Life Stories/Life Lessons, sponsored by an Art Meets Activism Grant from the Kentucky Foundation For Women, came into being in the spring of 2015, about halfway through a service year with AmeriCorps Senior Corps. Learn more about AmeriCorps here.
My AmeriCorps service site was a financially floundering nonprofit arts organization that recently lost its space, its staff and faculty, as well as its identity as a philanthropic arts academy. Despite the obvious challenges I was thrilled, however, because of my background as an artist and art educator. I was also trying hard to rebuilt my professional life as a teaching artist using my considerable creative talents and skill sets. And last but not least, I am a sucker for anyone or anything trying to reinvent themselves — just like me.
My first task was to help the arts academy get organized into a shabby storefront half the size — until the board learned the building was not up to code for their art academy purposes. So my second task was to help them move again into a space half again as small, a former dentist’s office which would become our cramped storage space, fronted by a tiny reception area that functioned as my office.
My third task was to organize that space. It took two sweaty, achy weeks.
My fourth was to improve the organization’s community reputation by introducing myself as the new Project Manager, and our new function as an arts academy without walls. One of my first contacts was with the local agency that serves the elderly – Redbanks Independent Living, consisting of three residences for the mostly elderly. A secondary contact was with the director of the juvenile justice program at the high school and their unique diversionary program for troubled teens. I soon learned that both institutions had been promised arts education services that were not fulfilled. So I volunteered to make good on those promises to bring arts programming to some of the most under-served by art audiences in the area.
The arts academy board also tasked me with grant writing to support new programming. One possibility was the Kentucky Foundation For Women.
In-between my teaching artist activities, which included volunteering at a homeless shelter in nearby Evansville, Indiana, when the quiet and cramped office became too claustrophobic, I would often work in area coffee shops. One early spring 2015 afternoon I spoke to a barista at length about my work with at-risk kids and elders, and she introduced me to a fascinating book entitled 30 Lessons in Living: Tried and True Advice From The Wisest Americans, by Dr. Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist. In it he summarizes his five-year quest to identify wise elders and glean from them answers to life’s most difficult yet rewarding challenges, in hopes of enlightening younger generations.
I bought the book, and was instantly intrigued by the idea of connecting elders with young people — but not as sages to inexperienced youngsters. I wanted to engage and connect two disparate age and experience groups, using art and writing activities as a vehicle to address life challenges, and in the hope that the process would help the girls and elder women discover connnectedness and commonality instead of difference.
I am also indebted to another helpful book: Guiding Autobiography Groups for Older Adults: Exploring the Fabric of Life by James Birren and Donna Deutchman.
My project seemed, and was, a perfect fit for financial support from a KFW Arts Meets Activism Grant which I wrote and received on behalf of the arts organization in the summer of 2015.
But, as usual and is typical of both my art and life in general, the project transformed as it spun out, and took on a life of its own. It also taught me as much as I hope it taught the participants.
I learned, as I was concurrently learning with the homeless, that engagement is difficult with vulnerable populations. Trust is difficult to build. There is also inherent risk in trusting their follow through. And life, of course, always interferes.
In the early spring of 2016, my personal life began falling apart. My body responded in kind. I had two MRIs, two surgeries and a nuclear stress test between April and May of 2016. I also separated from my husband and partner of seventeen years, during that time, in direct response to what I learned in Chapter 2 of 30 Lessons for Living: “Great Together: Lessons For A Happy Marriage”. It confirmed that I married a man very unlike myself, that he ceased to be my friend long ago, that he constantly kept score, was a poor communicator, and was never committed to me or us in the first place.
That sad awareness also propelled me into a close relationship with a man who was much more like me than I ever realized, and who helped me tremendously with Life Stories/Life Lessons because he was once an at-risk kid.
But just as I was finally able to begin wrapping up Life Stories/Life Lessons, in August 2016, he chose to end his life. And I am still mourning that, while rebuilding my own.
This project, therefore, took much longer to look at, let alone complete. So I thank the KFW as well as the LSLL participants for their patience and understanding as I navigate challenges and tragedies to finally get to a place where I can tell the whole story, put the project to rest, and hopefully use it to help others.
Hopscotch House, Prospect, Kentucky
January 27, 2017