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Hope McMath and Yellow House bridge art and activism

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We seem to have forgotten that community is an essential element of a thriving society. And art is an essential outlet of expression and experience—one that we cultivate less and less. When we remember these things, and when they work together, the result is beautiful. This is the Yellow House approach to community engagement—through the vessel of art.

Hope McMath, the gallery’s coordinator and creator, has been in the cultural sector for quite some time. Before founding Yellow House in 2017, she had spent 23 years at The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. During her last eight years there, she served as a “reluctant deputy director,” she recalled. Toward the end of her term, McMath craved something more. “I was interested in doing work aligned with social justice,” she told Folio Weekly. “I would wake up every day thinking about it.”

Thus, Yellow House was born. It was an appropriate time to get engaged, too. Social justice movements were really taking off—a reaction, in part, to the regressive backlash that brought Donald Trump to power. What is art’s role in the social tensions of the day? This is exactly what McMath was interested in exploring, and Yellow House has been her laboratory.

Situated on the corner of King and Phyllis Street in Riverside, the house is small but mighty in its intention. Its art is always connected and expressive of the issues real artist-activists face. Eco-feminist Sarah Crooks’ Home Is Here closes this weekend; it’s a magnificent display of tapestry, mixed media and written word, shedding light and focusing on our spiritual connection and oneness with the planet we’re destroying.

“The exhibits,” McMath said, “are a vehicle for the work, and Yellow House is the vessel; it is not the end all.” The end all is ongoing community engagement. McMath aims to create a platform for members of all communities to feel comfortable sharing their stories. “How do we overcome apathy?” she asked. “By building empathy. I believe art is a bridge to building empathy. We really see one another in this space where we share our stories in the most open, honest and raw way possible.”

Some of the most longstanding and influential work Yellow House has done has been with residents on Ken Knight Drive in Jacksonville’s Ribault neighborhood. The collaboration began in the wake of Hurricane Irma. The storm left this small community devastated, lacking resources and hope. Yellow House, along with some other small organizations, stepped up and lent a helping hand. Yellow House “goes where the need is,” and there is still a need in the Ken Knight Drive community. So Yellow House remains present to this day, helping residents recover and thrive.

“Our role there has grown,” McMath said. That role includes building houses, repairing and replacing infrastructure, running a monthly mobile food pantry, and facilitating community art projects. “It’s probably some of the most important work we’ve done. Most of the learning has happened with Ken Knight Drive. We’ve made some mistakes, but we’ve stayed engaged.”

In the process of helping that community, McMath and her team have discovered amazing writers and artists from the neighborhood. There’s a “beautifully strange, diverse community wrapping themselves in Yellow House” to share their work and their stories. This is the goal: to engage the community through art. “The flame gets sparked through an exhibition or act of service, and we don’t see that as a ‘project’ with a beginning and an end, but it’s about engaging the community, which is an ongoing process.”

Along with community engagement comes a platform for these folks to share their stories of struggle, triumph, love and life. Through Yellow House, they have the opportunity to amplify their voices. “We’ve created a courageous place for people to share,” McMath said. “Some people say we need a bigger space, but intimacy is one of our strengths. We can’t help but bump into each other; our lives are forced to nudge and break through barriers and wedges that have been put between us.”

The intimacy of Yellow House is as intentional as the art shared and activism pursued. Yellow House hosts many events that create the platform for these artists such as (Re)Set the Table, in which artists come together and represent stories of people not at tables of power. They share their experiences of being part of a marginalized, oppressed or underrepresented group. “We’ll have a new refugee next to a 16-year-old student next to a mother,” McMath said. “We’re interested in creators of all kinds and the exposure we get through all of these people.” Yellow House works to “blur the edges between those artists that don’t feel worthy of sharing their art or taking the title ‘artist.’”

Another initiative is Writers for Migrant Justice, which is dedicated to black female poets. “We have the most amazing group of writers. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of poets and authors who want to be in this space, so we make room for that.” There’s the TAG group of young poets and artists who come together and organize open mic nights, readings, and children’s workshops to engage youths in the creative process. “As long as the work is strong and the message is powerful,” McMath said, “it is welcome here. We have an array of valid and powerful people of all ages and experiences coming together here to share the space.”

This intention to engage the community comes with financial, relational and representational risks, which McMath and her family of volunteers are aware of. But the risks are offset by the value of the work being done at Yellow House. Everyone here believes in “following your own truth.” Art must be more than pretty pictures.

“Art is the thing that raises the questions and opens up our possibility,” McMath said. “If we don’t do anything else with it, we aren’t doing what we should be.” That’s why the risks don’t discourage Yellow House artists and activists; the intention and the outcome are more important. McMath has been “surprised by the response and positive energy of the community. That energy has flowed into our space,” and the space is prosperous.

In addition to her experience at The Cummer, and now Yellow House, McMath curates the Holocaust Memorial Gallery at Jacksonville’s Jewish Family and Community Services and teaches art history and museum studies at UNF. She is passionate about art and the impact is has on her community, but she contends that it could never have been possible without the volunteer’s at Yellow House. “My goal with this was to surround myself and others with people that have had very different lived experiences,” she explained. “I recognize my privilege, and I’m leveraging it to utilize it for [others]. It’s an everyday thing. When I get lazy about it, that’s when I make mistakes—when I think I’ve got it figured out. It requires doing it, getting into it, and not expecting perfection.” Despite the mistakes that have been made, there is “so much joy when people come here and can really be themselves.”

Yellow House is a lighthouse in Jacksonville’s community. An average day here is “a group of activists and artists dreaming and scheming together.” It has become home to so many people, providing “another layer of seeing one another.” According to McMath, “This place attracts people who are very real and ready to be real with other people.” Like Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come. “There is nothing better than working with artists to change and engage the community,” she said. “It sort of started as a selfish thing, art. Then I began to start thinking how I could be an artist and a curator while standing in solidarity with my community. I thought, ‘If I’m feeling this strongly about it, I can’t be the only one.’ And that has proven true through Yellow House.”

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