by Francis Bonenfant ’05

“Art challenges us to see and question our surroundings, experiences and choices, but we need a more sustained conversation about the significance of art to all individuals, regardless of age, socio-economic status or cultural background.”

So contends Associate Professor of Art Sarah Lindley, and her faculty fellowship (sponsored by the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership) is expanding the arts, and conversations about social justice and the arts, throughout the community. One aspect of the fellowship is an experimental “city studio” space for service-learning projects for seniors in her Advanced Studio class.

The space consists of two art studios in the Parks Trades Center, located on the corner of Park Street and West Kalamazoo Avenue in downtown Kalamazoo. The experiment derives, in part, from an art practice called New Genre Public Art, which originated in twentieth century avant garde artistic movements that sought to allow art to escape from its traditional contexts – museums, exhibits – and bring it “to the streets.”

NGPA requires that artists have a knowledge of and investment in the communities in which they work.   Lindley hopes that, by transferring her students downtown and situating them outside of their normal daily lives, “they will begin to think about their role in the community.” The actual location of the studios, she explained, was ideal, being “on the boundary of various facets of the Kalamazoo community.”

She hopes her students’ “interaction with and awareness of the community that surrounds them,” will help them come to their own conclusions about the issues of social responsibility and social justice as they mature as artists.  They may be encouraged to work towards social justice or create art that addresses such issues. At the very least, the students should be “aware of the contexts in which their art is made,” Lindley explains, “taking into account their surroundings and audience.”

Towards this end, Professor Lindley has invited visiting artists to talk to her class on related topics.  As part of getting to know the studio environment and surrounding community, guest artist Paul Wittenbraker had students in the Advanced Studio course participate in a "Dérive." Dérives center around the physical act of “wandering” and combine experimentation and new behaviors with a conscious and political analysis of urban environments."  Lindley has also encouraged the participation of her students in Kalamazoo’s Art Hop events, held the first Friday of every month and encompassing much of the downtown Kalamazoo area.

Getting to class was an occasional inconvenience for some but more than offset by the benefits of working in a professional setting surrounded by a community of artists.  Senior Katina Bitsicas observed that the experience was a unique opportunity, particularly in regard to the chance to participate in Art Hops, where the students can “really feel a sense of community.”

Lindley’s project also involves the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Institute for Service-Learning, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. Many service-learning programs are integrated with academic courses, some are co-curricular, and all involve community partners. Hundreds of students engage in the programs each year.  The projects are partly designed and coordinated by Civic Engagement Scholars (CES), Kalamazoo College students who apply for competitive, endowed scholarships that support their service learning activities.

One service-learning program is Partners in Art. The program has two community partners: the Michigan Commission for the Blind (MCB), which provides training for the blind; and Ministry with Community (MwC), which provides food, daytime shelter and other basic services to Kalamazoo’s disadvantaged adults.

Traditionally, “K” students worked on site with these organizations.  This year, however, the Partners in Art sessions occur in Lindley’s civic studio space in the Park Trades Center, providing a neutral communal space outside of the confines of Kalamazoo College, MwC, and MCB.  

CES Kelsey Smith ’11 coordinates the Partners in Art work with MCB.  She likes the downtown studios as “community space” where all program participants work together.  The “K” students and those from MCB quickly formed bonds. “Everyone was talking, laughing, and making art,” she says. “Art serves as a unique path to forming relationships and encourages an exchange of learning.”

Other “K” senior participants agree.  Samantha Grobbel said she realized just how much “art can touch people.” Michelle Sabourin explained that the experience “forced all of us to question how an artist works and to think about broader
"The creative expression fostered and encouraged by students is cathartic and reinvigorating for those whose lives might otherwise be a gauntlet of poverty, depression, addictions, and desperation."

The appreciation of benefits is mutual. “We are thrilled to be reaching out even further in this newly created art venture,” noted Bruce Schultz, Assistant Director for the MCB Training Center. “The action of making art together as well as the art itself are both building ties and making statements.  Does it get any better?” Some of the art work created in the sessions is being displayed at the MCB training center for the general public to see.

Rob Oakleaf ’01, executive director of MwC, praises the partnership with “K” students as “truly meaningful.” He says MwC serves people’s basic physical needs, and the art projects nurture the spirit.  “The creative expression fostered and encouraged by students is cathartic and reinvigorating for those whose lives might otherwise be a gauntlet of poverty, depression, addictions, and desperation.”  Oakleaf added that it was important for “K” students to get engaged with Kalamazoo’s downtown, and that the arts community in the Park Trades Center “is the perfect place to do that.”

According to Kelsey Smith, Lindley’s project has developed “awareness” among the art students – what she describes as attentiveness to the possibilities of the purpose and use of art.  Such “awareness brings participation,” she adds, noting an increase in student participation in the Partners in Art program.  On her own initiative, Kelsey attended a Change Makers Workshop that awarded her community partner, MCB, a small grant to help support her work at the Park Trades Center.  Classmate Katina Bitsicas will continue her community art endeavors as well. She is planning to use her creative photography to initiate a community project addressing elderly suicide.

More projects are planned, and students will continue use the civic studio throughout the winter.  In the spring, Professor Lindley plans to teach a class, an “interdisciplinary think tank,” on how to structure collaborative art projects with community partners.  Her long-term hope is that her “experiment” will eventually become self-sustaining, stimulating student-initiated projects and eventually involving alumni.

The experiment is part of Kalamazoo College’s liberal arts tradition of combining coursework with outside-the-classroom experiences that promote civic responsibility and social justice.

Photo 1

Michelle Sabourin ’11 (left) and Samantha Grobbel ’11 discuss their work with an Art Hop patron.
Photo 2
An Art Hop patron views the work of Kalamazoo College students.

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