During the holiday season and at the start of this New Year I've thought a lot about the role we, as artists play in our communities. As a member of the National Council on the Arts, the advisory Board to The National Endowment for the Arts, I was asked to talk about the role of the artist in the community for The NEA website. As artists, we often spend hours thinking and creating by ourselves, and yet the connection to and with others is very important in our work -- whether it be a reading, a performance, or an exhibit.
Last week the National Endowment for the Arts celebrated and honored a new group of 2011 Jazz Masters in New York . I was impressed at how this small group of acclaimed Jazz musicians is itself a community. They seem to somehow be interconnected, either by somewhere or sometime playing together or by a connection to another Jazz great. To me Jazz, like an orchestra, is a wonderful metaphor of community: different parts creating a whole, everyone in the group a collaborator.
When asked by the National Endowment for the Arts about community, I spoke from personal experience as I find that oftentimes what is the most personal is the most universal. I said that my painting takes me from a local to a national and an international level. As an artist I have contributed to each of these communities.
On an international level I have gone to Croatia to teach art classes at a camp for children with downs syndrome and related illnesses. I was astounded not only by how focused they were but also by what they created. We brought some of the paintings back to the United States, had a show of the artwork in a gallery and were able to send the money from the sales back to further support the program in Zagreb.
In Oslo, the U.S. Ambassador and I spearheaded a program for the Norwegian business community to encourage the model of businesses supporting the arts (he was former chairman of the Business Committee for the Arts founded by David Rockefeller). I have been very involved with the U.S. State Department's Arts in Embassies program and lectured about my work and American art to the cultural leaders in Paris, Madrid, Oslo and Prague, bringing together the American and foreign communities.
I have been painting watercolors for close to forty years and, on a national level, have helped raise money for many organizations ranging from the Gulf Oil Spill cleanup to a Fisherman's Memorial in Maine (where for the past several years I have been working on a body of paintings examining the life of the fishing community) to student scholarships for the Ringling College of Art and Design.
But perhaps one of the most moving experiences was when a print of my NASA commissioned painting 'Columbia Tribute' (commissioned by NASA after the Columbia disaster and currently on exhibit at The Kennedy Space Center) was presented to the community of astronaut's families assembled at the one year anniversary of the event at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.
On a local level, I have been a mentor, taught, tutored, sponsored and raised money for countless organizations through donations and auctions of my artwork. I am not alone in this, there are many artists out there who are likewise engaged in their communities, wherever they may be. Connecting works both ways. You get back when you give and that replenishes and adds back to creativity, creating a circle. Artists may work alone, but can never be far from their community.