Thursday, May 20, 2010

Teens from Oasis Center Connect with Berlin Artists

The Breakthrough Artists exhibit was a wonderful opportunity for the International Teen Outreach Program (ITOP) students from Cameron Middle School to see a direct link between either their own or their parents’ story and other people in the world who have also struggled with leaving everything behind in order to have new opportunities, a better life, or simply to achieve freedom from things like heated political or religious conflicts, street violence, drug wars, or an oppressive society. My students were impressed and touched by the artistic and sentimental display through the paintings, the sculptures, and the pictures. They had lots of questions and actually understood a part of history in a way that a book can never explain. They were able to connect with the situations depicted in pictures, with the feelings expressed by phrases in a painting, with the painful memory of leaving a place which used to be called home because of the dire situations they had to face and at the same time were inspired by the artists’ stories of success after the move. I commend Jeff Thinnes and the artists who are part of the tour for sharing their stories and their time with the local youth. I think students do not get enough chances to connect with artists and learn about art, and those chances are key to help youth grow, have different role models, exposure to different career paths and ways to express their feelings in a healthier manner and also show them that with determination and hard work they can reach their goals and stave off all the negative pathways surrounding them in life.

Vanessa Lazón
Youth Engagement Specialist
Oasis Center
1704 Charlotte Pike, Suite 200
Nashville, TN 37203

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Civil rights protesters, German artists share love of freedom - Inside the First Amendment

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director

The fight for freedom of expression takes many forms. But it occurs again and again, at different times, in different cultures, among very different people. And in the United States, the First Amendment makes the fight profoundly different from the struggles elsewhere.

A group of former East German dissident artists, all linked by age, experience or art to post-World War II divided Germany, sat down recently for a discussion at the First Amendment Center in Nashville with veterans of the American civil rights movement, the 1960 Nashville sit-ins and later the Freedom Rides.

Nonviolence, resistance to fear and speaking truth to those in power were themes that united this otherwise disparate set of panelists. And one more connection: the power of free speech to excite, unite, disturb and even frighten those in government who would shush, silence, restrain and even jail those who spoke outside the official boundaries.

For the then-teenagers who marched through Music City streets to call for desegregation of lunch counters, it was a time to recall how the freedom to march, to protest and to seek “a redress of grievances” from their government enabled them to challenge a two-century-old system that one speaker called an American “apartheid.”

For the eight German artists — participants in the “Breakthrough” program beginning its 2010, five-city United States tour at the center in Nashville — it was a time to draw a distinction between protest in a democracy and protest under a totalitarian government. In America, Frank Rödel said, there was both the freedom to protest and the hope that things would change. In the former East Germany, controls were so pervasive that the government started a file on one of the artists, Thomas Klingenstein, when a fellow student reported he was seen whispering to another student in the corner of a playground — clearly subversive activity in those days, it would seem.

Not that the artists disparaged the courage or risk taken by American civil rights protesters. Even though three of the eight artists served jail time for expressive works that violated East German laws, the group said the physical danger to civil rights workers far outweighed, in general, whatever challenges they had faced.

A point of agreement was that freedom of expression through music had been an effective tool to push for social justice and to maintain the spirits of those protesting against repression. Rip Patton, who followed the sit-ins by becoming a Freedom Rider, recalled how music both disarmed violent opposition and raised the morale of those who had been jailed. Patton, a musician, said a song sung softly by a young woman protesting at a lunch counter apparently caused a change of heart in a man threatening to extinguish a cigarette on her forehead.

Several German artists recalled being inspired by the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” even when East bloc governments tried to tie the song and the civil rights movement to the official communist line that American capitalism was a failed system because of widespread discrimination.

Patton closed the meeting by leading panel members and the audience — in linked arms — in several verses of “We Shall Overcome.” It was a lyrical echo of a movement that began five decades earlier and that is rooted in the First Amendment’s five freedoms.

Despite language barriers and differences in age and culture and experiences, German artists and American protesters alike all seemed to know the words to that song.

Editor’s note: For more information about the “Breakthrough” exhibition and program, including upcoming exhibitions and programs this year in the United States, visit

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: E-mail:

Monday, May 10, 2010

Breakthrough Art Organization

Welcome to the Breakthrough Art Organization's blog! We want this blog to become a global meeting place for artists overcoming obstacles through the use of art, and for others interested in the capacity of art to address political, social, economic and personal challenges.

Throughout history artists have, with their art, forced societies to confront old ideas with new perspectives. Often artists are seen as threats by those entrenched in the status quo.

Breakthrough Art Organization launched at the end of 2009 to give greater voice and connectivity to artists and supporters of art around the world. Our inaugural program, running through the end of 2010, focuses on lessons learned from the lives of 10 dissident artists from former East Germany. These artists suffered persecution and oppression for their commitment to freely express themselves as artists. Some were imprisoned, others went into exile leaving behind families and friends, and yet others remained in East Germany until Germany was reunified, suffering with the fears and uncertainties that come with living under the constant, watchful eye of the state secret police.

Our inaugural program "Breakthrough! Twenty Years After German Unification: Critical Perspectives of Berlin Artists" will bring the 10 artists and 90 pieces of artwork to five US cities for an exhibition and educational outreach program with youth, students, political and business leaders, and others. The artwork was selected on the basis of how it can serve as a alunching point for discussions focused on issues such as freedom of expression, courage, determination, honesty, and fairness.

So far we have chosen Nashville, Aspen, Washingtong, D.C., and San Antonio as venues; the fifth city is still under review. In each city we will dedicate a portion of the educaitonal outreach to local issues of particular relevance to our key topics and values. In Nashville, for example, we organized a Civil Rights Roundtable discussion focused on non-violent protest with participants from the 1960's Sit-In movement that helped break down racial barriers in the South. In San Antonio later this year we will look at the experiences of our artists "behind the Wall" as we discuss new Walls that continue to plague societies everywhere today, including the US.

Please feel free to share your ideas in text, pictures and video and make this an active and meaningful meeting place! We are interested in your thoughts on this inaugural project as well as on ideas concerning possible future activities of the Breakthrough Art Organization.