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The art in Madison will save your life—it surely saved Jennie Bastian’s

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Reading timeDatePublished byJennie Bastian
Photography by Nate Ryan

As an artist, parent, and arts administrator, Jennie Bastian shares her perspective on how setting boundaries creates the conditions for creativity, the progressive that Madison needs to be, and the intimacy that comes with community care.

Chronic pain can ruin your life; so can anxiety and depression. But it’s not about ignoring them—it’s about integrating them into your life so that you can find the way forward. I don’t want those things to stop my work supporting my community or parenting my child.

In response, I had to learn how to set boundaries. And it’s a really important lesson for all of us to learn, especially in a capitalist society where it’s about how we perform. I was reading something recently—I wish I could remember the exact phrase. But I learned that telling the people around you more about yourself is a gift. Whether it’s expressing a key conflict or necessary confrontation or a boundary that you’ve been ignoring. It allows someone to know you better.

Avoiding past patterns of harm requires boundaries. It’s not easy, but I know that if I didn’t set those up for myself and model that behavior within my own organization, other people wouldn’t know that they don’t have to burn themselves out. Especially when you work a job that’s supposed to be rooted in passion or activism or personal interest.

I think often about communicating boundaries, as a leader and artist. How can I get people to accept my boundaries? Because it doesn't always happen. But disagreement isn’t bad. Conflict is natural. That's been a really helpful thing for me to learn.

I’m a parent, hoping to juggle family and career ambition. I’m a person with a disability and chronic pain. I’m a director, running Communication—an arts and music nonprofit for all ages. I’m an artist, with a practice focused largely on my community. And I’m an advocate, who is focused on creating spaces that allow people to see how they can be more connected to each other.

It’s hard to do that. And that focus on connection (or lack thereof) definitely has come up during COVID. The art and artistry surrounding us is our way of connecting with people. Sometimes indirectly, sure. But art has saved my life, many times, because it creates fresh avenues for communication with folks. It allows us to address problems in new ways.

When society is struggling, artists can arrive to consider the opportunity with fresh eyes. It’s a different kind of problem solving, a skill that not everyone has. And so we stay grateful for the artists, who save our lives.

The racial justice uprising last summer didn’t disappear overnight. The work lasted; the mutual aid networks are present today, and the general community has the opportunity to continue the work. I feel concerned about it—that people will say, “Oh, I don’t need to do that anymore, or right now.” It’s important for our communities in Madison to come together and buy groceries for the public refrigerator, or support unhoused communities as they’re pushed out of parks.

In Madison, we have to work as hard as we can with our level of privilege, to make the communities that we want our children to grow up in. The work is a love letter to the people around us, knowing that we can be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Photography by Nate Ryan

Maintaining those communities is hard. And it’s a lot of work, but that’s the work that comes with community. We fight for it, establish its future, and look for ways to build it up. At Communication, something that’s important to us is amplifying the voices of marginalized artists—if we’re having an exhibition, we’re not going to feature middle-aged white people. We’ll make the effort to find folks who haven’t had a chance to exhibit widely.

In Madison, we have to work as hard as we can with our level of privilege, to make the communities that we want our children to grow up in. A recent project of mine, I have missed you (Community Care is the Intimacy I Need) demonstrates that ideal well. The work, a patchworked banner that covers an entire porch, is a love letter to the people around us, knowing that we can be a part of something bigger than ourselves. The pandemic is not gone, racial justice has not been achieved, equity in all areas of work and life are still lacking—but I see the work many around me are doing and I appreciate them.

Madison’s a university town, and I think the city owes a lot of its success to that. The MFA and BFA programs are excellent, and tend to draw in a lot of artists—an influx of people from around the world. So with that, there’s a diversity in talent and intellect in this city.

But there are people who are willing to be challenged, and people who are willing to put in the work. That’s the perfect combination for change, and that’s what excites me.

Photography by Nate Ryan

But there’s also a huge part of the creative population in Madison that hasn’t attended the university. Some people often assume that the universities are where creativity and artistic expression reside. But it's not there. It’s everywhere, and that’s exciting for Madison. There are underprivileged communities in this city who might not have had formal training or the opportunity to attend college, but their work is just as compelling and just as exciting. The city has all of this incredible talent and intellectual capital. And it’s small enough that coalition-building and momentum can be created on a scale that can have impact. That’s what excites me about a city like this: there’s no right or wrong way to create change.

Madison is progressive, or at least, a white-feminist style of progressive where folks put a sign in their yard and that feels like all they need to do. Vote Democrat, wear a t-shirt, etc. That sort of thing. But there are people who are willing to be challenged, and people who are willing to put in the work. That’s the perfect combination for change, and that’s what excites me.

Madison is waiting.

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