By Benny Starr, US Water Alliance Artist-in-Residence

March 22, 2021

As a Black man born and raised in the American South, I cannot divorce the way I have been created from the art that I create; both of which I will always see as beautiful and enduring. It is for that reason, that I am deeply honored to share my inclusion in Grist 50, an annual list of emerging leaders who are working on real-world solutions to our world’s biggest challenges. This acknowledgment of my art and my identity comes at a time when so many of us require a renewal of hope and a radical reimagining of our society. As I reflect on my experience as a creator in a time of hardship, I have reaffirmed the need for art not just in the way we work, but in the way we live and connect with each other. Art can be the way we find ourselves again as we emerge from the past year.
It is difficult to wrap my mind around the fact that we have been experiencing a global pandemic for an entire year. However, that has indeed been the reality. I have read commentary from scholarly minds as they have described how this period has impacted the most vulnerable among us. I have listened to the words of working people as they cope with the reality that with each day, the journey that they take out into the world comes with incredible risk. And while holding tightly to all of that, I have also had to sit with my thoughts. Those thoughts were peppered with fear, isolation, uncertainty, angst, and sadness amongst other things. What gave me some form of solace, throughout the past year, has been art.
One thing that I never lose sight of is that across many iterations of faith, Creation was a divine act. For me, that not only validates the importance of creators, but it validates why we should recognize the art and, the creativity in everything that we do.
I am a Man. I am an Artist. I am a Creator. And in addition to my love of creating, this past year has forced me to truly be present with the artistic process itself.
While this past year has revealed to me my resilience, it has simultaneously shown me the depths of my sensitivity. And when you are extremely sensitive to the things going on around you, times of deep despair do not always make for great muses. What I was left with was the stillness of waiting on inspiration to arrive. Examining why my inspiration felt so far away and holding tightly to the fleeting moments of its arrival taught me things about myself that I never knew. Examining my artistic process heightened my understanding of spirituality. It evolved my understanding of my environment. It deepened my empathy for people who endure the most injustice and inequality, while strengthening my dedication to my role in creating a just society that could one day render this one obsolete. For me, it was a form of mental, emotional, and spiritual renewal. I needed that to keep my well full, and secondly, to do everything in my power to provide water to others (no pun intended).
My arts work with The Acres of Ancestry Initiative and Black Legacy Farmers kept me in the here and now and reinforced the importance of seeing humanity in the struggle for justice and liberation. I was able to see and feel those impacted. They are not just numbers on a page, but human beings who look like I do, and who have suffered because of that one fact. I came to that work looking to serve, artistically. The steadfastness of Black Farmers and their unrelenting determination renewed my spirit in ways I could never have anticipated. My arts work with US Water Alliance has reminded me that artists are not simply what we produce. Our knowing, our feeling, our thinking, our depth of sensitivity is necessary to meet the moment of a changing climate, and the necessity to build an equitable, sustainable water future for us all.

My art is not a data and statistics driven practice. My art is inspired by individual and collective experience, emotion, and demand to be Free. This is not to say that data is not critical to that struggle, it absolutely is. What I mean is that it is not the sole driver of my work. In a society built on the myth of white supremacy, how much data will ever be enough? I often wonder, if even one person suffers an injustice are they not worthy of song? I also believe in a renaissance of how we recognize the power and function of art. I have come to understand that I am not simply an artist who sits by the window and plays his instrument. This experience of life is the instrument, and it should be expressed through a plethora of disciplines.
Art has a profound purpose in our lives. Art has a place in our thinking, in how we acknowledge ourselves and others, the cultures that we work within, and the oppressive forces and practices we are trying to dismantle. Understand this. I do not wish to see a world where we simply “do art”. I work to create a world which we recognize the necessity and the presence of art in all that we do. Because I believe the art will continue to tether us to our feelings of deep love, empathy, justice, and acknowledgment of this universal human experience.
We are all worthy of prose and poetry. We are all worthy of justice. I hope that we continue to illuminate the prose and poetry that flows from the fingertips of those committed to building a radically just world. It is hard to think of a way to put March 2020 to March 2021 into words. What I can say is that if we are here, and able to face the reality of climate change and environmental injustice, the one necessary word that does come to mind is RENEWAL.
A renewal of our courage.
A renewal of empathy.
A renewal of justice.
A renewal in our belief of Human Rights.
A renewal in the belief that the arts will help get us there.