Community Connectors is a monthly series highlighting Ohio State staff members who have shown leadership in partnering with our communities to make an impact.
So many of my talented colleagues at the Wexner Center for the Arts activate bridges between the arts and our various communities through programs, initiatives, and the creation of new works within our artist residency programs. In my role as Director of Art & Resilience, I develop arts-based programs and outreach with intention to support wellbeing, nurture a culture of collective care, and build resilience. Access is central to our department, both through our programs and center-wide support. I've been fortunate to work with and learn from a range of individuals and intersections of identity from our community throughout my time at Ohio State. Within my Art & Resilience body of initiatives, I've grown through my collaborations with vulnerable women who are healing from or living within addiction, abuse, and incarceration. I've both laughed and cried alongside military veterans who never fail to impress me with their colorfully honest evaluations of the art and who demonstrate deep bravery through their shared vulnerability within our group conversations. I am consistently amazed by the resilience of the individuals and families living with chronic illness and injuries who create space for laughter, new friendships, and community care during our time together.
Why is engaging the community important to you and your work?
Contemporary art is (to me) ideas, messages, and explorations rendered tangible through paint, film, sound, etc. Artists don't generally aim to speak into the void with their creations, their work is activated through engagement. I want to support their process in that way. At the same time, my programs push against the history of who gets to easily be part of the conversation with that work, how that conversation should go, and why it should take place. In addition to supporting artists, I'm interested in finding and amplifying what makes the Wex and contemporary art relevant within our community, rather than asking the community to find their own path into our world. I like to challenge where power is held and try to normalize the idea that, in addition to the more traditional modes of engagement, places like the Wex can be intentional and active agents of care in the ecology of our communities. Contemporary art provides such a powerful and provocative foundation for that work.
What lessons have you learned from the community that have helped you as a university staff member?
I've learned that the privileges of formal education and resources do not equal wisdom (aka humility.) I can honestly say that one of the most profound conversations I have ever had about a work of art happened with a group of women who visited our galleries from a local halfway house. Their lived experiences provided them vantage points into the work (along with critiques of the work) that were unparalleled by any other group. I learned so much from them. Truly, one of the many powers of diversity (represented through ability, race, gender, socio-economic status, and more) is the myriad experiences, viewpoints, and ideas represented. We would all be so much better off if we could learn to recognize the value of multiple narratives and, in turn, create space to listen. My work has also deepened my compassion for others. So many of the people around us are living with traumas and hurts that we just can't see. Kindness (with healthy boundaries!) can have such deep impact.
What has been your favorite moment from your community-engagement work?
I dont have a single moment, but I have a favorite phase of engagement. Most of my groups meet weekly for a stretch of eight weeks. Participants who have never worked with me before and who are new to the arts (which is very common in my programs) often spend the first week or two working through anxiety or intimidation in the space or with the artworks. Very often, later in our series of weeks together, I'll hear them making plans to bring family or friends to the Wex to give them a tour. They've come to view our galleries as a space to create new experiences and memories with their loved people and they've come to view themselves as a guide to the space and the art. I am always grateful for that moment when my group members recognize their own power and agency within the Wex, and I hope it translates to other facets of their lives if needed.
What advice do you have for other staff members who are interested in getting involved in community engagement?
First, this work takes time. To create healthy and sustainable relationships, you must be willing to invest the time and most of it won't look like an actual program. The heavy lifting often happens outside of the actual event that ends up on a calendar. Engagement means taking time to listen to, learn from, and build with. Understanding that we have so much to learn from the people we hope to engage is a challenging posture to hold when you work at a university but truly, within outreach, an inflated sense of knowing can be harmful. The last thing groups within our community need is to be colonized and infantilized. I was trying, in a very clunky way, to explain my discomfort at the idea of "fixing" through my work, and one of our wonderful community artists showed me this powerful quote by the activist Lilla Watson: "If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." The everyday challenge of outreach and engagement is to continuously check our motivations and relationship to power and be willing back up and find our way when we inevitably stumble.