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Communal Soul Food

The below thoughts are courtesy of Robin Wheeler of Wheel of Light Studio, the partner of James at Arkansawyer Photography.

What is a Gallery? According to Merriam Webster, among the many definitions pertaining to architecture, ships, hallways and caves, a gallery is most notably for us both “a room or building devoted to the exhibition of works of art, an institution or business exhibiting or dealing in works of art, collection, aggregation,” and “ the undiscriminating general public”. In all of my years as a student and an artist, in all of the galleries I have had the good fortune to visit, few of them have combined the undiscriminating general public with the art quite so thoroughly as the gallery maintained by the Perry County Council of the Arts.

As an artist, I have been inspired by the exhibitions and shows that are regularly hosted in the main gallery space as well as the fabulous variety of unique hand made goods shown in abundance throughout the rooms. I have also been immensely impressed by the skill and enthusiasm shown by the staff when managing to show multiple exhibitions simultaneously by using the main gallery space on the square in conjunction with the lovely space offered in Landis House. What a feast for the senses! My family and I make it a priority to include the PCCA Gallery in all of our gift shopping. No matter the holiday or occasion, we can always find something uniquely pleasing.

Growing up in communities scattered across Dauphin, Lancaster, Perry and Cumberland Counties I was exposed to a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds. As a mother I have done my best to expose my children to as many cultures and backgrounds as possible. The better we know and understand the people we share our communities with, the better able we are to share our homes in peace and prosperity. In all of these communities, I have found art to be the best communicator. From the beginning of recorded civilization, human beings have been driven to create and express. Cave walls painted with depictions of life, tribal tattoos and body art, stories told on the hides of teepees, beads sewn on belts to record history, the hieroglyphics of the ancients and the symbols stitched into Grandmother’s quilt are all ways in which we share our souls through our common human experience. We write poetry to express our deepest thoughts and share our joy and sorrow. We sing or play or listen to music to express our emotions, or to improve them. To listen to a well-loved song, or view a painting or photograph of something extraordinary can be all it takes to turn a rotten day into a glorious one. The human soul craves beauty which can transform the mundane into the extraordinary by giving it an outlet through which to express joy. That is what art is for, in any medium.

It is deeply disturbing, as an artist, a mother, and a citizen, to note how quickly the arts are dismissed. We see it regularly in local, state, and national governments. Whenever budgets are strained and there is a need to cut back, the arts are always at the top of the lists. They are seen as fluffy, frivolous activities meant to be pastimes and hobbies. They aren’t meant to be life sustaining as occupations. They aren’t subjects to be treated as seriously as reading, writing, and arithmetic. And yet, the arts are the only true common ground we all share as human beings. The arts express our collective soul. Whether it is reading novels, poetry, or historical writings, music in any genre, enjoyed by any means possible, art on the walls, art on your body, how you decorate your home, the clothes you wear, the flowers you grow, the food you eat, the items you collect and surround yourself with…are all a form of self-expression in some kind of art form. Too often art, and the galleries showing it, is seen as something lofty and unattainable, meant only for the wealthy and well educated. And yet, the term “starving artist” is so commonplace as to be almost laughable. The artists creating the work aren’t just starving for lack of sustenance through financial poverty. We are all starving artists, lacking sustenance for our souls.

Recently I had the opportunity to tour the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh, which serves up art and brings connectedness to a very diverse community. Constructed in the neighborhood with the highest crime rate, the guild educates and inspires the residents of nearby struggling inner-city neighborhoods with direct support from nationally recognized recording artists. During my visit I happened to meet Carmen Yulín Cruz, the current mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. She was researching how to set up arts facilities for her citizens in order to give them an outlet for hand craft. She said, “You can’t just give the people the means to survive. You have to give them something to lift up their spirits, something to feed their souls.” To paraphrase, you have to give them a reason to live. That is what art does for us. To bring art into a community still recovering from such devastating hurricanes is to bring hope and color into a world that desperately needs it.

In our own neighborhoods we see the need for color and hope. There are so many crises looming over us, casting their shadows, eroding our hope. Their pall hangs in the air over our towns and schools. What can we do to help alleviate this dark cloud? We can get involved. The PCCA Gallery gives many communities a way to connect their citizens with the arts, and more importantly, with each other. In addition to what is on display and for sale, they offer classes in a wide variety of mediums and skill levels, plan, promote, and host community events such as murals and drop in art, and so much more. Is there something you would love to be a part of, a craft you would like to learn? Do you know of a location where a mural could be painted or a community art project could make a positive change in a community? Whether you have answers, or more questions, or just a yearning to be involved in something more, something bigger than yourself, we need to hear from you.

I encourage you to get involved in some way. The staff at PCCA would love to hear from you. Their newsletter, website, and Facebook page always have a list of upcoming events, and they are always open to new ways to get the membership involved more deeply in the communities they serve. Drop them an email, or drop in to chat next time you find yourself on the square in Newport. Please go exploring, find some way to connect and get involved, and help us get to know each other, so that we can all learn to share our communities in peace and prosperity.

~ Robin Wheeler

Originally published in PCCA Arts Reach magazine, a publication of the Perry County Council of the Arts, based in Newport, Pennsylvania.