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Riverhood Series: Sharon DeMattia

It’s easy to get caught up in the analytics when talking about what a city needs; infrastructure, public utilities, etc. But building a city is just as much about building the necessary infrastructure as it is about the way a city makes us feel. Arts, parks, and rivers are part of the city system and just as connected. Sharon DeMattia, a self-described activator, and social artist, uses art as an act of participation and healing broken systems, something reflected in the river itself. Regenesis Reno partnered with DeMattia as part of our social impact and art engagement strategy in the Riverhood.

“The health of a river is really important to an overall system,” DeMattia, who originally was a human systems researcher, says. “So the natural world leads itself through the system of water delivery, which delivers all kinds of different nutrients within that system.”

DeMattia uses her art to get people involved, including unsheltered residents in the Riverhood. “The point of my art is that I don't have all the solutions,” she says. “The art that I do is to activate people. I use art as a universal language that opens not only individuals to their own conversations that we have within ourselves but allows them to express that in a way that is both safe and connects them to a greater community and world.”

DeMattia’s work is rooted in participation, which is why Regenesis Reno worked with her for a Riverhood Art and Community event at Brodhead Park, done in partnership with Empathy CoOp, Karma Box Project, Reno Burrito Project, and United Federation of the Universe.

Open to anyone in the park, she asked participants, many of whom were unsheltered Truckee River residents, to draw anything they wanted on a tile that would make up a much larger canvas. This kind of participation is the core of what we do here at Regenesis Reno.

“And each piece of that puzzle was largely abstract. It didn't look like anything. But we could hand it to any of the residents along the river and say, ‘what do you want the world to know?’’

The intersection between art and participation is where DeMattia thrives. She says her work is meant to connect people in what she considers a broken system. “So, as people participated, a greater image emerged as a whole. As I would talk to people and hand them their puzzle piece, I would tell them ‘you're a piece of the puzzle. You are a piece of the puzzle of the river, of Reno, of Nevada, of the United States, of the world,” she says.

“And as with any puzzle, if you put them together, you can't drop any piece. You have to have them all in order for the puzzle to make sense. And yet what I see is a larger problem is that we've decided that these pieces don't matter, but these pieces do, and so overall, our global story is now fractured. So not only [is it] empowering individuals and giving them a sense of agency and importance, and dignity as part of a larger system, but also in sharing this artwork that is amazing.”

Jenny Andersson, a regenerative practitioner, and leader, writes that systems are all around us. “Everything is interconnected. There is nothing that isn’t connected to something else. Once you start looking everything is dynamically connected.”

We can create regenerative ideas when we critically look at the systems around us and question why they may not work. Fostering a system of connectedness with our unsheltered population reminds us all that there is no “other.” We are all connected.

DeMattia is currently traveling with the art project created at Brodhead Park across the United States. She says sharing the fact that this art was made by unsheltered residents of a tent city has a significant impact on viewers. “When you can show that to somebody and they can see themselves as that person, now you're creating a larger feeling of empathy and compassion and connectedness.”

DeMattia says her dream vision of the Riverhood consists of more art, of course, but an attitude of active participation as well. “Oftentimes we won't start something until we know what it's going to look like at the end... But sometimes you just got to get going.”

One of the first steps? Putting more work towards sanitation facilities for those in tent cities along the river. “We can do that right now so that they don't have to clean themselves in the river,” she says. “The reason it's messy is that maybe we're not putting enough resources into that. We're waiting for someone else to do it.”

DeMattia stresses to not get lost in the big picture thinking. It can be easy to wait for the perfect time or the perfect application of resources, but waiting for things to line up can ultimately lead to nothing happening at all. By focusing on what the Riverhood needs now, she says, we can create a system of interconnectedness and active participation.

DeMattia, whose work isn’t always about solutions so much as it is about the act of art itself, says she appreciates Regenesis for being that structured system for change. “I love what Regenesis is doing in using all these different kinds of pillars of regeneration to contribute to a larger overall health system and a world in which we can all live.”

Art is just as important to the health of a local system as clean water and affordable living. Whether using art as a connection to river residents or to celebrate the river itself, it is as tied to our landscape, our cultural identity, and our city character, as the river itself.

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