What is “Artistic Response?” When USDAC Cultural Agent Dave Loewenstein (of the Lawrence, KS Field Office) visited Joplin, MO in 2011, he was expecting to help community members create a mural about Joplin as part of the Mid-America Arts Alliance Community Mural Project. Joplin was one of half a dozen small towns chosen by competitive application to receive a three-month mural residency. But that May a massive tornado hit, destroying a third of Joplin’s buildings and taking 161 lives. A community arts project turned into an Artistic Response project. You can read all about the Joplin project on pages 23-25 of Art Became The Oxygen: An Artistic Response Guide. Scroll down on the Guide page to enter your email to download the just-published free 74-page Guide.
Artistic Response isn’t just about visual art, nor is it just about storms and other weather emergencies. The phrase describes arts-based work responding to disaster or other community-wide emergency from Katrina to Ferguson, Sandy to Standing Rock. Most of the work featured in the USDAC’s Guide was created in collaboration with community members directly affected by crisis. Most of it pursues one or more of three main objectives: offering comfort, care, or connection in the immediate wake of a crisis; creating powerful images and experiences that amplify and focus protest, penetrating the media and public awareness; and engaging those affected by a crisis in creative practices over time that help them reframe and integrate their experience, building resilience and strengthening social fabric.
Once you download the Guide, be sure to join us at 3 pm PDT/4 pm MDT/5 pm CDT/6 pm EDT on Tuesday, 29 August 2017 for an Artistic Response Citizen Artist Salon featuring Carole Bebelle, Co-founder and Executive Director of Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans; Mike O’Bryan, Program Manager in Youth Arts Education at the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Central Philadelphia; and Amber Hansen, a visual artist based in South Dakota and Co-Director of Called to Walls. Just enter your email to sign up and you’ll receive a link to take part in this online video conversation.
In Art Became The Oxygen, Gregory King says of his 2014 experience with Dancing for Justice in Philadelphia:
On December 13th, I stood next to a white person dancing next to a black person in protest of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the killing of Eric Garner. I saw no discomfort, only dialogue. Dressed in black, red, and white, dancers moved together demanding justice for Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and so many others.
Carol Bebelle describes the work Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans did after Hurricane Katrina in 2005:
There are so many things that anchor our existence. To lose them all leaves us on a sea without an anchor. So people were dealing with identity issues. They were dealing with disenfranchisement issues, they were dealing with homesickness. They were dealing with loss in a huge fashion. What we really came to appreciate was the necessity to get some air in the room first before you try and do something else, to get them some oxygen so that they can start breathing. So art became the oxygen.
In St. Louis, De Nichols cautions that:
Artists have to be humble to understand that we can influence things without always having to be in charge or be the “fixers.” Outcomes work out better when we take those ethical steps to listen to community members and have them be a part of the full process.
And Mike O’Bryan speaks of the importance of checking your own reactions in favor of a more generous understanding of what’s going on:
Begin with the end result of someone healing in mind, and using that as an anchor for when things get rough and tough and being able to step back and kind of de-personalize some of the tense moments that people are going through. Hurt people are hurt. It’s hard to remember that sometimes when you are sacrificing and you’re a hurt person who’s trying to facilitate healing as well. So hurt people might do things that hurt. And that’s okay. It took me a long time to learn that.
Theirs and dozens of other voices are heard, with links to a wide variety of artistic response projects and resources. Art Became The Oxygen offers advice on the ethics of artistic response, building effective working relationship, bridging the distance between artists and emergency management agencies—all in the aid of building understanding and engagement in this important (and too often under-valued) work.
The Guide was written for a broad audience, including three main categories:
- Artists who wish to use their gifts for healing, whether in the immediate aftermath of a crisis or during the months and years of healing and rebuilding resilience that follow.
- Resource-providers—both public and private grantmakers and individual donors— who care about compassion and community-building.
- Disaster agencies, first responders, and service organizations on call and on duty when an emergency occurs, and those committed to helping over time to heal the damage done.