By Janna Nelson
Democracy is an art. It requires a capacity to engage, to participate, to listen to one another. And art can develop the trust, empathy, and self-reflection necessary to engage in civil dialogue, the essential foundation of a healthy democratic society. Art both reflects and informs our society. It is a tool we can use to imagine a better world, and it provokes the questions: Are we living our ideals, including equality, as a country, state, city, community, family, and as individuals? Who gets to participate?
There is a range of expression in art, from the arch-conservative to the radical left, depending on what people believe society should be. Some arts institutions perpetuate white privilege; others reflect our diversity. This second group are grounded in ideals of collaboration, of shared power and creative leadership. These organizations work with the community to create art that is reflective of a range of experiences.
What follows are three interviews with local artists who are deeply dedicated to the principles of democracy: Romy Keegan, V.B. Price, and Bill Mohr.
Dance as Community Building
By Janna Nelson
Maple Street Dance Space, owned and operated by Romy and Tim Keegan, was founded in 2004. The existence of this dance community brings about opportunities for connection, engagement, and mutual support with the wider community through performances, dance classes, and collaborative exchanges with organizations like the Albuquerque Art Museum, the Veteran’s Association, Refugee Day and Citizenship Celebrations, as well as in community and city events like Summerfest, to list a few. Romy is also engaged in ongoing conversations with the City’s Arts and Cultural initiative, Tipping Points, which seeks to bring economic support to artists living in the Albuquerque area.
Romy has a passion for bringing people together in a noncompetitive and welcoming environment, holding space for the adult community dancer to experience the healing power of dance and community. This collaborative approach is akin to democracy at its best.
“Engaging in the practice of self-expression, witnessing people move from shyness and discomfort to confidence, is beautiful,” she says. “It’s a freeing thing, to have a place where we all have a voice, a presence, an agreed upon ideal that we are giving each other space to be who we are, so we can explore our own process and support each other in theirs. We come to dance and to be in class, we come to create something powerful together.”
Painting to Engage Conversation
By Susannah Abbey
Bill Mohr didn’t paint political subjects, but things change. The ideological fracture of our nation’s people, the squabbles over guns, racism, even the U.S. Postal Service, weighed on him enough to try something new.
“I think about this stuff and decided I needed to express these thoughts some way. I have a sticker on my truck that says ‘Americans died to defeat lunatic tyrants—not be governed by one.’ It’s nice to be able to express these feelings [through painting].”
Mohr is currently working on a new political painting titled “Liberty and Justice for Some.” It depicts a storefront in Mainstreet-America with both a Statue of Liberty and a “Protected by Smith and Wesson” sign in the window. There is Coca-Cola machine next to an old-fashioned cigar store Indian, and in the foreground are a lawn jockey and a letter carrier in a mask. He’s also working on a painting about evangelistic far right Republicans.
“My mother was a Republican Sunday school teacher, and this is a total insult to her,” he says. He thinks that a lot of the current administration’s support comes from people who watch Fox or OAN and don’t have the complete picture, and hopes that his art can fill in some information gaps.
“Everyone has their favorite news. I have a right-wing friend who flew jet planes like John McCain. He didn’t know what Trump said about McCain….I also know a right-wing guy in my Tango class who comes at you with a barrage of stuff. That’s the good thing about painting—you can transmit a message without being in people’s faces.”
Poetry as an Antidote to Despair
By Lance Chilton
Santa Fe maintained a Living Treasures program from 1984 until 2020 to honor people in their prime of life who had made a major contribution to their community. If Albuquerque had such a program, V.B. Price would be the first to receive it.
Price and his late wife, founded Century Magazine: A Southwest Journal of Observation and Opinion, which published the work of 400 authors, including Tony Hillman and George Pearl. He also wrote for the Albuquerque Tribune and the Journal, and has published many books of essays, poetry, and a novel, The Oddity, set in the fraught times of the McCarthy era.
Never a fan of Joe McCarthy, Price is also not enamored of our current “leader.” For several years, he conducted wonderful weekly interview and comment video programs, available on the web; these have been succeeded by weekly columns which I love to read first thing Monday morning (you can sign up to receive them too: mercmessenger.com/newsletter/). Usually a mix of horror at our current situation and hope for the future, the columns include these recent lines:
Gloomy and sinister as the present moment is, we are still a nation composed of citizens/with aspirations for a better life based on equal justice under law, equal/opportunity in the marketplace and equal respect in the social world we all share.
And from his poem, “Five Reasons Why Despair is No Good:”
Love is the rock, the law, the final refuge/as killing slithers all around us. It’s our only chance…/Beauty startles despair, a breath taking/that can jolt even pain away.