Flint’s Artists and Cultural Organizations Help Cope with the Crisis

Janet Tyson May 26, 2016

FLINT, Mich. — When President Obama visited Flint a few weeks ago and took note of peoples’ feisty attitude, I was relieved to have my own perceptions echoed by someone I trust, who probably has spent about as much — or more accurately, as little — time in the city as I have. Just as Obama had other descriptors to apply, beyond “scared” and “angry,” so do I. And they suggest that Flint not only will survive but someday, once again, will thrive.

It won’t be the big, booming place it was during General Motors’ heyday, but it will be a good place to live and work. That’s because Flintians — or “Flintstones” as the kids, especially, like to call themselves — are more than feisty. They’re also loyal and generous, understandably skeptical about the motives of outsiders, and quite capable of carefully measured optimism. All of that, despite little having changed on the ground since the world learned about lead in the city’s tap water.

The artists and arts administrators I’ve met and stayed in touch with say that people still rely on free cases of bottled water, distributed in neighborhoods around the city. Thousands of water filters have been installed in homes and other properties, but countless people still drink, brush their teeth with, rinse veggies in, and cook with bottled water. They clean up with baby wipes or jump in and out of the shower.

One artist, who previously didn’t wear makeup, started using it to cover skin rashes aggravated by her tap water. A local arts administrator treats himself to a good, soaking bath when he’s on business in Kalamazoo; at home, he takes only “speed” showers. So, even when it’s not endangering peoples’ health — which it most certainly is in Flint — lack of trustworthy water is making life inconvenient in ways that most Americans cannot imagine.

In response, the city’s arts and cultural communities have implemented and are planning a range of projects to engage with what’s become known globally as the Flint water crisis. From documentaries to spoken-word performances, from urban revitalization actions to conventional gallery shows, they serve diverse ends that include raising political awareness, assuaging grief, anticipating long-term educational needs, and encouraging the resumption, as much as possible, of everyday life. Because normalcy, even when it’s far from easy, is a way of coping with crisis.

Raise It Up! Youth Arts and Awareness was founded by Natasha Thomas-Jackson and Lyndava Williams to expand the horizons of Flint’s young people, many of whom live in constrained circumstances, if not outright poverty. For several years now, youth involved in the program have participated in national poetry competitions that allow them to share the joys, sorrows, doubts, and frustrations that come from the constantly shifting relationships with family, friends, church and school that all teenagers experience.

But while they know that there’s more to the city than the water crisis, they don’t ignore it either. One poem, simply titled “Flint,” says it all:

Pay for your poison

the girls and the boys and

the city can’t drink

lead altering the way we think.


Where I’m from….

Yabadabadoo is a negro spiritual.

Forget what you heard about it,

Just know Flint made me.

Thinking beyond their immediate environment isn’t always easy for young people in Flint. When lack of opportunity shrinks the world to a couple of square miles, they forget about diversity — including diverse uses of English, Thomas-Jackson says.

“Each group has its own language,” I watched her tell two students when she met with them to work on poetry. “Someone tells you that you’re talking white, but the dominant culture gets to decide which is acceptable. So don’t reject any language: learn how it’s used.”

Like Raise It Up!, Studio on the GO builds community as it creates opportunities for kids. Founded by Flint music producer and former school bus driver Pharlon Randle, Studio on the GO brings production equipment to schools and runs an afterschool program at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Flint. Randle recently expanded the program to schools in a handful of other Michigan cities, including Kalamazoo. Under his tutelage, students at that city’s Northglade Montessori have written a song and produced a video for an upcoming Flint water crisis fundraiser.

Coincidentally, I connected with Randle at Café Rhema, where Thomas-Jackson and her mentees were meeting. Located on Saginaw Street in central Flint, it’s furnished with antiques and vintage photographs of C.S. Mott and other founders of the American automotive industry. The homemade, funky atmosphere was a refreshing departure from the uniformly hip décor of so many coffee shops in cities the world over.

But instead of staying in place to talk, Randle was ready to show me the sights. Or what used to be the sights, which is to say where the Buick City and Chevy in the Hole (so-called for reasons unknown) automotive manufacturing plants had been situated before GM shut them down, cut local manufacturing to a fraction of what it once was, and reduced both sites to barren concrete slabs and weeds.

Randle’s father worked at Buick City, whose name came from the company’s emulation of Toyota City in Aichi Prefecture, Japan. “The American dream was born here,” Randle said, looking over the wasteland. I thought I detected some sadness in his voice, but mostly I heard profound appreciation.

According to Michael Moore, GM’s focus on the bottom line destroyed that dream. I saw a parallel in the myopic cost-cutting by Flint’s emergency manager that triggered the water crisis, when he switched the city’s water source from Lake Huron to the hyperpolluted Flint River.

But I also noted a more positive parallel — between the 1936–37 sit-down strike at Chevy in the Hole and the activism that’s leading to the site’s revitalization today as Chevy Commons. The strike launched the United Auto Workers (UAW) and a loyalty to place that Flint’s current population fiercely maintains. It’s evidenced in the Free City Festival, which the Flint Public Art Project (FPAP) launched at the former industrial property four years ago. A happening of sorts, the event sparked Flint’s civic imagination: with the fourth annual festival coming up in August, Chevy in the Hole is on its way to becoming a popular park.

FPAP was founded by a Flint native, Stephen Zacks, who lives and works in Brooklyn but wanted to bring the connections and creative strategies he’s forged there back to his hometown. Chevy in the Hole would not be turning into Chevy Commons if not for Zacks and FPAP, said Greg Fiedler, director of the Greater Flint Arts Council.

Activism, including arts activism, is embedded in Flint’s civic culture, Fiedler said. Working-class solidarity brought middle-class security to communities throughout the industrial midwest. Now, Fiedler said, “creatives have the power to stir the imagination of people who hold the purse strings,” such that projects like Chevy Commons are possible.

Flint artists also are addressing the harm that comes when communities feel powerless. Fiedler cited a series of spoken-word performances by University of Michigan-Flint (UM-F) students that probed the causes and effects of widespread arson in 2010. EMBERS: The Flint Fires Verbatim Theatre Project toured neighborhoods with presentations based on residents’ responses to the fires, which started with landlords torching rental properties after the real estate bubble burst in 2008.

Now it’s the water crisis that artists and other activists are protesting and processing. Community concerns began in earnest in early 2015, but weren’t taken seriously until last September, when a Flint pediatrician tested children’s blood and found high levels of lead.

“The story of how the Flint water crisis was exposed is a positive story that gives people hope to fight,” said artist Desiree Duell, one of the activists originally dismissed by local authorities as simply seeking attention. “But we can’t move on until the work is done to heal our city.”

For Duell, activism is a form of performance art that she complements with interventions, which she’s collectively titled A Body of Water. Working with local parents, Duell poses children on the ground and outlines their bodies with chalk, evoking a series of crime scenes. She fills in the outlines with recycled bottles of water illuminated by LED lights. Especially when photographed, these embodiments have a curiously disembodied feel, almost akin to the personifications that people project onto constellations of stars.

Duell inaugurated the work last year and will expand upon it this summer. She plans at least one performance at the Free City festival in August.

Meanwhile, a more traditional presentation about the water crisis is being planned for Buckham Gallery, a venerable artists’ co-op in downtown Flint. Several artists associated with Buckham are on studio faculty at UM-F and Mott Community College; others are local independents. I gathered from talking with Lynn Penning — a painter involved in planning the show, which is scheduled for October — that Flint’s visual arts community is not exactly on the cutting edge, but that it has heart to spare. And that it feels the water crisis is something it cannot ignore.

“The water crisis has become so deeply ingrained in the culture here that it has to affect your work,” Penning said. “Even before the story went national, there was so much local awareness and activism that it filtered into the work subconsciously.”

For artists like Michael Melet, who said he has lived almost “every minute” of his life in Flint, the exhibition will provide an emotional release. A retired local businessman with deep family ties to the city, Melet can cite several efforts the city and its people have made to bring Flint back — and recount every crisis that has returned it to its knees. His heartbreak over the latest disaster is expressed in a series of images in which men and women of diverse ages and ethnicities stand in for Edvard Munch’s iconic, screaming figure on a bridge.

Alongside the venting of anger and grief, I also saw efforts focused on education and meeting needs. A project launched by members of the Flint Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA Flint) hopes to contribute to the city’s recovery in a tangible way, and to help other cities when (not if) they face water infrastructure crises of their own.

“There’s been a lot of think-tanking going on about what we could do to implement a useful project,” said Chapter Vice President Kurt Neiswender. “Not for the sake of coming up with a cool design but to help develop resilience.“

AIA Flint opted to produce a graphic — since widely published — on how best to store bottled water. Most Flint residents live in houses that are more than 100 years old, with wooden floors that could easily collapse under the weight of cases of water. The trick, the graphic explains, is storing water on concrete slabs or along outside walls. It won’t earn the chapter a blurb in Dezeen, but it might save a kid from falling though a broken floor.

Meanwhile, Flint’s Sloan Museum just closed an exhibition called Water’s Extreme Journey, which focused on the sources of water flowing from the city’s taps. In a bittersweet coincidence, the show was organized before toxins were found in Flint’s water supply — before, even, the city’s emergency manager made his fateful decision to use the heavily polluted Flint River as a water source. The displays and related programming addressed the now glaringly clear need to maintain water quality; when lead was identified last fall, the Sloan began adding constantly updated information on the crisis. What started as a lesson in water conservation became the context for reporting what happens when the reasoning behind conservation — maintaining clean water — is dismissed as needless expenditure.

The Sloan shares the city’s cultural district with several other institutions, including the Whiting, the Flint Youth Theatre, and the Flint Institute of Arts (FIA). All were constructed at the height of Flint’s affluence, in the 1950s and ’60s, and remain vital today. The FIA especially has focused not just on collections and exhibitions, but also on an extraordinary education program. In early 2013 the museum teamed up with Flint Community Schools and Head Start to expand its programs to include very young children and their parents.

Then, when lead was found in Flint’s drinking water, FIA staff committed to expanding their Head Start programming by 500%. Yes, 500%.

“We expect the number of children in Flint with cognitive and behavioral deficits to increase significantly due to increased exposure to lead,” explained Monique Desormeau, the FIA’s curator of education. Repairing damage from the water crisis won’t end with replacing lead pipes, she said. Flint’s cultural and educational institutions must be prepared to deal with cognitive and behavioral fallout from lead contamination for at least a couple of decades.

“We will increase opportunities to participate in hands-on activities, listen to children’s literature, explore spatial concepts through creative movement, and look at and talk about works of art,” she said. Providing a wide range of educational opportunities — which research shows increases children’s ability to learn — is “how the FIA can make a positive impact on the future success of our children.”

“Our” children. From sharing sadness over lost bath times to urging kids to embrace language, the more I know about Flint, the more I think it’s an amazing place — a feisty community and a city with conviction. A few months ago, I was feeling sorry for all of those Flintstones. Now I’m learning to be proud of them.

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