Dorchester Center for the Arts: Connecting People Through the Arts

This column visits the faces of those who have benefited from the generous and tireless work of the nonprofits on the Mid Shore. Perhaps unknown to many of us, these individuals have had their lives transformed by the missions of these organizations and are giving back in unique ways to better our world. Amelia Blades Steward has been a freelance writer in our community for over 15 years and offers a glimpse into the lives of residents on the Mid Shore whom she has met along the way.

The Dorchester Center for the Arts (DCA) has a high profile with its annual Dorchester Showcase, an outdoor arts and craft festival held each September that draws over 6,000 people each year to Cambridge for fine art, handmade crafts, live music, and Eastern Shore cuisine. In fulfilling its mission to increase access to the arts for all members of the community, it is also known for its high-quality gallery shows. But, behind the scenes, the organization is impacting the lives of county residents who may not otherwise be exposed to the healing and connecting power of art.

According to Barb Seese, Executive Director of Dorchester Center for the Arts, “While our purpose includes growing and supporting other nonprofit arts organizations in Dorchester County, we are also trying to be diverse and to support the underserved in our county.”

As the designated County Arts Council for Dorchester County, the Dorchester Center for the Arts promotes diversity through its annual Community Arts Grants, funds allocated from the Maryland State Arts Council, to encourage arts participation across the county. Two of the organizations which have received Community Arts Grants which have impacted diverse and underserved populations in the county are the Maryland Department of Health – Eastern Shore Hospital Center and Alpha Genesis Community Development Corporation.

For Judy Slaughter, Director of Volunteer Services, at the Maryland Department of Health – Eastern Shore Hospital Center (ESHC), the Community Arts Grants have helped connect patients to the community, creating significant healing outcomes. The acute care residential mental health facility, located in Cambridge, serves 80 patients, most of whom are referred from the Court System. Of the patient population, 70 percent are indigent, and 30 percent are unremembered by their families. Although the hospital has a full-time art therapist, it was a Community Arts Grant from DCA that has helped to put patient artwork in the community and is transforming how patients see themselves.

The grant funded guest artists and some materials. In partnership, the ESHC Auxiliary underwrote the costs of local artist and set-designer Bob Ritz to create the unique framing and displays. The first project, entitled “Memories in Clay,” enabled patients to use clay from archeological excavations on The Hill in Easton, an historic integrated neighborhood that has hosted a community of free African Americans since the 18th century, to create rectangular pieces of artwork. Guest artist Margaret Boozer helped guide them through the project.

Judy comments, “The patients in our facility live with a scheduled routine every day due to their illnesses. When they take an art class, they can make every decision themselves in how they make their piece of art. Through the process in making the art, the patients have become more aware of themselves and have learned to open up to one another, sharing their stories and struggles. There were also stress-reducing benefits working with the clay, which also helps patients cope with their symptoms better.”

Patients created 75 clay pieces that were exhibited and sold at Chesapeake College, Salisbury University, and at the Eastern Shore Hospital Center. The proceeds from the sale of the artwork then went back to the patients so that they could purchase items from the Center’s café and gift shop – extra treats they can enjoy while in the hospital. Judy adds, “By putting the artwork in the community, we are helping to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and to connect our patients to the outside world.”

Another project the center did with patients involved creating a triptych, a work of art that is divided into three sections that can be folded shut or displayed open. Each triptych helped interpret inspirational words that the patients identified. Guest artist Chris Carter helped patients identify the messages that were painted in acrylic paints on the inside. The triptychs were also sold in the community.

The Maryland Department of Health – Eastern Shore Hospital Center received a Community Arts Grant to hire guest artists to work with patients with mental health issues. Artwork was then exhibited and sold to benefit the patients and raise community awareness about the stigma associated with mental illness.

Another organization that has received a Community Arts Grant from Dorchester Council for the Arts is Alpha Genesis Community Development Corporation. The organization applied for a grant to fund a drumming program in Cambridge for children and adults. The grant enabled the organization to hire a community drumming instructor from Dover, Delaware, and to hold drum circles throughout the community. Approximately 25 children and 15 to 20 adults participated. A couple from Ghana made Ghanese treats and board members of the Dorchester Chamber of Commerce helped sponsor some of the children in the program. In addition to the drumming instruction, Alpha Genesis CDC also offered African dancing.

According to Jermaine Anderson, executive director, “The monthly classes helped participants from all different backgrounds learn drumming rhythms. It was a mechanism to bring cultures together based on the African drum and to experience something totally different.”

Alpha Genesis Community Development Corporation applied for a Community Arts Grant from the Dorchester Center for the Arts to fund a drumming program in Cambridge for children and adults.

The grassroots group was founded by Jermaine Anderson and Adrian Holmes in 2013. Its purpose is to establish and strengthen strategic partnerships to revitalize distressed, under-served, and under-resourced neighborhoods in Dorchester County by providing affordable housing; supplemental education; entrepreneurship training; job readiness training; and encouraging children and adults to embrace and celebrate cultural diversity through the arts.

Jermaine adds, “We see art as the connector between people in the community. Cambridge has needed enrichment programming for kids and adults. We hope to serve an even broader demographic with next year’s programming.”

Dorchester Center for the Arts is located at 321 High Street in Cambridge. For further information, visit dorchesterarts.org or call 410-228-7782.

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