Arts

Local artists discuss how art can effect social change

Originally published in the September 2019 Arts Issue of Local Profile

In July, a joint meeting between Plano’s Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council didn’t end until 10:30 p.m. It lasted three hours. 

Around 34 people shared their opinion on Plano Tomorrow, a comprehensive plan for the city’s next phase. The plan has won a national award but has also inspired an outcry from members of the community. Opinions and speeches shot out both for and against, complete with some baseball metaphors to defend the city secretary’s actions regarding a petition and even a reference to The Twilight Zone to warn the council against a city that does not grow. 

Some argued that a small minority was stirring up trouble. Others demanded a respect for citizen input. Remarks also included phrases like “stop the bad-mouthing,” “throwing of stones,”  and other concerns about a community ripped apart by fighting. One speaker was booed as she left the podium. 

Even council members noticed the theme. 

After the crowd had to be quieted to let her speak, council member Lily Bao mentioned the importance of respect. Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Anthony Ricciardelli called out the mistrust on both sides.  

“We cannot become a city where people hate their neighbors,” he said. “And I’m seeing so much of that on both sides.”

These reactions were over a specific city development plan, but broader topics like immigration, gun control, even animal testing, can draw more fire. There comes a point where a speech in a government building may not help two opposing sides find a common ground. 

But there are people in Collin County who remove those arguments from the usual context of the council chamber and find a new way of looking at the issue. They present these topics in paint, or film video productions, or put on stage plays, giving new context to tough subjects and forging new connections. These people are artists, and they have a power to speak on social issues. 

Tammy Meinershagen, Frisco Association for the Arts executive director, describes the alternative as people stuck in their own “silos of thinking.” Art helps people think outside the box, she says, which helps draw connections. 

“It does force us to be more tolerant and inclusive and compassionate people,” Tammy explained. “That’s what art can do because it’s a tangible representation of diverse thought.”

That theme can be seen across the country. 

“Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection,” said Dana Shutz, a New York artist, in a statement defending one of her most controversial paintings, Open Casket. An abstract representation of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, the painting drew controversy because the artist wasn’t a person of color. It wasn’t her struggle, or her story to tell, critics said. 

“I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else,” Shutz told The New York Times. “[I will never know the fear that black parents may have] but neither are we all completely unknowable.”  

In a community facing present and future growth, conversation and controversy are part and parcel. But empathy for the other side can also be part of the package.

For some artists, that means informing the public. For others, it means projecting a feeling of love. Still others catch the eyes and attention of passers-by to make a statement. Here’s how four local artists are using art to inspire dialogue. 

Read more: City of Plano may strike parts of Plano Tomorrow Plan

Be informed

Part of Mara Richards Bim’s creative process involved taking a group of teenagers to the Texas-Mexico border in March.

The Plano resident was researching for an upcoming play about immigration. It would be the next in a series of “documentary-theater” plays presented by her Dallas-based Cry Havoc Theater Company. The concept of the play started as an overview of the immigration topic. It would explain both sides of the argument about national policy regarding illegal immigrants coming from Mexico across the U.S.-Mexico border, and aim simply to inform.  

This goal would be much like that of her previous play, “Babel,” which discussed the many perspectives of the gun control argument. For that production, the company talked to families who had lost children during the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. They also attended a National Rifle Association convention. The research process took the better part of a year. 

“I think that there’s something about live performance that brings people together,” Mara says. 

For two hours, attendees are disconnected from the outside world and focused on the same action on stage. It goes beyond entertainment and into engagement. Most audience members stay for the discussion time after the production. 

The goal is never to push one side or the other, but to start an educated conversation after listening to all perspectives. Mara herself felt her understanding grow and change  as she went through the research, and said her left-leaning views moved closer to the center. However, this most recent play, co-directed with Tim Johnson, eventually morphed from an overview on immigration in general into a look at the current situation at the Texas-Mexico border. 

The teenagers talked to migrants on both sides of the line, ICE agents, national scholars, the former head of ICE under the Obama administration and immigrants who are now U.S. citizens. Every interview was recorded and transcribed. Around 200 hours of interviews were shortened to a two-hour show. They didn’t rewrite anything, so the audience heard the true words of the ICE agents, the immigrants who have since become U.S. citizens and members of the Bush Institute. 

This particular production, however, did take a certain tone. 

“Some of the things we saw were so heinous that we have, for the first time, come out saying something needs to change,” Mara explains. 

The play focuses on the policies that led to the situation Mara and the teenagers she accompanied to the border saw firsthand in March. She doesn’t describe much, but she mentions crying nuns, ICE agents who call the situation “unsustainable” and a system that is “broken.” 

“There are thousands and thousands of children that the U.S. government is now tasked with caring for,” she says. “They were separated under dubious circumstances and they have been irreparably harmed. We need to figure out how to get them back together with their families.” 

Mara hopes that those who see the play leave wanting to engage in resolving the matter by reaching out to an elected official or donating to an aid cause. 

People in the suburbs may not directly face the questions of immigration as much as in other areas, she added. 

“It’s still something we as a community need to be informed about.” 

Read more: “Crossing the Line”, a Cry Havoc Theater Company play set at the Texas-Mexican border, is more relevant now than ever

Broadening the Aperture

molly brewer
Molly Brewer | Photo by Cora Brewer

For Molly Brewer, McKinney Arts Commission chairwoman, getting the story right means getting all of the narrative. Molly is a certified Native American artist. The bright blue sea life mural with the very detailed shark at the Historic Texas Pool in Plano is her work. Her latest piece is a co-created short film titled “Black History of Mckinney.”

“We’re interviewing all the old timers,” she told friend and director King Hollis to get him on board. 

She attributes the “heart and vision” of the video to Beth Bentley, who first introduced the idea, and the public relations to Ana Gonzalez. The production was a team effort. 

Seven years before, she had produced a video about the history of McKinney, but she said she noticed that it didn’t have interviews from the African American community. They presented this most recent video, which focused on celebrating specific people, at a Black History Month event. Molly says that’s the “first chapter” of what she hopes to do. 

She plans to get a more accurate look at the local history by talking to the people who owned businesses or grew up during the eras of segregation and desegregation. She wants to provide more context and perspective to subjects that may have only been told from one side in the past. 

“When you capture stories, history, even the shoot itself, it impacts the community because they feel like they’re being heard,” Molly says. 

A large part of the interview process is asking members of McKinney’s African American community how they see themselves. She said the nature of video in art allows people to see themselves where they haven’t in the past, such as in art from other eras. It also helps connect communities. 

The family whose business was displaced in the ’50s might only tell their story among their tight community, but recording it in the video for many to watch can help build widespread understanding and empathy for their anger over their loss. 

“The stories that have been circulating within their own community can come out and bridge people from other communities that didn’t grow up hearing those stories or don’t know the context of history. ‘Why are we here today?’ ‘Why are there these agreements or disagreements?’ Hearing that oral history within the historic images or B-roll really connects people,” she says. 

Molly and her team are writing and gathering more content to get an accurate look at history in a follow-up video. They hope to have that by next February for Black History Month. 

Through the production, Molly and her team can provide a sense of place and connect people in a positive way. She says a video can create a personal connection. 

“If we can tell an honest story that opens someone’s heart, and if you can see someone’s pain and tears and joy, then it might just change the dialogue and ratchet down anger and misinformation,” she says. “It may help understanding of the context of where we are and why people feel distant from one another. Why there is caution.” 

Art provides a message in a nonaggressive way, she says. The viewer is not forced to think or feel any way, but to consider a perspective that’s being introduced. 

“There’s always a broadening of the aperture when it comes from someone else,” she says. “The audience spectrum is broadened from their own perspective, you hope.” 

Read more: Modern Muses exhibit to celebrate female artists this fall

Visualizing unity

Leticia Herrera came to the U.S. about 10 years ago with her son. She’d had a few art shows in Mexico but dropped the habit when she came to the U.S. After a close friend died, she had a realization: She needed to create while she had the chance. 

Her abstract canvases feature bright colors ranging from cool themes to warm, invigorating patterns. But she wanted to add more to her art—she wanted to give a message. That message would come with her first solo show in McKinney. 

“I would go to the TV and hear all this bad news, bad news, bad news. And I said ‘oh no,’ ” she recalls. “The more I hear, the more I want to paint something positive.”

That show presented a series of illustrations featuring women and girls with a positive message. She says she was surprised with how many people came to her and said they liked the message. 

She creates series of paintings that carry her messages with the hope of touching someone’s heart. They’re called “Series from the Heart.” 

“Because no matter how different we are from each other, the message always comes from the heart. From the inside,” she explains. 

That’s behind her latest series from the heart, entitled “Walkers.” Herrera wanted to show a path of people looking for a passion, faith or sense of kindness—a central point that everyone desires. 

“We all are walkers of life. Immigrants of life. We all are hunters of answers and we all are going to a destiny that unifies us,” she says, reading from a statement she’d written in Spanish about the series. 

Through her work, she says she, too, is searching for a human vulnerability. 

“My walkers are the ones that are looking for that sense. For that destiny. They are travelers of the world. But they’re always asking themselves who we are. ‘Where are we going? What are we looking for? What do we want? Who do we love?’ ” 

Blobs of paint transform into a poetic rendering of the human being. Some are in groups. Some are alone, walking on a background of light, calming shades. They come from every direction on the canvas, but they all lead to one specific point. It might be Earth or a heart representing love.

“People might say it’s naïve,” Herrera says. “I think it’s a very strong message when society is the opposite.”

For her, art doesn’t have to be controversial to inspire social change. Her art serves as a way to communicate her experiences and thoughts to society with the hope of touching someone else’s heart. It’s an individual connection that speaks to patrons on a different level. 

She has seen the results of that at the local shows she’s held in McKinney and Frisco. Visitors know her art, and they know her. Impacting someone through her art is one of the most accomplished feelings an artist could have, she says. 

“When I find people that see my art and have these strong feelings because my art made them feel those strong feelings of beauty and love and positivity and God…that, for me, is when I say ‘Okay. This is what it’s worth for me to be painting.’”

Read more: Local Profile honors Dynamic Women of Color

The art of the anomaly

greg metz
Greg Metz | Photo by R. Gabe Cavazos

When Greg Metz was first approached to do a statement piece about animal testing and vivisection, he declined. 

The political artist had just gained notoriety—and some death threats—after producing his Reagan’s Temple of Doom, a rolling sculpture featuring a meld between Ronald Reagan and a monkey-like creature surrounded by monsters. The work, made in 1984, featured signs that read “Republican platform” and “Ride at your own risk.” 

Greg suddenly knew what it meant to be a political artist. He describes finding this sense of being able to make a real difference and impact with his art. 

“Instead of just being part of the babble, you have presented a new way of encounter,” he says. “It was an empowering sense that your creative voice could affect the dialogue.” 

Greg didn’t want to get involved in the new topic. He then believed in the experimentation of animals for the sake of humans, he says, and had never looked into it. 

The friend offered to send some tapes of what that entailed. One day, Greg watched one of the tapes featuring a research laboratory. 

“I was in shock,” he says. “I said, ‘Okay. Yeah. This is an injustice.’”

The result was Dr. Caligari’s Arc, a big boat with sculpture representing experiments done on animals in the name of medicine. The arc was christened the “USS Vivisector,” and went to Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times described it as a “grotesque exaggeration of this nightmare menagerie.” 

The boat then went to Washington, D.C., Greg says he was working with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), then a little-known organization. Members handed out literature. Passers-by took photos. Some families whisked their children away or walked by blocking their vision with newspapers, he says. Other families took their children through each part of the boat.

“I called it an attractive nuisance,” Greg says. 

He remembers good conversations started by the piece, some very heated. He was interested in hearing what everyone thought. 

“It wasn’t for me to didactically explain what was going on as much as to just get people’s opinions and ideas and create conversation,” he says. “Controversial art can be a conversation starter. It can initiate dialogues that might otherwise not happen.”

But art doesn’t have to be controversial, he says. 

“It does have to be a curiosity and an anomaly. Like, ‘What is that? Where did that come from? What does that mean?’”

Since this inauguration into public art, Greg has worked to advance the presence of “plop art,” or public art. He’s worked with the City of Dallas on its revitalization master plan to have a percentage for the arts program. He played a role in developing the Trans.lation market that would engage inclusion and diversity in Vickery Meadow.

Working on projects like this engages the community in the art and what it stands for. 

“You’re engaged in a new thought process which is going out into the community, working with the community to understand what kind of work would benefit their interest and their cause and enliven their lives. And to upgrade the identity of their community,” Metz says. 

Art is playing a more active role than ever before, he says.

But there’s a need to balance engaging the community and calling it out. Sometimes the public doesn’t want to hear what may be considered truthful in its portrayal, he says, and what stands as truth to the community rests on who gets to tell the story. 

“Time usually decides that,” Metz says. 

When words fail

Many developed areas have a strong art scene. Each has its own flavor of expression that reflects the issues and cultures that defined its past and drive its present. A city full of many minds is accustomed to the myriad of ways residents choose to depict any topic. 

The Impressionists shocked the renowned Parisian art community by depicting hazy enchantments of the then-modern industrial ships and bridges that characterized a changing city. Some preferred to stick to the realist works of the past. Others embraced an appreciation of the times they lived in. Those artists were part of a continuing process of reflection on growth that has repeated itself every time a community grappled with change. 

In DFW, our controversies will come as everyone disagrees over how to handle a metroplex experiencing growing pains. But perhaps that controversy could be an impetus to turn our heads to a growing community of local artists who can speak to us when words fail. 

Audrey Henvey
Audrey Henvey is a former editorial intern at Local Profile and a current senior at the University of Texas at Arlington. She has worked at the UT Arlington newspaper, The Shorthorn as a College of Engineering and Student Government reporter and also written for Star Local Media.

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