It felt something akin to stepping onto Platform Nine and Three-quarters, destination: Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, or through the enchanted armoire portal to Narnia, when I found myself “lost” in my hometown. I was standing in a side alley in downtown Bradenton at ArtSlam 2015, soaking in the magic and vibrant potential of an unexpected and unfamiliar space: A space transformed by the power of art and intention.
Over the years, I've developed an uncanny knack for losing my bearings in boroughs big and small, far and wide. I've gotten myself turned around in Rome and Paris and Quito, in small towns at the edge of Everglades swamps and in the Adirondack Mountains; in Miami and in Manhattan. What better way to immerse oneself in the culture of a city than to take an aimless journey?
My constant rule of thumb for finding my way: Follow the art.
I am not so much drawn to museums as I am to the “everyday art” that defines a community’s unique identity: its street art, its artisans’ handmade crafts and wares, its buskers on busy corners, its local flavors on food trucks and in street markets. I seek community murals where the paint is still fresh, and I examine the walls closely, looking for the fingerprints that belong to the hands, big and small, who worked together to make their communities more vibrant.
Of course, in this instance, sniffing out the trail wasn't exactly a challenge: The annual ArtSlam hosted by Realize Bradenton transforms downtown Bradenton’s Old Main Street into a dynamic block party, featuring dozens of artists, performers and local musicians, site-specific installations, interactive art, and a smorgasbord of street food.
I allowed my senses to be my guide to and through ArtSlam. I followed percussion beats through the farmer’s market on Old Main Street, where I was thrilled to find local lime basil seeds to plant in my garden. I followed the drum beat to the art-interactive “Paint Me” dance performance by Fuzion Dance Artists. I followed the clatter, click and hiss of aerosol spray cans and the smell of fresh paint along my path to street artist, Richie Brasil. I revisited an old friend, the ever-evolving “Labyrinth of the Unbroken Path,” a recycled-materials art maze whose walls receive new art and messages painted by visitors in every place it is installed.
Young artists set the tone at ArtSlam. Twenty creative teams of elementary, middle school, high school and college students collaborate to stage performances, build site-specific installations, and take creative leadership roles in the interactive art projects featured in the festival. Each year at ArtSlam, groups of the community’s youngest leaders descend on Old Main Street to share their visions, illustrating a colorful and inspiring look into Bradenton’s future.
My enchantment began to linger as I followed my senses along Old Main Street, down a trail of rain dancing, through stands of locally-grown vegetables and herbs, poetry, glitter tattoos, sugar-sculpting, interactive community murals and found-art crafts, and live music. I took one left turn into an alley—and there I was, lost in my hometown, spellbound.
I've been in a beautiful place or two, but I saw something special in that alley that reminded me why I am still inspired every time I come home to Bradenton: I saw children building, and taking stands on soap boxes. I saw teenagers lending youngsters helping hands up to the podiums they had built together.
At the end of the alley, a crowd was gathered around “I Want to Start a Movement,” an audience-participatory performance art installation by Manatee School of Arts. Dozens of different-sized wooden blocks served as the canvas for participants to write a message, or inspire a movement, big or small: “Learn to Bake.” “Be a superhero.” “Plant a tree.” “Love yourself.”
Throughout the day, those blocks were filled with the color, the artwork, the encouragement, the hopes and aspirations, and the positive intentions of a community—namely, I noted, its children. The boxes served as a prop in interactive performances that built unique sculptures, walls, podiums and staircases, and sparked discussions about social movements. They communicated a message about the power of the arts to mobilize and strengthen communities. They put kids on their very own soap boxes.
At the end of that alley, and all around it at ArtSlam, I saw our community’s youth building towers of art and good intention, working together to learn and to teach lessons in community building, in leadership and empowerment, in diversity, and in making a unique place of our very own.
Getting lost, briefly, in my own hometown, reminded me of my belief in finding the most vibrant communities — always follow the art.
Jessi Smith is a guest blog contributor for Realize Bradenton.