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A country with so much hurt has a special need for art

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Dylan Fresco
Dylan Fresco: How many humans have courted and married, celebrated and mourned, just to the music of the Beatles?
Courtesy of Dylan Fresco

By Dylan Fresco

Dylan Fresco is a freelance actor, writer, musician and educator. He lives in Minneapolis.

  These past two weeks, I've been thinking a lot about the importance of art.

The day before the school shooting in Connecticut, I got a call from a friend with some bad news. A buddy of ours had collapsed that morning and died. He and his wife had been married only three months, and they'd just moved into a new home together. 

  While our nation mourned the tragedy in Newtown, friends and family gathered in Minnesota to mourn the passing of this gentle and compassionate man, to comfort each other and support his wife. 

  At the funeral, a musician performed songs the new widow had chosen — mostly Beatles tunes, many that we'd heard at their wedding just a few months ago. As we listened to "I Will," which had been their first dance as a married couple, this brave and beautiful woman began to cry, along with so many of us in the chapel.

  Art is vital. It's at every wedding and every funeral. How many humans around the world have courted and married, celebrated and mourned, just to the music of the Beatles? 

  Each week I get to see the power of art to transform people. I'm a teaching artist with Upstream Arts, a group devoted to helping people of all abilities improve their social and communication skills. Every Wednesday, I'm in a classroom of preschool children with disabilities.

  There's this one boy I'll call Michael.  He barely ever speaks in class. He won't raise his hand. He rarely comes up to join an activity, and if his teachers push him to do so, he'll cry and kick and wail. 

But ask him the color of the imaginary ball that we pass around, and he'll say without hesitation: "Blue!"  Ask him to throw it to you, and his arm cocks back, and then flies forward as he throws it sharp, with just a hint of a smile.  If you give him a pastel crayon, he'll draw big swirling clouds of circles. And when the class writes a story together, he can't stop talking — he explains it all, waving his hands, making faces. And I wish everybody could see him play the drum. 

  His teachers told us that he began school last year hiding underneath his coat for most of the day. But through the drum, and the story, and the paintbrush, Michael and I get to connect. It wouldn't happen without art.

  As we have a national conversation about the need for more gun control, and better access to mental health, I hope we'll also talk about the need for more art. Throughout history, people have turned to art and culture in times of joy, and in times of grief and fear. Stories, dancing, music, spoken word and sculpture give people a way to express themselves and connect with others.

It's been said that artists, like teachers and psychologists, are "soul workers." And for many reasons, our nation's soul is hurting. Art helps us come together, and I believe it can help us heal.