You can't eat art. You can't wrap your children in paintings, or fill your gas tank with pottery.
So why is art important when people are struggling for basic necessities?
Sandy Murphy, executive director of Cottonwood Center for the Arts, says she's witnessed people of all ages and walks of life — including some in the toughest situations — being transformed by art.
"It elevates them beyond devastation and isolation," she says. "It's about empowerment."
She and her right-hand women, Marie David and Karen Rivera, are passionate about Cottonwood's capacity to change the community. And Murphy has led Cottonwood to a new stability in its 14th year.
A few years ago, the facility and its resident artists were in limbo, seeking funding to move from a facility south of the Colorado Avenue bridge to a three-times-larger location on the east side of downtown. The uncertainty left art lovers worried about Cottonwood's very existence. It didn't help that the new building, opened in April 2009, was monochromatic and monolithic.
Today, there's a huge mural on the building's west side — a de facto announcement that the center is not only surviving, but thriving.
Inside, visitors find more than 70 artists who talk about their creations in every media. Monthly receptions draw crowds to exhibits ranging from the funky annual Dia de los Muertos show to the prestigious International Watermedia exhibit.
But Cottonwood's main focus is education, with classes led by respected artists. The leadership team is working to encourage its target audiences — veterans, teens and kids, and the disabled — to come play with art.
"What we have is so special here; there are so few art compounds in the country," Rivera says. "And it really is a remarkable resource for Colorado Springs."
The veterans program, which started in May, draws participants who fought in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, it's focusing on ceramics, but resident artists are eager to lead classes in other media.
"It gives veterans a place to express emotions they can't in society," Murphy says. "It gives them that option to create a piece of art that speaks volumes about what they're feeling. And they can take it and squish it up and throw it in the slop bucket. It's tuition-free so there's no investment for them, other than their time."
Cottonwood doesn't do formal art therapy; instead, the center partners with veterans centers and mental health communities to offer space, supplies and artistic expertise. Programs are funded through donations.
"We've seen some people who have been in their house for weeks, but they will finally come to a class," says David. "This is their only contact with the community. The results have been so positive. We have one Vietnam vet that's been participating for a while, and he realized through the classes that he was actually ready to ask one of the counselors to start therapy."
Some veterans have started to bring their families to classes, sparking ideas for new programs.
"We want to expand it, and this is really where we hope Give! will help us," Murphy says. "One of the facts that comes out during research is that the groups that are most damaged by having deployed parents are girls between 14 and 18."
"They take on more responsibility; they want to care for the other parent and their siblings," David adds. "Our dream is to expand to include these children and the families who need to know that the community appreciates their sacrifice."
Case in point
Cottonwood also strives to fill the gap left by cuts to school arts programs; more creatively inclined students are struggling to find their place in what Murphy refers to as "cookie-cutter classrooms."
David talks about one teen who lost both parents, landed in foster care, and got hooked on drugs. As a last resort, he was enrolled at the Tesla Educational Opportunity Center. There, he took his first art class and entered his first drawing in the 5th Congressional District High School exhibit at Cottonwood.
That drawing won Best of Show, which came with a scholarship. He's now studying art at Pikes Peak Community College.
"He said, 'I finally found something that I'm good at,'" David recalls. "And that brings tears to my eyes, because when he said it to me, he looked at me with these big eyes — you could see it. It was something that he finally felt like, 'I can be good at this.'"
Cottonwood also is partnering with Goodwill on a huge mural to brighten its new facility on Garden of the Gods Road.
These plans hinge on funding, so all three women are excited about their first foray into the Give! campaign.
"This has really re-energized how we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the nonprofits and the rest of the city," Rivera says.
"It's surprising to find out that people really see us as a pivotal point in the community. It has been remarkable."