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Lighting a Spark

SPARK! Creative Lab, an artist-led nonprofit that builds a creative and connected community through contemporary performances, prioritizes paying diverse artists competitive wages to allow them to create original artistic performances in Oklahoma City.

Art is work.

Nicole Poole, a performance artist, live composer and executive director of the Oklahoma City-based nonprofit organization SPARK! Creative Lab, knows this from experience. And she founded the lab in order to pay other artists a living wage to create and put their work into the community.

Those who work with SPARK! – established early in 2021 – have been building toward one of its missions of “making high-profile contemporary performance free to the full spectrum of the Oklahoma City community,” which they do through donor support and collaboration with community partners.

“Paying artists is one of the best feelings ever,” Poole said.

The idea of SPARK! first sparked, if you will, during the pandemic. Poole explained that the pandemic eroded the spaces where people were used to connecting. During lockdown, as so many people’s work and creative outlets had come to a halt, she was spending a good deal of time outdoors in Edgemere Park, near her home, and noticed that although she and other patrons were technically in the same place, everyone was disconnected.

“Art helps us process things we don’t have the words for,” said Poole, who was born in Oklahoma City and graduated from OU’s School of Drama but spent much of her adult life working and performing in New York City, Paris, Sweden, Spain, Denmark, Belgium, Italy – and the list goes on – before returning to Oklahoma in 2016.

Poole’s own artform, soundpainting, is at the forefront of the creative lab’s public events so far. Soundpainting, perhaps best understood by experiencing it, is defined in various ways across artistic communities, but conventionally described, it’s a contemporary artform with a focus on aural stimulation.

“It’s a sign language,” Poole explained. “It’s a way of silently communicating with performing and visual artists to create a piece in real time.”

Imagine Poole as a conductor of sorts, at the center of a group of artists of various talents—musicians, singers, dancers, painters, poets. She communicates with them through sign language she has taught them, and though she is guiding them, the improvisation of each artist plays a role as well, as do all the artists’ connections with each other in the moment.

Angel Little, one of the SPARK! artists and self-described “life-giving artsmith,” compared sound painting to a delicious salad with a lot of ingredients that come together to form something savory and special, an array you may not think would work together, but somehow it does.

“One form of art starts to inspire another form,” Little said. “And you feel the love that we have for each other. It’s healing, relaxing, invigorating and engaging.”

SPARK! has more than 100 individual donors, with more than 20% of those being artists them- selves, but Poole said she’s especially grateful to Dick and Glenna Tanenbaum, well-known for their financial support of the arts, as founding sponsors. And while nonprofits need donors to thrive, an artistic organization also needs to consider the diversity of its community and representation, Poole said.

“If you have a problem, you want as many brains and people thinking differently than you on that problem, otherwise your solutions are narrow. The more voices you have around a table, the more variety in those voices, the more vibrant, rich, effective and innovative your solution. Diversity is the essential element for innovation.”

With SPARK! Creative Lab being young, the organization continues to seek new opportunities for collaboration with local businesses. And the 2023 calendar of events, as well as new partnerships, is coming together. Poole explained they are still in a strategic planning phase to refine their values, visions and missions.

But a few things they don’t need to refine: The idea that art is work, that art is invaluable to culture, and that artists deserve a living wage.

“I envision a world where diversity is valued,” she said. “Where artists are valued for what they bring to the public culture. I envision a world where there is kindness, respect and equity. Joy and compassion. And I know we are able to create that, even temporarily, in our events.”

Photo by AJ Kirkpatrick

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