“On my kitchen wall hang four snapshots of graffiti art I first saw on construction walls as I walked to my teaching job at Yale University years ago.”
So begins the introduction of the late bell hooks’ All About Love, a book I’ve now checked out a couple of times at Oil City’s Public Library. It is a wonderful book in which hooks explores the question, “What is love?” in a number of settings– the love between two partners, the love between parents and children, the love we have for friends, how love influences honesty and justice,and so much more. I encourage you to find this book at your public library, too!
I didn’t expect art to even be a part of the book, but then she begins with this story of the snapshots of graffiti art. They are brightly colored letters that proclaim:
THE SEARCH FOR LOVE CONTINUES EVEN IN THE FACE OF GREAT ODDS.
She goes on to tell the story of why these words had such a profound impact on her. She had recently separated from her partner of almost 15 years and was grief-stricken and feeling hopeless. Each day was a struggle to stay afloat, and she describes things like this graffiti as “anchors” in her life, things that kept her steady and above the flood of sadness that she felt was trying to constantly pull her under. She says, “Whenever I passed this site, the affirmation of love’s possibility across the block gave me hope.”
She began having imaginary conversations in her head with the artist about the nature of love, and she tells this imaginary artist how much his colorful and playful art lifted her spirits each day she passed by it and kept her from falling into the great abyss of her grief.
Eventually, the art is erased by the construction company, and after a lot of searching, she tracks down the artist. They then have a real conversation about the meaning of love and she writes this line:
“We spoke about the way public art can be a vehicle for life-affirming thoughts.”
This story was especially impactful to me because I had recently been asked to serve on Oil City’s Public Art Committee. I’ve had the opportunity to be involved with public art before as an artist, but I guess I hadn’t thought much about the importance of it, oddly.
This story from bell hooks made it all so much more important to me. The thought that art can help us express things like love or bring us together in a shared conversation makes it not “just” art. It makes art transformative!
I remember back at the very beginnings of the pandemic when we were all somewhat confused, fearful, unsure. So many people I knew began turning to art and creation as a way to ease the stress and, to use hooks’ words, to “stay afloat” during that time.
Whether it was a newly found love of baking bread or sewing masks or finally learning to play the ukulele or enjoying concerts online, it seemed to me to be exactly what bell hooks expresses: art became a vehicle for life-affirming thoughts, something we all very much needed and still very much need.
Art isn’t just a vehicle for love to be expressed, though.
Art is a vehicle for social change.
Art is a vehicle to help us solve collective problems.
Art lifts us up and can help us have hard conversations.
Now, as I help to shape what public art will look like in my community, I will really consider its role as a vehicle for so many life-changing things.
In a world so seemingly divided and grief stricken, walking around the corner to find beautiful colors or structures in the form of a mural or a sculpture is transformative and life affirming.
It can give us hope that even if we’ve been bobbing around in a sea of sadness, “even in the face of great odds,” love is still out there waiting to be found. So is justice. So are so many things that often seem elusive.
Art can heal us in ways we’ve never even considered.
If you are out there creating things and putting your art into the world thank you! And let’s face it, everyone creates something even if you don’t consider yourself an artist. It’s not about that. It’s about expressing your own voice in the world.
You just never know who’s life you’ll change with it.