Draw On: A Community-Based Project

Video by Nancy Volante in collaboration with the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum

For my practicum project at Goddard College I chose to collaborate with the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. I made a short documentary video for the museum on their community-engaged project called Draw On.  I worked in partnership with Carolina Pedraza, head of Youth and Family Events.

     I set up a meeting with Carolina and told her about the project I had to do for part of my MFA Interdisciplinary Arts Degree at Goddard College. We had a conversation about what I was interested in accomplishing, which was to make a documentary for an established artistic organization that had an ongoing community-based project already in place. I wanted to make a documentary video that would show the values, ideas, and essence of a community-engaged project. She replied that she had the perfect project and would be interested in having a short documentary to show schools, organizations, art galleries, colleges and community centers to engage groups to participant in the two week long event called Draw On. The project is six years old and invites different communities in the tri-state and New England area to sponsor and organize drawing events in community centers, schools, museums, hospitals and nursing homes.

    Carolina and I decided that I would work with six-communities and organizations that were participating with the museum on this project. There were events in Stamford and Bridgeport, CT (city). I went to events that took place in Ridgefield, CT, which were a middle school, Senior Citizen’s community and students from a local dance studio. Norwalk Community College (city) had an event, and I was at the Aldrich Museum’s celebratory event, which is held at the end of this two-week project. I went to each event and experienced how different each community’s creative process was. I interviewed and observed each community members as they participated in this community-based project within their own community. The differences that I experienced when interviewing and observing each group were economic status and ethnic backgrounds. This truly impacted me because within the differences of people doing a universal task or artistic expression (Drawing) there were shared commonalities such as: self-expression, stress relief, memories, emotional release and the use of the imagination and connection with self, peers and community members.

   Carolina and the Aldrich Museum gave me the opportunity to collaborate with them on their project as a student, community member and artist.  My vision for the work that I was and am, exploring, learning, and evolving in my MFA program is to transform my creative practice by adding new venues of creative expression and disciplines.  The foundation and majority of my work thus far has been theatre and dance.  I am learning, experimenting and integrating video work into my art practice.  I am interested in video as an artistic medium both because of its history and do to its potential as an art form that is political and social by nature. Video is also inexpensive and has an easy distribution capacity for expressing and communicating stories, messages, and images. 

     I wish to bring awareness to the fact that art and creativity are an everyday task blurring the lines between art and the everyday. The blurring of the lines between the everyday and art has the potential to embrace our commonalities giving people and their communities the opportunity to collaborate and accept each other as individuals within groups that have different backgrounds, lifestyles and self-expression in the everyday.

     These very basic ideas hold political and social content in human rights. Understanding the need for individual identity within a group identity is essential for those that may be oppressed.

     I picked the Aldrich Museum not knowing what to expect but I quickly became very interested when Carolina began talking about Draw On. I knew that the project would be a good stretch for me while challenging my vision for creating a community-based art practice out of the performance practice that I had already established for myself over the last fifteen years. Another reason I was excited to complete this video project for my practicum was that I would experience and learn an enormous amount about community work, such as videotaping people for a specific event and creating a video for a professional organization. I had to make a video that was professional, one that made sense and captured the ideas, values and essence of Carolina’s vision. I also had to fully communicate what the project was about and clearly pick out the specific clips and interviews that communicated to the public how drawing is a valid and important creative expression in bringing people together can be utilized as a tool for expressing individually. Using video for my practicum project was first and foremost a challenge and risk trek into the unknown. I gained and learned so much about the technical skills in creating a documentary. My biggest challenge artistically and intellectually was figuring out how to make meaning through the medium of video, which is so very different from theatre and dance.

     I wanted the opportunity to both collaborate and work alone on a project where I had to reflect the meaning of an established project as an outsider. I wished to not just communicate what the project actually was about, but also reflect, the participants’ values and their ideas about what drawing meant to them both personally and as a society. My goal in the editing process was to create a video that flowed, a video that made sense to my collaborators associated with the museum and the collaborators/community members involved with the project.

     My intention for doing this practicum was to transform my current art practice by reflecting on integrating theatre, video, writing and movement together. I was interested in transforming my art practice, which had been traditionally in theater and dance to a community-based art practice. My work now embraces the everyday issues relating to memories, conversations, creativity, stories, social and political concerns, human rights that are not limited but relate to a sense of place and identity. I specifically wanted to work with a big organization that had established a community-based project so that I could make a documentary video. In so doing, I learned the creative and technical process of making a documentary video. My practicum challenged and shifted my theatre and dance practice to a community-based interdisciplinary practice.

     The transformation that is developing in my art practice is not only a multi-media none, but a personal one. My studies and exploration at Goddard have been in the history and theory of video, critical race theory and progressive pedagogy. These studies have changed the way I communicate about the social and political issues that concern me. Using video has given me a new vehicle/tool to communicate these ideas that I am learning about.

     I believe my practicum is very much connected with my artist statement and is the beginning of my interdisciplinary art and teaching practice.

     My creative process was different for each event, in which I participated in and video taped. My participation included observing, listening, asking questions and always videotaping. Some people agreed to be interviewed and signed release forms others just wanted to be in the crowd or background. I was very mindful to respect everyone’s wishes and requests. The creative process was different for each event because each organization, school, gallery or community center came up with a different creative idea on how to creatively engage his or her community members in the project of drawing together. The option to create from a universal idea and activity is what made the whole event collaborative. Every one contributed their self-expression, creativity and thoughts about drawing. The unique component was interviewing the participants about how they felt about drawing, art, and creativity in relationship to community, collaboration, imagination and being in one place for a common reason.

     The collaborators were the Aldrich Museum, also known as the creators of the foundation for the project to emerge and grow, the community members, and finally the artist who videotaped and edited the moments that each organization shared within their individual experiences. Whether you were sixty or five years old, whether you were a professional artist or an everyday artist, simple just exploring drawing or a dancer drawing with the body in response to being inspired by the exhibits at the Aldrich Museum, their commonalities as a group became apparent. I am fascinated by and passionate about continuing my personal, creative and intellectual work in the area of human rights, conversation, place and story. I am deeply moved by the elements of being human that are different and the elements of being human that are the same for all people. I am clearly respectful of the differences that each of us experience as human beings.

     The Draw On video and three other of my videos are just the beginning in illustrating the commonalities, feelings, memories, and life experiences that merge peoples stories together in a unique and connected way. I continually question how everyday life enriches and pulls people to find their commonalities within their differences. This question continuously stimulates me to keep exploring allowing me to discover the possibilities that I have in working with a new artistic medium. I know we don’t all have to love each other but we do need to cultivate respect, acceptance, and courage in living with our differences. I believe that being aware of our commonalities may help us with an ongoing understanding of cultural, race, economic and gender differences.

     My practicum has reflected to me that I am an artist, teacher and individual who is very interested in finding that shared space that connects us through our differences. Sometimes it’s through destruction, like nine eleven, sometimes through construction, but for me conversation is the first place to start. Through the gift of memory and story many creative, intellectual, physical and spiritual spaces begin to open for us. From these three simple gestures of communication-- conversation, memory, and story-- we can find connection or disconnection. My hope and intention is to continue to find different community projects to work on and explore through collaboration, embracing the creative process that exists in the conversations developed in between spaces of everyday life.

     My practicum has pushed me to creatively express myself through video. By using video and making a documentary for my practicum, I have gain great insight into how well video works to communicate stories and human experiences that connect us with community, establishing our sense of place and identity.

     I now trust the process of working with video. I have learned to patiently observe and listen as a participating artist and not as a performer. The intensity in which I had to cultivate and navigate my listening, feeling and viewing has opened up the door for me to hear the similarities within the differences that people express through the universal task of drawing. Our similarities are subtle but empowering.

     I feel that by exploring and discovering these shared commonalities we embody our creativity as a society. This is the way to transform a society, this is the way to engage and communicate with one another. It’s a hard road, but this project has given me inspiration and faith that humanity is able to ultimately live with a sense of creative and expressive freedom, which I personally believe is the core of being human. Working as a community-based artist who engages in conversations gives me the opportunity to navigate emotions that seem diametrically opposed. Yet through my community-based art practice I can connect with others helping me gain a solid understanding of what embodies the connections and disconnections between people.

     As I started the process of shaping my practicum, my intention was to go to each event without judgment. I always told the participants why I was videotaping, the name of the organization that I was collaborating with, and my purpose, which was that I am in MFA graduate program and interested in working with community-based projects.  I would tell them my background, goals and vision, which are writing and making documentary videos.  I also shared my interest, which was to find the commonalities that we could share as a society.  I decided ahead of time on the questions that I would ask participants who chose to be interviewed in the two meetings that Carolina and I conducted. I certainly flushed after the first event. Carolina really wanted to show the diversity in this project such as economic environments, city communities, rural communities, young and old, artist and non-artist.  She wanted the short documentary to show how drawing affects people personally and socially.  Carolina and I spoke on an ongoing basis and talked about the different communities that I would be going to. I took our many conversations into consideration as I went to each event.   From there I would begin to ask the questions that I wrote down in response to the values, outcome, and conversation that I had with Carolina and community members.   The questions that I would ask participants: How has drawing informed our society? What does drawing and the creative process mean to you? How do drawing and the arts in general bring communities together?  Do you think the arts are important to our educational system? I also simplified my language when working with youth and senior citizens.

     The creative process was different for each site. Carolina gave participating organizations or schools the general overview of the project, which was to draw on different surfaces with many different materials in a community-based event. From there, the directors of the organizations, teachers, and galleries came up with a theme and materials to work with and from that point the creative process began.

    Reflecting on my packet work and practicum project as a whole, I have discovered that making documentary videos has informed my creative practice by expanding my creative expression, and thus my connection with people and the public. I had been a theatre/dance artist for over fifteen years and was finding that I was getting creatively lazy. The theatre was to familiar so I felt I needed to be pushed out of my comfort zone in order to expand myself both artistically and intellectually. I love the theatre but have found especially after doing my practicum project that working with video is very inspiring and challenging for me not only creatively but also intellectually. Editing is like writing only with live voice, movement, and images that are powerful and motivating.

     I wanted more interacting with the everyday and with people in general public not just my fellow artists. I feel that this practicum and working with video has truly given me the incentive to continue. I was burned out working with professional actors and dancers all the time. I love dancers and actors but I needed another venue so I could connect with different communities, people, issues, and expand my intellectually territory. Working in new media has been good for me because I enjoy being around people, collaborating with both artists and non-artists, but at the same time I enjoy working alone.

     When I was editing Draw On, I found that I liked finding the transitions, body and facial expressions, words and movements that connected this project to the universal task of drawing. I also liked looking for music when needed to enhance the emotional tone of the video.

      I have been working with video since I started at Goddard and have made the commitment to continue using this new medium of expression and art making for the remainder of my time at Goddard.

     My background in dance came in beautifully when deciding what dancers to use in the video. There were six dance pieces that were performed at the culmination event at the end of Draw On, at the Aldrich Museum.

     My fifteen years as a concert dancer and improvisational actor/theatre artist  has shifted, I am learning to integrate video into my creative practice and life experience. I am very excited and happy.  What I am not so interested in is created pieces of work to be marveled over. I want to create video that have the possibility to weave and heighten the awareness of crossing boundaries but at the same time respecting boundaries that involve all societal issues that include race, class, gender and oppression.  When do boundaries become scared space?  When do we cross the boundaries of race, class, gender, and oppression and when to we pull back and listen?

     I am still in the learning process. I see, feel and want my creative practice to center around conversation whether verbally, physically, or visually. I believe conversation has always been the foundation for my creative work and my teaching career.

     I am interested in generating creative conversations that have the possibility to engage and provoke conflicting/contradictory, inspiring/emotional, or challenging/embracing moments of dialogue, memory and story. I think that conversation has the potent ability to stimulate creative thinking, problem solving, telling and creating stories, which hopefully stimulates the imagination and initiates the process of learning collectively. Personally I am looking forward to continuing my exploration in making documentary videos and experimental video.

     My practicum has been enriching, challenging, and has given me an opportunity to use video not only personally but to use video as a way to give a tangible record of events that have the potential to trigger memory, awareness, and story back to the public, an artistic organization and the communities involved. 

Self- Evaluation Community-based project/Practicum:  Draw On.

      The goals for my practicum were to find an organization in the main stream that was connected with the arts and collaborate with them on an existing community-engaged project. My idea was to do a documentary video on an established community-engaged project. I met with The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum and they were exited about having their community project Draw On documented so they could show the project to different communities and possibly have the short documentary shown on Public TV for public relations to communicate what the project is about and how and what it looks like in action.

      Choosing a mainstream organization in order to learn how a community-based project was started and organized was very helpful in learning the many different aspects of what a video artist needs to do in preparing to collaborate with an organization.  For example: Building relationships in this case in a short time, setting the environment that I was videotaping in, looking over material and putting the story together, getting peoples permission to videotape. I listened and captured what my collaborators directed me to look for within project. I had to communicate the essence of the project with clarity.  In this case, the project had been going on for six years and had grown to include communities and organizations from NY, NJ, CT, MA and VT as I mentioned earlier.

    I didn’t know what to expect each time I went to a different Draw On. I had two meetings with Carolina and she told me the vision behind the project, the reasons for the project, and the outcomes over the years. We talked about possible questions that I wanted to ask in order to initiate a conversation about the activity of drawing and how drawing relates to community.

     The Draw On video shows the range of communities that participated in the project. It certainly was not all of the communities but the communities that Carolina and myself chose showed diversity in gender, age, and ethnic backgrounds. My hope was to find a commonality in the interviews and actual physical movement of drawing. I feel that I accomplished my goal of finding a commonality within the communities and personal differences that were expressed around the common activity of drawing. I am curious to discover how the use of ones creativity in a common space has the potential to blur the lines of everyday issues such as class, race, gender and socio-economic issues. I think that this type of approach might take longer then just one day. The commonalities I found with Draw On were in the expression of people’s opinions about drawing and what the act of drawing does for them in their lives. The questions that I had asked helped to blur the lines in order to talk about creativity in general. The blurring of the lines between ages and professions in this case were in the answers, which revealed the commonalities that I we could all relate to on some level: creativity, stress, imagination, connection, history, ritual and life. This was a simple project to blur the lines and a good one for me to learn, reflect, and grow as I would like to eventually get into more complex issues that occur in society that keep people oppressed and removed from the opportunities that are their birthright in this country. For example: Education.

     This documentary video gives viewers the opportunity to see and listen to what community members think about the creative process. It works to help investigate how members of a community feel about being together in the same space doing the same activity even though they don’t necessarily know each other.   I work to cultivate connections that can possibly develop into relationships with other people who might feel similarly about expressing themselves, such as, through drawing on different textual surfaces, in different ways and with different materials yet speaking of the same affect that drawing has personally and collectively. This stimulates the imagination and ability to enter the unknown in a very simple way that was non-threatening and evaluative.

      My personal evaluation in relationship to my goals was more then I had anticipated. I really didn’t know what to expect from the project. I didn’t know if I would get the material that I needed, and I certainly didn’t know the communities that I was entering. But when I left each community there was a connection that was made and an intimacy that was created. This was due to the questions that I asked. Questions about one’s creativity are private, sacred, and if the space of questioning is created with respect and awareness, the conversation has the profound ability to connect people in ways they don’t expect in a society that is oppressive, fear based, goal-oriented instead of process oriented. I believe that the ability to say, “ I can relate to that too, I feel the same way, and yes, I am creative.” Is slowly fading within our humanity. These are phrases that connect people. So documentaries, trends, objects, dances, language, food etc. that connect people simply to everyday living are powerful and empowering personally, communally, and maybe worldly. Without these expressions of community, we are alone.

     The challenge I faced when I was in the process of videotaping was the release forms. I have folded this very important process into my work mentally and physically by remembering to have releases with me at all times. I also started to get peoples emails, full names, and if possible phone numbers so I could send them links to view video projects that they have participated in. I think that when working on a documentary that is not staged, but guided through an external event, question, issue, and idea the door opens for many possibilities to emerge. Consequently the element of surprise becomes a real state of being. I like working in this way, which gives a refreshing voice to my work as an improvisational actor/ former concert dancer. There is an excitement and challenge in working in a different medium such as video and discovering how to connect the material together to create a story and experience for the audience as they view the video. I find that editing is similar and has the same elements of directing, choreographing and writing. The technical aspect of making a video was challenging and is a new tool that I feel comfortable working with.

     I believe personally that I have created a short documentary video that will evoke thoughts about creativity, how important the arts are in education and life, community, and to society, and life in general.  In fact, weeding through eight hours worth of material to find the material to create a five-minute video was challenging. There was so much more to say!

     Before I started this project, I studied the history of video and filmmaking. I also studied the techniques in making videos and the filming techniques of filmmaking, including editing. I was specifically interested in the history of video, and how video’s different styles impacted an audience. I believe that my research and study directly impacted the outcome of this project.  I also bought the rights to use the music Wings for Draw On.

Participants’ statements:

"Nancy Volante's video captures the scope and atmosphere of the various activities of the Draw On event beautifully. The range and variety of community involvement created by Draw On is truly too vast to take in as an individual--even if involved. After three years of participating with my dance students, it was only through the video that I finally saw the full panorama and recognized the true spirit of it."

-James Robey, Artistic Director of The Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance

“Working with Nancy Volante on the Draw On video was an amazingly easy process. She interacted effortlessly with the teachers and students, and became almost on invisible onlooker -- albeit with a video camera.

The Draw On event here at Scotts Ridge Middle School involved having nearly 700 students and staff members adorn paper pirate hats with art and wear them throughout the day. The event occurred not long after a heavy schedule of state exams, so the levity was particularly enjoyed. Everyone from our principal, to our custodians, to cafeteria workers and secretaries joined in on the creative fun.

Nancy not only captured the activity, she captured the spirit of the activity. She was wonderfully intuitive about what we were attempting to achieve. She has an artist's heart, and will be particularly effective in arts-centered film projects.”

-Barbara Jennings: 8th grade English teacher at Scotts Ridge Middle School