Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

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Saturday, January 25, 2014

It Takes a Garden

We are at all times both cause and effect. Our mirror neurons and evolved social rites mean that how we behave influences how others behave, and how they behave influences us. The permuting patterns of those interactions become the shape our societies take.
-- The Gardens of Democracy. Page 34
The Garden of Democracy by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer (Sasquatch Books, 2011) could be a manifesto for the Monticello Road project.

Liu and Hanauer argue that it is time to look at society and its three arenas (culture, economy and government) according to a new understanding of how the universe works: interconnected, approximative, reciprocal and in need of constant, humble tending. We more like a garden than a machine. The authors call for a new form of self-interest that based on the notion that we do well when we all do well. Furthermore, the path to change will be the sum of regular people doing small things: democracy, heritage, economic growth—it’s really just us and the sum of our everyday activities, as much how we live as what we do.

I have always been intrigued by the garden as a metaphor for all complex systems: our bodies, our neighborhoods, the nation or maybe even the universe itself. It’s a big reason I left New York and the more I read and experiment with my own garden the more convinced I am that it’s true. This is hardly new—the Bible told us so.

The thing that our parents and teachers might have misunderstood, though, and we’re starting to learn now is that we’re not gardeners standing aloof—we are the soil. Actually one thing you learn as a gardener is that there’s not much difference between the plants, the bugs, the compost, or even the guy pulling weeds. It’s only a question of applied intent.

I don’t wish to dwell too much on the nuances of this metaphor. Like any device metaphors have their limitations, but the spirit of what this one says is powerful, namely that fundamental change is the fruit of underlying and atmospheric conditions and that hummus must be built and nourished through the introduction of positivity.

Society is not some arena where we duke it out, it is us, the sum of all of our interactions and the tone we take with one another.

By celebrating our neighborhood, by getting to know one another as individuals and lifting one another up are actively building the dream city we want to live in.


As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be permitted to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and discussions. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Artists are Agents of Negentropy

As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be permitted to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and discussions.

There are so many amazing ideas and topics that come up in this class. In just the first week’s reading and discussion I feel like I’ve uncovered a lifetime of food for thought. We’re looking at the search for meaning through experience and the process of creation. What tools and resources strengthen a life, a community or a nation? Ideal topics for a community-based artist on a mission.

The course looks at art through two main lenses: contemplation and expression and the first week has focused on the former. We spoke briefly with our neighbors about a contemplative approach and came together on the ideas that it is an active, conscious and intentional centering exercise that opens, cleanses and illuminates. Useful life skills in addressing the contradictions that weigh every decision.

We’re moving past a Twentieth Century that sought to cure the world’s ills (and caused more than it's share) by trying to identify dysfunctions and eliminating them. The new approach is a positive paradigm that desires to build and nourish. A positive paradigm is holistic (instead of zeroing in a syndrome) and seeks to grow the entity far past its baseline. It’s about potential instead of limitations and on this ground, Art is a potent force.

One of our texts, Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studies ways to optimize experience and find meaning, appreciation (and yes power) in all domains. The section we read talks about how to reconcile differentiation and integration on all levels from the deeply personal to the whole social. It defines meaning as purpose, intention/resolution and organization/harmony.

In a complex world, this is difficult and it is not obvious how best to reconcile competing and sometimes oppositional ideas—not only from different points of view but within a single individual. How do we keep our thoughts organized and positively employed? Yet we must if we are to thrive.

Perspective is key: what matters is how we perceive each of our circumstances and our ideas about what they mean go a long way toward whether they limit us or not. In fact, our circumstances actually empower us if we can be smart about where we go from them.

As I read, Csikszentmihalyi dropped a term that stopped me in my tracks and illuminated many things. He cites the word negentropy, which I had never heard before but which is supremely powerful.

The reverse of entropy, negentropy is the force that brings things together, establishes order where there was none. For example, Wikipedia, states that Life itself is a negentropic force:
Life is considered to be negentropic because it takes things in less order, like dead food, and turns it into things in more order, like cells in the body, tissues, and organs.
This is also what the artist does: gathers ideas, sounds, visions, etc and produces something new, coherent and perhaps even astonishing. Art is a negentropic tool and, when drawing from a shared heritage provides valuable insight into how to order the often baffling chaos that surrounds us all. So art is a search for the organizational structure for life itself.

The artist is an agent of negentropy: a bringer of perspective who offers insights that allow us to bridge experience and intention and move forward toward our maximum potential. It is part of our human makeup and available to everyone. It's good for the artist and good for the audience.

That is certainly a Positive Paradigm!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Arts and Public Policy: Intro

As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be permitted to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia.

The class examines the dynamics between art—that which challenges the unknown—and the exercise of power (in a variety of domains), public life and Democracy. The discussion is founded on a variety of texts but most primarily on Arts, Inc. by Bill Ivey and the Gardens of Democracy by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer.

I’ve already read both books and will have more to say about them soon, but it’s clear that these ideas are foundational questions for the Monticello Road Project. George says that art tells a story and is designed to make change, whether perceptual or social (as opposed to entertainment, which reinforces the comfortable). Monticello Road engages both fronts (perception and connectedness). It does so from the most granular level but with a purpose of doing its small part to revitalize democracy. I firmly believe the notion that small, individual actions are society and small things such as respect, courtesy and mutual curiosity can yield big change. 

Today’s opening session ended with a discussion of the ancient Greek notion of Agonism: an emphasis on the struggle itself far more than the end result, mutual respect for the contestants and the idea that defeat to a worth foe is superior to an easy victory. The project is a process not a product. That’s why it is art.