One of my early pivotal experiences was a family trip to Puerto Rico where a relative was a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. On the trip, my relative chaperoned me around the island, educating me on the island, the culture, the people, the history. One of his favorite stops was an Art Gallery. His significant other was an artist who had paintings there. Lucky for me! I was stunned by the beauty of the paintings, the environment, the color, the approach to reality through a different lens. My relative must’ve had a streak of Guru-itis or a bit of Henry Higgens in his DNA as my next new exposure was to sit and listen to Mascagni’s CAVALERIA RUSTICANA. I’m grateful for the education.

Years later, I attended the University of Michigan and enrolled in Art History classes, not as a major but as a passion. Going to the Art Institute in Chicago was one of the high points of that period. These experiences are of a piece, a fabric that became the basis for how I see the world. I am an actor and a writer. Exposure to visual arts and my robust reading as a youngster taught me how to see beauty, feel beauty, let me know that reality can be shaped, bent to tell a story, to paint a story, to present a story on the stage, or on a canvas. It is all about story, and it is all a love story. What are we without that ability to mold reality into something more heightened, more beautiful, even more powerful than our individual experience? I think I’ve watched Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather at least 10 times. Each time, I find things that I missed on previous viewings. This is art. This is a love story. Where will the next Coppola come from? The next Meryl Streep? The next Maurice Jarre? The next James Baldwin?

There is no replacement or alternative to what those kinds of exposures do for the human heart and mind. We need more art not less. We need this kind of exposure and training beginning in elementary school with no break. This is a part of a good life, this is what being a human is about. Otherwise, what are we?

My novel, Freshwater Road, is inspired by my experiences during the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi and Louisiana. That was a brutal time. It was as close to death as I’ve been. When I left the south for New York to begin my professional career in theater, those experiences in the civil rights movement went with me. I was branded. Those memories roamed around in my heart and head for years. I knew that some day I would write to mold that experience into something for the world because it was profound, teaching so many lessons about people, the earth, history, culture. I’m a lucky woman that someone thought to begin inculcating the idea of ART into my brain at a very young age. I had no choice but to pursue a life bound to creativity because of the thoughtfulness and generosity of so many people who took the time to show me what was possible.

Denise Nicholas

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