On the Road: Uvalde and Austin, Texas

At the end of May, Maria Rosario Jackson, PhD, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), visited Uvalde and Austin, Texas. This trip carried forward messages of the “Healing, Bridging, Thriving” summit the NEA co-hosted earlier this year with the White House Domestic Policy Council that focused on the many different ways arts and culture can contribute to other fields—from health to physical infrastructure, and beyond—helping to build stronger communities. 

Uvalde, Texas—Our 21 are always with us. Every day.

On Wednesday, May 29, Chair Jackson and Mid-America Arts Alliance (M-AAA) Executive Director Todd Stein visited Jardin de los Heroes Park in Uvalde to experience the Uvalde Love Project mural, an art intervention and mural project for survivors of the 2022 school shooting in Uvalde that took the lives of 19 students and 2 teachers. Uvalde Elementary art teacher Elaine Valenzuela and UCISD second-grade teacher Mary Santos shared how more than 2,000 individuals volunteered in the creation of the mosaic mural, learning how to shape, roll, cut, stamp, and color small tiles, each with their own personality and meaning. The 400 students who participated were able to write their names and messages of hope on their tiles. 


Details of a mosaic mural and a group of people posing in front of the mural.

Uvalde Love Project mural is a community project of art-making and healing and was erected at the Jardin de los Heroes Park in Uvalde, Texas. Pictured (left-right): NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson, Carolyn Bartley (NEA), UCISD second-grade teacher Mary Santos, Uvalde Elementary art teacher Elaine Valenzuela, Mid-America Arts Alliance CEO Todd Stein, Jen Hughes (NEA), and Christine Bial (M-AAA). Photos courtesy of NEA

At St. Henry de Osso Family Project, Sister Dolores discussed the Tacos and Tiles workshops that provided opportunities for community members to not only create a beautiful art project together but to share and heal. The group learned about how art therapist Wanda Montemayor used art therapy and tile-making as a way to help children start discovering the goodness inside themselves. The process transformed children throughout the community in a very positive way. Mary Santos commented, “When we’re working on the tiles, it’s not so much about the art, it’s everything that it allows…the talking, the communication, the forgetting about everything else. Art is about communicating with your feelings. When you are in touch with your feelings, you can be more creative.”

The Uvalde Love Project was supported, in part, by a special projects grant from Mid-America Arts Alliance with additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Learn more about the Uvalde Love Project


Austin, Texas—Making a difference for military communities

On Thursday, May 30  at Art Spark Texas in Austin, Chair Jackson announced the 2024 Creative Forces Community Engagement grantees and met with local veterans who have participated in Art Spark programs. Forty-one organizations in 27 different states are recommended for awards totaling more than $769,000. 

“These Creative Forces projects provide important opportunities for military-connected individuals and communities to improve resilience and well-being through arts engagement,” said Chair Jackson. “Arts and culture are essential to healing, creating connections, and developing healthy communities where all people can realize their full potential.”

Two Texas grantees—Art Spark Texas and Killeen Creators—spoke at the announcement about the meaningful work they are doing within their communities to support military veterans.

“We train our men and women to go into battle and do very difficult, sometimes unspeakable, things. But there is little training for them to come home,” said Celia Hughes, executive director of Art Spark Texas. “I believe it is our duty as arts organizations to help our veterans as they transition into civil society to feel comfortable and welcomed, and to offer arts experiences as a way to celebrate all of the skills and talents that they developed and discovered and nurtured while they were serving.”


A group of people posing for a group pbhoto.

Congratulations to Art Spark Texas and Killeen Creators, two of the 2024 Creative Forces Community Engagement grantees. Pictured (back l-r): Todd Stein (Mid-America Arts Alliance), veteran artists Chris Van Loan, Sr. and Mike Skiffington, April Sullivan (Art Spark Texas), Kristin Wright (Killeen Creators), Celia Hughes (Art Spark Texas), veteran artist James Burnside; (seated l-r): Gary Gibbs (Texas Commission on the Arts), Maria Rosario Jackson, PhD (NEA), and veteran artist Denise Knebel. Photo credit Hilarion Banks

This grant program is part of the NEA’s Creative Forces®: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, a partnership with the U.S. Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs that seeks to improve the health, well-being, and quality of life for military and veteran populations exposed to trauma, as well as their families and caregivers. Now in its third year, the Creative Forces Community Engagement Grants address the distinct experiences, challenges, and strengths of military-connected individuals through arts engagement activities in the community.

With their Creative Forces Community Engagement Grant, Art Spark Texas, in partnership with Austin VA Outpatient Clinic, will present Texas Veterans Strong, three in-person expressive arts courses for veterans. Building upon the knowledge, passion, and wisdom of the “band of brothers and sisters,” the expressive arts courses will strengthen and support veterans on their reintegration journey. 

In Killeen, Texas, Killeen Creators will present Operation ART of Recovery—a collaboration with Operation Phantom Support, the Art & More Store, the CARES Center, Soldiers In Recovery, and Military Life & Counseling Program—offering artistic and green therapies for active-duty service members, veterans, and military family members. Through this project, Killeen Creators’ trained veteran Peer Support Specialists will lead garden gathering and art days, art classes, and therapeutic art journaling to participants twice weekly to provide emotional outlets, engaging past-times, fresh air, physical activity, peer support, hope for recovery, community connections, and, ultimately, improved quality of life.

Learn about all the 2024 Creative Forces Community Engagement grants


Austin, Texas—How do we make the community see art in everyday life?

When artists are embedded in infrastructure planning, the success of those projects can exceed all expectations. That was one of the themes raised during a roundtable conversation Chair Jackson participated in with city leaders from various sectors, artists, and arts leaders from the federal, regional, state, local, and neighborhood levels. The conversation that took place at the Austin Central Library discussed both the challenges and the opportunities of cross-sector work.


A group of people posing on a long stairway.

Participants from the roundtable discussion stand on the stairs of Austin Central Library. Photo courtesy of the NEA

“Arts are core. They are not extra, but a critical element of city-building,” said Chair Jackson to start the conversation, which led to discussions around the importance of including artists at the beginning stages of infrastructure projects, helping to creatively problem-solve design challenges. “Not only do [artists] have great ideas, but they have the perspective of the community,” said one participant.

The NEA recently announced a $75,000 grant to the City of Austin’s Cultural Affairs Division to support an artist-led community engagement project that is an example of these local efforts. In partnership with the Texas Department of Transportation, the City of Austin will recruit an artist to design and implement a series of community engagement opportunities to gather public feedback and generate civic dialogue about the reconstruction of Interstate 35 through central Austin. The multiyear project will culminate in a capstone arts event, including temporary art installations and community storytelling.

The NEA has also supported several Forklift Danceworks projects that integrate the arts with other sectors. An FY 2022 NEA grant through the NEA’s Our Town creative placemaking program supported a multiyear artist residency and a series of arts programs intended to foster community trust and collaboration to address environmental challenges in the Dove Springs neighborhood of Austin. One participant spoke about her family’s experience of attending a Forklift Danceworks performance: “It was a perfect combination of environment and heavy machinery through art. The art of smoothing cement. How do we make the community see art in everyday life?”

“There is a healing power in the art that transforms communities,” said another participant. Throughout the two days in Texas, the impact of arts and culture on both individual and community health and well-being was evident. As Chair Jackson said at a recent meeting of the Federal Interagency Working Group on Arts, Health, and Civic Infrastructure, “Artists and cultural institutions can help to drive more meaningful community engagement, create physical spaces and practices that promote wellness and belonging, and help us imagine solutions to wicked problems that require creativity.”

Listen to a podcast with Allison Orr of Forklift Danceworks