Community Arts in the Tenderloin: A Messenger, A Translator, A Microphone

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Over the years, YBCA’s civic engagement work has primarily focused  on the neighborhoods surrounding two San Francisco Unified School District schools, Bessie Carmichael Elementary School – Filipino Education Center in the Tenderloin and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Academic Middle School between the Portola and Bayview neighborhoods. 

As a result of the pandemic, we are working closely with neighborhood thought partners, a collective of community-centered organizations to collaborate on creative community initiatives and pivot our resources to support our arts ecosystem in ongoing neighborhood work. Through this work, we are exploring the questions, “What does sustainability look like?” and “What does it mean to support artists and our communities?”

In April 2020 we partnered with Hospitality Houses’s Community Arts Program (CAP) to launch an open call for Tenderloin-based artists to produce artwork addressing the 2020 Census. Participating artists, many of whom are longtime CAP program participants, received art packs with materials and supplies. Their work is now featured in CAP’s Peace, Love, & Hand Sanitizer online newsletter and printed zine, distributed throughout Hospitality House’s programs including Hospitality House’s Shelter, Employment Resource Center, Tenderloin Self Help Center, and 6th St Self Help Center, all of which are currently open to the public during San Francisco’s Shelter in Place Public Health Order. Janet Williams, Community Arts Program Manager at Hospitality House sat down with participating artists to discuss their connection to the Tenderloin and how their art practices have shifted due to COVID-19. These CAP artists will be participating in Hospitality Houses’s upcoming benefit auction, where 100% of the sales proceeds will go directly to the artists.

Janet Williams: How has COVID-19 affected your day-to-day life?

Anna: When lockdown began I was perfectly happy being sequestered away from the world outside, tucked in safely at home. I had a feeling of relief knowing there was nowhere I had to be and nothing I had to do.  My life was like a big empty canvas waiting to be filled. I gave my creativity free rein, carte blanche, letting it respond to an invitation however and whenever it wanted. I was so full of ideas at first. My brain got busy setting goals and making plans.  The list grew long as my energy evaporated.

JW: How has COVID-19 affected your art-making?

A: The weeks passed by. Reality set in. I rarely left the couch. I found myself more and more watching other artists on YouTube, spending less and less time involved in my own art. I hadn’t lost hope or inspiration, but being alone was changing the way I heard my  internal monologue. it was becoming more elusive, hypnotic, like the channel changed from an idle chatter station to the spiritual frequency band.  All I know is that these are profound circumstances we find ourselves in as a global community. They are indeed so monumental that I am feeling very slow and quite subdued.

I’m looking forward to the day where we are together actively participating in building a new and better world.  For now I am lying low. I miss my mates at the studio and in the absence of their camaraderie I realize how much I appreciate and rely on their support and encouragement.

JW: What has supported you through these times?

A: Gratefully, I have stable housing, hot lunches and groceries delivered, and a reliable fixed income. I don’t have any family so all the alone time in lockdown sometimes stretches into loneliness, but not for too long. I get a phone call every week from a mental health provider who I also consider a friend. She listens, we talk. She always laughs because she thinks I’m funny. That makes me feel good.

I’ve been expecting something like this pandemic since the late ’70s. I’ve always had an innate sense that everything would be okay. Finally, the wait is over. Now we can get busy with the good stuff!  Healing the planet, saving ourselves from greed and destruction, opting for love over fear.

JW: What role do you see art taking in current social justice movements?

A: Art plays a critical role in the current social justice movements as it does in all movements demanding change.  What will be different about this movement—and one of its defining characteristics—is the size.  It’s huge. ginormous!  I expect art will take on a variety of different roles, and have an increased scope and visibility. The art will be larger and louder, messaging broader, more inclusive. It will be diverse.

You can’t have a revolution without art. The images, with or without words, travel to places words alone can’t go. Art can be a messenger, a translator, a secret message and a microphone, a rearview mirror, a looking glass, a passport, and an itinerary. Art’s an invitation, a diary, a way to play, and a rallying cry. it’s an alarm clock, a road map, a place to rest, or take a nap!

JW: What do you wish for your community and how do you believe your art can help to achieve it?

A: I wish that we see our diversity as a powerful resource that we can share and let it fill us with pride. That we find strength and comfort in our shared interests and common goals. Art is a personal journey each artist takes, a solitary trek into the unknown to search for knowledge and meet every self-imposed obstacle inside our darkest places, alone. We are all committed to the process of self-healing.  Over time a mutual respect for and understanding of the courage it takes to pursue this kind of learning and the difficulty of relying on yourself when left alone with the nasty internal critic develops. We grow. We learn. We heal.

I would like to volunteer to facilitate a collage workshop. This is an easy and effective way to learn to trust the process and build trust in working with your peers, plus you get a surprise when you’re done, a beautiful piece of art with a secret message inside. 

About the Auction

Hospitality House’s Auction Online is an exciting 5-day virtual art auction, with online bidding starting on Wednesday, July 15th at noon and closing on Sunday, July 19th at 9 PM. The online event will feature selected artworks from Hospitality House’s Community Arts Program (CAP) artists and acclaimed local artists. This year’s online fundraising event has an added feature: 100% of the proceeds of sales from CAP artists’ works will go to the artists – to provide additional support for struggling community artists during the COVID-19 crisis.

About the Community Arts Program

Since 1969, Hospitality House’s Community Arts Program (CAP) is the only free-of-charge fine arts studio and gallery space for artists and neighborhood residents whose socioeconomic struggles would otherwise prevent them from accessing the powerful artistic and cultural landscape of this community. Each year, more than 3,500 artists benefit from the free materials and space to create, house, exhibit and sell their artwork.

About Hospitality House

Founded in 1967 in response to the large influx of homeless LGBT youth in the Tenderloin, Hospitality House has a long history developing peer-based and culturally appropriate programs for the communities they serve. Their  programs create a positive impact, raising the quality of life for all residents and making our neighborhoods healthy and rich with diversity and culture.

Their mission is to build community strength by advocating for policies and rendering services which foster self-sufficiency and cultural enrichment. Hospitality House encourages self-help, mutual respect, and increased self-esteem. The goal of these efforts is to make the heart of San Francisco a better place for us all.