A Periodic Broadside for Arts and Culture Workers
March 2005. Vol. 9, No. 3.
Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy
Arts & Administration Program, University of Oregon                        ISSN 1541-938X

Community Arts in the Digital Age

Professor Kristin Congdon
University of Central Florida

June McFeeI earned my Ph.D. in art education from the University of Oregon in June of 1983. If I remember correctly, I was the last student whose dissertation June McFee supervised before she retired. I recall thinking when I graduated that this was a great distinction to have. Because she was retiring, I worked really hard to get my graduate work done in a timely manner so that she, and no one else, could sign as the chair of my dissertation committee.

My choice of Oregon for graduate school was not taken lightly. My husband and I had good jobs and had just purchased our first house in Milwaukee when I decided I needed to do further graduate work and that the University of Oregon was the school for me. It was the only place in the country at that time where I could get a Ph.D. in art education with faculty support for studying folk art. In the eyes of the Art World, folk art at that time was considered to be unworthy of serious study as it was a lesser form of creativity, produced by unsophisticated people. But June felt differently. So did Vincent Lanier. And Vincent liked to work with people who would risk their professional careers by challenging the status quo. He was often viewed as a renegade, and he enjoyed keeping company with like-minded individuals.

Vincent LanierAs early as 1979, Vincent Lanier, who was a great admirer of John Dewey, wrote that educators needed to adopt an egalitarian view on aesthetics in which "all visual stimuli from natural objects and popular and folk arts and mass media contain the possibilities for significant aesthetic experience" (p. 15). It was clear to him, way before so many others came to this realization, that rich aesthetic experiences can happen outside the museum and gallery frame of reference (1980, p. 18). In fact, he would sometimes begin a seminar by asking what students watched on television the night before. He was also a fan of movies, and it was no secret to any of his students that Sophia Loren was his favorite star. He displayed a rather seductive poster of her on his office wall and he often looked up from his desk to admire her.

While Vincent worked from somewhat of a fringe position in the field of art education, critiquing the establishment as he wrote, June engaged in solid research, positioning herself in the anthropological and psychological academic centers, as she encouraged those who study art to broaden the scope, diversify the creators, and look to the context of origin in order to understand an object's meaning and value. In 1966 she wrote that studying art should focus on two goals: " (1) helping students see the functions of art in culture as it transmits values and attitudes, and identifies cultural meanings, [and] (2) helping students respect and understand cultural pluralism in our society by becoming aware of the functions of art in our many subcultures" (p. 134).

Because I had worked in inner-city schools, in correctional settings, and in a residential treatment center before coming to Oregon, my interest was in marginalized populations and the ways in which they create and understand the world around them. Studying at the University of Oregon gave me a supportive space to do my work. While other schools may very well have valued my interest in under-supported students, they likely would not have supported their aesthetic or their visual expressions. Rather, they would have suggested that if we study popular art or folk art in educational settings, it would only be to bridge the gap, allowing for movement to those art works that are recognized by the establishment as holding the greatest value. For this great gift that came from all members of the art education faculty at the University of Oregon, I am extremely grateful.

Since leaving Oregon in 1983, I have taught in many different disciplines and areas of study in university settings: art education, art therapy, community arts, art history, philosophy (focusing on aesthetics), humanities (especially contemporary multi-cultural studies) and now film and digital media. I recognize that it is unusual for someone to move disciplines so frequently in academia, but this shifting and playing with new contexts has worked well for me. With each move, new ideas have pushed my research in another direction. It is my recent work that I will highlight here. It has been over 20 years since I left Oregon and my studies under the guidance of June McFee and Vincent Lanier (and, I should also acknowledge the rigor and keen insights from Rogena Degge). In spite of two passing decades, it is easy to see how what I do is now both different and the same. Grounded in similar values and belief structures on how to approach art, I now use newer media to explore issues of creative diversity, cultural context, and aesthetic appreciation. Each of the three projects I will discuss here is community-based. Each of these projects relies on a team of faculty, students, and community members. We are all collaborators. All three projects came about when I moved my tenure from the Art Department at the University of Central Florida to the School of Film and Digital Media. This move from one faculty and discipline to another has given me access to faculty and students with theory and technical skills in newer media. Vincent must be smiling. He was a strong voice for the use of technology to be used in diverse educational settings.

Cultural Byways on the Information Highway

Cultural Byways PosterCultural Byways on the Information Highway is a project that, in part, addresses Orlando's lack of identity. Seen by outsiders as a tourist designation, a place to fly to in order to go to Disney, perhaps it also conjures up ideas of palm trees and warm weather, but little else. In a like manner, few residents of Orlando have any idea that it was once a place identified with ranching and the citrus and turpentine industries (Congdon et al, 2003, p. 27). Before Disney was built, Orlando was a small town located in Mosquito County, a name that was later changed to Orange County since the idea of going to a place with a name like "mosquito" wasn't very attractive to tourists. Orlando grew tremendously with Disney and it continues to change as a fast growing metropolitan area with new immigrant populations and a focus on entertainment and the arts.

The Byways project's goals were basically two-fold: 1) to teach both residents and visitors about Orlando's folklore and history, and 2) to make use of new technology on downtown's free buses, called Lymmos, to explore how it might be used for educational purposes. This project involved numerous faculty and students, each building on their areas of expertise. Faculty and students came from Film, Art, the Text and Technology Ph.D. Program, History, Folklore, Music, Computer Science, and English. They were researchers, photographers, scriptwriters, producers, artistic directors, and computer experts. Segments were either "Moments of Folklore," or "Moments in History." Our partners were the Orange County Regional History Center, the Department of State, Florida Folklife Programs, and Transit Television Networks, which owns the video systems on the buses. We had a grant from the Florida's Department of State, Division of Historical Resources to get the project started. Students worked for money, class credit, or as volunteers. They rode the buses, critiqued each other's work, and spent long hours learning computer programs.

Lymmo Bus MapUsing wireless Internet and a GPS (Global Positioning System), downtown buses were able to download history and folklife segments that were shown on newly installed ADA (American Disability Act) video equipment. Between stops, the video screens were filled with stories, facts, and information that corresponded to the building and public spaces outside the bus window. These segments included historical and contemporary photographs, animation, text, and limited sound since the buses were so noisy that sound was not effective. They presented facts about people and architectural spaces, stories about ghosts, information on ethnic music, stained glass windows in churches, Asian restaurants, tattoo parlors, hip hop nightclubs, the historical progression of certain buildings, local musicians, crafters of musical instruments, and popular places to visit. Because the stops on the Lymmo bus are frequent, each segment is very short, from 30 seconds to two minutes. Angel Lopez makes a cuatro, a traditional Puerto Rican instrument, an art collector gets another tattoo, Josian Alicea, a Puerto Rican guiro-maker is highlighted, and the murals at St. George's Greek Orthodox Church are introduced.

>>Click to watch these Cultural Byways segments on the UCF Cultural Heritage Alliance Website<<
Byways Artist Images

The segments played on the Lymmo bus system for almost five months. As with all projects like this one, we learned a lot. It took much more time and effort to make it work than we thought. Sometimes the segments were displayed as steaming videos instead of data linked to the GPS. But it was a thrill to see it work right when it did. And when riders recognized that the information related to a building or a space outside the window, it was especially rewarding.

Currently two things are happening with the byways project. We are designing a kiosk that will be displayed in the Orange County Regional History Center. Participants will be able to access the segments through a map, as if they were on a walking tour. This change of venue may allow us to use more sound, thereby making it assessable to more people. Segments related to lung cancer are now being developed for a more extended bus route. The design and content of these segments are oriented toward the particular ethnic community the bus might be traveling through. Language, color selection, pacing, and appropriate content are being carefully researched to target Haitians, various Asian populations, or African Americans.

The byways project was ambitious. We know that in the future more and more educational opportunities will open up to artists and educators as we learn to use the GPS more creatively. During our brainstorming and daydreaming moments we talk about being able to travel by car, train, or plane while learning about a selected topic, perhaps African American history in Florida, ghost tales in the South, how the Underground Railroad worked, or religious rituals that take place in a given locale. We now have an extensive database of information. In the future more and different kinds of educational segments can be built using this data, which has been archived in our university library. The possibilities for research and education are staggering, and with the success of the byways project, more people and organizations are beginning to inquire about possible opportunities.

New Folkvine

In November, Craig Saper, Chantale Fontaine, and Alex Katsaros, and I published a Culturework article on the project. In this project, the four of us, along with other team members, placed four Florida folk artists on the web in a way that represents their aesthetics and ways of living in the world. All four sites are community-based in that public events were organized in order to receive feedback and direction on how to represent each artist and community. We are currently in our second year of funding from the Florida Humanities Council. We will add three new artists who are: 1) Lilly Carrasquillo, an Orlando artist from Puerto Rico who draws on influences and folk traditions from various Hispanic cultures making masks and ofrendas (Day of the Dead altars), mostly from papier-mache; 2) Taft Richardson, an African American artist and preacher from Tampa, who constructs sculptures from discarded bones; and 3) Kurt Zimmerman, a longtime Cocoa resident who worked for years at the Space Coast and paints UFOs and fantastic animals, memorializing them as they ascend to heaven.

The entire site will be overlaid with three humanities topics. These topics are social economy, place-making imagination, and re-creative identity. Lilly Carrasquillo's site will be bi-lingual. As in our first year of funding, we will hold public events for each artist and his or her community.

As we move into the second year of work on this project, I begin to think more and more about the nature of "community," and June McFee's work. The book she wrote with Rogena Degge, Art, Culture and Environment (1977), rooted art in the lives of everyday people as it looked for ways to enrich our communities through aesthetic awareness. This work, coupled with the recent work of Harry Boyte (2004), Everyday Politics, furthers my ideas about what projects like should do. Boyte believes that Jane Addams' ideas, now over a hundred years old, about educating people to actively involve themselves in politics is key to breaking down "the walls that keep us isolated and powerless" (p. 182). Recognizing that danger can plague any information society, he also acknowledges the power that it can provide (p. 181). The Folkvine team believes that there is power in making diverse ways of creating and shaping the world visible. Boyte writes:
Energy generated by steam and electricity transformed preindustrial societies into industrial societies. Money replaced raw materials as the main strategic resource. Today, data-transmission systems and the theoretical knowledge required to organize information drive innovation, comprise strategic resources and power, shape the world economy, and alter human relationship." (p. 180)

1st year Folkvine ArtistsBy making visible our artists we hope that many alternate and diverse ways of living and finding joy in this world become available as possibilities for all of us. Ruby Williams's understanding of the links amongst farming, family, and creative process is important; Ginger LaVoie's quiet meditative quilting experience that slows and centers is useful in our often too fast-paced world; and Diamond Jim Parker and the Scott Family's ability to make us laugh, delight in that which is silly, and ground us in kit-bashing strategies is not only powerful, but significant to our health and creative spirits. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term "kit-bashing," for Diamond Jim Parker, it was taking a miniature model circus kit and adapting it and changing it to meet his own imaginative needs. In a sense, the Scott Family and Ruby Williams live their lives like this with bartering, using tossed out objects, and constructing places and spaces that fit their own personal ways of living in the world.)

Boyte's participatory ideas about citizens involving themselves politically is to think of "social capital" the way that John Dewey thought about it. It means that everyday citizens can and should participate in challenges associated with problems such as racism and poverty. They can also actively involve themselves in radical ways that could affect our educational process (p. 114). Democracy, therefore, is not only in the hands of legislators. For instance, Ruby Williams thinks about education in a way that embraces formal schooling, but she also understands that learning takes place in community settings and that it includes ethics, racial understanding, and proper respect for family members and the land. Taking responsibility for one's community, for her, is key to a good education.

Taft Richardson CrucifixOne of our new artists, Taft Richardson, believes that we should focus on the resurrection. While it may sound like he is only talking about the resurrection of Christ, he also means the usefulness of dead animal bones to make art, as they symbolize transformation. This transformation, in his mind, represents the power involved in lifting up one's spirit to engage in community goals. In his case, art and the wellbeing of children in his African American neighborhood are synonymous. As you create a work of art, power is recognized, and youthful creators get linked to objects and ideas that bring them into a caring, participatory community. It is active engagement in the process of living that makes for, in Boyte's words, good citizens, and in Richardson's, a good life.

Boyte believes, and McFee would agree, that we have isolated ourselves in such a way that we only communicate with those who are most like us. Boyte claims that we must learn "the skills of negotiation among diverse interests . . . across partisan and other divisions, to accomplish tasks or to solve problems" (p. 37). For McFee, we could learn to do this by studying diverse kinds of art within their contexts. For the members of the Folkvine team, the Internet presents itself as a new tool that allows participants outside certain community groups to move into spaces that are foreign, providing them with alternative ways of thinking and responding to the world. We believe that our artists are smart people. They have struggles and solve problems by creatively engaging in their worlds and the objects around them. It may strike you odd or funny that someone like Kurt Zimmerman BirdsZimmerman could mentally and spiritually balance the early part of his life, as a German-born United States World War II soldier, by picking up road kill and memorializing it by lovingly painting these animals in their journey to the next world. Or it may surprise you to know that in Taft Richardson's mind, art is learned in church, because we learn to say the Lord's Prayer, and it begins with, "Our Father who art in heaven," thereby recognizing the art process as divine and powerful. These new ways of thinking and understanding the world can not only help us broaden our lives and possibilities but they can help us create our own worlds in ways that teach us new language systems, connect us to others, and envision possibilities for engaging in everyday politics.

Boyte believes that we have lost the idea that making a contribution to family and community is key to our identities. In contrast, today, we define ourselves by how much we can purchase. We are consumers, and not contributors (p. 7). One of McFee's goals is to build community through the study of art. McFee and Degge write, "To some degree we can respond to any people's art even though their language may be incomprehensible to us. But we can only understand their art in the degree we can learn their culture" (p. 279). Each of the Folkvine artists contributes to the building of community through their art and we construct each site by informing the web participant about the art as it connects to the cultural context and language. Technology is the tool that allows us to educate others about their lives and work.

Charles Kuralt (1995), one of my other mentors, once said, "I'd rather know bird songs than know French" (p. 89). While I wish I knew French better than I do, I also crave an understanding of those language systems not generally taught about in formal educational settings. If I can learn to enter into a world view and language system that engages my imagination in ways that give me great insights, teach me how to stretch the boundaries of what I think possible and reasonable, and move into ways of being that solve pressing problems related to violence, depression, and apathy, then I feel great pleasure and satisfaction in the process of learning.

Motorcycle Stories

In 1976 Vincent Lanier predicted that by the year 2000, the fine arts definition would include the folk arts, the popular arts, and mass media (p. 13). While we might not talk about what has happened to definitions of art quite the same way, it is clear that the boundaries of art categories have dissolved so greatly that it is even hard to define the term "art" as distinct from "life," let alone what makes something fine art or mass media.

Show MotorcycleIn 1998, the Guggenheim Museum curated a controversial exhibition on motorcycles. Although it was a smash hit with the general public, some critics had problems with everyday utilitarian objects being placed as fine art in a major museum. In January of 2006, this exhibition will be reconstructed for the Orlando Museum of Art as one of their blockbuster shows. They expect huge crowds that will diversify their audiences. Because Daytona Beach has a well-established Bike Week in the Spring and Harley Davidson has a large presence in Orlando, hopes for a wildly successful show are high.

In partnership with the Orlando Museum of Art and this exhibition, UCF's Cultural Heritage Alliance will begin to collect motorcycle stories from Central Florida. As we begin this project, we recognize that we have a lot to learn. What are the many sub-groups that ride motorcycles? Do they each have identifiable symbols, aesthetics, and language systems? Motorcycle Project Web InterfaceHow far should we go incorporating related material culture such as clothing, tattoos, customized bikes, motorcycle rituals, and language? How do we handle the sexist nature of some of the cultural practices? What kinds of images and stories are appropriate and inappropriate for museum audiences, and if we engage in censorship, how do we do it? How might the nature of the Cultural Heritage Alliance website change with motorcycle culture as a section, and what might we be saying about our own identity by choosing this diverse culture as one we highlight? For example, Chantale Fountaine, the Cultural Heritage Alliance Web-designer, informs me that there is a bikers' club in Central Florida called VOBC or the Very Odd Bikers' Club. Their initiation requires that new members "bike around naked." They have a must-read book called The Ghost of Scootertrash Past. If our website is to be used by children, how do we incorporate intriguing and compelling groups like this one?

Problems with addressing certain aspects of a culture that might appear controversial to some have come up before. In the Folkvine project we talked about cross-dressing as part of Diamond Jim's clowning practices. Before we reached the comfort point in addressing this topic with him, he passed away. Therefore, as our key informant was gone, this topic is absent from the website. But one can hardly think of motorcycle culture without thinking of ways in which females are denigrated by sexualizing them and making them into an objectified attachment to some macho biker's machine. These topics and the issues connected to them should not be avoided. I believe, (and I think June and Vincent would agree with me here) that it is precisely at these moments where the power to teach has the most potential. It is our hope that we find ways to address these issues in collaboration with the cultures involved and we do it in a way that can involve dialogue from all age groups. If we do this right, we will have engaged ourselves with others in what Boyte calls, "the politics of respect," which "taps and also develops the intelligence and skills of American citizens for practical public action" (p. 15). Perhaps, as we learn more about diverse motorcycle cultures, we will learn more about aesthetics, gender studies, economics, ritual practices, identity politics, and ways to have fun. 

A Few Other Words

My work in community art has not jumped from my Oregon days to these three projects without many assorted projects and ideas sandwiched in between. Most notable have been my many projects with Doug Blandy. Each of these research efforts is rooted in the work of June McFee and her desire to build community, diversify the kinds of art we value and study, and center our understanding in their context of origin. But, when Doug and I work, we enjoy coming from the position with which Vincent Lanier was so comfortable: challenging the status quo by looking at what is happening in popular culture and marginalized communities.

Images from the Fishing ShowIn 1987, then Assistant Professors at Bowling Green State University in northwest Ohio, we coordinated an exhibition on the art and aesthetics of fishing. We hired local experts in model boat building, fly tying, taxidermy, and fishing aesthetics to identify objects of value and arrange them the gallery space. The exhibition with the most publicity and attendance at that time, it generated controversy and strong feelings from those who thought it was timely and made a strong and useful statement about art and those who thought that what we had done was close to blasphemy, by allowing everyday people who knew little to nothing about "art" (or ART) to place everyday objects in a "fine art" gallery (Blandy & Congdon, 1988).

In 1990 we wrote an article titled, "Pornography in the Classroom: Another Challenge for the Art Educator," (Blandy & Congdon) which again ignited a controversy. Some said we went too far in our proposal to discuss what were seen as taboo topics in school classrooms, and others claimed we had incorrectly labeled some master works as pornographic.

Zine CoversIn the mid-1990s we both started using zines as a format for art criticism and aesthetics in our university classes. We gave talks on zine-making and wrote about it in Art Education (Congdon & Blandy, 2003). Since then a number of teachers from across the country have contacted us about using zines as an art form that encourages dialogue about controversial issues. We have also explored the potential of electronic boards used by soap opera fans as models for art critical practices (Congdon & Blandy, 2001). Recently, we have written about appreciating the fake (Congdon & Blandy, 2001), and why we should study kitsch in the classroom (Congdon and Blandy, in press). In all these research projects we pose questions that anticipate dialogue because we have stepped outside the normal academic process and center of the established art world. In each case we have also identified communities of people who routinely engage in certain aesthetic practices that have been marginalized, devalued, and silenced from formal educational settings. In doing so, we have explored new communities, learned new language systems, and discovered new ways of thinking. We have built on the strong foundational work of June King McFee and Vincent Lanier as have so many other art educators, cultural activists, and community arts specialists. The good work of these two outstanding scholars and mentors may not always be acknowledged, but their influence is unmistakable.


Blandy, D., & Congdon, K. G. (1988). Community based aesthetics as an exhibition catalyst and a foundation for community involvement. Studies in Art Education, 29(4), 243-249.

Blandy, D. & Congdon, K. G. (1990). Pornography in the classroom: Another challenge for the art educator. Studies in Art Education, 32(1), 6-16.

Boyte, Harry C. (2004). Everyday politics: Reconnecting citizens and public life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Congdon, K. G. & Blandy, D. (2001). Approaching the real and the fake: Living life in the fifth world. Studies in Art Education, 42(3), 266-278.

Congdon, K. G. & Blandy. D. (2001). Viewers sound off: A feminist analysis of vernacular art criticism of "All My Children" and "Another World" on electronic "boards." The Journal of Gender Issues in Art and Education, 2, 266-278.

Congdon, K. G. & Blandy, D. (2003). Zinsters in the classroom: Using zines to teach about postmodernism and the communication of ideas. Art Education, 56(3), 44-52.

Congdon, K. G. & Blandy, D. (in press). What? Clotheslines and popbeads aren't trashy anymore?: Teaching about kitsch. Studies in Art Education.

Congdon, K. G. , & Teicher, S., & Engell, A. M. (2003). Cultural byways on the information highway: Contextualizing spaces and places with history and folklore. Journal of Cultural Research in Art Education 21, 27-35.

Kuralt, C. (1995). Charles Kuralt's America . New York: Anchor Books.

Lanier, V. (1976). The future of art education or tiptoe through the tea leaves. Art Education 3, 12-14.

Lanier, V. (1979). Some criticisms of the NAEA commission report. Studies in ArtEducation, 21(1), 5-16.

Lanier, V. (1980). Six items on the agenda for the eighties. Art Education, 33(5), 16-23.

McFee, J. K. (1966). Society, art and education. In E. L. Mattill (Ed.), A seminar for research in art education (pp. 122-140). University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University.

McFee, J. K., & Degge, R. M. (1977). Art, culture and environment. Dubuque, IW: Kendall/Hunt.

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Kristin G. Congdon is a Professor of Film and Philosophy at the University of Central Florida. She is also the Director of the Heritage Alliance, part of the Zora Neale Hurston Institute for Documentary Studies. She has a Ph.D. in art education from the University of Oregon and has published extensively on the study of folk arts, visual cultural, feminist criticism, and community arts. Co-editor, with Doug Blandy, of Art in a Democracy, and Pluralistic Approaches to Art Criticism, she has also co-edited the anthology Evaluating Art Education Programs in Community Centers: International Perspectives on Problems of Conception and Practice with Doug Boughton. In 2002 she published Artists from Latin American Cultures, co-authored with Kara Hallmark and in 2004 her book Community and Art in Action was published. Her co-authored book with Tina Bucuvaslas, Just Above the Water: Florida Folk Art, will be published by University Press of Mississippi in 2005.

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CultureWork is an electronic publication of the University of Oregon Institute for Community Arts Studies. Its mission is to provide timely workplace-oriented information on culture, the arts, education, and community. For previous issues of CultureWork, visit the Previous Issues page. Prospective authors and illustrators please see the Guidelines.

Opinions expressed by authors of CultureWork broadsides do not necessarily express those of the editors, the Institute for Community Arts Studies, or the University of Oregon.

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©2005 The Institute for Community Arts Studies unless otherwise noted (see above Creative Commons license); all other publication rights revert to the author(s), illustrator(s), or artist(s) thereof.

Editor: Maria Finison                                        Advisor: Dr. Douglas Blandy

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