Updated: Nov 27, 2021
"When we shift our focus from what’s wrong to what’s right in a community, we can affect positive change where we live. Things can get better." - Jennifer Drinkwater
Coppage: You created THE WHAT’S GOOD PROJECT to celebrate “the meaningful stories from where we live.” I would add that the paintings and stories that have come out of this project highlight history of place and what is familiar as well as a nod to the future and possibilities. How did you come up with the idea of TWGP, and how do you see this art and these stories as a way to renew or revitalize communities?
Drinkwater: Great question. I would say there were a couple of things that coalesced into TWGP. First, I tend to be a worst-case-scenario thinker. I grew up fluent in sarcasm. As an artist in academia, I’m well-versed in critiquing – giving small, helpful comments to younger artists or colleagues, always about what was wrong or how they could improve. Being too positive or enthusiastic was vulnerable, risky, naïve.
But in 2018, I was sick and tired of being negative and looking for what was wrong. That’s the first thing.
The second thing was that by 2018, I was working Iowa State University Extension and Outreach as a Community Arts Specialist. Meanwhile, I was traveling across the state of Iowa and going back home to Mississippi, meeting really creative and courageous folks who were doing amazing things to improve where they lived, and I thought – why do we not hear about these stories more often?
The third thing was that I had also stumbled into the world of asset-based community development (ABCD), and well, my head exploded. ABCD was like the macrocosm of gratitude. According to research, when we shift our focus from what’s wrong to what’s right in a community, we can affect positive change where we live. Things can get better. Research said so. That was all I needed to hear.
So, then I started thinking of how to use art as a way to share these stories, to promote the work and the creativity that was already out there, to share the assets or the good that’s in every community. Visual art, and painting in particular, is really just the platform that I’m most comfortable with, so that’s why I use that method.
Coppage: As an artist yourself, do you believe art and artists should be upheld to a greater responsibility since art can be a medium for social and community change?
Drinkwater: Wow. Another great question. Let me see if I can get at this. I guess I believe that we’re all part of the problem, so to speak, and so ideally we’re all potentially part of the solution. I believe art really is just a reflection of our values, individually and culturally. I also believe that art has the ability to connect us.
I’m not sure that artists have a greater responsibility than other folks to acknowledge and address civic issues, but I will say that art sure does provide us with so many opportunities to creatively do just that, if that’s where our values lie. Artists aren’t hemmed in by industry standards, and artists are typically great at connecting the dots between seemingly unrelated things. I was just having the conversation yesterday with someone about how art can be such a terrific strategy, and how so many artists are creating work with that in mind.
Coppage: As you travel around the United States, you share (through social media and blog posts) creative equity and placemaking in the communities that you visit. Can you share a couple examples of communities that others might look towards for examples of success?
Drinkwater: So many examples, although it may be helpful to think of project examples instead of communities. I don’t know of any community that would feel like they’ve “arrived” or that they’ve got it all figured it.
Jackson, Mississippi: The Fertile Ground Project: Inspiring Dialogue about Food Access – great project merging art, community planning, sustainability, and activism.
The State of Minnesota: The Legacy Amendment passed in 2008. This increased the state sales tax by 3/8 of one percent. Nearly 20 percent of that 3/8 of a percent goes into an arts and cultural heritage fund, which has translated into $705 million so far. Currently, Minnesota’s art and culture sector stands at 12.2 billion per year, which is leagues above other states. Minnesota is a great place to be an artist, simply because of all the regional support and community around the arts.
Creston, Iowa: Tatelyn Schultz, a high school art student, had the idea to create a mural partnering young artists with established mural artists, both local and national/international, including folks from NY, CA, and abroad. This morphed into 22 murals created during the pandemic.
Kinston, North Carolina: smART Kinston City Project
Granite Falls, Minnesota: The Yes House
Sumner, Mississippi: The work on racial reconciliation that the Emmett Till Interpretive Center is doing.
Jefferson, Iowa: Why Not Us – all an women investment group that bought a historic building in disrepair (that housed the community’s first female doctor in the early twentieth century) and whose mission is to support a new female-owned restaurant in this revitalized space.
Coppage: On your website and social media for TWGP, you not only share artwork and your visits to creative communities, but toolkits for stakeholders to use. For folks that have not heard of TWGP or visited your website, what would be the biggest takeaway you would want them to get from this project?
Drinkwater: A couple of things: Art’s accessible. That you don’t have to “know” anything about art to appreciate it, that you don’t have to be an artist to organize a creative community project. Art ultimately reflects us and our values, and art can connect us with other folks.
Secondly, Courageous community action and inspiration is everywhere, and it can be contagious.
Coppage: Since I have this opportunity to interview you, and we are both artist from the Mississippi Delta, I must at least highlight this connection in one question. Let’s talk about place, nostalgia, and inspiration. How has growing up in the Mississippi Delta inspired your work and technique? Do you see this connection to the Mississippi Delta as a creative wellspring or obstacle?
Drinkwater: 100 percent. The Delta is really what inspired the creation of WGP. Ironically, since I moved to Iowa, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Delta, and I was always in awe (and nostalgic for) of the beauty of the area and the stories of folks digging into their communities trying to make them better, in spite of so many obstacles.
The Delta is complicated. It’s full of great folks and incredible cultures, and yet a lot of that culture came directly from overwhelming pain and trauma, from the enslavement of Black people to messed up share-cropping cultures to Jim Crow to widespread poverty and disenfranchisement.
It’s gratifying to see folks trying to reckon with those histories – trying to figure out how best to acknowledge and repair that trauma. I certainly don’t have any answers, other than – and obviously this is just my opinion - all of us white Mississippians (whether we still live there or not) are part of, if not the whole problem. And the sooner we can admit that to ourselves, the better off the state will be. And certainly this is not just a Mississippi problem. The same is true in Iowa where I live now.
Coppage: Anything else you want to make sure you have the opportunity to say? How can folks find you as well as purchase your artwork?
Thanks so much for being a part of the WGP and for all of the work you do for and in Washington County. YOU are a source of inspiration, and I appreciate you.
Folks can find me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/whatsgoodproject and Instagram, either at my personal account @jenniferdrinkwater or @thewhatsgoodproject for art and community story-related posts.
They can buy work directly from www.whatsgoodproject.com and subscribe to a free email newsletter where I release new paintings an stories each month.
A Mississippi Delta native, Jennifer Drinkwater is an artist, an associate professor of art & visual culture and the community arts specialist for extension and outreach at Iowa State University. Jennifer explores how we bring artwork from the studio into the world, and how art-making can both build and shape community. Over the years, she's created installations in restored prairies in Nebraska; collaborated on public art projects in vacant sites on Iowa main streets; spearheaded a community knit-bombing project; painted murals with middle school children on a juke joint in the Mississippi Delta and in Perry, Iowa; and written free toolkits about these projects. Jennifer's also the creator of The What's Good Project, which celebrates the meaningful stories from where we live through community conversations and painting. Although she's spent one year of her life living in tents, Jennifer currently resides with her husband and dog in an almost tiny house in Ames, Iowa.