Awakening with Visual Artists

Article & Photos by Jessica Valoris, Alternate ROOTS Visual Arts Coordinator

photo 5There is something magically awakening about being in nature, being with creative and compassionate people, and sharing of yourself.

Two weekends ago, Alternate ROOTS hosted its 3rd annual pre-conference retreat for visual artists. We invited this year’s Visual Arts Scholars, and members of the Visual Arts Innovation Ensemble to gather, share, and build in preparation for ROOTS Week 2014.

Visual arts and performing arts often activate our spirits and minds in different ways. ROOTers who are visual artists have found it incredibly powerful to have the time to delve into the depth of their work, which often can’t be experienced with the immediacy that a performance can relay. The Visual Arts Retreat creates an intimate space where artists share their process, their works-in-progress, their bodies of work, and their curiosities; and receive generative feedback from the collective.

I was super excited to be facilitating this year’s Visual Arts Retreat and helping to coordinate Visual Arts at ROOTS Week. As a facilitator, it probably would have been smart for me to stick to my bedtime, but I just couldn’t find time to sleep. Not because there was so much work to do, but because I was so turnt-up by the thought-provoking conversations, compassionate interactions, comedic storytelling, and beautiful spirits that were present. I was afraid that if I went to sleep I would miss a magic moment… of which there were plenty!

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One of our ROOTers, Camille Shafer, explained that the term aesthetics (the theme for ROOTS Week 2014) is the opposite of anesthetics: lack of awareness or sensitivity. When we speak of aesthetics, we speak of what makes us come alive, feel, awaken, connect! This retreat reminded me what it looks like to be present in the world, to be present for our communities, for our planet. It reminded me of the powerful role that artists play as creators, healers, as messengers of “the wake-up call!”

photo 3On our first full day together we spent over 10 hours doing artist presentations. Artists had 15 minutes to share their work. Some showed works-in-process, others showed installation pieces. We shared drawings, photographs, film trailers, postcard campaigns, books, poetry, fashion design. I was intrigued by the performativity of the way we share. How a scrap of fabric could tell a story about modern day slavery. How a chicken bone in a mixed media collage could tell a story about Afro-diasporic spirituality and connection. How the focus of a photograph could raise awareness about the invisibility of farmworkers and prisoners alike. Powerful images illuminated stories about our lives, about our communities, about oppression and silence and death. And also stories about rebirth, healing, about traumas, triumphs, and visions for a transformed future.

We had a full day with several creative outbursts, lunch in the woods, and a large family dinner. With every break, we engaged with each other a little more intimately, as each artist created new openings for connection through their generous sharing and compassionate listening.

10390567_10152454252562720_3535717773583349073_nAll weekend I witnessed magical moments: storytelling, singing, dancing, playing card games, cooking together, eating together, giving thanks, walks in the woods, a skill-share and open-mic at Azule hosted by Omari Fox, and so many dynamic conversations. Conversations to heal, to question, to learn, to inspire. It was an incredible weekend that left my side hurting from laughter, left me thinking and questioning my work in new ways, left me challenging the assumptions I make about others, left me wide awake and full of love and motivated to continue my creative practice. As we get closer to ROOTS Week,the Visual Arts Innovation Ensemble will continue to vision together around how to further integrate visual art into ROOTS Week. We can’t wait to come alive with the larger ROOTS community.



Jessica Valoris is a visual artist, performing artist, and poetic emcee. Armed with a passion for color, words, music, and movement, Jessica embraces art as a way to explore our ancestral, cultural, and personal stories and to create new ones.

Jessica is a member of Body Ecology Performance Ensemble and one half of the rap duo Colored Girls Hustle. With extensive experience facilitating creative youth programming and collaborating with community organizations, Jessica believes in the power of art to activate our imaginations and spark inspired action.

Jessica is currently based out of Silver Spring, MD, and is available for workshop facilitation, commissioned work, live art, performance, and curriculum building. Check out some of her work and upcoming projects at the following websites:

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Alternate ROOTS supports the creation and presentation of original art that is rooted in communities of place, tradition or spirit. We are a group of artists and cultural organizers based in the South creating a better world together. As Alternate ROOTS, we call for social and economic justice and are working to dismantle all forms of oppression—everywhere.