The Inherent Need for Art Through the Ages: A Genetic Argument

Ellen Dissanayake is very much a pioneer in her approaches to the arts. Her undergrad degree was not in painting, sculpting, art education, or theater. She got her Bachelors of Science in biology, sparked by an interest from a required class in high school.  She has a brilliant and inquisitive mind. Over the course of her life she has been encouraged to pursue various curiosities by her supportive husbands—she has had two. A major question she has spent her life chasing is whether or not creativity can be found in our genetics. I ask you, the reader, to stop for a second. If you have it, take a minute, and ponder your day-to-day existence. How creative are you? Is creativity in your genes? I would like to take you on a small journey of your own mind while also giving you a minor lesson about the fundamentals of the human mind from the perspective of various biologists.

Let’s turn back to Dissanayake and what her studies found. Ellen faced critics in the studies of sociobiology and evolutionary biology, who were more focused on a factual, non-fiction behaviors, did not favor the idea that humans thrived on “made-up” worlds. That is to say, Ellen suggests that humans are emotionally stimulated in a positive manner by art of various forms. In early times this was basic drawings on cave walls and oral stories passed down from one generation to the next. Now we have vast resources to tap into our creativity. However, some critics argue that drugs are a favored stimulant that trump the need for art because it’s faster acting yet dulls emotional receptors. So, we have the groundwork of argument against Ellen’s hypothesis.

                                                                          Ellen Dissanayake

Dissanayake is now critically acclaimed and published for a few reasons, including changing the minds of some nay-sayers. When you flip on the television, your mind enters a different world. The intent is to stop thinking about whether or not you’ll be getting that promotion and why your car brakes are squeaking. Cue the opening credits of your favorite show, and dive into the melodramatic yet comical love-triangles of fictional characters, suspending your life for a few hours. Dissanayake, who worked alongside American psychologist Leda Cosmides, made a connection to this form of storytelling and why it was a vital part of human evolution. When a person turns on the television, they subconsciously emotionally engage in the plot line and learn a lesson from what is occurring without literally taking part in the experience. They are emotionally engaged in the fictional scenarios because they have invested an interest in the fate of these characters. You return to the show weekly for a reason—to see whether or not Jim and Pam will finally get together. You are not physically present though. Your mind is simply engaging in a perceived reality outside of your own personal drama. Fiction is acting as an escape, or rather, art is acting as an escape. In other words, we are designed to experience fiction. We appreciate and grow from it. We are subconsciously learning lessons about ourselves and about the human condition through fictional engagement.

Creativity springs from many sources. For some people it is the simple act of daydreaming on the train while listening to music.  For others, creativity is an entire lifestyle; the act of artistic engagement feeds their soul and fosters everlasting happiness. The important thing to recognize, and indeed what Dissanayake points to is that the arts keep the imagination churning. To remove art would be to remove color from the world. We would have a world void of music, dancing, painting, movies, books, and all that moves the soul to light up. This is why, for thousands of years and many generations, art has been a fundamental piece of our societies.

-Kallie Schell


Creative Mental Engagement: Change Starts Within

Face Forward spoken word artist Joe Davis will be featured at TEDxMinot on Sept. 6th in Minot, ND. Joe is a phenomenal poet who inspires many with his words of love and beauty. He was born in Minot to a Jamaican mother and Chicagoan father. He stayed in the area for college, earning is B.A. in English—later gracing the Minneapolis area with his talents. His program, “Creative Mental Engagement: Change Starts Within” will surely prove to be just as impactful as many of his other works. 

Tickets can be purchased here:

The Precise Role of James Baldwin

“The precise role of the artists… is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through vast forests, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”—James Baldwin, excerpt from The Creative Process (1962)


James Baldwin was a colorful, impactful, powerful force who took the literary world into his hands and molded it in a way no other Afro-American author had before him. From his fingertips poured the ink of his soul, barely creating fiction. Rather his novels were translucently veiled autobiographies, hinting to the reader that “the poet” in the story was really Baldwin as “the artist” in real life. Critics during his life and after his death analyzed his work with the greatest precision.  Some take on a more religious lens, others hold onto his homosexuality and binge drinking when digging for truths; others still do their best to be objective.


The broad consensus remains that, as a public figure, James Baldwin was a racial spokesperson. Many issues got his blood boiling—racial tension, criticism of homosexuality, and the concept of reverse racism to name a few. Baldwin also rubbed elbows with many well-known members of the political and literary worlds. He had come in contact more than once with influential writers Richard Wright and Chinua Achebe—two writers who broke down racial barriers. Furthermore, he met Malcolm X, another man whose voice was heard across the world. The list of influential people that Mr. Baldwin came in contact with is extensive and is proof that his life was influenced by many great minds. And, from those great minds came a collection of wisdom and great art.


Baldwin did four forms of writing: novels, plays, poems, and essays. Each spoke to a different hardship, but they mostly held true to his character of striving to improve the condition of the black American.  He loved his country deeply, but he criticized her viciously. He wanted improvement where it was supposed to be given, yet there was no proof anything was being done. The black man was freed, yet hatred coursed like lava through the streets of every American city. He used his medium much like many artists, as a form of therapy.


Go Tell It On the Mountain is one of his most well-known novels. Critics argue that the entirety of the story is written in the form of “self-writing”, which is essentially a euphemism for “thinly veiled autobiographical work”. The daydreaming and allusions to characters in this book can be directly connected to Baldwin in “real-time” (when the book was written) and in relation to his hopes and dreams.


James Baldwin was a lively, crackling spirit. He had a sharp tongue at times, with a complex world view. He did not just want to be seen as “that Negro-writer” either. He wanted to be a great man who made a difference both artistically and in the public sphere. He made his voice heard and impacted the literary world profoundly. He gave a voice and understanding to people who did not have one before his books came about. Much like Malcolm X, he was able to give the African American community an author they could relate to—one with similar struggles. He was a man who made a difference and rocked the international literary stage forever.

 By Kallie Schell


A louder voice

My experience with Face Forward was what I expected it to be in a professional sense. The journey I’ve taken was what was unprecedented. I came into a big city scared as a child on her first day of school, eager to impress by following the guidelines of the job description. And I followed what I was supposed to, sure. But it’s not so cut and dry with a non-profit like Face Forward. I became a part of a safe space from the first meeting, where I could finally express my thoughts and feelings about art, beauty, the world, and what reverberated in my soul.  I am in awe at all of the artists I have been blessed enough to come in contact with through this internship. But one thing I did find was that through my words I was able to make a difference. By simply empowering myself with the message that is Face Forward- that through art you can make social change…”and this is how…” I have made a difference. I look back to the beginning when we were all tongue-tied about how to describe Face Forward or scrambling over what my elevator speech would be. I was just in another interview for an internship and talked animatedly for seven minutes about Face Forward. That’s what this nonprofit and internship has done for me. I have a louder voice. I may not be a dancer or singer or even be able to rhyme cleverly at the drop of a hat, but I know that I can make people listen because I’ve been given the tools to do so. And not just the right words; I’ve been given those! But I’ve also been given a crazy, beautiful passion that I haven’t felt in a long time about making a social impact through community building. Marrying those two has made every moment of my huge, scary life change worth it. Face Forward has given me the tools to believe I can do something impactful with my life. ~Kallie Schell, BloggerLooking for grant writers, bloggers, and social media interns for the fall season! Submit a cover letter & resume to

A multi-layered internship experience

"My English degree required me to find an internship. I was dreading it. Writing is a passion, yes; however, finding a fulfilling, truly fulfilling, internship—one where I felt I was making a difference—was not going to be easy. Then Face Forward happened. Through discussions of art, I’ve been able to see social issues though a new lens, a clear lens. I had expected an internship that would, yeah, stir my artistic mind. I had no idea I was about to to divulge into a multilayered experience: artistry, acceptance, and social alteration. Art has an ability to shift perspective. Yet, there is no clear definition. Nonetheless, my experience with Face Forward has defogged this hazy word… Art: a new perspective on the numbing senses—a new angle on a fading backdrop. Our experiences shared, and long forgotten, are brought anew in time and space; the internal journey may not be the same, but the ability to unearth an emotion is altogether inherent. Our deep-rooted, biological sixth sense brings communities together, changing humanity’s direction. Art allows us to Face Forward.” ~Corey LedinLooking for grant writers, bloggers, and social media interns for the fall season! Submit a cover letter & resume to Apply by August 9th.

The Face Forward family

"Through Face Forward I have learned many things about myself. The Face Forward family is inspiring, supportive and compassionate. We challenge one another to dig into the social injustices that our community faces and that we face ourselves. I am now proud to stand up for what I believe in and less afraid to use my voice. I have grown to learn that is it okay to have a different opinion. I have truly seen how art is a strong and powerful medium that comes hand in hand with facing social injustices. I am extremely grateful for the friendships, knowledge and experiences that I will be taking with me after this summer. Though my internship may be coming to an end, Face Forward will always be a part of my family.” ~Madeline R. Swenson, Grant WriterLooking for grant writers, bloggers, and social media interns for the fall season! Submit a cover letter & resume to Apply by August 9th.

Art as Healing

This month the Face Forward artist community explored the topic of Art as Medicine. Ricardo Levins Morales, a dynamic artist/activist/trickster/healer, facilitated a compelling Artist Dialogue in which he shared his process of healing communities through art. He identifies the ailment—what’s keeping a group powerless or hopeless—and offers up a piece of art to empower and inspire. When asked if he makes art that’s healing to him personally, he replied that his community art is self-healing.

Ricardo echoed a thought that kept coming back to me throughout the month of Face Forward events: what’s healing to the individual is healing to the world. As I explored the intersection of art and healing with the Face Forward community, I reflected on my own artistic process. I began to use my art more intentionally to heal the broken places within myself, and “Soul Portraits” emerged.


"*enthusiastic guitar and percussion noises*" -Lewis

This spring, I dove into a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training program with Yoga North Duluth. Out of the entire training, five minutes stand out as the most impactful. “Choose a partner. Sit facing one another. Decide who speaks first. For the next three minutes, tell your partner what makes you come alive. Listener, just listen without responding. Then switch.”

Watching Marcee’s eyes light up as she recalled her days as a midwife and the magic of being the first hands to touch a child as it comes into the world brought me to tears. Marcee and I still look back on this exchange and continue to receive nourishment from the memory of sparking one another.


“I feel most alive when I have the chance just to be who I am in the moment.” -Julia

These kinds of interactions are my favorite medicine. My personal healing process is ultimately a journey of reconnecting spirit and matter, grounding myself in my body and yet transcending separation. When body, mind, and spirit are one, I experience the spiritual depth of the physical world. My body softens, energy flows freely, and heart opens as I surrender to something higher than my separate self.


"My mama gave me life, and the rest is history." -Ayo

“Soul Portraits: Witnessing Spirit” is a game I created for myself, a way to conceive of life as a playground and live more in that state of openness and ease. I go through my day with curiosity and reverence for the people I come into contact with or pass by. If the moment feels right, I invite them to take part in my project. I set up my phone to record audio and take the cap off my camera lens and ask, “What makes you come alive?” As the subject reflects and shares, I try to capture the spark in their eyes and the animation in their bodies. They radiate spirit—life force energy—simply by recalling and sharing their sources of inspiration, the ways they find meaning in life.

Witnessing another being’s spirit helps me to recognize the sacred in everyone I meet. It allows me to be in the world how I wish to be: creating meaningful connections with all kinds of people, knowing that we are One. The project has become a bridge, an excuse to approach a stranger, particularly if they’re not someone I would normally find myself drawn to! This intentional curiosity pushes the boundaries of my comfort zone and challenges my limiting beliefs about with whom I can experience union. Gratitude fills my heart for the opportunity to share vulnerability as people trust me with their stories and their image. The energy emitted by someone speaking about their passions is contagious and inherently healing. No matter how I was feeling before the exchange, I leave feeling present and inspired.


“Connecting with the beat of my heart, the beat of the drum, the beat of our Mother Earth.” -Colee

In return, I get to reflect that light back. I provide a space for others to remember what inspires them, what ignites their life, and I receive and celebrate their beauty. They do not have to do or be anything other than they are to be lovable or magical; if only for a moment, they can experience their mere presence on this planet as a gift. The art emerges in photos and quotes, but most importantly in the connection we form, however brief.

The most painful experience I’ve had has been separation, the feeling that I do not belong in this world. Art can help us to create a world in which we want to belong, in which we can be ourselves and give and receive love. What could be more healing?

Click here to learn more about my project!


“I love putting on shows and seeing people enjoy themselves and have a good time…if people are meeting each other and connecting across any boundary, across any lines of identity or background or music genre or art, then that means I’m doing a good job.” -Maya

By Rivka Shapiro, @RivkaShapiro on twitter. Rivka Shapiro is a registered Artist and Financial Development Intern with Face Forward. Her art flows between movement, music, poetry, visual art, ceramics, wildcrafting, and healing practices.