Art is a revolution, a melting pot of ideas, hopes, dreams, and wishes, not always welcomed, but ever the adventure. My love for the arts affords me the opportunity to let people into the “me” that I sometimes hide away. It’s hard for artists in many communities to open up and expose themselves. Yet I have found that right in our own backyard of Champaign and Urbana we are welcomed, loved, and, dare I say it, celebrated. It’s a rich and diverse cultural climate that enriches any who dare to step into it. Here I indulge in several aspects of the arts, from dance to poetry, recycled art, fashion, and design, and each one gives me a unique sense of power. Sharing that empowerment with others is part of my artistic journey as well.
I started doing spoken word competitions at age 11, and used that platform to overcome my fear of public speaking. Through this I also discovered writing. Writing out my thoughts helped me escape for a little bit; I came from a divorced home and I had lost confidence in who I was as a child. Writing gave me back myself as I realized that for me, the truest form of sharing from the heart came through poetry.
Dance offered me another way to express myself and escape. I began as a liturgical dancer in the church at the age of eight. While in college I picked up ballroom dancing. Ballroom dance taught me to share my space, not just physically, but emotionally as well, in an art form dependent on the movement between two individuals. Dance gave me a sense of freedom that complemented my education. I danced throughout college, finished a degree in Fashion and Design, and also became a professional competitive ballroom dancer.
After graduating from college the first time, I started a family; however, I never stopped growing as an artist. While raising my two sons, Ian and Joshua, and my daughter Aria, I completed a second degree in jewelry making, and started a fashion line (Royel Bijou) in my grandfather’s memory. Growing interest in a sustainable lifestyle led me to incorporate a more environmental approach in all my art. And I recently self-published my first chapbook of poetry, Eyes Open, and I’m working on a second book. Being a mother has strengthened my artistic life. I want to show my children and others that there is no box worth sitting in that people create for you when they don’t understand your vision. The many art forms that I participate in all push back against those limits.
A Community of Artists
One of the things I truly love about this community is the enthusiastic and varied support for the arts. The City of Urbana Arts and Culture Program and the Heartland Maker Fest both provide venues for artists to congregate and share their creations with the public. The Resist Art show, founded by Katie Snyder and Shannon Percoco, takes art seriously as a tool for social justice. CU Poetry, founded by Jim O’Brien and many others, gave me a platform to share my innermost thoughts in such a safe manner. Soul on Sunday, founded by Aaron “A-Plus” Wilson, has been another wonderful spot where the folks not only looked more like me and shared in my struggle, but also allowed me to share through spoken word and even sing my story as well.
Part of who I am as an artist is a teacher. I want to help young and old express themselves creatively through movement and art. An Urbana Arts Grant enabled me to found the Cinderella Cinderfella Ballroom Dance Troupe. The program offered children the opportunity to take up the wonderful sport of ballroom dance and learn both a new art and the confidence that public performance can bring. I wanted to teach them partnership, communication, determination, creativity, movement, and, of course, fun.
I brought those same goals to Dr. Preston L. Williams, Jr. Elementary School when I was the instructor for the African Dance troupe, and did the same as an instructor for the Urbana Park District. And being a member of the Urbana Dance Company reminded me that as an adult I benefit from interacting with other adults. We are of different racial backgrounds, ages, and skill levels, and we all learn from one another. Teaching Ballet, Fusion, and Hip-Hop dance to children and adults in our community has been a fabulous experience.
Art and the Revolution
Artists transform lives through their own art and by sharing the power of art. By taking the time to connect and enrich and encourage others to think outside of themselves, to not feel ashamed of anything they say, think, or feel, and to come together as a community, I see artists remaking the world. We all learn and grow through different experiences. We dance together. We laugh and share our thoughts and words in poems or creations with each other. If we take a chance and step outside of ourselves to reach others, especially those who may be struggling, we can make a connection that will bring profound and inexplicable joy. Yes, it is hard, but what I love about my life as an artist is that I can use art to bust that door wide open. I can join with others who have done that before me, encouraging, inspiring and lifting up my community through the arts.
One day I would like to establish a school where the focus is on the arts in all of its forms. I want dancing and singing, sewing and painting, spoken words and sculptures, working on cars and cooking meals from around the world. I want children who would not be able to find these options to be able to attend a school that affords them the chance to come alive and explore their untapped potential. I want them to spread that goodness in such a compelling way that others can’t help but be drawn in. I want to harvest and glean from my community’s strength and the joy of living one’s best life. That is what I am trying to do every day of my life in this artistic journey.
Let me leave one of those artistic gifts with you.
by Ja Nelle Davenport-Pleasure
They say her love was like a lion.
A lion they tied up because they were afraid
if she got loose she would destroy their perception of reality.
They couldn’t figure her out.
So, they shut her out instead.
And try as they may, they wanted to shut her up.
But they couldn’t, for her roar shook the very foundation they built their beliefs upon.
Instead, they cowered and spewed venom from afar.
Hoping this would push the beast away.
Instead, it fueled her fire and washed them away.
I guess that’s what they say.
Ja Nelle Davenport-Pleasure is a poet, fashion designer, professional dancer and dance instructor who lives in Champaign-Urbana and is committed to the promotion of art opportunities for all ages.