This winter, we were lucky enough at Barr to have Bill Strickland speak at our trustee meeting. We were considering a grant to help build the New England Center for Arts and Technology. NECAT will be located in Grove Hall, and will offer after school arts programming and career training. NECAT is modeled after the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, the very successful organization Bill built in Pittsburgh.
Manchester Bidwell is Bill’s life work. It is a unique organization and it has been shaped by his unique path, which he’s told in a terrific book: Make the Impossible Possible (Bill Strickland and Vincent Rause)
What is remarkable and compelling about his story is that it started at the potter’s wheel. Bill’s book describes his path in detail, falling in love with clay and its many possibilities, the lessons of broken pots which led to his creating an arts center in the poorest part of the city in very troubled times.
In building Manchester Bidwell (which he literally did in the early years, putting in the drywall and hanging the pictures), Bill followed his own interests and longings. First it was helping kids liked him fall in love with the pottery wheel, or with some other form of expression. His fascination with Frank Lloyd Wright led him to recruit one of his disciples to design a gorgeous modern building as Manchester Bidwell became more successful. His love of jazz led to a concert hall and recording studio that has netted several Grammys.His fascination with orchids led to a greenhouse business, and a growing appreciation for gourmet food to a catering business that prepares residents to become chefs in fancy hotels and restaurants.
All these enterprises make money and help people, and have led several other cities to launch similar centers. They also – and Bill speaks with passionate conviction about this – change the way poor people are viewed, from passive aid recipients to enterprising and creative architects of their own destiny.
When Bill tells it, in a straightforward, funny, loping style, It all sounds like magic and it is: the magic of helping people find what they love to do and pursuing mastery in it. And that is what is unique about Manchester Bidwell. There, art is not just a nice project or a hobby but a way of pursing what you are made of. Career programs don’t prepare people to get by doing an ordinary job – they instill a sense of pride and mastery, whether the task at hand is pharmacy, cooking, or throwing a pot.
This is because Bill believes, as he says in his book:
“Success is something you assemble from components you discover in your soul and your imagination. Authentic success, the kind of success that will enrich your life and enlarge your spirit, the only kind of success that matters, comes from knowing and trustingthe deepest aspirations of your heart. If you try to live that way, in harmony with the real needs of your spirit, then you can’t help but craft a life that will automatically make the world a better place for everyone who lives in it.”
Bill’s has so obviously achieved this harmony; he is radiant with it. This reminds me of something the great Japanese artist Hokusai wrote about his work. He’s the guy who did the great wave off Kanagawa and Views of Mt Fuji – images so fresh and distinctive that they have come to represent the ocean and that mountain in our minds 150 years after they were made:
“From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from 50 on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of 70 was worthy of attention. At 73, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am 86, so that by 90 I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At 100, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at 130, 40 or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive.”
For me this has always captured the beauty and joy that a lifelong pursuit of the arts can bring. And Bill, ever and enthusiastically going deeper into his work, is a perfect example.
Imagine how great it would be if our education and workforce development systems helped people build on their strengths and interests to find work that matters to them. Imagine if people were truly encouraged to bring artistry to ordinary jobs. Poetry is lacking in so many parts of our society – no where more than at work.
Recently I was in New York and had the chance to speak to the person who manages the maintanence staff at Bryant Park. This guy, who started as a custodian and now manages a whole corps of them, talked about the challenges of moving a couple of thousand folding chairs out of the way after a concert so a morning yoga class could took place. He talked about how important it was that everyone visiting the park felt welcomed and could navigate. His sense of the importance of the work he did, its immediate connection to thousands of people who use and love the park was palpable and refreshing. I left feeling I’d met another artist.
So, I wish you work you love – not every day, maybe – but with the kind of passion and purpose you can imagine spending at least one lifetime on.