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Harrell Fletcher
Harrell Fletcher

Social Canvas

Engaging a community through art

With the community as a canvas, the possibiliites for artwork are endless. Art and social practice professor Harrell Fletcher challenges students to work outside the studio to create socially engaged art. By forming an experience in a place rather than producing a final object, this barrier-breaking approach asks artists—and their audiences—to consider themselves, their community, and the environment as part of the art.


WHEN AN ARTIST STEPS OUT OF THE STUDIO, the possibilities for artwork are endless. The community becomes the artist’s muse, teacher, and collaborator. Art and social practice professor Harrell Fletcher, a fellow of the PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions, challenges his students to work outside the studio to create socially engaged art.

“Instead of starting with an idea, I encourage students to start with a place,” Fletcher said. Part of the process is discovering that place and its social and historical context. This exploration spurs community participation and exposes the artist to a variety of new perspectives. For example, one student walked 500 miles of rural California along the route of a proposed high-speed rail line. Filming along the way, he gave local residents who would be most affected an opportunity to share their stories.

Fletcher’s own work explores themes ranging from global conflict to local food systems. After visiting the War Remnants Museum in Vietnam in 2005, he recreated the exhibits in cities throughout the United States. Using the duplicated museum space, he brought together local people to discuss personal experiences from the war—challenging Americans to reconsider their historical perspectives.

In Portland, Fletcher worked with students to build an outdoor classroom at a local organic farm and create PSU coursework for the site. The creators of the Farm School hope to host a variety of classes, from art to environmental science.

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