Story and images by Carrie Beth Wallace
It was 9:30 in the morning on a Saturday when we gathered. July's Southern heat hadn't settled in for the day, but the air was heavy with suggestion of its impending arrival. We met early because our lives require it. We desired to beat the heat and accomplish our mission before other commitments plagued our schedules. Our cause for gathering required our collective focus, and we knew we had to simply gather and begin.
Focus requires dedication for those determined to make a difference. Creative individuals thrive when our brains contribute to more than one effort at a time. It simply is the way it is. As artists, each of us are constantly working on multiple projects and performing the incessant balancing act that accompanies our lifestyle. Concept gives birth to production, production to final product, and then? We begin again.
But this morning? This morning was different. Each of us, under the capable leadership of one, had determined to set aside our menagerie of individual enterprises in order to function as a whole. We met to dream. To deliberate. To bring the best we had to offer. We resolved to band together, bound by our motivation for progress, eyes set on a collective goal that would benefit all.
The goal? To support, promote, and protect the success of Heritage Arts Center - a historic building being renovated as a center for cultural advancement. A concept artists like us have found themselves in the middle of for centuries. But not here. And not until now.
We began with a roundtable discussion. Many individuals seated in a circle - a symbol itself of unity - each aware of our collective potential force when dedicated to the same cause. We proceeded, heads and hearts together, to initiate progress. To facilitate success for the future landmark in which we were seated. A building we, together, vowed to work to establish into a reflection of the cultural renaissance we are witnessing here and now.
Our facilitator, Austin Sargent, began with a series of questions: What does an artist culture look/feel like?
Why does Columbus need more artists?
How can people who are not artists support their artist friends?
What are the biggest challenges of being an independent artist?
How can we, as artists in Columbus, support each other?
Each person responded in turn with sentiments that were well-articulated, genuine, and thought-provoking. Things were shared that feel too sacred to repeat verbatim here. The tone, however, was unanimously positive, hopeful, relational. It became very clear, very quickly, that we, as a group, were for each other and for the success of the mission we'd gathered to support.
Karen Ouzts, Heritage's founder, addressed the group and we learned from the inside out that Heritage is a dream. After thanking everyone for gathering on Heritage's behalf, Ouzts explained that she's thrown everything she has into making Heritage into a space for artists to flourish. A community center for the arts where artists can create, produce, and sell their work in a cooperative environment where arts education sets the tone for the future. A future Ouzts hopes will be boast a creative heritage for everyone in our community.
When finished, Heritage will house individual studios and shared creative spaces. Security will be tight, but all will be welcome. State of the art technology will mesh with age-old tools for creative expression, and artists will have access to everything Heritage has to offer.
Inside its walls, Heritage will hold a dark room, a kiln, pottery wheels, and classrooms. The 3,000 square foot gallery space will boast moveable walls to allow for one large gallery show or multiple personalized "gallerias" to be displayed simultaneously. Outside, will be a landscaped space for events and gatherings to promote community engagement. But will our community engage?
There were over twenty-five artists in attendance, and each of us pledged our support to do everything we can to see Heritage succeed. There will be hurdles. Financial hurdles, yes. But also hurdles that tend to arise with growth and change in a community. Progress is scary and not without cost. Heritage will stretch comfort zones. Its communal nature will promote a new type of space sharing within the arts. Diversity will reign. Internationally renown artists will mingle with students. Mothers will teach art classes part time. Children will create art alongside of the elderly. Teens will find respite in the form of creative expression. Educators and performers will cut their teeth within the walls. In short, the traditional concept of a community arts center will be stretched.
Yes, the future of Heritage has the potential to impact and enrich the lives of community members from all backgrounds. But one question remains: Will our community, lean in?
The artists who gathered together on that first day will always remember the morning we met to support Heritage Arts Center. As one of our esteemed colleagues said, "This meeting is historical. It will be remembered as the first time artists of all disciplines came together to support an initiative that will further the arts for all people in Columbus, Georgia." Another artist commented that Heritage is a continuation of "the current Columbus movement to create our own artistic permaculture."
A local permaculture of art.
Think of what it could mean.
If our time together was indeed a reflection of the community at large, then yes, the community will embrace Heritage and support its success. It can happen, but it is going to take all of us. Every last one of us. Each doing what they can, when they can, how they can.
Artists and electricians and bankers and students and singles and mothers and grandparents and builders and educators and investors and chefs and gardeners...
It's going to take us all.
But when it happens, and when our children don't remember the Historic District without art at its center, let us remember one thing: It all began from the inside out. A gathering of creative individuals working together toward a common goal.
A building whose doors will welcome future generations living in a community with a vibrant culture permeated by art and arts education. A permaculture that comprises as much of our sense of place, as the river that flows through it.
And someday, we will gather again, heads and hearts together, smiles beaming with sincere gratitude for the knowledge that we contributed. That we were the ones working from the inside out. Not because we had to, but because we were the ones who showed up and gave a wholehearted "yes" the historical day our community's heritage changed forever. ◼︎
For more information on Heritage Art Center, what's left to be done before opening, and how you can get involved click here.