23 Aug 2014
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Healing Newtown: Local Artists, Supporters Seek Permanent Home

You can support the healing power of art and music.

By Angela Gaul

Green and white ribbons still grace telephone poles on Main Street in Newtown, a reminder of things that cannot be forgotten, yet, healing has begun.

"We're all still sad. We always will be, but you need to get out there and do good things," said Robert Rabinowitz, the secretary of  Healing Newtown, a project of the Newtown Cultural Arts Commission. He is a local musician and composer from Sandy Hook with close ties to the artistic community.

For Healing Newtown, doing 'good' centers on the power of art to heal and connect.

The group quickly went beyond helping manage the overwhelming artistic response to the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting at Sandy Hook School to offering classes and workshops and helping stage community events.

But the larger goal is to move from their temporary space in a local church and to establish a sustainable, permanent cultural arts center in Newtown. The center would not only allow them to expand their art therapy offerings but provide a haven for local artists.

"Every day we see individuals come into our Healing Newtown arts space to gather, reflect, share and look for support," said Jennifer Johnston, a lifelong Newtown resident and chairwoman of the Newtown Cultural Arts Commission. "We are really seeing signs of growth in these children through the artwork they have been creating. Each project is unique and helpful to them."

Healing Newtown recently launched a fundraising project on PatchWorks, Patch’s online funding platform to empower people to improve their community or help neighbors.

They hope to raise $10,000. The campaign lasts until Aug. 31. You can join the effort by  donating online here.

Healing a Community

The Newtown Cultural Arts Commission is comprised of nine local artists and dozens of volunteers who, prior to the tragedy, were commissioned by the Board of Selectmen to develop the arts in Newtown.

After Dec. 14, the town was flooded with an outpouring of donations, offers of assistance and works of art from all over the world.

"We went to [First Selectman Pat Llodra] the Monday morning after the tragedy and said, 'How can we help?'"  Johnston said.

Together with the Cultural Alliance of Western Connecticut and the state of Connecticut's Office of the Arts, the NCAC launched an Arts Action team to make Healing Newtown a reality.

Healing Newtown found its first home on Queen Street, in a free space donated by Brause Realty on a month-to-month basis. More than 400 people came to their grand opening celebration last Valentine's Day, featuring live music, dance performances, poetry readings, a gallery exhibition and a juggler. They also offered open mic nights, family parties with live music, arts classes and Saturday "clay dates."

"There is real healing when the community comes together," said Jennifer Rogers, NCAC's vice-chairman and a member of the Healing Newtown team. "The arts help you process your emotions when you can't talk about it, when it's just too hard to say what's on your mind."

Rogers recalled seeing a Newtown parent who brought her daughter to one of Healing Newtown's drumming and hula-hooping workshops have an emotional breakthrough as she viewed the artwork on display.

"I remember this woman who looked visibly upset," she said. Rogers approached her and learned that the woman had only that day, four months after the shooting, told her daughter that one of her friends from pre-school had died.

"It was just too heavy for her to bear alone. I'm proud of the way Newtown has pulled together," Rogers said.

'If you believe in the power of the arts...'

The first sculpture the town received is an 8,000-pound bronze statue created by Colorado artist Jane DeDecker.

"It's a woman in a long, flowy skirt protecting a child between her legs. Then, there's a second piece, another child looking up at her with a book in one hand and a teddy bear in the other. It brought this realization that this really happened in my town,” Johnston, the commission chairwoman, said. “It still feels surreal. That was a very emotional day."

Healing Newtown is committed to promoting long term healing and focusing on the positive. They recently rented space in the  Newtown Congregational Churc h, where children's arts classes and weaving workshops are on the schedule through July and August. Most recently, Healing Newtown hosted eight bands in an outdoor concert on Danbury Green on July 21 to raise money intended to help the arts space find a permanent home.

Rabinowitz was one of several volunteers manning a table at the event. "Today is about getting the word out that we're still working even though we lost our space in town," he said. "Our ultimate goal is to have a permanent cultural arts center. What we really need is to raise enough money to renovate a building."

Healing Newtown has looked at Fairfield Hills, a former state-run mental institution purchased by the town of Newtown and converted into community space. The campus currently houses the Newtown Municipal Center and recreational areas, including walking trails and a baseball field.

"We're going to need a minimum of $500,000 to renovate a building," Rabinowitz said, noting that that amount is what would be required just to make the space functional. "We have $140,000 right now in our fund. We have a long way to go."

Still, the pieces are coming together. Guitar Center has donated instruments, amps and speakers. A stage sound and lighting company, IDJNow, has donated a full set of lights that Rabinowitz hopes will one day illuminate a black box theater. Later this month, Healing Newtown will be loaning the donated equipment to the  Great Newtown Reunion, an all-classes gathering of alumni from Newtown Schools, which will take place July 27.

"We reach out to the entire community,” Johnston said. “It's really about what you as a donor believe in and how you want to see your dollars spent. If you believe in the powers of the arts as we do, then you should donate to an arts organization.”

To see a complete photo gallery on Healing Newtown by Angela Gaul click here.

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