CommUNITY Arts Festival to Address Gun Violence in St. Louis

Elle sat down to chat with Paige Walden-Johnson, a St. Louis-based dancer and founder of the CommUNITY Arts Festival, September 2 – 9th. We believe that yoga has the power to support healing and wholeness, and so we were curious to hear more about how the CommUNITY Arts Festival is using dance as a way to facilitate conversation around violence.  

What inspired you to become a performer?
I have been dancing since the age of five, but I did not really become a performer until college. I had professors like Carol Hodson and Beckah Voigt help become more than just a moving body. Life experiences, the connection to the people around me, and the love of my life, Marcus Johnson, inspires me everyday.

This year, you are launching the first ever Community Arts Festival. Tell me what inspired it:
Rain Stippec’s tragic event in February was definitely the sole driver behind this vision. My husband, Marcus Johnson, and I had our proposal accepted by Satori Theater grow our names as freelance artists. Once we heard about Rain, we scrapped our idea and decide to use the space towards something bigger than ourselves. Originally our plan wa to get a few friends together and dance for Rain and donate our proceeds to her. Little did we know that this would start a path towards a full-on non-profit annual festival. Annonyarts at Satori became our producer and fiscal sponsor and we eventual grew out of our space and relocated to the Grandel and the Marcelle Theater in Grand Center thanks to a sponsorship from the Kranzberg Arts Foundation. Now we are comprised an amazing team we have coined as “The Dream Team.” The Dream Team includes Lionel Christian, Carly Niehaus, Joselyn Simms, Jacinda Santora, Shannon Haubrich, and Tayler Kinner.

What do you see to be the connection between dance and activism?
Art is so powerful. Witnessing or sharing your art creates a visceral reaction and can trigger countless emotions. Successful programs like music therapy and art therapy gives trauma victims a voice even if they are afraid to speak. Angel Band Project (one of our partnering organizations) uses music to give strength to domestic violence survivors. They state, “Music has the power to end this culture of silence by engaging people in a way that’s easier for them to listen, and hopefully, begin to understand.” The last piece that we hope to begin working towards is preventative action. We hope to make art accessible to all ages, economical status, race, gender… EVERYONE. Art is not just for the privileged, we hope to assist every community to witness art and find their own artists voice.

How do you hope the Community Arts Festival will make an impact on the conversation around gun-violence in St. Louis?
Speaking through art allows us to connect to the masses and create a platform for discussion. We want people to see the effects and TALK about it. Upper class citizens do not experience as much violence on a day to day basis, while other communities are desensitized to it because it is a fact of life for them. We want to bridge that gap for making our communities stronger together. What can we do together to make a difference? This project has dozens of organizations working towards a common goal: helping our community. Not only should we talk about the problem, but we can also use art as a healer. With research and partnerships, we can find the best ways to use art to make our community safer for all.

After talking to many artists and professionals in Saint Louis my eyes were opened to the constant violence in the city, and learned about how it inhibits the growth of the arts. The Missouri Arts Council cites a study by the University of Pennsylvania, saying “…a high concentration of the arts in a city leads to higher civic engagement and child welfare, and lower crime and poverty rates.” Through CommUNITY Arts Festival we strive to speak up, educate and heal Saint Louis’s effects of violence. All of our proceeds benefit the recovery of Rain Stippec.

What can people expect at the Festival, and how can they learn more?
The festival has three main components:
1. Two performances with emerging and established artists and companies at the Grandel and Marcelle Theaters. In one night, audience members will see pieces from Modern American Dance Company, Big Muddy Dance Company, Karlovsky & Company Dance, a powerful poet Cheeraz Gorman, and many more. Each night has dance, live music, spoken word, and presentations from our Spotlight Organizations, Arts for Life and Angel Band Project.

2. Young Artist Dance Workshop at the Webster University The Loretto Hilton Center Jean and Wells Hobler Center for Dance and the Gary Hubler Dance Lounge. We will inspire the next generation of artists with four workshops from national acclaimed artists like Cassie Norgden (NYC choreographer), Marcus Johnson (local dance educator and national dance competition judge), Chris Andrews (top 30 SYTYCD in season 12 and 14), and Marjorie Failoni (Broadway Dance Center Instructor). Saint Louis dancers ages 9 and up will get this opportunity to grow their own artistic voices and learn from the best.

3. The Free CommUNITY Workshops at Satori Theater (which we are excited to have Yoga Buzz a part of this event) gives the public access to healing through art and learning how violence impacts our city. This program has yoga, art therapy, music therapy, Trauma seminars, and Voices Against Violence Q & A panel which features speakers from the FBU, SLU Hospital, Safe Connections, ALIVE, Crime Victim Advocacy Center, and Mission St. Louis. We have amazing professionals from many organizations each with a different perspective and plan of action towards Saint Louis Violence.

Anything else you’d like to share?
I want to open the floor for people to share their stories and ideas on where we can go next. What is or isn’t working in your community? What are your concerns or hopes? I love collaboration and creativity. We cannot make a difference by ourselves, if anyone wants to just chat our email is communityartsfestivalstl@gmail.com or call me at 513.482.0931.

To learn more about the offerings, visit the Community Art Festival website: www.communityartsfestival.com. Join Yoga Buzz for a free community yoga class at 9am on Saturday, September 2nd AND 9th at Satori Theater.  Join us for the Free Summer Yoga Series at Ballpark Village on Wednesday August 30 and September 6 to learn more about the festival and enjoy a sneak peek of performances.

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