California Forum

The arts evolve to enrich everyday life in our communities

A mask created through Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network.
A mask created through Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network. Courtesy of National Endowment for the Arts

A new vision of the arts breaks the old mold of the lone avant-garde artist and exclusive highbrow audience. Today, the arts work for all of us in a multitude of ways.

I’m late to the arts. I grew up on a farm, we rarely visited a museum, never went to the theater and had very little art hanging on the walls of our home. We did have the art of nature all around us and participated in ethnic traditions and rich culinary experiences.

But back then, few respected the folk arts and us “country bumpkins” were labeled as lacking “culture.” Thankfully, the arts have evolved and we are witnessing an inclusive, dynamic change. As I age, the world of arts around me is maturing.

The old definitions of what is art are giving way to a new, dynamic redefining of art in our daily lives. As Jane Chu, former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, explained at the Aspen Arts Festival, “We are moving away from the paradigm that the arts are off by themselves in a silo, or off in a corner, or they’re elitist or that only some people participate while others don’t.”

Art creates life and energizes community. Through art projects, relationships are built and the soul of a place transforms in front of our eyes. The arts have evolved and occupy a vital place in our communities.

For instance, who would have thought math and dance belong together?

At first, it’s logical to think of rhythm and beat in a dance step as a simple lesson in counting and patterns. Researchers and practitioners Karl Schaffer and Erik Stern are exploring new ways to learn math through movement, from the symmetry of a simple handshake to the geometry of dance angles. In a recent workshop in Fresno, they worked with educators to re-envision the connections between math and the dance of daily life. Physical actions are filled with mistakes and take practice to master, no differently than learning math equations.

Art has also helped bridge communities with innovative police and public safety programs. In Emeryville, Police Chief Jennifer Tejada launched a youth arts contest to better understand their world through their eyes, to break down the barriers and find common ground.

At New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, an innovative program teaches cops to see and pay attention to details by studying classical paintings. It can help train officers in deductive observation to solve or prevent crime by fine-tuning their attention to visual details. Precise language used to describe a suspect or a crime scene and how that information is communicated could have life-or-death consequences. Through art, officers learn not to just see a painting, but identify what’s happening.

One of the most moving new roles that art plays is in a program called “Healing Arts,” run by the National Endowment for the Arts. (Full disclosure: I’m on the National Council on the Arts, serving in an advisory capacity to the NEA.) The NEA has partnered with the military to help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress. Art is used to begin a journey of recovery.

In one example, veterans create masks, exploring often-repressed emotions, helping them and their families “come home” from war. In another case, veterans work with metal sculptures and blacksmithing. As one vet explained, “The twelve times I was blown up, I kept all my pieces so I could internalize and hide my injuries.”

Later, he finally sought help, but at first thought art was “hippy-dippy stuff” and not for him. Later he found that “art is life” and can express things that words can’t. He now uses blacksmithing to create “commando art” and make gifts for people when “thank you” is not enough.

I have spoken to family members of wounded soldiers in these art programs. As one wife of a vet said: “Art allows them to become whole again.”

These programs have expanded to active-duty military bases, including Camp Pendleton in California. They will now be piloted statewide, partnering with the California Arts Council, to reach many communities, especially rural areas where vets can be extremely isolated. These efforts redefine the meaning of “the art of war.” With arts, we don’t see disability, we see possibility.

Art is transforming and evolving; certainly the creative economy has recognized the value of artistic vision in today’s highly competitive business world. Even in my world, we no longer grow just a commodity on our organic farm, we nurture life and artisan foods that feed not only our bodies but also our souls. Art means life.

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.” He can be contacted at