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Donn Harris: Creativity’s true north

I’m new to Nevada County. It’s springtime, COVID is winding down, April was Arts & Creativity Month. Forgive my euphoria.

The arts were an attraction in moving here. Every art form is represented by talented people with fascinating life stories. The films in the two festivals get better every year, and the international crowds will be back. The art galleries are open, outdoor music flourishes as the weather warms, and the literary scene is getting back to live readings.

One of our top events, the Sierra Poetry Festival, blossomed during the pandemic, welcoming thousands of visitors from across six continents. We need to get Antarctica on board next year. The New York Times named it one of 2020’s top online literary events.



A 2018 economic impact report commissioned by the Nevada County Arts Council showed us that Nevada County generated arts activity at almost nine times the state average, $470 per resident compared to $54.

Artists have taken a tough hit during the pandemic, no doubt. State and local arts councils, and general relief funds, have made a small dent in the hardship. The school districts and the county education office, under challenging conditions, have developed some bold innovations to make an arts investment in our youth. They understand the relationship between the arts, self-expression and student mental health.




Along with other front-line essential workers, teachers deserve a standing ovation for their tireless and selfless work this past year. Teachers pivoted on a dime so many times the 10 cents became a Bitcoin valuation. They earned their summer vacation this year as never before.

An exhibit opening on Oct. 15 at the Truckee Rec Center, Forest Fire, will demonstrate the role fire has played in the region across centuries. Numerous artists have collaborated with scientists and the local Washoe tribe to bring to life the vision of UC Berkeley’s Sagehen Research Station, near Truckee, which had been studying the forest for many years. They invited artists to be part of the coalition, even providing housing for a rotating group of artists-in-residence — an innovation that hints at the arts partnerships of the future.

Artists have met the challenges of the day with exuberant and inventive contributions. They can be part of the solution to many problems, and we need to be sure to include them.

We have a bounty of creative souls in this county who care about their neighbors, and they keep the joy quotient high. The Governor’s Creative California Corps proposal, if it passes, is a robust three-year commitment that will add to the role of the artist statewide, and Nevada County will certainly benefit.

The range of political views existing side by side in Nevada County is a fascinating study in today’s America. I am aware that it has not always been harmonious. Nevada County is one of the few places I know with a visible, vociferous liberal/conservative mix at close range.

The kinds of exchanges we experience here on the pages of The Union usually take place over far greater distances. I suspect these two constituencies will be around a while. We can be a model of respectful and meaningful dialogue, but we have to want it and we’re going to have to work at it.

Some time ago, I visited a government official of a different political affiliation. We bonded over a painting by a quadriplegic veteran who worked with his teeth grasping the brush. You’ve never seen perspective rendered quite like that.

The official had taken a break from public life and upon his return noted a drop-off in civility, separate social circles, and deep suspicion of outsiders. Government was struggling to function.

Do we want solutions? Or do we need allegiance to a group that excludes others? The loyal opposition has become a forgotten role as the abyss between groups widens, but we used to excel in the fine art of compromise, when we took care that everyone was part of the plan.

Recently in the market I walked past a man whose T-shirt read: LIBERALS SUCK. It meant me. A tattoo showed that, like me, he was a military veteran. A few years ago, the Nevada County Arts Council produced a powerful veterans’ photography show in the Rood Center. Maybe we had crossed paths there.

On this warm spring day the man was at ease, paying attention to his kids, speaking with his wife on his cell phone. He was shopping for a barbecue. He was wearing a mask reluctantly, frequently pulling it aside. At the ice cream freezer he held the door and slipped the mask back on. He may not have pegged me as a liberal.

Here, in the art of everyday life, the two masked men didn’t need to use any labels. Neighbors would work.

The T-shirt maker, in the annual report on the arts, will be counted as part of the creative economy, perhaps for the first time. Liberals like me inspired him, we could say.

Welcome to the creative economy, brother. It’s a good life, and we’re in the right place.

Donn K. Harris has been a Nevada County resident since October 2019. He is a past chair (2015-18) and current member of the California Arts Council, serving under Govs. Brown and Newsom. He led the Ruth Asawa and Oakland Schools for the Arts from 2001 to 2016. Locally he serves on the boards of the Nevada County Arts Council and Color Me Human.


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