Inspiring Action Through Art

June 13, 2017 by DANNY OLDA | VISUAL ARTS
An Urban Conga project in action.
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Artists have taken social engagement a step further to encourage advocacy through their work.

According to Ryan Swanson, the revelation came with a giant beach ball.

Working with a pair of colleagues on his thesis in architecture, Swanson wanted to use his knowledge of design to help underutilized spaces reach fuller potential, to “activate” spaces.

“One day we were doing a pop-up event in Tampa and a homeless man asked if he could have some money, but being broke college students we told him we didn’t have any money but he could hangout and engage with our installations,” Swanson relates. “He was slowly walking around when a middle-class family tossed a 12-foot beach ball we had out over to him. He immediately tossed it back with a big smile on his face.”

This flash of fun was pivotal to Swanson and what would eventually become an award-winning design firm Urban Conga.

“At that moment barriers began to break down over this simple gesture of play,” he continues. “When I saw this, I knew there was something strong about implementing play within our public spaces.”

From drawing a tear in a museum visitor’s eyes to igniting a revolution, the arts and creativity arguably have an unparalleled social power to inspire thought and action in individuals and groups. Indeed, this has been the case from cave paintings to web design and continues to unfold in our community daily.

In August 2016, Creative Pinellas teamed up with Creative Clay and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay to host Big HeART For A Day. The event would give artists a sample of what it is like to be a Big Brother or Big Sister, a mentor to a young person, for a day. One of the first artists to register for the event was artist Nikki Devereux.

A poster invoking feminist themes created by Nikki Devereux’s Little Sister.

“When I saw the Big Brothers Big Sisters event through a Creative Pinellas email, I remembered it from high school when I was a Big Sister through my school,” Devereux says. “I had been looking for volunteer opportunities recently and really wanted something that I could be making a direct impact on a person’s life.”

The event paired seven local artists as “Bigs” for a day with seven young people as “littles.” The seven pairs worked on a trio of art projects: an “exquisite corpse” creature-creating art game led by Steven Kenny, a collective music-making and beat boxing circle led by Billy Mays III (also known as Mouth Council) and a sculpture project led by Rachel Stewart. At the end of a very fun evening, children were picked up by parents and many of the artists left Creative Clay to join the St. Petersburg Second Saturday Art Walk. For Nikki Devereux, however, her Big Sister experience was only beginning.

“The Big Brothers Big Sisters opportunity was perfect,” she explains, “especially considering that working with children allows you to make a difference at the start of a life, rather than picking up the pieces later on.”

Artwork created by Nikki Devereux’s Little Sister.

Devereux attended an orientation for Big Sisters and now volunteers her time with a Little Sister regularly.

“Each month I spend about 10 to 12 hours with my Little doing various activities that we both come up with,” she tells us. “There are many businesses in the area that offer free activities for kids or give free admission for BBBS volunteers. Some of the activities I do with my Little are cook and bake, kids art studio at the Morean [Arts Center], swim at the YMCA, art projects at home, gardening, going to the movies. Since I’m an artist and so is she, we have a lot in common and always thoroughly enjoy our outings.”

Art, in a way, acted as a catalyst to bring the two together in addition to being the subject of many of their outings and activities. However, art and creativity have also provided learning opportunities for both Devereux and her Little Sister.

“My little is also an artist, so they really did a good job matching us. We enjoy each other’s company and she loves the projects that we’ve worked on,” Devereux says. “She even prepares for our projects and brings materials with her that she recycles from the house, so I’m so proud to see her learning how to think about the planet and treat it with respect. I’m a mixed media artist so a lot of my materials are recycled.”

She goes on to recount, “We just finished a mixed media piece together that she chose the concept for: powerful women. That was such an incredible moment, to realize that she’s thinking about her own strength and the women in her life. The final piece was beautiful and moving.”

Similarly, the previously mentioned, fateful toss of a giant beach ball was merely the start of  a mission to engage spaces in new ways and encourage people to have unexpected fun.

“I knew there was something strong about implementing play within our public spaces,” Swanson recalls. “So I quit my job and put everything into figuring out how I could begin to implement play into everyday spaces we use on a daily basis.”

A public Ping Pong project by The Urban Conga.

Hence, The Urban Conga was born and began work in earnest to “implement play on a more permanent level within our urban fabric,” as Swanson puts it. The firm began with projects such as public ping pong tables, chess tables and musical benches (it’s exactly what it sounds like; check it out here). It has since taken on more ambitious ideas such as touch sensor murals, sound walls and large scaled interactive environments while garnering partners such as the Tampa Bay Rays, TED, Chase Bank and many more.

Still, Swanson has not lost sight of that original game of catch and the vision it helped inspire.

“When people think of play they tend to only focus on children and their youth, but play is much more than that. It is a way to get to know a stranger, a way to learn, a way to develop, and just a simple way to escape the daily grind,” he explains. “Our goal is to inspire play everywhere, and to create platforms that inspire people to never forget how to play.”

Every day — both in large loud ways and through understated gestures — Ryan, Nikki and many like them use creativity and the arts to meaningfully engage with people in new ways, bringing positive change to the lives of others as well as their own.

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