The Beauty in the Ordinary

Since taking office last summer, I’ve spent a lot of time on the road. I’ve traveled to over 80 communities in nearly 30 states, to see for myself America’s vast and varied cultural landscape at work. After my visits, I frequently sketch a memorable image or memory from a community I’ve visited. It’s my personal way of expressing myself, practicing my drawing techniques, and preserving what spoke to me as that community’s spirit and gifts.

As you look through these sketches, you might wonder about a few: A radio control panel? A taco shop? Why are these details worth remembering? Well, that control panel is helping young people develop skills in digital media and technology. That city hall is working to transform its community through public art, affordable housing, and green spaces. And that particular taco shop also showcases sculptures created by the owner from recycled materials, demonstrating the intersection between, food, art, and commerce—all industries whose success is closely linked with creativity.

My point is this: the arts give us a unique lens with which to view our world, and express ourselves. The arts uncover the beauty in seemingly ordinary objects, and help us discover and celebrate the assets within ourselves and within our communities. They can illuminate possibilities in entirely different fields, from healthcare and transportation to agriculture and science. Increasingly, sectors such as these are turning to the arts to solve complex problems, from revitalizing the aging process to communicating the complexities of our galaxy through multimedia installations. With the uniquely creative perspective the arts provide, our society can show us a new angle we never before noticed, a new possibility when all options seemed closed, or a fresh outlook that bucks the trend of business as usual.

As the National Endowment for the Arts prepares to commemorate our 50th anniversary next week, we are committed more than ever to celebrating the unique communities, cultures, and individuals that make the American landscape so rich, so vibrant, and so beautiful. On the eve of our anniversary, I encourage you to peer a little closer at your everyday world, and celebrate the beauty that you find.


Balck & White sketch of masks with building entrance in the background.

The National Endowment for the Arts’ partnership with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center explores how creative arts therapy and arts engagement programs can improve health and well-being in military healthcare settings. At the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) in Bethesda, Maryland, visual, music and writing therapy is offering patients new ways to process their combat experiences and their emotions.  The masks depicted here were created by service members during their participation in the program. 


Balck & White sketch of a brick wall painted with a sign in ornate ltterforms.

In the Franklinton neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio – which I visited with National Council on the Arts member Charlotte Kessler – the Columbus Idea Foundry and 400 West Rich Street arts complex are two of the arts organizations revitalizing this area.


Balck & White sketch of glass panes and structural elements.

During my visit to Little Rock, Arkansas, I was able to see the transformation underway of the Main Street into a creative corridor, tour the Argenta arts district, and meet with the local arts community at the Clinton Presidential Library. This view is from a tour of the library.


Balck & White sketch of a glass window with the reflection of the street scene.

At the Bronx Music Heritage Center Lab in New York they are celebrating the rich history of music of the Bronx and using it as a tool for community engagement and economic revitalization.


Balck & White sketch of the entrance to a building.

At the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Senator Tammy Baldwin and I announced the arts center would receive support from the National Endowment for the Arts for three projects through their Connecting Communities program, which engages community groups in creating a work of art with the help of artists-in-residence.


Balck & White sketch of a building with domes, a minaret and surrounding wall.

In Opa-Locka, Florida, barriers that were once used to prevent crime and stop drug traffic were removed, and the area is being reimagined into public spaces, affordable housing, and public art.


Balck & White sketch of a studio sound mixing board.

At Youth Radio in Oakland, California —a media production company that trains young people in digital media and technology – the students gave me a tour of 1719 Broadway, a storefront youth arts center, showed me their studio, and then we sat down for an interview.


Balck & White sketch of a building with a circular overhang.

At the San Francisco Symphony, I met with students taking part in the Youth Orchestra and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. With the NEA’s support, the symphony is providing middle to high school students coaching, mentorship, and specialized training in chamber music.


Balck & White sketch of a building with an overhang portico.

After speaking with participants at SphinxCon – which provides an important opportunity to share ideas and discuss how we can make the arts more inclusive – I attended the Sphinx Competition Finals Concert at the Max M. Fisher Hall. This competition encourages, develops, and recognizes classical music talent in the Black and Latino communities.


Balck & White sketch of a window front with a statute of a mexican wearing a hat and poncho holding a sign.

After meeting the local arts community in Riverside, California, we stopped by Tio’s Tacos, which has great food and sculptures created from recycled materials by the shop’s owner.