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ANNA SMITH: Art and economic development are not sovereign, separate islands

“Art is a lie, so don’t ask me what great art means, ask me what great art does. Does it make you feel something surprising? Does it provoke you to action? Does it delight and seduce you? Does it shock you? Does it, through lying, reveal a greater truth?”

I sat captivated in my seat at as local theater artist Jennifer Sampson spoke these words at a recent event about how to make Bakersfield thrive.

Art and culture are crucial components to add depth and meaning to our lives and our community. Her own work in theater began when she realized she sees the world in stories, “in shapes and emotions and colors and people’s expressions,” she said. Jennifer finds satisfaction and fulfillment in her work as a theater artist (and, I would argue, she’s so talented at it) because she recognizes that it provokes two core fundamental truths about humans. She says we are: “number one: storytellers at our core, and number two: built for community.” I agree.

All great art does those two things well; it speaks to our storytelling nature and promotes togetherness. As Jennifer pointed out, these are needs that typical pastimes like television and social media cannot easily meet. Jennifer’s art has brought people together in unique spaces for plays like sculpture gardens and art galleries with beautifully curated plays that surprise, provoke, and inspire.

Rachel Magnus, curator for the Bakersfield Museum of Art, is also working to bring people together for unique, engaging experiences with art through various mediums. These are not static events but engaging affairs with richly woven stories behind them. They range from poetry slams to block-print maker nights to surrealist-inspired costume parties.

The series is called Art After Dark, and it’s tapped into a whole new body of museum supporters. The entire Art After Dark series has seen over 1,000 attendees for the 2017 calendar year. One of its more popular events is the Surrealist Masquerade, held in October.

Last year, the museum concluded its first full year of Art After Dark with a screening of “Mother’s Day,” a James Broughton experimental film with surrealist undertones from 1948, starring the museum’s original namesake, Marion Osborn Cunningham. Museum staff decided this was perfect timing to highlight the film during its 60-year anniversary celebration. They took advantage of the BMoA sculpture garden, brought in a screen, and encouraged guests to come in masks to view the film. The event was a success, and the annual BMoA Surrealist Masquerade was born.

The museum also took inspiration from the now-iconic Rothschild party of 1972, which occurred just outside of Paris, hosted by the eccentric socialite Marie-Helene de Rothschild. The exclusive guest list included Salvador Dali, who was impressed with the Rothschild devotion to the surrealist theme. Guests received mirror-image invites and were instructed to come dressed in “Black ties, long dresses, and surrealist heads.” Once inside servants greeted the guests dressed as cats, and the cats were posted in various sleeping positions and would slowly stretch and rise as each new guest entered. The night was full of surprises. And the few photos that document the evening highlight the extravagance, whimsy, and imagination that surrealism encourages.

The popularity of our local BMoA masquerade is evident — large numbers attend, and it’s gotten quite sceney. In Bakersfield, we are hungry for unique art experiences. People are responding to the museum’s call to get creative; they are drawn in by the museum’s gift for storytelling. Guests are encouraged to come in masks inspired by the surrealist theme, and they do! Most attendees hand-craft their costumes.

At this year’s masquerade, there were surrealist-inspired floral installations on the heads of mannequins, cocktails from Sandrini’s and Tiki-Ko, live music from Tigercide and a light installation from local artist Alex Sarad. The museum’s current exhibitions displayed aspects of surrealism for the event.

Surrealism and theater, like all art, is inherently artificial. There is something “fake” about a work of art. No matter how realistic the novel, play, or painting might be, we nonetheless recognize the presence of an artist in the piece. And that’s how it should be.

There are traces of human handiwork — the human spirit — in art. If art were exactly like real life, it would be ignored. Exposing ourselves to artistic fictions told through rich stories that bring us together deepens our bonds to each other and our community. As Jennifer noted, each of us has a different experience when confronted with great art, and that’s the beauty — it’s up for interpretation.

As the great artist Pablo Picasso once said: “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”

Rachel and Jennifer are sparking so much life with their art. They strengthen bonds of community through the stories their art tells. But their art does even more than that. Art experiences, like those curated by Rachel and Jennifer, are a crucial component to any thriving city, and the more we support our local arts community the more it will spur economic development and vitality. Studies show that the two are not sovereign, separate islands. This kind of art makes the Bakersfield experience richer for everyone.

• All about energy: The Kern County Museum will host this year’s Kern Energy Festival on Saturday, Nov. 11, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Learn more about some of Bakersfield’s most powerful industries — oil and alternative energy — in a celebration with activities, attractions and exhibits for the whole family.

• Rescue a mutt: Also on Nov. 11, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Marley’s Mutt’s Dog Rescue is hosting an event at the Petsmart located at 5601 Calloway Drive for Pet Adoption Week. They will have pets available for adoption at the store. Come ready to rescue!

• A reader responds: Fernando Aguirre, referencing my column on my Old Town Kern article, wrote in to comment that he is a member of the Bakersfield East Rotary Club and their service projects are focused on the east side. He said the newspaper serves as a great source for community service projects for the club and thanked us for helping connect volunteers with worthwhile projects.

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