Kirsten Wesselhoeft: Creating Community with Art.
Can art create community? Lilly Grant recipient and philosophy major Kirsten Wesselhoeft '06 thinks so. In fact, she believes people creating art together can be one of the most powerful ways to connect people.
"Last spring, I started an after-school program at Richmond Elementary School here in Salem with a fellow student where we involved kids in the process of designing a mural about their school," she explained. "The larger-than-life mural was a huge success. Even more important was the interpersonal connection the kids made with one another as they worked together on the art project."
Wesselhoeft, who has painted for most of her life and has taught art in a variety of venues, was intrigued by what she observed at Richmond. She designed a Lilly project to examine the spiritual value of art. Could creating art offer intangible spiritual values like connection and community that other forms of service like food and shelter could not? With the $3,000 Lilly Grant stipend, Wesselhoeft profiled six organizations that use art as a form of community service.
"I wanted to examine the nexus of community arts and community service. I wanted to see how artists and fine arts organizations are coming together with social workers and community service organizations to serve people. Some of the organizations I worked directly with; others I simply researched."
One of the things she found was that the delivery of service to people in need was greatly enhanced when the organizations involved their clients in arts projects. "The connection people make when they work together creating art is incredible. The act of creating is most effective when it's in community. When you're working on a creative project together, the interpersonal connection people make with one another is amazing. People not only connect with one another in making the art, they connect with the audience who sees the art. It's like ripples in a pond that creates this great sense of community."
One of the projects where Wesselhoeft found the powerful community building effect of creating art was in Englewood, Colo., where the Outdoor Arts Museum was charged with rehabilitating a run down neighborhood. "This program combines education, service and art with urban development. The museum moved into a bad part of town. Their contract with the city was to fill the space with art, with the idea that not only the presence of art, but also the presence of artists and students making art would have an impact. Other businesses came in, including a library and a dance studio. It sparked a sense of community and transformed the neighborhood into a place where people wanted to be."
Another project Wesselhoeft profiled was Willamette University's Willamette Academy, a mentoring program designed to help underserved youth prepare for college. Local professional photographer Jill Cannefax has the students take photographs of one another as a means of creating community and encouraging nonviolent communication. "You can't take a photograph of someone without really seeing that person, without seeing who they are. That connection, in turn, counteracts a lot of the violence these kids might do to one another."
Wesselhoeft, who has written a guidebook for service and arts organizations interested in using art as community service, came to the conclusion that art is one of the most effective ways to help people and to strengthen communities. "Interaction with other people informs our art in the most incredible way and makes our art more relevant. That interpersonal communication, whether through seeing art or creating art, is one of the most powerful experiences a person can have."
She says she was surprised by how her liberal arts education supported the work. "This project pulled together so many of my interests. I used things I'd learned in philosophy and sociology and ended up weaving together things that are important to me."
Perhaps the most valuable thing Wesselhoeft took away from her Lilly project was clarity about her own values and life direction. "This taught me that service is my vocation. Working with art and community service brings me great fulfillment. It's also something I'm good at. I learned that I can use my art to serve others. That's really important."