In 2019, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council partnered with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts to provide funding to communities in the Commonwealth designated as Community Heart & Soul towns. The goal of the grant opportunity was to sustain resident involvement in community planning and development and center storytelling in the process of celebrating the art and culture of each community.
Four communities received a $2,000 grant to co-develop projects: Greater Carlisle (Cumberland County), Upper Chichester (Delaware County), Meadville (Crawford County) and Williamsport (Lycoming County). Each community used the process of collaborative storytelling to tap into the history, memories, and hopes of residents.
Undeterred by a global pandemic, these communities designed projects that provided a space for healing injustices, celebrating human connection, centering inclusivity, and harnessing the creativity of residents.
To raise awareness about the historic Lincoln Cemetery, the Cumberland County Historical Society (CCHS) worked with the Greater Carlisle community, descendants of individuals buried in the cemetery, and local artists to recognize the over 600 people buried at Lincoln dating back to the 1900s. For years, the cemetery, which was a final resting place for many African-American residents, was neglected and ignored. There was no official recognition of this sacred land and headstones were removed or vandalized.
Funding from PHC and PCA supported an effort to tell the story of the cemetery and restore honor to the individuals buried there. CCHS worked with community members and family descendents to design public projects. Residents wrote the names of the 676 individuals buried in the cemetery on colorful ribbons and tied them to the fence surrounding the land. The project culminated in the development of a permanent mural, led by local artist Jim Griffith, to honor those forgotten individuals.
“This project led to renewed discussion about the history of the Lincoln cemetery. The borough recently issued an official resolution of apology for the treatment of this cemetery and the African-American community. There are still wounds that need to heal and stories that need to be shared but these projects are one step in the right direction.”
Cara Holtry Curtis, archives and library director at CCHS
Upper Chichester Heart & Soul worked with a local artist, Veronica Batter, to design a series of family-friendly art activities celebrating the diversity of individuals and public spaces in the community. A partnership between the library, the township, and the business association, families were invited to pick up rock painting kits and participate in three painting workshops to design projects that represented themselves, their families and their communities.
Families were encouraged to visit their local park with their rock creation and take a picture – a safe, socially distanced activity in the time of the pandemic. Not only did this provide an opportunity for intergenerational programming for the residents of Upper Chi, it also raised awareness of the many recreational spaces in the community – a hope residents expressed in stories collected in 2019 as part of the Heart & Soul process. The activities were so successful, the community is planning more for 2021.
“We asked families to consider what matters most to them and their lives and to create something in response to that…During the pandemic, this was a meaningful activity that celebrated our community, the spaces we gather and the people who live in it.”
~ Barbara Kelley, assistant township manager
Inspired by community ideas and drawings, the Art & Environment Initiative brought together a team of community artists to design a vibrant relief mural on the ARC of Crawford County’s Snodgrass Building, which provides housing for residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Part of a much larger redevelopment of the entire space – this mural and the collaboration among artists, residents and local nonprofits – builds on Meadville’s Heart & Soul process by highlighting the inclusivity and the connectedness that makes the community so special. The cheerful addition to the side of the building features flowers, a butterfly and a bee, and was created from pieces of laser cut aluminum and installed by former Allegheny College art professor Amara Geffen and other Meadville volunteers.
Now, it stands as a shining example of community-led design and placemaking that will hopefully bring community members together for years to come. The title of the mural will be voted on by community members in 2021.
“The Snodgrass mural project is part of an ongoing and more comprehensive project in downtown Meadville… The Arc’s primary goal is to create a community venue where Arc clients, and others with intellectual disabilities, can join the community-at-large in safe, inclusive, local arts and culture events.”
~ Amara Geffen, project coordinator
With the support of PCA and PHC’s funding, a union between personal storytelling and intricate mosaic brought to life two stunning pillars that now permanently tower in Williamsport, PA. Heart of Williamsport, one of PHC’s first Heart & Soul communities, worked with FactoryWorks, a local creative nonprofit, to gather and share stories and memories of the Pajama Factory, a historic factory compound on the edge of Williamsport.
Local residents participated in the design process and also contributed memorabilia incorporated into the finished piece. Local artist Dai En and a group of community volunteers used these stories and memories as inspiration to create the mosaic at the entrance to Pajama Factory. In summer 2020, the mosaic named “The Lady of Light” was unveiled at an outdoor community celebration on the Pajama Factory’s grounds, serving as an opportunity to bring together the community during the isolating time of the pandemic.
“Story-sharing is a powerful tool for bringing people together and strengthening the ties within a community,” says Jeannette Carter, project coordinator. “The six themes that grew out of our storygathering process – creativity, community, supportive environment, inclusion, growth, and gratitude – are widely shared in the creative community of Factory Works and the Pajama Factory. All of these were evident in the project and the final piece created by Dai En.”
“Seeing something this beautiful coming from a collection of personal stories and experiences connects people, evokes pride, and instills a sense of belonging.”
~ Alice Trowbridge, Heart of Williamsport Coordinator