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We Are Family: Building Connective Tissue through Community Art

By Tia Chianti Richardson

This article is adapted from my talk for the Tedx UWMilwaukee Salon ‘Our City Our Canvas’ December 2, 2015. It shares my process of how I came to discover community art as a sense of purpose in my life.

I wasn’t always a community artist. It wasn’t always easy for me to be outgoing with people.

I was, however, always an artist in the traditional sense. I grew up drawing and painting, supported and encouraged by my parents at an early age. Being good at drawing gave me a sense of feeling valued by others, when they appreciated my work, but it only went so far.

Like most people I experienced life pains of growing up. For one thing, I was very introverted and insecure. I spent three of the most creative parts of my childhood growing up in rural Janesville, WI, a predominantly white town where my dad worked as an engineer and my mom attended nursing school. Growing up as the only black girl in most of my classes didn’t help my feelings of isolation and insecurity. I knew how to communicate through my artwork, but bridging across to others in middle, high school, and even college was harder.

Even with the support of my family and friends for my talent, I never felt satisfied with any of the traditional career options for artists that were presented to me. When I moved back to Milwaukee to attend art school I still felt like I didn’t belong.

Through the toughest moments in life, my closest allies challenged me to ask more thoughtful, meaningful questions about myself to see where I could grow as a human being. I learned that when I shared my experiences with others in my community I found out I wasn’t alone! In those spaces of sharing stories and listening, I felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself. I had something of value to contribute out of just being who I was, not what I could do, and I found others who shared something in common.

And don’t we all have something to contribute? Community art serves up spaces where we get to remember we have something of value to bring to the table. We are invited to access strengths and weaknesses in ourselves that, though we may not be aware they exist, are called forth under the pressure of collaboration.

My canvas is the collective illusion we have that we are separate from one another. I use community art as a tool for learning about each other in our stories. I do this with bookmaking programs, murals, and public art installations in partnership with all sectors of Milwaukee. Working with schools, parks, private agencies, non-profits and neighborhood centers, and with people from all backgrounds has shown me one underlying thing that we have in common:

We are a living organism. We are Family.

When we enter the room as willing participants for the first time together on a project, we may be strangers to one another. Gradually, through a process of letting go of our preconceived notions and fears, we come to a place of a shared sense of purpose.

By listening to one another and sharing reflections around a common theme – segregation in Milwaukee, forgiveness, fears and dreams, civil rights – we come to know what we have in common, and to understand and appreciate our differences.

We learn to cooperate with the understanding that even though we may not agree ideologically, in practice we are acting as one unit moving towards a common goal. This experience of creating art together is what makes us realize ourselves as inter-dependent parts of a whole, just like a living organism. When we go out into life we forget this awareness, like shedding a layer of clothes. We pick up our everyday identities of job titles, roles and responsibilities, survival attitudes.

My practice as a community artist is to not forget the awareness that we are connected in our humanity. We have a shared purpose. In my work with people anywhere I encourage us to move closer and closer to remembering this experience as being who we really are, like family.

How do I do this? By slowing us down to consider important questions we may ask ourselves. For example, ‘What do we do to heal when we feel betrayed by systemic issues in Milwaukee?’ (2013 Stitch Milwaukee Community Mural Project); ‘How do we forgive ourselves and each other?’ (‘Forgiveness’ mural for Plymouth Church); ‘When was a time someone in your community touched your heart?’ (Our Vibrant Lives: Nuestra Vida de Colores’ for Burnham Park).

These are questions I asked participants of different ages to reflect on for three different community murals completed within the last two years. Using talking circles as a framework helps, invites each person to listen and speak from the heart.

In 2013 I co-facilitated the STITCH Milwaukee Community Mural project for a group of 12 adults from all over Milwaukee, most of whom did not know each other. We met three times per week for five weeks to share personal stories that reflected our relationships to a city ranked statistically as the #1 most segregated in the nation. Our group was divided almost in equal thirds-black, Latino, and white adults. We asked the question: ‘How has Milwaukee betrayed you?’ And, ‘What do you do to heal?’

Out of our stories came strong messages of empowerment that bonded us as a group. Sometimes the stories were painful, sometimes they made us laugh. Always, they were honest. We used a talking circle format for sharing our stories to provide a supportive space for all voices to come forth. Then we turned our stories into images that became the theme for our mural: Combating segregation by giving voice to our struggles, healing through storytelling, art as social justice, art as a tool for liberation.

Through the hard questions we asked ourselves, and relationships we formed as a group over 3 months, the mural genuinely reflects building bridges in the city.

With a mural, creative bookmaking or an art installation representing our stories we learn to see ourselves in each other and lift one another towards a common goal.

An example of this is the ‘Our Vibrant Lives: Nuestra Vida de Colores’ art installation in Burnham Park, a heavily used park on Milwaukee’s south-side that I completed this past summer with a team of 8 high school interns. I worked in partnership with ArtWorks for Milwaukee, a non-profit that hires teens to work with a lead artist to learn job readiness skills. For six weeks I watched as the extremely shy interns came out of their shells and got to know each other. I helped this by opening each session with a circle for checking in, team-building games, and reflecting on challenging questions to improve our personal strengths and weaknesses that would help us become more unified as a team. Every session a different intern took turns picking an insightful question to ask the group to reflect on about their fears, dreams, hopes and challenges (to develop their confidence and sharing in front of a group).

The youth were responsible for planning a community listening session to gather input from residents of the Burnham Park neighborhood about what they value about their community, and creating work that honored them. The project resulted in an outdoor mural installed on the field-house, a series of decorated boulders lining a walkway for seating, and a story-pole garden, all depicting messages and images created by residents.

During the final project unveiling the pride and joy was palpable on the interns’ faces. They each had a sense of ownership in the work. I was proud of them for investing in themselves by taking this risk as an opportunity to grow.

We are like an organism with connective tissue. In a healthy organism the cells are coordinated. In a community art project each person is like a cell. The role I’m committed to playing as a community artist is to set the tone that helps the cells to cohere and to realize they are one organism.

My challenge is to do this in an environment that teaches us we can only PRETEND to be unified. If I accept that we are capable of creating meaningful bonds with each other on an art project, it doesn’t stop there. It applies every day, all the time, with those I cross paths with on a daily basis.

In Milwaukee, we frequently cross paths with one another though we may be from different walks of life. It’s a common phenomenon for circles to overlap from different contexts. Milwaukee has earned the nickname ‘Smallwaukee.’ I frequently run into students, parents, school janitors, executives, business owners, friends and colleagues in places that are out of context. Milwaukee’s smallness has become a sticking point for some of us who’ve lived here and feel like it’s limiting or has a disadvantage. Depends on what our goals are. If our goal is to strengthen our communities, this is actually to our advantage.

If we can leverage cooperation with the capacity that our community has as a living organism then we have a TREMENDOUS amount of potential. We are Family.

This doesn’t mean it will come easily. It’s a radical suggestion, I know. Sometimes the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing – or seem to care! Some of us feel silenced and demand to be heard. I believe our demands to the other belies an inner instinct that feels we are just as connected, as much as we want to distance ourselves from what hurts.

Underneath our pain is a common need to belong, to matter. Practicing community art together provides a supportive framework, where we are gently reminded to remember to care. And when we care it gets a little easier to not look away when it gets hard.

Community art teaches us to set aside our judgements and build ally-ship. It taught me to do the same.

When I was invited to collaborate on a temporary art installation last year, I realized I had more judgements about how some of my local peers were approaching the work here in the city than I cared to admit. Because it was a collaboration and I wasn’t in charge, I had to let my ego take a back seat and learn to appreciate the differences in working styles and methods in my cohorts. Over time as the project evolved beautifully I learned to accept and come to love the spontaneous, sometimes quirky gifts being brought to the table. We just have to give them space to show up as they are!

Since then, I have allies and friendships where I didn’t before. Doors have opened for me since my attitudes have changed. Connective tissue with others is stronger when I learned to be more inclusive in my attitude. A recent project I completed this past October that developed out of this past collaboration is a mural painted on the asphalt ground of a parking lot in downtown Milwaukee, WI. It’s called “The Flower of Life” and is based on the sacred geometry pattern with the same name. It was created over five weeks with help from the downtown community as folks passed by and were invited to help paint. Youth I’ve worked with before and other community members from different circles that I invited came to help. Lots of people came out of curiosity or interest. Taxi drivers helped on their breaks. Even one of the engineers from the hotel across the street stopped by to check us out from day to day!

We can find allies in one another as we work towards finding and strengthening our human connections – connective tissue. Community art helps us do this.

The connections are already there, as we can see in our overlapping circles. This is what we have going for us as a city. I invite you to test out this attitude and see where it opens doors in your life. You will discover more meaning in what we as a community have to offer each other.

Our youth need us. And, more importantly, we need each other. And this, my brothers and sisters, is why we can’t afford to NOT see ourselves as family!

Links to past projects:

Tedx UW Milwaukee ‘Our City Our Canvas’ (video available Jan 2016) http://www.tedxuwmilwaukee.com/new-page-1/

Stitch Milwaukee mural: http://www.stitchmilwaukee.com/community-mural.html

Other projects:  http://www.cosmic-butterfly.com/search/label/blog

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