60 years of art and social change at YS Arts Council

Photo: Antioch College’s 1960s production of Shakespeares Rape of Lucretia

By Tara Pettit

It’s no secret that Yellow Springs harbors a deeply rich cultural arts community. Creative collaboration is truly the lifeblood of this town and the foundation of a 60-year history that has planted and grown an abundant harvest of renowned art and culturally diverse initiatives.

Recognition of this deep history and the call to preserve its stories, experiences, projects, and inspired collaborations is what inspired a small group of Yellow Springs Arts Council (YSAC) members to take on documenting the historical trajectory of Yellow Springs’ arts community.

YSAC board members Nancy Mellon and Deborah Housh and Antioch University graduate Meg Miller teamed up back in 2012 to begin in-depth research into the historical findings of a far-reaching and interconnected network of creative initiatives, projects, and collaborations that make up the community’s own art history narrative.

As the project team dug through archives, newspaper clippings and journals, they discovered key events and individuals who created deep footprints in Yellow Springs’ history and began re-constructing a working timeline of Yellow Springs’ evolution as a creative community. The timeline reaches as far back as the 1940s, even prior to the beloved Shakespeare Festivals held at the Clifton Opera House, which stand out as some of the community’s most cherished memories.

Organized into-bite sized factoids – from the 1910 designing of the Glen Helen’s rock landscape all the way to the 2012 establishment of Yellow Springs Arts Council’s partnership with Antioch University Midwest to house the organization’s permanent collection – the timeline reflects a chronological continuum of the town’s blossoming transformation into what it is today.

“Here at the arts council, we are very interested in preserving the history of the arts because there is such a rich history in Yellow Springs,” Mellon says. “It is incredible that we have such history because it’s such a small town, yet it is full of art organizations over the years and arts of all kinds.”

The completion of the initial timeline was not the end goal of the project, however, but only the beginning.

Mellon, Housh and Miller recognized that the entire art history of Yellow Springs could not begin to be told by just the three of them, although though their initial research was far and wide. Their intention for the project was for members of the community to contribute their own personal stories in hopes to close any timeline gaps and overall enrich the town’s story.

Several interviews were conducted with key artists in the community who not only have had many years of firsthand experience as engaged artists in the community, but who have helped shape the unique culture Yellow Springs brings to the surrounding region – a culture steeped in both art and social activism.

These artists’ stories, interwoven with the notable creative endeavors that appear on the timeline, unveiled an emerging pattern in Yellow Springs’ art history: an inextricable relationship between artists and the parallel themes found throughout their work pointing to positive change, social justice, and support for cultural diversity.

“The difference between other art towns and Yellow Springs is that so many people in our town are willing to go out and give their time and energy to things that care about,” Mellon says. “That strengthens the art we produce.”

One of those pioneering artists interviewed and an influential participant in the incubation of culturally progressive art over the years in the Yellow Springs community, Dennie Eagleson, has taken part in many of those socially defining moments in Yellow Springs’ art history.

Eagleson takes an active role in the ongoing discussions that circle around Yellow Springs’ public art and contributes to crucial conversations had about artistic boundaries, free creative expression, and art that empowers.

“Arts are leading some of the most important conversations in Yellow Springs,” Eagleson says. “Those who are active in the arts are really moving things forward…art with activism.”

One standout example is the long-running Women’s Voices Out Loud exhibition (another initiative Eagleson was largely a part of), which has been focused on the free and unhindered artistic expression of women in the area for more than 35 years. The annual event has maintained an ongoing dialogue of women’s issues through free-form art and has played an important role in bringing feminist ideals to the forefront of Yellow Springs’ platform for social inquiry.

Today, the exhibition continues to invite women to share their perspectives and continues to push conventional boundaries in the artistic forms displayed, perhaps to an even greater degree than ever before.

Thanks to the online art history WIKI, the “progressive art” trend which is unique to Yellow Springs’ artistic evolution is now concretely documented and can be celebrated as the community is now able to explore and contribute to the ongoing commentary around those socially, culturally and artistically defining moments.

“There’s been something poignant about embarking on this historic project as a group of three women from three generations,” Housh says when unveiling the project to the board. “I think I can speak for all of us when I say it has been our honor to work together and share our own unique perspectives as we explore the history of this remarkable arts village.”

Mellon agrees that it was the group’s collective motivation of “wanting to tell the story” of Yellow Springs “to cherish those memories and not to lose them” that resulted in a labor of love that now encapsulates the village’s integrated artistic, cultural and social footprint through time.

For more information or to view the Yellow Springs Art History Project, please visit YSArtHistoryProject.wikispaces.com.


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Tara Pettit is a regional journalist and communications specialist with a focus on the arts, social/environmental justice issues, and community activism. She is passionate about cultivating intentional community and engaging in collaborative creative projects that make healthy community possible. Reach her at TaraPettit@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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