long-term residents by projects that end up gentrifying neighborhoods is a key issue, especially in East Lawrence. (We wrote about it back in August, if you’d like to learn more). A key obstacle to placekeeping is that cultural fabric has no standing in law or policy. There are legal grounds to stop a neighborhood being torn down for a new development if an endangered plant or animal habitat is impinged upon, but not if cultural fabric—longstanding customs, celebrations, sites, artifacts, and associations—is endangered.

Lawrence Field Office members are exploring promoting the adoption by the city of a Cultural Impact Study process that mandates taking cultural harm into account much as the Environmental Impact Study process does for the environment. I am excited about working with them to adapt the USDAC’s basic model to Lawrence’s needs. (You’ll find a model resolution and a fuller discussion in An Act of Collective Imagination: The USDAC’s First Two Years of Action Research.)

They recognize that one of the challenges of culture shift—showing people that culture matters, that rather than merely being a frill on our social fabric, it’s the crucible in which we work out a livable future—is getting past embedded attitudes or blind spots. “What does ‘culture’ mean to people?” someone asked. “How can we get past the ideas that the only grounds for arguing for culture are economic?” asked someone else. These are essential questions with widespread relevance, just the sorts of questions local USDAC folks need to be grappling with in their own communities.

I was impressed with the seriousness of intention I saw in Lawrence, and the tremendous creativity and enthusiasm people are bringing to their work. If people can figure out how to tell the story in one town in the heartland, they can do the same in every other part of the country. Speaking for myself, they inspire confidence.