ISM Community Day | Student Perspectives

April 22, 2015

Megan Mitchell (M.A.R. ‘15)


To search for the good and make it matter: this is the real challenge for the artist. Not simply to transform ideas or revelations into matter, but to make those revelations actually matter.

~Estella Conwill Majoza

At the ISM, we have the privilege of spending much of our time with beautiful materials, music, and words. Dwelling in the world of aesthetics, we run the risk, however, of being enabled to hide from the ugliness of pain in our streets and world, and the injustices faced by so many.

When confronted with the realities of suffering, we can feel a disjuncture between those experiences and the amount of time and resources we are funneling towards the arts. Right beyond our walls are issues calling for compassionate response. Exposure to need forces us to ask the question of what it is, in these eighth notes, paint strokes, and stanzas that truly matters.         

We are led to questions like: Can we be committed to high aesthetic standards while also being vitally concerned with the needs of our neighbors? Can these concerns coexist or must one always give way to the other? In what unique ways can artists serve a hurting world? Can they do this while still being dedicated to their craft? And is there a way that artists can be concerned to the point of sacrifice with issues of justice and communion, while also managing to be healthy themselves?          

These are the types of questions that prompted our desire to make Community Day a time for voices from various fields and media to come together to think critically about art’s role as a vehicle for transformation in this hurting world. We started the morning by proposing that art addresses the human need for hope. This does not imply that hope always has to be contained within the art itself. Some work is more prophetic or revelatory, but the very act of making art is a hopeful act, an enactment of the belief that there is, in the words of Abraham Heschel, “meaning beyond absurdity.”         

Art-making involves creative problem-solving and the generation of workable routes to achieving goals. If the art is collaborative, it requires learning how to communicate well with others, to voice your own opinions but also be willing to make sacrifices for the unity of the whole. To make site-specific art is to claim a space, take responsibility for it, and add value in the form of beauty. The process of creating art requires initiative, intentionality, and work. It calls for realism but also the ability to imagine, and thus transcend your present reality. This is metaphorically linked to other life building processes, and thus also a training ground.      

The task of the Community Artist is to make space for people to tap into the transformative resources already present in themselves and in their communities. We seek to ask beautiful questions, as Christ did, in hopes of empowering those around us to look deeply at their own journeys and feel the freedom to mold them creatively. Our own artwork can be a part of this, as can inviting others into the artistic processes that have impacted our lives.        

Heschel goes on to say, “remember that you must build your life as if it were a work of art.” Connecting the idea of life-making to that of art-making — allowing one to inform the other and vice versa— can be truly transformative.  Estella Conwill Majozo writes,“The soul is the seedbed of our actions. Everything that we conceptualize, create, or destroy has its beginnings there … the terrain of the soul … is the real territory that we should map. If not, then nothing else we are fighting for has any possibility of transformation.”

Artists and people of faith are deeply invested in this terrain, which is one reason why we believe the work we engage in, when done with integrity, does matter. We create as a symbol of our hope.

Stephanie Tubiolo (M.M. ‘16)

When Mindy Chu (M.M. ’15), Megan Mitchell (M.A.R. ’15), Jon Seals (M.A.R. ’15), and I first met to plan Community Day, we challenged each other to create a program of events that would be useful to our ISM community, our greater Divinity School community, and to the Yale community at large. We wanted to craft a day to which all of our ISM colleagues from all disciplines could, if they wanted, contribute, and we arrived at the theme of transformation – both of ourselves and of those around us –  through art. This theme allowed us to join the discussion of mental health on campus, of special relevance since a transformation from emotional unwellness to wellness is something so many Yale students struggle to achieve on a daily basis.

The first session of the day addressed just that: the process of struggling. Dr. M. Jan Holton, Associate Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at the Yale Divinity School, dared us to see our struggles as normal and potentially fruitful processes, and not as something we had to hide or resist. Even at an early morning hour, glassy-eyed attendees entered into a lively and productive conversation with Professor Holton, reflecting on emotionally profound experiences, and beginning to learn how to struggle well. ISM student Meredith Day then spoke to one of the most poignant forms of struggle: grief. In her anecdote about her experience ministering to families at the bedsides of dying children, she spoke not only of the spirituality of struggle but also of our abilities to help others who are grieving.

Presenters throughout the remainder of the day proved art as a powerful vehicle of transformation. Bethany Carlson (M.Div. ’16) graced the crowd with her brilliance as she compared lyric bursts of poetry with radiation-emitting pulsars and challenged us to find particularly potent words in a series of poems that we read aloud. Mindy Chu, Mark Biggins (M.M. ’15), and Yale School of Music violist Ryan Davis performed a set of two Brahms songs for mezzo-soprano, viola, and piano; while the texts painted a picture of longing and unrest, the music filled the room with calm and beauty.

After lunch, attendees returned to the Great Hall to find it had itself been completely transformed. The walls were covered with striking collages created by artist Ojore Lutalo during his 22 years spent in solitary confinement. As the lights went out, Kenyon Adams (M.A.R. ’15) began his inter-medial art work LEDGER, which uses a myriad of artistic expressions to perform an improvised meditation on racial injustice and violence in the US, including the killing of Michael Brown and his own experiences at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Stunned to the point of speechlessness, attendees then heard a panel discussion between visiting professor Ron Jenkins, Ojore Lutalo, and several other guests who spoke to the abhorrent conditions within U.S. prisons, and the potential of arts of all sorts to help prisoners survive an unspeakably painful existence. 

The next three presenters spoke of the power of art to transcend ethnic and cultural boundaries. Jamilah George discussed the importance of maintaining the authenticity of spirituals while singing them in communal settings, and Emilie Coakley (M.A.R. ’15) showed the potential of the arts to improve the spiritual and economic wellbeing of diverse communities, particularly in Uganda. Tyler Gathro (M.A.R. ’16) showed us his photographic work, which illuminates the spiritual struggle of Arab Christians as minorities in the Middle East. Attendees then split into two groups, one exploring Van Gogh with Jon Seals at the Yale University Art Gallery, and the other learning how to keep happiness in their artistic careers with Astrid Baumgardner, Coordinator of Career Strategies at the Yale School of Music.

Attendees were welcome to paint as they listened to the presentations, as part of the community art project led by Megan Mitchell.  Perhaps the most uplifting element of the day was this act of creating together in response to the expressions, talents, and insights of our peers and professors. I have never been prouder to be part of the ISM family!