Cynthia Cohen, Ph.D., Director of Programs, Brandeis University
Brandeis University‘s Peacebuilding and the Arts program works to strengthen the practice and nexus of the arts and conflict transformation by generating and disseminating knowledge, and facilitating networks of effective action. Dr. Cynthia Cohen is the program’s director who works in cooperation with Theatre Without Borders and other artists using art to promote change in divided communities.
1. What are your long-term goals for the program?
In the long term, I would like to see the Peacebuilding and the Arts Program offer undergraduate and graduate degrees, and perhaps certificates for practitioners. I would also like us to continue to support practitioners — working towards peacebuilding in all different art forms — to document and reflect on their practice, and to create educational and training resources based on case studies and ethical inquiries into practice in all regions of the world.
2. How does it fit Brandeis’s overall mission?
Brandeis’ mission includes education that advances social justice, and a commitment to excellence. The institution has a longstanding commitment to the arts. I believe that the peacebuilding and the arts program is strongly aligned with Brandeis’ mission.
3. Why did you choose to partner with Theater Without Borders?
Theatre Without Borders approached me in 2005 just as it was forming and asked me to speak on a panel at its founding symposium. At that time, they were an informal network of theatre artists committed to theatre exchange, and they were very interested in looking deeply at how their practice contributes to peace. After that initial symposium and a couple of informal gatherings, we decided to work together on the anthology. I was drawn to TWB in part because of the stature of the artists involved and because of the passionate ethical commitment they had toward their work.
4. How can theater groups get involved?
Theatre groups can read the Acting Together anthologies, watch the documentary and use the resources of the toolkit to plan their own peacebuilding performance initiatives. They can send their members to trainings that we offer, and participate in the arts and peace commission of the International Peace Research Association. They can collaborate in their own communities on issues of justice and on bringing people together across differences.
5. Do you have plans to reach out into other areas of the arts?
We already have worked with visual artists, filmmakers and musicians. I would very much like to engage in an intensive research project on the contributions of the visual arts to peace building.
6. What tips would you give to theater groups that might want to work to make a difference on a local or regional basis?
Spend time listening to the stories of the people of your communities. See what stories remain untold, or unheard. What inequalities are present that diminish people’s lives and their abilities to trust each other? What past harms need to be addressed? (All of these questions and more are part of the Guidelines for Planning Peacebuilding Performances in the toolkit that accompanies the Acting Together documentary. I would also suggest that members of theatre groups wanting to “make a difference” look at their own identities and how dynamics of power play out in their own lives. It is very important to know one’s own issues, to have one’s own identities in hand before embarking on “making a difference” in other communities. Also, it can be important to be open to collaborations with “non-arts” organizations — perhaps activist groups, cultural groups, human rights groups, governmental or intergovernmental agencies whose values are aligned with the mission of the arts organizations.
7. Are there other ways interested artists and groups can help support your efforts?
Artists can join with each other to support each others work, to reflect together on ;how they can make a difference in the world. They can become ambassadors for the Acting Together project, share the film and lead discussions about it. They can use the tools in the Acting Together toolkit and document their own arts-informed peacebuilding efforts.
Cynthia Cohen is Director of the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts. She leads action/reflection research projects, and writes and teaches about work at the nexus of the arts, culture, justice and peace. She directed the Brandeis University/Theatre Without Borders collaboration Acting Together, co-edited the Acting Together on the World Stage anthology and co-created the related documentary and toolkit. She directs ReCAST, Inc., a non-profit organization partnering with Brandeis and New Village Press on the dissemination of Acting Together resources.
Cohen has written extensively on the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of peacebuilding, including the chapters “Creative Approaches to Reconciliation” and “Engaging with the Arts to Promote Coexistence,” and an online book “Working With Integrity: A Guidebook for Peacebuilders Asking Ethical Questions.”
Eliot Lable, Artist
Eliot Lable, who explores the tough subjects of violence, evil and intolerance in his art, has for the past seven years run NURTUREart‘s Education Outreach program in Brooklyn high schools that teaches underserved students in the New York area how to curate art and also how to work cooperatively with others. NURTUREart’s education program gives students the opportunity to meet and learn from professional artists and curators who expose them to contemporary art and teach them skills that can lead to future careers.
The program runs throughout the school year and culminates in an exhibition at the NURTUREart Gallery. It teaches students art handling, installation, press and marketing and preparing for an opening reception. Students are given the opportunity to visit studios of area artists, go to art galleries and art institutions, and to learn to write about and critique art.
Lable started the program in 2005 with then art teacher Sarah Hervert, who is now a middle school assistant principal. Their goal was to involve the many artists who have studios in their area, and it has grown to include multiple schools. In 2010, NURTUREart added an education coordinator to help expand the program and to develop new partnerships. The organization is a non-profit that’s received support from the , for the Visual ArtsNYCulture, WNYC, The Greenwall Foundation, The Leibovitz Foundation, and The New York State Council on the Arts.
According to Lable, “the best part of program is that it reinforces what students learn and teaches them how to work with each other through curating a show. It gives them a purpose and also improves their writing, editing and other skills”.
In talking about his own work as an artist and educator, Lable says, “As a complex person, there is an artist side of me and an art educator side. The art work that I create in my studio is typically connected to a subject that I find personally captivating. The challenge then is to convert this idea into a visual entity that truly represents the initial captivation. I feel that another part of me wants to share with students the immense joy of making art work. Also a part of me believes that the process of making art can be a stepping stone for learning”.
Eliot Lable’s work, which explores the subjects of violence, evil, torture, death, intolerance, fear and aging, has been exhibited in many solo and group shows, including in Finland and Costa Rica. He’s received numerous grants, including a Fulbright Fellowship to Finland; and two Council for Basic Education Grants, which were sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and Time Warner. His work is in the collections of the Museo de Arte Costarricense in Costa Rica, and in Helsinki, Finland, the City Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as in private and corporate collections. A permanent sculpture, commissioned by Public Art for Public Schools (PAPS), can be seen at the entrance of the School of Cooperative Education in New York City.
Anyone interested in learning more about NURTUREart or Eliot Lable’s work is invited to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 718.706.8622.
Regina Silvers, Visual Artist and Art Organizer
I draw, paint, and have been exhibiting my work since the ‘70s. Right now I’m engrossed in the most exciting art project of my career: The Granny Peace Brigade series.
In 2005 a friend of mine was arrested, along with a small group of older women– all members of various Peace groups like Code Pink and the Gray Panthers— for demonstrating at the Army Recruitment station in Times Square. They were cuffed, jailed, and eventually tried and acquitted. Out of this experience they formed The Granny Peace Brigade. I’ve been a supporter and ardent admirer since then.
I drew them during their trial and later began to photograph them while I marched and demonstrated with them. After a while, I began using these photos as source material for new work.
Much of my previous work of the past 20-odd years had focused on nature-based motifs. Working from sketches made while hiking upstate NY, I created large close-ups of the rocks, weeds, waterfalls, and woodlands, drawing attention to their “ordinary” beauty and vitality. At the same time – initially because I am devoted to drawing the figure – I created the ”Placard” series: paintings and drawings derived from images of protesters I found in newspapers. This however was a different matter.
As an older woman, and an activist since the days I marched with the Women Strike for Peace against the Vietnam War, this project is more personal and vital. It gives me an opportunity to merge my aesthetic, political and social concerns, through personally meaningful, timely, subject matter. It’s been challenging and exhilarating.
It’s been said that “…the eye witnesses, the hand records.” As an artist I am following a long roster of artists who “bear witness” (think Goya, Kathe Kollwitz, Picasso, Ben Shahn, Leon Golub). While I’m not intent on painting a political polemic, I do want to pay homage to these feisty peace activists, and transmit their message that “Democracy is not a Spectator Sport”.
As I participate in documenting this piece of our history, I show, close-up, what it’s like to be in the midst of the energetic Grannies, visually expressing the view that older women are concerned, and can have an active voice in our society.
To make a piece of art that conveys the energy, immediacy, and spirit of the narrative, I work quickly, making many large pieces for each motif, varying the composition, the approach, and the materials. The works range from 20 x 30” to 36 x 72”, in pastel, charcoal, acrylic, and/or oil paint. Some become finished “products”, others remain studies. I feel privileged to be able to hone my approach to making art while visually expressing something of such importance to me, and hopefully supporting the efforts of these heroic women.
I will be exhibiting this work in a one-person exhibition at Saint Peter’s Church (Citicorp) NYC in May, 2013.
Regina Silvers has been involved with fine art for her whole adult life- as a visual artist and an art organizer. Originally trained as a NYC art teacher, her varied career includes jewelry designer, gallery director, curator, art consultant, museum publicity/advertising manager, and always, practicing artist.
She was a founder and President of TOAST, the TriBeCa Open Artist Studio Tour (2000 to 2010), and co-founder and Director of the Gallery at Hastings on Hudson (1976-84).
Silvers has maintained a studio in TriBeCa for more than 20 years and, until recently, a studio in Woodstock, NY. Her work appears in corporate and private collections throughout the United States, and she has participated in more than 40 exhibitions nationally.
Karen Loew, Chair of Coast Guard Art Program, Visual Artist specializing in soft realism
Karen Loew and the artists who participate in the Coast Guard Art Program (COGAP) and the art programs of other branches of the country’s armed forces immortalize in paintings the bravery of men and women serving in the U.S. military.
The artists are, according to Loew, “visual historians, morale boosters and fan club”. Artists work as volunteers, and they donate time and talent to create works of art depicting the varied missions of the military. “The paintings depict experiences of danger, the suspense of the unknown, the anxious moments of search and rescue, the relief of a successful mission, and the emotions of a return home,” says Loew. Each work of art is a gift from the artist to the Collection.
“Emails I have received thank us for capturing their memories and experiences, and for portraying the Coast Guard in a very positive and remarkable way. I chair the COGAP Committee at the Salmagundi Club, which is an artistic and cultural center that’s been here for over 140 years and is also the proud sponsor of COGAP. When I joined COGAP in 1999, I did not have expectations of what would become of the art I would donate to the Collection. Rather, I was just thrilled to be accepted and have my art included. Since then, I have observed that the art of the Collection does have an amazing public life, educating the public about the missions and history of our Coast Guard through displays at museums, libraries and patriotic events. Art is also displayed in government offices and at Coast Guard locations around the country.
All the branches of the United States armed services have art programs:
The United States Coast Guard Art Program was co-founded in 1981 by combat artist George Gray and John Ward of Coast Guard Community Relations. COGAP welcomes requests for public displays of artwork and inquiries from artists to join the program.
Management of the United States Air Force Art Program and Collection is the responsibility of the Secretary of the Air Force, Office of the Administrative Assistant. The Air Force Art Program Office handles day-to-day administration of the program. The office is charged with responsibility for the Art Program.
The United States Marine Corps Art Collection, held in trust at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, document over 230 years of Marine Corps history. The mission of the Museum is to collect and preserve in perpetuity, artifacts that reflect and chronicle the history of the Corps. The more than 60,000 uniforms, weapons, vehicles, medals, flags, aircraft, works of art and other artifacts in the Museum’s collections trace the history of the Marine Corps from 1775 to the present.
The United States Navy Art Collection has over 15,000 paintings, prints, drawings, and sculpture. It contains depictions of naval ships, personnel, and action from all eras of U.S. naval history, but due to the operation of the Combat Art Program, the eras of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and Desert Shield/Storm are particularly well represented. The Branch manages the art collection, produces exhibits, loans artwork to museums and institutions, and provides research assistance on the art collection.
The United States Army Art Program or United States Army Combat Art Program is a program created by the United States Army to create artwork for museums and other programs sponsored by the US Army. The collection associated with the program is held by the United States Army Center of Military History, as part of their Museums collection.
Karen Loew is Chair of the Coast Guard Art Program Committee of New York’s Salmagundi Club, and she serves on the club’s board of directors. In 2002, the Coast Guard sent her to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO) to document activities of Coast Guard Port Security Unit 305. She is frequently a speaker at COGAP events, most notably for the opening reception of the COGAP exhibition in Vlissingen, Holland in 2009. In 2011, she was given the Coast Guard Distinguished Public Service Award, the highest recognition given to those who have made outstanding contributions in advancing the Coast Guard’s missions.
Loew’s art has been featured in the book American Women Artists in Wartime, 1776 – 2010 as well as The New York Times, and Professional Artist. Her paintings are held in private and public collections.
Mike Wiley, Actor and playwright
1. Why did you choose to go out on your own?
I got started out of necessity, drive and hunger – the reasons everyone does! But also, I knew I didn’t want to have to wait for someone to give me a job, and I didn’t want to have to work in another field, just to be able to afford to work in my chosen field at night. So many people end up waiting tables or getting jobs sitting behind a desk, just so they can do theater.
I felt if I did that, it would be easy to start to fall in love with the ease of regular work, and it would take the edge off my desire to work in my chosen field. I’ve seen it happen with others where after a while the day job increases and other becomes hobby.
I knew I wanted to work in theater, act and be creative and steer my own ship all at the same time. I didn’t have a Masters in acting – I had a communication degree, which someone talked me into doing. So, it was good that I understood advertising, marketing, and the skills of design to be able to funnel that into my theater work and to build it about myself.
For several years, I was an actor in New York looking to play multiple characters because I realized, if I could do that, I could do solo plays. I knew I could write, and I just wanted to write pieces I could use full-length or for short, 45-minute performances. Plays that could be performed at a theater, school or college, in regional theater, or on tour.
I wrote, One Noble Journey about Henry Brown. I wrote it because it was a slave narrative that was incredibly moving with things that rang true and funny to me. I hadn’t come across slave narratives that were funny before, so my reaction to Henry Brown’s was sort of nice. It’ s the story of Henry “Box” Brown, who decided he was going to actually mail himself in a box to the North in the middle of summer to escape, which was crazy, but it was the only way he could find to free himself.
For me, writing my own pieces was a way for me to free myself – so Henry Brown was that for me. Before that, I was a sort of a slave to type – I was expected to play an African- American man of certain age and build, whereas now, I didn’t have to be a certain sex, height, type, or color. I could do a solo show and be a white or black male, even female, or child – I could play all of the characters! Doing a one-man show allows me to bridge the worlds of theater and storytelling with few props and no costumes changes. I found I don’t need much of a back drop, just me using mostly voice and posture, and a willing audience.
What I’ve learned, is that the audiences are interested in me and in watching the transformations I make from one character to the next – how two seconds ago I was a young African American male, then seconds later an elderly female pretending to be a white male. What the audience is attracted to is watching the act of becoming the other.
2. How would you suggest someone get started writing their own work?
You just need a pencil and a library card. There are so many true stories out there waiting to be told. The same is true with oral histories, they’re out there waiting to be picked up and be told. If an artist comes along and illustrates or adapts it, then the story lives again, but now it has dimensions it didn’t have before.
I’ve found it’s important to make the commitment to do the research, and then, to get meaningful feedback once you’ve written the 1st, 2nd or 3rd draft. At that point, you or another person should read the piece aloud – so skip the step of having someone read the text you written, you’ll get more across if it’s done aloud.
3. What are your feelings about what’s happening now with performing arts & the arts in education? How has that impacted your work?
I was just reading now in our area about some regional theaters having closed. I’ve found the business model I have has worked because it can go to where theater is wanted and needed. You don’t have to bring in bus loads to a place to see it – and you don’t have to go to a metro area. I bring theater to where people are. Sometimes it’s in a theater, sometimes a local cultural center, other times at schools and libraries – I’ve performed in galleries too. The objective is to give them a great cultural experience, presenting arts and history, and to make it enjoyable and even funny. It can be done affordably, so they don’t need to go to the school board for funding and approval to do it. That makes sense strategically, and I can do it because it’s just me and a stage manager to cover for us to make the trip and mount the performance.
Mike Wiley is an actor and playwright, who’s spent more than a decade fulfilling his mission to bring educational theatre to young audiences and communities across the country. In the early days of his career, Wiley found few theatrical resources to shine a light on key events and figures in African-American history. To bring these stories to life, he started his own production company.
Through his performances, Wiley has introduced countless students and communities to the legacies of Emmett Till, Henry “Box” Brown and more. His most recent works include a one-man play based on Tim Tyson’s memoir Blood Done Sign My Name and The Parchman Hour, an ensemble production celebrating the bravery and determination of the Freedom Riders who risked their lives to desegregate Southern interstate bus travel in 1961.
Mike Wiley has a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is the 2010 Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Chair Professor in Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In addition to his numerous school and community performances, he has also appeared on Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel and National Geographic Channel and has been featured in Our State magazine and on PBS’ North Carolina Now and WUNC’s The State of Things.
Isabelle Garbani, is an emerging artist who lives and works in Brooklyn,
1. When did you get your first opportunity to do a public, and what was the objective?
Their objective is to make art more accessible to the general public,
and they work very hard to make that happen every summer.
I share a lot of their philosophy about art: it should be free and
accessible to all, and engage the public in a non-intimidating way.
My exhibit called Knit for Trees was entirely made with plastic from
recycled bags, and wrapped trees in tree “sweaters”.
Every weekend, I set up a knitting circle and invited park visitors to
knit with me or learn how to knit. The panels created during the
summer were added to the installation, which kept growing over time.
2. What permissions, specific guidelines do you need to have work in a
I generally work with larger groups (a city commission, or a non-profit
art group) so all the permits and publicity is taken care of in advance
of the work being installed.
As a one person operation, I find it more manageable to go that route
because it allows me to concentrate on the work without having to do
When my career is further along, and I can see having folks working
with me, then I can start thinking about finding more specific sites
and asking for permits.
3. Are there safety or aesthetic considerations that influence this
type of work?
Safety is always an issue with public art: both for the public and for
The work must be sound and be able to withstand un-monitored pedestrian
There’s always some risks that the artist must take because of that,
and a certain amount of letting go, because one cannot control all
I have had one installation vandalized in the past, which is
heart-breaking, but is part of having art in the public realm
4. How is it different for you as an artist to do these types of
The main reason I chose to go to public art is that I wanted to avoid
going the gallery route.
Galleries cater to a very specific clientele, which I feel is limited,
and I wanted my art to be visible to more people.
I spend a lot of time sending proposals which tend to be site specific,
and those can take a lot of time to put together.
I am however getting better at it!
Isabelle Garbani has had exhibitions at Payne Gallery in PA, Figureworks Gallery in Brooklyn, the New York Academy of Art and the Benrimon Gallery in New York City. She had her first solo exhibit in 2008 at the Earlville Opera House and her second in 2011 at her gallery, BoxHeart Gallery in Pittsburgh.
Her work from the 2010 show Single Fare was shown in the New York
Times. In 2011, she completed the public installations Knit for Trees
on Governors Island in New York City, and Forces of Nature for the
Sculpture Center in Vermont. She has recently returned from Taiwan
where she participated in the 2012 Cheng Long Environmental Art Project
with the installation Invasive Species.
Neil Brewer, Professor, poet and songwriter
If you’ve been to school, have siblings who annoy you, or want the arts to be integral to the curriculum, meet Neil Brewer, whose album The 8 O’Clock Bell, came from a poetry book of the same name that prompted Former First Lady Barbara Bush to say, “I love this book.”
Brewer’s day job is educating college students who are training to become teachers and his specialty is showing them how to creatively incorporate arts into the core curriculum. A poet, musician and songwriter, Brewer uses an arsenal of creative talent to bring students, teachers and the public he performs for to think in new ways, and he does it in ways that are so entertaining that they often don’t notice they’re learning. When not teaching, Brewer takes his songs and presentations on the road to promote book and music sales, then he donates 100% of the proceeds to The Harvard Stem Cell Institute to fund research to end muscular dystrophy.
His 8 O’Clock Bell, has been called, “a delightful journey through the life experiences common to all of us.” And his sibling smack down song, Three Kids in a Car from his Neil Brewer and Friends are Back in School album, is now a Night Mill Productions animation.
Neil Brewer spent the first twenty years of his teaching career in 5th and 6th grade classrooms, and has drawn from that journey with students on many occasions in various written forms. For his epic thematic adventure, The Travels of Harmon Bidwell, Neil received The Christa McAuliffe Fellowship.He teaches graduate and undergraduate education courses at Indiana University Southeast in Indiana.
Jami Taback, Artist and Founder/Director of Kids at Risk: Adventures in Printmaking
With arts education facing funding cuts in many schools, what can artists do to make a difference in their communities?
It is difficult to get into a school program without a not-for-profit status because it validates the program. Funding has been cut drastically and the schools and shelters have not been able to write these programs into the grants they receive. Speaking with your local representatives helps to get them acquainted with you and the program and sometimes a discretionary fund is set up. I tell everyone I know what I do and ask them if they know teachers or school officials for an introduction. I always feel that once they meet me and hear about the Kids at Risk: Adventures in Printmaking program, they are at ease and willing to help.
How has teaching informed your own work as an artist?
This is a powerful question in that first I introduce the children to a process with my own idea in mind, however, in turn; they create artwork from their own interpretation which is often exciting and inspirational for me. This is the beauty of the work I do. I am constantly affected by their work, the way they absorb the mission of the program and interpret it in their own art making. It reminds me every day to preserve the creative force of my inner child in order to keep my work fresh and interesting.
Are there organizations you recommend getting involved with to make connections in this area?
Many of my connections have come from people I know. When I am involved in a program, I call the local paper and ask for a writer to come with a camera to document the experience.
This includes donations of art materials from stores.
I also have a separate website for the program I offer that is exclusively for donations. In return for the donation, artwork is available for different levels of donations. This approach requires an email list, sent out to inform everyone you know about this worthwhile cause. There is a video where I talk about the program.
What techniques are you exploring in your own work, and has digital played a part in your art?
I am currently attending an Artist in Residence Program at The Lower East Side Print Shop in NYC. In this atmosphere I am able to explore different techniques in the hopes that a new process will emerge from me, a new way to express myself while staying within the scope of printmaking which is my favorite medium these days. From the prints dealing with a specific subject matter, I can move to painting, drawing and digital explorations. Digital processes have played a part in printmaking. I do incorporate this imagery very carefully and sparingly in aspects of my work.
I once listened to a terrific talk by the artist Claes Oldenburg. He said that an artist need not search for new ideas and that one good idea can last a lifetime. I often think of this when wondering about where my next idea will be. I was showing someone the kids’ prints dealing with Crystals and Gems. After looking at them I decided to explore this subject further in my own work. This is what I am working on at the residence.
The woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those who sang the best. —John James Audubon
Jami Taback is an artist who produces artwork through a unique process of creative collaboration with children. She visits alternative, public and private schools, shelters and foster homes using art to establish meaningful connections with children. The activity of making art serves to gain their interest, involvement and trust. She says, “I use my creative talent and sensitivity as a printmaker and painter to forge these connections. To date, I have taught and interacted with over 500 children in the last few years. This program is based on an intensive mentoring relationship with youth, particularly those with behavioral problems and special education needs. Through learning about the art of Printmaking and its history rooted in ancient civilization as a tool for communication, students immerse themselves for several weeks in the arts and education. A printmaking studio with a portable table press is set up at the school for the duration of the project where the youth visit for several hours each week to learn about and produce their own work which is then incorporated into a museum quality mural, a public installation at their school. Sometimes, it’s just to engage the kids in something creative, to think about things differently, to meet an artist, but sometimes it sparks an interest, and they find out that they are artists too.”
Donations to Kids at Risk: Adventures in Printmaking, are used to help to fund art supplies such as ink, paper and various printmaking tools for kids.