|The following story was written and reported by Denise Giago, Eyapaha Today
Editor. It appears in Eyapaha Today, a monthly publication of the Native Sun
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The artists are hoping the collaboration can give recognition and attention to both groups to further their respective and collective missions of education and inspiration. (L to R) Aaron (Amp) Pearcy & Derek (Focus) Smith (About This Life, Inc.), Animal Teef, and Mike (Calico) Patton of Lakota Art Studio.
The Open Air Classroom of Graffiti Art
By Denise Giago
Eyapaha Today Editor
An unpredicted blizzard blew through east/central South Dakota the day the mural project was to begin. With winds gusting up to 55 mph and temperatures in the low 30’s, four artists met up at the L&S Video Store building in Pine Ridge, South Dakota and began painting two large murals.
You may be thinking that temperatures in the low 30’s sound downright balmy after the sub zero weather we have been experiencing around the country of late. However, as anyone who has spent a winter on the Great Plains can attest to, when that cold wind gets to whipping across the land; it chills a body to the bone. Yet still the artists persevered. In fact, except for a brief break when the unanticipated blizzard created a sideways white out, the collective braved the icy South Dakota winds of January and managed to paint both walls in two days.
How do four artists plan to get together in the middle of winter in South Dakota to collaborate on an outdoor mural project? That craziness can be summed up in one word, commitment. The truth is mural projects such as this one can take months of preparation, planning and gathering of materials. This one in particular, it could be said, was almost a year in the making.
It was about a year ago that, while working side by side in Art Alley (a graffiti artist destination in Rapid City) the artists Amp (Aaron Pearcy) and Focus (Derek Smith) began to talk. Through graffiti art and like-mindedness a friendship was born. The result of that friendship was the formation of a non-profit organization called About This Life, Inc. Their mission: to spread hope, love and inspiration through art.
After their initial meeting, Amp and Focus begin working together on various mural projects in and around Rapid City but their idea to incorporate for a greater cause had not yet been conceived. Until one April evening in 2013; Amp and Focus were hanging out watching TV when they saw the tragic bombing of the Boston Marathon on the news. More kidding than anything, because it seemed impossible, Amp said “It would be cool to go paint a mural out there, to give something to that area.” Through a connection that was now living in Boston the two South Dakota based artists were able to make that very thing happen. The addition of friend, documentarian and ally Sara Johnson Levy, rounded out the crew and About This Life, Inc. was born.
The result was the non-profit’s first public art project, a memorial mural in Boston, just 100 feet from the finish line of the marathon. The artists say the damage was still visible at the time they were out there working. The entire project came together so organically the three knew it was the start of something meaningful. The fact that art has the power to heal by bringing positive energy to a place of pain and hurt is what the artists love most about mural making. “Graffiti art and mural painting is like an open air classroom because art has the power to inspire, invigorate, empower and educate,” explains Derek (Focus) Smith.
Art also has the power to ignite community by creating public gathering spaces. Consider the humble beginnings of Art Alley. From its controversial conception in 2006, Art Alley, an alley in downtown Rapid City between Main Street and Saint Joseph from 6th to 7th Street, has blossomed into what is now a local Rapid City hot spot.
There is a popular term being used all around the globe in circles concerned with city planning, urban development and economic and cultural growth, that term is Creative Placemaking. As defined by www.artscapediy.org, “Creative Placemaking is an evolving field of practice that intentionally leverages the power of the arts, culture and creativity to serve a community’s interest while driving a broader agenda for change, growth and transformation in a way that also builds character and quality of place.” Many reputable foundations such as Ford and The Knight Foundation, to name a few, have conducted extensive research into community development which laid the ground work for this concept to flourish.
For over three years the Knight Foundation conducted surveys, interviewing nearly 43,000 people in 26 communities and asked these three questions: What makes a community a desirable place to live? What draws people to stake their future in it? Are communities with more attached residents better off? The study found three main qualities that attached people to place: social offerings, openness, and the area’s aesthetics (physical beauty and green spaces).
The Knight Foundation website www.soulofthecommunity.org states: “This is not to say that jobs and housing aren’t important. Residents must be able to meet their basic needs in a community in order to stay. However, when it comes to forming an emotional connection with the community, there are other community factors which often are not considered when thinking about economic development.”
This raises the question of how to move forward within the realm of community and economic development on an Indian Reservation, which is a unique social, economic and political entity in the United States. Not to mention the logistics of community development in rurally based districts that spread out with often hundreds of miles between them.
It is also important to differentiate between a reservation district or village and other neighborhoods and communities in the United States when asking the question: what draws residents and what keeps residents; because despite historical oppression and the depression of living within extreme poverty, Natives on reservations still choose to stay and live there. Many can and do leave, but the factors keeping most people there are more profound than economy and aesthetics.
There is a deep rooted connection to the land as well as culture/language, people, family and a sense of place and history that many non-Native Americans cannot relate to. For many Natives, there is a love/ hate relationship with their reservation. But, for most, it is home. The overall sentiment is that these are our homelands and we are going to stay and fight for them; because we love our homeland, even if we wish it could be different. So how can it be different? Can the same types of community planning and development used in inner city neighborhoods apply to community development on a rural Indian reservation? Can we take what was once a prisoner of war camp and transform it into a place to flourish and grow?
The answer to this question is simply, yes. Why not? There are so many successful examples around the world which illustrate how making and experiencing art is an act of hope and renewal. In fact, some of the most successful examples have risen out of the most hopeless, crime-ridden, impoverished areas. Furthermore, exposure to and participation in art projects help give community members a voice to speak out and express themselves. Research has revealed that these types of grassroots projects also put people in touch with their heritage, helps them to redefine community identity and has a direct impact on community pride and solidarity.
Rapid City’s Art Alley was very controversial at its early stages of development, and then something curious began to happen. People were drawn there; other artists wanted to paint there; musicians began setting up and playing in the alley; which in turn drew more people and a gathering place began to take shape. Next, the Rapid City Art Council began taking great interest in Art Alley. Mural artists were hired to help educate and broaden the perspective of the general public’s understanding of graffiti art.
This leads us back to those four artists who came together in mid January to paint murals in Pine Ridge. Here we witness the beauty of the snow ball effect of community building through the arts. If you recall, Amp and Focus met in Art Alley as part of the Rapid City Arts Council’s efforts to use street artists to expand public art education. Tyler Read, Arts Education Co-Director at the Dahl (aka R.C.A.C.) was at the forefront of that movement.
Read and Focus met through a shared love of graffiti. Tyler Read also heads up the Black Book Sessions at the Dahl. Focus began participating in the BBS where he got reconnected with artist Calico (Mike Patton) of Lakota Art Studio in Pine Ridge who runs Black Book Sessions out there.
Focus and Calico knew each other from Red Cloud High School on the Pine Ridge Reservation. After they finished school, their lives went separate directions, until the Black Book sessions brought them back in contact. Through art a connection occurred that bore the seed of possibility and gave it space to sprout, grow and spread. Thus, the Pine Ridge Mural collaboration between About This Life, Inc. and Lakota Art Studio was conceptualized. Lakota Art Studio recruited the skills of BBS participant, artist and emcee, Animal Teef to complete the crew.
Mike Patton, owner of Lakota Art Studio, a screen printing studio and gallery in Pine Ridge, says he has been interested in doing a mural project such as this one on the rez for sometime but couldn’t get the funding for the supplies. By pulling resources with About This Life, Inc., the collective were able to have the product and artist power to pull off two large, full wall murals in two days. The artists’ are hoping the collaboration can give recognition and attention to both groups to further their respective and collective missions of education and inspiration. The community members’ responses to the murals have been overwhelmingly positive. The Open Air Classroom is now in session, let community development begin.
About This Life, Inc. are: Artists: Derek (Focus) Smith, Aaron (Amp) Pearcy, and documentarian Sara Johnson Levy. Their mission is to travel across the globe, using the arts to provide a source of hope and inspiration. Their first official community building event will be on Saturday, June 14, 2014 in Pine Ridge. The event will present art of all kinds; Music, spray painting, beadwork, poetry, and photography. Their hope is to showcase art as a positive outlet and to connect people to an unstoppable movement of hope. They are currently in post production on a documentary film about the Boston Marathon project.
For more information on the organization and to make donations please contact them on Face Book at: About This Life, Inc. or email: email@example.com.
Lakota Art Studio is: A full service screen printing shop and gallery. The Studio is an outlet store for original apparel and artworks, screen printing services, custom paint work, graphic design services, and other creative work. L.A.S. also provides workshops for local youth and hopes to do more artist collaborations on community mural projects in the near future. They are currently working toward getting set up in a building with a store front for both visibility and to have more open space to invite local artists to plan & develop projects. Their long term goal is to be able to offer a few jobs on the Pine Ridge Reservation and establish some kind of "outlet" or a 'go to' cafe for those who are creative and have a love for art of various mediums.
For more information about Lakota Art Studio’s products and services or to make donations please contact: www.lakotaartstudio.com or visit their Face Book page.
(Denise Giago can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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