Colorful painting featuring stripes of various colors laid horizontally in three columns

The Joy of Collective Creative Expression

UMass Amherst’s Building Bridges public art initiative brings people together to creatively celebrate differences.

Since 2018, Building Bridges has served as a public art and engagement initiative on campus that provides an outlet for fostering new connections among UMass students, faculty, staff, and community members. This opportunity to become actively engaged draws on the power of solidarity and creative expression, bringing people together to build bridges across difference.

Two Building Bridges artists pose with their featured artwork
Building Bridges participants Lisa Korpiewski and Karen Hakala

As the Building Bridges team prepares for its fifth annual art showcase, the initiative's Worker Artists Group asks: Can sharing pieces of art also be an act of kindness? By giving the community something beautiful, handmade, and meaningfully crafted, Program Director Jacob Carter confidently says yes — doing so, he argues, brings joy to both the artist and the recipient.

This sentiment provided the inspiration to initiate a Random Acts of Kindness Through Art campaign on the UMass Amherst campus, to both promote a positive presence through art and invite the community to attend the Building Bridges 2022 showcase, taking place April 5 at the Randolph W. Bromery Center for the Arts

"The idea came from our Worker Artists Group. People were talking about the magic of gift giving, its healing power, and its importance," explains Carter, who co-facilitates the Showcasing Worker Artists at UMass course alongside Partnership for Worker Education Director Joe Connolly. "They began sharing stories about how the act of giving their art had been cathartic and given them joy. In addition to our persistent work on the critical issues of our time, it is also important to inspire each other through our art and to have those joyful moments."

Group photo of 2019 Building Bridges Participants
2019 Building Bridges and Partnership for Worker Education participants

The art, which is printed on card stock and features the work of campus employees, includes photographs, mixed media, illustrations, jewelry making, and more. Carter and his team plan to distribute the cards to high-traffic areas on campus, such as the dining halls and Student Union, so that as many UMass community members as possible can enjoy them.

A sign that reads "free art" stands with art cards in the dining common

Free art cards are available at the dining halls on campus.

On the backs of the cards, a message reads: Especially during this pandemic, our Worker Artist Group has centered creative expression as a way to lift each other up during difficult times. Constructing a future that prioritizes collective struggle and love over division requires radical acts of empathy and kindness along with persistent engagement on critical issues. We hope that this simple act of kindness may lighten your day. Consider what random and radical act of kindness you can share with a friend, family member, our UMass community or with the world.

Tsultrim Dolma
Building Bridges participant and contributing artist Tsultrim Dolma

Engagement in critical issues was the cornerstone of the initiative's formation. "At the start of 2017, longstanding political and social conflicts in the United States created a rift in our ability to talk and engage across difference," a statement penned by Carter and Office of Civic Engagement and Service Learning Director Joseph Krupczynski reads. "Our sense of a collective public discourse and our desire for an engaged democracy—so important to the public mission of UMass Amherst—has been challenged in many ways. Building Bridges grew out of this key moment and focuses on the possibilities of when people come together across race, religion, class, immigration status, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, nationality, and more."

Moments of wonder, inspiration, reflection and love at Building Bridges provide us with strength and courage to move forward during difficult times and to strengthen our resolve and commitment to each other. It is a time for creating new bonds and strengthening those that already exist.

Jacob Carter, The Partnership for Worker Education

By centering on UMass Amherst workers, Building Bridges has become an invaluable outlet for the university's diverse populations to find community and express themselves, especially throughout the pandemic.

When COVID-19 gained momentum in 2020, Building Bridges went remote and remained so throughout 2021. During that time, participants still produced a myriad works of art and connected with fellow artists virtually. "This has been a lifeline for me during COVID," says Michelle St. Martin, a longtime Building Bridges participant and contributing artist.  Another participant expressed, "This was one of the most genuine, authentic, honest, engaging, and connecting experiences I've had as a UMass employee."

Despite the challenges presented with maintaining creative spaces accessible to the public, Carter and a dedicated organizing team of worker artists successfully hosted the 2020 and 2021 Building Bridges showcases in a virtual format to ensure the initiative's momentum was not lost to the pandemic. After patiently waiting for two years, the 2022 showcase will be presented in person.

"We are most excited to bring people together in person to celebrate each other’s work, tell stories, and share. The last two years have been very difficult for so many in our UMass community, especially frontline and essential workers," Carter remarks. "These moments of wonder, inspiration, reflection and love at Building Bridges provide us with strength and courage to move forward during difficult times and to strengthen our resolve and commitment to each other. It is a time for creating new bonds and strengthening those that already exist."

This is all so very beautiful, both the art and the community it builds. We all need to get to know each other better so we can appreciate the whole person, not just the work they do here.

Building Bridges Participant
Building Bridges participants stand together outside on campus
Participating artists, from left to right: David Wilson, Andrew Humpel, Elise Raskevitz, Carol Landry, Michelle St. Martin, and Katie Sadler.

Building Bridges is a collaborative effort between The Partnership for Worker Education, Human Resources, Civic Engagement and Service-Learning, and the Office of Equity and Inclusion. In addition to the annual art showcase, the initiative also includes four core projects: a participatory art installation made up of three 10-foot tall towers and Our Building Bridges cards; Our Immigrant Voices, which seeks to amplify the voices of immigrant workers on campus; Showcasing Worker Artists at UMass, which explores ways of highlighting the art created by UMass employees; and Worker Rights as Human Rights, which helps to reveal the interconnectedness of workers’ rights with all aspects of human rights. Each of these projects creates a context for dialogue and produces or shares creative work that engages members of the campus community in building bridges across difference.

Students, faculty, and staff are invited to get involved in Building Bridges in a way that feels meaningful to them, whether by attending an event, hosting their own event, contributing to the Building Bridges art installation, or signing up for Building Bridges and Partnership for Worker Education classes. Participants with featured work in the Random Acts of Kindness Through Art campaign include Andrew Humpel, Carol Landry, David Wilson, Donna Vanasse, Elise Raskevitz, Karen Hakala, Katie Sadler, Lisa Korpiewski, Loni Edwards, Malini Sinha, Michelle St. Martin, Owen Reese, Ra Phou, Sarah Jarman, Tsultrim Dolma, and Wayne Gagnon.

To view more current Building Bridges work, a Photovoice installation made by participants in the Our Immigrant Voices class resides in the physical plant main lobby leading up to the April 5 showcase.

This article was published on February 17, 2022.