On Thursday, February 11th at the La Esquina Gallery, guests arrived at 7 pm to listen to a talk held by Nedra Bonds and Michael Tombs. Nedra explained that her Rocket-talk topic was community (s)heroes in Kansas City – which tied in to the Rocket Grant project she completed in 2014 with Dr. Nancy Dawson. Her goal this evening was to introduce Michael as a living example of this concept. Michael and Nedra chatted playfully with each other revealing the familiarity of a 30 year-old friendship that began when they met at City Hall.
When Michael took the center floor, he began by explaining that his professional journey started out in customer service, but then in 1991 he decided to pursue art full-time.
When he started painting, Michael said his practice was separated into three different bodies of work: Spiritual work, Community-based work, and Surrealist or “Intuitive” work.
As Michael stood before us, a celebrated and successful professional, he described his experience of struggling to gain ground as a beginning artist and a person of color in America. He advised us, “Do what you do best, and do it well, and opportunities will come to you.”
One of the many themes that I took away from Michael’s message was how his spirituality, and belief in himself as well as his religion, kept him working to make his dream come true.
Moving on to more specific details, Michael introduced the phrase “Interactive Arts Education” and began to describe a whole new experience of what art making is and can be. Michael explained that he first adopted this term to describe a program he built from the ground up among the youth in urban Kansas communities.
“Interactive Arts Education spawned from the need in our community to enrich the lives of our young people – because they are not getting what they need.”
He gave an example of a project he designed called “Teens in Transition” (the name was chosen by the teens themselves) that gave youngsters an opportunity to be part of a caring team and learn self-expression. He said that within the first year of the program area crime rates had dropped by 18%…
The project was so successful the Mayor promised – on TV in front of everyone – that he would give them $60,000 to do it again.
The teens Michael was directed to were identified through court prosecutors who collect files on youth with the worst juvenile records, and these became the participants in his next group.
Michael explained that he compensated these kids out of his own pocket by paying them a minimum wage – as an incentive to continue returning to the 8-week program.
He emphasized that he always provided good food and music, and would acknowledge each and every one of them before beginning the day’s activities.
Although the majority of teens complete the program and clearly benefit from it in many ways – including better communication, outlook and social skills – there are inevitably individuals who drop out. Sometimes this reflects a whole system that has broken down. Michael said there were always police officers present to observe, and one day when he was 5 minutes late and a teen came in reeking of pot and mouthing off, the officer arrested him. Michael felt he could have prevented that had he been there – because he would have found some way to defuse the familiar patterns of tension.
A key aspect to how Michael Toombs was able to carry the weight of this project and embody the goodness he wished to impart was simply this: he emphasized love, empathy, and acceptance, and he met the world with a genuine face and an unbreakable faith. It is powerful to hear the word ‘love’ coupled with ‘art’ so comfortably, when many in the art world are still stuck deciding whether work like this should be called ‘Social Practice’ or “Social Engagement’.
Michael also recounted his experiences in the Spirit festival. He had been asked to find ways to improve family involvement, and came up with the idea to have a Youth and Arts Festival. He got a 10 x 90 ft tent, and asked his family and artist friends to hold workshops, make art, and basically interact with all comers for free.
It ended up being so successful that he was asked to do it the next year. He got an even larger tent, invited artists who work in all media, and set up a rather large temporary artist workshop! Over that three-day weekend over 350,000 people attended.
Michael described a number of highlights in his career as a community muralist and interactive arts educator, including a month-long project with 500 students, funded by the Kansas City Arts Commission, a 6-week long mural project at Bartle Hall with kids from both sides of the river, another with 30 local artists, and yet another with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
The Nelson needed a banner for their exhibition of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s work, and so commissioned Michael to formulate a project around it. Michael used Henry’s portrait as his palette, and set about teaching the kids to paint a square of the image. They then placed their squares together, so that their collective creations transformed into the image of this African-American painter.
This inspiring evening ended on a note about the future:
Michael shared that his new dream is to apply for a $500,000 grant to build an “Art Incubator” that will foster new leaders in the field of Interactive Arts Education – so that this legacy will be handed on, and in the hope that his ideas could continue to inspire others to change the way we approach both art and each other.
Report by Rocket Grants intern Dexter Melton.