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Creating Art for a Purpose

20 Years Wandering by artist Leela Khatiwada
20 Years Wandering by artist Leela Khatiwada

As the familiar saying goes, "A picture speaks a thousand words." An artist himself, Peter Bruun sought to communicate just that when he established Art on Purpose, a local non-profit community organization in 2005.

The organization holds workshops to encourage community members to share their thoughts and stories on a wealth of topics, including social, political and educational values through art.Workshops are molded around themes with the intent of extracting and exposing individual stories from participants who mostly identify themselves as non-artists. The art, then, serves as the basic mechanism to uncover local voices and issues.

Seen and heard

The mission of Art on Purpose is for its themes to linger with its participants well after the workshops. Not only should people walk away knowing that they've been seen, heard, and respected, but also they should discover art as a newfound method to explore their own personal issues. Says Bruun of the participants, "I want them to feel less isolated. I want them to walk away feeling connected to others through having seen others share their stories."

Participants work with an array of mediums such as photography, audio recordings, and dry weaving. The majority of artwork, however, takes the form as sketches or paintings on paper.

Brunn welcomes everyone to the workshops. "Young people, old people, rich people, poor people—anyone who's engaging—is welcome to the table," Bruun states. The organization may also partner with other nonprofits that then recruit participants for the art sessions.

The staff, all artists themselves, encourage residents to step out from behind the curtain when creating their masterpieces. Such tactics uncover an extremely direct, almost naive form of art. "Good art is when it allows what that person cares about most to become transparent," Bruun states.

Baltimore, Bruun notes, is a city in which neighborhoods and residents constantly seek to identify themselves as different from the next. For that reason, the organization serves to unite diverse residents, who otherwise wouldn't interact with one another, through their involvement in workshops and exhibits. "We're building bridges between groups and individuals that might not ordinarily come together," he states.

Community members—whether they participate in the workshops or not—are welcome to view the art exhibits held throughout the city. Events based around the exhibits also take place that may include speakers, panel discussions, and question and answer sessions.
 
Life -- the good and the bad -- on display

Workshop themes have included "Baltimore Inspired by Poe," in which Baltimoreans based their artwork around three recurring themes in the works of Edgar Allen Poe: love and loss, madness and obsession, fear and terror. The works are currently on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art until January 17, 2010.

At the Poe-inspired event, "Addition & Art: Flip Sides of Madness & Obsession," various artists, musicians, and medical experts explored addiction and recovery through the theme of madness and obsession. Former addicts spoke how they chose to depict themselves and their struggles through sketches, paintings, and poetry. Others revealed how addicts had touched their own lives.

Onlookers at the exhibition were able to associate a local identity to addiction and learned, first-hand, what words lay beyond a picture or work of art. "As the daughter of an alcoholic who committed suicide, I truly realize that a picture speaks volumes," says Barbara, an audience member, about her rather personal relationship with an addict and why she was touched by the event.

Together, but different

Upcoming events include the "20 Years of Wandering" on December 6 and 13, which relates immigration and homelessness to the tales of Odysseus. "We uncovered amazing stories of survival: people spending 17 years in refugee camps, people who have experienced war, who have experienced imprisonment," states Bruun.

The exhibit aims to teach residents about diversity through art. He adds: "We want people who come to the exhibition to understand that those who speak with a funny accent or don't know their way around are far from being groups to look down on. They are groups to be looked up to because of what they survived, or how they managed."

The non-profit pushes spectators to establish an appreciation for art and its relevance to their community. Bruun urges people to look beyond the surface of any given work and explore its meaning. According to him, people should reevaluate their stance on art and instead think: "Oh, maybe it's not just a blob on the wall. Maybe it's about something if I want to give it some time."

Building a passion for art

Art on Purpose also specifically reaches out to local inner city youth as a demographic in which to incite passion and spread appreciation for art. Through its Art Leadership Program, staff mentor youth to teach them of art as well as potential career opportunities.

Remington Youth/Community Radio (RYCR) is also an Art-founded project that collects community stories and creates an audio-visual map of Remington. The organization doesn't stop there, either: it also provides consulting services to clients who seek to organize and coordinate their own exhibits.

At the end of the day, Art on Purpose is never short of inspiration. Locals share their ideas with the organization, be it about themes or the next group with whom to work. "It's like pulling out thread in a sweater. Once you keep pulling it out, it keeps going and going," says Bruun of the constant community networking and input.

Although Bruun will be stepping down as director in June of 2010, he will remain in Baltimore to pursue and develop his own artwork. When asked, "What's your next art project?" he responds, "Well you know, that's an interesting question."
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