The Art of Community: How Creative Spaces Help Support Baltimore City Residents

skyline of Baltimore City

We know that the whole health of our communities stems from what is made available to our communities, such as access to resources for optimal physical and mental well-being, and safe spaces for learning and community gathering. Whether holding space to make art in support of mental health for children and students, or providing creative accessibility for young people to healthfully navigate challenging topics like violence, the arts serve to lift up individuals and communities – particularly in Baltimore City.

Many Baltimore-based organizations are helping to build stronger communities, and amplifying resources and positive outcomes for the city’s residents – particularly the youth and marginalized populations. These spaces – many which use the arts as a base for their missions – help cultivate and nurture creativity across neighborhoods and communities.

Leaders at three of these organizations – Wide Angle Youth Media, CityWeeds/Be More Green, and Make Studio – shared their missions, stories, and achievements with the International Arts + Mind Lab.

Wide Angle Youth Media

Serving Baltimore youth ages 10-24, Wide Angle Youth Media provides media education and creative resources to young people, empowering them to share their stories.

“In our middle school and high school programming, our media educators are centering youth in their curriculum development — bringing them into the decision-making and letting them guide the projects that they work on,” said Wide Angle Youth Media’s communications manager Hannah Shaw. “For some students that might be the first time that they’ve been asked to make decisions like that and especially getting to hold a camera and choosing exactly what you’re highlighting and how that story is going to be told.”

“Two of our apprentices joined in middle school and when they joined, one of them shared with me: ‘I had no idea what this even was, I didn’t even think I wanted to be creative.’ It wasn’t on his radar. He didn’t think of himself as an artist, but he just did it because his friend was doing it,” notes Moira Fratantuono, Wide Angle’s Development and Communications Director. “They started their own production company. He ended up staying with us – going to Baltimore School for the Arts. He credits his time at Wide Angle with building his portfolio enough – even though his grades were not great, his portfolio was so strong he got into one of the best arts and media colleges in the country, and has graduated from there.”

Given Baltimore’s portrayal in mainstream media, Wide Angle Youth Media sees young people as the catalyst for change in reshaping the city’s narrative – experiencing access to learning and mastering the skill sets of media making.

“A question we ask ourselves is: Who tells the stories of our community and why do outsiders so frequently get to frame that?” said Fratantuono. “Within what we do in amplifying youth voices, that goal of reframing and retelling the stories of Baltimore so that the people impacted and the people living those experiences are the folks that get to share their perspectives on it.”

Shaw added, “I think we can pass the mic more. Let younger people share their perspectives. We are very rich in arts and culture in Baltimore. And the young people play a huge part in that, so it’s highlighting that and working to get more regional, national attention on all the creativity. I feel like people here know it’s here.”

CityWeeds / Be More Green

Known as “Farmer Nell”, Dominic Nell started his mission in 2015 as a response to the city’s civil unrest surrounding the death of Freddie Gray. Noticing the lack of healthy offerings and spaces for his community in West Baltimore, Nell created and launched CityWeeds and Be More Green: cultivating a youth program which expanded into community outreach and a brick-and-mortar store that provides fresh produce and groceries for the neighborhood, and sharing his expertise of food, nutrition, and cultivation with schools, community centers, and organizations.

“Why is this important to Baltimore City youth? Access to information and food is information, and we’re food processors, and when we process food, we’re processing information,” said Nell. He reflected on how one teenage boy experienced a mindset shift after spending time learning how to plant and manage a garden with Nell: “There was a boy with tattoos on his face who had been exposed to a lot at the age of 16. In his testimony, he said that he was able to learn the value of life in growing plants. That statement I think speaks volumes: take his story, take his narrative, take a six-week program and now his disciplined nature is protecting the plants. He was at peace with himself. Now he could be the grumpy old farmer, but he’s not the young gang member anymore. There’s an opportunity for him to blossom and become something else, through his experience.”

Reflecting on the impact of the disconnect between his community and nature’s offerings, Nell compares nature’s experience to the human experience. Recognizing the power of nature in its rehabilitating and healing properties, Nell reinforces the connection between nourishing plants  and nourishing ourselves: “Sunlight, water, air – we require those same things just like plants. So, like watering the plant, how much water did you drink? The plant is rooted in the ground – when was the last time you grounded yourself and put bare feet on grass?” Through his teaching, Nell emphasizes the importance of the human/nature relationship, particularly for the city’s young people. “A lot of this is just thinking like a farmer – planting seeds and cultivating a thought, and action steps and watering the soil. If not for nothing, teaching the youth not just about physical actual engagement with the earth but a mental set of coded routines that’s not the phone.”

Make Studio

Nestled in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, Make Studio provides a creative space for individuals with disabilities to build their lives as artists and share their voices and work with the community. Embodying inclusivity and diversity with its gallery space and programming, Make Studio has served as a unique beacon in Baltimore’s community arts sphere for over a decade.

“We intentionally cultivate a vibrant studio community among our adult artists with disabilities and staff, as well as to connect our broader communities with our artists and their work,” said Cathy Goucher, MA, ATR-BC, LCPC, LCPAT, associate director and co-founder of the space. “Baltimore City, with its rather DIY, grassroots arts-and-social-justice-oriented culture, would seem to serve quite naturally as a space for creatively disrupting practices of marginalization and ableism.” She noted that several local museums and cultural organizations – from the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art, to the Peale Museum and Creative Alliance – are actively focusing on inclusion and making their offerings more accessible to diverse audiences, including those with disabilities. Some spaces even showcase the work of self-taught and/or disabled artists in their exhibitions and shows, as Make Studio does with their community of artists. “We welcome community members and groups to visit during studio hours, providing impromptu and planned glimpses of our artists’ studio processes and opportunities to engage directly with Make Studio artists’ perspectives,” said Goucher.

The studio also serves as an Art Hive – part of an international group of spaces that sees everyone as an artist – and “invites the community in to learn from one another and to make art within an inclusive, respectful space where members respond creatively to things that matter.”

From exhibitions and workshops, to talks and an annual invitational show that highlights the work of disabled artists from the United States and around the world, Make Studio continues to shine a light on opportunity, inclusivity, and community in Baltimore – and beyond.

These organizations – and countless others throughout Baltimore – offer creative experiences and community engagement for diverse audiences, establishing the city’s arts and cultural presence as an important, healing aspect for residents, including for future generations.

WRITER BIO: Zoë Lintzeris is a Special Projects Coordinator with the International Arts + Mind Lab, as well as an Arts in Health specialist and visual artist.

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