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Dr. Michelle Corvette brings social art practice to Belmont

Assistant professor of art Dr. Michelle Corvette uses social intervention art — the practice of giving back to the community through a creative outlet — in much of her work.

“Social art practice is a relatively new field of study within the arts,” she said.

Corvette is exploring ways to integrate this emerging practice into her curriculum and encouraging students to think outside of the gallery for their art.

“I think I connect very much with the idea of wanting to give back to the community.”

She was first drawn to social art practice when she learned about the work of WochenKlausur, a German artist group that created a unique social experiment: a boat trip for female substance abuse victims in Switzerland. The boat served as a space to facilitate meetings between the women, politicians, medical specialists, journalists and police officers. They collaborated on efforts to minimize substance abuse in Zurich.

“I remember hearing about that and being absolutely astonished,” Corvette said. “It really opened my mind as to what art could be.”

Corvette first created her own social intervention art while living in London. She was looking for opportunities to create outside of the studio.

“It’s such a solitary activity,” Corvette said. “I wanted to bring color into the streets of London.”

In order to do this, she sat on the sidewalks of bustling areas like Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. She observed the motions and interactions of people around her and scoured the sidewalks for gum.

Yes, chewed gum.

The gum would serve as a tiny canvas for painting her surroundings. On sticky, grayed circles of gum, she painted tiny, bright dots that resembled crowds from an aerial view.

“Dr. Corvette’s work is very observant,” her student Caitlyn Henneberry said. Using gum as a canvas was a loophole of sorts for Corvette, as it is against the law to paint on public property in London. It is not, however, against the law to paint on what is considered trash.

“I think the idea of social art practice in general is quite difficult,” Corvette said. “You have to believe in your project and see challenges as a means to an end.”

Corvette brought color to the streets on a larger scale as well.

In 2016, Corvette came to Belmont.

“I felt a calling to return to my parents’ area,” she said. “I wanted to give back to Tennessee.”

Some of Corvette’s work on display earlier this semester in Gallery 121 involved social intervention practices. She used spray paint to identify severe potholes in a neighborhood in Mableton, Georgia, where the poverty rate is above the national average.

Corvette worked with the Atlanta City Council and various neighborhood councils. She conducted interviews with community members to identify areas of need and was able to secure proper refilling of the asphalt. The project took a year and a half of collaboration.

During her time in Georgia, Corvette also worked with children to repaint a crosswalk in front of their school.

“I believe strongly in helping children nourish their own intrinsic desire to create art,” she said.

Corvette and her students in Kappa Pi International Art Honor Society are working on their own social art in Nashville.

“We have had nine mural requests over the last year, and we need to establish a system to help facilitate the projects that are feasible for our students and faculty sponsors to accomplish,” Corvette said.

Social art forms are becoming popular in Nashville, murals among the most common. In addition, local artists are creating pottery studios for the elderly, songwriting workshops for at-risk youth and filmmaking seminars for parents of disabled children.

These are three of 73 projects within THRIVE, a funding initiative encouraging artists to create works that engage the city in artistic and cultural exposure, community investment and neighborhood transformation.

“I think it’s definitely a trend nationally to look at how artists can be problem solvers,” Caroline Vincent, director of Public Art and Placemaking for the city of Nashville, said.

The city requires one percent of capital improvement project funding go toward public art, and Vincent said social intervention art is becoming more and more prevalent within this one percent.

Corvette said there are many factors to consider when creating and maintaining public art — especially murals. Safety, wall quality, windows/bricked in windows, size, location, traffic, paints, time and access are among these concerns.

Kappa Pi’s murals will be located at Belmont Church and St. Thomas Hospital. The group will create an online submission form for ideas, and they anticipate moving forward with one of their designs next month.

“We are very excited about bringing color and creativity to more areas around Nashville,” Corvette said.

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Article written by Sarah Everett.

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