“8,001 Ways to Partner Together”: Community Arts at Bryn Mawr and in Norristown / by Amy M. Grebe and Adrienne Webb

Posted March 29th, 2010 at 1:00 pm.

Bryn Mawr College and ACPPA Community Art Center have been collaborating over the past year to bring a number of exciting arts opportunities to the College and to the Norristown community. ACPPA is dedicated to improving quality of life by providing diverse learning opportunities that use art as a tool to strengthen individual power and nurture creative self-expression. Connections with the Civic Engagement Office and the Art Club at Bryn Mawr have enhanced ACPPA’s family-oriented programming, while introducing unique teaching and learning contexts to Bryn Mawr students.

Recently, a member of the Civic Matters editorial team, Julie Zaebst, had an opportunity to talk with artistic director Amy Grebe and student Adrienne Webb about their own work as artists and the “8,001 ways to partner together” that they have come up with over the past year. Below is an excerpt from this interview.

Julie: I wanted to start by asking you to tell me a little bit about yourselves and the community arts work that you do and how you first became involved in that work.

Adrienne: I started doing community arts work in high school with the Andy Warhol Museum and then later with the Children’s Museum in Pittsburgh. Now at Bryn Mawr, I’m doing much more interactive stuff with the Art Club. I get to help plan events, I get to help set up shows for artists at the College, and I get to buy supplies. And I’m doing exciting work recruiting volunteers and helping to plan workshops with Amy Grebe for the Community Art Center in Norristown.

Amy: It was my interaction with the Norristown community that led me to focus on community-based arts and education. Until then, I studied dance for many thousands of years, and then I interned with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre to learn everything about costume design I possibly could. I pursued costume design for a while and then started illustrating children’s books. After my daughter was born, I returned to the Philadelphia area and began working more intensely as a visual artist. I have always been drawn to education and working with children and youth, and Norristown affords me the opportunity to use my passion for the arts to help revitalize a community.

Julie: Can you tell me a little bit about ACPPA?

Amy: When we started, it was an artists’ cooperative meant to really support emerging artists in whatever they were trying to do. And we had lofty goals of providing subsidized day care and group health insurance and eventually opening artists’ lofts that would be live/work spaces with a day care on the bottom floor. We had these really crazy ideas, only to find out that just about everybody already provides that and they were doing a much better job of that than we did. We did move into Norristown and find that the need for community-based arts for children in a continuous manner was huge. So we thought, you know, what else are we going to do with ourselves? Let’s start teaching classes … in the basement of my house.

Julie: I didn’t realize that!

Amy: Yes, the Community Art Center all started in the basement of my home with eight kids, and last summer we served 900 throughout Montgomery County. I think it’s a really good indicator of how much the arts are needed and in fact appreciated by other educators that in one summer just one group alone served that many.

Julie: That’s really exciting. I wanted to ask how the two of you connected with each other and what really prompted you to begin a collaboration between the College and ACPPA.

Amy: Well, ACPPA’s partnership started with Bryn Mawr last year when we were just looking for volunteers to help out with one of our student exhibitions. So we contacted the Civic Engagement Office and Ruth [Strickland] brought some volunteers up, and it was just a good fit right from the start. We’ve just been growing and growing and growing, and last spring, Adrienne came on board. Ruth brought her up to meet me, and Adrienne and I have just come up with 8,001 ways to partner together.

Julie: In what ways have you collaborated so far? You mentioned that you’ve had volunteers come out to assist with different events and that sort of thing, but maybe you can tell me a little bit more about what that collaboration has looked like.

Adrienne: In September, I brought some volunteers to this great open house event where we basically just helped families tour the center and check it out and sign up for classes. Recently, we helped out at the student works exhibition and performance, and it was great because I got to take a completely new set of volunteers to the event. Most recently, and most excitingly, we have been bringing workshops to ACPPA. The first workshop we brought was taught by Ariel Kay, who is an artist from Austin, Texas, and a Bryn Mawr student. In her gap year, Ariel worked with a nonprofit in Texas and assisted with a political art workshop, getting kids to create their own logo and not be branded by the industry. So Ariel brought that workshop and it was really successful. We made T-shirts and it was really fun! And then the last thing is that Amy has been teaching art classes for Art Club at Bryn Mawr. She taught a sewing recycled clothing class, which was really great because we got to bring her skills to Bryn Mawr and expose lots of students to sewing who had never touched the machines in their lives.

Julie: I actually wanted to take your class, and it turned out I had evening conflicts two of the five weeks, but I really need to think about it for next semester because I have no sewing skills whatsoever! Anyway, Adrienne, you’ve been talking about the ways that ACPPA and Bryn Mawr have collaborated so far. Is there anything you want to add to that, Amy?

Amy: I just want to elaborate a little bit on the series that the Art Club is doing with us in Norristown. It’s been a really great experience, really mutually beneficial, because it’s a little bit more relaxed than our usual classes. Rather than just being for the kids, we’re doing them for the parents as well, and it allows us to build even more community into what we’re doing at the center. Some of the parents have never done art or aren’t interested in art, but if you get them involved with their kids, it just builds a deeper meaning for them. We really enjoy having the opportunity
to give the Bryn Mawr students the chance to try out classes. Just a one-time thing, let me find a teaching style and find out if I even like to do this sort of thing.

Adrienne: I have to second that for sure. It’s definitely been really good. And it’s also great because I think we’ve been trying to do lots of non-traditional exposure. Like, graffiti is not something people normally have access to.

Amy: Yeah, and it’s really funny because it’s sort of appropriate for Norristown, for the families we serve. For instance, graffiti was perfect with Isaiah, the oldest boy who was there. He just wants to spray paint. And on Tuesday nights when he comes to class, I actually drive him home. And he’ll say, “Ms. Amy, can we go down this alley? I want to check out the graffiti on the garages.” And in that way, it was really great to use what he thinks he wants to be doing and put it into a safe, okay environment. He’s expressing himself the way he wants to, but it’s not on someone’s garage. I think that non-traditional arts definitely have more pull with our families, and it makes art more accessible.

Julie: And I know you’re doing things outside of the visual arts as well. Is that correct? I heard something about yoga.

Adrienne: Yeah, it’s very student-driven. When Amy, Ruth, and I designed it, we definitely didn’t want it to be restricted to visual arts because there are lots of [interested] students at Bryn Mawr.

Julie: I think you’ve already spoken to what has worked well in the partnership between Bryn Mawr and ACPPA, but I’m also curious to hear about what some of the challenges have been.

Amy: Transportation.
Adrienne: Also, getting everything organized in time and knowing now that I have to plan everything out a little more in advance than I originally thought.

Amy: Yeah, I give Adrienne a hard time because as much as we run the Community Art Center with a lot of flexibility and a lot of forgiveness, it’s also a business. It’s great to dream and to plan all these things that you think are going to be fun, but then let’s make it a reality. How is the class going to be run? Who’s teaching it? When are you teaching it?

Julie: I’m wondering what impact the community arts work that you’ve been doing has had on the community? And maybe you can speak to that both in terms of the individuals who’ve been involved and what you’ve seen in those individuals, as well as more broadly.

Amy: I think that the partnership that we have, if we speak just to that, is mutually beneficial. Adrienne and I work really hard to make sure that we’re offering the students as much as they’re offering us. That trickles down to the families that we teach: The more opportunities we have for the children to be involved in the arts and to engage their parents, the stronger our program is. Our mission is improving quality of life. If you come to a yoga class with your mom every week and you have even just that one hour of connection with her, it makes a big difference. So it almost
seems like the art is a byproduct. It’s those interpersonal connections that are made and the relationships that are built by exploring something together that are the critical components to community wellness.

Adrienne: For students, I see the advantage being everything from learning to use the R100 trolley to getting a better sense of self and learning to teach a class to just being able to spend time with people who aren’t college students. We cannot restrict ourselves to this one college community. There are lots of different ways to get involved with ACPPA and lots of different ways to just leave your comfort zone, which is one of the most important parts of volunteering: learning to move beyond what you’re comfortable with as a person.

Julie: What have you personally been learning, and how does this work fit in with other aspects of your life?

Amy: I have tons of experience working with children, but college students are a new segment of the world for me. So it’s a really nice challenge for me – where do I stop coddling and where do I simply be the businesswoman
who expects the students to work to our level of reputation? I wonder, how do I make this a true teaching experience? And on the flipside, actually coming down [to Bryn Mawr] and working with some of the students has been an absolute treat for me. In Norristown, a lot of the class is very student-led. Coming down here, there was a lot more of me as an artist that was able to come into the picture. So I’m really sad that my class ended this week, because for five weeks it’s been my time, and as a single mom running a nonprofit organization, I don’t engage in my own artistic explorations often. I’ve really enjoyed working with students who are very engaged in the arts and already have those built-in things that we’re trying to teach our children: risk-taking, independent thought, and creativity.

Adrienne: I didn’t know that you liked it that way. That’s really cool. Like your personal art time. For me, I think it’s hard to connect everything in my life.

Julie: That’s partially why I asked the question, because I know about all the different layers of what you do here. You’re a psychology major, you have this interest in art, and you’re involved in Norristown, but with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which is so structured.

Adrienne: I’m definitely using all the planning and skills that I’ve been gaining through ACPPA with VITA. And it’s also very important for me to remember my base as an artist. I got into RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] and got into MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art], but I chose to go to Bryn Mawr, which was a very big stretch for me because I had a really excellent arts education, but I did not have a very good academic education. So working with ACPPA allows me to continue that side of me that has been growing since I was a first-grader in the Pittsburgh public school system. It allows that Adrienne artist to still exist along with this other Bryn Mawr side of me that is interested in public benefits and really likes VITA. Art also has been a really good skill for me to build off of, because I feel as an artist, and as a teenager doing art, you learn to create work for yourself.

Amy: And I think when you talk about both sides, Adrienne, I’ve got that same balance. To run a nonprofit, I’ve got to have that business side. And yet at the same time, I think the reason we can be so survivalist as a community
arts center in the crunch of a budget crisis is our ability to think creatively. And that’s another thing we’re trying to pass down to our kids: There are so many solutions out there, and you just have to kind of work your way through it. And if you can explore in one area, you can probably translate that over to something else.

Julie: So I have one last question for you: What are your hopes and goals for the future of this collaboration? And those might be really immediate goals for the spring semester or big dreams about what you think could happen in the future.

Amy: We’re just finding more and more ways to build the relationship, and sometimes I kind of worry: We’ve come so far in just a year, so I can only imagine what the future is going to hold for us. This past summer I was asked to design the logo for the Civic Engagement Office, and in October, we were excited to have a student employee from Bryn Mawr, Jesika Lopez, join our administrative team. Really all I want is to sustain the relationship and continue to offer students as many opportunities to become involved with our organization as possible.

Adrienne: And it’s really important for Bryn Mawr that we sustain outside connections to the community, because there are many students on this campus who have skills that they are not applying – and they should be! They would get so much fulfillment out of it themselves, and they would also learn a lot from volunteering and give a lot back.

Amy M. Grebe has been involved in various disciplines of art for most of her life. She holds a degree in dance from Slippery Rock University, and her work spans many sectors of the arts, from modern dance and costume design to children’s book illustration and oil and acrylic painting. As the founder and artistic director of ACPPA Community Art Center, she has been celebrated for her tenacious commitment to providing access to arts education for all and for the exponential growth the organization has enjoyed under her leadership.

Adrienne Webb ’11 is a psychology major and sociology minor at Bryn Mawr College. She is a founding member of the Art Club executive board, which seeks to use Arnecliffe Studio as an autonomous art space for students, faculty, and staff. Each semester the Art Club offers free art classes, art supplies, and unlimited studio access to all Bryn Mawr College community members. She is interested in connecting with more Bryn Mawr community members who want to incorporate visual art and community growth into their work.

Filed under: Issue 4 by Diana Vergara

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