Thursday, November 05, 2009

Taller Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

(Tyler Denmead reporting from Cambridge, England)

Well, I've been asked to reflect a bit on this Coming Up Taller Award, what it might mean, and to offer a bit of historical context.

To be honest, when I first heard this news, I was a bit sceptical of the whole thing. (Excuse the British spelling.) I thought about how dangerous awards are... How I've never been happy enough when others win awards because I wish I had won... How bad I feel when I win because I know others might feel the same...

Gore Vidal might have said something like, `When my friends win awards, something dies inside me.'

That pretty much sums up my high school experience.

Marcus Civin, one of the other founders, helped established this ambivalence toward awards as a part of New Urban Arts' culture. At the end of our first year in 1998, he gave all the artist mentors and participants an `angel award', which was a piece of copy paper stuffed in thrift shop frames. Each award had a quote from Deborah Meier about the importance of the imagination in our efforts to create a less punishingly cruel, and perhaps even slightly just, democracy.

Marcus didn't single anybody out with angel awards. He gave them to everybody, even if they only showed up one day. I think he was attempting to collectively recoginise that everybody at New Urban Arts, like angels, might be the lowest forms of being in the celestial hierarchy, but here we are... still creating a divine niche for ourselves. And, divine it is.

Then I thought this juggernaut of an award might be dangerous. Perhaps it might encourage some sort of self-congratulatory standing-stillness. In this way, New Urban Arts might become focused on preserving its past --- an award-winning glory-getting past.

This self-preservation might pull the place away from what it is and always has been --- a place with a thriving, unpredictable culture that allows young people and artists to come together and make of it what they want, ask their own questions, come up with their own creative responses, and build some lifelong relationships to each other and the place in the process. Without any sense of obligation to an awarded past, then artist mentors and students could still have the ongoing permission to carve out a vision that I never could have anticipated and still, to be honest, don't really understand.

This possible dynamic was a big reason why I left New Urban Arts when I did. I felt myself starting to embody some celebrated past and feared that this, or I, might interfere with this ongoing renewal. New Urban Arts has meant and continues to mean too much to me to ever let that happen.

Okay... so you get the idea. New Urban Arts was winning a big award, and I was panicking and over-analysing the whole thing in a selfish, pretentious kind of way. Typical...

But then this picture came out yesterday and really... I mean, come on, people! What do you expect me to do? Just sit here and not sob!!! You know me!!! I'm an emotional wreck when it comes to this stuff.

Have you seen this picture of the First Lady and Rosalia embracing, and Jason watching on, holding the award?

When I saw it, I just melted and my cynicisms and fears just began to feel, well, a bit sophomoric.

Rosalia, like all of us and none of us, has been through a lot. And, I know she has given endlessly to New Urban Arts and to the Obama Campaign. And to see her standing there, dressed up beautifully but still punked out in black... To see her smiling, but still slightly trying not to smile like she does... This was so unbelievably heart-warming and hope-insipring.

And, there is Jason, one of the first people to take a risk in becoming an artist mentor at New Urban Arts in its early days, who attempted to make something, anything, out of ether, a couple donated rubber bands, and a dedicated following of students... And now he has taken the risk of being its second Director. And there he is... capturing it all by not looking at the First Lady or the camera. There he is, standing back and looking at Rosalia!

I don't know... I guess that says it all. It is just a gift, isn't it? To be able to celebrate Rosalia and all the other young folks and artist mentors at New Urban Arts in this way. They are so unbelievably deserving of this moment. Like Jason, we can just stand back, watch and appreciate the fact that perhaps one of the only adequate ways to honour the spirit, dedication, and creative enquiry of New Urban Arts' students and artist mentors is at the White House with the country's first African-American First Lady.

Of course, it has been a long journey from some pretty dark days when trips to the White House were outside the realm of possibility... when giving up --- or locking up --- seemed like the only humane thing to do. And, the fact that the doors still open, attracting endlessly fascinating people to support and participate in creative enquiry New Urban Arts-style, is a wonderful testament to the City of Providence and those who have given so much to the place. I can't wait to thank you in person in a few weeks.


Blogger Jason said...

Hey Tyler, I don't understand you, you're writing in British!!!


Thank you for those beautiful remarks.

I LOVE the award ceremony that Marcus did. I too, am afraid that juggernaut awards like this can lead to complacency or stagnation, but from what I've seen of New Urban Arts' spirit, and healthy and playful sense of irreverence (I like to say that there are no scared cows here), I don't think this community will let that happen even if my leadership or external forces ever starts drifts us in that direction.

The people here will always be pushing at the seams and boundaries of what we are and what we do. It's what makes this place so amazing and, what makes me so happy to be part of, and that it is exactly that practice that we've been recognized for by OMFG, Michelle Obama! She is stunning, damn damn damn DAMN.

You'll also be happy to know that, in the final coming up taller booklet, I had them change all references to "NUA" to "New Urban Arts." I'm told them I was trying to protect our "branding." It was hard to write it with a straight face.


Abel and I once were looking at the pictures of you in the office area and he asked me what you were up to and I described your new pursuits in England. We both paused and looked at your picture for a few quiet moments and Abel, out of the blue, just says thoughtfully but matter of factly:

"That guy's changed A LOT of lives."

I couldn't say it better myself.

Congratulations Tyler. Thank you for bringing this crazy and beautiful place into the world. I can't wait to see you in PVD.

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