America used to be known as the Great Melting Pot. Nowadays it seems more like the Great Divide. Black versus white. Red versus blue. Social media was touted as the tool that would bring us closer together. Instead it has become a platform to try to make a stronger argument.

As I look back, I think I lived a pretty sheltered life growing up. There wasn’t much cultural uniqueness in our community. Friendships were made through neighbors or school acquaintances. Ignorance was common, and therefore tolerated. I didn’t know it, but I was living in an invisible bubble.

My move halfway across the country was initially for the purpose of education, but it was photography that became the driving force in my life. It was teaching me to see the world in new ways, then lead to several friendships. Those early friendships were mostly other photographers, but they soon led to connections and friendships with artists of different backgrounds who worked with varieties of media. Some of the best friendships in my life have been with amazing artists, people looking nothing like me, or having any real similarities. This pattern of keeping diverse people in my life has continued, but may never have happened without art in my life.

My first visit back to my home state that didn’t center on family was my ten year high school reunion. Most people in my class still lived within twenty miles of our high school, and were still the same idiots I remembered from a decade prior. As I met (mostly) strangers, I was asked “So what do you do?” followed 100% of the time with “Is there good money in that?”

All weekend long.

But that wasn’t the biggest shock of the trip. Another student, also named Steve, was someone I had been in the same schools with all the way from kindergarden. By the time we were Seniors, he had a permanent scowl on his face and was dropping f-bombs most of the day. I’m amazed that he even graduated based on his class attendance and lack of participation. If you had asked me to name five students who I didn’t think would be there, his name would have been top of the list. I obviously recognized the face, but not the demeanor. We ended up talking for a while at the reunion. Turns out, he had moved about 100 miles away from where I was living, and he was telling me about how amazing he thought the desert was, especially the sunsets and the spring flowers. And, oh yes, art. That had been part of his therapy. The whole time I was thinking, “Whooaah! Who are you and what have they done with the guy I knew ten years ago?”

We were fortunate in that our school district had a solid budget and a variety of programs were available to the students. Photography classes were even added shortly after we graduated. That’s not the case for most schools nowadays, and art has often been the first thing axed. You can bet there were some irate parents in school board meetings saying things like, “Don’t waste my kids time teaching him/her how to paint or make baskets. They need to learn how to make money to survive in this world!” Early on, my own parents would be thrilled when I showed them the latest publication I was in, but the next question would be, “So why don’t you think about getting a real job?”

My chosen creative expression, photography, mostly involves nature. By observing nature, I have learned that it can be destructive, but then it has amazing healing powers. Often, things in nature have an outward appearance that might appear uninteresting or much the same. The closer you get to these elements, the more fascinating they sometimes become. This can hold true for people too.

No matter what form of art a person is involved in, it teaches patience. Even Picasso and Michelangelo didn’t create masterpieces on their first attempt. You have to start with a blank canvas and add layers. When you make a mistake, you realize you have too much time into the piece, and must find a way to fix it. Every artist I’ve met has become focused on their work, to the point they find it calming. Many artists utilize objects that the previous owners have deemed garbage. The ability to see an opportunity, where others have lost hope or interest, is a quality that all of us can use in life. If you make a living in art, it teaches you to save for a rainy day.

With all the artists I’ve known through the years, we always took time to learn from each other. We may not have thought it was the other person’s best work, but we would listen to their reasons for creating the piece, and provide honest and helpful feedback in order for each other to grow. Seeing things from another’s perspective may be more important now than ever. Perhaps it’s time to bring art back to schools, the benefits were there all along. We won’t solve the world’s problems with art, but it might be a good starting point to see that we are different, yet not so different.

In this time of unrest, it would also be important to know that art can teach you how to make a powerful statement without raising your voice.