Does your ‘we’ include me?

Little Book Project WI’s creative director implores us all to seek true representation in art.
Rachel Werner sitting at an empty chair with other chairs surrounding
Photo by Marla Bergh
Rachel Werner

I’m addicted to the creative process.

It feeds and soothes my soul. I feel most alive when I’m fully enmeshed in artistic labor. For a long time, I was chronically unaware of this truth about myself. And it was suffocating me from within.

When people say I am “talented,” what I hear is that I was simply born lucky. But I know that I am the product of years of hard work, often in the face of rejection. I’ve also had to persistently make my art accessible for public consumption, as have so many of us who identify as members of a marginalized community.

For too long I’ve been silent about what I believe is a common feeling among people who don’t see themselves reflected in the artist prototype that has excluded far too many. That includes those of us who are Black, Indigenous and people of color, and those with nontraditional access needs. These are artists who also may lack money or a certain level of education.

I believe it is vital that representation within the arts be increased. That’s why I started The Little Book Project WI in late 2019, a community arts endeavor specifically created to be a space for local visual and literary artists to see their work in print without facing the hurdles of submission costs or necessitating a certain academic pedigree. It’s also intended to raise awareness about the social justice initiatives that organizations throughout Wisconsin are working to address.

There’s a lot of rhetoric surrounding artists from marginalized communities. Dominant culture says we’re in a fiscal crisis because of a lack of access to funding and higher educational opportunities, among other socioeconomic factors. But what about the psychological toll that comes with constantly encountering roadblocks in language and accessibility, or in having so few professional peers who have had similar struggles?

Artists deserve to earn the same living wage that’s so readily provided in other industries, that are not dependent upon patronage. Even more concerning is the mental cost for “creativepreneurs” who continually receive societal cues (or direct feedback) implying that there is no market for their craft. To repeatedly hear that our stories have less value — because we are not white, able-bodied, neuro-typical, heterosexual — is gut-wrenching. It’s also a blatant lie. We are our own audience. We need no one’s permission to be seen, heard or understood.

We don’t need lip service; we need genuine representation and diversity — needs that are only heightened by the pandemic that has left us all physically isolated, as well as by our ongoing struggle in bearing the blatant racism and bigotry that plague our city, state and nation. How many years can a person endure constant exclusion and not break?

As a writer, I am a voracious reader. Not only of books but of any content I can get my hands on about other writers and artists. I truly think having tangible connections to other creative minds is crucial for any artist, no matter what their focus is. It helps you feel less alone, insane and desperate. Emotional turmoil can sever inspiration just as it’s begun to flow or end a career before it’s even launched.

Having served on the board of directors for Capital City Theatre, Madison Ballet, Madison Reading Project and Children’s Theater of Madison, I know that ensuring greater access to literature, dance, theater and visual arts can and does have a transformative impact on children’s lives and futures. But simply saying “all are welcome” is not enough. Insincere rhetoric is seen as a patronizing act of charity. It’s not enough to simply diversify one’s board; staff, programming and patrons should reflect Madison’s multicultural population.

No organization is there yet. No business is there yet. But some are indeed trying harder than others. As residents, we need to make note of those that are — then distribute our time, talent and treasure accordingly.

These are the first steps in exploring how to spark sustainable collaboration and mutual aid so there is less reliance upon philanthropy and outdated fundraising methods. Templates of such partnerships are beginning to crop up around other regions in the United States, but we desperately need them here. I hope The Little Book Project WI will continue to evolve as a blueprint for creating intentional inclusivity and collective ownership within artistic fields.

We are stronger together as citizens, as consumers and as creators. The question is, who do you envision when you say the word “we”? Would I see myself reflected in your vision? Are you present in mine? Not a single day should ever pass when either of us forgets the other is here.

Rachel Werner, a guest columnist to Madison Magazine, is founder of The Little Book Project WI, a biannual community arts and nonprofit printmaking collaboration. Find more at littlebookwi.com.