Why Your Art Matters to the World
by Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
Ever forget why your art matters?
Sculptor Olena Ellis told me a story the other day that reminded me of the power and honor of being an artist.
It begins this way.
A monumental thing happened the day Ellis defended her BFA thesis at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
And it happened before a single professor’s toe crossed the threshold into that gallery.
The first piece viewers saw in Ellis’s show, “Do You Count?” was a six-foot interactive abacus with neolithic goddesses sculptures for beads.
Ellis made the work in an effort to humanize individual women battling against domestic violence and sexual exploitation in her community and the world.
“The exhibit was intense,” said Ellis.
“Especially because the show was being exhibited in a state that has some of the highest domestic violence rates in the country.”
What Happened Next
As Ellis was setting up for her thesis defense, understandably a bit nervous, a class of sixth graders came in to view the show.
The group’s teacher gathered the students around Ellis’s table of handheld goddesses (below.)
“The goddesses were not priced,” said Ellis.
“In the description near the table, I had challenged the gallery visitors to place a value on the lives of people who have experienced violence.”
Audience members could place money into the jar for a goddess, and the funds would be donated by Ellis to a specific, nearby, domestic violence shelter.
After the teacher explained this to the students a young boy spoke up and said that he and his Mom had stayed at that very shelter Ellis named in the description.
The boy beside him turned to him and quietly said, ‘I didn’t know that about you.’
Then one of the girls across the table from him said, ‘We love you.’
The girl next to her echoed her classmate’s words, ‘Yes, we love you.'”
The energy of care and acceptance that welled up in the gallery was palpable and there was not a dry adult eye in the room.
Why Our Art Matters
“The teacher thanked me for my exhibit,” Ellis said.
“Then she explained that they cannot talk about topics like this in the classroom but my show gave them the opportunity to discuss it.”
(Ellis, her community, and those pocket-sized goddesses ended up raising over $1700 for the shelter the boy had stayed at.)
The Honor of Being an Artist
“That day I got to feel what a profound honor it is to be an artist,” Ellis said. “My defense became minor compared to the moment I was able to witness with that circle of sixth graders.”
“As artists, we are given this platform to talk about subjects that others find difficult to voice, subjects that need more light shed on them,” Ellis said.
Ellis’s story reminded me of something I’d forgotten.
All creatives deal with this tension between longing for approval from outside authority figures and honoring the internal voice of our creative spirit; a creative spirit that insists on having its own, sometimes outrageous, true north (for good reason.)
But if we negotiate the bridge of that tension, and stay upright long enough to make the art that our spirit insists on producing, despite our fear of disapproval, we are often richly rewarded.
Rewarded with the knowledge we’ve given voice to those who are having a hard time speaking.
Rewarded that we may have made it easier for even one little person, to deal with what has happened to them.
That’s a whopper of a reason why our art matters.
(BTW, the professors approved Ellis’s thesis that day and she went on to graduate university Magna Cum Laude.)
A Question For The Road
Olena’s brave topic choice for her thesis show compelled me to ask myself:
If I bypassed my own fear of ridicule; if I followed my own heart without reservation, what would I create?
What would I be happy to hear a little boy or girl muster up the courage to voice when standing before my work?
What would you?
Want to read or listen to more about why it’s so important for artists to reign in our need for approval? Check out my post based on a strange morning at the beach: Letting Go of Approval: A Story for Artists.
Let Olena or myself know if you relate to her story in any way in the COMMENTS below. Olena Ellis was a recent artist in residence at the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts in Ojai, Ca.
Read about Beatrice can help your art life blossom in this Charmed Studio post.
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