In the Wake of Violence: Arts, Letters, and Healing in Charlottesville

August 22, 2017

By: ArtPlace America

We at ArtPlace are saddened and angry about the tragic events that took place 11 days ago in Charlottesville. It’s hard to know what to say or do in moments like these, but as always, we find hope, strength, purpose, and action by turning to the thousands of individuals and organizations we’re fortunate enough to call colleagues, partners, and friends who are leveraging the power of art to bring people together.

One of the organizations we are proud to work with is The Haven, a multi-resource day shelter for people facing homelessness, based in downtown Charlottesville. Through Housing2Home, The Haven collaborates with New City Arts Initiative to connect formerly homeless clients with local artists and businesses to create a more positive home environment that reflects each client’s needs. You can read more about their work here.

Both The Haven and New City Arts call Charlottesville’s downtown mall home and are within a block of Emancipation Park, the permitted location for “Unite the Right.” Each organization responded to the events by providing sanctuary for their community.

With the center of protests on August 12th happening directly across the street from the day shelter, The Haven extended its operating hours to provide respite and basic services for their clients. Though they are typically only open until 12 PM on Saturdays, The Haven staff knew that the downtown library was closing in anticipation of the protests, and their guests would have few safe places to go during the day. The Haven staff and volunteers kept the guests safe—even when violence showed up right outside the shelter’s doors.

In the days following, New City Arts Initiative responded with a small-scale letter writing and art making event, seeking to offer a quiet space for creative expression and for connection with friends and neighbors. On Wednesday, they invited community members to stop by the gallery—located between Emancipation Park and 4th Street—to write notes, draw, fold origami, or pen poems in calligraphy. Stamps, envelopes, and other materials were provided. Participants could choose to mail their notes and art to friends and family or post them on the gallery’s storefront window to be picked up by passersby (a mailman, a server headed to work, a lawyer on her way to lunch, a librarian walking home).

Over the course of a few hours, about 70 people came to write letters, have a snack, and share space with other community members in mourning. One family used the space to process the weekend’s events and craft encouraging, empathic messages for strangers who had been impacted. Some wrote favorite quotes, others drew beautiful pictures, some folded origami hearts with an encouraging sentence tucked inside.

When the notes had been posted, people passing by the window selected envelopes—some shyly, others enthusiastically. Some read their letter in front of the window, others tucked it gently into a handbag or pocket and kept walking.

Even the smallest gestures can, in some way, contribute to community healing. We know how communities can come together through art, and this is just one example. What did your community do? What are you planning?

If you’d like to, you can send notes of encouragement to be posted on the window too. Send to: New City Arts, PO Box 1293, Charlottesville, VA 22902. Please get your letters in the mail by Friday, August 25.