The Place of the Artist
I was in Milwaukee recently and visited an after-school program for urban teens called True Skool (http://www.trueskool.org/). I thought, This is what an educational system would look like if it were alive! Show up at 4 o’clock on any afternoon and you’ll find a space filled with energetic, engaged, enthusiastic teenagers. In one room, kids are editing films they created themselves, about life with their families and in their communities. In another, they’re writing and performing spoken word poems or hip-hop verses they penned themselves, on topics they care about. The walls are colorful, filled with high quality artwork, all of it made by current or former students.
What we need in the present age is what the True Skool’s got: song and poetry, paint and laughter. Teachers who encourage students to bring their full selves into the room and support them in learning the work of the citizen artist: how to take the raw materials of life and arrange them in ways that communicate in multi-layered and nuanced ways.
When young people are invited to be their full selves, when they are encouraged to be fully human despite the dehumanizing forces all around them, they learn to bring all of their questions and all of their dreams with them into their lives and their interactions. And they – we – also bring our fears, our rejections, and our loss. We learn it’s ok, in fact encouraged, that we bring our tears to the table. As anyone who has experienced profound loss knows, it is only when we surrender to grief’s demands that we can ever hope to discover the new life, previously unimaginable, to follow.
What might it look like to invite both grief and energizing visions? Why not start by telling each other our stories? In my experience, what emerges, if the space is welcoming and authentic, is real life. People’s joys and sorrows, their fears and dreams. Everything. Full humanization. And then…. who knows?
In every space, call it what you will — civic engagement? human engagement? life? – I’m just asking myself to show up as an artist. Raw and vulnerable and powerful and real.
I’m trying to laugh freely when it strikes me.
When I feel embarrassed or scared, I’m trying to say so.
When I start crying I’m trying not to hide.
I’m trying to be a real human.
I’m trying to find the true place of the artist.
KEVIN BOTT (firstname.lastname@example.org) is dean for civic engagement at Wagner College in New York City. For six years prior, he served as the associate director and director for cultural organizing at Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life. An actor and director by training, Kevin is interested in the power of collaborative theater-making to cultivate the arts of democracy. He is the founder of Ritual 4 Return, a 12-week program for formerly incarcerated men making the transition back to their communities from prison; and The D.R.E.A.(M.) Freedom Revival, a participatory, musical “tent revival” celebrating freedom and democracy. He is currently developing a performance art project about grief.
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