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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

SDA 2012 Conference: Reflections on Community

Most conference presentations are interesting; occasionally one is downright boring. But once in a while, a conference presentation has the potential to change someone's life. 

Maybe mine . . . maybe yours?

I wasn't initially drawn to the topic of art and social change when I saw the program for the SAQA-SDA conference, Identity and Reflection. But five minutes into her talk, Kathryn Pannepacker had us hooked.  "I used to be a drug addict.  I turned tricks for drugs, or even a clean needle . . ." she noted.  While the room full of mainstream mostly middle-aged middle-class women sat in polite silence, Kathryn cut to the chase:  "We are hardwired to form quick opinions and judgements . . . Stigma lurks."  

With her direct and insightful commentary, Kathryn highlighted several projects she had spearheaded in downtown Philadelphia.  One was a large scale mural project - the city has significant support for murals, and the adminstrative and financial infrastructure to coordinate these efforts.  

Katherine Pannepacker at her Fiber Philadelphia 2012 exhibit

The other project was Art Street textile studio, a collaboration between the artist and homeless men and women or those in transition or recovery from drug or alcohol addictions.  With homemade table looms and a selection of small floor looms, her "peeps" learned to weave scarves that they later sold in their pop-storefront gallery.  "I'm not thinking about doing drugs when I'm weaving," one participant mused from the safe and supportive environment of the community that Kathryn has built.

I've been thinking a lot about community this spring.  While I was in Philadelphia for the conference, Vermont experienced the horrific murder of a young teacher in the Northeast Kingdom.  Her death was tragic for all who knew Melissa Jenkins, but as time has passed  I've once again been amazed at the power of community.  So many that I have spoken with after this tragedy have been reconsidering many aspects of their lives, from reaching out more to family and friends, rethinking personal safety and security, to making more or different contributions to their community. 

Melissa's young son is doing well, despite this tragic event.  I later learned that Katherine wasn't really an addict or a hooker, though she sure caught our attention with her "example." These two events are unrelated yet somehow serendipitous in how they both bring awareness to the power of community, and our obligations to our communities.  

What then is our call to action? As we work in our studios, can we find ways to be more involved in our communities?  Our art communities, our city or town?  How can we bring our art to our communities in ways beyond galleries and exhibits?  

Last fall Pamela Druhen rose to the call with her Winter Warmth Project in the days following tropical storm Irene.  If you know of other opportunities to help others through art -- locally, regionally, or nationally -- please share these programs and contact information here.

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