Joel Bergner (aka Joel Artista) is the CEO and Co-Founder of the non-profit organization Artolution, through which he trains and supports local artists in vulnerable communities to lead their own community art programs, affecting the lives of thousands of children each year. Artolution partners with UNICEF, the International Rescue Committee, UNHCR and other agencies to integrate community-based public art programming in humanitarian response around the world.
Joel is an artist, educator and organizer of community-based public art initiatives with youth in conflict-affected and traumatized communities around the world, from Syrian refugee camps to American prisons; the favelas of Brazil to the Kibera Slum of Kenya. His elaborate, large-scale murals weave smoothly between realism with an urban art sensibility and the raw expressions of children, who learn to tell their stories through art. Joel travels the globe with his wife, CJ Thomas, who leads dance and theatre workshops, and their young daughter, Amara.
Artolution programs have served over 6,000 participants living in refugee, displaced, and underserved communities. They focus on building up local artists and leaders to support year-round programming in our core regions; Bangladesh, Uganda, Jordan, Colombia, and the United States. Artolution has trained a total of 68 artists around the world to run collaborative art-making programs.
JAC: What is Artolution’s mission and goal as an organization?
JB: Artolution is a non-profit organization and a global movement. We focus on collaborative art-making as a way for people in vulnerable communities, and those who have experienced trauma to come together and have a platform that allows them to shape their own narratives, and tell their own stories, and also build healthy relationships along the way. We focus on many different types of art forms to do this, especially art forms that are in public spaces and in communities. We do community murals, and sculptures and different types of performance, like dance and theatre. We’ve done many virtual projects, as well, which brings together our different communities around the world. This includes animation projects, and storytelling, and digital art. We really work with many mediums but it always has this common element in it, which is that it’s collaborative, and really focuses on the participants themselves. Deciding what the artwork will be about, what the themes will be, what the imagery will be, what the composition will be, it always comes down to the participants deciding those things.
I am a community artist, a mural artist, among other things, and I’m also the co-founder and co director of Artolution. I’ve been working on this concept of collaborative art making as a way to strengthen resilience in vulnerable communities, such as refugee camps and people who are incarcerated, for many years now. I have a background in not only public art, but also in counseling young people who have experienced trauma. And this is my passion.
JAC: What inspired Artolution to look into expanding your programs into the criminal justice system?
JB: Artolution has not yet done much work with those who have been involved in the criminal justice system but as a community artist, I have done a lot of that work in the past. I worked with women in a prison in Maryland, did many projects in juvenile detention centers, and in New York, I worked with young returning citizens. And during a time like this, in which a lot of programming is moving to the virtual space, it was something that we really wanted to just start focusing on – people who are incarcerated and people who have been affected by the justice system. I think these virtual projects really have a lot to offer. Because those who benefit the most from this type of program are those who are the most isolated, the most marginalized, those who are really separated from society. There’s no population more isolated than those who are incarcerated. We were able to get some small funds to focus on pilot projects with those in the justice system. We hope to be able to scale this up and have a full fledged program.
“I didn’t know that I can draw in public, or be on a ladder like men, you [Artolution] didn’t change the whole society but changed something inside of me”
– Ayah, Female Syrian Youth
JAC: Considering the work Artolution has done, what is unique about the new initiatives you’re hoping to bring to carceral spaces?
JB: One thing that will make our program unique is that we’re really interested in connecting our participants with those in other parts of the world and other cultures. It’s a really educational experience to meet, be creative, and work on collaborative art projects with someone who has had many of the same life experiences as you have, but is from also a very different social context and from a different culture. Individuals affected by the criminal justice system, connecting online through these projects that focus on theater, animation, digital art, storytelling, and character development – all of our different virtual bridges programs. We’ll be matching people up from it from different countries but from similar age demographics, so we’ll connect youth with other youth or adults with other adults. Bringing together people across the United States, the UK, and other countries where we have programs, such as Uganda, Colombia and South America, among other places, is really the goal of our program.
We focus on collaborative art making as a tool, and we have a couple different ways we’re planning to do this. So first, those who have access to the internet can participate in our regular virtual bridges programs. This would be people who have been released, on probation or even may be incarcerated. But it happens to be rare that programs allow online options. Although it’s not common, there are a few institutions that are allowing it. So for those who can connect on the internet, we have virtual projects on zoom in which teaching artists are guiding the participants through creation, skill building, learning skills such as digital art, animation, stop motion animation, as well as collaborative storytelling, and many other art forms. We’re also doing theater and drama. And so this will provide an opportunity in virtual spaces to come together with artists, with other participants in other countries to work on collaborative art projects, and to form new friendships and learn about other cultures and, and make those new relationships. I think that’s a big focus for us.
The second category would be those who are currently incarcerated and are not able to connect via the internet, which is most people who are incarcerated. For those people, both youth and adults, we are focusing on several different types of programs. One is that we’re planning to release a series of video based projects, that align with our normal programs, that the facility can play. The videos show the teaching artists guiding participants in that facility through the project and through the art making process. They learn the same skills, depending on what kind of resources they have. Some of them are more tech based such as digital art, but then others are very analog. Writing, drawing, storytelling and just movements with your body. Very basic skills but very powerful skills that also allow people to to collaborate with one another on those projects.
We are also seeking ways to connect family members who are separated because of incarceration. We’re developing a series of activity books that are meant to be shared through the mail. There’s one we’ve created that is geared towards children and their loved one who is incarcerated. It is a storytelling work packet so the child or the family member at home is guided through the process of creating a story that includes both some simple writing as well as drawing pictures, but they don’t create the whole story, they guide you through part of it. And then the person who is incarcerated creates another big section on the story, and then they send it back to their family to have the final part of the story created. They send it back and forth and at the end, the final product is this illustrated story created by both people that can be enjoyed after that. That’s an example of the kinds of work packets that we are doing and this is really geared towards families during COVID, where people are even more separated and have fewer and fewer opportunities for visits. So we really want to focus on different ways to connect children and their parents as well as other family members who are separated because of incarceration.
JAC: What are you hoping your programs will give to system impacted individuals?
JB: So basically, our main goal is connection. It’s all about relationship building, strengthening relationships, and strengthening resilience among people who are really facing a lot of challenges. It’s about skill building in the arts but we think of those skills as being a tool that individuals can use to connect to others, whether it’s connecting with family members, or with peers, or connecting with artists across the world. The common denominator is this idea that collaborative art making can form these connections, and that those connections are so important for the well being and the mental health of all of us.
JAC: How do you envision your programs operating with COVID-19 considerations? And how will they potentially evolve in the future?
JB: All the programs that I mentioned that we’re working on are with COVID-19 taken into consideration. So we are also looking to do things like mural programs inside of prisons and things like that but because of COVID, we’re currently focusing on the virtual projects, on the workbooks, and on the video based programs. However, I think that many of these programs we have been developing because of COVID have actually opened us up to many different tools. And some programs we will use after COVID because many of these activities have proven to be really impactful. Some of the work we’re doing with animation, some of the work we’re doing bringing together young people across borders, to learn from each other and to connect with each other, all of those things have a lot of value, whether it’s there for the pandemic or not. And so, I see many of these tools we’re developing being relevant afterwards as well.
JAC: What support / connections are you looking for from the JAC Network and wider justice art community?
JB: We’re looking for a few things. I’ve been talking to several different organizations: we are interested in partnerships with like minded organizations, especially those who already have participants or people who think they would be interested in participating in these kinds of projects. We’re also looking for teaching artists who have experience with these types of projects and virtual projects. Especially those with experience in the criminal justice system. Artolution has a methodology and a training manual – we really focus on professional development of our teaching artists. So these would be paid positions, leading virtual workshops, at this point just virtual, in the future, maybe physical as well. But because of the virtual aspect, the teaching artists can be based anywhere, they just need to be open to leading a variety of different types of arts based workshops.
JAC: Is there anything else you’d like to add to our audience?
JB: The last thing would be just to say that we are very open. For Artolution, most of our experience has been in mural making and performances with refugees in refugee camps and things like that. So this is something that is new for us. For that reason, we would love to hear from organizations and teaching artists who have more experience who may already be developing similar types of projects. We’d love to collaborate, we’re very open to partnering. And so if anyone has comments, suggestions or questions or feedback or ways that we can improve the kinds of ideas that we’re currently working on, we’re open to all of that.