36 min read

Everyday Aesthetics and Justice

Everyday Aesthetics and Justice

On the streets of Baltimore, what often commands your attention more than the towering buildings are the vivid colors that dance across the city's walls and on screen doors of houses. These are visual stories. The murals here are glimpses into the psyche of a community that has seen both struggle and resurgence.

These works of art aren't just paintings; they're conversations. Conversations about history, identity, and aspirations. Each image, whether it's of hands clasped in unity or a face etched with determination, speaks to the larger narratives of justice, dignity, and social change. The stories might be specific to Baltimore, but the themes are universal. They convey the immense potential of art and aesthetics more broadly to convey human dignity and express our longings for justice.

This connection between aesthetics and justice became a lot clearer to me in my conversation with Dr. Sheri Parks, whose work uncovers the relationship between everyday aesthetics and considerations of justice, especially among the underserved.

Dr. Parks is a public intellectual, strategist, senior higher education professor, administrator, and author, working to bridge the wisdom of communities and the academy to address urgent societal challenges. Her positions have included Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at the Maryland Institute College of Art and Associate Dean for Research, Interdisciplinary Scholarship, and Programing, and Founding Director of the Center for Synergy at the University of Maryland.

In this episode, Sheri takes us on a journey through her various initiatives to integrate art and justice. In one such project, young people collaborate with artists to reimagine their communities, placing dignity at the forefront. She shares moving tales of ex-gang members finding healing from trauma through dance and the simple beauty of roses. And she also tells us about the Indigo Dye Initiative, an endeavor that helps communities reclaim their collective histories while creating beautiful art and building a sustainable economic future.

You can watch or listen to our conversation below. An unedited transcript follows.

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Interview Transcript

Brandon: Sheri, it's such an honor to have you on the podcast. Thank you so much for joining us.

Sheri: Thanks for having me.

Brandon: So let's get started by talking about your own background, and what drew you to study and pursue aesthetics as a topic of interest?

Sheri: Well, I've always been a writer. I asked for a printing press when I was eight. That was also my first experience with censorship since I was very innocently telling about who was going in and out of whose houses. I actually started out being a print journalist, but I clearly realized that I had more power than anybody. I'd taken all the ethics classes that anybody had taught me how to handle. I went to graduate school to find out how to handle that. But of course, by the time you sit down and think, well, what are the cultural implications from the story that I'm writing, stories have already been written by somebody else. So I stayed in PhD.

I did my master's thesis on gender and race socialization. It was a multiple regression analysis, which was the most sophisticated thing that was going at the time, which predicted the children's attitudes. The paired of survey that I gave their parents are the TV shows that they watched. I found that the TV shows that they watched predicted better their attitudes. The children had a pictorial line that was aligned with the survey that I gave their parents. Parents said, well, they don't watch that show. I doubled back. And if a five-year-old can tell you two complete scenarios of a show, they're watching the show. But it was very clear that there was — I was fascinated by the noise, by the error. There was something that I wasn't grabbing. So I dabbled around a very, very supportive advisor and retrained as an ethnographer by people who were doing family systems theory for therapists. So the method I used, I actually had never taught because it's used on — it was evidently the first non-clinical use that's used on families with someone with schizophrenia. Because it's very powerful and takes down.

I didn't sleep there, but I would be in people's homes over a matter of weeks and videotaping but also interviewing them at the same time. What I'm trying to figure out is, I mean, all the things. Not just the media but the pictures, and in one case, the rugs, and how families are not inadvertently because they mean it, but they see all this as play so it's not part of their, "We're going to teach our children this." Working with a family as co-participants, this is what I think I'm seeing. They often were seeing things that they've never seen before. I had to ask them that in the human subjects.

The way I teach my undergraduates this is that — they think it's the most lame assignment in the world — follow the dog. Cats are unreliable here. Follow the dog. The dog will lead you to the hearth room. Families never let you photograph this room because it's usually untidy. But that's where the family pictures are, the basketball trophies, and the dog's bed, and where you eat, and put your feet up. Just sit there for two hours, and watch what happens. Then try to interview the family about what all this means. They are technical terms in family mythology and that sort of thing. It ends up being one of their most favorite assignments. That's the very simplistic idea. It's that groups of humans do this. There's all this stuff that we put out on purpose. But there is so much stuff that we just do, and we don't question why we do it or how we do it. That's what I was really interested in. It's like, how does the aesthetics of a family communicate who we are in the world and how we move through the world, and what does this mean?

For instance, this wasn't a study. I was just talking to a faculty member about the work I do. He said, "Well, does it have to be a family room?" I said, oh, no, it could be wherever they gather. He showed me a picture of his kitchen that he had helped design. He was a very preeminent French horn artist. I said, oh, I see French horns in your carpet in your kitchen. He said, "What are you talking about?" I took my finger and outlined. I said that's the bill. Then he said, "Sheri, I picked out that carpet. I've never seen it the way you're— but now that you pointed it out, I see that I picked a carpet of French horns." Families do that all the time. It's how families position themselves. When people get partnered, there's this negotiation of all this kind of meaning. It's informed by your family of origin and your culture of origin and where you think you're going. So that's how I got started. That's wonderful, right?

What I've been able to do is to transfer that out into the larger public sphere, basically. So that I've worked with— I can do ethnography with an individual, or a family, or with a community group. I've done that. Or I do a Thinkathon where it can be city-wide, that all of these are ethnographically-informed. This is the type of questions I ask and what I ask about. That's been used. We've done nine of them in Baltimore, but also in College Park, to help replan what becomes an art and cultural district where communities of culture said we want people to see that we're here. Fort Worth has used it. All of those are ones of which I've been involved. A couple of cities have tried it on their own with I think mixed results.

But that idea that every day, all day, that we're communicating this information about ourselves and negotiating this information ourselves. The way you are wearing your hair and the way you are wearing your glasses. This is your summer shirt, I'm sure. I've seen you in your complete coat and tie. And you know this from the neuroscientist that I know you talked to. It's that our aesthetic decisions — I'm using decisions on purpose — are so fast that we don't recognize that they are decisions. It feels like it just was always there. But now that we can trace them, we understand that it goes through that decision-making process. It just goes so fast that we're not self-aware of it. So we're not interrogating it in the way we might interrogate. You may interrogate your shirt. But it's 90 degrees outside, and you still decided to wear a long-sleeve shirt because—

Brandon: It's very cold in here.

Sheri: Okay. So it's communicating something, right? When you left your house this morning, it wasn't very cold.

Brandon: Yeah.

Sheri: So we make all these decisions that move around aesthetics that are communicating things all the time and negotiating all the time, and without it being monitored or interrogated. And so that's why I'm very interested in it. Certainly, I mentioned culture of origin because of that cultural mix in the United States when you've got — I don't even know how many ethnic groups. But in Prince George's County in Maryland, there's a school that has 165 languages. So we can talk about all of that negotiation that's often silent. What I mean by negotiation when I talk to undergraduates, I say, okay, you are 13. You are biologically an adult, but you are still economically and socially and emotionally dependent on your parents. You're angry. You go to your room. What happens? The white kids say, "Slam the door." The kids are calling don't slam the door, because their parents didn't take the door off the hinges. But then I said, okay, and then what do you do now?

They're driving this narrative and they're all saying, "Then you turn on your music loud." Oh, it's loud and still tolerated. What genre? A genre that annoys them. What did you just say? Well, we all know what you just said, right? I can't say it. But you said it in a way that they can say turn that music down, but they won't come back at you for what you just said. Because it was quote. That's what I mean by interrogated and not interrogated or negotiated. Because you can't say what you want to say because you're so dependent on them, but you find a way. And the aesthetics makes it a safer place to say this to them.

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Families monitor each other. I worked with a family that said that they spent the evenings together. Because I asked them to do an inventory of their routine. This mother and daughter said, "We spend the evenings together." But wait a minute. They're in a town home. The daughter comes home before her mother. It took a long time to get to this. She presets the TV to the station that her mother will watch when she comes home. She gets something to eat. She has also preset the volume. Now she's learning this as she's saying it. She goes upstairs to do her homework. The mother comes home, daughter comes down. They talk about their day. She goes back up. Mother stays downstairs.

Now, they told me that they spend the evening together. But what they're doing is, the daughter has preset the TV. If mom just leaves it the way it is, mom is okay. If mom adds music to it, then the daughter starts listening to what music the mom is listening to, whether it's happy or sad. Mom is doing the same thing. The daughter is listening to music while she does her homework. It's just kind of like teenage music. But if it's sad, she'll start paying attention and see how long it goes. If it's happiness, that's fine. But if it's sad, then she goes upstairs. So they are together and apart at the same time. We do this all the time. I interviewed a dad who they said music is really important to him. Sometimes he goes out in the driveway to listen to it. Well, in the basement, dad has got a sound system that's better than anything. They said, "But it's a Volvo. It's a really good car." It turns out much later that the dad, under the guise of listening to the music and the Volvo, dad is just getting some time away from his family. But he can't say, "You're getting on my nerves, and therefore I would be like that sitting here driving." It's very bizarre.

So all day long, we are making choices and talking to each other around aesthetics. But because this aesthetics and therefore play, it doesn't get — I mean, I've said this a few times already, but it's really important that this is happening all along. As some of the neuroscientists that you and I both have worked with, it takes a millisecond for us to say that a person is pretty. Well, that's such a complex decision based on ethnicity and gender, social class, and how much money they have to spend on all kinds of things that get to what we consider pretty. That's really where I'm mucking around in.

Brandon: Nice. That's fantastic. What fits under the umbrella of aesthetic? What does it encompass?

Sheri: Well, I take a very multipronged and interdisciplinary research approach. And so that instant, as I pointed out, includes what one would call sociology. I'm in American study, so I can be interdisciplinary and multi-theoretic all the time, theoretical all the time. It certainly involves cognition, but it also involves ritual and pattern. And so I work very hard not to be a one-trick pony. I mean, a lot of academics add necessity. This is what I do. They will try to shove the question into what they do. I try to take the opposite approach. So what is this thing? How many things are feeding into it? With my training, I can do a fair amount. I mean, I've mentioned quantitative or qualitative. But then the collaborations then become very important. Because often — I'm sure we'll get to this — my work is not just housing the academy. The work in the world demands a multipronged, multidisciplinary approach. And so I'm very happily mediating between those different fields.

Brandon: Well, let's talk about what drew you out to expand your work beyond the horizon of the academy. There was a lot of academics. Typically, we feel a lot of pressure to speak principally to our own communities and then maybe to a few other disciplines out there on the boundaries. But reaching out is not really in some of us.

Sheri: And it's important to say what I'm about to tell you about what happens after half tenure.

Brandon: Sure.

Sheri: That's really important. I don't want to mislead people. Starting as an undergrad, I was an English major at the University of North Carolina. Even though I was in the honors and creative writing, the writing part, we had to take all of the English major courses. I was in the Shakespeare class. I'm not going to say who it was. He's an internationally-known Shakespearean. I was playing. I was having a good time. I was laughing at his Shakespeare jokes. I have found the sonnets to read to the class about the dark-eyed woman. He asked me to stay after class one day. He said, "Have you thought about graduate school?" I said, help me understand what this has to do with being African-American. I'm old. So it's the 20th century, the 20th century. He's an internationally-known Shakespearean, and said, "What?" So neither of us was sophisticated enough. If he had said, "Well, Shakespeare talks about ugliness and darkness in ways that are very aligned with the way we think about race in this country," I might have a PhD in English. I went that day and added radio, TV, motion picture as a second major because nobody had to help me understand that those media were important in the lives of black people.

I'm the daughter of two public school teachers, which people have said it says a lot about me. I've never felt that I had the cultural permission to learn for learning's sake or to create knowledge for knowledge's sake. I remember overt lessons. My mother would say, "You're very intelligent. You know you owe that to people, right?" And so I never felt that I could play. I mean, I was playing but I had to do it to graduate. I've always, okay, I create this knowledge. What does it mean? You can hear the old journalist in me. So I've always had one foot in the academy and one foot out. And yes, they were prices to be paid for that, right?

Brandon: Can I ask you, were there cultural expectations just growing up in your family, in your community, around what you could and couldn't do or should and shouldn't do career-wise? Obviously, something like Shakespeare didn't make any sense. But did you feel like being a journalist or going into media, doing storytelling, that was more valuable because you could do something and have an impact? Was there anything of that sort?

Sheri: Oh, sure. I have two siblings. All three of us are informational missionaries, meaning that all of us are using knowledge in some way to benefit not just black people but the larger society. That was very much of the expectation. I mentioned the term family myth. All families have this kind of, "This is who we are in the world." The way I have my students think about it is, if you brought home a lover, if they didn't have these characteristics, how hard would your family work to spit them out? You can boil that down to two or three things. There's a lot of complexity.

In my family, we are honest, and we are smart. And so my family would work very hard. I'm divorced from my husband, who we were having a child said, "What would you do? Would you prefer to have — we knew it was a girl — ugly, I mean not with these disabilities but just not curious, just dull?" I said, oh, we can work with ugly, but I don't know what I'd do. I don't know what I'd do with a child who's just not interested and curious in the world. What does that mean? That means when I graduate from high school, college, he's at 13th grade. When I found out that there were people taking gap years, not only was I shocked, but I also knew that I would never be able to do that.

So yes, this idea that knowledge is power. If you spent time around the old black middle-class, not the nouveau riche, that idea that education is something that nobody can ever take away from you, so you get it. But also, my grandfather, who was a farmer, sent all of his daughters to college. There's a whole other reason why daughters — the boys had a choice; the girls didn't. They couldn't go into the trades if they wanted to. But that idea that knowledge is something that you must get. And once you get it, you must turn around and use it for the benefit of people. When I say people, you can hear black. But a part of my mother's career was teaching poor white people in Appalachia. Because I grew up in Asheville, North Carolina. So the underserved, the disenfranchised of the world, that's where you see me going.

Brandon: There's some commitment to justice that seems to be underlying all of it.

Sheri: Oh, very much. Oh, very much so. My grandfather was a land farmer. He had children who were mostly teachers. But always, that idea that you use that to help people is part of the message. See, this is how families work. I can't imagine. That's the part how culture and families work. I can't imagine doing something just for his own sake. So when I talk about aesthetics, I rarely talk about art for art's sake or beauty for beauty's sake. I talk about it as — because when you start talking about people who have been underserved, they've never divorced their aesthetic lives from their day-to-day lives. While I was certainly working with museums, I'm most interested in everything that's different than the museum. Because think about working class people you know, regardless of ethnicity. You will find that their music, or think about the real use of that African pot. You'll see that aesthetics is woven into their day-to-day lives. Working class black people have, for generations, spent more money on their music than people of other ethnicities. CDs were important. Many families had two sets of CDs. The kids and the parents were listening to the same music, actually. But the kids had their own CDs because the parents didn't want peanut butter on their CDs. Obviously, streaming changes some of that. But in some ways, it doesn't.

I've done some work in Baltimore with The Painted Screen Society. Mostly a Baltimore thing, but there's a working-class white thing where people painted their screen doors. Of course, they didn't have air conditioning. It didn't exist. And partly functional in that people who are working long factory jobs, they will come home. Baltimore gets hot in the summer, so you want the screen door, the main door, open but you wanted maybe some privacy. Well, with a painted screen, you can see out but they can't see in. Just the texture of the paint that they arrived at allows that. And so you could go down at one point whole blocks of painted screens. Now it's a museum thing because they've been collected. Part of the discussion is how can they be maintained and displayed. There are still houses, obviously, that have them. But notice the function. The scenes are very pastoral. You're talking about white immigrants who are getting painted the scenes from their homelands, actually. So this marrying of the aesthetic interest or the beauty and their function is very much the same thing.

Because even if you think about the emotional — I was in Limerick, Ireland, which had some of the same problems as Baltimore. They were absolutely shocked that suicide is actually a new thing for African-Americans. They said, wait a minute. You got through slavery Jim Crow without a high suicide rate? Part of that is attitudes about suicide, but a lot of it is aesthetics. It's foodways and music and spirituality, which is heavily-laden with aesthetics. That was emotional survival.

Brandon: Would you use the word beauty in relation to aesthetics there? How do you see the relation between those two concepts?

Sheri: I see beauty as a subset of aesthetics, because there are people who are very interested in aesthetics that are grotesque. So I use it as the broader sense. But the way many, many people experience what I'm talking about is in the form of beauty. When we talk about the aesthetic experience, which is a phrase I know you've heard, it is that sense of awe and wonder that usually comes with beauty.

Brandon: So let's talk about then how this gets, I guess, translated to the community and the projects that you've done the last few years. Maybe one place to start would be the initiative that you — for those of us who are listening on audio, we can't share you the video. There's a beautiful video that you had helped create about how kids were able to, in collaboration with artists, reimagine their community in Baltimore. Can you tell us a bit about that initiative and how that came about? What happened there?

Sheri: Well, I have to pay the bills. I'll tell you that this was part of a larger project that was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Baltimore Stories: Narrative and the Life of an American City, which actually grew out of the uprising. After the killing of Freddie Gray, we had a Thinkaton during the uprising. A lot of aesthetic remedies came out of that, including corner pop-ups where artists could apply for proposals. Then there were art pop-ups. There were a lot of things. They came out of that.

One of the things that came out of this was, lots of people planned things for the community, but how do you help facilitate the voice of the community, particularly with children? So we went to Barclay Elementary, which is a school that was a couple years ago had a 97% free meal in the city, which becomes important. We asked them — we didn't use the word utopian. But for your audience, that's what we're asking — what utopian Baltimore look like. First, we asked them, what would you tear down? They said, "We'll tear down the gun stores and the liquor stores." One quote was like, "How many liquor stores does the neighborhood need?" Then we began to ask them to imagine the city they would love to live in.

We brought in two working artists, who, at the time, were taking notes and sketching after they introduced themselves to the kids. Then they went away and painted. Then we brought it back. That's what the video shows: it's first the discussion of the kids. I discovered a level of empathy, that if any of you listening or watching have middle school kids, middle school kids are not highly empathetic. But these kids said, "There are people who are worse off than we are." That's a quote. That's self-awareness. They began to build in their imaginations the best homeless shelter. It had a barbershop and a beauty parlor and a kitchen and a dining room for communal meals and all kinds of things. And what became an end joke. Then later, they built a bike park.

The Barclay Art Project follows the creative process between visiting artists and students in building a vision of community

Then for both of them, they talked about green space, which they didn't have. Actually, they have now. I'd like to think that — we were wondering since they have it now. It's right across the street now. There's a park. Because we sent the pictures to the city planning office. That was an important part of it. But what the kids began to talk about — someone said a squirrel. Like just one. What's brilliant about that is that you need an ecosystem for a squirrel. You need a tree. Then maybe if you have a tree, you need grass. All of the paintings were the artists. One is a dreamscape. It has a huge squirrel. In the video, you see the artist saying, "There's a squirrel." The kids all laugh because the squirrel was really important.

Then toward the end, the counselor says they didn't know they were urban planning. But they were, because I told them — we've got good pictures of this — we're going to send the pictures to the planning office. I think I know a lot about this stuff, but I've learned that it's really important when your ideas come back in oil. Because both artists used oil. We didn't tell them to use oil. They just decided separately that they were going to do that. The kids said, "This is real art." They were very honored by the fact that their work came back in real art. The artists were ready to change things. They said, "No, this is perfect. You listened to us."

What's really important about that — I'm going to jump to another project based on the NIH. We got funding from the National Science Foundation to work in West Baltimore with the whole community to see how tech could raise their quality of life. We were doing these family, these community conversations around. I had a community leader that got us into some pretty desperate spaces, frankly, by vouching for us. The community first said, "Well, we don't need a whole lot of tech." But we were bringing in what's called visual journalism, where someone is drawing so that the community can see. The first one was a very nice lady, but she wasn't from the community. They treated it like notes.

Then we brought in an artist who had lived in the community who treated it very differently and started doing paintings. He would actually take it home and finish it and come back. Very rich, very dense. People would walk up to it and have aesthetic experiences with all the physiological traits. So standing there, if you had done eye tracking, you would have seen the pupils go. They loved it. And because they loved it, they became much more involved in the conversation. We weren't trying to create something permanent. They were on foamcore, but they now hang in the community. They are beautiful. People said these are beautiful. They used the word. Because of that, they felt, again, honored and heard and appreciated. Beauty does that. You know that beauty does that, which is why it's actually very useful. This is misunderstood in trauma healing.

Brandon: Yeah, because it seems that there's the component of feeling listened to and being heard. But then, I'm really struck by the realness component to it. That this isn't just a sketch, that this is an oil or whatever medium is being used. But it's that permanence of it somehow seems to convey a solidity to that experience, right? It sort of reveals not only that we've heard you, but this matters. Then that seems to be really powerful. How does that then communicate or contribute to a sense of justice? What is the link there?

Sheri: Well, go back to when I said that working class people have never disassociated their city lives from their day-to-day lives. That means that the aesthetic is an extremely powerful tool for social justice. I actually wrote this proposal. It was a little too outrageous for the funder. My dream, if I ever won the lottery, would be nobody has to argue that working class people have innovative souls. Because mainstream culture steals from them regardless of race all the time. I actually taught a graduate class where everybody took a different aesthetic thing and traced it from the marginalized culture to the mainstream, and then sometimes tracked it back. Because sometimes the mainstream culture just shakes all the soul out of it and then dumps it. Then people tried to get it back, and sometimes other things. So they were tracing all of that.

But my dream is to build this innovation center. Because working-class people have an intellectual property problem. People just steal their stuff. Because one of the things I asked the students was like, where does the money come in? The money always comes in after it's left the community. But what I want is, if you think about art as cognition, that oh, I've talked a lot about art as communication. But it's also a way of thinking through things. I would like to create the center, this innovation center, where we have resident artists. If you're either old enough to have seen it the first time or you're young enough to see it now, in Living Color, there's a character where David Alan Grier says, "Oh, I got a song about that. Want to hear it?" I want to do that. I've actually gotten to interview David. He doesn't think this is a crazy idea either.

He had a great grant advice. You know this experience. You come in with a half-baked idea. They mess with it. My advisor, my very, very indulgent advisor would turn to me and say, "You are brilliant." Well, I'm thinking. Actually, I think you're brilliant. He had taken my half-baked idea. We worked it around. We can do that with art where someone can come in with this idea, and if you work around it, and it comes out the other side because it's gone through this art mechanism, then you've got your innovation.

Now, this is not quite as crazy or imaginative as it seems. Because I was very interested in Bell Labs, because I'm interested in innovation. The official history of Bell Labs doesn't mention black people. There's one kind of curly hair guy in the book, that this is kind of official history. But there were black people at Bell Labs. They're starting to die, which means there's some urgency to this. They don't talk about race; they talk about freedom, freedom to innovate. Bell Labs in its heydays was wildly creative.

I have found their grandsons, because I got to interview a hip-hop scientist. His title suggests that he's — he says, "I can do science as well as the white guys." His title suggests that, yes, he can. He said that, "When I want to be one with the science, I put on my headphones. They don't know what I'm listening to. I'm listening to hip-hop. That erases all of the cultural assumptions that are based in the science." I said, so is that what it's like to be an upper-class white male? He said, "I think so. And it's the music that brings it home for me." Notice what I'm saying. It's that he is using art to jump over all of those things. Because as you will know, as a social scientist, the assumptions that are embedded in science, all the academic are just there. They often are not spoken to, which is why trying to make academe more uncomfortable for people for whom it wasn't made it so difficult. It's like people don't even know how much of these assumptions.

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But if you move it through an aesthetic experience, that is home. The only thing that has to be sterile is the petri dish. All those assumptions are not necessary, or both of them are not necessary. So that's what I mean in terms of social justice. Because what would happen if black people control the means of production? I'm using that phrase: the means of production. I can say this as an African-American who has routinely moved back and forth between social classes literally since I was in kindergarten. There will be music. There will be food. There will be humor. So what are all the hoops that we're asking the working class black girl to jump through to get to the same lab? That's what I mean in terms of social justice. But also, look at the civil rights movement and the role of music there. So what I'm doing is turning that around and using it intentionally. I'm not saying that music wasn't used intentionally. But now that we know what's in there in the aesthetic experience and the cognition, we can use it.

Yeah, I tell my undergraduates when I'm doing this is that I'm giving you the kings of the kingdom. Raise your hand. I will only use this for good. Because Big Pharma tried to hire me. I was a little confused at first. He said he had actually been overhearing our conversation. He said, "You understand why people find things beautiful. Turn that around, you can help us do that." Is that why people should take pills? When my mother was ill, I did see an array of beautiful pills. So they did it without me. But that idea of turning this around, and there is an ethical issue, right? I couldn't do this in this environment now. But I have had my students read excerpts from Mein Kampf, because Hitler understood this. And if only the evil people understand it, then we're in trouble.

Brandon: Yeah, it's really powerful. Because I think this is where a lot of people trivialize aesthetics and beauty as that's just sort of fluffy stuff. But if we don't pay attention to it, we don't realize how it's driving us, how it seduces us, how it can derail us, how it can manipulate us. It becomes incredibly important to understand.

Sheri: They don't like it when I say this. But the whole American PR marketing machine came after World War II when people looked and said, "How did he do that?" Supposedly decent people did awful, horrific things. You look at the way he used film, the way he used music. He did very consciously to get in his mind, to get people to fall in love with him.

Brandon: Yeah, aesthetics can certainly be the heart of propaganda. But you also say it could be a means of healing. I know you've done some work on healing from trauma. Could you talk about some of that? How does that help?

Sheri: A lot of the humanities talk about the aesthetic as a safe place, as a place to heal the wounded soul. Certainly, I'm not being disrespectful when I say that the aesthetic has played an enormous role in religion. You can actually see it in the Western Church where the mainstream churches were beginning to lose parishioners to the Pentecostals, because it looks more emotionally exciting. That's where the stained glass comes from. That's when the enormous choirs come in. The idea that they weren't trying to drive people away from spirituality, they were trying to pull them to spirituality. But the difference is, it's one thing to describe it. It's another to kind of dig into it and start — I'm going to use the word dissecting — dissecting to see what's happening.

The field of trauma therapy, of art therapy, first of all, it works whether you know how it works or why it works. This is another one of my warded ideas. Right now my my career, I'm going back and looking at these ideas and say, can I make this work? In a box for refugee, for kids in refugee camps, where a lot of times they were giving them plush toys. Well, if you're in a refugee camp, one more thing to try to keep clean that your kid loves is probably not the best thing to get. But I'll write in a box. Children — give them crayon and paper, and they will draw. Actually, I've talked to somebody who had been a lost boy. He said, "You're going to have to get lots of red because of what they do." Then during an epidemic, I was talking to some people. They said, "We see children digging graves with sticks, pretending." And so those little toy shovels that you get in the summertime for kids. And so this idea that working — think about they need lots of red. They see a lot of blood. They're rehearsing it. What does rehearsal mean? It doesn't mean that they're becoming murderous if they're just trying to work through the trauma. We've all been to plays or movies where there was something that spoke to us, and we felt a little better. So there actually is healing in the art. The art allows a different thing to happen.

A graduate student who's now a professor who did her dissertation with me — but this is her idea. I just kind of helped to that advisory thing — she interviewed black artists. Every time there's another police killing, we see those videos, we all feel something. There's data already about how that's even more traumatic for black people, because that's just not like, oh, look at that. That's your neck up in my son. That could be me. So she was surprised to find that the artists were self-consciously working as cultural workers. They would watch the video. They would digest it. They would paint it so that people could look at it longer and come to some action. She was kind of surprised that they were consciously doing it. Because we all know — and this is very controversial in black culture — do you bear witness to every video? But at some point, it begins to affect your own mental health. When is it okay to step away? But that's when the artist steps in, and you can see if you see it. But it's abstracted enough that it doesn't impact you in quite the same way.

There is something about the aesthetic that gives you a little distance, and sometimes the ability to see more because you can see it more often. The leader in this, I have to say, is Jackie Armstrong at the Met. The Metropolitan Museum has an office of education. Most of her work is in the museum, but I'm very interested in taking this out into the world. That's beginning to happen. Because, I mean, you saw it during the worst of COVID where we make jokes about how streaming went up, how all kinds of aesthetic uses went up. People were self-medicating.

Brandon: Yeah, absolutely. You would also talk at our symposium a couple of months ago about this experience of dance and how that was transformative. Can you talk about that?

Sheri: Sure. So there are dancers who work with, I mentioned, the Lost Boys in Africa. These are young fighters who are usually kidnapped and trained to carry out horrific atrocities. In order to do that, something called dissociation has to happen where your emotions are really dissociated from what your body is doing. So you're not saying, "I'm going to hack this person to death with a machete?" How do I feel about that? Your mind is not processing that. It's not immediate. It takes a long time. Unfortunately, people have become experts at this. But in some cases, Lost Boys have been rescued. You can't just kind of say, "Have a nice life."

Therapy works. You can spend years and years of therapy. But what they found was that, first of all, you cannot dance. Physically, you cannot dance without that aesthetic coming into the space. They found that that happened. I was in the University of Maryland. We were bringing them in. I kind of abstractly. I said, but we have child soldiers in the United States. It was Karen Bradley who is the dance instructor. She said, "Who?" I said gang members, young gang members. Doesn't the same thing happen? It took me a very long time to get the anti-gang unit to trust me. Because who is this obviously middle-class black woman floating in saying she wants to do this? And so they tested me in all kinds of ways. Finally, when they decided to help us, they said, "We're going to send you the girls because they're tougher than the boys." And they did. They sent us some very tough girls, and they sent counselors with them. One young woman walked in and said — Can I say this word? Can I say the B word on your podcast?

Brandon: Sure. I might bleep it out.

Brandon: Okay. She walked in. She was physically very large, tall and big. She said, "I'm the baddest b**** in this room." We're not going to tell you about why she felt she needed to say that. I don't think we have time to go into that. They began to exercise. Because they were making a dance. Show me a movement where you have hurt somebody. Now, the day before that, it freaked out the college students. But these are young gang members. They could do a movement from when they had hurt somebody. But then they asked them: well, now let's do a movement where you have been hurt. That's a whole another thing, and that took a lot longer. Whereas the college students, they before couldn't tie into that.

And so this same woman left the circle a couple of times. We had brought in college students that looked a certain way. No preppies, but people who had tattoos and piercings and that sort of thing, the hair. The students have been trained to not try to pull people back in the circle, but just to go — now notice I just made an aesthetic training. They haven't looked to just go and sit with people who would sit out. Gradually, they would come back into the circle, and they did a whole dance. This woman clearly was showing signs of, this is who I am. It happened to be Valentine's Day. I was silly enough or unwise financially to bring in roses. You know how expensive roses are on Valentine's Day. I know they're an aesthetic thing. I remember handing out roses. This woman comes over to me and hugs me and cries. She had done the dance. Then she said, "Nobody has ever given me roses before." She was different. This was an hour and a half!

Romantic rose from above
Photo by Jamie Street / Unsplash

And so sometimes the aesthetic — I don't want to say force because it always feels more gentle than that, or usually feels more gentle than that — did something that years of therapy also does. And so that idea that you get trauma healing. Now with the neurosciences, we can begin to measure actually the responses to the aesthetic. And so we have vastly underestimated the ability of the aesthetic to heal us, to help us move on, to help us imagine the next space because it's a safe space. I have to say, I don't quite understand the largest society's stubbornness about this, why we continue to dismiss the muscle of beauty and the aesthetic even as people use it in their day-to-day lives.

Brandon: Yeah, it just seems soft and trivial. Maybe it's because it doesn't force. Maybe because it's gentle. But the dark side of that is also it could be insidious. But I think all the more reason for us to try to understand how it works. Talk about the indigo dye initiative. That's a more recent project.

Sheri: Yeah, well, it's ongoing right now. Indigo starts in India. It goes throughout Asia, West Africa, the Caribbean, driven in the 19th — well, really the 18th century by slavery. So the United States are the colonies at the time of indigo, natural indigo, which is used to make dye was a slave crop. That's important. The natural indigo market, which was one of the top two exports of the colonial US, almost died out completely because of synthetic dyes. There's a resurgence now of interest because it is natural. It's one of the natural dyes. It's the most lucrative of the natural dyes because it's the rarest.

In Baltimore, it sounds weird because if you hear indigo, you think South Carolina. Our former first lady, Yumi Hogan, is Korean and grew up in Naju, Korea. Same latitude as Baltimore. She went to see first if it would just grow. And so she approached MICA, where she had been a student and an adjunct, to work with urban farmers to see if it would grow. We grew other types of natural dye, but indigo is to the money crop and grew different strains. Long story short, what that grew into is expanding. We came over to my shop to expand it with farmers on the Eastern Shore. We're not excluding farmers, but we're really directing a lot of this to Black farmers who are losing or who have a history of discrimination by the lenders, losing Black farms at a rapid rate. Maryland Eastern Shore with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, which is an HBCU, South Carolina LowCountry, sow on land that we know that slaves grew it before. This summer, Virginia and North Carolina. What's important about that is most Black farmers in the US are in these two regions, the Mid-Atlantic and the South. It comes back to Baltimore where we hire. We are the market. We give them the seed, which is hard to get. Then we come back and buy the indigo. Then we employ returning citizens to hang it and process it. We have funding for a building and grinding machines and things like that.

Then we're training artists with allure that we give you the indigo dye. Because they can't get it. It's hard to get. They can, but it's rare and expensive. There's only one other company in the United States that does industrial-level indigo. Where they said it comes in is in so many places. Indigo is sacred in all of those places. While we're not proselytizing, we honor that. One of my favorite things to do is that we, during the summer, do A rubber cart. So there's a horse-drawn cart. We load on that some indigo dye, and we go through underserved communities. We hand out cotton T-shirts. Kibibi Ajanku, who's our indigo master teacher, teaches them African-centric designs. Then they dye. We hand out gloves, which they say I want my hands blue. Then they do it. I just watch adults report that they feel calmer without knowing the history of indigo, although we tell them a little bit. They feel calmer. There were so many pictures of people just this is more than like finger painting, that this is very important. So what we're doing and this is the hard part for somebody to understand that people who approach indigo purely for aesthetic, kind of what I call play aesthetic reasons. There are other people who approach it, oh, wait a minute. This is an emerging world market. Because we did the economics. We're academics. We brought in another group. We then brought in an economist, and so we know what the market is going to do over the next both here and internationally. The A rubber cart, A rubber is a historic term for this. They're actually African-American vendors. There's a long history about why they're called A rubbers.

So we're bringing all of these things together: the market sophistication, the aesthetic, the spiritual. We have advisors who are venture capitalists. They're not pushing to invest, but they're just advisors because this is really interesting. We're working with chemical engineers to optimize the particles. We started this conversation talking about bringing all of these things together. But at the core of it is that indigo is beautiful. The returning citizens, meaning that they've been in prison, there's a conversation of whether you bake it dry or you hang it dry. They said it's richer when you hang it. I said, so what is richer? They said it smells fuller. It looks fuller. We have more dye on our hands when we hang it. So even in the processing, there's aesthetics going on.

The idea is to weave aesthetics through the entire process. In some of the urban gardens. I'm in planning committee, which is a community partner, in getting community members to think about allowing these fields in their neighborhood. She showed them what the flowers look like. With indigo, if you have ever chopped off a houseplant, that's what you do twice during the summer. Sometimes three. Then you let it bloom. And so they're these fields of magenta-colored flowers. Then you let it go to seed and you collect the seed.

So aesthetics isn't this thing that's here. Our day-to-day lives is woven through the whole thing in a project that is, the way we're designing it, feeding wealth back into the community, both as employees but we're also working around with alternative type of shares. It might be just as simple as profit sharing, but we're looking at other models as well. The whole idea is to raise the quality of life, because it's pretty. The building that has been purchased with the funding is an 1858 colored school, Harriet Beecher Stowe School. There are Harriet Beecher Stowe Schools all over the country. And so it was a blighted building, and we're restoring it. But also working with — there's an art district right there. Well, certainly the only black art district in Maryland, to train artists to create products. So I don't know. My title keeps changing. I'm kind of a doer in the middle of this.

Brandon: But that's amazing to see because it has potential transformative effects on so many levels, at the individual level as people are experiencing their hands turn color and an experience into fullness.

Sheri: I have to say that African-Americans have been alienated from their work since slavery. And with this work, because it is so culturally meaningful, the concept is beautiful, just watching people do the work, they're not alienated anymore.

Brandon: It's amazing. What else does the future have to offer? What are you excited about? What's on the horizon? You've got probably so many things on the go.

Sheri: Well, two things, actually. One, should I talk about this? Well, let's say it this way historically. Historically, HBCUs put welders and artists in the same room because they didn't have the resources to separate them. I'm working on a project that reunites those two groups. And then crocheting, which is something that working class Black and Latinx women do. And so we're building the Baltimore Crochet Project.

Baltimore Crochet Project
Photo by Karen Penroz / Unsplash

Brandon: Wow.

Sheri: What's really lovely about crochet — I can say this without giving away too many secrets — there's a scientific project where the researchers are actually trying to do the artists a nice thing. They were studying the coral reef, and they invited some crocheters to just replicate the coral reef. Well, when you have it in your hands, and it was the crocheters that said: notice how the pattern changes right here. That's where the coral was dying. So you end up with something that has a market. I get to move back and forth between underserved women and the wealthiest store in Baltimore that says, "Well, this is going to be trending for a while now." And so this is not that they already know how to crochet. They just need better materials and marketing in order to do that. So that kind of thing. I'm having fun.

Brandon: Fantastic. That's amazing. Where can we direct our viewers and listeners to your work? Where can they learn more?

Sheri: Well, I'm an emerita at the University of Maryland, and so that email is easy. It's slp@umd.edu. On my email signature, there's actually a link to Baltimore Stories.

Brandon: I would put that on our show notes. Yeah, for sure. Sheri, thank you so much. It's been such a pleasure.

Sheri: Thank you.

Brandon: Always a pleasure talking to you. I'm really glad you were able to join us today.

Sheri: Yeah, thank you. It's been fun.