A Neighborhood Divided Will Not Stand: An Artfully United Neighborhood For All

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Bob Clyatt, “Greencastle Indiana,” July 2018, hydrocal and Carrar marble, 18 x 35 x 4 inches. Courtesy of the artist

In the renowned television program, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers blended cognitive behavioral psychology with social and emotional storytelling to create a unique and unexpected brand of children’s television. Rogers had a novel and inspiring message for his school-age viewers, which he posed in the form of a question each episode: “won’t you be my neighbor?” This simple question packs a great amount of symbolism that resonates strongly within the divisive world we live in. Fred Rogers truly understood that empathy, play and making meaningful connections with each other and our environment is a key component of healthy development.

Rogers believed that everyone is special because they are unique. He expressed this sentiment consistently through the artful narratives of his show, as well as in the community where he advocated for progressive, ‘whole child‘ education and funding for the arts.

Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.

The enduring understanding that I gleaned from watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood during my formative years was that life can be very difficult, and there are times when we feel frustrated, anxious, afraid and uncertain. However, we must retain our love for ourselves and others. When we truly value ourselves then we value others in the same regard. Self and collective value lead to empathetic responses that create a community of caring, compassion and collaboration, just like in Mr. Rogers’ fictional Land of Make-Believe.

The Land of Make-Believe is not unlike the real world. In fact, the diverse characters, their unique personalities and the issues they dealt with, are all realities within our own society. The Land of Make-Believe was ruled by King Friday XIII, a monarch who exhibited a wide range of emotions and often provided the foundation for Rogers to address complex social, cultural, economic and political issues. For example, in one episode, King Friday XIII was overcome with a severe case of xenophobia and built a wall to keep the neighborhood ‘safe’ from outsiders (note: this was in February of 1963, shortly after the Berlin Wall but decades prior to the current border walls and Nationalist rhetoric of contemporary political despots). The citizens of the Land of Make-Believe took on King Friday XIII’s irrational decree through heartfelt and symbolic gestures, epitomized by Lady Aberlin sending balloons with encouraging and empathic messages over the wall; which convinced the autocrat to tear down the wall. While King Friday XIII was frequently making rash decisions, he was surrounded by loved ones like his wife, Queen Sara Sunday, who represented rational thinking, balance and sympathy within the royal court. Ultimately, the kingdom flourished because each member of the society found common ground and supported one another.

Educators are aware of the fact that their classroom is a diverse environment, populated by students with varying degrees of prior educational knowledge and life experiences. Students come from unique social, emotional, cultural and economic backgrounds, which inform the ways they interact with the people and environment around them. This means that students will approach a singular issue with different perspectives. Some will align with the majority of the class or school, while other perspectives might not reflect the popular opinion. We see this outside of schools where adults are at great odds with one another over issues like global warming, healthcare, immigration, the types of media/information they consume and gun control.

Because of the wide range of social and cultural influences throughout our society, it should come as no surprise to an educator if a student responds to a prompt with an answer completely opposite to the values of the educator. It is important to validate each student’s response in an open and respectful manner. Debate is a healthy discourse to have in a classroom as long as it remains civil and students are challenged to provide facts that back up their statements rather than blunt opinions. Unsubstantiated facts and hateful remarks should never be tolerated. Students and educators need to find ways to communicate and collaborate when they may not completely agree. Teaching community building skills and learning to work across our differences, prepares today’s students to be social justice leaders of the future.

Art does a great job of validating an individual’s personal expression, while allowing us to see what others value. Art presents a humane picture of reality when it is difficult to find common ground around certain social, political, or spiritual issues. Contemporary sculptor, Bob Clyatt is a Humanist sculptor who believes in art’s ability to unify a diverse group of people. His ongoing project, Shared Spaces, promotes multicultural art-centered learning by making insightful connections to what makes communities unique. Clyatt has been traveling throughout the United States to implement this collaborative artwork that is equal parts physical sculpture and Social Sculpture (See: Everybody is an Artist). Shared Spaces invites the public to collaborate with the artist and each other throughout the creative process. Each project begins with the artist asking individuals from the community to choose objects and materials and press them into clay to create a mold. The community members can choose from an array of object the artist has collected (that resonates with them), or they can bring their own personal objects with them. The amalgamation of images overlaps the stars and stripes of the American Flag (which Clyatt sculpted prior to the collaborative process) and results in a communal expression of the community where the work of art was crafted.

The sculptures that have been created thus far illuminate a wide range of viewpoints and interests that are present within the community. During the creative process, Clyatt engages with his collaborators in a participatory dialogue and develops a greater understanding of the diversity of interests and opinions within different communities outside of his own. Upon reflection and assessment of the final works of art, the beauty of diversity is enlightening and profound. Through art making (and viewing and reflecting upon works of art) we can find creative solutions to bridging divides. Shared Spaces provides a safe space for interpersonal dialogue and personal symbolism to be shared in hopes of building a unifying narrative that while we have a varying degree of ideological and sociocultural differences, we can all be brought together and work alongside one another.

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