The Artist at the Center

Posted by Jennifer Oliver, Sep 02, 2015 0 comments

This year’s Americans for the Arts (AFTA) conference, held in Chicago, proved to be a great success with almost 1,500 people in attendance.  For me, the conference began when Theaster Gates took the stage and spoke about empowering the voices inside communities through art.  I have so many thoughts from this lecture, but what stays with me now is the role of Theaster as a mentor, as a leader.  I was awe-struck by his dedication to serving his community and his presence and availability to us, his audience. 

Theaster took us on a journey through his artwork that makes the mundane visible and structures that re-imagine purpose, beautifying spaces for the public good.   I leaned in as he reminded artists to listen to the voices of their community and create work that makes visible the unseen realities in our world.  I felt inspired by his words, and most importantly, I felt a call to action - a call for all of us in the room to embrace our role as change-agents and to make work that goes beyond technique. To create work that empowers our fellow citizens and creates a space and a mindset where new perspectives are formed and change is possible. 

From here I participated in two breakout sessions where I met Jon C. Hinojosa, Artistic/Executive Director of Say Si, speaking on a panel about Creative Youth Development, and poet Kevin Coval.  Creative Youth Development is a burgeoning title for a field that has been a long-time in the making.  Creative youth development serves students both in and out of schools through a creative education with the intent of helping students navigate the challenging context in which they live and work.  Jon C. Hinojosa spoke about the success that he has had serving students in San Antonio, but I was most struck by a personal story that he shared when a former student drove several hours to sit at his hospital bedside as he lay in a coma.  That student stayed with him for three days until he awoke.  I thought about how the formulas that we apply to create great arts programs are ultimately irrelevant if you do not consider the people, the artist at the center of these programs.  It is Jon and his love and passion for the students that he serves that translates. 

This thought was bumping around in my head when I met poet Kevin Coval – the inspiration behind a statewide and soon to be nationwide movement in Break Beat Poetry.  I listened as he spoke about his work as a teaching artist and his desire to help students understand “the grind,” the work that we must do to become masters at our craft.  I couldn’t get past this impressive artist standing before me and the role model that he must be to the students he teaches.  Kevin and his team at Young Chicago Authors are poets that are transforming the lives of hundreds of youth, helping them find power in their voice and inspiring them to artistically project their perspectives out into the world.  I imagined the young teens in his presence and Kevin, a beacon of light that bridges the gap between hope and how.  It makes me now think of a quote by Margaret Meade, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

There were many more inspiring moments that included a conversation with a young crafter at the resource fair, my roommates from the Arts Education Council and a reconnection with a public arts administrator who recently left my hometown.  But at this point, I want to skip to one last meeting that left me inspired and invigorated to continue my work in this field. 

I have been a teaching artist for almost twenty years, an administrator for over fifteen years and a director for the past eight years.  As Liz Lerman spoke about in her final keynote, I am continually shifting between momentum and shape.  Finding the shapes that will hold and support the work that we do as teaching artists and finding the momentum that pushes me forward in this field. 

In the last breakout session I attended a discussion on Nurturing Artists as Entrepreneurial Drivers of the Field.  I was reminded of my ongoing frustration with the systems that produce young artists as skilled technicians without the know-how to connect with diverse audiences and cultivate the resources necessary to make a living in the field.  As I followed this thread I found that my disappointment stems from something deeper.  It begins at the fabric of how we experience art in our culture.  I thought back to my own classical training as a dancer and my graduation into a field where a lack of job offerings seemed an indicator of my worth in the field.  I think of Simon Cowell from American Idol advising singers who lacked great talent to find another career-choice – or worse, to never sing again.  When the truth is that being a dancer - being an artist - is our birthright. 

Instead of beginning a child’s arts education with technique, maybe our first job as teaching artists is to help our students reclaim ownership of their identity as artists.  In my own work at A Step Beyond I invite my first-year students to let go of technique and explore their innate ability to move expressively.  Only after they find complete freedom and mastery of the basic elements of movement do we unveil the techniques that allow for greater and more articulated expression of the body. 

I shared my frustrations aloud in this last session, and even went on a tangent that if we continue to put art on a pedestal – for entire nations of people to admire - then we better have something relevant and meaningful to say.  I began to tear up as I talked about the horrors that we are seeing in our neighboring countries and our responsibility as artists to make visible our current realities…I digress.  It was here that I deflated and lost momentum.  No longer confident in my own ability to find the shape to hold my own frustration with the arts as a field. 

It was at this moment that I connected with one of the panelists Carla Dirlikov, an award-winning opera singer currently serving on the President’s Committee for his Turnaround Arts initiative for struggling schools.  During the session Carla Dirlikov spoke about her own journey and struggles as an artist and as we sat together she encouraged me to keep going, to talk more and to write.  As she looked at me I could see, she was genuine.  She cared.  She created a container to hold my momentary frustrations and motivated me to continue.

I am thankful for the space that conferences such as this opens for deeper reflection and refueling of the great work that we do as teaching artists.  Most importantly, I am grateful for the people in this work.  The artists that continue to inspire and challenge the field cultivating change and opening possibilities for others - the artists that make this work meaningful.

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