Arts and Entertainment

Into the eye of ‘Art and Upheaval’

Talk art and upheaval with Bill Cleveland Jan. 15 at Eagle Harbor Books on Bainbridge. - Courtesy photo
Talk art and upheaval with Bill Cleveland Jan. 15 at Eagle Harbor Books on Bainbridge.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

A look into the importance of art and creativity in community health and vitality, with community organizer/cultural activist/author William Cleveland.

Bainbridge Island-based writer/musician/activist/organizer Bill Cleveland has spent most of his life in what he calls “the DMZ” that lies between arts organizations and the broader community.

There’s a potentially dangerous disconnect between the two, he notes, with the arts being separated out as an extra in modern day American society — something made by special people at a special time — rather than as infrastructure for everyday life.

It’s one of the by-products of modern life, he notes.

And it’s potentially dangerous, especially in bleak economic times, such as the present, when a community’s extras are the first to the chopping block.

But over the next few years, with the new presidential administration, Cleveland says he expects the importance of community art will be increasingly recognized with more civic policy being made on its behalf. And as the country’s economic and industrial horsepower becomes less a force, he suggests, we’ll have to turn more to the powers of creativity and imagination.

Art can be a powerful agent of change.

“I liken it to ... if you were living in a community that is suffering from malnourishment and you’re a farmer ... what do you do?” he said. “That wouldn’t even be a question.”

Cleveland is a pioneer of the community arts movement in America.

An artist himself, as well as a coordinator, organizer and consultant, he documented the movement in his last book “Art In Other Places.” Recognizing a direct link between the health and vitality of a community and the creative and imaginative capacity therein, Cleveland has dedicated his life to serving as a bridge between those two areas of society by creating awareness of the importance of their connection, building partnerships and offering consultation through the Center for the Study of Art and Community on Bainbridge Island (of which he is the founder and director). And, also, by writing books.

“You can do a great deal of damage, just by not paying attention to what’s going on under the radar,” he said, sharing the wisdom on his most recent book “Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World’s Frontlines” with What’s Up last week.

In that book, his fourth (which he’ll be speaking on Jan. 15 at Eagle Harbor Books), Cleveland documents 10 stories from six different communities around the globe, focusing on art makers working amidst some form of social upheaval.

“It would be grossly inaccurate to describe the politics that permeates these accounts as anything other than ‘vicious,’ ” Cleveland writes in the book’s introduction.

Intrepidly, amidst those vicious upheavals, these art-makers are using their art — spanning disciplines from theater to performance to visual art — to resolve conflict, heal trauma, give voice to the voiceless or the forgotten and to mend the cultural fabric of their communities.

“Not just making art, but making art that engages the issues of the community,” Cleveland said.

And he was right there with them in the thick of it.

“Art and Upheaval” is a very poetically written, text-bookish type of book. A manifesto of sorts for artists on the world’s front lines. In a first-person journalistic style, Cleveland tells the stories while also including gonzo-esque snippets of raw transcripts and conversations from his research.

It technically took about eight years to the research and write “Art and Upheaval,” Cleveland said. It was his first foray into the global community.

“But,” Cleveland said, “you could almost say that this journey has been even longer than the time it took me to write this book. As long as I’ve been working in this field, I’ve been studying.”

In some ways, Cleveland was born into a period of art and upheaval, growing up in 1960s America, amidst the generational, social rebellion and a somewhat tumultuous home life. It was never a question of what profession he aimed to be in when he grew up, but more so a definitive of what he didn’t want to be matched with the possibility of what he had to offer creatively.

“Everything from that point on was guided by two questions: No. 1, what can I make today, that’s different then what I made yesterday; and No. 2, How can I make the world a better place through my creative offering?” he said.

That path eventually led to an unusual artistic involvement with a U.S. Department of Labor program called the Creative Employment and Training Act in the mid-70s, which offered work for unemployed and underemployed individuals with public agencies and non-profit groups. Through the program, participants, many of whom were artists, offered their skills as public service.

Over the course of a decade, Cleveland loaned his expertise in developing an extensive residential arts program at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“That really introduced me to the idea that art could be far more than a decorative adjunct to people’s lives,” Cleveland noted.

That realization then eventually led to the creation of the Center for the Study of Art and Community on Bainbridge Island along four books, numerous speaking engagements and experiences around the world and another profound realization that surprising and extraordinary things happen when creative people make art amidst some kind of upheaval.

“That resource is as much here as it is in any of these other places in the world, it’s part of the human condition,” he said, “we’ve just forgotten about it.”

AUTHOR/ACTIVIST/TEACHER Bill Cleveland, director of the Center for the Study of Art and Community, will be reading from and speaking about his newest book “Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World’s Frontlines” at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 15 at Eagle Harbor Books, 157 Winslow Way on Bainbridge. Info:, or call the store at (206) 842-5332.

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