MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Political polarization has helped to inspire an initiative by artists. A prominent group of more than 150 painters, playwrights, musicians and others have launched a project to use art to talk about what it's like to be American.

From member station KCUR in Kansas City, Laura Spencer has the story of America: Now and Here.

LAURA SPENCER: Everyone has an opinion about art: that new public art sculpture downtown or the last movie you saw with a friend. You thought the casting was great. She thought the plot was contrived. What if that discussion turned into one about the American experience?

Program director Dorothy Dunn says that's the point of America: Now and Here.

Ms. DOROTHY DUNN (Director, America: Now and Here): People assume, well, it's just kind of an interesting twist on a traveling art show. Well, it's not. America: Now and Here is a catalytic force for American society, led by and driven by a direct and authentic experience with art that gets us talking to each other and listening to each other.

SPENCER: The project is the brainchild of New York-based painter and sculptor Eric Fischl. Not long after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Fischl says he noticed that no matter what the subject - food, nature, politics - conversations turned unsettled or anxious in a very short period of time.

Mr. ERIC FISCHL (Artist): I just thought we can deal with this. Art is a way of helping us sort of examine our sense of identity through images, through experiences, the shared experience. Art doesn't isolate us. It brings us into a common and shared experience. And so I thought this is what we need now.

SPENCER: So about four years ago, Fischl shouted out to friends and friends of friends to contribute artwork reflecting their thoughts on America. One hundred fifty-eight artists contributed poems, plays, sculptures, songs and films, including Rosanne Cash, Chuck Close, Philip Glass, Robert Pinsky and Lou Reed.

(Soundbite of video, "From the Air")

Ms. LAURIE ANDERSON (Performance Artist): My ideal situation for an experiment like this one...

SPENCER: Performance artist Laurie Anderson's installation called "From the Air" is a faux holograph, a video projected onto tiny, hand-sized clay figures of the artist and her dog seated in white armchairs.

(Soundbite of video, "From the Air")

Ms. ANDERSON: Everything was so beautiful, and we just got up and went out. And it was so dazzling and peaceful, and it's a huge tall sky. And it's very thin, blue air, and hawks circling.

SPENCER: All of the work is loosely organized, curated by the artists. It's the makers of art who are reaching out, says Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and co-curator of theater Marsha Norman.

Ms. MARSHA NORMAN (Playwright): And instantly, I mean, instantly, the idea was in my mind that what we should do would be a series of dialogues meant to be overheard.

SPENCER: Her peers, including Edward Albee and Tina Howe, created new short conversational works.

(Soundbite of a performance, "Public Space")

Unidentified Woman (Actress): (as the docent) Sir.

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) What is it?

Unidentified Woman: (as the docent) Are you all right?

Unidentified Man: (as character) Why...

SPENCER: In "Public Space" by Zayd Dohrn, a man draped in a blanket walks through the gallery and curls up under a painting. He's quickly approached by a docent.

(Soundbite of a performance, "Public Space")

Unidentified Man: (as character) I'm sleeping here.

Unidentified Woman: (as the docent) But you can't.

Unidentified Man: (as character) Why not?

Unidentified Woman: (as the docent) Because I work here, and we can't have people just sleeping in the galleries.

Unidentified Man: (as character) It's a public space.

Unidentified Woman: (as the docent) Yes, but for art. You can't live here.

Ms. NORMAN: Everybody understood that they were kind of doing a verbal sampling of American life, in a sense. It clearly wasn't about them. And it was about kind of taking the temperature of America emotionally in an instant, in the gallery.

SPENCER: At each stop, America: Now and Here will also include works by local artists - 124 in Kansas City.

Painter and performance artist David Ford curated the visual arts here and says, at first, he was hesitant about the project.

Mr. DAVID FORD (Painter and Performance Artist): Yeah, in the mid-coast, instead of the bicoastal areas, we're oftentimes looked as needing to be illuminated. And curators at some of the institutions will often bring in shows in order to, you know, lift up our conversation. Sometimes, that can get a little old.

SPENCER: But Ford says he's been pleasantly surprised to see the regional artists fully integrated with the national in events, workshops and on gallery walls.

Local painter Archie Scott Gobber's text-based work "Never Abandon Hope" hangs next to the Jasper Johns' "Flag on Orange." New work by local playwrights is performed by local actors in the gallery, along with plays by Marsha Norman and Doug Wright. And a collaborative poem, a renga by Kansas City poets, is on a wall adjacent to the National Renga.

Again, Eric Fischl.

Mr. FISCHL: If we can go from place to place and get people to step up to the plate and express themselves about what it's like to be them now, here, what more could you want?

SPENCER: After its three-week stop in Kansas City, America: Now and Here hits the road again to Detroit and then Chicago. Next year, the second part of the project with mobile truck galleries, linked together for exhibition and event space, travels to small towns and military bases.

Fischl says he hopes the trucks will be on the road for 15 to 20 years.

(Soundbite of a performance, "Public Space")

Unidentified Woman: (as the docent) I mean, sleeping here. I mean, is it some kind of statement that you're trying to make about art or poverty in America?

(Soundbite of a belch)

SPENCER: For NPR News, I'm Laura Spencer in Kansas City.

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