On Building Conducive Artistic Environments
By Helanius J. Wilkins
Outside of change, the only constant in art is community. Throughout the 17-plus years of my dance career I have found, and continue to find, myself flowing from, struggling with, learning from, reimagining, and returning to community to move forward, to reflect, and to better understand my struggles and successes as an artist. It has been without a doubt something that has given me strength, raised me up, and served as a dynamic source for discovery, creation, healing, and growth, all when I needed those most. These experiences in turn have caused me to realize that through art, and life, I am constantly engaged with and influenced by my sense of community.
Given this notion of community, it is hard to relate to a common view shared by many that art-making is a solitary pursuit, or at most, one in which a few collaborators work together. I believe that artists creations and inspirations to create, in part, are direct results of the ways in which they experience connection, disconnection, and reconnection to the community(ies) in which they exist. These communities can take on many forms and can differ from one artist to another, resulting in an inclusive view of what constitutes a conducive artistic community.
It is rather easy to define a conducive artistic community as one where there are sufficient resources — inclusive of space, colleagues, audiences, and funding — and opportunities. These areas often dominate an artist’s focus and directly impact one’s ability to work. Acknowledging that, I believe that equally essential to a conducive artistic community is the cultivation of an environment where opportunities for enlightenment and making discoveries can be experienced through witnessing, interacting with, and engaging in conversations with other artists, especially those whom an artist may find on a similar path. Artists most often flourish in a symbiotic and supportive community of fellow artists. Such an environment creates an external stimulant — a synergy — that can heighten an artist’s level of inspiration and curiosityArtists most often flourish in a symbiotic and supportive community of fellow artists. Such an environment creates an external stimulant — a synergy — that can heighten an artist’s level of inspiration and curiosity., and unlock new possibilities for exploration.
Maximizing the benefits of a conducive artistic environment may begin when an artist examines his or her community from the inside out. As a first step, identify which artists are based in your current environment? Who do you find fascinating and why? Who would you like to know more about? What draws you to that person’s process and/or projects? Then consider what activities and/or existing structures provide vehicles that may allow you to meet and dialogue with these artists. If there is no such thing, are there activities that you can develop, possibly in partnership with someone, or present for consideration to others who may be in a better position to organize?
Recently I co-hosted a small gathering of dance professionals based in the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia areas at my home. This intimate gathering included a wide range of artists from various backgrounds — emerging to established as well as new to long-time residents of the greater metropolitan area. This created a rich opportunity for dance professionals to get together in a non-work environment to mix and mingle while engaging in dynamic conversations. This proved successful resulting in the creation of a synergetic atmosphere for making connections and reconnections, and for shared learning. It also provided a base from which new relationships and opportunities for understanding and collaboration can emerge. Together I think we felt a sense of inspiration and community from that evening.
Constructing a more conducive artistic environment may require that an artist uproots his or her self and seek out opportunities to reform that personal sense of community in a new environment. In this instance, an artist’s setting is reimagined and built up based on what or who he or she is drawn to free from geographic boundaries. In this vein, I find myself reflecting about my relationship to art-making in the Washington, D.C., community. My current interests may result in spending less time there or completely relocating in order to experience a new environment, including languages, friendships, collaborators, cultural encounters, and forms of movement. This would place me in a new community — a new opportunity for contribution, a new base for inspiration and belonging, ultimately leading to the creation of new work.
Change and community, the two constants in the realm of the arts, are both by nature dynamic. Through dance, community is formed. And it’s all about movement and finding a safe space to allow for the examination and exploration of ideas — abstract, political, or social. And that space will move, in mind and sometimes in location, and it may even seem less safe in the face of change. Yet, the process of art-making requires no less of a dynamic environment. A safe space, which can feel extremely uncomfortable at times, is needed. This safe space is a community. As an art maker, I navigate my way through my profession, and life, constantly engaged in and influenced by my sense of community in order to discover spaces, people, and partnerships that have become essential to the evolution of new work. Having a symbiotic and supportive community of fellow artists positively impacts the art-making process and provides that conducive environment for new possibilities.
Helanius J. Wilkins, a native of Lafayette, Louisiana, is an award-winning choreographer, performance artist, and instructor based in Washington, D.C. He is the founder and artistic director of EDGEWORKS Dance Theater, an all-male dance company of predominantly African-American men. His honors include the 2008 Pola Nirenska Award for Contemporary Achievement in Dance, the 2002 and 2006 Kennedy Center Local Dance Commissioning Project Award, and numerous Metro DC Dance Awards. A graduate of SUNY Brockport, Wilkins returned to the university setting in the summer of 2011 as an extension of his artistic journey, and earned an MFA from the George Washington University. In addition to performing the works of nationally recognized choreographers, he has equally enjoyed creating, presenting, and receiving commissions for choreography throughout the United States and abroad. Foundations and organizations including New England Foundation for the Arts (National Dance Project), D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts have supported his work. Wilkins teaches professional and pre-professional dancers as well as students of various ages and levels of skill. He has served as an adjudicator and master teacher at American College Dance Festivals in 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2010 through 2013. He is currently on faculty at the Joy of Motion Dance Center in Washington, D.C.
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