By The Bakersfield Californian
The First Friday Art Walk in Tehachapi is a popular monthly event, and I confess that I had never attended one until my daughter, who is an artist, had a show of her work at Fiddlers Crossing, a local gallery/performing arts space. After attending the reception for her opening, I was heartened by the spirit and extent of the arts community in our town.
First Friday meant something different when I was a kid in Catholic school: those were the days we had to go to Mass in place of Religion class, because if we went to Mass on nine First Fridays in a row, we were assured of a nonstop flight to heaven when we died. This is theologically unsound -- one cannot checklist one's way to salvation -- but that never stops tradition.
The rise of First Friday in support of the arts, on the other hand, while a novel experience for me, is a national phenomenon. An online search reveals First Friday organizations and events in such diverse cities as Denver, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Oakland, San Antonio, Santa Cruz, Raleigh, St. Petersburg, Lincoln, Las Vegas, Juneau, Honolulu, and elsewhere, not to mention in Bakersfield and Tehachapi. The First Friday event in Richmond, Va., is one of the largest, regularly attracting 20,000 people from all over the state, and featuring more than 30 venues that include small businesses, art studios and community organizations.
Not coincidentally, First Friday attendees in Richmond are encouraged to donate funds to the cause of "Downtown's rebirth." One of the aims of the First Friday movement nationwide is to revitalize areas of urban blight in downtown districts. Many cities are actively seeking to reclaim decaying downtowns and transform them into thriving centers of commerce and the arts. First Friday capitalizes on the principle of "safety in numbers" in order to attract people to visit parts of a city they might otherwise consider too dangerous to frequent.
First Fridays around the country, while often centered on the arts, have become ways to accomplish other goals. Some gatherings serve as networking opportunities for members of a particular business or political community, meaning a chance to see and be seen. In Newark, for example, First Friday is a networking occasion for African-American business professionals, a tradition that began in 1987 and has since spread to other cities. Some are advertised as pub crawls, wherein merrymakers go drinking together in a succession of bars, ideally walking or taxiing from one place to the next. Some First Fridays function more like block parties, featuring street performances, live music, and food trucks in addition to gallery openings and receptions.
The visual and performing arts, so essential to the soul of a society, need all the support they can garner. Artists, actors, poets, and musicians express and reflect who we are as a people. Their job is to create sometimes beautiful, sometimes disturbing, sometimes whimsical, sometimes prophetic works of art. Artists can be solitary creatures, but given the chance to share their work with those of us who do not possess their talent, their artistic gifts can enrich us, entertain us, enlighten us, or move us to emotion. Artists can make us recognize something about ourselves. They can make us say, "Aha! I know exactly what you mean!" or "I never looked at it that way." Yet the artists in our midst don't often earn a living wage for what they do. My daughter, whom the Tehachapi News describes as an artist who "works in mixed media and uses a combination of image and text to tell her stories," has always worked other jobs to pay her way in life as she follows her calling and pursues her artistic goals. She spends her money on brushes and canvases, on photo chemicals and paints.
Since graduating with a B.A. in art, my daughter has rarely had a job that included health insurance as a benefit. She sometimes wonders why her parents encouraged her to get a college degree, for which she has large loan payments, but small opportunity for steady employment. It is, more often than not, the lot of an artist in our society to rely on a day job in lieu of payment for creative endeavors. The tongue-in-cheek term "starving artist" is sometimes a literal one. Yet through the ages, artists have been driven and called to make art, and they suffer on today.
That is why the proliferation of First Fridays all over the United States matters. This week, the First Friday Art Walk in Tehachapi and the First Friday in downtown Bakersfield will begin another year of celebrating the arts locally. As citizens, we serve our country well by supporting the arts in any way we can, because in their magical way, the arts serve and support us.
These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.