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This is the second article in the Artists Who Care series.

Milenko             Photo by Hannah Hess

The first and second parts of this article introduce Milenko and his current work, based on material found on his site and a number of online interviews. (Sources given at the end of the article.)
The third and fourth parts are an interview.

Sarah’s introduction to this series of articles

I believe that art is so much more than a commodity to hang on walls, and that the artist’s function in this society goes beyond making products to sell. Rather it is vital and transformative, and added to initiatives in other disciplines, can contribute to healing our broken society.  An increasing number of creative people are working as activists in bringing societal change through community building, consciousness raising, and other activities which directly and positively impact individuals and their communities.

I want to highlight some of them here because a lot of this activity is ‘below the radar’, ie not picked up by the media. And all these initiatives together form a surge that is growing, powerful and important.

So I’m happy to be able to devote several posts to the work of Milenko Matanovic. He has been gracious with his time and cooperation for this article and I feel what he has achieved is so worthwhile and important, I’d like to share it as widely as possible. So please feel free to tweet and Facebook copiously!!! There is enormous potential in us as artists and anyone working with creative processes to really make a positive difference. We just need alternative models, and they are out there for sure.

Milenko Matanovic    Building community through art

Recently completed 10 day project, a gathering place in Tuscaloosa, Alabama- built in part with debris from a tornado which did a lot of damage to the city last year. Photo by Hannah Hess

Showing walkway with tiles made by volunteers from the community. Photo by Hannah Hess

I first met Milenko Matanovic

during a conference at Findhorn Community where I was living at the time. He was an all-round artist: singing, performing, and lecturing on art as a transformative force in the society.

His book, Lightworks, Explorations in Art, Culture, and Creativity, was published in 1985, and is still highly relevant. It is a collection of interviews with creative people of stature from a number of different backgrounds, including Suzi Gablik, John Todd, Madeleine L ‘Engle, Matthew Fox, Ellen Burstyn, Philip Glass and others.
What this diverse group of philosophers, historians, educators, and artists has in common is the conviction that the arts are crucial to cultural change and can provide solutions to the many complex problems facing our world.

I came across Milenko’s work again recently on YouTube in a video where he was speaking about art as a mode of community building, and that led to this article.

Milenko began as a conceptual artist in his home in Slovenia (formerly a republic of Yugoslavia) as a member of the celebrated OHO group. Even as his success as an artist grew, he became increasingly disillusioned with the separation of modern art from everyday concerns.

Walking out of a museum one day where an installation of his work was featured, Milenko experienced a crucial tipping point. He was so struck with the dissonance between the interior of the museum and the world outside that he literally walked away from his career as an artist.

This launched a period of re-evaluation that took him out of the conventional art world for 15 years. At the end of that period, he emerged dedicated to exploring ways to practice his art that would positively impact the world.

In 1986, he started a non-profit organization called Pomegranate Center.

Milenko:

I founded Pomegranate Center to connect community participation with art, education, and the environment because I felt that separating them into exclusive compartments was no longer productive.

By integrating art into the fabric of the community, Pomegranate Center gets people involved in creating gathering places in their neighborhoods.

To get an idea of how Milenko’s projects work and what they look like, see the video mentioned above and the Pomegranate site.

The projects themselves are inspiring and worth devoting an entire article to. But I’ve chosen here to highlight another area of his work, without which none of those projects would have even got off the ground.

This area concerns the question that inevitably comes up in any project involving the creative process, ‘How do you balance the vision with the practical side?’ And more importantly, ‘How do you manage a diverse group in such a way that the strongest idealists and realists don’t get stuck in conflicts and end up sabotaging the whole project?’

Milenko calls this, ‘Managing tensions,’ and agrees that is usually the most challenging part of any project.

continued in Part 2

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Continued from part 1,
this is the second article in the Artists Who Care series

Milenko

Managing Tensions

So, the community has come up with an idea, and Milenko and his team are going to help them to realize it. In the first meeting, some people are excited about all the possibilities and the energy is high as the ideas fly around the room; there is also another group focusing on the practical considerations- the small budget, the planning restrictions, and the short time frame in which a lot has to be accomplished.

In a later phase, during the work on the project, the practical or ‘realist’ group will push to finish regardless of reaching the optimal solution; and the idealists will, ‘want to think forever before they decide to do anything’.

The tension that results from these conflicting approaches feels uncomfortable, and many people want to release it as soon as possible by choosing a quick solution.

Milenko says that the leadership in such situations needs to embody a kind of flexibility that supports both modalities.

Milenko:

‘As a student of creativity, I believe tension is a constant condition, we may temporarily resolve it, only to uncover a new tension.

It is always this dance between doing it fast and doing it thoughtfully; doing it with lots of people and still achieving excellence’.

He speaks about the tools they have developed over the years for dealing constructively with this dynamic.
First of all, the normal ground rules of meetings apply; ‘Listen, be respectful, and don’t hog the floor’.

Then, as a facilitator of the community’s vision, he goes further and asks people to consider these questions:

‘Are you willing to change your mind in view of new information someone else brings to the table?

Are you willing to turn your No into a Yes – if you don’t like something, are you willing to discipline yourself to come up with something better?’

When people are invited to participate under those conditions, the group dynamics improve, ‘they are capable of being considerate, creative, imaginative, and accomplishing great things in a short time’. The project moves forward.

Project in progress      photo by Hannah Hess

The operating working philosophy in all these projects is ‘tough on ideas, gentle on people’:

‘Focus on the essence of what we can do together and don’t sweat the details. Let’s trust that the details will emerge from this fertile ground of lots of people who already know what they’re doing.’

I feel that this inherent trust and respect for the participants from the community is communicated from day one, and contributes greatly to the success of the projects.

Milenko sums up the deeper mission of his work this way:

‘ What we’re doing is collectively creating conditions where we can come togetheracross our differences and where we can be our best.’

Perhaps this describes a common journey being made by people in diverse fields who are using their expertise to find positive solutions to social problems.

This is what art can do, and what Milenko and his friends at Pomegranate Center are accomplishing with their community building creative work.

Art heals. This is not just an idealistic, abstract concept. In many communities crime, drug abuse, and violence have replaced the safety of close knit small neighborhoods.

If you then can observe, from close by, the pride people begin to take in their neighborhoods after a project is finished, and how they change from just people living there to involved members of a strong community; then we’re seeing art working effectively as a powerful tool for positive social change.

Sources for this article:  Pomegranate Center site, Grist site article on Milenko ,  and The Seattle Times article on Pomegranate Center by Sonia Krishman.

Stay tuned, In a few days, I’ll be posting the personal interview I had with Milenko and a slide show of some of Pomegranate’s recent projects.

Hands-on and happy

July 22, 2012

I’ve had some time this summer to play with materials and do a small wall painting I’d been planning.

After painting all those flowers on harpsichords, I thought our home deserved a little bit of that decorative cheer. More on that further down.

First, though, here is a sheepy button I found at a textile fair: the little feet dangle free on tiny ropes.

Happy sheep button

Actually, I couldn’t resist making him wearable, so I made a brooch:

Needle-felted hill with embroidered heather, and a needle felted cloud on a wool felt blue sky

I like to think of someone smiling as they put this on and discover the flower on the back

Next I decided to tackle two ugly oil stains on a favorite pair of workpants. Ok they are work pants, but still.
I’d bought a scarf for 50 cents at a rummage sale and cut out some designs from it. I sewed them on, wrong side up, which made the colours more muted and matched the faded trousers better.

Cutting up the scarf

Patched

Happy black drawstrings

And finally, there was a small, neglected bit of wall just inside our back door, outside the bathroom (WC for our UK readers).  I’d been wanting to jazz it up for a long while.

Unjazzed

Voila, a piece of summer garden to welcome

Sweet pea detail

This was done with tempera on wall paint, which worked like watercolours.  I was ok with it when I stopped trying to get the deep rich colours of tempera on beautifully prepared sound board wood.

The work, by the way, was back-breaking, it took about 8 sittings, painting over parts several times where I didn’t like the curves.

I’ll choose a wall where I can stand and sit normally next time.

For photos of a mural I did years ago, on a slightly different scale, see below and click here .

Starting the waterfall for Jeroen’s Jungle

Accountable art

July 14, 2012

Making art was always my calling; but making art to sell never made sense to me as a life path.

From an early stage in my career as an artist, I knew things could be different. The givens for being an artist in this society felt out of synch with who I was inside and what I aspired to, yet there were no alternatives at the time.

For years I’ve been an advocate of transformative, healing art. Standing for these ideals in today’s hard sell art milieu, one is seen as a lesser artist, as someone unwilling or unable to do what’s needed to sell one’s art, or simply as a harmless crank, irrrelevant to the ‘important’ things at hand like promoting one’s work and getting more hits and followers.

Lily Yeh in front of a mosaic mural made with volunteers in one of her community art projects (pasted from this site )

But a change is a comin’, surely it is! I recently ordered a book by a long-time art heroine of mine, Lily Yeh. She founded the Village of Art and Humanities in Philadelphia.
The book I ordered, ‘Awakening Creativity, Dandelion School blossoms’,  is about a school for migrant children in China.  Over a period of several years she developed a creative program which transformed not only the physical environment of the school but the lives of the teachers, students and their families. What lifted my heart yesterday was reading the words of the foreword by Robert Shetterly. He confirms everything I’ve known deep in my heart about where art is and where it should be going.

Many people choose careers in art seduced by the notion that art is all about self-expression and that an artist’s success depends on becoming a cultural icon. An artist tries to discover a style or a niche that separates herself from other artists and promotes her career and commercial success. This is not necessarily a bad model for an artist, but it can lead to elitism, gimmickry, and an acceptance of art being primarily valued for its ability to generate money and fame- like so much in our culture. It’s a model that pits artist against artist in a heirarchy of value…

One word we never hear used to measure art’s value is accountability. What does it do for the welfare of the community?…did it promote ssocial, economic, and environmental justice and equality? …

Lily Yeh has rejected the model of artist vying with artist for gallery space and recognition. Instead she uses her talents to elicit art from distressed, depressed, and broken people in order to rebuild community. Her art is for communal self-esteem and hope, for affirmation of the spirit rather than for commodity…  Accountable art.

We’ll be talking more about community building art and accountable art in the next months here. I have a great new ‘Artists who care’ interview lined up. And I’ll be talking about new books and insights concerning art in service of social and transformative goals.