A brief but dramatic approach to bringing communities closer to art
Born and raised in Rochester, New York, Shawn Dunwoody is a local artist and activist. Early in his career, he found traditional success in galleries and academia, but now he’s focused on his own neighborhood, hoping to spark conversations through art and create tangible change within the community.
Tonight, Shawn shares his brief but dramatic take on connecting communities with art.
Shawn Dunwoody, artist and activist: Activism informs art, and art affects activism. They go together.
When you put this brush on the wall or on the canvas, or mold this clay, you create a kind of movement. You are looking for some kind of change. And I realize that art can actually be a fuel to trigger that change in a major way.
Growing up in Rochester, New York, I spent a lot of time alone, because mom has to work two jobs. And I started to devote a lot of time to drawing, coloring and comics. And I wanted to be a superhero and help shape the world. And I saw that there were ways to do that with art and bring people together.
I started exhibiting in galleries, universities, and colleges, and I was giving talks and talking about some of the issues that I face here, being a black man here in America. And I thought that was great. I’m like, oh, yeah, look at this. People pay attention to me and it’s going to be great. And I had the chance to hang my works.
But I had a moment when I was speaking to an audience, and the audience was nothing like me. And I said, do they really care what I’m talking about? And once I leave this room, will they actually try to create change in my neighborhood?
And I said, I need to be back in my neighborhood. I want to be what I wanted to see when I was 15. My partner and I, Suzanne Mayer, started Hinge Neighbours. And what it was really about was that there’s a highway that goes through the middle of our town. There are two totally different socio-economic groups on either side. So we wanted to be able to work together to amplify the voices of these people.
First, we created an art project, so they could really spruce up their neighborhood together. When I work on a community project or a political project, whatever it is, I want to inject some kind of creativity into it.
We all shake things up together, and we listen to music, while learning about the mission we have to accomplish in the neighborhood, while collecting the names of people who might not otherwise come out to see or do anything what if I said I want to know what you think of your community or neighborhood. No.
But if they see something that catches their attention, makes them think of themselves differently in the environment, makes them feel a little bit happy and connected and says, hey, I did this in my neighborhood, now they’ve actually physically engaged in a project, and, mentally, they are determined to move and shape this community.
So, that’s how I use art like that — it’s kind of a hook. I kind of hook them in there and say, hey, come on. It’s cool. Come in. Join me. You will like this. And what I’ve seen is that people are really going to talk to each other and engage in conversation.
And when we listen, when we try to understand, when we reach out and ask and give and ask and give, we will discover that there are amazing things that can be accomplished together when we connect.
My name is Shawn Dunwoody, and this is my brief but dramatic take on connecting communities with art.