Editor’s note: This story is one of an occasional series of pieces about community artists in Milwaukee.
It wasn’t until he moved to Milwaukee that Raoul Deal began thinking of himself as a community artist, but the connection between human relationships and art has long been a focus in his life and work.
Deal, a faculty member at the Peck School of the Arts and artist-in-residence for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Cultures and Communities Program, discovered through teaching that collaboration and community lie at the heart of his work.
“To me it’s important to be in conversation with others. That’s the way I learn about the world. That’s the way I understand who I am in the world,” said Deal. “Art education and mentorship has a lot to do with getting to know others.”
Deal began working as a substitute teacher in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) after moving to the city so his wife could pursue a master’s degree. It was there he began developing strategies to build understanding between his students and himself, so together they could create meaningful work and learning experiences.
“My strategy was to sit down next to the kids, ask them about their lives and tell them about mine, and in that process establish some sort of human relationship that then was useful later on as we actually worked with trying to transfer or create knowledge,” he said.
This philosophy, Deal added, is the foundation upon which the rest of his work is built. Though he had experience creating art in community settings before moving to Milwaukee, the relationships he built at MPS allowed Deal to embrace his role as a community artist, culminating in an exhibit about his experiences in 2000. Entitled “Reinventing Jimmy Green,” the exhibition was first shown in Xalapa, Mexico, before moving to the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts in 2001.
In a stroke of fate, that same exhibit coincided with the formation of UWM’s Cultures and Communities Program, centered on a desire to foster strong engagement between the university and the city. The program coordinators reached out to Deal after reading an essay he wrote about the exhibit and invited him to join the collaboration.
“My relationship with the Cultures and Communities program at UWM is really what catapulted me into working as a community artist full time,” said Deal.
Though art can have a positive impact, he said, it doesn’t create a better society on its own. For many, fine arts institutions are inaccessible due to cost, location or language barriers.
“[When] you start thinking about who you want to have that access, you have to think about art differently,” he said. “That’s sort of my world, trying to build bridges of access.”
These relationships are essential, Deal found, when collaborating with community members to create art. For communities in need of employment and health care, art is rarely a high priority. Developing relationships allows artists to understand what a community really needs, which then changes the way they think about how art can help.
“The measure of a community art project is whether it means anything to the community or not,” said Deal.