This past July, the Action Alliance hosted its first ever Honeycomb Retreat, a social justice art and creative expression retreat. We brought together young people ages 17-23 from all around the state to come together to use art as a healing tool and as a form of activism. We framed art as a means to create social change, to envision a world free from intimate partner and sexual violence. With our group of 17 fellows, the participants, we convened with our three artists-in-residence— Hieu, Jackie, and Virginia— who acted as mentors in both art practice and implementing social change, and other activists, organizers, artists, and educators from across the country who facilitated workshops. The retreat was split between free art space and workshops, and the goal was for fellows to use what they learned or discussed in workshops and respond or reflect upon that topic in their art.
The Honeycomb Retreat aimed to connect with young people in Virginia, offer workshops on advocacy, healing and organizing, and build leadership opportunities within our state-wide coalition. The name Honeycomb was inspired by the idea of fractals, a pattern that repeats itself on both the small and large scale, as expressed by adrienne maree brown’s book Emergent Strategy:
What we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system. Grace [Lee Boggs] articulated it in what might be the most-used quote of my life: ‘Transform yourself to transform the world.’ This doesn’t mean to get lost in the self, but rather to see our own lives and work and relationships as a front line, a first place we can practice justice, liberation, and alignment with each other and the planet.
I was hired to help plan and organize the retreat in February. I was a senior double majoring in English and Art History at the University of Richmond and happened upon the intern listing via a school email. I was drawn in by the vision that the Action Alliance looked toward, a world in which all are free from gender-based violence by using an anti-racist framework. I had never worked in a non-profit and was nervous for what was to come in the following months. Nonetheless, I was excited to see where the retreat could go and how it would impact everyone who would be involved.
Art is an act of problem solving. This is a potent refrain stated by artist-in-residence Hieu Tran and later echoed by countless fellows throughout the retreat. The phrase suggests a refusal of passivity, something that one must engage in, a conscious and thoughtful action that must be done in order to find a solution. Both within the space and outside of the retreat, problem solving was required. The fellows collaborated on banners, prints, sculptures, working to overcome and undo any obstacles that they ran up against in the creative process. In much the same way, the Action Alliance Staff engaged in the same action, albeit not with banners but with planning workshops, space coordination, food donations, and more. All things Honeycomb Retreat were a whirlwind, and staff, fellows, and artists alike were nothing short of busy bees. The weeks and days leading up to it were a flurry of meetings, Target runs, and arts and crafts.
The Saturday before the retreat began, I attended a talk at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) given by Gregory Sholette about the intersection of art and activism as it pertains to institutional critique. He described the practice of institutional critique as bringing visibility to. This resounded deeply as the retreat began and, in practice, we all began to consider what it meant to bind art and activism and what we were hoping to make visible. As it applies to art, activism is two-fold. First, deconstructing both the definition of what art is and what art can be. Second, what it can do.
The goal of the Honeycomb Retreat was to use art not just as healing practice but also as an organizing tool. We wanted to shift the perspective that art only existed in the sphere of self-service, as a remedy to burnout. As the week progressed, I think this shift became visible. One fellow remarked when prompted by the question what is art: “It is expression. For freedom. For release. For honesty. For truth.” Another stated that it is “heritage, resistance, power, struggle, whatever you need it to be in that moment.” We were crafting art to be whatever we needed it to be. Our artists-in-residence helped to encourage the idea that art could do something beyond just existing passively without thought. Jackie, Virginia, and Hieu all used their work across mediums such as illustrations, screen printing, or theatre to bring visibility to something. This act of bringing attention was consciously done in the hopes that the viewer on the other end would be moved, motivated, and/or inspired to create change. In a matter of days, the fellows were bringing their dreams of Black mystics, of the imagined tales of Lizzo and Reggie Jr (her trusty snake companion), of living unafraid, to the visual world via canvas, poetry, or paint.
The fellows started art-making timidly on the second day, the first day with partitioned time for art. They worked under the advice of the artists-in-residence, checking in about technique and composition. Some fellows painted a banner that Hieu conceptualized based on a Vietnamese board game. Others used printing blocks made by Jackie, such as a whale on a bicycle or a block declaring They/Them. And as they attended more workshops, on topics such as healthy relationships, sexual healing with plant medicine, and community care, they found what provoked or what moved them to expression. It was like we lit a fire, resulting in everyone trying to create as much as they could as time allowed.
One of my own sources of worry about the retreat was presenting a workshop. I wore a dress with a bee pattern for bravery, hoping that if I could ornament myself externally in the Honeycomb theme then, hopefully, I could internalize it as well. My workshop was on the history of museums and galleries and how that history is rooted in colonization, imperialism, and white supremacy which in turn shapes the modern-day institution that tokenizes marginalized people. I also had Richmond muralist Emily Herr as a co-facilitator to discuss what it means to create socially-conscious work and exist outside of the museum sphere. We wanted the fellows to learn that they could and should call themselves artist without trepidation. However, if the title felt awkwardly fitted, to still recognize that what they create can be impactful.
On our last day, Friday, after a barbeque out in the blazing midday sun with tabling from local organizations such as the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood, Side by Side, Health Brigade, and the Virginia Student Power Network, we closed with a visioning graphically facilitated by Emily Simons. One of the questions we asked our fellows was: “Based on the different art skills you built and the workshops you participated in this week, what do you want to do next? What are you excited for next? What’s your vision for a world without sexual and intimate partner violence?” and someone responded, “Excited to see the change we are going to create.” I love the duality in their use of create. Activism and art are both something that one creates out of a need for visibility, a deep desire to see change in the world. I am extremely thankful for the retreat and the ability to connect with so many amazing individuals. The Action Alliance has become a part of my hive and for that I am truly grateful.
Raelyn Williams is an intern at the Action Alliance with a passion for art and social change.