New Village Press is of course in the business of publishing the words of visionary authors. In this vein, we’ve decided to launch a Guest Blogger series, where we will feature the words of others who share and act on the vision of NVP.
Our first guest is Ross Holzman of the Create Peace Project, a San Francisco-based nonprofit devoted to peacebuilding through the arts. I first met Ross during Lily Yeh’s recent visit to the Bay Area, and we connected over the vision shared by Lily, the Create Peace Project, and New Village Press of the expression of creativity as a pathway to peace. Ross graciously answered some of my questions and provided the photos of artwork created by students involved in the Project below.
NVP: Ross, tell me a little about yourself.
ROSS: I grew up in Gates Mills, Ohio, and moved to San Francisco in late 2000. I lived here for about eight months during the dot-com crash, when jobs were tight and there was a sense of general dismay in the Bay Area. Struggling to find work, between August 2001 and September 2002 I took a job at a call center consulting firm in New Delhi, India. During that year I witnessed the extremes in poverty and overpopulation, got sick and lost twenty-five pounds, felt the intensity of Indian sensory overload, discovered Hinduism and Buddhism, and found spirituality through yoga and meditation. Upon my return to the States, in December 2002, I moved to Los Angeles where I had a profound wake-up call and shift in consciousness.
In March of 2003, George W. Bush announced we were going to war with Iraq, and that is when this pathway towards peace began. My outrage catalyzed a movement into political art, transforming newspapers through collage into statements about the war. Once I realized that making political art was not the positive response I wanted to be sharing with my audience, I began making art for peace. I wanted to respond to the inundation of violence in the news, the excessive push for consumerism across billboards, and the general inundation of negativity in our daily lives by making something positive. I wanted to promote messages of self-empowerment, joy, love, and something uplifting in the hearts and minds of my audience.
For years I was in a constant creative exploration and pouring it out. I learned a lot about myself through making art and writing. I also realized that I loved to make art with others, and that even though the act of collaboration was extremely difficult for me, it was a powerful and insightful learning experience that I wanted to embrace. My passion for art and my curiosity around how people would work together in a creative space brought about an experience called Collaborate & Create. C&C happens as an independent activity or as part of a larger event, and people in it are invited to co-create using a variety of visual arts mediums on a multitude of canvases, including found objects. Countless Collaborate & Create experiences have happened since 2005, and they continue to uplift and inspire all who participate, including me.
NVP: Tell me about the Create Peace Project, your San Francisco-based nonprofit.
ROSS: Coming out of Los Angeles, I relocated back to San Francisco where I launched one of our current key projects, Banners for Peace. This was initially a personal arts initiative in which I was painting simple, uplifting messages on billboard-size canvases. I really wanted to see these Banners for Peace on billboards, and am holding that vision tight for the years ahead. I painted five of these larger works before this idea morphed from a personal undertaking into a community-building arts activity.
I developed the Banners for Peace project into a ten-week after-school program in which I work with groups of ten to twenty students to create a slogan, design the accompanying mural, and paint a large canvas together. Since 2006, my team and I have led more than thirty Banners for Peace workshops in Bay Area schools.
In 2007 I formed the Create Peace Project, an arts-for-peace education organization, as the container for Banners for Peace, Collaborate & Create, and the many other projects and ideas that were still being developed.
NVP: At NVP, we think that new forms of community building, especially through the arts, are vital for the future. It’s a cliché that “children are the future,” but does working with children *and* collective arts help you to believe this?
ROSS: I love making art. And as much as I enjoy personally creating art, I may just love seeing other people express themselves with art even more. Making art with people, and especially kids, is so amazingly inspiring and uplifting because of what you see when people drop in and begin to fully express themselves with their choices of color, form, and shape. It never ceases to amaze me what kids will come up with when given the freedom to express themselves and how willing they are to be experimental when making art. I love to watch how a child can come up with a whole story and new world in a simple drawing and just get lost in their art making.
Having led numerous workshops in many different school settings and with countless kids, I can recall a particular instance that was particularly inspiring. I was working at New Comer High School with a group of newly arrived Chinese students with very little English language skill. I had tremendous doubt that they would understand the project and be able to complete the task at hand. Little did I know that as soon as I brought out the canvas and paints, any language barrier was quickly and easily transcended. The students knew exactly what to do, and even with their remedial English skills, they easily created a slogan together, formulated a message and theme for their banner, and enthusiastically got to work. Throughout the ten weeks together, the students spoke mostly in Chinese to each other, and in the best English they could to me, but their ability to work together, paint, and share their artistic skills moved me to realize that even without a strong ability to converse, something beautiful can be created.
In other Banners for Peace workshops, I have seen how young people have a strong capacity to relinquish their need to be in control. On many occasions I have seen how the power of the group has allowed a number of students who demonstrate a louder, more confident voice to simply and easily calm into the decision-making process of a collaborative group. It’s wonderful to watch as a group of young people who work together for a few weeks will easily and effortlessly invite their friends or passersby to participate, as if to say, “we’re having so much fun, you must join us.”
In the past couple of school years, I have been focusing my energy on a project called The Peace Exchange. During The Peace Exchange, students are asked to create a work of art and share a message of peace on a 6 x 8 inch postcard. Every time I do this project with students, I feel a sense of joy and fulfillment like nothing else in my life. I love to watch young people express their ideas and thoughts on peace through art. When I do workshops with students in Uganda or India and they are asked to make art for the first time, you can see their eyes lighting up and their sense of excitement is palpable. I have seen countless kids who had never handled a crayon or colored marker before my arrival being filled with joy and happiness at the opportunity to get creative in my workshops. This is just a taste of why I love to make art with kids and the power I have experienced working with kids of all ages, in groups of all sizes, throughout the Bay Area, and around the world.
At New Village Press, we applaud projects like the Create Peace Project and their innovative methodologies. Ross, like many of our authors, exemplifies a peaceful, creative way forward. If you or someone you know is interested in sharing world-changing methodologies through our blog, please contact us!