Sometimes you know something intuitively, but then it’s validated through research; for example, that getting enough sleep makes you feel physically and mentally better. There are countless studies on this topic, and I believe them. It also helps that this has proven true in my own life.
Hundreds of studies have proven the value of having the arts in a community, too — public art, art facilities, arts programming, classes and performances, arts organizations and inclusive access to the arts.
Research proves that students do better in STEM classes when they have access to the arts. People with dementia, PTSD, depression, ADHD and other mental issues find hope and healing through the arts.
Research showcases the power of the arts to heal conflict, help people overcome barriers, create inviting, safe community spaces and more.
Many of us instinctively know this and countless, legitimate studies highlight the power of the arts, but recently, it was proven again in my own life.
Earlier this month, we brought in Marcus Dunn, the individual winner of the Savannah College of Art and Design’s chalk festival, to be our visiting artist in residence for ChalkFest.
Part of his five-day residency involved creating large-scale pieces of public chalk art at various ChalkFest sponsor locations.
At the downtown Fargo Gate City Bank location one morning, Marcus was drawing, and I was watching an angry altercation across the street. A large man on a bike was yelling and swearing at a couple. He charged off on his bike, coming directly toward us. I braced myself for a potentially scary situation.
As he furiously biked past, he looked down at the three Native American chiefs sitting on horses that Marcus was drawing. He stopped his bike hard and said, “Are those Native Americans?”
Marcus said, “Yes. They are Plains Indians.”
The man said, “They were the first people here, man. That’s awesome!”
And he biked on.
Here’s the thing: I could feel his wall of anger coming at us like a white squall, but the minute he saw that art, it diffused. Instantly.
He biked off with a completely different energy. He was calm, and I wasn’t scared of him anymore.
Research has shown that when children see people who look like them in leadership or positions of acclaim, they begin to see themselves differently. I don’t believe that’s only true for children.
I watched a Native American man stop and see a piece of himself in those three chiefs drawn on the ground. I watched him stand a little taller, speak a little clearer and tell his story, too.
A group of people who seemed to be part of the marginalized, at-risk population of substance abusing citizens in our community stopped by. They had read about Marcus and his art. The idea of public art spoke to them, and they sought out the artist to see it for themselves.
Another woman approached another drawing, tentatively asking Marcus some questions. Because he graciously answered her, she felt safe to talk some more. She pointed out some details and then said, “You just keep doing this beautiful work!” She understood this piece of art belonged to everyone, including her. And off she went, walking with a little more purpose.
The day of ChalkFest, I observed countless new Americans cautiously walk into the Red River Zoo and take their free chalk. Then I watched them forget that they were “new” Americans as they found drawings that inspired them. As they began to draw their own images, I saw children and families from all over the world engage with each other, all around something as simple as chalk art. Everyone belonged.
I saw people — children and adults — in wheelchairs take a piece of chalk and make their own drawings on the upright chalking wall we provided for just such a purpose. It didn’t matter in that moment that they were physically or mentally disabled; their art made them just another attendee at ChalkFest.
I believe the studies that say the arts matter. I have made it my life’s work to ensure that our community keeps investing in and supporting the arts because I instinctively understand their power. But earlier this month, my instinct and all the research was proven true over and over again.
My hope is that we become the kind of community where this is not the exception but the norm. That we are the kind of community where everyone encounters the arts on a daily basis and is changed because of it.
This article is part of a content partnership with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and originally appeared in the Monday, August 29, 2016, issue of the paper.