Contemporary Art Engages the Community at the Newly-Opened Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh

I pushed open the inverted refrigerator door tucked into a crevice of the 20-foot high swooning inflatable white plastic-tentacled sculpture-creature and stepped into a whimsical bubble of exploration. Sound  ridiculous and a bit mind-blowing? It was! Welcome to the inaugural exhibition at the newly-opened Contemporary Museum of Art (CAM) in downtown Raleigh.

Entering artist Dan Steinhilber’s fascinating white industrial plastic creature through a refrigerator door creates the illusion of stepping through C.S. Lewis’ magical wardrobe into a whimsical Walmart stockroom–an explosion of colored plastic bag shreds and industrial plastic sheeting. See an image of the sculpture here.

There is a lot to like–other than the first exhibitions–about CAM. A “museum in progress,”  CAM was born of a partnership between the NCSU College of Design and Contemporary Art Foundation. Located in the Warehouse district, the building is a charming reused space: a former produce warehouse with impressive architectural features.

CAM has already hosted a number of lectures and community events–and I mean interesting, lively events rather than the stuffy, cloistered museum kind. The staff incorporated participatory art activities for CAM’s inaugural First Friday reception during which attendees (more than 900, according to the CAM website) created their own versions of Steinhilber’s winged mobile-like paper wire hanger sculptures, currently hanging in the Museum alongside the infamous sculpture-creature.

If that isn’t enough to pique your interest, then check this out: CAM’s docent team is comprised of seventh graders! The ambitious middle schoolers attend a series of after-school interactive training sessions. In fact, several staff members and gallery assistants told me the docents have more insights into contemporary art than they have. Clearly, CAM aims to inject the conversation about contemporary art (often authoritarian-tinged or yawn-inducing lectures) with new thinking.

The CAM website reflects this thinking. The home page reads: “The world is always changing. Shouldn’t the museum experience be always changing too?” CAM helps to demystify the making of contemporary art by sharing a rare behind-the-scenes look at the installation–be sure to check out the time-lapsed video of installation of the current exhibition in the gallery.

On any given afternoon, chatty CAM gallery assistants are peppered throughout the not-too-large space, waiting enthusiastically to engage museum goers. (Thank you, Lorie, for an excellent discussion about museum experience, CAM background and contemporary arts culture in the Triangle!) I wasn’t surprised–though still delighted–to find that CAM’s three part mission encompasses the objective to generate a sense of community.

I was impressed by one particular detail which demonstrates CAM’s interest in engaging the community in the contemporary art experience: interactive prompts embedded throughout the exhibition leaflets that provoke new insights and thinking among Museum goers. One prompt reads: “Steinhilber chooses not to title his works so he does not impress his ideas upon the viewer. If you were to title his work, what would you call each?”

The innagural exhibitions–Steinhilber’s Hold On, Loosely and Naoko Ito’s Urban Nature–both respond to the history of the angular, lofty building with industrial materials and themes. Steinhilber’s neutral, playful presentation of industrial materials often associated with mass production and mass consumption is light, fresh and unique. Ito’s installations are a thoughtful, though less neutral look at the connection or disconnection between nature and development.

So, has CAM succeeded in creating a museum in progress? From what I’ve seen so far, I’d say yes. I’m impressed by CAM’s initial surge of innovative programming and creative tactics to engage Museum goers and the larger community. I anticipate CAM’s continued evolution in the coming months and years.

Check out a podcast featuring perspectives on the building of CAM and the inaugural exhibitions.

Have you been to visit CAM yet? What did you think? Introduce yourself below, subscribe to my RSS feed and say Hi on Twitter.

Gap Year Travels: Chiang Mai, a Creative City

[This is the final in a series of posts about my travels through Western and Central Europe and Southeast Asia this Winter/Spring as part of my self-designed Alternative Gap Year. Click here to read more.]

The air is crisp and fresh in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This isn’t extraordinary in and of itself, but it is a delight to step off of the bus (a twelve-hour over night bus, that is!) into the misty mountain-dwarfed town after three weeks in hot and muggy Central Thailand. Oh, and Chiang Mai has great used book shops!

Our time in Chiang Mai was fun-filled with exciting adventures including–but not limited to–two hour-long Thai massages at six dollars each (read: near beatings that leave you feeling exhausted but refreshed), three hours spent mountain biking down (as slowly as our tired brake-clenching fingers would allow) Doi Suthep Mountain, bamboo reed river rafting and riding a banana-happy elephant through a beautiful natural area surrounded by mountains.

We made it to the bottom alive..?!?

You could say these were “creative” experiences in Chiang Mai and the surrounding area, but what I found particularly blog post-worthy was the city’s campaign to join the UNESCO Creative City network. Drawing on the importance of what John Howkins termed the Creative Economy and Richard Florida’s concept of the Creative Class, the distinction Creative City refers to a city which has worked to develop post-industrial knowledge sectors and actively network, nurture and promote its robust creative industries. Such industries include IT, media, software, urban and social development, tourism, art, crafts, design and healthcare. Read a thoughtful post about the Creative City concept at Community Arts Network.

The Chiang Mai Creative City initiative’s mission is to “put in place the foundations, people, connections, marketing and infrastructure to develop and promote Chiang Mai as an internationally known city of creativity and innovation.” Not too shabby, Chiang Mai, and I’d say something is working! There is a distinctly modern, eclectic feel to this ancient, culturally rich walled city. Later this month, in fact, TEDxDoiSuthep (Chiang Mai region) is hosting a TEDx event entitled Creativity and Collaboration.

See more pictures of our pictures of Thailand here.

Gap Year Travels: Art & Community Development in Troubled City of Belfast

[This is the fourth of a series of posts about my travels through Western and Central Europe and Southeast Asia this Winter/Spring as part of my self-designed Alternative Gap Year. Click here to read more.]

“Why would you want to go to Belfast?” my family members in Northern Ireland asked, adding, “watch where you go, I would stay close to the University area.”

I had visited my family in Northern Ireland twice before but never spent any time in the city to which they’ve traveled for errands, business and doctor visits throughout their lives — a city painfully pockmarked by the period of sectarian violence known as the Troubles. “Well, there HAS been a lot of redevelopment and cleanup the last few years,” my Aunt conceded.

The first thing I noticed about Belfast–home of C.S. Lewis, Van Morrison and the band Snow Patrol–was the architecture. The downtown area is a delightful mixture of Edwardian classics (see the regal City Hall) and eclectic, sometimes even funky, contemporary additions. Oh, and the public art scattered throughout the Cathedral Quarter, Queens University, the Titanic Quarter and divided residential areas is oh so generously cataloged in the City Council’s excellent Public Art Directory! Yes, the ill-fated RMS Titanic was built in the impressive Belfast dock yards, now presided over by the iconic Samson and Goliath cranes.

I was even more struck by the number of arts and cultural organizations we saw — virtually one on every corner! In particular, we saw a number of community arts organizations, those dynamic and creative organizations which engage members of the community in arts participation and projects that promote healing and positive engagement. For instance, the Re-imaging Communities Project, which endeavors to replace divisive sectarian murals infamous to Belfast with positive images of heritage and community interaction, is a compelling example of a community arts project tailored to engender positive change in a community plagued by a specific problem.

The city has undergone extensive urban regeneration and redevelopment since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which brought peace to the troubled city. It seems that the community and governing bodies have embraced arts and culture as a critical element of community development and revitalization. The result is a thriving city with relative peace and a vital, extensive cultural scene enriching the lives of locals and driving one of the hottest tourist destinations in Europe. This is in part I’m sure due to the partnerships among governmental and cultural organizations, as seen in the development of an Integrated Cultural Strategy in partnership between the City, the City Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

In fact, we just missed the Belfast Film Festival, the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival and completion of the largest piece of public art commissioned in Northern Ireland, a sculpture entitled RISE. (See below an extensive list of arts organizations and venues we stumbled across while visiting.) Local cultural institutions include the award-winning Crescent Arts Center, oh yeah Music Center and Grand Opera House.

For an extensive look at development of the arts scene and community arts in Belfast beginning in the 1970’s, check out the Northern Visions (a nonprofit access channel) documentary, In Our Time: Creating Arts Within Reach:

Also, see more pictures of our travels through Belfast and Northern Ireland here.

Below is a list of all the arts and cultural organizations and venues we stumbled upon in Belfast:

New Belfast Community Arts Initiative

Community Arts Forum

Arts Council of Northern Ireland

Black Box Belfast

Oh Yeah Belfast

Crescent Arts Center

Queens Film Theatre

Publishing NI

Catalyst Arts

Belfast Film Festival

AU Magazine

The Metropolitan Arts Center (Opening 2012)

Belfast Waterfront

Belfast Print Workshop

Grand Opera House

WheelWorks

Gap Year Travels: St. Patrick’s Festival in the Land of Saints & Scholars

[This is the third of a series of posts about my travels through Western and Central Europe and Southeast Asia this Winter/Spring as part of my self-designed Alternative Gap Year. Click here to read more.]

Oscar Wilde Memorial in Merrion Square

Ireland: the land of saints and scholars! Admittedly, the only saint we interacted with was the namesake of that famous Irish celebration which we, too, celebrated: St. Patrick, the sheep herding missionary of St. Patrick’s Day fame all over the world. However, we did meet a number of Ireland’s literary scholars at cultural events and readings during the festivities: W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Seamus Heaney and many other greats. I mean that figuratively, of course — except in the case of Seamus Heaney!

The St. Patrick’s Festival, a five-day celebration in Dublin of Ireland’s rich contemporary and traditional culture, was fabulous. Yes, we saw a number of leprechaun hats, shamrocks and beads, but we also found the festival–including music, dance, film and comedy acts–offered much depth. In celebration of Dublin’s recent appointment as one of the world’s four UNESCO Cities of Literature, the 2011 festival was literary-themed, including interesting events such as literary treasure hunts and Dublin Swell (more on this below).

Not surprisingly, the festival parade was entertaining. Fancifully-costumed dancers followed whimsically contrived mechanical floats through the streets of Dublin in the parade, designed to illustrate  a short story commissioned for 2011 festival by Irish writer Roddy Doyle (read more here). But the Friday evening literary bash, Dublin Swell, at the new Dublin Convention Center overlooking the impressive Samuel Becket Bridge, took the ticket.

New Dublin Convention Center overlooking the River Liffey & Samuel Beckett Bridge

The articulate introduction to Dublin Swell, conducted by Mary McAleese, President of Ireland (and practically a kinswoman, having lived much of her life in Rostrevor, a stones throw from my Aunt and Uncle!), was followed by an electrifying performance by musician Damien Dempsey of The Auld Triangle (hear a similar recording here). For the next two hours, we were treated to a litany of funny, profound, heartbreaking and witty performances of famous Irish literary passages by the likes of Neil Jordan, Roddy Doyle, Paul Durcan, Claire Kilroy, Dermot Bolger, Joseph O’Connor and Sebastian Barry. They colorfully performed readings of Beckett, Wilde, Joyce, Swift, Yeats, Kavanagh and many passages of their own work. (Read The Irish Times coverage of the Dublin Swell event here.)

The succession of readings was penetrated by a brilliant performance of Lille by Irish musician Lisa Hannigan (see a video of another performance here), several dramatic performances by members of the revered Abbey Theatre and three of W.B. Yeats’ poems performed to music by the colorful Mike Scott. Midway through the evening, Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney made his way to the microphone to read several short poems, sure-voiced though hesitant-bodied, and with a generous twinkle in his eye (hear a reading of his poem The Road to Derry here). What an electric night it was!

Among others, I was taken by Joseph O’Connor’s reading from his most recent book, Ghost Light, about Irish playwright John Synge and his muse, actress Maire O’Neill. I picked it up at a bookshop and hungrily read it during the first few weeks of April. Coincidentally, I was reading Ghost Light with all of Dublin (even though I had traveled to Thailand) as the book was chosen for Dublin’s One City, One Book April 2011 festival!

See pictures from our travels through Dublin for St. Patrick’s Festival 2011 as well as around the island here. Also, check out an excellent NY Times article on Dublin’s theatrical and literary scene.

Gap Year Travels: Modern Jazz in Prague, Mozart in Vienna

[This is the second of a series of posts about my travels through Western and Central Europe and Southeast Asia this Winter/Spring as part of my self-designed Alternative Gap Year. Click here to read more.]

I’m delighted to find similar threads emerge during our time visiting the sites here in Central and Western Europe. In Prague, Czech Republic and Vienna, Austria, we followed the thread of enchanting live music performances and performing arts events in general.

In a stone vault space with adjoining bar turned cozy and wired jazz club AghaRTA Jazz Club in Prague, we discovered the hallucinogenic power of jazz music. We lost track of time sipping Czech Pilzner beer at our candlelit café table while the modern jazz quartet tweaked at their instruments on their way to oblivion. We were transfixed by the Vibraphone (jazz Xylophone) player, who performed unspeakable musical maneuvers with four mallets in two hands. [Listen to a selection of the musician’s work here.]

Also in Prague, we saw an experimental ballet performance of Casanova by a national performing arts group called Laterna Magika (self-proclaimed first multimedia theatre) in conjunction with the Czech Republic National Theatre. The performance encompassed music and film features as well as fascinating stage design including a large mirror that was lowered and raised and angled at different points in the performance and a large sheet hung in a taught semicircle which served as a projection for the sometimes campy, other times fantastical film montage segments. Of course most interesting (and surprisingly unforeseen) was the slightly more graphic ballet interpretation of love scenes between Casanova and his various conquests, particularly the scene involving multiple parties. It was a performance of Casanova, after all.

On a side note, my enthusiastic attempt at cross-cultural literary exchange floundered: Of the five Czechs I asked, none had read any books by the Czech writer Mila Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. All merely nodded and smiled politely in acknowledgement of his name. It was good reading anyway!

We were equally charmed and astonished upon seeing a performance of Mozart’s Requiem in the dramatic St. Charles Cathedral in Vienna. [See a clip of the performance here.] The evening was made even more dramatic in that we could see our breath escaping in cool tendrils from our mouths throughout the performance. Such spaces are beyond the reach of any worldly heating apparatus, we mused. However, we were summoned from our preoccupied, shivering bodies to a place of beauty in the lofty cathedral space by the holy sounds of the instrumentalists and vocalists, who were presided over by the most stunning altarpiece I’ve ever seen: alabaster figures dancing in an asymmetrical arc, leading them up and around the gleaming gold sunburst hanging high above them.

Also fun would have been to see the performance of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Vienna English Theatre, though we did not get around to it. We’ll save that for future viewing upon our return to the States!

See more pictures on my Facebook album.

Also seen:

Strahov Monastery Brewery and Library, Prague — Beautiful library just beyond the “Cabinet of Curiosities” (read: many stuffed dead animals and insects) and an equally beautiful cheese tray at the Brewery consisting of cheeses from the Moravian and Bohemian regions of Czech Republic.

Frank Gehry’s Dancing House, Prague

John Lennon Wall, Prague — a “source of irritation” for the Communist regime in the 80’s

Old Town Prague Architecture Lit at Night — Amen.

Jewish Museum, Pinkas Synagogue, Prague — Exhibition of drawings by Jewish children undertaken through an underground art school organized by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. The art education was conducted alongside additional cultural and academic training arranged by the Jewish self-government in Terezín, the ghetto and transit camp where Jewish children and adults were housed before shipment to concentration camps beyond Czech Republic.

Haus der Musik, Vienna (House of Music) — “a discovery trip into the world of music.” What can I say? It was a charming place. One fun feature: act as virtual conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic.

Kunsthaus Wien, Vienna (Art House Vienna) — “The flat floor is an invention of the architects. It fits engines — not human beings.” This is the declaration on the “About the Uneven Floors” plaque just as you enter this museum. The exhibition dedicated to the Museum’s founder, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Austrian painter, environmentalist, architect and all around groovy eccentric, is excellent.

Technology Museum, Vienna — We spent the good part of an afternoon wandering through the interactive Energy exhibition at this extensive Museum. Also fun: the special exhibition, The Power of Music.

Butterfly House Vienna — Click here for a 3D virtual tour!

Givens:

Prague Castle Hill and Royal Gardens

Charles Bridge

Old Town Square and the Astrological Clock Tower

St. Stephan’s Cathedral and Catacombs

Schonbrun Palace and Hoffsburg Palace

Next up:

Budapest, Slovenia and Rhine Valley of Germany!

Gap Year Travels: Urban Art in Amsterdam & Berlin

[This is the first of a series of posts about my travels through Western and Central Europe and Southeast Asia this Winter/Spring as part of my self-designed Alternative Gap Year. Click here to read more.]

Gorilla art alongside monolith cultural institutions. Thriving public transit systems. Cobblestones, curry worst and frequent breaks for hot tea. To say the least, I have thoroughly enjoyed wandering through Amsterdam and Berlin during my first days in Europe!

Most fascinating is the rich tradition of urban art that has sprung out of alternative and underground culture in Amsterdam and Berlin. I was delighted to discover urban art–graffiti art, guerrilla art, street art, etc–murals that stretch over the entirety of a five-story building facade, whimsical sayings or installations erected in surprising corners–is rife throughout these cities.

[See more pictures on my Facebook page.]

I couldn’t help but think of the artists who have invested blood, sweat and tears to share so many extraordinary pieces of street art (or is it “public art?”). Of course much of this activity is considered illegal in both Europe and the U.S. [See MSNBC’s coverage of Raleigh guerrilla artist Joseph Carnivalle, who was arrested for the creation of Barrel Monster.] Though urban art in Amsterdam and Berlin is often subversive and political, it is clear that this art is regarded by residents–and perhaps in part by the government–as a significant part of the cities’ contemporary cultural scene.

In Amsterdam, we visited the art squats, abandoned buildings overtaken by artists who inhabit often decrepit abandoned urban spaces (usually without proper heat or plumbing) and build thriving communities of creativity. A local proudly shared that Amsterdam is one of the few cities in Europe in which authorities permit art squatters to remain in a prominent, central downtown district.

In Berlin, we saw a great art squat that is credited with leading the revitalization of the Mitte neighborhood, which was split by the Berlin Wall and fell into disrepair during Soviet rule. Of course, despite such positive consequences, tensions between the government and art squatters arise periodically if not regularly.

Also in Berlin, we discovered the 50 Faces Project, a public mural project which is credited with revitalizing a particularly dangerous and gang-ridden block in the Kreuzberg neighborhood. The project was organized by a group of artists who call themselves Graffiti Connection. The artists teamed up and, on every imaginable surface of a building on this block, painted 50 portraits of Berliners. The striking portraits poingantly and proudly conjure a sense of compassion, tolerance, shared experience and understanding. Those of you who know me know I eat this kind of stuff up.

And of course, we strolled down the 1-km long stretch of the former Berlin Wall East Side Gallery, proclaimed the “International Memorial for Freedom.” Fittingly, the organizers invited artists from Berlin and all over the world (including an artist from Colorado of all places) to explore and examine this prominent part of European and world history. See images of some of my favorite murals below. Thanks for joining me on the first leg of my travels!

Also seen:

The Hub Amsterdam — Great contemporary space of entrepreneurship and collaboration in a gorgeous building just off Canal Ring!

Bicyclers galore in Amsterdam — I’m told there are more bikes than people in Amsterdam. Chic bikers in trendy boots, scarves, skirts and tights peddle in every direction, in some cases toward the multi-level bicycle parking garage!

Amsterdam Public Library — Six floors of materials and shared space, bustling with people of all ages, topped with a very cool cafe overlooking Amstel River and the city.

Anne Frank House — Very moving and well done museum experience, which also houses the Foundation Otto Frank established to promote tolerance among youth. Also, Van Gogh Museum — Honestly, a bit of a disappointing look at my favorite artists’ work. More stuffy institution than interactive, engaging experience. Still the Museum offers an interesting look at Van Gogh’s development and an extensive look at the work of artists who influenced him over time (naturally, this list is extensive).

American Book Center — Very cool center for international exchange and excellent bookstore in a great space also referred to as the Treehouse.

Topographies of Terror — A look at the institution of terror, a dense collection of images, documents and text about the institutional structures of the Nazi regime, erected at the site of the former SS headquarters.

Agathe Snow at the Guggenheim Berlin — How appropriate: “reclaiming” the the world’s monuments, landmarks, and historical sites.

Amsterdam Red Light District, Vondelpark and Film Institute, Museum Island of Berlin, Brandenburg Gate

See other posts in this series:

Gap Year Travels: Modern Jazz in Prague, Mozart in Vienna

Finding the Ehle Family: Discovering Homegrown Artistic Legacy in NC

Who doesn’t want to receive a five-pound bounty of Swiss chard every other week during the winter from the local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Co-op? Buying local is all the rage. I confess I feel a surge of satisfaction when I make a local purchase–it feels good to invest in my community and also to avoid toxic economic systems (read: oil conglomerates, imaginary number-conjuring bankers, farmer-abusing Walmart practices). So what about Community Supported Art? I had not given much thought to local art until I stumbled across the Ehle Family, when I discovered a rich legacy of artistry and leadership from my home state of North Carolina.

I knew I would like John Ehle and his writing when I first heard of him. A talented writer from Winston-Salem (via the lovely Asheville, prominent in his writing) in the tradition of fellow native North Carolina son, Thomas Wolfe, Ehle is also an accomplished activist. In fact, Ehle served on former North Carolina Governor Terry Sandord’s staff. Long fascinated with the intersection of art and activism, I savored John Ehle’s nuanced, Appalachian-infused writing (I just finished the lovely novel, Last One Home, last night at 1 a.m.) as well as accounts of his accomplishments as an education and equal opportunity activist.

“If I were to write a guidebook for new governors, one of my main suggestions would be that he find a novelist and put him on his staff,” said former Governor Sanford of his work with John Ehle, according to Ehle’s bio. Indeed, John Ehle is a homegrown leader and artist. There is something particularly rich about art and literature that speaks to one’s home, that illumines shared history and identity rooted in a place. Further, a community is enriched and empowered to witness such visionary leadership from one of its own.

Naturally, I was delighted to hear back from a “Jennifer Ehle” on Twitter a couple of weeks ago when I mentioned how much I was enjoying Last One Home. She agreed that the book is lovely and confirmed that she is indeed a “proud daughter” of the writer. Clearly I had not done my research and was soon to discover the bevy of artistic talent within the Ehle family. Later that week, the local alternative newsweekly’s glowing review of the recently released film, The King’s Speech, happened to mention casually that “Winston-Salem’s own Jennifer Ehle” portrayed Myrtle Logue in the film.

Now, I had just seen The King’s Speech the week beforehand and had promptly decided it was the best film I’ve seen in awhile. To say the least, it is the only film I’ve seen, after which the audience sat and clapped to a dark screen. Next, I discovered that Jennifer Ehle portrayed Elizabeth Bennet in the lovely PBS Pride and Prejudice Miniseries. Every time I visited my Aunt and Uncle, they sat me down to watch it and gush about the actress from their own Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Not surprisingly, the Mother and Wife of this family, Rosemary Harris, is also an accomplished actress.

Image via poptower.com

I was delighted to share an exchange with Jennifer on Twitter about a recently published interview with her father and her role in The King’s Speech. Though there are many other instances to artistic heritage in North Carolina, (O.Henry, Eva Gardner, Charles Frazier, Romare Bearden, Doc Watson, Ben Folds, among many others), I have thoroughly enjoyed “getting to know” the Ehles. Though I am still unsure if I am pronouncing this native North Carolinian family’s name correctly, I am enriched by the discovery of their talented, generous artistry and leadership. I anticipate future discoveries of artistic and community leadership from the multifarious community that is North Carolina.

Any leads for future discovery of North Carolina roots and legacy? Similar discoveries of your roots? Share them with me below and keep in touch! Subscribe to my RSS feed and say Hi on Twitter.

Steve Lopez’s The Soloist: Art & Activism

Sure, it is beautiful, but what does art really do for me, you and this big, flawed world?

Though perhaps an unfair question, this attitude is common in our market-driven left-brained society and, frankly, one I’ve had to reconcile as both an artist and young person interested in social justice. This is why I find the intersection of art and activism so compelling.

The Soloist, written by Steve Lopez, offers a charming and honest look at the power of art and the role of an artist in depicting and solving community problems. In fact, the city of Greensboro spent last month reading this book, awakening our collective conscience while attending book discussions, theater performances and workshops about mental illness and art.

Lopez, a columnist for the LA Times, is transfixed by Nathaniel Ayers, a street-dwelling, grocery cart-toting, sometimes-mumbling man who daily performs the most revered classical masterpieces on his mutilated violin in a tunnel in LA’s Skid Row. As it turns out, Nathaniel was a rising star studying music at Julliard during the 70’s when schizophrenia suddenly unhinged his life. Nathaniel was left vulnerable to the gripping whims of mental illness, which dismantled his ability to function anywhere other than society’s fringes. He has been homeless ever since, wandering the streets of Cleveland and LA, rehearsing and communing with his sacred Beethoven. Herein lies the first triumphant act of art in this story: the healing power of music–the solace and refuge Anthony finds in his moments spent with Beethoven–as he navigates the streets and his own mind. No, art doesn’t get Nathaniel off the streets, but it enlivens and enriches his life within the circumstances.

Upon publishing the story, Lopez finds many others are also drawn to Anthony’s story. He receives a ration of letters and small collection of donations for Anthony, including a brand new cello. Lopez, as artist-writer, witnesses his art become a catalyst in a movement to address the injustices suffered by the mentally ill homeless population and, presumably, “fix” Anthony’s situation (this, of course, is more complicated than originally thought). Thus, art, again, rises to the occasion–as communicator of pain and injustice, instigator of mass concern, response and action.

Still, Lopez is forthright in that he doesn’t necessarily welcome the responsibility he feels for Nathaniel. The remainder of the book finds Lopez puzzling through friendship with Anthony, navigating concerns such as: how he should use the resources he has to cajole Anthony into treatment, how he desires to see change and improvement in Anthony’s life both as friend and as artist, his feeling of obligation as someone with more resources, who is responsible for exposing Anthony’s story, and thus, for protecting him and for helping him.

The Soloist offers a fascinating look at how art and artists–tangibly and intangibly–inspire life’s triumphs, and more so, attend to life’s tangles.

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One City One Book: Art Unites Local Community

Via Friends of the Greensboro Public Library

My humble dwelling of Greensboro, NC is hosting a city-wide book club throughout the month of October including discussions, symphony and theater performances, workshops and more.

All activities are drawn from the themes in the book and popular film The Soloist, about LA Times Reporter Steve Lopez’s interaction with Nathanial Ayers, a former Julliard student and still talented musician living out of a shopping cart on Skid Row with mental illness.

Hosted by Friends of the Greensboro Public Library, One City One Book, a month-long community-wide dialogue, explores the book’s compelling themes of the intersection of art and activism and the power of art, specifically of music.

Indeed, Greensboro has been treated to live theater adaptation of the book by a local theater group, open-mic nights, workshops about mental illness and the connection between art and mental health, and dozens of book discussions hosted by local churches, organizations and groups. See the full schedule here.

In fact, One City One Book is a successful nation-wide movement. Cities around the nation unite to read a book (except, apparently, in the case of NYC) and embark on collective discovery and dialogue as a community. The beauty of this unique enterprise–which displays the reach and collaboration of a well established festival but the dynamic feel of a start up movement–is that it unites members from all corners of a city while stimulating literacy and engagement in the community through the timelessness of story, art and literature.

Happy reading and exploring, Greensboro!

Have you been out on the town attending One City One Book events? Tell me about it below!

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Six Great TED Talks on Arts and Creativity

I will watch a TED talk on a plane/I will watch a TED talk on a train/If only they had TED talks during The Wilderness Campaign/Thank God TED talks are public domain! Established in 1984 as a conference to gather and share ideas from the technology, entertainment and design industries, TED offers videos to the world free of charge of thought leaders sharing their insights on the TED website. Below, I list the “ideas worth sharing” about arts and creativity by inspiring writers, artists and overall swell creative leaders.

1.Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity:

I often return to this chattering, unabashedly self-aware but spirited talk by Gilbert of Eat Pray Love fame. Yes, the perils of the creative life can be devastating. For instance, the isolation and mania induced by the fear-based reaction creatives receive from the world: “aren’t you afraid you are going to work your whole life at your craft and nothing is ever going to come of it and you are going to die on a scrap heap of broken dreams, your mouth filled with the bitter ash of failure?” Take heart and move forward with bold action, artists, writers and creatives everywhere: we all have a disembodied creative genius who is willing to to take the fall for our failures and foibles!

2.Ben Cameron on the true value of the performing arts:

Ben Cameron, self-proclaimed “cultural omnivore,” calls for an Arts Reformation. The creation and distribution of art has been democratized, allowing for the rise of the “professional hybrid artist” who chooses to work around human rights issues or another cause rather than within large cultural institutions. The Arts Reformation must succeed, says Cameron, because the arts are essential to aspects of our individual and national character. The arts, for instance, foster emotional intelligence, which is increasingly important in areas such as business management, conflict resolution and empathy.

3.Amy Tan on the creative process:

A searching Amy Tan (author of Joy Luck Club) reflects on the process of bringing something from nothing: how do things happen? why do things happen? how do I make things happen? Creativity may spring from nature, nurture, nightmares, or most likely, all three. Some of Tan’s principles of creativity include: wrongful birth principle and childhood trauma. Ultimately, Tan beautifully highlights the utility, and perhaps, for her, the necessity, of ambiguity and tension within the creative process.

4.Ben Dunlap on the passionate life:

For those who aspire to make their life a moving work of art, Dunlap is the citizen artist who inspires and transcends labels. At one point a ballet dancer, Rhodes Scholar PhD English candidate, college president and writer/producer for TV, his is a life of artistic and cultural exploration and expression. Also an excellent storyteller, Dunlap recounts the stories of his string of Hungarian mentors, including Mr. Tesla, survivor of atrocities, creator of the first integrated textile factory in the South and voracious learner. Dunlap reflects that the genius of these great men is their insatiable curiosity, the “inextinguishable, undaunted appetite for learning and experience.”

5.Chimamanda Adichie on the danger of a single story:

Adichie’s call to action for greater cultural understanding through sharing experience and story is a graceful and beautiful example of art-activism. As a child reader and writer, she wrote of white, blue-eyed people who ate apples and drank ginger beer because that is the only story she received as a Young Nigerian who could only get her hands on British literature. “How impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story,” says Adichie. Single stories enable stereotypes and “stereotypes aren’t necessarily untrue, but incomplete.” Adichie says that though stories can be used to dispossess, they can also humanize and empower, calling us all to share and acknowledge the multitude of stories of place and people.

6.Benjamin Zander on your hidden passion for classical music:

“No body is tone deaf,” says Zander to us hesitant, would-be classical music listeners, which is to say, we all have it in us to “hear” and be moved by profound art. In an exploration of relevance and accessibility of the arts that sometimes (brilliantly) acts as music lesson, Zander says “its one of the characteristics of a leader that he not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people he’s leading  to realize whatever he is dreaming.” The artist must strive for “one-buttock playing” and arts leaders must strive to awaken possibilities in others. “The conductor doesn’t make a sound. His power comes from making other people powerful,” says Zander.

Do you know any other great TED talks about arts and creativity? Also, see this Fast Company article about TED as the new global university.