Portraits and ponderings from the writing desk of Jill Foote-Hutton.

I've Been Thinking About Community

We’ve been home almost a week now. The NCECA experience has never really left me feeling the need for recuperation; rather it has always invigorated me to redouble my efforts.

Some would say that just means I’m not doing it right.

My continuing “amateur” status aside, I did always feel a bit on the outside of things at past NCECAs. Like a kid in a crowd of grown ups, I jumped up and down, up and down, to see over the shoulders of those blocking my view. “C’mon! Let me in!” Not all the time, but more often than I liked.

And now--I have a much different view.

While still not fully immersed in the mosh pit, my current perspective allows for contemplation about how hard it might have been to ascertain anything if I had made it to the middle of the fray. A good view provides the privilege of clarity about some choices, although one always has to guard against hubris. If we are lucky, we get to be reminded of our original intent when we set down a particular path.

All of this meandering allusion is meant to bring me to the topic of community, which is something I have thought about a great deal over the past years and even more intently in recent months. In my last post I mentioned how important I believe NCECA is in regard to community, especially for individuals grinding it out in the hinterlands. As someone who tended to feel “lost in space” as it were, and lost deeper and deeper each passing year, NCECA was the time to see my community. It was time to hear and feel the pulse of my community. I know I am not alone in this opinion.

Not by a damn sight. No big revelation.

(Thinking about methods of reaching out, in my not so distant past, Facebook certainly provided an uplifting resource. It’s not really all cyber bullying or “who’s sleeping with whom” or terror alerts, sometimes it lets you see just how real and how big your community is.)

The thing is, wherever we find ourselves, we have to take responsibility for building our own communities and nuture them so they grow. That means recognizing the gifts individuals bear. Acknowledge those gifts rather than harping on weaknesses. Then an amazing thing starts to happen! Our communities take care of us!

So, NCECA, a microcosm of individuals with a common interest is where I start the conversation. Let’s talk about how to go about building a community. It’s tricky right? Especially when diverse parties are involved. How do you achieve buy-in from all levels of stakeholders when our contemporary society falls short in regard to acknowledging the class/caste system, which continues to insinuate itself, however subversively, in all aspects of our day-to-day. We like to say we are all equal. It certainly paints a prettier picture, especially for those in the top caste. For the most part we can believe in the equality myth, but only up to a certain point and then--BAM! We run smack dab into a wall. It’s all about how we deal with the wall that defines us.

In academia, governing boards, administration, faculty, and support staff are all meant to be in service to student and community. If you are an administrator, the ease with which you conduct and develop yourself and your institution can hang in the balance of your boards’ vision/imagination/ability. If you are a faculty member, the ease with which you conduct and develop yourself and your programs can hang in the balance of your administrators’ vision/imagination/ability. If you are a student, the ease with which you conduct and develop yourself and your output can hang in the balance of your faculty’s vision/imagination/ability. If, if, if…

In any situation with power differentials, a delicate balance must be struck.

The irony is evidenced in the universe’s bizarre take on reciprocity. Let’s look at the administrator’s plight again (just because we hardly ever do, after all admin is THE MAN). If you are an administrator, the ease with which you conduct and develop yourself and your institution can hang in the balance of your faculties’ vision/imagination/ability. It works both ways! Shit does not, in fact, only roll downhill. Miraculously it rolls up with gravity-defying ease!

And this applies to hierarchies in organizations like NCECA, galleries like ArtStream, residencies like Red Lodge Clay Center, publications like Ceramics Monthly, blogs like mine. We all want total buy-in from our stakeholders. We all want dialogue with our community on some level. I can’t decide if it gets trickier with a larger group or a smaller group. Like most things, each has an up and a downside, blah-blah-blah

What are we doing to develop our communities? How are we acknowledging our stakeholders? Do our actions prove out our desires? In other words are we doing all we can to develop people and relationships as significant investment opportunities? I suspect the answer is no too often.

Regardless, it’s high time to introduce some imagery to the topic. One of the things that struck me about the exhibitions at NCECA this year…

WAIT--first I have to confess I only was able to see a small grouping of exhibits. I know, as a governing body, NCECA is trying to make sure most of the exhibitions have a thematic connection rather than the basic geographic or historical connection. Still there was work in rooms that remained unconscious of the work on the neighboring pedestal. “Who are you,” these objects questioned each other. All vying to be the star, unconcerned and unaware of the context they were haplessly floating in.

However, I did see two exhibitions, which really stood out to me and both just happen to be very topical in regard to community. There is a third exhibit I want to address but I’m still trying to sort out how I feel about it. I think the third will have to wait for another post once it gels in my head. The second exhibit housed Lea Zoltowski’s installations at Collective Tattoo and Gallery. Look to the left column of the blog for information on “Whale Wars”.

I’m going to focus on the first exhibit, the first in my list of favorites, not the first one I saw, but I want to begin by introducing you to a group in Missouri.

The St. Louis Regional Arts Commission sponsors the longest running Community Arts Training Institute. Each year a group of artists and social activists (and there is indeed crossover) are selected to learn about effectively developing community. I am a happy alum of the CAT Institute and one of the wonderful books they exposed me to was “New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development” by Arlene Goldbard. Here is a brief excerpt from the book:

“...artists’ investigations of cultural difference often reveal deep commonalities within diversity: every culture has ways, however distinct, of encountering the universal in human experience from birth to death, and many of these resonate across cultural barriers. But grasping such commonality always begins by encountering difference—whether based in place, ethnicity, age, orientation or other life condition—and framing it as something to treasure.”[1]

Pattie Chalmers, Benjie Heu and Carmela Laganse presented a bijou exhibition in a nearby, yet simultaneously isolated venue in St. Petersburg: Lynn Merhige Gallery, 216 4th St N, 727-895-2797.

The Ever-enders is a term referring to the individuals on the periphery of a community. These are the folks that are welcome enough, as long as they don’t forget the boundary. Figures lean forward expectantly, part formal device and part the necessary result of hanging on the wall, but no matter. The figures lean in with a quiet desire to get off of the wall. Heads watch, growing fatter and fatter with observed experience, disembodied and incapable of taking part.

photo courtesy of B.Heu

They are ready though. Ready to participate at any moment. If the objects or figures are held at the periphery of the room, disallowed from entering active floor space, they do not shy away from building up their pedestals or girth. Somehow these figures on the edge, the ones who are, as Chalmers says, “…the endless turner of the rope,” are forming their own group. It is their common differences that bind them to the edge and then bind them together in wonderful washes of blue. The aforementioned quote narrates my experience of this installation perfectly. No matter how distinct the artists’ aesthetics seemed initially, the community presented in the work quickly moved me. A powerful awareness of the other was invoked in self-reliant and melancholic tones. At a small table a brownie (now a bluie?) sits in company with her trusty rock.

photo courtesy of B.Heu

A light bearer diligently, yet humbly stands, with her proud and boisterous feathered friends.

photo courtesy of B.Heu

A stag is ready to leap off the wall with a secret offering bundled within a possible bag.

photo courtesy of B.Heu

Here’s the thing: If our community can make work like this and so many of us can identify with or remember being an “ever-ender” why oh why are the gates of Valhalla guarded so closely? Why aren’t we doing more to showcase the unusual suspects? Take a risk! If we fall down, we just get to be wiser because of it. We can only gain, because…Guess what folks? It’s clay not war and no one is going to die if we try something new and it fails. Mordecai Kaplan: ‘The past,’ he said, ‘has a vote, not a veto.’”[2]

I promise I’m not just pointing a finger outward. We each have an ability to take control of defining our community. The “ever-enders” are on the periphery, but they form an incredibly active and diverse membrane. Even if you feel nailed to the wall, as it were, there is a lot you can effect if you choose to. The ladies of ceramic history provide a pretty amazing lodestar. They focused on a simple goal of empowering an underutilized segment of society to grow a community: Adelaide Alsop Robineau, Mary Louise McLaughlin, Maria Longworth Nichols, Mary Chase Perry.

“People are emotional beings first. This is the human part of the being so to speak. When we are active in the work we become human doings. And though the work is important, when your people work from a space of emotion they work from their heart. Good things happen from the heart. Your [stakeholders] will take care of one another better. They will find ways to take care of [patrons/community/students/future] better and they will take care of you too!”[3]

I was recently encouraged to be more direct in my posts, but I don’t think I can be more direct than I am being right now. You may ask, “What specifically is she on about?” Unfortunately, there are plenty of applicable examples to go around. The good news is, fortunately, there are a lot of good examples to emulate too. Just take a little look around and apply your wonderful intent. This creative community has a wonderful gift of creativity and the narratives within are more than adequate devices for sifting out hidden members of our community.

That’s all for now. Thanks! It was great to see you all again.

[1] Goldbard, Arlene. New Creative Community: the Art of Cultural Development. 2nd ed. Oakland, CA: New Village, 2006. Print, p. 49

[2] ibid, p.152

[3] Cavallari, Renie. "Proven Ways Team Building Creates Community in the Workplace | Tips On Leadership." Leadership Training | Sales Training | Team Building. 29 Mar. 2009. Web. 05 Apr. 2011.