The Oregon Arts Commission highlighted two innovative community development projects in Hood River County in a new report summarizing the Commission’s investments in arts and community development during 2012. For 17 years the Arts Build Communities grants have supported the arts in community development and engagement.
“The arts are a powerful tool for bringing people together and bridging differences, transforming the ways children learn, energizing communities and celebrating the things that matter to us,” said Christine D’Arcy, executive director of the Arts Commission.
“The Arts Build Communities grants we awarded in the Gorge were creative responses to particular community needs, targeting youth and cross-cultural understanding.”
With support from a National Endowment for the Arts award, in 2012, the Arts Commission granted $112,000 to 24 Arts Build Communities projects that directly benefited 25,000 people across Oregon.
Hood River Valley is dotted with orchards and farms that are important elements of the region’s fruit industry. For permanent residents, the orchards represent home and the legacy of the land. But many migrant families work in the orchards and leave in the off-season.
Odell’s Mid Valley Elementary School saw a disparity between permanent dwellers and migrant workers, and resolved to use art as a vehicle for dialogue and understanding to bring the two integral parts of Oregon’s fruit industry together
Their vision: Let migrant families work side by side with orchard owners and their families, to create works of art and share personal experiences that foster mutual respect and recognize their mutual contributions to the local food economy.
The school had no trouble engaging partners: The Hood River County School District, Migrant Summer School, Hood River County Commission on Children and Families and local orchards, fruit packing companies, and restaurants, to build a program of 45 after-school and four evening arts activities.
An ABC grant from the Oregon Arts Commission helped the group expand its reach, drawing 640 people, from a town of 2,255.
Working with artist Peggy Dills Kelter, the families learned a paper-cutting technique called papel picado, with roots in Mexican folk culture. The student-made paper cutouts were later taken to a local fabricator who reimaged the artwork on steel and integrated them into a mural for the school cafeteria.
Students interviewed family members about their orchard or packaging work, and bilingual students were recruited to translate the interviews. The children took field trips — to an orchard and packing plant. According to Dills Kelter, “We’d be in an orchard or on a packing line and kids would say ‘That’s my uncle’ or ’My dad does that.’ It became a point of pride.”
Several children observed the fabrication process that turned their paper cuttings into large metal panels, and many began to envision non-agricultural careers. One student said he could see his way out of poverty.
“Working in the orchard is hard work,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to go to school and get an education.”
Down the road in Hood River itself, 48 Hood River Middle School students were involved in a project to create functional garden art, with guidance from the Gorge Grown Food Network, and support from an Arts Build Communities grant.
The garden had been part of a seventh-grade sustainability curriculum, but budget cuts had eliminated a dedicated teaching position. Shelly Toon Hight of Columbia Gorge Arts in Education helped the school create an after-school program and applied for the Arts Build Communities grant.
“This program was about to be lost,” she said.
Instead, metal sculptor McRae Wyld taught students to weld garden sprinklers, and visual artist Toon Hight helped them make prayer flags using images from the garden. Duplicated as large-scale vinyl cutouts, the flags will soon adorn the Gorge Grown Food Network truck as it makes its delivery rounds.
The district was so impressed, it reinstated the teacher and the original seventh-grade program.
The Oregon Arts Commission created the Arts Build Communities program in 1996 to better connect the arts with issues important to Oregonians: downtown revitalization, small business development, community and folk traditions and projects engaging youth.
According to Brian Wagner, community development coordinator at the Arts Commission, the Gorge projects were exemplary in their focus and purpose.
“These projects succeeded because community members gave generously of their time, energy, money and expertise,” he said.
The Oregon Arts Commission provides leadership, funding and arts programs through its grants, special initiatives and services. Nine commissioners, appointed by the governor, determine arts needs and establish policies for public support of the arts.
The Arts Commission became part of the Oregon Business Development Department in 1993, in recognition of the expanding role the arts play in the broader social, economic and educational arenas of Oregon communities. In 2003, the Oregon legislature moved the operations of the Oregon Cultural Trust to the Arts Commission, streamlining operations and making use of the Commission’s expertise in grant making, arts and cultural information and community cultural development.
The Arts Commission is supported with general funds appropriated by the Oregon legislature and with federal funds from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as funds from the Oregon Cultural Trust.