SUMMIT, NJ — The Visual Arts Center of New Jersey had a letter-signing event for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice on Tuesday, Jan. 16. Sarah Walko, the director of Education and Community Engagement at the Visual Arts Center, has hosted this event for six years.
“This is a citywide event that I host every year; families come together and create a letter or pamphlet thanking a local organization for their work in the community,” Walko told Union County LocalSource in an interview on Monday, Jan. 16.
Walko said she sees opportunities such as these as moments of expression for people, a way to come together and be creative while supporting a good cause.
“I see art not as a thing, but as a way to express yourself,” she said. “We work with communities to celebrate diversity and social justice using art, an adaptable tool.”
Walko said she also sees art as a mode of freedom and healing for those who need it.
“But there is a secondary, magical component that brings us together toward humanity,” she added.
Walko has been a director at the Visual Arts Center for six years and said she has seen the beneficial effects of art up close and personal.
“There is physiological evidence that art improves health in people,” she said.
Walko said she has embraced art as a form of healing, allowing others to join in and create freely.
“On top of this space, there is also a studio school, which is an open and inclusive community, creating transformation through the arts,” she said.
Walko said she and others in the Visual Arts Center use art as a way of creating change within themselves and within the community.
“There is inherent power in creating, as an individual and through community power,” she said. “Art is a powerful tool. The community is the studio; change comes through them. There are many, including myself, who are passionate about social justice.”
The work of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice over the years has helped those behind bars, those struggling with debt, the unhoused and those who are hungry. Its work led to the Visual Arts Center holding this event.
“The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice has several pillars of work for social justice,” Walko said. “They provide economic opportunities to those who are marginalized and they do work in the community to address mass incarceration as well.”
Walko discussed how mental health has been a major talking point since the pandemic started and how art helps support people on their mental health journeys.
“Art helps with decompressing, stress relief and many other things as well,” she said. “Art therapy programs provide relief and healing for those with addiction issues, post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments as well.”
Walko said she is hoping to see increased funding for the arts in school systems throughout New Jersey.
“Art is a huge outlet for K-12 students, especially after COVID-19,” she said. “It’s more than just a recess activity. I am hoping for a paradigm shift in mindset and funding for the arts in schools.”
Photos by Javon Ross