Teaching Community Changemaking Through Art

Artists are everywhere, on every block and in every community. Finding the opportunities for artists to share their creativity and networks can strengthen community bonds, build relationships, and help a community imagine what’s next. That is what Springboard for the Arts found from 2011 to 2014, working with the City of St. Paul and Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corporation along the Green Line light rail construction during the Irrigate project, which trained artists in partnership building, creative placemaking, and funded their creative projects. That model of artist-led community development has now been used in advance of construction for Cultivate Bottineau, a project coordinated by Hennepin County Bottineau Community Works and Springboard for the Arts, partnering with the communities along the proposed Blue Line light rail line. Through training, technical support, and funded projects, Cultivate Bottineau is bringing out the artists in the communities of North Minneapolis, Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Brooklyn Park, and Crystal, to share a vision for their communities, and to cultivate creative people power. During the first year of Cultivate Bottineau over 40 artists participated in the creation of over 25 arts events along the Bottineau Corridor.

Literary Art as Public Art

Each neighborhood has its own story to tell. For Nancy Cook, a teaching artist, writer, and lead artists for the project, Writing the Autobiography of a Northside Neighborhood, the story of a neighborhood can be observed if you look carefully. She gained inspiration for the project from a Nigerian writer, Amos Tutuola, who described a village in Nigeria by categorizing things in ways that are not familiar to Americans, which intrigued Cook to explore this style further.

For the project supported by Springboard for the Arts’ Cultivate program, Cook decided to conduct a series of workshops based on people writing about their experiences in the Northside in loving and non-traditional ways. Cook had guest teaching artists visit the workshops and provide their expertise on how to create and articulate unconventional insights. One of the poems from the workshop, “5 Haiku” by Denise Alden, illuminates one such insight about North Minneapolis:

Nesting nebula
of neighbors, near by
and reaching for North.

Kneeling and knocking,
our northside neighbors blooming
in community.

No naysayers here
on the North Side:  not allowed.
Better to rise up.

The mighty river
our internal combustion
engine of the heart.

In Northside’s backyard,
the mighty river our heart,
internal compass.

Writing since she knew how to hold a pencil, it wasn’t until five years ago that Cook decided to focus solely on writing as a career. Dedicating herself to social justice work early in life, she earned a Master in Fine Arts and a law degree. Cook sees her literary work as a contribution to community-building and community problem-solving. Having taught creative writing in detention centers and prisons, she appreciates the powerful healing that results from sharing stories.

For Cook, one of the benefits of the project was meeting great people. She also saw her Cultivate work as helping surface the needs and desires of the community in light of the big transportation project in the neighborhood. Cook believes that the community ought to have a voice in expressing who they are and how their past, present, and future is defined as the planning for the Blue Line is underway. She says, “People need to take ownership of their neighborhood as a major change is about to take place.”

Strokes of Appreciation and Connection

For Kristi Evanger, resident of Robbinsdale and full-time mother, facilitating art experiences for people to learn from is a passion. “As adults in society, I don’t think we get enough time to pause and engage in art,” she says. Evanger was an arts educator for a few years and, now that she has children, does more projects engaging children in art.

For her Cultivate project, Paint the Town, Evanger created opportunities for people to try plein air watercolor painting in which participants paint while immersed in a natural landscape. “When you sit somewhere and paint for some time, you tend to see things differently,” said Evanger. From her perspective, watercolor is more accessible since we all use it as kids. “People feel like they can’t mess up with watercolor paint strokes.” That opens them up to taking more creative risks.

One of the goals of the workshop was to get students to gain an appreciation for the spaces where they paint⁠—in this case, parks within Robbinsdale. Another goal was to connect community members through an experience that would help them bond. Evanger recalls, “In their training, Springboard mentions that there is an artist on every block. I was trying to bring those artists together in a meaningful way.”

Hawona Sullivan (left). Photo by Patrick Casey.

Poems of Possibility

Growing up as the granddaughter of farmers who loved to tell stories, Hawona Sullivan realized early that you can deeply engage people if you tell a story well. A self-identified class clown, Sullivan shared that her teachers helped her appreciate what it means to have the “gift of word.” Over the years, she has honed her talents to become a multidisciplinary artist, engaging in art forms including poetry, composition, and improvisational jazz singing.

Trained as an art historian, Sullivan is a gallery curator at the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach Engagement Center (known as UROC). She aspired to work in the field of public relations until she faced the profound loss of her six-year-old son, who was an artist in his own right, having created a few illustrated books. After her loss, she found herself asking, “Am I living the life I want to live?”

She turned to poetry to deal with the extreme grief that she felt. As friends began encouraging her to share her work, Sullivan shifted her focus from doing art for survival’s sake to writing with the purpose of creating benefit for the broader community. After a fellowship through the Givens Foundation for African American Literature in the Twin Cities changed her life, Sullivan began teaching art.

Her Cultivate project, Our Lives are on This Line, featured poetry based on conversations or experiences she had at various spots along the Blue Line’s expansion route. She embroidered the word “poet” on an apron and started handing out small cards⁠—half the size of business cards⁠—inviting people to have a conversation with her. Sullivan spoke with people at bus stops, at the library, at restaurants, coffee shops, and many other places. With the consent of her co-conversationalists, she wrote poetry based on each discussion.

“More people said they would love to be in a poem than the number of poems I could write,” Sullivan said. “At first, I thought it was my job to tell somebody else’s story, but then I realized that I was telling the story of our encounter and how we changed each other.” Sullivan hopes her work will prompt others to reflect on the beauty and importance of building connections with people in the neighborhood.

Given the increasing polarization in our time, these artists highlight how art can be used as a bridging mechanism among different perspectives. From drawing out diverse stories within a neighborhood like Cook, to bringing residents together to appreciate the natural beauty within the community like Evanger, to having conversations with strangers to write poetry like Sullivan, art has the power to create trust that is lacking when people bring their creative energy together. Sullivan imparts, “If we decide to have a conversation with a stranger, something beautiful can come out of that.”

Cover photo: Nancy Cook (seated, lower left). Photo by Patrick Casey.