Humboldt County

Up Through the Common

Published in: GIA Newsletter, Vol 10, No 2 (Fall 1999)

Debbie Goodwin

To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly; to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart; to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never. In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.
-William Henry Channing, 1810-1884

A colleague of mine is retiring from forty years as a music educator. His final curriculum piece debuted recently and reached beyond his traditional college student audience at the College of the Redwoods to a broader public. Having spent most of his life learning about music in indigenous cultures, Jerry Moore — a teacher, composer, and performer — created a five-day symposium, Art and Nature. He and the other presenters at the symposium earnestly believe that ancient cultures offer us an important lesson:

All of our ancestors at one time used the arts — painting, music, theater, masks, and so forth — to reinforce the idea that humans were a part of nature. Somewhere along the line the dominant culture veered off that path and now we don't really think of the arts as serving that sort of function any more. Nature, and art, have both become separate, an abstract. That sort of treatment has not served us well.

Moore called it the Heart of the Matter. His first speaker at the symposium, Matthew Fox, a well known author and former Catholic priest, spoke passionately of the need for art to reconnect us to joy and creativity, and to “mirror the beauty of the Universe.” Indigenous cultures are replete with rituals that connect us to our cosmology. What are the rituals of our country today? It made me ponder the rituals that nourish my own heart as well as my gut. Fox warned that, “couch potatoism and techno-toys are too often one-way transmissions of imagination where people take in and not give out.” In a metaphor of us as sponges, the imbalance leaves us soggy.

Humboldt County, although mostly known for its trees and cannabis, also has a reputation as a vibrant arts scene. We compete with our neighbor to the south, Mendocino, for the claim of having more artists per capita than anywhere else in California. A recent survey by the Urban Institute calculated that 24 percent of our adult population report “doing art” publicly, 55.4 percent of them participate in “doing art” privately. Although rural and isolated, and characterized by a medium income of $25,000 versus $41,000 statewide, the arts continue to increase in capacity, quality and accessibility. Nationally-known organizations such as Dell'Arte and the Ink People Center for the Arts work side by side with over seventy other arts organizations on the North Coast to bring the arts to all corners of our region.

Financially the arts have never been stronger. Our Native American community, until recently mostly hidden from the public radar screen, is creating a $5 million United Indian Health Services facility, located at the crossroads of two regional highways, that will be a health village integrated with cultural arts programs and services. Further, Humboldt Arts Council, a local arts agency, is completing an unprecedented fund raising effort to pay for the restoration of an historic Carnegie Library building in Eureka and develop it into a Cultural Center and Regional Art Museum.

Through its $1.3 million capital campaign, of which nearly half the funds have come from local individuals, the Arts Council is successfully educating the community about giving larger sums of money to the arts. Grant support is also building for artists as well as arts organizations. The California Arts Council, which increased its budget by $6 million last year as a result of a statewide advocacy campaign, provided Humboldt County with $235,600 in funds to twenty-two arts organizations and arts in residencies in schools, (up from $148,000 and fifteen recipients the previous year).

What is perhaps the most exciting and meaningful work being done in our region has been inspired by Community Partnerships for Cultural Participation, a pilot program launched in 1997. An investment in the arts and community here by the Lila-Wallace Reader's Digest Fund is forging a strong alliance that is sending a clear message county-wide that the arts are a significant resource for our youth. One example of the multiple strategies being developed is a decentralized community arts grant program for young people. Humboldt, encompassing an area the size of Connecticut, has been divided up into eleven regions to receive grant support. Town Hall meetings with community members, social service providers, artists, and youth are being held in each region, facilitated by Community Congress representatives who invite these groups to communicate their needs as well as their resources. The direct involvement of young people in the entire process, including participating in the grant review panels, is a key to the program's success, ensuring its relevancy and sustainability.

Young artist, Gabe Guerriero, was raised by “back to the land” parents. They all share a passionate love of place like most Humboldters. Gabe, who lives in Bridgeville — population 200 and an hour's drive from Eureka and “civilization” — is a member of a consortium applying for funds through the youth arts program. At the Town Hall meeting he voiced his desire for opportunities that give young people a sense of belonging similar to what sports teams provide through their enduring game rituals. Gabe envisions a teen art center in his nature-filled neighborhood, where mentors, like his dad, premier local serigraph artist Michael Guerriero, would provide lessons in painting, folk arts, creative writing, or dance depending on the interests of the group. The center would also be a place where young people would “wander in, stay late, and talk deep.” Through this partnership of a diverse representation of his community, made up of people who live Channing's creed and still believe they can make a difference, his vision seems imminently doable.