Bad home, Drugs, and prison. A predictable story? Sure, except when you throw in the National Cathedral choir, a geodesic dome, and the stubborn belief that art can save the world.
This is the first episode of a new podcast produced by the Center for the Study of Art & Community called Change the Story, Change the World. My name is Bill Cleveland. In this first episode I share the very personal story of how this podcast came to be and try to answer why would anybody want to listen to it. It’s a journey of many decades. It begins in the leafy suburbs of our nation’s capital around the time that America started losing what some have called its innocence---Along the way we encounter hippie communes, the requisite drugs, sex and rock and roll, art colonies in prisons, and armies of artists doing battle with the likes of the Slobodan Milosevic, Pol Pot and the US Department of Justice. This week on Change the Story, Change the World, I share how my story crosses paths with the early history and extraordinary growth of the global community arts movement.
THRESHOLD QUESTIONS AND DELICIOUS QUOTES
?Can the creative process be a lifeline for people who are struggling?
"The pervasive, penetrating pulse of all that music was a god damn miracle, all at once a soothing balm, a shattering depth charge, and a transcendent window into other dimensions."
?Can art help us re-imagine and recreate the social and cultural fabric of our communities?
"One of the bedrock understandings of the hippie universe was, to coin a phrase “you can’t always get what you want, but if you really need it, well, you can make it yourself.” So, in no time at all, we found ourselves imagining that we could make our OWN music.”
?What was CETA and how did it give birth to an ever-expanding community arts movement?
"The prison partnerships we forged … were both groundbreaking and challenging. They taught is a whole lot in a hurry about what artists need to do to build trust with new communities and neighborhood organizations."
? How can art help change the toxic nature of America’s prisons?
"In those instants, we could see prison artists kind of tuning in, you know, moving from static to clear reception."
?How can these transformative stories feed the development of a growing community of creative change agents?
"By the end of the Art in Other Places Conference, we had a mountain of documentation on artists and programs from all over the country. We had made a commitment to NEA to produce … a report, but to really tell the story of what was going on we had to do more, much more."
?How can artists help re-build civic infrastructure, heal unspeakable trauma, and give new voice to the forgotten and disappeared?
"Art and Upheaval took me on an 8-year global journey, documenting artists working in communities facing intense, real-time conflict and trauma.”
?What is Change the Story / Change the World and why should anyone want to tune in?
"We are doing this because we believe that meeting the obvious and daunting challenges of this century is going to require a revolution of thought and deed — in essence, a new set of stories powerful enough to change beliefs and behaviors."
- The Hangin' On, William Cleveland from Songlines, by Cleveland Plainsong
- Washington's Howard Theater played host to many of the great Black musical artists of the early and mid-twentieth centur was billed as the "Theater of the People."
- Fritz Perls, a German-born psychoanalyst Perls coined the term 'Gestalt therapy' to identify the form of psychotherapy that he developed with his wife, Laura Perls, in the 1940s and 1950s. Perls became associated with the Esalen Institute in 1964, and he lived there until 1969.
- CETA and the Arts (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) Here is an analysis of the impact of the U.S. Federal Government's largest annual investment in the arts.
- The William James Association's Prison Arts Project contracts with visual, literary and performing artists to provide in-depth, long-term arts experiences for incarcerated men and women in California state prison facilities.
- Art In Other Places: Artists at Work in America's Community & Social Institutions, William Cleveland
- Art and Upheaval: Artists on the Worlds Frontlines, William Cleveland
(Music) THE HANGIN ON
“The Hangin On” is probably the saddest song I’ve ever written. But its more complicated than that, because, you see, the unfortunate story it represents also precipitated its creation. So, for me, it’s also a song of redemption, one of many that have emerged over the years that have both taught me, first-hand, about the healing power of human creativity and, to put it bluntly, probably saved my life.
From the Center for the Study of Art and Community this is Change the Story, Change the World, A Chronicle of Art and Transformation. I’m Bill Cleveland.
Bad home, Drugs, rock and roll, prison. A not uncommon and fairly predictable trajectory, but not really, especially when you throw in the National Cathedral choir, a geodesic dome, and the stubborn belief that art can save the world. You’ve tuned in to the first episode of Change the Story Change the World. In this first chapter we share a very personal and, no doubt highly biased account of how I came to believe that assertion with all my heart and soul.
It’s a journey of many decades. It begins in the leafy suburbs of our nation’s capital around the time that America started losing what some have called its innocence---Along the way we will encounter hippie communes, the requisite drugs, sex and rock and roll, art colonies in prisons, and armies of artists doing battle with = the likes of the Slobodan Milosevic, Pol Pot and the US Department of Justice. This Change the Story, Change the World, I share how my story crosses paths with the early history and extraordinary growth of the global community arts movement.
I’m a lucky man. Lucky and incredibly fortunate. To be sure I am a white guy who grew up in the suburbs with good public schools and a swimming pool down the street. All obvious markers of middle-class white privilege in post WW II America. But no, what proved to be the real impetus for what I now think of as a charmed life, came from a different, less obvious place. A place that has much more to do with survival than the silver spoon.
You see, the story unfolding in the Cleveland house was, like too many others I came to know, not what it seemed. My brother, sister and I grew up in a in a slow-moving nightmare born of my parents making what some folks call bad choices and I call just doing bad shit when they drank too much, particularly my dad.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my parents, and they taught me a lot, but, sometimes bad is just bad. The obvious antidote was, of course, to split as soon as possible. So, as we came of age, the three of us, ran in different directions. Predictably, the compass for my own escape, pointed, well--- due nowhere. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate, my one-way ticket was stamped Forgetsville which is just north of nowhere.
The fuel for this journey came from what I knew best from my time in our suburban fun house. Some call it dissipation, I call it oblivion. Oblivion in search of the numb or to be brutally honest just plain dumb. As dumb as imagining that my escape route was in the vanguard of an new social revolution, totally unaware of the ugly truth that my future had been hijacked by the only movie I had ever known – a script with the most obvious and predictable plot line in the book—Namely, if it hurts just do whatever it takes to make it go away, at least for now. And there’s no denying that us hippies were really into the NOW.
The general pattern of this version of freakdom was pretty simple—essentially, hanging out, getting wrecked and chowing down. Different days in different ways but inevitably ending up a little bit behind, where you started. Surprisingly, my headlong embrace of this flight-no fight treadmill also pointed me in the direction of what I have come to know of as the promised land. This was also the path that led to my lifelong obsession with the power of stories. This is because these episodes of stupor and gluttony also included heavy doses soul, blues, acid rock, metal, country, R&B, gospel, folk, and whatever else was being channeled through those old car radios, thrift store stereo’s --- blasting out and through in continuous waves of one exhilarating, liberating, sonic groove marvel after another.
I had always been beguiled by music. In fact, when I was in the third grade my mother took note of this and had me tryout for the National Cathedral Boys Choir. I’d like to say that getting in proved to be my immediate salvation but like many things in life, the benefits of boy choirdom showed up much later. At the time, though, I hated it. I hated the three-day-a week rehearsals, and two-hour Sunday services, I hated the purple vestments with the cute white collars. Most of all, I hated not having time to play baseball with my buds, which I did the minute my voice started to change.
Like I said, that music fever really hit me after I put high school and home in my rear-view mirror. It was about this time when my friends Alan, Arthur and I started making regular visits to the Howard Theater, D.C.’s version of the Apollo. I suppose you could say my latent condition was severely aggravated from repeated exposure to Otis, Marvin, Smoky, and the Marvelettes sweating and shakeing on that stage. Whatever it was, it was a passion of a different order. Why, then I don’t know, maybe it was the perfect medicine for the moment. But, as far as I was concerned the pervasive, penetrating pulse of all that music was a god damn miracle, all at once a soothing balm, a shattering depth charge and a transcendent window into other dimensions. A place to go, here and not here all at once, where I could bathe in the funk and flash of someone else’s story – It was amazing, not so much that it took me completely out of my stupor. That’s not how this story goes. but It certainly planted a seed.
Now if you are still with me you may be thinking hey this is supposed to be a show about the power of stories to change the way we think and act, which I am assuming you were thinking might be somewhat uplifting. So, at this point I want to reassure you that its coming—
After a crash and burn interlude at the University of Maryland and some unfortunate encounters with the criminal justice and the mental health systems my luck, most definitely fortified by birth privilege, (which gave me lots of do-overs) seemed to re-emerge north of Toronto Canada at a falling down farm that we called Buckhorn Center. Buckhorn was community of I guess what you’d call helping professionals and fellow travelers, like me, following in the path of freaky psychoanalyst named Fritz Perls. Dr. Perls, new age thing was referred to as Gestalt. Which means, you or we, are more than just the some of our parts. The basic aim was helping troubled people move from broken to whole.
This made sense to me because I was definitely in need of serious rebuilding. At first Buckhorn was a personal refuge, but eventually it became my family and a kind of celebratory healing place for lots of folks who came there. Back then, the neighboring farmers called it a gad damn hippie commune. I called it home.
Buckhorn was a community of helpers, makers, growers, and, most importantly builders. Early on, our first order of business was getting the place habitable, so we set to fixing and building – A rock wall, a garden, an outhouse for two, a big round dining room table for 16, a performance space, and a geodesic dome, painted orange, all in the short interlude between the melting snows of March and the first flakes of October, 1972. Needless to say, that first year, It was all hands, in the dirt and build, build, build -- no time for pondering, wallowing or bitching.
I loved it. This was just the place I needed for funky seeds of my re-entry to find the soil and water and air needed to sprout and flower and fruit, and surprise, surprise, seed again, and again, spreading roots, and shoots, grabbing hold of whatever would help me make some sense and meaning of my upside down world.
And that was pretty much the deal, for the 8 of us that stuck it out through the winter. The sense and substance that we all craved, was, of course, in all that making. Making and sharing. Taking the rocks and building a wall, together. Planting the seeds and growing the zucchini, and corn and tomatoes together. Harvesting the bounty and feasting, as a family together and, of course when the electricity was flowing cranking up the stereo and boogieing together.
Now, one of the bedrock understandings of the hippie universe was, to coin a phrase “you can’t always get what you want, but if you really need it, well, you can make it yourself.” So, in no time at all, we found ourselves imagining that we could make our OWN music.
For me this translated to long stretches with pen and paper, stealing, imagining procuring, discovering words and rhymes every time I found myself with an idle moment. Not that l all those songs of were worth a hill of beans. But, being lost in that world was an amazing deliverance from the underworld I was crawling out of. The coolest thing was that I was driving the magic bus, no, actually I owned that bus and no one could take it away.
The great part though was that I was NOT alone on this journey. Far from it, because, each evening Marty, and Arthur, and Didy and I would gather in that big orange dome, humming a tune, connecting the rhymes, and the stories, with the chords, harmonies, and beats rising up, and making that music together, our music, and our story coming alive in the songs, over and over, and over. Like I said, the community we were building was called Buckhorn, so was the band.
Like many good things, Buckhorn, the healing place and the band came and went. But the legacy, and the lessons, left a taste that would not fade. Like I said, for me it was akin to an addiction. I had come up there caught in a stupid, vicious circle, snake eating its tail, story. Getting my hands dirty, sharing responsibility, and the two-hole outhouse, becoming a maker, and a partner had smashed that narrative to smithereens. And, you know, as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t put that poor me, pity party back together. I was stuck with a new saga. And that was it. Change the Story, Change the World. – my world at least.
It’s the spring of 85. I am standing next to three pottery wheels in the corner of what used to be storage closet in the bowels of a place called the California Medical Facility. Although it sounds like a hospital CMF is actually a prison with a few bits and pieces of hospital thrown in for sick prisoners. My path here has been circuitous with one constant. Music, lots songs and bands birthed and forgotten, lots of late nights, crumby bars and free beer, but also odd jobs, like house painting, and newspaper delivery, cause, well, you know, you have to eat.
There was also a weird job with the city of Sacramento called CETA ARTS that was hiring artists to work in unlikely places like senior centers, parks, public housing, and well, the Sacramento County Jail. Amazingly, It was funded by the US Department of Labor. CETA, that’s C, E, T. A, or Comprehensive Employment and Training Act was actually a national jobs program. Hiring artists was not the intention, but lots of them were jobless and it did – to the tune of $300 million a year. Which was and still is America’s largest public investment in the arts.
It affected hundreds of thousands of people in and out of the arts. Here’s some of them talking about their experience in a 1970’s Department of Labor Documentary on the program.
The disembodied voice of the Federal government notwithstanding, the partnerships we forged in Sacramento were both groundbreaking and challenging. They taught is a whole lot in a hurry about what artists need to do to build trust with new communities and neighborhood organizations.
To be sure CETA was serious work. But we also kept it playful. At one point someone suggested we needed a CETA song. Here is what we came up with.
CETA, Oh my CETA, So completa', your so sweeta'
You done me good, you done me good
Anyways that strange gig, somehow landed me, so to speak, in prison., newly hired as the head of something called Arts in Corrections. The idea was pretty simple. Idle inmates, as the prisoners are called, mixed with overcrowding made for trouble. So, give them something to do. The art part the inspiration of a force of nature, named Eloise Smith who, given her extraordinary political savvy and influence, pretty much compelled the California Department of Corrections let her organization, The William James Association set up shop at CMF (California Medical Facility)
So, there I was with a team of 5 teaching artists who, at the time didn’t know a