Arts and Activism Converge in New Political Era

In a charged political moment, Denver's arts community is wary but energized. What's next for the "artivists" who live and work here?
Like most of the 10 writers who took the microphone at Lighthouse Writers Workshop on a cold January night, Raksha Vasudevan noted the crowd: standing room only, diverse, bound by a shared anxiety.

"We are here because we believe in freedom of expression and from hate," she said to the more than 100 people who showed up for "Writers Resist: Words of the West," one of 90 related events that took place in cities across the world -- Singapore, Omaha, and Berlin, to name on a few -- on the Sunday before the presidential inauguration. "We will resist attacks on freedom and justice. And we will not give in to despair."

"Writers' Resist" was organized by local teacher and writer Emily Sinclair and Vasudevan, who was born in India, raised in Canada and spent several years working in Uganda before moving to Denver just after the November election. She opened the evening with a personal essay about life as perpetual outsider, and awakening to the fantasy of America.

Other works echoed themes of oppression, identity, and resilience, words that have become vernacular to many since the election. Carleen Brice wrote about her attempts to answer Toni Morrison's decree that artists must now "get to work." Seth Brady Tucker, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, shared a poem about racial profiling. Essayist BK Loren revisited the relationship that led her to realize she was gay. The perspectives and styles were different, yet in their reading, they became a collective volume of literary responses to a confusing moment in the world.

Arts into actionRaksha Vasudevan reading one of her pieces at "Writer's Resist."

"Writer's Resist" was just one of many events that have drawn Denver artists, writers, musicians, playwrights, poets, and activists out of their studios and rehearsal spaces and into the community in recent weeks. The political season and its fallout have been unquestionably hard on our artists -- the eve of the inauguration brought news that the new administration plans to eliminate both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, for example. But, in some ways, it's been good for our art.

The year 2017 has brought a jolt of creative energy, much of it rooted in a collective belief that artists have a unique power, and responsibility, to voice dissent, represent the marginalized, and, when possible, offer hope and solutions. Denver has a long tradition of integrating the arts into action for social justice: Artists here serve in our schools, our social service agencies and our youth centers in addition to our stages, warehouses and galleries. If the first weeks of January are an indication, it's a tradition that's about to get even deeper.

Consider the calendar the week of the inauguration: Local museums open and free. Artists involved at every level of planning the Women's March on Denver. Comedy shows at local clubs exploring themes of racism, sexism and power. A candlelight performance at Curious Theatre, part of a national theater-based protest. A new mural at Cold Crush, a powerful rendering of Red Fawn Fallis, a Native American woman from Denver who has become a symbol of resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline since her arrest at Standing Rock last fall. On Martin Luther King Day, No Enemies, founded by local musicians including Flobots, taught songs from protest movements to scores of people who marched en masse down Colfax Avenue, singing and chanting for justice and equality. Two nights later, No Enemies filled the North High School Auditorium for a concert with 303 Choir that made some in the audience weep, so powerful was its message about the power of music to heal and bring people together, and, yes, resist.

The Women's March, which drew more than 100,000 to Civic Center Park the day after the inauguration, was a large-scale suggestion of what may lay ahead: The official program featured performances by Senakhu, a women's drum ensemble, and stirring remarks from poet and artivist Suzi Q. Smith (who has a very busy year ahead, planning this fall's National Slam Poetry Championship, which will be a highly artful, politically charged marathon of ideas, led by poets of color). 

Beyond the main stage, though, the Women's March was a moving, breathing exercise in democratic creativity: The chants, the signs, the extemporaneous musical moments that erupted in the park and all along the march route, indicate that even individuals who don't see themselves as particularly artistic are connecting to the utility and the potency of creative expression in moments of cultural change and challenge.

Strength in numbersSarah Slater, a longtime DIY leader and co-founder of Titwrench women's music festival.

Some who are deeply involved in the creative community say changing power dynamics at the national level have sharpened their resolve to be politically engaged locally.  Amplify Arts Denver formed in late December in response to the shuttering of beloved underground art and music venues Rhinoceropolis and Glob, following the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland that killed 36 people. Amplify Arts formed in part to coalesce a community of independent-minded creative people around a common cause -- and to build critical mass and political power that can be used to influence city policy towards artists.

In early January (the same night that President Obama, a former community organizer, gave his final address to the country), nearly 200 people showed up to Amplify Arts Denver's first community forum, at RedLine, a gallery space known for marrying activism, social justice and art. The following week the City and County of Denver held a public meeting on the issues at the McNichols Building, partly in response to Amplify Arts' criticisms of how the city, specifically the Denver Fire Department, handled the closings. 

The packed house at the latter included many activists as well as the media. And though many left the meeting feeling unsatisfied and unheard -- Amplify Arts issued a statement the following day lambasting the city's ongoing "war on artists" -- 
it was a start, a meaningful first step towards building consensus on issues that affect artists by elevating their voices and forcing those in power to take notice. Such are the community organizer's tools and, increasingly, the artist's, too.

"A lot of people are realizing that there's strength in numbers," says Sarah Slater, a leader of Amplify Arts Denver and longtime presence on the city's DIY scene. "We're just starting out, and we're learning as we go that we have to be organized. If we hadn't have organized around these venues closing, it all would been swept under the rug."

Slater, co founder of the Titwrench women's music festival, adds that her work with Amplify Arts Denver was partly motivated by a feeling of despair after the election.

"I use the fear to take action," she says. "It makes me feel less depressed to look around and say: 'What can I do to strengthen what I care about?' The empowerment that comes from that outweighs whatever personal or emotional conflict I may be having about whatever's going on.

"Communities like the DIY scene in Denver help societies to flourish, and we want to see artists and musicians treated with respect," she says. "We are needed, especially now, to help keep spirits alive."

Spirits may indeed be dampened. Tested. But Denver artists look ready to fight for hope and action with words, images, songs, creativity, boldness, surprise and community, all of which can combine in some fascinating, and important, art.

This story is part of a series underwritten by Denver Arts & Venues.

Read more articles by Laura Bond.

A former editor and staff writer with Westword, Laura Bond has written for Rolling StoneUSAA and Spin, among others. She is the principal of Laura Bond, Ink., a content and communications strategy firm that serves nonprofits across metro Denver.
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