By Melissa Holland and Angie O’Neal
When the first 11 members of the new Laurel Arts Council were sworn in, in 2017, their mission was laid out in the council’s founding ordinance: “to encourage and invest in the visual arts, performing arts and art education” and “to coordinate the display of art in public places throughout the City and to create a vibrant arts community … for the residents of Laurel by promoting the arts, advocacy and providing art programs.”
It was a broad mandate. Like many fledgling arts councils, the group took up the charge without paid staff or a program budget. Getting things done depended on the passion of the members, the participation of the community and the commitment of its city liaison.
In that formative period, members readily stepped forward. The first arts council chair, Kelsey Hutchinson, was then a marketing manager for Montgomery County’s arts program, and she knew how to make the new council visible. She organized the arts council into working groups, equipped them with social media and other technical tools and engaged the group in community events.
“The focus,” Hutchinson wrote at that time, “is to get the word out to the community and encourage people to come out … and meet the new Laurel Arts Council.”
By the end of 2018, the community was increasingly aware of the council and was enthusiastically participating in offerings. The council partnered with The Laurel Board of Trade to organize Second Saturday arts fairs on Main Street and also partnered with the Laurel Historical Society to host workshops for residents to make clay tiles for a city history bench. The council also guided the entire fifth grade class of Laurel Elementary School in making their own Laurel-themed clay tiles.
It was clear in those early days that members were energized by a love of place. Master sculptor Cheryl Dyer spoke of her “love of Laurel” when she introduced herself at the council’s first meeting. She emphasized the town’s abundant creative talent and natural resources, and she led the history bench project as well as other public art pieces that grace the town today. She found co-creators in school students, local artists and interested residents.
Another early member, Alisa Kerr, said “in my family, we’re all about volunteering.” Kerr involved her entire household in setting up and helping run arts council events around town.
Essential, too, was the encouragement of Laurel’s city government. City staff identified spaces available for public art and pointed out functional items, like planters and picnic tables, as potential canvases. Joanne Barr, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation director at the time, cheered on the council’s proposals and made available venues and supplies. She harnessed city muscle to dig holes, pour foundations and transport materials for public art installations.
The clay-tile history bench was officially installed in McCullough Field in the spring of 2019. Later that year, another of Dyer’s projects, a glass mosaic water-themed mural fashioned by Pallotti High School students, was placed at the Laurel Municipal Swimming Pool.
Council members’ interests continued to drive projects. When a drama teacher who directed a Shakespeare in the Park program joined the council, the council staged a well-attended student drama showcase in a Laurel coffee house. When painter and experienced exhibitor Angie O’Neal joined the council, she mounted a show by Laurel High School art students at the city’s municipal center; the show ran for one month in 2019 and attracted visitors daily. These collaborations with schools became annual events as the council sought to bring students’ talent to the public.
In 2020, the arts council saw an opportunity to engage an anxious and isolated public. Then-member Monica Sturdivant, also assistant director of the Laurel Historical Society and the Laurel Museum, linked the arts council with the museum’s project to chronicle people’s experience during the pandemic with postcards, a familiar medium of expression. She invited residents to send cards reflecting their feelings. “If we can get Laurel engaged in this way,” she said, “it could create a lot of interesting content for the arts council’s social media. And it would give the history museum a whole section for a future exhibit.”
People responded to the call with prose, poems, drawings and even a hinged postcard triptych. The arts council turned submissions into a vibrant online gallery, and the museum added the cards to its unique COVID-19 archive.
During 2020, Laurel Arts Council followers on Facebook grew from a handful to several hundred.
The council partnered with Laurel for the Patuxent, and local artists, led by Dyer, created fish sculptures that volunteers installed in planters on Main Street. Dyer noted that the fish, which were nestled in pollinator-sustaining native grasses, were intended to “ call attention to the Patuxent River watershed and the need to safeguard it.” This installation still delights and informs passersby.
As the pandemic began to ease, council member Michael Spears, a regionally acclaimed painter, urged his colleagues to think bigger.
“We need funding if we’re going to move forward,” he said. Earlier this year, Spears helped draft a funding request to Mayor Craig Moe, citing the arts council’s impressive track record. In an affirming gesture, the mayor and City Council approved a modest fiscal year 2023 budget for community events and a special mayor’s appropriation for public art.
With this budget in hand, new Laurel Arts Council Chair Kaleigh de la Puente is moving ahead. “We’ve been working hard to find new places and spaces in the city that might be a location for artwork or creative activity,” she said. “ We found some unique possibilities including the city’s traffic signal cabinets, crosswalks and vacant store windows.”
De la Puente’s ambitions are bolstered by new members, including musician Tony Small, a Grammy award semifinalist and director of the Pallotti High Arts Academy, who envisions community-wide concerts. Artist and art teacher Anjali Wells is planning arts for wellness events in response to a growing national awareness that art can heal and transform lives.
The Laurel Arts Council depends on partnerships in the community, partnerships that inspire projects and support our creative work in bringing those projects to life.