In April of this year the City of Portland announced a six-month grieving and healing initiative titled “Community Healing Through Art.” Led by the city’s outgoing creative laureate, Subashini Ganesan-Forbes, the six-month initiative uses community engagement to drive public art projects to promote healing among Portland communities after the extraordinary health and cultural crises of 2020 and 2021.
With initial support from the offices of Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Carmen Rubio, the project has grown to a $200,000 initiative thanks to funding from the Oregon Community Foundation and the Miller Foundation. As part of the initiative, 13 grants were awarded to artists and organizations in Portland to create individual projects totaling $65,000. A full list of the grantees, whose projects range from a Black Arts Summer Showcase music festival to a Parkrose district youth film project to end gun violence, can be found here.
The first of these projects began this week, a Joint Collaborative Garland by the Independent Publishing Resource Center. Local poets will contribute first lines of poems that reflect on the grief and healing of the past year. The zine library will be open through September for community members to contribute to the installation.
Ganesan-Forbes was appointed Portland creative laureate in 2018, and was succeeded earlier this summer by the dual laureates Leila Haile and Joaquin Lopez. But she’s continuing with the healing initiative, which she’d begun before her term ended. We talked with her about the initiative’s projects and what they might do:
TJ Acena: What is the history of this project?
Subashini Ganesan-Forbes: From the beginning I made it clear that, yes, I’m leaving as creative laureate but it’s gonna take a lot of time to even think about what the concept of community healing could be. The first month was a lot of organizing, thinking and strategic work. I’m super grateful I was given a lot of freedom to create, build, and initiate a lot of collaborations.
These 13 projects are just the first round of grants that we provided that were specifically for community-centered art focused events for healing and art. The second round went to a more specific and nuanced project, which is community healing around the issue of neighborhood safety. It’s a pilot project with the office of civic life. The third grant call went to choreographers and dancers for a “Ten Tiny Community Healing Dances” in Lents Neighborhood. We brought in ten choreographers and their dances, and they listened to nine different community neighbors about their experiences over the last 18 months. The choreographers are taking the next month to create a response to the themes that came up from what they heard. That will be on Sept 12th.
I also partnered with Portland Art Museum in creating “See Me. iAm. HEAR: A Creative Activation of Youth Voices of Color” in July, a youth-centered and youth led project in front of the museum. One thing I learned planning that was that free ice cream is very important. We had two young DJs from the collective Beat Happening, an open mic for youth of color, and a land acknowledgement from NAYA. It was a six-minute thesis on why land acknowledgements matter on what white people should be saying and what people of color should be saying. It was beautiful to see youth come together and create safe space. That was their expression of community healing.
Finally, there are two other collaborations I will be doing. One with APANO [Asian Pacificic American Network of Oregon] in October, an intentional event to reopen the Orchards 82rd Office. The second is with Ridhi D’Cruz, a co-executive director of The City Repair Project, to build a respectful and thoughtful series of healing workshops and listening sessions with several of our houseless communities.
T: Will that be a final project as the Creative Laureate?
S: I’m already done! But, when I was asked to do those projects I was very clear that I couldn’t create and execute a thoughtful community healing project in three months. And they said it was fine. So this will be my final project.
T: Your final project, which is three projects and also four collaborations.
S: And there might be more! But at least there’s a timeline!
T: Was the Community Healing Arts Initiative you came up with on your own?
S: The first conversations came from Commissioner Rubio’s Office. The mayor’s office joined in those discussions. I think it was also a way for [Commissioner Rubio’s] office to get to know me. They said they’d heard people talking about the need to create activations to think about healing. They asked if I had ideas and I said, “Oh yes I do!” [City Arts Program Manager] Jeff Hawthorne has been pivotal in the strategic planning and execution of this project. I can do the creation, organization, collaboration, and events but he understands how to move things through the city and what payments look like. One of the big things I wanted to make sure happened was that while this was about arts focused healing it was also about economic recovery for our artists. Everybody who provided help with this got paid. Money is important right now.
T: What criteria did you give the panels to look for?
S: Each panel had a different criteria. For the 13 projects we really focused on the centering principles. How art-focused was the event? Is it centered around community? And is it informed by the community they claim they’re serving? The centering principles of this whole intuitive are respectful amplification of the diverse ways we grieve and mourn as a community. Honor and highlight artistic and communal resiliency. Recognizing that our survival depends on intertwined communities of cultural organizers, artists, and activists. I facilitated the panels and provided information but overall, the panelists really have driven the processes for these grant opportunities. My personal work is really in the collaborations.
T: How do you think art heals individuals or communities?
S: If we take the historical and cultural approach, art has always been part of grief and mourning ceremonies. Spaces where people come together. Dance, music, drumming, every culture has its own way of incorporating art into what we collectively think of as healing. We’ve built all these microcosms of communities in Portland. Each demographic, each segment, geographical block has their own way of thinking about healing. But it feels like art is always part of it. There’s music. Think of all the murals that have sprung up in response to the racial reckoning protests. There’s so much art that gets imbedded into these moments that seem to speak to the idea of healing. I think it’s a natural fit. The reason we really want it to be diverse in our approach to this initiative is to clarify that it’s important to provide visibility and amplification to the different ways we think of when we connect art and healing. That was super important to me and Commissioner Rubio’s Office. That’s why it feels overwhelming. But it’s good for each of those groups.
T: What excites you about these projects?
S: With each of the grantees I tried very hard to not make it super inaccessible. I was available for conversations before the deadline and it that was thinking about how do we help those who want to create healing events feel safe to even put it out there. Some of it was super-sensitive or personal. So, giving people that sense of empowerment to see their ideas as healing projects and it’s important to their communities was important.
For example, Joe Kye’s event is interesting, artistic, centered on a certain community, and also mourning a particular person who was part of our community. If you give artists financial resources, they will know what to do. I’ve been struck every time we’ve done one of these grant proposals how we need to value the vision of artists in our community. We shouldn’t just think about organizations, the institutional model of nonprofits that with a mission that bring in artists. This project reinforced my belief that if you give artists money they will create beauty out of anything. We had 61 applications for these grants, it was super-competitive, but the things people proposed to do with $5,000 brought tears to my eyes. How do we keep this clarity alive? We can’t let go of the truth that artists are stepping up, have been stepping up. We need to be healing for a long time. It’s not done.
T: How have the last 12 months been for you?
S: It’s been… full. I started the Artists Relief project with Kim Stafford back in March last year. Then I was working with the [Oregon] Cultural Trust and RACC [Regional Arts and Culture Council] and activists in town to build a Zoom webinar so more could apply for state funding. I feel like I’ve spent the last 12 months working on what I love. Advocacy work. I started in that after graduating and moving to [Washington] D.C. I thought I was done with that but it really came to life for me doing it for our arts community. I did get to go to Caldera for a residency in March for four weeks. That was a huge gift. It’s inspired like seven new dance projects. If [Ganesan-Forbes’ performance center] New Expressive Works was fully alive that wouldn’t have been possible. I’d been looking at the application for years but last year was the first time I’d been able to apply.
T: Do you feel like you’ve managed to find healing yet?
S: Absolutely. I slowed down. I was able to do quarantine in a way that nourished me. I say that with great humility because I know it was incredibly hard on so many folks and communities. I worked harder in the last 18 months but I also wasn’t in the car all the time, that swirl of outside activity. That’s brought a kind of healing. And I want to work from that foundation in a deeper way. Also the trust that people have provided. I cry every day because people trust me and tell me their stores. That is nourishing. I’m so grateful I can do this work with folks.
T: Any art that’s helped keep you afloat?
S: I’ve been reading a lot more, things I’ve been meaning to read for like eight years. A lot of scholarship around Bharathatyam, my dance form. A lot of scholarship has come out around it in the last decade and that’s nourishing my own art. I did a lot of those online things at the beginning but that slowed down.
T: Thinking back to when you became creative laureate, what surprised you when you took this position?
S: One funny thing surprised me was how few people knew that we even had a creative laureate. It didn’t have much recognition, even within our arts community. A nice surprise was that I was allowed space; I could take and run with projects. I thought it would be a big bureaucracy. All the things I was able to do, I was able to do because of the designation of Creative Laureate.
T: What do you think will be your most memorable experience from your tenure?
S: I think about the 2018-19 Suba Creative Laureate and the pandemic Suba Creative Laurate. This might sound silly but I really think this community healing project is really unique. It’s of this time. It’s responding to what happened and what continues to happen. This is a project I’m really learning from and learning through and connecting more with different communities, so this will stay with me for a really long time.
T: What are you looking forward to after this? After October when you’re finally done.
S: I’m looking forward to completely real deep time with New Expressive Works. I’ve built a new pilot program that’s launching September. It’s three-month micro residencies for choreographers. It’s about nourishing artists in their making but also in their larger visionary goals. Helping them planning for the next five years instead of only being able to plan project to project. I’m looking forward to this until it’s safe to have audiences again. And making art! I’m looking forward to a lot more time to dance. I still keep up my backyard dance classes with my second graders over the last year, but I move maybe once a week, so I’m looking forward to returning to a much more rigorous studio practice.