With the passing of artist and next door CAC neighbor, Erik Schuessler, Dallas has lost an icon. I often say that I find artists to be the most collaborative, generous people on the planet, bar none. From what I've learned about Erik (and his brother Ean) these last few days is that he possessed a type of goofiness that led to a "creative generosity" resulting in collaboration after collaboration from initiating zines and sketch cults to serving as a catalyst for the maker movement in Dallas, bringing together artists, designer and tech folks.
For his public memorial Saturday at Texas Theatre more than 300 friends and family packed in, many of them co-conspirators that enriched the Dallas art scene, celebrated his life.
I was honored when the so-called "weirdos" next door asked to use CAC's sculpture garden for a smaller gathering that night under the full moon and then designated CAC as one of the beneficiaries for memorials since it was always Erik's purpose to get more directly involved with CAC and even possibly teach here. I know that we have not heard the last from this collaborative, generous artist and the community he has help to sustain. Stay tuned...
Read more here in an article published last week by D Magazine, remembering the influential local artist.
What happens when you bring together a composer and neuroscientist? Besides some great conversation at a cocktail party, you get a very interesting read if they decide to write a book. The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World is that book written by Houston composer and professor at Rice University, Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman, neuroscientist and host of the PBS series The Brain.
The book begins with a riveting reenactment of the Apollo "Houston, We Have a Problem" 13 mission in which Mission Control must shred the playbook of simulated scenarios to save the lives of three astronauts whose service module is destroyed and the command module is venting gas and losing power leaving them with only the lunar module and no playbook.
What ultimately saved the lives of these men was creativity. Working from a short list of items on board, engineers at Mission Control help the crew members to devise an adaptor put together a plastic bag, a sock, pieces of cardboard and a hose from a pressure suit, all held together by duct tape (of course!). They also have the crew use the flight plan cover as an improvised funnel to guide air into the scrubber and then use the plastic-wrapped thermal undergarments that were meant to be worn under spacesuits while on the moon, using the plastic to assemble a makeshift filter all which turns carbon dioxide levels to normal.
As the authors explain, "The human brain doesn't passively take in experience like a recorder; instead, it constantly works over the sensory data it receives - and the fruit of that mental labor us new versions of the world." So inventiveness typically runs in the background, unseen, and outside of our direct awareness. In other words, our brains allows us to absorb the world in inventive ways and create what-if versions of it. This is why the authors write, that cows don't choreograph dances, why squirrels don't build elevators to their treetops and why alligators don't invent speedboats!
The Nasher Sculpture Center is presenting a must-see, jaw-dropping, simply stunning exhibition through April 28. First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone is the first ever museum exhibition to present ancient handaxes and figure stones as works of art. Proposed by American artist, Tony Berlant, who has amassed a large collection of Paleolithic stones, research for the exhibition lasted nearly a decade and brought in notable archeologists, anthropologists, historians, neuroscientists and artists from around the world.
The oldest artifact is a large pebble found in South Africa - The Makapansgat Pebble - is the earliest known example of a hominin (our pre-historic ancestors) recognizing and collecting a found object that resembled a face, demonstrating a capacity for symbolic thinking. But what’s astounding is this artifact is estimated to be 2.3 million years old!
The word “artifact” comes from two Latin words – arte or “by skill” and factum or “to make”. So, when the Neanderthals began shaping stones into tools, they essentially were the very first makers. And those makers evolved from making just simply utilitarian tools, they began to develop an aesthetic intent.
As Dr. Naama Goren-Inbar, a professor of archeology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, pointed out in her talk at the Nasher’s 360 Speaker Series, artistic process is everywhere, including planning, spatial thinking, contingency and cooperation. Archeologists have been able to determine that select handaxes were made by the same individual. Pre-historic man discovered that tools could be both functional and beautiful.
I had the opportunity to hear a panel from Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network (AIYN), the only arts collaborative for incarcerated youth in the State of California, at the National Guild for Community Arts Education conference held in San Francisco in November. AIYN’s core belief is simple: culturally responsive arts engagement is transformative to young people who are incarcerated or on probation. The arts – perhaps more than any other intervention – has the power to heal as well as provide personal expression that can lead to systemic change promoting community and group social cohesion, and in the process, promote a more just society.
For the past two years, CAC has had the opportunity to collaborate with Café Momentum, Dallas’ restaurant and culinary training program, in which we have provided creative programming to many of the young people in its 12-month paid post-release internship program through such programs as Feasts of Clay & Glass and Camp MetalHead. The pride and sense of empowerment the young people receive by designing and creating serveware for the restaurant or a personal art piece is amazing to watch.
CAC is not the only organization doing this work in Texas. Big Thought’s Creative Solutions program in collaboration the Dallas County Juvenile Department and SMU is working to re-ignite the imaginations of these high-potential youth through the performing and visual arts and is credited with lowering recidivism rates. Children’s Prison Arts Project in Harris County is exposing incarcerated youth to creative writing, theater and visual arts where they can express their thoughts and visions in constructive ways, presenting their art to their peers and the community at large.
But nowhere in the country is actual policy around creative engagement and cultural responsiveness more developed than in California. The nine member organizations in AIYN are guided by the belief that arts engagement addresses the trauma in these kid’s lives, including the trauma of incarceration, so they can reflect, restore, learn and develop into creative and fulfilled community members and leaders. It was very powerful to hear the story of Fabian Debora, a former juvenile offender who is now a teaching artist with AIYN: “Incarceration happens instead of looking deeper at the causes. There are reasons why things happen and everyone has a story. Think about it, how does incarceration help anything?”
I had the opportunity to hear Tomás Alvarez speak at last week’s Momentus Institute Conference. Celebrated as a CNN Hero for his groundbreaking work combining traditional talk therapies with hip-hop, Alvarez is re-imaging mental health, inspiring a global movement for “at-promise” kids. Yes, at-promise not at-risk as is the current narrative, and is one that CAC also uses when writing about our outreach programs – Camp MetalHead, Feasts of Clay & Glass and unseenamerica – in grant, press and promotional materials.
That’s about to change as I now realize that although the term “at-risk” is easily understood by funders and the media, it ultimately denies students and their families the dignity they deserve by focusing on the negative and not the positive. As one of those kids myself growing up identified as at-risk, I always felt on the brink of being viewed as a throwaway by society. After dropping out of high school and spending a couple of years on the streets and starting to become all too familiar with the criminal justice system, I somehow came out on the other side. I was damn lucky, always believing in my own scrappy potential even when other people no longer did. I was able to go back to a self-paced, alternative high school, then community college, then a four-year college and finally graduate school – slowing and painstakingly putting one foot in front of another until I had built a life of promise for myself.
Alvarez is right – we need to reexamine the language we use to affirm the people we work with because as he said, “language is powerful.” Check out the work that Alvarez is doing through the organization he founded Music, Beats & Rhymes. And while you are at it, take a look at the work Dallas artist Will Richey is doing right here through his spoken word performance and youth development organization, Journeyman Ink, and the Daverse Lounge program.
Bravo North Texas for showing a three-fold increase in the economic impact of the nonprofit arts and culture industry with a nearly $1.5 billion in total industry expenditures as reported with the release of the Arts&Economic Prosperity5 study conducted by the Americans for the Arts in collaboration with the Business Council for the Arts (BCA), the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) and the Dallas Arts District (DAD)! The report was unveiled this week at the City Performance Hall by arts leaders Katherine Wagner, North Texas Region CEO for BCA, Jennifer Scripps, OCA Director and Lily Weiss, DAD’s Executive Director. The study is based on FY 2015 and was last done in 2010.
This means that the North Texas arts community generated 54,848 full-time jobs in the arts with nearly 14 million citizens in this area attending cultural events, including classes and other programming at the Creative Arts Center! This data is astounding news for those of us who raise money for arts organizations and especially relevant for those of us in smaller to mid-size groups as it validates what many of us have been saying for a long time – North Texas is a vibrant arts and culture center and is impacting our local and state economy in major ways!
Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that there was a 92% participation in the Arts&Economic Prosperity5 survey from Dallas arts organizations, and as Jennifer Scipps said, “Imagine what we could do with 92% voting rates.”
This week I heard Dave Evans, co-author of Designing Your Life, at Arts & Letters Live where he talked about ways to building your own creative and joyful life using the principals of design thinking. Evans, along with Bill Burnett of the Stanford d.school, wrote the book as a response the popular Designing Your Life course taught by Evans that has since become a movement. Says Evans, “Designers don’t think their way forward, they build their way forward. The idea is if we approach our own life design challenges with the same curiosity and creativity as it took to put a man on the moon, we could figure out what we want and how to get it in our own lives. Design thinking always involves reframing, curiosity, radical collaboration and a bias to action. In a way, CAC is a perfect laboratory to facilitate this process in people’s lives. A key component of every design thinking activity is prototyping and I believe that creating art embodies the act of prototyping through an experience. The prototyping process is focused on asking interesting questions, exposing assumptions with involving others with your ideas with the result of allowing you to “sneak up on your future.” A hands-on art class does just that for people with a built-in appreciation of learning by trial and error. We all know here that the school of hard knocks is a very good school.
Evans talked about the different types of thinking about problems: engineers solve their way forward; business people optimize their way forward; and researcher analyze their way forward. But designers build their way forward by taking a problem, called “wicked” problems because they are fundamentally human, and essentially make it up as they go along. That’s what artists do every day and how the arts education process works at CAC. What’s exciting about this new book is that this principals can easily be transferred to our personal lives to build well-lived and joyful lives. I can’t wait to prototype my own life!
Dave’s Ted Talk:
Once upon a time civics was taught in our schools in which students had the opportunity to develop into engaged citizens. Today only eight states require that civics be taught at all. I just returned from the National Guild for Community Arts Education in Chicago where I had the opportunity to participate in a pre-conference presented by Michael Rohd of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice on developing such a practice using the arts as the driver.
I became to wonder what it would be like to imagine our work as exchange, not just presentation. I began to envision the possibilities of becoming a community resource not just a space for the dissemination of culture. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Creative Arts Center does an amazing job of building community through creating art through the use of a strong studio practice. And I think we are addressing key social issues for underserved, marginalized and at-risk communities through such programming as ArtAbility, Camp MetalHead and unseenamerica as well as exciting collaborations with The Bridge and Café Momentum. But civic practice using teaching artists working with individuals and groups to build healthier and more equitable communities is formidable work that impacts advocacy, dialogue, story sharing and capacity building. Rather than simply transactional, it is purposeful, intentional and authentic.
One example of that process is a collaboration with Art 180 and Legal Aid in Richmond, Virginia which addresses the issue of mass incarceration intervening in the school to prison pipeline and creating a dialogue between young people and law enforcement. Chicago Young Authors and Kuumba Lynx Performance Ensemble are two groups employing spoken word, hip hop and rap to meet kids where they live and breathe. All you need to do is pick up a newspaper to see what is relevant in the lives of young people in many Chicago neighborhoods like just being able to safely walk to and from school. I came back from an exciting week in arts education in Chicago made all the more wonderful by the Cubs World Series win to an election that has changed the world as we thought we knew it overnight.
Now even more than ever we will need this kind of work in our communities that give youth the voice they deserve to become active and engaged future citizens.
Creativity Coach Jill Allison Bryan has some great ideas for carving out a creative space so you will have no excuses not to have creative pursuits at your fingertips. According to Jill who also teaches a workshop at CAC called Building Your Creative Confidence, you don’t need an entire studio or even a lot of space to make time to bring more creativity into your life. “A drawer, a closet, a corner, anyplace can become a creative space,” she said in the Dallas Morning News feature that ran last week. Here’s a few ideas from this pro:
To learn more about Jill and her creative coaching ideas visit her web site www.creativeoasiscoaching.com. Click here to register for her next CAC workshop Building Your Creative Confidence on Oct 8 from 1 to 5pm.
There are some people that think there’s nothing scarier than standing in front of a blank canvas, but in fact, according to a new study at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst painting increases the brain’s output of the feel-good chemical dopamine, low levels of which are linked to fear and anxiety. So it stands to reason that instead of fearing the blank canvas, people are increasing using it to conquer their fears. The payoff: study subjects who painted experience a 71 percent greater reduction in fearful thoughts than people who did not partake in creativity activities.
Another study published in the journal Art Therapy, revealed that coloring complex pictures (think adult coloring books) causes the frontal lobe part of the brain that governs cognitive functions to light up, sharpening attention and concentration, and thereby reducing brain fog. Adults experienced significant reductions in anxiety after coloring, which in turn led to an increased ability to focus.
According to a study in the peer-reviewed, open-access scientific journal Plos One, sketching for 20 minutes a day can also help calm anxiety. It seems the repetitive motion of moving a pencil across paper triggers the relaxation response, a deep form of rest in which your pulse slows and your brain generates calming alpha waves, thus lowering the body’s stress response by up to 45 percent.
More and more neuroscience is pointing to a surprising antidote for stress: creativity! “Creative activities are stress busters in the same way that meditation is,” says Robert Reiner, Ph.D., a psychologist with New York University.