Social Drawing

“Social drawing” is the theory and practice that drives SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing.

The concept developed out of discussions between artists Francesca Fiore and Hillary Wagner during their time as graduate students at Parsons School of Design in New York City. In these discussions, Hillary’s blended Appalachian and midwestern cultural experiences as a descendant of generational farmers butted up against the immigrant experience of Francesca’s family in the metropolitan Northeast. Their conversations illuminated points of intersection and departure between their disparate lived experiences, which struck them as particularly trenchant against the backdrop of national tumult during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Committed to their shared belief in the generative nature of thoughtful artistic practice and the capacity for art to promote empathy and understanding across socio-cultural divides, Francesca and Hillary began to imagine ways artists like themselves could effectively bridge gaps and become advocates for wider connectivity and health in communities such as Bethel.

Social drawing builds upon Joseph Beuys’ theory of “social sculpture,” which emerged out of lectures he performed in the 1970s. Beuysian social sculpture imagines all of society as one immense work of art similar to the Wagnerian “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or “total work,” and locates art’s healing potential in its capacity to transform societal conditions through individual participation in the collective total work. Both Beuys’ pedagogy and his later sculpture and “action” artworks presented art and everyday life as inseparable, and he insisted that the work of an artist is not a specialized profession but a way of conducting one’s life, a heightened humanitarian attitude. Asserting the fundamentally democratic nature of creativity, Beuys famously declared (borrowing from German Romantic poet, Novalis), “Everyone is an artist,” illustrating his belief that the power of universal human creativity had the potential to bring about revolutionary change.

Social drawing modifies Joseph Beuys’ theory of social sculpture to operate at the community scale. Where social sculpture imagines a utopian total work of art to which all people contribute, social drawing emerges from within a small-scale community (such as a town or neighborhood), and is constructed through intimate, relational connections between people. “Drawing” in this context becomes the act of connecting. Lines spread out from a central core consisting of significant sites and community actors. Each new line intimately understands and builds upon existing community networks in order to identify and develop new pathways towards health, knowledge, resources, and support. As in Beuys’ social sculpture, contributors to the drawing need not identify as artists, nor is the path of the drawing dictated by artists.  Rather, artists act as facilitators, asking new questions, imagining new possibilities, and creating the conditions needed for an intricate and expansive web.

An early map of the “drawing” in process (by Hillary Wagner).

Just as social sculpture emerged from the political and social turmoil of the post-war era, social drawing responds to current sociopolitical divisions and widespread economic inequality. These crises have produced in artists and the broader public a hunger for connectivity and collective action. In an effort to address growing despair as a result of high unemployment and disappearing opportunity, we have developed arts programming that connects Bethel residents to the village’s rich historical and agricultural past. In addition, we continue to foster relationships with local farmers, historians, educators, and small-business owners in order to form new pathways towards mentorship for area youth. As our drawing expands, we look forward to also engaging local politicians, institutions of higher learning, and nearby cultural institutions so as to establish a network of support and opportunity around this rural community. The drawing, however, behaves like a root system and new lines unfold like tendrils from a centralized core. Bethel, Ohio, and Empower Youth will always remain the impetus for every new mark, and as our social drawing grows, Bethel grows with it.

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