Member Spotlight: CHAW Featured in Washington Post
CHAMPS recently helped the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop celebrate its CHAWsome 45th birthday. As CHAW passes this milestone we learned a bit more about how co-Executive Director Hannah Jacobson Blumenfeld’s family history led her to her role in this Washington Post piece.
Most people don’t think of art when they hear “Capitol Hill.” But when I think of Capitol Hill, there is a very particular piece of art that comes to mind: the address number on a yellow house at 11th and C streets SE.
These numbers are special because they are made of stained glass, and they were created by my grandfather in the early 1980s, before I was born. Back then, while living in that house, my mother worked at a little neighborhood place called the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. She taught theater to teenagers and took adult tap dance classes.
From the time I was a baby — by then, my family was in California — I had a CHAW T-shirt, about 10 sizes too big, and I was always told that we were moving back to the District, that I would be a CHAW kid.
Thanks to a more than 20-year layover in Michigan, my family didn’t make it back to the District. But I did.
While I interned in college, and after, with a degree in art history, CHAW opened its doors to me, giving me opportunities to grow, to thrive, to learn. It helped shape the person I am today. And, as a neighborhood anchor, it has done the same for Capitol Hill. The neighborhood in which my parents lived was vastly different from the neighborhood now.
But CHAW, which I now help lead, is strikingly similar in that it was always reflective of and responsive to its surroundings.
This is the power of creative spaces, and why we need to fight as hard as we can — especially now, when it feels as though many of our spaces for dialogue are rife with conflict — to protect and sustain vital artistic spaces. It’s not just nice to have; it’s essential.
One of the CHAW teaching artists once remarked that he made his beginning-drawing students draw with pen, never pencil. That’s because, he said, “Beginning students often have a limiting ideal in mind about what ‘drawing’ should look like, and when they look at their drawings, it’s like the first time you ever recorded your voice and thought, ‘Oh, that’s what I sound like?’ So drawing with a pen is like shock therapy for them to embrace the beauty of their own handwriting. Because I see it. I have a sense that they have this ideal they’re zeroing in on, but there’s room to be more expansive; to see what’s possible.”
The sustainability of our communities lies in this expansiveness, this sense of wonder and possibility, this ability to situate our own perspectives in a larger context. Instead of drawing in pencil, constantly second-guessing and erasing, artistic spaces teach that we can put away our pencils, make bold mistakes and then make our mistakes into new paths and opportunities.
How can we learn to hear one another without this ability to change directions; to be open to new perspectives and different narratives? How can we engage in community without shared spaces? The Capitol Hill Arts Workshop has seen 45 years of change. It helped shape the community that is here today and remains committed, through its robust tuition-assistance program, to its founding principle of never turning away a student for inability to pay — because we have to invest locally in order to make change.
The arts and creativity can ground us, root us in a history and a sense of shared vulnerability that comes from opening ourselves to the possibilities. I will probably never get back inside that house, but I like walking by, like seeing the stained-glass numbers. Even if you never set foot in the building, CHAW, too, serves as a reminder that if we invest in, value and support local arts, we give our communities new opportunities to be more inclusive and more open.
And when we engage with the arts, we give our communities new avenues through which to thrive. Art isn’t an add-on in our neighborhood or any neighborhood. Whether we recognize it consciously or not, creative communities give us space to see new solutions to common challenges, to collaborate in unexpected ways, to draw in pen.
The writer is co-executive director of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.