Art for Social Change Student Blogger Study USA

Are you an artist? Are trees art?

Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Zoe Quinn (she/her/hers) is HECUA’s student blogger for Art for Social Change Spring 2021. She is student at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, majoring in art. Read on for her next post!

“You are an artist.” When you speak this phrase out loud, how does it feel inside of you? It feels foreign to most people, even to some who regularly create artwork. In part, this is due to society’s limited definition of an artist. ‘Artist’ should not be an exclusive, lofty title that only includes individuals working in a traditional studio setting, or those who make their living through the art system. Everyone has the ability to tap into their creative and imaginative potential in their daily lives. Furthermore, discovering and claiming yourself as an artist can have a big impact on the process of adding humanity back into our lives and systems where it has been destroyed. As corny as this whole concept may sound, a part of repairing the wounds created by our capitalist and imperialist cultural history is personally connecting to the audacity and freedom that is allocated to artists. 

I have always had trouble naming myself an artist. I always felt that I wasn’t doing enough art or good enough art to deserve the title. In the last few years, however, I have been working to expand my definition of what art can be and my personal practice as a whole. As I have learned, to be an artist, you don’t need to have an exclusive medium, create art in an art setting, master figure drawing, or display your work. Furthermore, if art can be anything, then anyone can be an artist. It doesn’t matter how structured your role is, there is always room for art.

One of our guests in class, Mallory Rukhsana, studies the phenomenon of artists in government. She referenced Elizabeth Hamby, who claims the role of “naturally occurring artist in residence,” which is essentially using skills honed through art in a role that isn’t traditionally seen as an artistic one. It’s really empowering to know that it is possible to be an artist anywhere. There is nothing holding people back from building a pop-up meeting vehicle (Amanda Lovelee), replacing stop sign poles with sculpture (Marcus Young), or transforming a space into one that functions more artfully. After all, art is for the people. Art shouldn’t be separated into a discipline, or relegated to the white walls of a museum, it should be integrated into life and put into practice. 

Washington Ave bridge after our class visited the Weisman Art Museum.

Everyone has a different conception of what the work of an artist should be and what art has to offer. I believe that art has qualities that activate the human experience in all of us. This includes play, creativity, imagination, connection, and reflection, among other things. By discovering ourselves as “naturally occurring artists in residence,” it allows us to add humanity back into structures that ignore it. Part of the reason that I have found the Art for Social Change program to be so impactful is the ways that it has centered the processes of life through art making. It has artfully woven the aforementioned qualities of art into education. For instance, we practice movement art that allows us to connect mind and body. We also recently had the opportunity to meditate by the Mississippi River, which made space for healing, reflection, and connection to nature. Conversation and connection are also central. Education has been transformed artfully. It’s like the entire Art for Social Change Program is a socially engaged art piece. We can learn better if we are given space to follow our energy, freedom to imagine, and encouraged to collaborate and connect with others. 

Normally at this point in the semester I am feeling burnt out after spending a year in an educational system that does not fulfill me on a human level. I am deeply in love with learning, but there is usually too much structure and not enough space for joy, creativity, and imagination in the current system. I am happy to say that I have not reached this point in my current HECUA program. I feel that there is always space for self care and for working on the things that I am really passionate about, which is energizing and freeing. Connecting to creativity and imagination is both personally fulfilling and humanizing, and these things extend outwards to our communities. If everyone were to see themselves as an artist, the world would look very different. 

Art is work, and it is also a practice. It is a way of looking at and moving through the world. Art should not be rooted in capitalist production pressures, nor only valued only for its monetary worth. We are surrounded by built environments, both internally and externally that have unnecessary walls. By conceiving of oneself as an artist, so many barriers fall down. This is easier said than done, however. It can be extremely difficult when society tells us that art is an object that is disconnected from individuals and life. Just because art can be anything doesn’t mean that art is everything, however. I firmly believe that art’s differentiating quality is its ability to communicate meaning and feeling, which can take infinite forms. No matter what your conception of art is, it will always have the ability to touch us as human beings. I will sign off with a controversial question that ASC recently debated: is a tree art?

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