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Why Art? A Community That Plays Together Stays Together

Photographs by Sean Khamphouhang 

It’s been a little nearly two weeks since the Alexandria Museum of Art and its supporters took part in two important community events: Fall Art Walk and the 2014 Cenla Zombie Walk. I’m not sure about you, but I’m still recovering. I’m also still elated when I think about the two events. Something that has been happening here for a long time is finally starting to take hold of the community. The work that so many have done over the years is finally paying off and the community is getting excited about what we all are doing in the Downtown Cultural District of Alexandria. A community engaging in creative play is behind the gradual progress.

You may think that play is for children, but the truth is play is important for us all. We did lots of playing here at the museum during and leading up to Art Walk and Zombie Walk. For Art Walk, the museum staged Illuminate the Arts Luminary Procession. Community members of all ages came to make lantern creatures during Second Saturdays at the museum and adults participated in a workshop to create more complex luminaries. The people who participated were not all professional artists. They were members of our community from various backgrounds and levels of artistic experience. Several people who signed up for the workshop shared that they were a little anxious about making their luminary, saying things like, “I’m not very creative” or “I’m not an artist at all.” Those same people had a blast making their luminaries. The best comments were from those who surprised themselves by creating something they didn’t think they were capable of creating. The most magical thing an art teacher can witness is the moments when they see someone realize they are capable of creating something for the first time. It is sheer happiness for all involved.

We also worked with teens in The Muse group at the museum to create life-sized zombie puppets for Zombie Walk. A group of nine teens worked very hard for several weeks on their zombie creations, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t play involved. They came up with a theme for their group, which came to be known as The Morbid Morgans, the typical sitcom zombie family. They collaborated on characters and their relationships. There was the loser father, the high powered mom, trying to find herself, the overachieving son, the weird uncle, nosy neighbors, the sassy grandma, the depressed cousin and the Goth daughter and her sweet innocent friend, both of who remained human. Often during work sessions they would talk in character, blurring the line between work and play. It was obvious, from the laughter and camaraderie that this time, creating and problem solving, was something that both groups enjoyed.

When the night came for the events, there was excitement in the air. For the illuminated procession, lights were sparkling and people were smiling and laughing. Spectators gasped as the procession made its way down 3rd Street. Many were asking how they could be involved for the next one. Part of the excitement for both the luminary maker and the zombie creators is that they have ownership in these events.

The Cenla Zombie Association , the volunteer, non-profit group behind Cenla Zombie Walk has created a huge following of thousands per year, because zombie walks are not spectator events, they are participator events. People get creative and maybe even learn a few new skills and become the most important part of the event. They have ownership. The staff or STAPH at CZA does a phenomenal job of making that possible and keeping things safe and fun for those who, for one night, walk the streets dragging their feet, oozing and groaning like an extra from The Walking Dead. In addition to the two Art Walks that The Central Louisiana Arts Council provides they also sponsor and organize a variety of events that give the people of our community opportunities to participate in the arts. If you made it to Art Walk then you know that artists from the region were out and sharing their work with the public. They were very supportive of the idea of an illuminated procession and we are grateful to them for allowing us to be part of Art Walk.

Why is this community involvement important? Why do we love to get out and be a part of these events? I could go on and on about the studies that prove that play is important for all. After all the research is out there, but I will just share what I have noticed when people of any age get together for some lightly structured creative play, because that is what I consider our workshops and events to be. I have a policy when I’m teaching a workshop or facilitating an art activity. I lay out the main idea of the project. I share my experiences with the materials and usually demonstrate, but I remain open to letting people try new things with the materials or the theme. I don’t feel the need to force them to carry out my expectations of the project. Most of all, I do not judge; I support and guide. What results is an air of play and trust. When we make things together, when we laugh and play together we come to trust each other more. Also, people are more willing to take chances and learn something new about art making and themselves. They become better problem solvers. In this atmosphere, you all amaze me every time I work with you. You make really wonderful work and when you can walk that work, whether it’s bright and sparkly or dark and speckled with fake blood, down the streets of Downtown Alexandria, you know you are part of the solution. When we all join together and create something so beautiful together, bonds are forged. Growth happens; individuals grow and the community grows.

We will continue to stage Illuminate the Arts processions, as long as they are fun for everyone who participates. We will continue to stage monthly events for The Muse as long there are young adults anxious to gather and create. I’m sure the Arts Council and Cenla Zombie Association feels the same way about their events. We’re all going to work together in Alexandria’s Downtown Cultural Arts District to keep working with you to make things happen. So, embrace your creativity and take ownership in your community. We’re Downtown waiting for you. Come play!

 

Cindy Blair

Alexandria Museum of Art Educator

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