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Art to heal and connect

Dec 1, 2016
by Bobbie Stewart, Photo by Zach Thomas, ‘00

Associate Professor of Art Leslie Robison is the catalyst behind the college’s Artists-in-Residence course, where 11 students last spring practiced art as a form of community engagement with St. Augustine’s Council on Aging and St. Francis House, a local homeless shelter.

Q: Tell me more about the Artist-in-Residence course and the impetus behind doing it.
A:  This spring was my first time teaching it. For several years I have offered a course called Socially-Engaged Art that is about community art practice. In Spring 2015, I assigned students in this class to act as artists-in-residence for different academic departments on campus, and it was during that experiment that it occurred to me that the students were capable of being in residence outside of campus. In that class, we worked as a group in the community. I developed the Artists-in-Residence class (this past spring) so that instead of having one group experience, students could have rewarding individual experiences and interact with or influence a variety of people.
Q: People tend to think of art as something static, hanging on a wall at a gallery. But this course is not about that at all. What can you say about art as a form of community engagement?
A: Art is essentially about relationships and communication. When someone looks at a painting, for example, they are seeing how the artist saw something, and they gain an appreciation for the artist’s point of view. When the artist invites members of the community to make something with them, they are more directly communicating their point of view and allowing the viewer to respond in real time. Meaning is not one-sided,
but is made in unison.
Q: You said that one of the reasons you wanted to work with the Council
on Aging and St. Francis House is because those populations are “largely marginalized or ignored by society.” What is it about art that can serve as an effective tool for healing and connecting people — instead of using more conventional methods?
A: There are a few different things at play here: one is that art doesn’t have to follow a protocol — for example, my student artists did not have to follow the same rules and procedures that the staff members at these places do. So artists are going to come to different conclusions or try different approaches to an issue than someone else who is involved in the community. Another is that art is seen as a completely different thing in our culture.  When we know we will be experiencing art, we prepare ourselves for a meaningful and aesthetic encounter that is outside of our normal experiences. So if a group of people or a way of doing things becomes the focus of “art,” we look at them/it in a new way.
Q: What are some of the most important lessons Flagler students are coming away
with after learning about community-integrative art practices?
A: As artists, I think they learn to think about their audience. They have to ask who, outside of themselves, are they talking to? They also learn that once they’re in the community, their decisions have repercussions, so they have to be thoughtful in their approach and be negotiators as well as creators. Because they are mostly young adults, this is also an opportunity to gain confidence in working with individuals and agencies. And as humans, I think it is important that they have a chance to encounter people who are different from themselves, broadening their worldview and gaining empathy for others.

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