Maryo Gard Ewell, Community/Arts Development

For the St. Croix Valley Community Foundation and University of Wisconsin-River Falls
delivered in Hudson, WI, November, 2005

This is not an easy assignment – to follow in the track of Lewis Feldstein, your speaker last year. His work on creating social capital is so critical in the world of 2005. Like Mr. Feldstein, I’m on the board of a community foundation in my home town of Gunnison, serving the 11,000 people in our river valley in Western Colorado, and we have undertaken an initiative of great chutzpah in our valley.

The culture of the Rocky Mountain West has historically been about me beating you to that fabulous vein of ore, me coming up with the most brazen scheme to get your water rights, me and my dog and the heck with you. Our community foundation’s initiative is called "Modeling Democracy in Rural America" to our funder, and is being called "The Valley of Respect" to our people. We are trying to put into practice, in our little area, what Feldstein and Putnam have talked about. Basically, our thinking is: "You can’t have a democracy unless you know how to listen." So we are starting a multi-year effort of trying to help people with great differences and firm points of view listen and think, not slough off and close up.

My background is an arts background and I think the arts can totally tie in with the effort to build social capital. Recently I was giving a talk to a group of artists and was trying to explain our initiative. Where other people have looked at me kind of blankly, the artists got it totally, right away, and wanted to participate.

So I want to tell you a little bit about how I see the arts playing a role, maybe a crucial role, in building our communities. To do that, I need to tell you something about my own background.

My dad, Robert Gard, was a playwright, and my mother was an actress. They met in grad school where they had the same major professor. Mr. Drummond was training my mom to be a great Shakespearean or Chekhovian actress; at the same time, he was training my dad to listen to the stories of upstate New York and translate them for the stage, and to help farmers in upstate New York do the same thing. When my folks came to Madison, Wisconsin in 1945, my father’s job at the University of Wisconsin was to help anyone in Wisconsin who wanted to write. He followed in the great tradition of painter John Steuart Curry, the first artist-in-residence in the United States, who was in residence not in the University of Wisconisn's Art Department but rather, in its College of Agriculture. Ag Dean Chris Christensen, who in the 1930’s had the vision to hire an artist to help farmers and their families to paint, was in turn carrying out the vision of Governor "Fighting Bob" Lafollette’s and UW President Charles Van Hise’s Wisconsin Idea, that dazzling melding of populist self-government, civic responsibility, the development of personal talent, and the responsibility of public higher education to the daily lives of all of the people in the state of Wisconsin. In the Wisconsin Idea, the arts had a role to play. Glenn Frank, president of the UW in the early 1920’s, said this:

There’s a gap somewhere in the soul of the people that troops into the theater but never produces a folk drama … The next great dramatic renaissance in America will come when the theater is recaptured from the producers by the people, when we become active enough in mind and rich enough in spirit to begin the creation of a folk drama and a folk theater in America. 1 [emphasis is the mine] (1)

Indeed, to the moment of his death, my dad had Fighting Bob’s portrait over his desk, centered over his typewriter, reminding him of his responsibility, as a playwright, to the people of the state…ensuring that people would make their own drama, did not just consume drama.

So that’s how I grew up. With this idea – and it was considered a perfectly natural one in our house – that artists have a deep civic responsibility.

Oh, I tried to escape from the arts stuff. I was in college during the Viet Nam war, and I was a psychology major, figuring that as such, I could singlehandedly understand issues of conflict, confusion, misunderstanding and war, and fix them. I thought that the arts thing was quaint, but pretty irrelevant.

Then, in the required course in Community Psychology in the Public Health Department in grad school, I heard something that utterly transfixed me. Seymour Sarason, who ran the New Haven Mental Health Clinic, was about to retire, and he said this:

I have come to believe that the truly healthy community is one where people care as much about one another’s creative and spiritual health as about their physical health. (2)

Suddenly, the psych background came together with the arts background and with the Wisconsin background – the Wisconsin Idea’s commitment to the fulfillment of everyone’s talents and to grassroots participation. These days, we call it community-building or building social capital, but to me it’s all part of the idea of just plain health.

That revelation made me look at a lot of things in my background in a new way. Things I’d just thought were kind of cool, took on significance. For example, when I was about 8, in about 1956, I spent a lot of time after school at the Madison Women’s Club which was the setting for a huge undertaking called "Man and his God." My mother, through the Women’s Club, was the producer; my dad was the instigator. His idea was that Madison would be a better place if people of all faith perspectives came together to talk about their idea of god, or the life-force, or truth – call it what you will. The Women’s Club sent a letter to every single denomination in Madison – including people who were known to be atheists – and invited them to participate.

My dad, as the central artist, had constructed a kind of overall framework for this show. Each denomination could participate by writing their own scene; by providing actors for a scene that my dad would write; by providing a choral or dance group; and/or by serving on an advisory committee to make sure that their perspective was accurately portrayed. I found an article from the Milwaukee Journal that affirmed that every single group in Madison – from the Catholics to the Baha’I – participated. In fact, here is what the drama critic said:

On what stage could you see St. Paul in company with Adam and Eve, Mephistopheles, Buddha, ancient Jewish prophets and the gods of Greek and Scandinavian mythology? Where could the sonorous words of the Old Testament be heard interspersed with a Japanese ‘noh’ play, readings from the sacred Hindu scriptures and poetry by such diverse authors as Aeschylus, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Christopher Marlowe . …Not a play, not a pageant in the usual sense, "Man and His God" is something new in modern theater. (3)

Now, there could probably have been a conference at which all of these groups could have talked about their faith, and learned from one another, and shared questions or concerns; but through this drama-pageant-new art form, they could also respond emotionally, they could also show one another their sense of awe or worship or skepticism. They could learn with their heart and their muscles and their gut – as well as with their heads. Not to mention how they could grow from the bondedness and exchange that happened as all sorts of people whose paths wouldn’t ordinarily cross, worked hard and intensely over many weeks to produce something of excellence and meaning, together. Under what other circumstances could Sister Thomas Moore of Edgewood College truly bare her spiritual soul to a Baptist from the African-American east side Baptist church? And ask him to teach her something? This is exactly what Feldstein is talking about: connecting with other human beings in a way that furthers knowledge of them as a complete human being, for knowledge leads to trust, and trust leads to community.

By "community," I am talking here about geographic community – a place. Wendell Berry, that poet-philosopher-farmer from Kentucky, defines a community as the "condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives." (4) No sociologist, political scientist or public policy analyst could say it more clearly.

I don’t know whether Wendell Berry ever read the work of Baker Brownell, but Berry is certainly Brownell’s philosophical descendent. Brownell was initially a newspaper reporter in Chicago, later the chair of the philosophy department at Northwestern University, during the 1940’s. In 1950 he published a brilliant book, The Human Community. In it, he defined a true community as one which met several criteria, and a key criterion was that its scale was such that people could know one another, face-to-face, as whole persons. Think about this as you listen to this lovely snippet from Gard’s 1955 Grassroots Theater:

One time I stopped to watch a country auction, and I saw the personal belongings of the last member of an old Wisconsin family being auctioned off. The auctioneer lifted from a trunk a yellowed wedding dress, and when he asked for bids there was a titter of nerved-up laughter that brushed across the audience. And then the laughter was still as a very old lady made her way from the back of the crowd and offered her small bid for the dress. It was undisputed, and she took the dress and tottered away with it. At a local gathering that night I heard the story, and it was like a play, for the dress had been worn fifty years before by one lady, but it should have been worn by the old lady who finally bought it. (5)

Knowing people’s stories. I wouldn’t know Joe Smith just as my dentist, but I would also know that he is a member of the Episcopal Church, that he is the father of two adopted children, that he coaches the soccer league, that he has a passion for reading detective stories, that he has a dream of learning to fly, and that he is impatient with tree-hugging environmentalists. I don’t have to know everything about Joe, but I do have to know him more than as one single role. I might not even like Joe all that much, but we would both accept that we need to listen to one another and take each other’s opinions into account if our community is to be a place where we can both find meaning. I must recognize that I have a stake in his interests, and he in mine.

Our world these days is pretty much built around affinity groups. It’s natural to be most comfortable hanging out with people "like us." But now it’s so easy to find people "like us" and meet them in clubs or in cyberspace that we really don’t have to pay much attention to the guy next door. Not to mention our cynicism about public process, the amazing busy-ness of our lives, the spectre of litigation. What percentage is there in getting involved? And, without our active involvement, then as small businesses are snapped up by increasingly large businesses, as our community’s economy is often controlled by unseen bankers and employers far far away, as we see on television images of how things are "supposed" to be, and as people migrate to flee the city, or flee the country, or find the safest place to raise their children, or find a pretty place to retire to, well, things have a tendency to move towards a kind of generic "mean."
A hamburger at one MacDonalds tastes like a hamburger at another, and that’s comforting. I fear that our communities could become MacHudson or MacRiver Falls or MacAmery if we’re not careful. Generic small places, just like other small places.

And I consider "generic" to be synonymous with "evil." Places where critical thought, different thought, creative thought, are not rewarded. These places are passive and are, to me, vulnerable to being easily manipulated from elsewhere, vulnerable to rot. Did you ever see the movie, "Pleasantville?" It’s the story of a perfect generic place where everyone is perfectly nice, does the perfectly predictable, and lives perfectly happily ever after. The movie starts out in black and white. What happens? Someone in town, a latent artist, discovers color, starts to paint, and gradually – as the movie slowly adds Technicolor - the town comes to consciousness. A consciousness that is messy, to be sure, and not easy (just as democracy is messy and not easy), but the town starts to discover the meaning of living together.

"Meaning." That’s really what I am talking about here. What does it mean to live in Hudson or River Falls or Amery? All the government documents, comp plans, and homeowners contracts can’t get at that, because the language of government and the law doesn’t permit it. I’m not sure the people of the East End of Superior, Wisconsin truly understood their place, and the meaning of living there, until writer Anthony Bukoski gave it back to them in the form of beautifully written short stories.

Even more, poets, playwrights, artists can enable the rest of us to explore what it means to live together, just as actively making "Man and His God" allowed people to explore questions of faith much more fully than simply talking about faith. If we do not explore meaning in public life, I believe that our souls – that mysterious whatever-it-is that makes us human – will rot.

Baker Brownell in 1950, looking at the post-atomic-bomb world (just as we are looking at the post-9/11 world) said this:

Ours is a culture largely of displaced persons. It is tattered with escape and wandering, and as such is a culture founded on being lost…. What the Germans did to millions in the concentration camps, and the Russians to tens of millions in the mass deportations, the western world in general does less dramatically but as effectively to hundreds of millions swarming homelessly to centers of vicarious and secondary culture. Their lives die out, love rots, and hope is replaced by avid stimulation. In all this, art may become merely one of the seducers to death. Or it may become the insight of life and survival itself. (6)

The same thing as President Glenn Frank said, just with the language of 30 years later. The stakes, frankly, could not be higher, as I see it. On the one hand, the rot of the soul; on the other, the meaning of living together as whole people in a community. These are the poles.

So what can the arts do about this? Theater, and song, and dance, creative writing, and painting? Those activities considered, so often, just decoration, the things to be added after the real infrastructure has been built, the real education provided? I told you about "Man And His God." Here are other examples.

As many of you believe, no doubt, I believe that I have a voice like a crow on a bad day. Yet I have started going to sporting events – especially indoor sporting events where sound isn’t lost – in order to sing the national anthem. Think about it. Years ago, we used to sing it together. Then, somehow, our national anthem – something that we as Americans share – has been taken from us and given to stars. Sure, they can hit the high notes perfectly. But doesn’t it seem ironic to you that we let a single star sing the song of a democracy? What is wrong with this picture? How can we claim to be patriotic Americans if we refuse to participate in singing, together, our national anthem? So my one-woman campaign has to do with singing the national anthem whenever I hear it being played, even (gasp) singing along with the star. As simple as that. Perhaps, some day, two or three people will sing with me. Perhaps, some day, the entire gym will sing. A very easy, music-based, cost-free way that any of us can do to start building social capital. Together, affirming the democracy we live in.

Indeed, singing together builds social capital. Edgar "Pop" Gordon of the University of Wisconsin crisscrossed Wisconsin by train in the 1920’s and 30’s, carrying out the mandate of the Wisconsin Idea, by building singing societies throughout the state. The philosopher I mentioned, Baker Brownell, spent the last ten years of his life organizing singing societies in small towns. Some of the arts people in the audience may know the name of Ralph Burgard, who directed the St. Paul Arts & Sciences Council in the 1950’s and went on to become one of the best-known spokespeople of the community arts movement. Ralph is now in his 80’s, and what is he doing? He is organizing community singing societies. On the plane yesterday I read about two theater groups, one whose members are white and another whose members are black, which created a program they call the Song Exchange, exploring their respective cultural traditions – the things they have in common and the things they don’t - by first teaching one another their songs. Other people are trying to jump-start the old idea of community dances, and it’s the same idea: My husband says (and this is probably one of the reasons I fell in love with him) that "the community that dances together, will take chances together."

It starts with an attitude, of course. Well, two attitudes, and typically in the United States we – even artists and arts patrons, maybe especially artists and arts patrons – tend not to share. The first is that the arts are not only the purview of the talented genius in her painting studio or his dance studio but rather provide a very deep way for any of us to communicate – remember "Man And His God?" In Grassroots Theater, Gard has just described a three-day intensive writing workshop he has conducted for a small group of rural people. He’s talking with one of the participants and she has said that there are thousands of rural people eager to write. He says that he hasn’t seen that, and that the writing he has seen wasn’t very good. She says this:

She thought one reason the plays reflected little poetic appreciation of the area was because everything was made to seem too complex, too technical, too difficult. She said there must be a great, free expression. If the people of Wisconsin knew that someone would encourage them to express themselves in any way they chose, if they knew that they were free of scenery and stages and pettiness that the plays we do seem so full of, if they knew that someone would back them and help them when they wanted help, it was her opinion that there would be such a rising of creative expression as is yet unheard of in Wisconsin and it would really all be a part of the kind of theater we had had these past three days, for the whole expression would be of and about ourselves. (7)

And the second attitude is that the arts must not be separated from daily life, but, ideally, should be so jumbled in to daily life that we don’t even recognize the boundaries. There was a man at North Dakota State University from about 1912-1954, a man named Alfred Arvold, who taught high school near here in Eau Claire, who then went to Fargo and created The Little Country Theater. Like my dad’s Wisconsin Idea Theater, The Little Country Theater wasn’t so much an institution as it was an idea. Arvold believed that it was a terrible disservice to our humanity to segregate the many aspects of life. In fact, as part of his college drama program, he had his students study folklore so that they could know other cultures; and manage the Lilac Days Festival that he designed for Fargo; and even plant lilacs on campus and beyond. Every year they planted lilacs on the highway between Grand Forks and Fargo – Arvold had a vision of 80 miles of lilacs! The point is that Arvold made no distinction between "drama," "community festivals," and "beautiful bushes." It was all a part of a whole, and integrated, creative life. Arvold hated the idea of a stand-alone arts center for example; he envisioned, instead, a creative community center where government, recreation, science and the arts all co-existed. In 1917 he wrote,

A community center is a place, a neighborhood laboratory, so to speak, where people meet in their own way to analyze whatever interests they have in common and participate in such forms of recreation as are healthful and enjoyable. The fundamental principle back of the community center is the democratization of all art so the common people can appreciate it, science so they can use it, government so they can take part in it, and recreation so they can enjoy it. In other words, its highest aim is to make the common interests the great interests. To give a human expression in every locality to the significant meaning of these terms – "come let’s reason and play together" – is in reality the ultimate object of the community center. (8)

Let’s move this kind of thinking into our towns today. My friend the late Barbara Conrad used to run an arts center in Durango, Colorado, a town that – like so many of our towns – is being torn apart with strife over growth. If you went to a town council meeting, people would be shouting at one another and at the elected officials, and thoughtful, creative discussion simply did not exist. Besides, there’s a protocol in public hearings which doesn’t make for creative public discussion. So Barbara felt that there needed to be a place where her community could look creatively at growth, and she declared the arts center to be, in her words, the Switzerland of Durango. Where people could try out ideas, play out scenarios. The walls would be covered by images – by everyone from 4th graders to artists to "ordinary citizens" - about what Durango might look like if such-and-such a decision were made. There might be play contest in which Act One would be written by a local playwright, raising a question that the town was facing, with a range of short Act Twos submitted by different people showing what they thought might happen in five years, as a result of the town council deciding one way or other about the question.

In our town, Gunnison, there’s a show every year, "Sonofagunn," in which we take on issues that we’re grappling with – water, economic development, you name it – and, using humor and music, try to raise questions in such a way that we can laugh at ourselves - humor being a first step to conversation. There’s no "right" point of view, and pretty much everyone is fair game for a parody. In fact, one year our city manager played himself – parodying himself perfectly. Our vision is that, after the show, people will want to retire to the bars and coffee shops to really talk about issues, rather than avoid them in order to be "nice," as we typically tend to do.

Also, in Gunnison, there’s a playwright, Paul Edwards. He suggested to our arts center one year that instead of doing our usual three-play, pleasant, tourist-oriented summer season, we should do our own soap opera. And we did – The Lodestone Trilogy. He was the lead playwright, and the show materialized from improvisation work with college students and community folk. Tickets to The Lodestone Trilogy were as scarce as tickets to the Green Bay Packers; we flocked to it, because it was a show about us, not about people we didn’t care about in New York City or in the Wild Wild West circa 1880. It was set in a coffee shop – one of those places in a town where everyone goes – and we knew all the characters. The barista who was pregnant and whose three jobs still wouldn’t allow her to pay rent in a decent place. The construction worker who was injured and whose insurance didn’t provide the coverage he needed. The ranch hand whose work was good but who was torn because his family was in Mexico. The banker who loves the town but who has just been offered the presidency of a bank in a place he does not like. The city councilman who gets anonymous letters about his position on the Wal Mart issue. Of course each segment left you hanging and we waited eagerly for the next and wondered which of them had gotten the barista pregnant. But also, we talked and talked and talked about the issues as a result of this show.

The idea of linking theater to community improvement isn’t new. Today, the word "pageant" may conjure up a spectacle - well, as theater goes, probably bad theater - that includes campfires, covered wagons, perhaps a dance by Native Americans, and a happy country hoedown at the end. Not to mention an action-scene where a lot of horses gallop across the stage. ‘Twas not always so. In 1909, in Boston, there was a major community self-study project going on involving literally hundreds of government and what we’d call today non-profit groups, looking at the future of the city. There was a playwright named Percy MacKaye who had ideas about theater. He said things like this:

The Civic Theatre idea… implies the conscious awakening of a people to self-government in the activities of its leisure. To this end, organization of the arts of the theatre, participation by the people in these arts (not mere spectatorship), a new resulting technique,…dedication in service to the whole community; these are chief among its essentials, and these imply a new and nobler scope for the art of the theatre itself… (9) For true democracy is vitally concerned with beauty, and true art is vitally concerned with citizenship. (10)

MacKaye was working with the group in Boston and he took the findings from the many committees and crafted them into a huge pageant, involving, literally, thousands of people. "Sons of Veterans were listed on the program in the role of War. They stood side by side with workers from the Central Labor Union who depicted Strife, Slavery, and Serfdom." (11) The idea was that people would be prompted by the pageant to think deeply about what the future of Boston ought to be.

In St. Louis they went even further. The Mayor of St. Louis invited the mayors of the largest cities in the United States to send two of their best thinkers to, first, participate in the pageant alongside the people of St. Louis, and then, afterwards, to discuss for several days what a meaningful life in urban America was all about. Among the delegates, by the way, were George Pierce Baker of Harvard’s drama department (who trained Mr. Drummond, who trained my dad), Jane Addams, and the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead.

Now, here is an interesting thing, arts-wise: the actors, playwrights, composers and choreographers who were part of the pageant movement believed that they were on the cutting edge of art-making. This was a wholly new kind of theater, music and dance, with esthetics and techniques that no one had before imagined. Beauty and citizenship. New, participatory, aesthetics in the pursuit of liberty and justice for all. To me, this also answers the challenge that so many arts folk make, that using arts in the community-building process degrades the art. Just the opposite, to me: it has the potential of moving the arts forward into realms we cannot now imagine.

Let me just mention a few other ways that I’ve seen theater used in the process of strengthening public life. LaMoine MacLaughlin runs the Northern Lakes Center for the Arts in Amery, Wisconsin. Amery was part of a national program, called "Animating Democracy," in which communities got some money to integrate the arts into helping a community address an important issue. Amery chose the issue of water pollution. Some of the activities that were conducted included the commissioning of an enormous piece of public art right there on the bank of the Apple River – a huge fishing bobbin and a huge discarded battery – that, playfully, reminds the people of Amery about the delicate balance of life in our waterways, and their responsibility to that life.

But to me, the most interesting project that they did was the simplest: the Arts Center produces plays, and during that year, they chose to produce Ibsen’s "An Enemy of the People." You may know it: a "classic," written over 100 years ago, a play about a community that learns that its hot springs, on which its economic livelihood depends, its hot springs are being poisoned by an upstream tannery owned by one of the community’s leading citizens. What are that community’s choices? The play is an examination of this. The people of Amery knew darn well that it was a play about, in effect, their own town and their own choices.

Here’s a story from Grassroots Theater of yet another way that theater can play a part. Gard was at a town council meeting in the early 1950’s. He’d been asked to address how the council could support a community theater. He was scheduled right after the agenda item that had resulted in a long and vicious argument about a farmer’s bill that the state assembly had just passed. The argument got nowhere, so they turned the agenda over to Gard....

I was in an uncomfortable spot, faced by anticlimax and the probable futility of trying to stimulate interesting discussion in this particular atmosphere. I knew I simply could not talk about drama in ordinary terms. It suddenly occurred to me, as I fumbled about, that the previous discussion had aspects of a drama: conflict, character, excellent dialogue. So I set about fabricating, without the people actually knowing what was going on, a comic situation in which the various factions and individuals were either for or against the milkhouse law, and before we realized it a kind of group play was actually in progress, only now it seemed in terms of comedy, exciting but laughable, for I had attempted to exaggerate the purpose on both sides and to enlarge on the innocence of the county agent and to exaggerate the well-meaning, slightly self-pitying attitude of the legislator as well as the anger of several of the more outspoken opponents of the milkhouse bill.
In the informally dramatized version of the affair that we made up there at the moment the farmer was getting his whacks at the legislator and the county agent was making his excuses, but within the framework of a creative situation.
Somehow feelings seemed cleansed, purposes made clear, and actually everyone began to enjoy the situation. In fact, they enjoyed it so much that they decided to put the dramatized discussion on again at a later gathering. And they did, with a big spread of good country grub, with some rural paintings hung around the walls of the hall, and with some singers from a county-wide rural chorus furnishing another aspect of the occasion.

There are theater companies everywhere that are making theater from local stories and local situations. They are as far away Roadside Theater in eastern Appalachia, as close as Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis. They are as urban as Cornerstone Theater in Los Angeles, or as rural as the Swamp Gravy show in Colquitt, Georgia.

And it’s not just theater, of course, that engages people in their own communities. Let me tell you the story of Larimer County, Colorado, and the Larimer Exchange Project. Before I start, I must tell you that I don’t know the end of the story. The agency I worked for was going to fund it for several years, but then our Governor suddenly all but eliminated us. But I can tell you the story of its first year, and I think it embodies everything that I’ve been trying to show – how the arts can be critical in building social capital – building trust-based relationships between people, so that the community can move forward.

Now Larimer County, north of Denver, is one of Colorado’s two fastest-growing counties. Colorado State University is located there. The best corn-growing land in Colorado is in Larimer County, but the zoning couldn’t keep up with the need for more and more and more housing and apparently the need for more sprawl, and that corn growing land was disappearing faster than you could say "subdivision." One night there was a County Commissioners hearing on a certain development, and, as was typical, it wasn’t a hearing at all, because no one was listening. It got ugly. In the bar afterwards, an installation artist, a county commissioner, and the regional president of the Young Farmers League were having a beer and talking about the hearing.

The problem, they concluded, was that people didn’t know how to listen and instead just shouted out their own "over my dead body" positions. Sharon, Jim and Jim came up with a project to address "listening," through the arts, and the next day it still sounded pretty good.

So here is the project that they did: They put an ad in the paper and called for 25 people who thought of themselves as artists, and 25 who didn’t. They put names in two hats, and the Chairman of the County Commissioners drew names and matched people up – an artist with a non-artist. If you perchance knew your partner, your names went back into that hat. The pairs of strangers had to do three things. First, they had to have coffee together three times. That was all. They didn’t have to talk about land use, growth, politics – they just had to have coffee and talk about themselves. Second, at the end of the third coffee they had to decide whether they would make a piece of art together and the piece would have to address, in whatever way they wished, living in Larimer County. And, third, if they did, it had to include, equally, each of their ideas and creativity – it couldn’t just be the artist interpreting the perspective of the non-artist.

Well, I went up for a site visit at about the time that most people had had their second coffee; all the partners were present at this meeting to compare notes. I can say that almost without exception, people began, "My partner and I are so different that we will probably not do a project together. We just have nothing in common."

Yet – 23 of the 25 pairs did, in fact, make a piece together. There was something magic about that third cup of coffee – perhaps they’d just been together, casually, talking about themselves, long enough that they felt that they could trust each other.

For it was about trust. The artists had to be vulnerable because a non-artist was co-participating in creating art – "am I, the artist, not supposed to be the expert here?" And the non-artists had to be vulnerable because they didn’t have the technical expertise that the artists did: "I can’t paint." The 23 pieces were displayed and presented at the fairgrounds over labor day, and it was incredible.

Let me tell you about a couple:

There was an original song created by a music therapist, Christine, and a hog farmer, Steve. They’d gone door-to-door in the subdivision across the highway from Steve’s land, inviting everyone to a pig roast (of course) at the farm, and asking everyone to bring a dessert. Now, the farmer hated the presence of the folks across the highway because he’d had to sell that land off for taxes. And some of the folks across the highway, in turn, thought that his hog operation was quaint, and others thought it was gross, but none of them had gotten acquainted with the farmer. At the event, Christine led a drum circle to break the ice, and they all ate together, and after dinner each person had to write down a word or phrase that characterized their time together, in order to collect the dessert of their choice. Christine, the therapist and Steve, the farmer, took these phrases and wove them into a really wonderful song called "The Other Side of the Highway," and performed it; it was also the first time that the farmer had ever sung in public.

Then there was the pair that included an actress, who lived one of those three-minimum-wage lives so that she could act, who was paired with a realtor. As she said at the fairgrounds, she would never be able to afford a house, and here she was, paired with someone who sold houses. So they did a performance piece exploring the meaning of home.

Then there were the two dudes who joined the project because they thought it would be a good way to meet girls, and to their horror, found themselves paired with each other. At their first coffee, which they did with poor grace, they discovered that, well, they both like to fish, so their second and third coffees were, instead, fishing trips. They actually did two projects. The one fellow was a photographer, and the other did like to keep a journal, so they made a postcard series – the one taking an image and sending it to the other, who wrote something on the back in response; and they also created an installation, a sculptural display of jars of water, in which were suspended objects that they found while seining the Platte River together.

The most complex, perhaps, was the Land Ballet that the chair of the dance department at CSU created with the Geist family. Jim Geist is a farmer, a big man, who was mortified, horrified, when he was paired with Jane Harris, a tiny woman whose work is pretty cutting-edge. He simply wasn’t going to dance. They decided to break the rules, and Jane was going to choreograph a piece about his family’s five generations on the land. But one day, when she was showing him some ideas, Donna Geist said, "But Jim, this is our story, hadn’t we better dance too?" The final piece began with Donna’s poem, "From My Window," about the changing landscape. The dance was set to Jim’s favorite piece of music, the Emperor Concerto. It was respectfully choreographed so that the Geists could beautifully tell their story of tending the land for five generations while Jane’s students from CSU danced characters representing Good (the spirits of earth, air, water and fire) and Evil (the developer). The developer was constantly dropping "For Sale" signs on the concrete floor – these were on toilet plungers, so they stuck to the floor, of course. The Geists’ two young children were tugged at and passed back and forth between the spirits of nature and of business. The young boy, who was maybe 5, had wanted his ride-on toy John Deere tractor to be on stage too; and it was the boy who ended the piece. The spirits of nature and business and the Geist parents, left the stage. The music and lights faded. The little boy – the next generation - rode his tractor onto the stage and tried to pull up the toilet plungers. Some came up. Some didn’t. That was the point, of course: that there was no absolute "good" and "evil" in the discussion; rather there was ambiguity, which could be the start of a real dialogue.

So where to start, in our places, to ensure that the arts take an appropriate front-and-center role in the process of building communities, of creating social capital?

Well, as I suggested, you could each start by singing the national anthem the next time you go to a sports event! That one’s easy, and I urge every one of you to do this.

But remember Berry’s words, that a community is mutually defined by both neighbors and place, and think about your place. How can it be expressed? Wallace Stegner cites Carl Jung’s discussion of the displaced man (hmmm, sounds like Baker Brownell) who has no roots in place, who "lives a life of his own, sunk in a subjective mania of his own devising." Stegner then says:

Back to Wendell Berry, and his belief that if you don’t know where you are you don’t know who you are. He is not talking about the kind of location that can be determined by looking at a map or a street sign. He is talking about the kind of knowing that involves the senses, the memory, the history of a family or a tribe. He is talking about the knowledge of place that comes from working in it in all weathers, making a living from it, suffering from its catastrophes, loving its mornings or evenings or hot noons…He is talking about the knowing that poets specialize in. (13)

How can this poetic "knowing" build social capital? What can we do about it? There are three levels of action that we can take, I think (well, four, if the first is to sing the national anthem in public):

First, we must support support artists making books or theater or dance or murals that arise from the community’s stories, as Tony Bukoski or Paul Edwards do. We must, in short, support artists who hold up a mirror for us.

Second, we can explore ways to make pieces together – as they did in "Man And His God" or in Larimer County – in which people learned about one another, listened to one another, became vulnerable to one another, and made something that none could have made by himself, in order that the neighborhood or city or county can be stronger and more democratic because people can listen better, more compassionately.

And third, we should strive to create ongoing processes – as Alfred Arvold was trying to do in Fargo, or as Barbara Conrad was trying to do in Durango – in which the creative process blends with the public process.

It is essential that we try. T. S. Eliot said that "for us there is only the trying; the rest is not our business." (14) Who are the artists in your community? The community’s arts organizations? How do they, how could they, express their understanding of your community? Who are the non-arts groups, the government entities, in your community who care about the future of your place, and how could they work with those artists? What could the planners do with visual artists? What could the housing activists do with dancers? What could the transportation planners do with fourth-graders and some art-making materials? What could the 4-H do with a composer of songs?

Let us not waste the enormous creativity of people as we build our communities. Why not, instead, remember that, as in "Man and His God," it is possible to address important shared questions with heart and soul, as well as head, which will result in a more creative, more place-specific, more meaningful, future. We must try.

I close with my dad’s words, which he wrote at the end of The Arts In The Small Community in 1969:

If you try, what may you expect?
First a community
Welded through art to a new consciousness of self:
A new being, perhaps a new appearance –
A people proud
Of achievements which lift them through the creative
Above the ordinary –
A new opportunity for children
To find exciting experiences in art
And to carry this excitement on
Throughout their lives –
A mixing of peoples and backgrounds
Through art; a new view
Of hope for mankind and an elevation
Of man – not degradation.
New values for individual and community
Life, and a sense
That here, in our place
We are contributing to the maturity
Of a great nation.
If you try, you can indeed
Alter the face and the heart
Of America.




1. Pres. Glenn Frank is quoted in Gard, Robert E., Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press; originally printed 1955; reprinted 1999; p. 95-96.

2. Paraphrasing Dr. Seymour Sarason as the author remembers his class; Dr. Sarason directed the Yale-New Haven Mental Health Center, and was on the public health faculty at Yale University.

3. Berry, Wendell, The Long-Legged House, New York, Harcourt, 1969 p. 61.

4. "Great Religions Basis for Community Drama Project," Milwaukee Journal, April 28, 1957, Part 6, p. 1-2.

5. Gard, Grassroots Theater, p. 141.

6. Brownell, Baker, The Human Community: Its Philosophy and Practice for a Time of Crisis, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1950, p. 256.

7. Gard, Grassroots Theater, p. 217.

8. Arvold, Alfred, "The Community Center Movement," in College and State, North Dakota Agricultural College Alumni Association Magazine, May-Jun 1917 vol 1 no 3, p. 4.

9. MacKaye, Percy, The Civic Theatre, New York, Mitchell Kennerley, 1912, p. 15.

10. MacKaye, Percy, "Art and Democracy" in The Playhouse and the Play and Other Addresses Concerning the Theatre and Democracy in America, New York, Macmillan, 1909, p. 190.

11. Prevots, Naima, American Pageantry: A Movement for Art and Democracy, Ann Arbor, UMI Research Press, 1990, p. 30.

12. Gard, Grassroots Theater, p. 131.

13. Stegner, Wallace, "The Sense of Place," in Where The Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, New York, Random House, 1992, p. 205.

14. Eliot, T.S., in "Four Quartets," The Complete Poems and Plays, New York, Harcourt Brace, 1962, p. 128.

15. Gard, Robert E., Ralph Kohlhoff and Michael Warlum, The Arts in the Small Community: A National Plan, Office of Community Arts Development, University of Wisconsin, 1969, p. 98; currently online at