The Art of Engagement

by Ryan Filchak ~

Since 2008 Kremena Todorova, an English Professor at Transylvania University and her colleague, Art Professor Kurt Gohde have taught a class during the Spring Semester entitled Community Engagement through the Arts. Now affectionately referred to simply as CETA, this non-traditional course purposes itself to have students and teachers engage with the neighborhoods to the north and east of the Transylvania Campus. In the past CETA has taken shape in the form of street art, resident collections, scavenger hunts and a rope swing.  For seven years now the course has carried out it’s mission to “build and sustain” relationships within these previously disparate communities through these projects.

This year’s CETA course project, called the Build-A-Home Project, has students organizing the decoration of 500 birdhouses with school children from the community. The Build-A-Home Project first began this past fall when typewriters were placed in local businesses, schools and organizations within the community. These writing stations were set up to invite any and all who came across them to complete the prompt “Home is . . .”, with no additional guidelines.  After several weeks these narratives were collected and later referenced by Build-A-Home project participants decorating the birdhouses in order to include either a word, a phrase, or a section of text within their design. By the end of the project every bit of text originally collected from the neighborhoods – presumably referencing the same neighborhoods – would find itself repurposed and returned to the residents to enjoy and maintain.

birdhousebuilding
birdhousebuilding
birdhousebuilding2
birdhousebuilding2
BIRDHOUSES2
BIRDHOUSES2
birdhouses3rdSt
birdhouses3rdSt
Homeis
Homeis
LASCWORKSHOP
LASCWORKSHOP
School
School

With many moving parts, Build-A-Home relies on the cooperation of teachers, students and community leaders from Transylvania University, Sayre School, the STEAM Academy, William Wells Brown, Arlington Elementary and local businesses. Additionally, with each group interaction there occur small personal connections that quickly create a complicated and muddled path of engagement. However, in a effort to distill this large movement of community outreach one could also choose to describe the project more succinctly: Community Members Decorate Birdhouses. Either way you wish to break down what CETA has done this past year, these countless interactions provide a cyclonic motion of collaboration that accounts for the true substance of this artistic engagement.

The way in which Build-A-Home’s writing prompts and construction guidelines for the birdhouses (they must contain a hole and that’s it) provoke conversations within the community, imbibes these otherwise banal craft projects with a heavy weight of personal responsibility and accountability amongst all who participate. Todorova and Gohde understand this and it reflects in their mission statement for CETA.  They convey this distinction from an inclusive college course to their students, reminding them how their actions will not simply result in a letter grade, but in a larger reflection of themselves and the trust they have built over the years through projects like this one.

This trust stems from hosting free events off campus where students can return to the same project in a new setting, and community members can also pitch a hand in the decision making process. At one of the public Build-A-Home workshops – this one held at Third St. Café -former Transylvania student and current participant in CETA Garret Gabriel describes his involvement with the project. “The beauty of contributing to a project with such an ‘en masse’ scale like this one is the chance to work with a project that is aware of itself”, he says while burning a dark brown line into the wooden side of a birdhouse. Although this mark may not be the last one left on that particular birdhouse, his statement reinforces that how the birdhouses look essentially doesn’t matter. In addition to the hands workshops, CETA students must also research and understand the topics of community and gentrification that relate to their engagements and from this awareness more opportunities for creative development occur.

For example, STEAM Academy English Teacher Kelli Reno found that through her student’s contributions to Build-A-Home that one student in particular found the birdhouses a strong personal outlet for creative expression that she had not previously observed. At the same workshop Reno commented on how impressed she was by the quality of work shown by her 9th and 10th graders.  Like CETA students, Reno also had her students first discuss the topics surrounding the project by asking her students, “What makes a neighborhood?”, and “What do you identify as home?”. Interestingly, the STEAM academy, with students from all over the city working in strict freshman and sophomore pairs, represents a microcosm of the same broader diversity that the Build-A-Home strives to engage – the same oscillation between simple ideas and complex connectivity.

While attending the workshops one can often glimpse the increasingly iconic typewriter script, dots and circles that have now come to symbolize one’s involvement with another initiative by Kurt and Kremena, The Lexington Tattoo Project.  Photographs documenting those who chose to have themselves tattooed for the project currently hang at the Art Museum at The University of Kentucky. These permanent symbols of a former community building engagement experiment represent more than the poem by Bianca Spriggs from which they derive their source material, but also a marked commitment, both physical and conceptual to the ever developing projects CETA has put forth into the neighborhood consciousness.

However, the temporality and lucidity of the birdhouses creation and final ownership conflicts with the permanence of tattoos. Both the Lexington Tattoo Project and Build-A-Home choose to use the written word as a jump off point, making careful distinction to not repeat words previously used, and both through the art of engagement inject simple gestures with a profound connection to one’s community but the birdhouses reinforce a larger theme at work in Kurt and Krememna’s work: selflessness.

On April 8th all 500 birdhouses decorated from each of the workshop and classroom sessions will be on display from 6 p.m. – 8 p.m. at the Living Arts and Science Center. Intended as a celebratory event, this singular moment of mass collection will provide the only point during the project where all points of engagement have the possibility to converge. For when the sun shines again, the birdhouses will be placed in spots across the community in trees and on fences, “each a gift to a good home” where finders are encouraged to take them, and continue this familiar, vast, growing narrative of home.