While in Philmont, we sat down for lunch with Laura Summer of Free Columbia. She runs the program with Nathaniel Williams, offering a new form of tuition-free art education. Laura has lived in the area for 25 years and says she has gotten to see people grow up from just after they were born.
Free Columbia’s mission is “cultural renewal and this includes striving to foster cultural activities that facilitate individuals developing themselves, making spaces where a person’s latent gifts can grow in freedom. It is rooted in the view that though freedom and culture may not always satisfy immediate demands of society, ultimately, when taking the wide view of time, their fruits nourish all branches of human life.”
Free Columbia has led several large events since it began a few years ago. They have co-sponsored conferences with the Art Section of the School of Spiritual Science and led events including “The Search for Humanity in Contemporary Art,” “Image Arts Seen from the Perspective of Spiritual Reality,” and “Beyond the Object – Beyond Sensation.” These events can be explored at http://freecolumbiapastevents.blogspot.com/
During our visit, Laura was preparing for an upcoming Art Convergence. For this event, a small group of artists worked during the year investigating descriptions of artistic process. They then came together in late July/early August for various projects. We got to meet Finnish performance artist Sampsa Pirtola and ran into Jordan Walker once again. Sampsa described his practice as combining esoteric work with popular culture. His piece for this event emerged from his communications with Laura throughout the year, which he began to see as a game of tennis. We wish we could have stayed longer to see their work come forward!
In the world around her, Laura has seen a trend of doubting the deeper importance of artistic work. If this trend were not turned around, it would be possible to lose the young artists who are so full of potential and their own gifts for the world. Laura has held the question of how to get close enough to where society is to meet our times artistically. The work that she leads is an attempt to wake up in artists the sense that they are responsible, they are the movers forward of society. She reminded us of a sharing from Rudolf Steiner that the angels can’t create the future if we’re not working artistically.
Laura shared with us the statement from Joseph Beuys when he said, “I think art is the only political power, the only revolutionary power, the only evolutionary power, the only power to free humankind from all repression.” We need to move society forward and become aware of the spiritual world. It is hard to move forward if we are only confirmed materialists. We must work out of creative activity.
Laura’s work as a painter is an investigation. To understand a subject more deeply, she turns to painting or drawing. What’s really behind the subject? She seeks to get to a sense of reality of the subject she is investigating through art. She asks, “What are the laws of two-dimensional art, and how can one bring inspiration to it?” There are perceptive possibilities in artistic activity, and we can learn to understand soul qualities through it if we slow down enough to observe them.
Laura created a successful and innovative project called the Art Dispersal to get original artwork into circulation. The event went forward with the tagline, “Art – accessible to 100% of people.” It was open to the public, and works of art were given away without the expectation of payment. People came to the event after hearing about it on the radio or reading about in the paper. Some were looking for art, and others just wanted to see what it was like. These were not Laura’s closer friends who came, but rather members of the community at large which really surprised her. At the event, she could hear someone saying, “There’s a painting for everybody here. You just have to find it.” Those who left with pieces became stewards of the artwork. There was a table for donations for people to support the work, but individual contributions were not tracked. This table was on the opposite side of the room from the dispersal table. Laura believes that paintings have their own work to do in the world and should be made accessible. Everyone can be moved by red and blue, by lightness and darkness. Laura really spearheaded this project with her own heart forces. Of 116 works of art sent out into the world, 70 were Laura’s!
Laura says that there is often a feeling in the art world currently that inspiration does not exist. There often appears to be a small, narrow way of making it in the art world. She says people should create their work with a deeper sense of responsibility. Their work is needed in the world. She recommended a book called the Impossible Community that suggests a just, free social order through complete transformation of existing ideals.
The Free Columbia model can feel threatening to a tuition-based model of education, but when people hear about it, they might think, “Maybe I can try it.” Laura has been inspired by models from outside of the art world and outside of anthroposophical communities. For example, there is a place called the Karma Clinic, which offers donation-based care. There is also a farm in Santa Rosa that gives away food. If we look out into the world we may see what we too are seeking to create already exists and what a joy it is to see this.
The question Laura suggested that we could carry forward is “What do you need?” This is the question for the world. Considering new social forms such as threefolding, she says they can’t start until people feel supported. We need new initiatives with a few people for support them, but first people need to make sure food is on the table.
To Laura, anthroposophy offers the lens through which she sees her spiritual path. For all people, the path is the same; you must find your own lens. Find the window that holds your practice. What she loves is really a polarity, she says. It is so much, and so little. So much is necessary, but then she sometimes looks at herself and realizes how little she does it compared to the need. What a picture of humility! We see her doing tremendous work in the world!