What is your true desire for your life, and for your community? When was the last chance you had to think about this? The structures we operate within often muffle our dreams. Affirmative Art is a process in which people can express their deepest desires. This spring, a team of three artists (Eirik Trondsen, Marcus Christensen, and Claudia Paraschiv) went on a cross-country Affirmative Art tour in a van they call The Dream Machine, hosting workshops in communities to empower individual dreams, and collect them as a constellation of visions of purposeful lives.
People often make profound statements about their lives, and the larger society, when they do Affirmative Art. Though I have included some of their statements in this chronicle of the tour, their full stories are in their drawings.
In Madison, we didn’t have a set workshop time and place. We let our GPS navigate us to the center of town, located on a strip of land between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. Students comprise almost one fifth of the city’s population of 250,000. We arrived on a Monday afternoon in mid-May, in the middle of university graduation celebrations. The downtown was bursting at its seams with freshly minted graduates and their families.
Along the main pedestrian walk we met George, who is homeless. He took us inside his favorite coffee shop, Espresso Royale, where he showed us a participatory public art project in which strangers wrote letters in a common notebook. He showed us to the back bulletin board, introducing us to his town and his favorite café. It felt like the public realm was flowing inside the café, where those without a home seemed welcome. Several of George’s friends have been all over the United States, and they all said that Madison was the best place to be homeless because “people showed compassion.” George and a couple other artists drew Affirmative Art pieces with Eirik at the café until it closed that evening. Meanwhile Marcus and I caught up with the ongoing documentation.
Tour stop 11: Courageous heArts in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Three years ago Lindsay Walz created Courageous heArts, a free and safe space for Minneapolis youth to create and find belonging. The Youth Council – the organization’s guiding board comprised of local high school students – determines the center’s programs, projects, and policies. A couple of board members joined the Affirmative Art workshop.
Students of all ages participated in the decision of where to hold the workshop. We brought the tables outside because it was a beautiful day. We did not set up in the back parking lot, or along busy Cedar Avenue, but beneath a big tree on a side street, flanked by a mural on one side and the Dream Machine on the other. While in some workshops, participants’ dreams are influenced by their neighbor’s musings, at Courageous heArts each person strove for originality. The space was safe for all exploration. Later, as she drew her dream, Lindsay said she wanted to create more safe spaces for young people to express themselves.
Tour stop 12: JAM Art & Supplies in Sioux Falls, South Dakota
We didn’t have firm plans in Sioux Falls. We first stopped for some good enchiladas at Mama Lada’s, a friendly place where we met an Ethiopian woman who joked, “Eirik knows more about my country than I do!” Eirik has spent time living in a few different African countries. As they talked, she drew the Ethiopian flag on the Dream Machine representing the large Ethiopian Community in Sioux Falls.
When we walked into the local art supply store for more drawing paper, we found it to be part store, part gallery, and full social space. There we met local artists including Trish, who has her bright, dynamic work on exhibit in the attached gallery, after only beginning to paint two years ago. She served us lemon cake as we set up for a spontaneous workshop at JAM Art & Supplies. We spoke of making art as a coping mechanism, as a healthy “addiction.” Another artist, Sandra, who came in to browse and chat, joined us at the kid’s making table to draw dreams until the place closed. Then Sandra and Trish painted a Sioux Falls greeting on the Dream Machine: a magical buffalo in a pine forest.
Tour stop 13: Hope Center in Rapid City, South Dakota
The Hope Center, a Christian drop-in day space for the homeless, bases its work on relationships rather than programs. The Hope Center has few rules besides not showing up intoxicated. During the workshop we did there, Tanya Standing Soldier, one of the participants, selected the Hope Center as one of her three main sources of support. Leticia, who works there, said she was proud to have earned her degree. Like many of the participants, she is from the Lakota tribe.
I spent the day with Tanya and her husband, Donald Standing Soldier. Theirs is a great love story. Now married for seventeen years, they fell in love when Tanya was in high school and Donald was a gardener for her family, but they couldn’t marry until years later because her parents didn’t approve the match.
We learned deep listening: Marcus sat at the same table with a man named James for over an hour until James was comfortable enough to share. He drew a teepee on the Dream Machine, in the rain, as Marcus and Eirik held up plastic to protect him. Making teepees is his main craft.