‘We’re still here:’ Artists seek to restore pride, color in Blackfeet lives

Missourian Newspaper



HEART BUTTE – There’s a beauty in this Blackfeet reservation town that a sunrise on the Rocky Mountain Front can only match.

It has to do with the proud, fierce and buffalo-rich lords of the plains, their horses and guns and a way of life that once seemed like it would last forever.

But it has to do too with terrible things – smallpox infestations, a massacre on the Marias in 1870, the Starvation Winter of 1883-84, the devastating flood of 1964, the fire that forced evacuation of Heart Butte just two summers ago.

And it has to do with Heart Butte itself, rising stark behind Heart Butte School but hidden from the rest of town. With enough prompting, Jeremiah Hinkle will tell you why.

An soft-spoken high school junior, Hinkle was thinking about that very thing as he rode the bus to school last week at daybreak.

“I don’t really think about what happened on the mountain,” said Hinkle, who sports glasses, a mustache and a goatee. “It’s more a respect for the mountain, a respect for nature.”

In this century the Southern Pikunni huddle here in wooden houses, at a time of year when their ancestors would have been settling in for the winter on the Teton River around Choteau. The arctic winds don’t blow so hard down there.

“A lot of the culture we had came from nature,” Hinkle said. “We learned how to hunt like a wolf, watched how they hunt together in a pack as a team. We got our shelter from buffalo. We learned how to be sly from the coyote.

“That respect for nature. … It can be powerful. It can be peaceful.”

Those are words to cling to for Sally Thompson and Lily Yeh.

Thompson is an anthropologist from Missoula who has spent much of the past 30 years studying the rich textures of Blackfeet society. She’s convinced that the best way to come to grips with the poverty, substance abuse and hopelessness so prevalent on the reservation is for the people themselves to come to grips with that proud and terrible past.

Yeh is all in.

The diminutive artist was born in China but has spent most of her life in the United States, when she’s not globe-trotting to some of the most destitute and broken outposts in the world. She is a global superstar at what she does, helping communities transform the bleak and ugly into monuments of color and beauty.

And Yeh, who lives in Philadelphia, has the Blackfeet Reservation firmly in her sights.

Continue reading here.

Gorlitz, Germany Update 4 Gorlitz, Germany Update 4

Let It Be

We are at the end of our stay in Gorlitz and are inspired knowing that the artists here will take this experience and encourage it to grow and blossom as it will.  Lily felt this on our first workshop day, noting that “the artists here see the beauty and want to awaken the soul.  We come together to journey collectively to touch our souls.  Through art we are called to make the way free.”

From the Barefoot Artists perspective, the success of this particular effort was not necessarily in a concrete result but in the process; that there was an engagement, enthusiasm and imagining that seemed not to have an inclusive and safe space to unfold before this camp.  Our part in this was minor, serving only as a catalyst through the sharing of a particular methodology.  What emerged through the Bohemian Crossings’ direction is uniquely theirs, perfectly timely for this moment and space.

Gorlitz is a rich place, these are rich people – not necessarily in resources and money, but in depth of experience, in pain and suffering, in resiliency, in hope.  An essay by Michael Meade eloquently speaks to many questions that have arisen and the conversations we have had while in Gorlitz, touched by individual stories, historic community trauma and the global crisis that binds us all.  He says, “the counterbalance to collective forms of terror and tragic acts of inhumanity must be found first of all in the awakening of the individual soul to the underlying wholeness and inherent meaning of life.  We must find a greater sense of self or become more isolated, divided and subject to increasing anxieties and feelings of helplessness.  In the great drama of life the awakened human soul becomes the extra quantity and uniquely living quality needed to help tip the balance of the world away from destruction and towards ongoing creation.”

We continue to find our way, at least take steps, on the journey of awakening.  As one of the team members shared during our final reflections, “On the first day I was sad.  Now I am exhausted, but happy. So happy that I want to scream!”

Poems emerged out of our workshop exercises and were shared in the evenings as we sat around the dinner table, so perhaps it is fitting to end with one as well.  These words by Federico Garcia Lorca captures what Barefoot Artists believes and what we have felt here, what has been offered us in vulnerability and open-heartedness.  Thank you Bohemian Crossings and Gorlitz.

The poem
the song,
the picture,
are only water
drawn from the
well of the people
and it must be given back to them
in a cup of beauty,
that they may drink
and in drinking,
understand themselves.

– Federico Garcia Lorca

Gorlitz, Germany Update 3 Gorlitz, Germany Update 3

Working with Youth

This week, Bohemian Crossings summer camp has welcomed youth groups to the site to create story poles.  We have been delighted to meet little ones from a day care, a group from the refugee community, elementary classes from a public school as well as secondary-age youth from the local Waldorf school.  Poles are decorated with paint, buttons or are carved.  The younger ones practice first on a large roll of paper before working together to paint a large pole with hand prints and dripping paints.  The older youth scatter immediately into groups of two or three with drills and carving tools in hand.  Adults from the community occasionally stop by and create their own design and pole.  The energy is spontaneous, feels welcoming and diverse.

The Bohemian Crossings team themselves are a diverse group of artists who bring talent for poetry, storytelling, music and the visual arts to the gathering.  After the children wash up from all the stray paint that never made it to the pole, they gather around team members who play the guitar, banjo and

harmonica, singing folk songs from America, Ireland and Germany. They smile, clap and join in with the singing.

The inability to control the result of such unfolding of enthusiasm and energy was at first unsettling, at least requiring in us a shift from our original vision of a sort of unified, cohesive outcome.  Yet what is arising feels potent.  Within the team, there seems to be a blending of the diverse personalities and, at times, competing energies; a sense of order is forming out of what felt initially to be a chaotic, empty space; we feel our connection deepening with the shared desire to create beauty.

The cohesion, however, doesn’t come just from our efforts; instead, it seems to take shape through the youth.  The harmony, the common language we adults have been talking (sometimes arguing) about for the past days is here. What is the common language?  It probably won’t be obviously visible in a public art piece.  Our poles will form a random forest of color and shapes that can, we hope, at least be a physical seed of hope to inspire the unfolding of similar efforts over the years.  No. The common language, the harmonious note is this:  joy – a light that so gracefully absorbs the grey.

Gorlitz, Germany Update 2 Gorlitz, Germany Update 2

Danielle Hoefler, an artist and advocate, came to Gorlitz six years ago and is the main organizing force behind Bohemian IMG_3945Crossings.  She is a strong, passionate and compassionate presence who believes that the depression weighing down some in the community is rooted in a lack of hope.  She shares, “the inhabitants who were born in Gorlitz don’t necessarily see the beauty that exists here.” The city is largely comprised of an aging population, many of whom spent large portions of their lives living under communist-rule and even before that, for some, the Nazi regime.  “Then one day,” she continues, “completely out of the blue the wall comes down and their lives were entirely different, changed overnight.  They suddenly found themselves in a world they just didn’t know and understand.  Everything was lost.”

With the fall of the wall came a mass exodus of 1/3 of Gorlitz’s population, the closure of most all the factories and major regional industries.  For a time, the area became almost lawless and developed into a large center for the drug market and home to Russian and Polish mafias.  Today alcoholism, drug addiction and poverty continue to feed the despair.

As more of our days unfold here in Gorlitz, it becomes easier to sense the melancholy; there is a feeling of reticence on the streets.  We begin to see beyond the initial delight of relatively quiet and peaceful streets, wondering instead what loneliness and emptiness this might convey.  A large part of the vision of Bohemian Crossings is to create a safe and free space for people to express themselves, not in isolation but in community.  Yet the challenges inherent to building community can quickly and easily disperse energy and positive intention.  Many of us know the frustration expressed in the phrase “herding cats.”  In Germany, as we learned within just a few days of our arrival, the phrase is “herding a bag of fleas.”

IMG_1185

In community-building it is often important to give people open and free space for expression; certainly here there seems to be a strong need for feelings and experiences to be given shape and form.  To succeed in working together, we need to listen to each other’s stories; but we also need to elevate these to another level, channeling the energy, moods and voices into a harmonious chorus.  Choreographing the cats or fleas, as it were, somehow creating a cohesive art piece, for instance, that represents the collective vision.  With the poles we try to find a rhythm, simplicity and repetitive pattern that can serve this purpose – a common language in color, shapes and lines which express diverse emotions and experiences.

When this doesn’t happen, when the beauty we might have imagined is not achieved, it is easy to feel disappointment.  Certainly this has been the experience of Barefoot Artists in many of our efforts.  We understand that there are powerful art forms that are provocative and confrontational to existing systems, relying often on strong, individualistic voices.  The goal of Barefoot Artists, however, is to create a cohesive expression that includes the individual voices of all participants.

The intention of Bohemian Crossings is to provide and open space in which every person, through arts and creativity, can discover the potential and the beauty within.  It is their hope that the energy and joy created through the process can help transform the mood and inertia of the city. Working with this group of talented, courageous and open individuals is providing us with an amazing opportunity to explore the potent dance between the individual and the collective.  It is a chance to ask more questions, understand the process better and learn together how to take the next step.

Gorlitz, Germany Update 1 Gorlitz, Germany Update 1

A colleague noted that the Barefoot Artists generally create projects only in places of extreme poverty, even though there is Anja copysuffering and brokenness in comparatively rich communities.  Germany is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and Gorlitz is a beautiful, medieval town with a historical city intact, yet there is wounding here that runs deep.  Perhaps that is why artists from all over the world are drawn to Gorlitz, awakened by the unformed potential that lies within darkness, the vitality and hope that is held within the rubble and decay.  The question that arises seems to be, “how do we respond to the unfolding of the individual soul as it wants to reconnect to the soul of Gorlitz?”

Anja, a local artist, expresses it this way: “Gorlitz has a big soul.  This soul touches your own soul, every time, every movement, it sees your heart.  So many people here are depressed and not in touch with their own souls; we don’t learn to touch our soul.  We fight against our soul which causes us to become deficit.  If we can see our soul, we can blossom and fall in-love with ourselves and find peace.  That is what Gorlitz tells me.”

The Barefoot Artists team is sharing the methodology in creating story poles with people.  In this process we first set up a nurturing environment for participants’ personal stories to emerge.  We aim that the stories unfold in simple narratives which then find expression in visual images.  Based on the individual expressions, the team members work together to find a common language that encompasses our emotions and inspirations. This common language provides a foundation for a public art installation, which is rooted in both personal experiences as well as collective memories of Gorlitz.

The project in Gorlitz is taking place at an old factory site that now houses an NGO as well as studios for various tradesmen.  Numerous brick buildings are in various stages of decay. Tomato plants are thriving in a garden designed by youth groups and built on a large mound of rubble.  Bohemian Crossings will host a summer camp this week where school children will create story poles to add to the team’s poles.  We aspire that through working together, we can create a beauty that transforms this site and generates a rippling affect in bringing hope and joy to Gorlitz.

A Vision for Equitable Community Development

From The American Society of Landscape Architects website:

Barefoot Artist

In the 1960s, amid rampant gang violence, drug crime, and white flight, Arthur Hall, a dancer and choreographer, created the Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center in the poor and mostly African American community of Fairchild-Hartranft in north Philadelphia. The center successfully taught black culture, art, dance, and music in a safe space for decades. Then, in the 1980s, Lily Yeh, an art professor at the Philadelphia School of Fine Arts, got involved and grew the center into a neighborhood arts and cultural hub, the internationally-renowned Village of Arts & Humanities, which now teaches over 400 local students art, advocacy, and leadership after school every day.

Aviva Kapust, the current executive director of the Village, gave a tour of the project during the Trust for Public Land’s recent conference called the Nature of Communities. As we spent the morning walking through the network of 15 parks and plazas, which total some 15,000 square feet across multiple city blocks, Kapust explained that the Village’s public spaces have become “designated safe zones in the neighborhood.” While there is still high levels of crime in this part of Germantown, “it doesn’t happen here.” And while nearby painted houses are often “tagged” by local artists, who leave their unique signature, the murals that oversee the public spaces never are.

Yeh and the surrounding community slowly transformed vacant lots into public parks and plazas. Kapust said Yeh had no idea how to create a park, so she engaged the neighborhood kids, who then brought in their families. “Together, they undertook a process of co-creation,” learning as they went how to plant trees, mold cement benches, set sidewalks, create mosaics — building community all the while.

Kapust believes the space works so well because it “imports symbols from other cultures and projects then back out again.”

But the imagery Yeh selected also purposefully “signals guardianship.” Angels oversee pathways; spirit animals watch over the public spaces. “There is an intentional mesh of spiritual messages into something universal.”

Yeh just started building these spaces without city government permission, but now they actually own the parks and plazas, which brings its own set of challenges, including financial liability. And simply maintaining the spaces — not developing them — costs some $70,000 per year.

Meditation Park, which was created in the early 90s, is something Gaudi would have loved. A river is formed through mosaic tiles. Colors reflect the Islamic and West African cultures found in the neighborhood. James “Big Man” Maxton, a former drug addict, became the village’s long-time operations director and mosaic artist. The result of his work and many other volunteers is a “beautiful plaza, like something you would happen upon in Barcelona.”

A few doors down, Magical Garden is in the process of being revamped as a “natural habitat for urban wildlife.” Annuals are being replaced with perennials, and there will be natural stormwater management systems. Next door is a quarter-acre urban farm with permaculture plots, a solar-powered aquaponic system, and outdoor pizza oven, where culinary education and demonstrations are held.

Memorial Park, once a vacant lot, honors those who have died in the neighborhood to drug violence or addiction or lost their lives in the Vietnam War. The now-shuttered neighborhood high school had the highest number of alumni to die in Vietnam than any other school — some 64 students. Dream totems, made with a West African artist, invite visitors to remember.

Interestingly, not all the parks have been successful. Some of the ones farthest away from the village center are underused. Lion’s Park, for example, may be divested as it has become an “overgrown hazard,” said Kapust.

As gentrification creeps north, can there be a positive future for this unique arts and cultural neighborhood? Kapust says the Village is looking 25-30 years ahead and trying to figure out whether they should use “arts and culture to generate community economic development, or aim for community economic development, using arts as a tool; they are two separate things.” She added that whatever plays out, “we want to keep the needs of the people in this neighborhood at the forefront.”

Kapust wants to reach out to equitable developers as well, taking them a vision and plan for maintaining the character of the community. “The theory is 100 families is a manageable group. We could support those 100 families with jobs and their own homes for 100 years.” Those 100 families, who would take up about 5 blocks, can then maintain the neighborhood culture, support local shops, and create leverage. “It’s basically socialism,” Kapust laughed, or at least an expanded neighborhood cooperative. To make this happen, a workable financing model needs to be connected to the right non-profit developer.

Lessons from Palestine On Walls, Cultural Resistance, and the Artistry of Lily Yeh

Tikkun Magazine
The Barefoot ArtistBY ARIEL BLETH

The small Palestinian village of Al- Aqaba, home to 300 inhabitants, lies atop a rocky ridge in northern West Bank. Its large, striking minaret punctures an otherwise earth- bound, rugged geography, and the Jordan Valley fans out to the east like a desert mirage. Waves of brown, orange, and red blur into one another — a strik-ing view from the three- tiered scaffolding that precariously hugged the wall of the village’s most prominent building in the spring of 2015. Up and down the rickety structure for the better part of a week, Philadelphia- based artist Lily Yeh gave most of her attention to the aqua- colored expanse in front of her and the task of painting a mural on the twenty- five- foot wall…

Continue reading here.

LISTEN. ENGAGE. ACT.

A SYMPOSIUM FOCUSING ON THE POWER OF COMMUNITY-DRIVEN ARTISTIC INITIATIVES TO MITIGATE CONFLICT IN URBAN CENTERS

The Barefoot Artist

Who owns culture? Who needs culture? How can we answer these questions and avoid the stratifying, hierarchical categories of providers and recipients? Following up on conversations hosted by the British Council’s “Culture and Conflict Summit” in September 2014 and Association of Performing Arts Presenters’ forum “What is the Role of the Arts Presenter in a Community in Crisis?” earlier this year, we will convene on June 17 to grapple with these issues, particularly on the level of U.S. cities. Drawing upon the Festival’s and Yale School of Music’s relationships to New Haven residents, our day-long symposium, “Listen. Engage. Act,” will focus on the power of community-driven artistic initiatives to mitigate conflict in urban centers. Through presentations and discussions, we will consider—and ideally begin to practice—how artists, arts providers, politicians, and city residents can listen to and engage one another, and then act in concert for mutual benefit.

Lily Yeh will be participating in the Engage the City panel from 2:00-3:30 pm on June 17.

Find more details here.
Register for free here.

Mei Hwa Update, 2016 Mei Hwa Update, 2016

 

This is Barefoot Artists’ second year working with our team in Mei Hwa. Last year we created the three story high mural “the Gyro Tree of Life” that has impacted the school in multiple ways – in making the school visible, changing students’ attitude about themselves and their school, increasing their curiosity and interest in learning, and team work.

The mural project combined with a year long awakening creativity educational program has earned the school one of the five top award in innovative education in the nation wide competition. For a small, remote, and long time neglected school, this is a huge accomplishment.

 

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