Woog’s World: The Westport Arts Center knows the power of cyber-bullying
Published 12:00 am, Friday, September 30, 2016
When I say “Westport Arts Center,” you do not automatically think “bullying.”
But the Riverside Avenue non-profit - which includes programs in visual arts, arts education, and chamber and jazz music - is in the midst of a months-long exhibit called “MORE Than Words.” The idea is that courage, resilience and empowerment are effective tools against bullying.
“Art has always provided a powerful means of expressing views on complex or sensitive topics,” says WAC executive director Amanda Innes. “And this is a very timely example of that power in art.”
The first phase of the exhibit offers artistic expressions of gender, racial, religious, geopolitical and age inequality, along with works that demonstrate the impact of bullying (including cyber-bullying). The idea, Innes says, is to provide thought-provoking art that inspires dialogue and change.
The range of work spans decades, even centuries, reflecting historical examples of art used as a form of social activism. There’s racism in the early 20th century, the rise of gender equality and LGBT issues, and the current issue of cyber-bullying.
For more information on “MORE Than Words” - including the submission process for artwork - visit www.westportartscenter.org/morethanwords.
In an effort to engage as many people as possible, the Arts Center has asked artists to submit their own work too. They’re looking for art that examines the idea of bullying within a broad cultural context - for example, how the imbalance of social, physical or political power can marginalize anyone perceived as weaker.
Artists have long responded to these inequities, the WAC says, speaking truth to power in a way not available to others.
But the Arts Center is going even further. They’ve issued a special invitation to young artists - ages 10 to 17 - to submit work in a separate “Junior Submissions Category.” Those are years when bullying can be especially harsh, and its effects particularly damning.
Student artists can submit new or previous artwork on the subject of stereotypes, personal identity, or other subjects that address both the struggle and strength required to face power disparities. The imagery does not need to depict actual bullying.
“This is not about ‘tell your bullying story,’” Innes emphasizes. “We’re looking for insights into things like stereotypes and reactions to bullying. We’re encouraging students to think about other people in three dimensions, beyond stereotypes. And we don’t want them to stereotype themselves, either.”
As examples of possible submissions, she mentions a self-portrait. It could show two views: how the world sees you, and how you know you are. “This is a terrific opportunity for younger artists to express themselves in a way not normally open to them - and to put themselves in front of experts on an arts jury,” Innes says.
Submissions will be judged by a jury of experts: Gerry Snyder, dean of the Pratt Institute School of Art; Pamela Hovland, senior critic in design at the Yale University School of Art, and sculptor/performance artist Ward Shelley. Works selected will be on view from November 11 through January 7.
Jury experts judge entries blindly. To give student artists the opportunity to shine, their works have a separate entry process, and a reduced fee of just $10.
Innes calls the youth submissions “critical” to the entire exhibition. She’s working with educators like Angela Simpson (townwide grade 6-12 art coordinator) and Lynne Karmen of Bedford Middle School to encourage students to step outside their comfort zones, think about bullying and all its ramifications, and create art that shows their own perspectives and feelings.
Several of the WAC’s community partners have offered to become satellite locations to exhibit student art. They include Greens Farmsm Academy, Neighborhood Studios of Fairfield County, the Triangle Community Center, the Westport Country Playhouse and Westport Library.
The Arts Center is not relying on visual arts alone to initiate a dialogue on bullying. Next Thursday (October 6, 7:30 p.m.), Monica Lewinsky comes to town. Though many Americans associate her solely with her role as a White House intern in the Bill Clinton impeachment scandal, she has become an outspoken advocate in the anti-bullying movement. She speaks from the perspective of one of the first victims of internet bullying. Her talk will amplify the themes of “MORE than Words,” and will be followed by a panel discussion.
The Westport Arts Center knows the power of cyber-bullying, for sure. But organizers also recognize the good that can come from social media. They invite viewers of their exhibition - or anyone else - to use the hashtag #iammore to spread the word about both the current exhibit, and the wider issue of bullying.
After all, Innes says, “’MORE Than Words’ speaks to the freedom of expression through the visual arts.”
Bullying can be powerful. Fortunately, so can art - and artists’ responses - to it.