The Importance of Art and Community

This blog was originally posted on American’s for the Arts ARTSBlog and can be found here: https://blog.americansforthearts.org/2019/02/28/the-importance-of-art-and-community

The first time I came to an All Our Kids (AOK) Thursday night dinner at Kathy and David’s, I was greeted with a “welcome home.” This is the spirit of every Thursday night; however, the most powerful representation of the community at Kathy and David’s is the dinner table.

Young artists sit elbow to elbow with older folks in the DC world and beyond. Despite differences in class, age, race, and artistic experience, the table is where people convene in a shared love for art and community. It is a sacred space, one where people share the most challenging and joyful experiences of their day.

I found myself at the dinner table after my friend invited me to work on an AOK event. I had spent a couple of weeks working on an upcoming group performance show with their artist committee when I finally had the opportunity to attend Thursday night dinner. I can still recall the warmth that I felt when I first walked into the house. The evening was full of laughter and conversation. It was refreshing to put my phone away and focus on connecting with others. I left dinner feeling new.

For the next few months, I cleared my schedule and made sure to be at dinner every Thursday night. I found the sense of community I had been longing for ever since moving to DC. I became a part of a space where making art was not only accepted, but celebrated.

But there were times when I did not want to go to dinner. After my mother passed away in November, I contemplated whether being in such a social environment was the best decision. After one of my friends convinced me to go, I was reminded of the power of the dinner table.

At each dinner we go around the table and share what we are grateful for in our lives. This was the part of dinner I had been dreading. As folks began to share, I thought about what I would say given the week I had experienced. When it became my time to speak, I shared that I was thankful for having art in my life at such a difficult time. I spoke about how grieving was lessened by the art that I was making. My words were met with understanding, comfort, and empathy. The power of the AOK dinner table is that it reminds you that you aren’t alone.

Recently, Ava DuVernay guest-edited an issue of Time magazine on optimism. She chose to focus the issue on art and optimism. DuVernay writes, “Prioritizing hope whenever possible is a brave and bold thing to do.” When I first read this I immediately thought of Thursday night dinner. I thought of the experiences of pain and trauma like my own that have been shared at the table. I believe that these stories are deeper reflections of our world.

The experiences shared at the table are consistently addressed with radical kindness and love. After dinner, music tends to fill the house. Folks gather around the piano and sing together. Despite the struggles that we all bring to dinner, it is hope that rises to the surface. The work of AOK is brave.

In a time of political and social turmoil, it often feels like there are few places where people can connect with one another. I have always believed that art can do what policies alone cannot, which is evoke empathy and connect people on the most basic human level. The AOK dinner table is a representation of how art and community can mend us.

 

By Maureen Smith