Art In Service by Alison Fritz
When I signed up to be an Americorps VISTA volunteer, I had visions of building houses, ladling soup, and single handedly replacing the ozone layer; I also had a tremendous amount of doubt and hesitation. By signing my name to a piece of paper I was willingly giving a year of my life “in service to America.” What did this mean? Was I bound for twelve months of pushing wheel chairs? Saving screaming babies from burning buildings? Teaching underprivileged children how to read? My idea of service revolved around syndicated Wonder Woman episodes combined with Boston Public marathons. Regardless, I pressed on with the naiveté that only comes from inexperience.

Needless to say, I was shocked when halfway through my term I was asked, “How would you like to work with COSACOSA?” “What?!” I cried, “But I’m a VISTA! A Volunteer in Service to America! I’m supposed to be ending poverty and saving the world. Do you really think I should be working with an art organization?” My impression of art (which I now realize was as deluded as my perception of service) relied solely on the pictures that hung on the walls of museums. Encased in glass or behind a velvet rope, the warning sign on the wall was not necessary as the pictures seemed to scream on their own, “Do not touch!” Art was something to look at or marvel over the creation of. What could this possibly have to do with service? Now just a few weeks before my Americorps term is over, I can take a step back, and the picture is a little clearer.

True service is not a form of salvation, nor does it have anything to do with “fixing” a child, a family, a school, or a community. Rather, genuine service supports and develops, utilizing the most valuable resources at hand -- those that you’re serving. Community development is an ongoing process in which all members must be united, invested, engaged, and celebrated. And guess what else I've learned in my time with COSACOSA? Art -- when it's collaborative and community-based -- is a creative process through which very different kinds of people can be united, invested, engaged and celebrated!

Art provokes dialogues and consequently produces awareness and mutual respect for our cultural and community aspirations and differences. When we, as a community, become the artist -- painting our own picture, writing our own poem, or telling our own story -- we begin to celebrate ourselves, each other, and the connections between the two. Our stories are universal; our images transcend language. Art provides a common dialect that tells and retells our message with each new encounter. Art ensures that our story will continue to live on when we are no longer there to tell it.

By reclaiming art as our common form of expression, we unify and beautify our community -- while we verify our personal role and responsibility to it. We are immediately aware of the strength in our diversity and the potential in our commonality. Like fibers of a muscle, the community “whole” is greater than the sum of its parts. With art as the connective tissue, we are free to express, explore, exhalt, and embrace our community. With this deep sense of pride, cohesiveness, and cultural grounding, anything is possible.

Art is a human experience to be shared. Bringing art into the community informs and unites; it holds a mirror, reflecting each person's true beauty, power, strength, and identity. The created artwork tells a story to the onlooker -- but more importantly, the artistic process is a source of accomplishment and unlimited potential for each contributing artist. Facilitating this experience -- helping people to understand each other; encouraging them to become aware of their own abilities; watching them as they maintain continuity with the past, respond to the present, and prepare for their future -- is greatest service of all.

Alison Fritz served as an Americorps Volunteer in Service to America with COSACOSA art at large, Inc., and is currently COSACOSA's Program Coordinator.

Artolatry bread image after Salvadore Dalí's Basket of Bread (1926).