Art Sparks

Frances Moore Lappe and Paul Du Bois, co-founders of the Center for Living Democracy, write a regular column on democracy in action for YES!
Two weeks ago we got a call from London. Our (step) daughter's voice sang with excitement about her new job.
"The vision behind this project is genius, " she exclaimed. "We'll set up a network of trainers and art spaces throughout London. We'll train and support young artists in multimedia, theater, computer design, directing - all the important opportunities in the arts. "

"That's nice, " we said, revealing that we were somehow missing the genius of this new program. "You don't understand, " she insisted. "These are kids from tough neighborhoods, and right now they have basically no job prospects.

" This program will establish several hundred start-up companies to teach kids entrepreneurial skills. They are even planning a two-week festival in Trafalgar Square for the summer of 2000!

Then Anna launched into a list of the benefits she envisioned: They'll showcase lots of new, young talent, and they'll be showing the world lots of new concepts for multimedia, 21st century, eco-sensitive, open-air performances! The kids will create jobs for themselves at a time when almost all work for them is quickly disappearing. They'll even boost London's economy by attracting tourism!

We got it, catching her excitement about a vision weaving so many creative elements together. We're not aware of anything quite so all-encompassing in the US, but her experience does echo signs of a new awareness here of what the arts can contribute to the health of individuals and communities.

In Portland, Maine, for example, we talked with Fran Sawyer, a disabled woman with three children. Her husband supports the family by working as a dishwasher in a downtown hotel.

"They considered me mentally retarded when I was growing up, " she told us, "but I just never had a chance to learn. "

Now she takes art classes, courtesy of Spiral Arts, Inc., a five-year-old nonprofit group created by United Methodist minister Priscilla Dreyman.

"When people make art, they discover hope coming from within themselves, " Dreyman said.

Sawyer's watercolors now adorn local greeting cards. Her clay sculptures help her cope with childhood sexual abuse. Sawyer told us she was illiterate when she began art classes, but now, with regular tutoring, reads at the third-grade level. She also helps teach a bead-making course to handicapped adults.

Across the country in Seattle, artist Saundra Valencia decided that kids who create graffiti may be frustrated artists, not troublemakers. So she invited them to her studio.

Out of their initial gathering grew Street Smart Art - a program luring teens from illegal graffiti spraying to creating public murals and other works of art. The young people, many of whom are directed to her by the courts, begin developing their skills on out-of-the-way walls. Many eventually move on to large public projects, and some are now getting paid commissions.

"We're fully booked, " Valencia reports. Projects range from backdrops for television talk shows and city festivals, to permanent public murals. Young people are involved in every aspect of the projects; some even learn to negotiate for design approval.

In Chicago, teens awaiting trial - most of them for felonies - are creating their own theater productions through Temporary Lockdown 7, a project of the Music Theater Workshop. The program's actors and playwrights, all of whom are under 17, are writing and producing their own play, which they'll soon perform in public. Parents, teachers, and the lawyers and judges on their cases will be in the audience.

In similar theater programs around the country, teens are using drama to tackle the issues that are all too real for them - gangs, drugs, teen pregnancy, and AIDS. As they open up communication about painful issues, they are educating their peers and the adults who care to listen.

In dozens of cities, people worried about urban decline and the increasing divide between city and suburb are turning to the arts and culture.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, a depressed downtown began a turnaround in the 1980s that is still in full swing. Its rebirth sprang in part from large investments in the city's cultural renewal - including the world's largest freshwater aquarium attracting over a million visitors a year, a renovated theater involving 1,000 volunteers annually, and a new river-front park.

Baltimore, too, is using the arts to revitalize its downtown area. The city created a retail area dubbed the Avenue of the Arts. They bought a whole block, the Howard Street Quarter, and set it aside for artist living-and-working space. "Part of the effect is to bring more residents to complement the commercial uses, " explained Brian Lewbart, spokesperson for Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

"The arts have not been given their full credit as an economic development tool, " he said, explaining that the artists will add vibrancy to a shabby commercial district.

We're moved by the diversity and creativity of these examples, hoping they foretell a broad awakening to the importance of the arts in growing healthy people and communities. We'll eagerly follow what Anna learns in London about combining the arts, new jobs for youth, and economic renewal, hoping that this ambitious undertaking sparks imitators on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Examples in this column are drawn from American News Service stories by Paul Karr, Pamela Schaeffer, Linda Lutton, and Jason Wilson.

Frances Moore Lappe and Paul Du Bois, co-founders of the Center for Living Democracy, write a regular column on democracy in action for YES!

editors note: the American News Service and the Center for Living Democracy are no longer functioning. (10/13//02)

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