One WilmU adjunct is helping to heal communities through the power of visual art.
A dark, cloudy afternoon in downtown Wilmington — light drizzle falls, with streets cold and wet and lonely. A small storefront door on Shipley Street bursts open and with it comes a rush of warm air, followed by a low hum of conversation, laughter, the smell of freshly brewed coffee, and then a flash of brilliant light, color and sparkle.
This warm place on the cold day is The Creative Vision Factory. And it’s a place many could call their art community home, including local artists and neighbors, but particularly those whose life paths can be found somewhere along the behavioral health spectrum and who may be experiencing life traumas like homelessness. This is their place, and from it is springing a wave of creativity and economic opportunity for many in the city.
The Creative Vision Factory is a peer-run program funded by Delaware’s Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, one of several programs formed by Delaware’s greater mental health system reform, says Michael Kalmbach, executive director and adjunct art instructor at Wilmington University. It’s a place to empower people by supporting the innate creativity within all of us.
It’s a place Kalmbach likes to be. With a background in art, he holds an MFA and worked as a high school art teacher. He’s also the founding director of New Wilmington Art Association and has worked as an admissions counselor and assistant director of admissions at Delaware College of Art & Design. Kalmbach holds many community awards for his art advocacy work.
He’s also recovered from substance abuse, an experience he feels provides him with the unique background of understanding to be an asset to the work of this organization, which combines art advocacy with needs of the behavioral health population. He makes no bones about his past, and has talked about it in a recent TED talk and at community speeches. He makes it clear that art has always been the anchor of his life.
“In my own experience,” Kalmbach says, “from being a high school student to being a high school art teacher, I always recognized that I had a deep need to be in these spaces.”
He recognized that those high school students long ago and those now walking into The Creative Vision Factory each day have a commonality. “There’s almost a weight lifted off some of their shoulders as soon as they walk over that threshold,” he says. “Art does that to a person.”
He understood the challenges the state would have in finding a director to lead this peer-run art space. “Right off the bat,” he says, “I just knew that there was a lot of inherent value in creating that zone, but to have that zone be radically open and accessible to the streets of Wilmington, I knew it was going to be a grand experiment.”
Having such an organization in the heart of downtown, now in its sixth year, is vital to helping underserved individuals find empowerment in their own creativity, while also allowing the community to grow and flourish as these diverse groups meet and work together. And economic benefits come with this interaction.
“We’ve been able to operate off the logic that if you just give people a place to be, give them some opportunity and direction in terms of this artistic platform, you’ll get them to continue to self-select back into the community,” Kalmbach says.
The space, which includes a community gathering room and a studio, is open to the public on a walk-in basis. About 300 people use the space in a year, with a regular group of 60 to 70 people each week. Workshops and individual instruction are provided. Individuals work on creating works for their own satisfaction or for public exhibitions or performances, which are regularly held at a variety of venues and on various art tours and art walks through the city and region. Other artists have published their works in books.
“Any given day,” says Kalmbach, “you have members from the general public mixed in with the members, former art students and local artists.”
On this particular day, painting is happening in one corner, in another a woman is drawing, and a group talks quietly in yet another. In the studio next to the kiln are numerous ceramic pieces decorated by elementary school children of Stubbs Elementary on the East Side, and dipped in an unfinished glaze, ready to be fired. The pieces will be part of a large mosaic in the school’s entryway. The mosaic project is one of several public art projects the organization is leading this year.
Myriad artists come in to share their expertise. Kalmbach mentions one local artist whose sharing of mosaic skills has led to numerous individual projects, as well as several completed and planned community mosaic projects in the area, including the ongoing one at Stubbs. Another example of a public art mosaic is the recently-installed wall just up the street from the organization’s storefront. The Creative Vision Factory held a block party to install it, with local children and their parents coming out to help. The pieces are ceramic with generous uses of cut mirror, which flash with the reflected lights of cars driving down the street.
This participation in public art, whether in the street wall murals and empty storefront windows, and now the installation of whole mosaic walls, is a growing focus of the organization. An open invitation is often extended to the community on its Facebook page to help with various projects. It allows local residents to meet their neighbors as they work together to beautify their surroundings. But members’ participation in community art projects helps to train them in project management and construction skills,
allowing them to develop marketable skills and earn money on their own. “For us,” says Kalmbach, “positioning our public arts is more like a jobs program.”
He’s clearly interested in providing avenues of economic opportunity. Kalmbach talks about the recent history of the city of Wilmington and what it did to its communities.
“If we take a trauma-informed approach to downtown and look at the infrastructure itself,” he says, “instead of asking, ‘What’s wrong with it?’ ask, ‘What happened to it?’” The inner city has a fascinating story to tell, he adds. “There was the huge catastrophic event of the ’68 riots and the longest occupation of National Guard troops in any North American city that really has given us the footprint we have right now,” he says. “And then the creation of I-95, ripping out entire neighborhoods and boxing in this particular zone of inner city. And what we see over the past 40 or 50 years is flight and then also social service programs all centrally located.”
Bringing art into these areas is well intended, but in many cases, Kalmbach says, “Too often artists and art spaces are used as the handmaidens of gentrification.”
Bringing economic opportunity is one way to ease this scenario. Kalmbach is keenly aware of the need to create jobs in the city, especially for the people he sees every day. “One of my favorite quotes in my own recovery was from Keith Richards, when he said, ‘I don’t have a drug problem. I have a cop problem.’ But I’d say after five years of working in downtown Wilmington, I don’t think we have a behavioral health problem. I think we have a job problem.”
So he does what he can to help. Proposals are in the works for future mosaic installations, including a two-story building façade in the city once approvals are secured. “We’re hoping we’ll be able to conduct workshops just with this huge nexus of stakeholders in that community,” says Kalmbach. “There are a lot of voices and lots of speech that will ultimately be infused into the pattern for this wall.”
Art is evolving, and there are always new things to learn. Kalmbach wants to start working with pebbles as a new mosaic material by arranging them in patterns similar to works found in Portugal, Spain, or ancient China and Rome. “That could really expand our portfolio, and they’re doable here for our public works team,” he says. “We’ve been doing a lot of research on it, but unfortunately there’s no market for presorted pebbles. So part of the process of making these is going to be accumulating the appropriate stones.”
Kalmbach is working with his team to develop a variety of designs and begin working on grants to fund public art projects using the pebbles. He sees great benefits in working with this material. “It’s something we can bring to the fore, an artistic process that’s really process-based,” he says. “It’s very accessible. Lots of people can be involved. And when you’re making these, you’re kind of forced into a contemplative space when you’re creating.”
He smiles, adding that for his group, “Mosaic walls are going to have a lot of legs, but breaking into this, too, would almost be like bringing a piece of Longwood Gardens right into the neighborhood.”
Kalmbach is excited about the potential of what new art materials like the pebbles and new projects can do to increase work for his members, as well as helping to open the door to personal satisfaction and inner peace for each person who puts his or her hands to work in creating a masterpiece.
“With work like this, we’re really getting into the neighborhood, we’re really moving the needle, and it’s happening through the arts,” he says. “I think there are major impacts to be had.” WU
– Dr. Janice Colvin | Photos by Susan Gregg
Volunteers, student internships and donations to The Creative Vision Factory are always welcome. For more information, visit the creativevisionfactory.org, michaelkalmbach.com, or call (302) 397-8472.