Better Together

Better Together

The Fire and Ice Festival in Goshen, Indiana

The Fire and Ice Festival in Goshen, Indiana, combines art with entertainment, from fire dancing to chainsaw ice carving. Photo: Lynne Zehr 

Human beings are social animals, Aristotle said; we want to live around other people. But building a community – and maintaining it – is not a straightforward process; it relies on a blend of intention and serendipity. 

I live in a wonderfully sociable neighborhood, but it took a hit a few years ago when one of the most connected of the families on our block moved away. Things have never been quite the same; you can’t count on neighborhood celebrations around Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, or Labor Day anymore. There are fences – and distance – that weren’t there before.

You can’t force community – but you can nudge it. You can set up the right conditions and push it along. Glass artist Duncan McClellan tried for three years to build an arts community in Tampa, Florida, before he found a much more receptive climate in neighboring St. Petersburg. Today the arts district he helped found is a happening place, and his gallery a magnet for glass artists and patrons. Dave Pottinger and Faye Peterson bought up decaying properties in Goshen, Indiana, and launched the Goshen Clay Artists Guild – which spawned other guilds that, together, form the heart of a vibrant arts community. Brigitte Martin tends to her 7-year-old virtual community, Crafthaus, by insisting on civility.

To be part of a community, you have to open yourself up to people and risk rejection. Fiber artist Shenequa A. Brooks traveled from Kansas City to Ghana to learn to weave kete cloth. What she didn’t expect in her three months there was to find fellowship – among people so warm and welcoming that Brooks returned to the States only reluctantly. Ceramists Deborah Schwartzkopf and George Rodriguez have opened themselves up to new people in new places repeatedly. Over the course of 10 years, Schwartzkopf moved from one job or residency to another, adapting to a new circle of people over and over again. Rodriguez visited 26 countries in less than a year on a grant that required him to travel alone – and acclimate. The result? Today the couple has supporters all over the world, as well as in their home base of Seattle.

Community requires chutzpah, cultivation, and commitment. It’s work. But, as many people in this issue can testify, it’s work that pays off. The Belger Crane Yard Studios were mostly unoccupied industrial buildings when Dick Belger and Evelyn Craft Belger moved in – helping to anchor what is now a vital Kansas City arts complex with their presence. Jo Hamilton knew she had hit on an ideal new art form, crocheted paintings, with the feedback from friends and co-workers in her adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon. For Ann Morton, launching a community to assemble her latest public art project in Houston is the very point of her creative practice. 

“When I witness people actually contributing to and engaging in the process of making what is finally put on exhibit, to me that is where the heart of a project lies,” Morton says. For her, that’s the best part. And, really, those connections, however they come, can be the best part for all of us.