It Takes Public Art to Raise a Village

Four women in homemade superhero capes stand facing away in superhero pose with 1 arm raised, in San Francisco

photo credit: Quincy Stamper

Guest post by local Bay Area artist, curator and producer Marie Applegate. She translates compassion-based research into participatory art installations in public spaces. For a daily dose of creative compassion, follow her instagram, Verbal Heirlooms.

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On Sunday, October 1, 2017, people gathered around the Village Artist Corner in the San Francisco Civic Center for Everyday Superheroes. They were greeted with Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s three questions:

Have you ever helped someone in need? 
Has someone ever helped you when you were in need?
Have you ever NOT helped someone when they were in need?

Reflecting upon these prompts, folks were invited to explore multi-sensory stations to express their response through cape making, cartoon drawing, acroyoga flying, power posing and sharing their stories on camera.

Together, we explored what communities would look and feel like if we collectively chose to rise up and help each other out. One little girl immediately helped pick up the wind-scattered pieces of chalk everywhere at the event, stating to her Mom that she can’t go just yet and needs to help because “I’m a superhero after all.” An older gentleman tourist put on his freshly made cape and decided to test out his adventurous superhero spirit flying high with one of our AcroYoga demonstrators. Another artist from Germany who was in town for a residency excitedly proclaimed that bringing the idea of being an Everyday Superhero into their public realm is something that will help reinforce Germany’s Good Samaritan law. Public spaces provide a powerful opportunity for us to flex our humanitarian muscles!

To create a sense of community in this particular public space, a semi-permanent structure, the Art / Lit Living Innovation Zone (LIZ), was erected, thanks to the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco Public Library, Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, SF Planning, SFAC, Civic Center Commons Initiative, Civic Center Community Benefit District and others. Among the multiple events which occur in the space, every first Sunday of the month I have the amazing job of curating and sometimes creating whimsical participatory experiences that highlights creative compassion. As noted, for October, we invited Dr. James Doty’s Stanford Center for Compassion Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) and Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s Heroic Imagination Project to collaborate on Everyday Superheroes.

Aligned with Dr. Z’s theory, we focused on the small, everyday heroic acts that build and grow muscle memory that helps us rise to what is needed of us. With our recent multitude of natural and manmade disasters – the Las Vegas shooting, Napa / Sonoma Wildfires, Florida, Puerto Rico and Texas hurricanes, we’ve witnessed the countless acts of heroism – helping to save lives and offer hope and compassion.  Given these circumstances, it is feels even more relevant than ever to empower each person to contribute with small everyday acts of heroism.

Here are five ways you – yes, YOU! – can continue to grow your superhero muscle in public spaces :

  1. Open the door, literally or figuratively, for someone with their hands full
  2. If you take public transportation and are seated, look up from your smartphone and look around; notice who looks tired or sad, no matter their age or sex, and offer your spot
  3. Invite a colleague to lunch or coffee outside the office; witness and drink in the great outdoors as Nature reminds you to breathe and be in the moment
  4. Acknowledgement goes a long way, especially for those who are often dismissed by society; say “hello!” with your full-beingness to an unhoused human being on the street
  5. Think and radiate kindness, then make eye contact with people just past uncomfortableness and into connection

Another way to contribute is to be willing to receive someone’s help. One time I had my newborn son in my arms while trying to maneuver the stroller through awkward heavy glass doors. A lady offered to help me and I insisted that I had it. She looked me kindly in the eyes and said, “I know you can do it alone, but you don’t have to.” I almost cried, and allowed myself to receive her help. As a Mom, I sometimes feel that I have to be everyone’s super hero, and I often forget to open myself to receive. It is as powerful to receive, as it is to give. As both a giver and receiver of help, compassion, and kindness, you activate and empower people to keep doing everyday heroic acts.

Society focuses so much on the individual, but meanwhile, we’re yearning to connect with our collective roots. Our lives need to be balanced with taking care of ourselves and our communities; to lean on others and invite them to lean on us. One way to help people remember this is by creating accessible opportunities for people to reflect, connect, and create with each other in public spaces.

Participatory art in public spaces is of particular interest to me because it has the potential to feel equal and accessible to all. Public spaces can be used to relieve tension and build trust amongst disparate communities. They’re a breeding ground for serendipitous experiences where people can encounter each other in a different way than they’re used to online or inside a building. As an artist, my goal is to create environments in public spaces where people are able to uncover a deeper version of themselves through artistic expression, which in turn, can lead to them encountering a deeper version of one another.

I hope we get to meet you one of the first Sundays of the month at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum (outside at the corner of Larkin + Fulton) for more whimsical thought-provoking participatory art experiences by our local Village Artist(s)-in-Residence.

With love,

SuperMomma (a.k.a. Marie Applegate)

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Photos by Quincy Stamper

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