Empowering individuals through transformative art experiences
Mission & History
Grass Roots Art and Community Effort (GRACE) is focused on empowering individuals through transformative art experiences, which lead to creative growth and self-discovery. At the core of GRACE is a commitment to unite diverse communities through the process of art making and exhibitions.
Grass Root Arts and Community Effort – GRACE has been dedicated to the discovery, development, and promotion of self-taught art to elders and other underserved populations in Vermont. It was started in 1975 at the St. Johnsbury Convalescent Center located in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Don Sunseri, a newly transplanted artist working at the Center provided art materials, encouragement, and a supportive environment, letting residents explore on their own. As a result, they produced a stream of beautiful, often biographical art works. The art was later organized into slide lectures and publications. Since that time hundreds of exhibits have traveled to galleries, museums, and art centers regionally, nationally, and internationally.
Today, 40 years later, GRACE has blossomed into a small, non-profit organization with a staff of five and runs more than 500 workshops annually. GRACE brings weekly artmaking workshops to the places where people live and work: nursing homes, mental health centers, senior meal sites, adult day centers, and artists’ homes. GRACE has been recognized and supported as an important and original community arts program by the Vermont Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New England Foundation for the Arts, the Vermont Community Foundation and many private foundations. Smithsonian (1992) CNN Across America (1993), Vermont Life (1995), Vermont ETV (1996), Boston Globe (1998), Raw Vision (2002), and Folk Art (2007) have traveled to Vermont to highlight the GRACE program and the work of individual GRACE artists.
In September of 2000 GRACE acquired the Old Firehouse in downtown Hardwick, the first permanent facility for the organization. The Old Firehouse, built in 1885, is listed on the National Register of Historic Sites. The Old Firehouse provides a bright interior space for GRACE’s Firehouse Gallery, community workshops, offices, and art collections.
The Tao of GRACE
As an original community arts program, GRACE receives many requests for assistance from individuals and groups across the country interested in developing similar programs. Whether by sharing the workshop process with interested persons, giving phone consultations or mailing GRACE information to those far from Vermont, sharing the model of the workshop program has become GRACE’s “training program.”
The GRACE style of training, not surprisingly, follows a similar style to that of the workshops. This approach happens to be the style of Lao Tzu Te-Tao-Ching. Action is really sort of inaction. Inaction doesn’t really mean no action whatsoever, but action that is allowed to happen naturally, without forces or meddlesome efforts. A bit more specifically, the Tao encouraged refraining from activity contrary to Nature or going against the grain of things. This is the intrinsic nature of the GRACE program.
As each workshop has its own personality, so does each individual who requests assistance from GRACE. Providing each prospective trainee with a “training packet” would go against the grain of things. So this process of familiarizing others and making them feel comfortable with the GRACE way is handled a little bit differently than some other programs. When someone expresses an interest in GRACE, we send them a packet of written materials. This packet may contain newspaper and magazine articles, letters of support, and GRACE newsletters and documents writer by staff members. This range of materials provides insight from many different perspectives, as well as a history of the program, the GRACE mission and the communities with whom we work.
Those interested in the GRACE program are always encouraged to attend workshops. There is no requirement of course, but since each workshop is unique, more someone can attend the better. At the workshops, we encourage visitors to relax and observe rather than try to help. The environment is creative and informal, so dialogue with participants is a great way to get a feel for how the workshops are run. Once an artist is working, however, everyone must back away and let that “special silence” take over. It is what we strive for and treasure during GRACE workshops.
Usually we set aside a time to get together with visitors and talk about the workshops. Questions often arise about the GRACE “method” – the “should” and “should nots.” As the GRACE way encourages allowing things to happen naturally, there really are not many rules. GRACE follows some basic instinctive guidelines and shares these with trainees, volunteers and others attending workshops. The most important of these guidelines is a GRACE motto: “Be yourself and do it your own way.” GRACE staff members are not teachers but artists working to share and encourage creativity in others. As people working with people, we learn as much from workshop participants as they learn from us, or perhaps even more. By not teaching and encouraging participants to be themselves, GRACE facilitates and encourages the process of self-discovery.