Collaboration made creation of art a success

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Inky hands, giant woodcuts, prints everywhere — and a steamroller. Recently, art and art making took over the street in front of the GESA Power House Theatre for the first Dia de los Muertos Art Festival.

Colorful altars created by community organizations and local artists lined the theater, sugar skulls made with the Walla Walla High School Latino Club graced the tables and local high school students performed death scenes from Shakespeare’s tragedies in English and Spanish for the “Pageant of the Dead.”

Dancing, music, food and art filled the theater and street outside.

More than 1,000 people came to this free event, which brought together an incredibly diverse group of people. This festival came together because of the vision and collaboration of organizations across the city, including Shakespeare Walla Walla, Art Walla, Carnegie Picture Lab and Whitman College Art Department.

As part of the festival, 40 of my Whitman art students collaboratively printed giant woodcuts using a steamroller.

For over a month before the festival, Beginning Printmaking students hand-carved their designs on 4-by-4-foot and 4-by-8-foot sheets of medium density fiberboard. The students were given not only this technical challenge, but prompted to create images that thoughtfully engage the themes of Dia de los Muertos.

Their work in the studio, however, was only one aspect of this project. To print such large woodcuts, we needed a giant printing press — thus the need for a steamroller and lots of help from individuals and organizations in our community.

In taking their artwork off campus, the students said the stakes were suddenly much higher than if they only made work behind closed studio doors with other students. The project not only challenged their skill levels, but challenged their beliefs about their agency as creators, who the title “artist” is for and why art in our community matters.

While the designing and carving happened on the Whitman campus, the logistics of printing such large woodcuts required an incredible amount of collaboration with the public at the festival.

The students worked in small teams to print their woodcuts and frequently asked community members with clean hands to help prepare their fabric for printing.

Conversations about the artwork ensued, and students found themselves teaching people about printmaking and the themes of Dia de los Muertos.

The students soon realized that art served as a bridge to connect people.

At the festival Whitman art students also worked with Art Walla volunteers to teach community members how to make their own woodcuts. More than 80 people carved 6-by-6-inch blocks, which they inked and hand-printed. Approximately 40 people printed their designs on T-shirts using the steamroller.

Most of the individuals had never made a print before, but quickly learned from the volunteers, students and other community members working alongside them at the table.

As one of my students noted, the art that everyone made that day was simultaneously an individual and a collective effort.

This was emblematic of the entire event — individuals coming together to share resources and knowledge to help each other create.

Creativity thrives in an environment where collaboration, dialogue and play are valued and where vulnerability, risk-taking and process-based inquiry are championed.

We need this kind of culture in our organizations, schools and homes.

Funding for the arts and arts education in our K-12 schools is perpetually at risk, making it ever more important that our community creates events and environments where people have access to the arts and art making.

The resounding success of the inaugural Dia de los Muertos was due to the enthusiasm and support of local organizations, schools and the community.

People of all ages and skill levels engaged in the arts that day — whether it was carving a woodblock, decorating a sugar skull, performing on stage or building an altar, individuals were making art together.

We all have a stake in the cultural life and vibrancy of our community. We each have a right to an expressive life, however we may define it.

Nicole Pietrantoni is an assistant professor of art at Whitman College.

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