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July 14, 2011
arts and activism
ARTS AND ACTIVISM
THURSDAY JULY 14th, 2011
ARTS AND ACTIVISM
THURSDAY JULY 14th, 2011
Some look at the city of Flint and see only urban blight, a city drained of its soul. Others, like Natasha Thomas-Jackson, Executive Director of RAISE IT UP!, see a city alive with creativity, a community on the brink of rediscovering its voice. Her non-profit RAISE IT UP! Youth Arts and Awareness was founded to ensure that the creativity and collective voices of the youth in her hometown are discovered, nurtured and expressed.
"We want kids to understand the systematic aspects of social change," said Thomas-Jackson, "and how their art really can affect change in their community."
RAISE IT UP!, (RIU) launched in 2009 with funding from the Ruth Mott Foundation in Flint and support from LiNK Community Arts, an organization creating opportunities for artists to be and become active change agents in greater Flint.
"You can be an artist in many different ways," said Thomas-Jackson, "but your art can also provide creative solutions for the neighborhood. The kids arrive wanting to do poetry, or dance, or music. But they soon realize that they can use their art not just for their own personal growth, but also apply it to their community. Art is activism."
"My perspective on social justice came from my mother," said Thomas-Jackson. "She encouraged me to get involved." Thomas-Jackson and Lyndava Williams, her mother and Program Director for RAISE IT UP!, continue to work as a team for social change.
"I started performing as a child and got involved in all kinds of arts activities. I was strongly influenced by several groups brought to Flint by the Ruth Mott Foundation. One group was the Urban Bush Women. When I first saw them perform I felt transformed", shared Thomas-Jackson. Founded in 1984, this performance ensemble is dedicated to exploring the use of cultural expression as a catalyst for social change.
Later, Thomas-Jackson had the opportunity to perform with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in Making Genes Dance, an Emmy-winning documentary investigating the impact of genetic research through movement and theatre.
"These groups showed me, in a profound way, that art could be a great agent for social change." RAISE IT UP! envisions a world where youth are creative and critical thinkers, actively shaping their lives and the life of their community. They're making it happen in many ways.
Their group mentorship program brings together youth with everyone from graphic designers to community organizers. "We have folks from 15-40," said Thomas-Jackson. "Kids learn that art is creativity, and that can be applied to many things, not just painting or performing. They end up working on albums, chat books, whatever organically evolves from the mentoring collaborations. The mentorship works because it allows people to create natural connections that occur in the monthly meetings."
A RIU partnership with Edible Flint put the focus on food as social justice. RAISE IT UP! Youth Organizers went into several economically challenged zip codes in Flint to assess the neighborhood's access to healthy foods. Using a standardized assessment tool, the kids visited convenience stores, gas stations and other food outlets to determine which healthy foods were available. This assessment produced data showing the inequities present in food outlets in low-income communities of color.
"For a lot of these kids social justice issues are a whole new way of thinking. They were able to see firsthand how food and social justice are related," said Thomas-Jackson. The project also focused on engaging youth who live and attend school in the affected areas as agents of change to help address these inequities.
At the end of the project the youth and their families will be invited to a workshop on healthy cooking. "The workshop is designed to get the parents on the same page as the kids who are learning about the role of food in social justice," said Thomas-Jackson.
The youth were paid by Edible Flint to do the food assessments. "The idea is to get kids paid for their work, to develop their sense of social entrepreneurship," said Thomas-Jackson. "It's a way to show kids you can make a career out of helping your community and doing your art."
RIU youth organizers have planned and promoted community performances using their own original performance-arts pieces to explore a wide variety of personal and social issues. They have partnered with the Genesee County Healthy Sexuality Coalition to promote a text-messaging service that allows teens to connect with local resources to receive accurate information regarding relationship or reproductive health issues. Youth organizers also created several songs and jingles for the coalition to use in commercials and PSAs.
RIU's newest program is recruiting and training youth poets from Flint to compete, for the first time, at the Brave New Voices International Poetry Festival and Competition. Held this year in San Francisco, this will be the 14th year for what is billed as the biggest ongoing poetry event in the world. The event will bring together over 500 youth from all over the world for a week of workshops, town hall meetings, activism, and art. The festival culminates in a poetry slam that is featured on HBO. Besides the goal of winning the competition, Thomas-Jackson hopes the students they train this year can be paid to train students for next year's festival.
Although this nationally acclaimed artist doesn't do as much hip hop or spoken word these days, Thomas-Jackson and her husband are applying the principles of arts activism with their three children, ages 2-9. "We're always taking them to community events," said Thomas-Jackson. "They are learning at a very early age that each person has a responsibility to their community." And community for Natasha Thomas-Jackson will always be Flint.
"Flint has created so many talented people," said Thomas-Jackson. "But they often leave. Our Raise It Up! kids are committed to Flint and take great pride in it. They are learning that if you want to see changes, you have to stay. There are so many wonderful people and resources in Flint, so many great organizations. Together we can change the story of Flint." And together they are.
PUTTING ART FIRST
THURSDAY JULY 14th, 2011
TJ Aitken is an artist first. It just so happens that he spent the largest part of his work life in the automotive industry. He is one of the lucky few that had the opportunity to merge his artistic talents and sensibilities into a fulfilling career. Born near Detroit to a middle class family, it was no surprise that he would find himself working on an auto assembly line after high school. After a brief time on the line, he was encouraged to go to college. "My lofty plans for pre-law were quickly squelched after a brief and eye-opening internship in an office setting for the City of Detroit," confessed Aitken. "It was then that I switched my major to Art." After college, like many of his generation, he headed west to find himself, in his case to Victor, Colorado. He became mayor for a term and did community revitalization through artistic ventures in the '80s. There he opened an art studio and perfected his craft in miniature sculpted portraiture. "I worked mostly in pewter then, but soon found that the market for my work was limited by an earlier entry to the market."
Aitken's re-entry to the automotive industry was providential. His artistic talent in sculpture led him to automotive design and back to Michigan. "I had the honor and opportunity to work with and learn from artisans from the old-school of automotive design. They were the generation of clay modeling sculptors that created our car designs from scratch, by hand, in full-scale clay models," said Aitken. "I was fascinated with their techniques and tools and crafted my own sculpting tools based on what I learned from them." As the auto design industry grew and changed, Aitken describes this time as a master class in models and materials.
By this time, he was living in western Michigan and working for Johnson Control Inc., formerly Prince Corp., leaders in automotive design. His drive to create would draw him to his studio at home. "I would put in a solid 60 hours at work and then spend another 20 hours in my studio, exploring themes that included inspiration from my work and observations of the auto industry. My home is filled with art pieces created during that time that were inspired by ancient tribal masks. Each of the masks tells a story and is made from auto console parts."
Aitken's stellar career in the automotive design industry included the opportunity to shepherd the design techniques from traditional methods to new computer-aided design methods; spending a period of time in Europe to learn new design approaches as well as understand a different car culture; developing and implementing an aesthetic assessment program to evaluate car designs; and a career highlight of developing a creativity management workshop/curriculum.
It was the work in creativity management that Aitken was sure would lead him to a new career after car companies. "It was 2006 and I was all set to build a personal consultancy around the principles of creativity management," explained Aitken. "I was finding great resources like the New North Center that valued my experiences and skills. I was building a following as a speaker/presenter on the topic of creativity management. But along the way I had one of those rare moments to stop and reflect on my priorities, what I learned, or rather remembered, was that I am an artist first. I went back to my studio and for almost a year sorted, prepped and experimented with new methods and materials to communicate my artistic point of view. While I will still work and present on creativity management topics, I am committed to my sculpting work first."
Aitken describes his artistic narrative: "The automotive industry, especially the American automotive industry, has reached a pinnacle and now is experiencing the downhill side of the pinnacle. It is that rise and descent that fascinates me, and I find myself building compositions that will tell the story of the impact of the automobile on our society."
The large scale compositions of sculptor TJ Aitken have twice enthralled thousands in the Grand Rapids ArtPrize competition, ranking among the top 25 art entries in this critically acclaimed competition. Aitken has also joined the ranks of contributing artists to the Midwest Sculpture Initiative (MSI). "The MSI has got it right, they have created a method for showcasing major sculptural works of art in communities across the Midwest. Usually artists must find a way to fund their submissions into shows like this, but in this case if your work is selected, you receive a stipend to bring your work to the marketplace. Everybody wins-the community, the artist and the initiative. Midwest Sculpture Initiative founder and sculptor Ken Peterson works with communities to value art installations beyond the obvious beautification. Communities learn to appreciate artistic works while at the same time reaping the economic benefits."
During his materials and methods exploration, Aitken discovered a technique to create large scale compositions using sculpted foam and a thin overlay of concrete and polymer mix. The result is the impact of stone carving with far less cost and weight. Aitken has self-published three how-to books on the technique for artists. "These techniques could have a dramatic impact on creative output for artists. My dream is more large scale sculptures telling important stories for communities," said Aitken.
The special composite material process was recently put to use in a heartfelt commission to create a lasting memorial for a fallen police officer. The work was installed on July 2nd in East Grand Rapids (pictured right).
Currently, Aitken's studio is full of scale drawings, materials samples and models of his 2011 ArtPrize submission. While the subject of the art installation can't be revealed prior to ArtPrize, this composition promises even greater impact than past submissions. "My neighbor here is a landscape company. They are coming by this week to help clear the space outside my studio for this piece of work. It's going to be big, nearly the size of a house!"
TJ Aitken and his wife, Sarah, live in Holland, Michigan. Their daughter, Victoria, and her two children are frequent visitors to the studio. Current and upcoming installations of Aitken's work include city exhibits in Hastings, Canton, and Tecumseh, Michigan; University of Toledo; and Carbondale, Colorado. In September, Aitken's ArtPrize installation will be seen at the Gerald Ford Museum.
Khalid el-Hakim & the Black History 101 Mobile Museum
ONE IN A MILLION
MARY KATHERINE QUASARANO
THURSDAY JULY 14th, 2011
On October 16, 1995, African-American men from across the country converged on Washington, D.C. to participate in the historic event called The Million Man March. A young artist and educator from Detroit named Khalid el-Hakim was there. The experience changed the course of his life, and provided the impetus for the creation of The Black History 101 Mobile Museum.
El-Hakim began collecting African-American artifacts after experiencing their instructive power in a sociology class at Ferris State University. Dr. David Pilgrim, founder of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, was one of his professors. After the Million Man March, el-Hakim recalls, "One million black men pledged to go back to make a difference in our communities. I took that pledge very seriously and immediately came back and began displaying my collection at different community meetings and events in and around Detroit." As the collection grew, his ambitions for its display did as well. Over the past twenty years, el-Hakim's collection has grown to over 3,000 pieces covering a broad range of the African-American experience, from religion to politics, and the arts. These artifacts have been lovingly gleaned from garage sales, antique shops, flea markets, and auctions from across the country, and all on el-Hakim's modest teacher's salary.
A powerful component of the museum is art, and any complete African-American history includes the extraordinary contributions that African-American artists, especially musicians, have made to the expansive quilt of American culture. El-Hakim credits the "Golden Era of Hip Hop" (1987-1992) with artists such as Public Enemy, KRS One, X-Clan and Rakim as a major influence of his life and work. He says hip hop is a cultural experience that contains five key elements: The DJ, The MC, B-Boys/Girls, graffiti, and knowledge. Hip hop, as an experiential cultural movement, came into prominence in 1973 through the work of DJ Kool Herc in the Bronx. Although hip hop's black roots are undeniable, the hip hop experience has never been restricted to any race, gender or age, and in fact, has broken down numerous barriers to racial harmony. It has now become a multi-billion-dollar global industry. Rap is often used interchangeably with hip hop, but rap is best understood as a musical genre, representing only one element of the five-element hip hop experience.
Detroit is widely acknowledged as making significant contributions to black music. El-Hakim grew up to the strains of Motown and Aretha (no last name necessary), experienced The Electrifying Mojo on the radio every night, watched The Scene dance show after school, and danced to techno at the Music Institute on weekends. Music is within his heart, mind and soul. He's been a promoter and manager who's worked with many Detroit hip hop artists, most notably Proof and 5 Ela.
El-Hakim is passionate about community. "There is no word 'community' without the word 'unity'. If there is no unity among artists and institutions in Detroit, then we do each other a disservice. The community of Detroit is in desperate need of the wealth of talent and resources that come from the artists and cultural institutions of Detroit. A community that supports collaboration between the local artists and cultural institutions creates a vibrant and healthy community."
The Black History 101 Mobile Museum just finished up a nine state tour that went as far as Spokane, Washington in the Northwest and South Carolina in the South. Their stop in San Leandro, California is chronicled here. It has toured Michigan extensively and made its Southeast Michigan appearance on July 14th at the Nsoroma Institute featuring a new exhibit on black contributions to inventions, technology and science.
The museum inspires and informs all who are privileged to absorb its visual lessons. El-Hakim wishes his legacy to be this: "If the Black History 101 Mobile Museum leaves a fraction of the impact of those great preservers of black history such as Dr. Charles Wright, Dr. Margaret Burroughs, or Arthur Schomburg, then I would have certainly have served my purpose in life."
BRINGING ART TO EVERY CHILD
THURSDAY JULY 14th, 2011 Leelanau County Summer Art Program Reaches Children of Migrant Workers
For most of us, our school experience provided access to the arts. Band, drama, creative writing, general art classes-these electives gave us an outlet for our creativity. While some Michigan students may take these classes for granted, there is a sometimes forgotten group that might find them to be a luxury. Frequently on the move, the children of migrant farm workers are constantly finding their education interrupted, and because of this, a consistent exposure to the arts may be limited.
About ten years ago, the Glen Arbor Art Association (GAAA) started the Migrant Art Program to help reach the children of seasonal workers in Leelanau County. The art program is part of the Northwest Michigan Migrant Summer School, which takes place in Suttons Bay. The summer school is a six- to seven-week program focusing primarily on math and reading. Thanks to this summer school, anywhere from 70-150 students, ranging in age from 3 to 18, are able to continue their education.
The GAAA provides the instructor and class coordination, but remaining funds are provided by the Genuine Leelanau Charitable Endowment Fund and the Hagerty Family Charitable Fund. This year, there was enough funding to expand the one-week art program to two weeks.
"By working with Genuine Leelanau and the Hagerty family, we can be more inclusive and cast a broader net," said Peg McCarty, director of the Glen Arbor Art Association. "The work we do together to provide art instruction to the migrant children in our area is part of that broader net."
Gaynor Joy Walsh, a teacher at Northport Schools, has been the art instructor for the past eight years. Each year, she exposes the students to a variety of projects, including music, photography, painting and poetry.
"I really try to make the experience similar to that of a summer camp," says Gaynor. "The students just light up when they see me come into the building with the art supplies. They are so excited to start the projects and they are truly eager to learn."
While a large majority of the students come from Spanish-speaking families, Gaynor says that language really isn't a barrier when it comes to art. "In art you teach by demonstration - a lot of it is visual," she explains. "You don't even need language, and that's the really cool part. Even the kids that struggle with language skills can just relax when they are working on projects. They can just focus on being creative."
Gaynor said other teachers have commented that being part of the art program has helped some of the students focus more in their regular classes. She has also personally noticed changes in students after just one week in the art program.
"Sometimes I will see shy students who don't really talk much, and through art, I will see them begin to open up and build confidence," Gaynor said. "It is such a great outlet for them to express themselves-happiness, sadness, anger. You can just see them let go and express their individuality. It is a wonderful thing to watch."
Gaynor says her students really enjoy the Leelanau County area and get a lot of inspiration from the beautiful scenery, especially the blue waters of Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay. She takes the students outside as much as possible and tries to incorporate nature into their projects. In the past, students have decorated and personalized their own beach pails and visors, and Gaynor has brought in pictures of the area as inspiration for paintings. This year, the children will be working on leaf print paintings, drumming, watercolor and tempura paintings, portraits and other crafts.
At the end of summer, the school holds a fiesta for the students and their families. Art projects are displayed throughout the room so parents can see what their children have been doing. Gaynor also works with the children on short performances. Last year, she and the children put on a show using drums that were loaned to the program by Northport School.
"It's really a night for the kids to showcase their accomplishments," said Gaynor. "The children are just so proud of their work, and the parents are really appreciative of not only the art program, but of the entire summer school initiative."
Gaynor says that being a part of the art program has been a truly rewarding experience. "I just have so much fun doing this and I look forward to it every year. Watching these children respond to the arts in such a positive way has become something I am most passionate about. I am so inspired by the students, and each year I look forward to helping them build skills and self-expression through the arts."