The American Visionary Art Museum (also known as AVAM) held a free conference yesterday entitled, Big Hope for Baltimore, as part of the week-long Light City event. The museum’s current exhibit, The Big Hope Show, explores the ‘transformative power of hope’, and uses art as a vehicle for which hope can be illustrated.
Rebecca Hoffberger, AVAM’s founder and director, began the conference with an introduction and reflection on her recent experience in Medellín, Colombia. She posed the question, “How do you give children hope?” REAL hope.. something to look forward to and to live for. Rebecca discussed Medellín’s transformation from its reputation for high crime and drug cartel, to its urban projects and emphasis on education. I was pleased to learn about various initiatives put into place in this city. For example, a number of educational parks were created, to include museums, libraries, and technology centers, accessible to all citizens. Medellín was recently named “Innovative City of the Year” for its urban reconstruction and vision for social equality.
The first speaker at the conference was artist and activist, Lily Yeh, who has been involved in numerous collaborative art projects around the world.
“I believe that art has the ability to transform space.” – Lily Yeh
Based in Philadelphia, Lily cofounded The Village of Arts and Humanities with neighborhood residents. The project began through the transformation of an abandoned lot turned into an art park. Soon, The Village became a non-profit organization with a vision for interaction and creativity. More information can be found here. Lily brought her experience and projects abroad when she founded Barefoot Artists, an organization with the same mission as The Village of Arts and Humanities: to empower individuals [around the world] to develop and improve their communities through art.
I feel that Baltimore has great potential for similar projects… to ‘transform abandonment into beauty and joy.’
The next speaker was Citiscope founder and editor-in-chief, Neal Peirce. He was also a journalist for the Washington Post for over 20 years. Although I wasn’t initially familiar with Citiscope, I learned that the organization ‘challenges the world’s leaders and city shapers to learn from each other’. Ah ha! Before Neal spoke, I had taken note that Maryland leaders (Baltimore in particular) should use the strategies from cities/countries around the world to help transform our city. It’s not to say that Baltimore is a bad place… however, in spite of recent events and negative reputation, there is certainly room for improvement.
Neal only spoke briefly, and he didn’t get into too much detail about his organization, but my takeaway was this: journalists should seek out stories of positive opportunities for various places, in order to share ideas and efforts to make society better. He also recommended that readers should find positive stories, send them back to the editor, and express interest in seeing more stories like them. It seems that negativity in the news can overshadow the amazing things that are also happening.
Jackie Sumell, an artist and activist whose work is currently on display at AVAM, was the next to present. Her installation and artwork explore the injustice of Herman Wallace, one of the Angola Three, imprisoned in solitary confinement in a Louisiana state prison for over four decades. Herman’s conviction was overturned, and he died just days after leaving prison. Jackie’s work, The House That Herman Built, is an ongoing project that includes an art installation, book, and documentary. One of the goals in this project is to shed light upon and make changes to the practice of long-term solitary confinement. The project is currently in the stages of raising money to build Herman’s dream house in his hometown of New Orleans. More information can be found here.
I plan to revisit the exhibit at AVAM, now that I have a better understanding of the background and vision for the artwork.
Terry Love, a detective for the Baltimore City Police, was the next speaker. He shared his insight into last year’s riots, describing the experience as “moving in slow-motion”. He discussed some of his initiatives outside of his job expectations, including a proposal for police officer therapy. Many police officers have mental health illness, and they may not have outlets or networks to turn to.
As an upcoming project, Terry plans to help out with the ministry of a large local church, whose membership is currently low. He expressed his ideas that the church must create a partnership with the community in order to gain recognition. In addition to these efforts, Terry plans to help create a program in developing effective ways for prisoners to transition back into society. He explained that although the goal of getting a job is important, many incarcerated individuals may feel ill-equipped or mentally unprepared to jump back into the work force. I agree that proper adjustment back into society is important in creating successful outcomes, especially if someone has endured the prison lifestyle for an extended period of time.
Bobby Adams, an artist whose work is currently on display at AVAM, introduced the keynote speaker, Kevin Briggs. Bobby described Kevin as his hero, and expressed that Kevin’s TED Talk inspired him. Bobby explained, “Suicide doesn’t take away the pain, it only gives it to someone else.” His statement resonated with me. Although we may never know the internal struggles someone else may be going through, their pain is transferred in a different way.
Kevin Briggs is a California Highway Patrol Officer who has worked along the Golden Gate Bridge, and whose efforts with the patrol have been recognized with a public service award for work in suicide prevention. Kevin has saved over 200 individuals through his use of intervention strategies and engagement in conversation, by encouraging them to step back from over the edge [of the bridge, from the rail or chord]. He identified damaging phrases, intervention techniques, and listening modes that people should become aware of and familiar with:
• “You should…”
• “Calm down!”
• “I understand…”
• “Things will get better…”
• The Past: “Describe a happy moment in your life…”
• Critical Moments: begin/facilitate a discussion that can get the individual engaged
• Silence can be golden
• Competitive: talking more about yourself
• Passive: listening without offering much back
• Active: engaging in the conversation, asking questions, and giving responses
Kevin showed a rendering of an upcoming addition to the Golden Gate Bridge: loose netting attached slightly below the bridge in small sections, with the intention of encapsulating the person who attempts to jump. In his own efforts to spread information about mental health, Kevin continues to travel and speak about his experiences and intervention methods.
Needless to say, the speakers at the conference were inspiring, their experiences were eye-opening, and in the end I was left thinking, These individuals have done and continue to do so much to bring positive impacts to society. I would like to do the same.
My initial goals are to start small, and to begin in my school. I strive to build community in my classroom through acceptance of differences in abilities, ideas, and opinions. I hope to expand my involvement in the school community, and to use art as a means for collaboration and creativity among students and community members. I also hope to educate others, both children and adults, and help broaden their view of what art is and what it can do.