Use Art to Build Community

I sit on a volunteer board for Legacy Learning Boone River Valley in Webster City, Iowa. I was surprised at the number of local instructors in my community that are artists and teach workshops. 

Some examples of the local art these folks teach include:

  • the Scandinavian thread work craft of Hardanger, 
  • Pine Needle Baskets, one of the oldest known Native American crafts, 
  • Welding and forging works of art,
  • heritage wood crafts including bowl making, chair caning, and cabin building, 
  • foraging through public lands for different kinds of edible food,
  • classic Mexican cooking with our Hispanic community members, and
  • our most excellent Laotian community making egg rolls.
Learning to forge at Briggs Woods Park, photo by Legacy Learning BRV

Building community with art

In rural areas our cultural arts are often expressed through music, craft, food, and ways of doing things. These are things all of us do. We don’t think of it as ‘art’. But it is, and it helps make our communities stronger when we can connect through these various skills. I took the rug making course, and now I’ve made dozens of rugs for friends and family!  I did not consider myself an artist, but turns out – we all are. Art is more than the visual arts. 

We also brought in our first Artist in Residence.  Cord McMahon set up a studio in an empty downtown storefront, which showcased his work with ink, paper, and fabric.  His specialty is animals! Community was built by: 

  • Filling an empty building
  • Offering an artist a chance to try his art as a business
  • Folks coming to visit the new business downtown and shopping 
  • Many pets in town got their pictures painted or drawn!  
One of the pencil drawings by Cord McMahon

These programs help to open the doors to other opportunities. 

We’ve learned that people are just waiting for someone to start something, and then they will jump in and participate.  

An international photographer for the New York Times hosted a 2-week gallery showing of his photos from the War in Ukraine. People of Ukrainian descent came to our town and shared their stories. Residents learned from these folks about the war. It made possible conversations with diverse groups of people around uncomfortable topics like war.

Ukraine war photos
Brendan Hoffman, artist displaying pictures, in striped shirt, photo by Deb Brown

A local store owner asked artists from our town to come back and participate in a gallery showing. Local and out of towners merged to bring art into an empty building downtown. Their friends visited and were exposed to all kinds of artists and art. Students, immigrants and many others showed up during those 2 weeks. Connections were made. Because of this event, someone else is now planning a showing of local photographers’ work. 

Photo by Deb Brown of some of the participating artists with their work

Arts also help us to imagine and create our future

Saving the movie theater in Webster City changed how people viewed their future. People’s view of Webster City was negative and full of oh poor me when the main factory closed. 

The closing of the theater was the last straw. Enough! The town rallied to save the theater – the one place everyone could go to. They raised a quarter of a million dollars in one year, mostly in tiny bits from individuals. The theater was saved.

The process of doing all these events really staked a claim on being a town that was NOT dying, one that had a future. That saved theater brings art to the community, and not just by mainstream movies. Documentaries like ‘Home’ by Mark Horvath are shown. A local workshop group of autistic students created stop action animation movies. Those movies got shown on the big screen. Square came and filmed the movie Made In Iowa and it was released in this theater. 

Stop action instructors on each end and 3 students in the middle. Photo by Maureen Seamonds

Art helps communities address issues and feelings that are hard to reach with things that are only practical and logical. It’s just as important to defeat the feeling of despair as it is to rebuild the infrastructure. Communities get stronger when everyone is encouraged to participate, to try their ideas, to do things (like create art) with their crowd. 

See the Possibilities

I encourage you to look around you, appreciate the art in the everyday and share the beauty of art in all its forms. How could you use the Idea Friendly Method to support your local artists?

Have you seen the Use Art to Build Community video yet?   In this video, you’ll see how to expand how you think of the arts and apply the Idea Friendly Method to involve more people from across your community.