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The Art of Creating Community

By Renee Obrecht-Como, Program Operations Director — Health & Nutrition

I’ve had many conversations over the years with Family Development colleagues and others about the joys of creative expression, such as cooking healthy and delicious meals, storytelling, and making music, crafts, or art. Educators certainly know these hands-on activities facilitate learning and skill-development. Recently, I was inspired by the ways that working together on artistic activities, or displaying them in public spaces where people gather, also facilitates creating community.
One moment of inspiration occurred during the first round of regional visits by the Family Development Leadership Team on August 11–14. During those visits, staff and educators noted several times how art builds community and fosters engagement:

Elizabeth Quillo, who works out of Long Prairie, described how residents there are redefining community identity to include Mexican immigrants, as well as to address crime and other community concerns. One big impetus for community-building efforts was the horrific drug-related murder of a Long Prairie family in 2003. Residents, who were eager to bring people together to build something positive, commissioned two public art projects depicting a vibrant, welcoming, peaceful community.
  • The first artistic effort is a mural in the downtown area showing scenes of life on small Amish and modern farms, as well as a scene of traditional Mexican dancers. (Read more: Royalton artist to paint mural in downtown Long Prairie [login required].) 
  • The second artistic effort, the Blue Sky Project, involves public installation of mosaic-themed sculptures and other artwork in Long Prairie’s Harmony Park. The art pieces were created by a diverse group of residents to illustrate their lives and convey their sense of community. (Read more: the Blue Sky Project’s Truly Public Art.)

Kathy Schwantes and Anne Dybsetter, who work out of Willmar, pointed to storytelling as another way to welcome new immigrants and forge understanding across cultures. This summer, as part of Willmar Lakes Area 2040, new immigrants are sharing their personal stories, 35 of which are displayed at Willmar’s The Goodness Coffee House. (Read more: Immigrants’ way to Willmar varies.)

Debra Hawthorne, who works out of Bemidji, noted that the inclusion of quilting or beading in nutrition classes is another way to build community through art. Hawthorne, who often works with Ojibwe communities, observed that hands-on, craft-based activities serve as an incentive for people — women, in particular — to come together to relax, get to know each other, and create something beautiful.

My second moment of inspiration occurred when I saw a feature story about food as art when it was re-broadcast a couple weeks ago on “CBS Sunday Morning.” The story highlighted the work of artist Roger Rowley whose medium is fruit plates — plates with real fruit on them. (Watch or read more: Art That's Delicious: Roger Rowley's Fruit Plates.)

Ten years ago, Rowley, who lives in Moscow, Idaho, started arranging colorful pieces of fruit in artful ways on plates to entice his young children to eat these healthy foods. As his arrangements grew more varied, he began snapping photos of his fruit plates every day for a year. Then, choosing one photo for each day of the year, Rowley created an art installation that now hangs in a gallery that happens to be next to the farmers[MEV2] market where he buys most of his fruit. Today, the gallery draws a steady stream of visitors, including people who have been shopping at the market, as well as others from the community who come to see Rowley’s breathtaking wall of fruit plates.

Clearly, the residents of Long Prairie, Willmar, and Bemidji, as well as Roger Rowley, are using art and artistic activities to help create community. What can we, staff and educators with Family Development, do to bring art to our work in communities?

Editor’s note: Curious about what went on during the first round of regional visits Renee mentioned? We were tweeting the whole time! View this Storify site, which features a compilation of tweets under the #fdontheroad hashtag: Regional Visits, Round One.
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