Creative Peacebuilders, Nonviolence, Reflections
“Creative peacebuilders” sometimes sounds like a contradiction. If we imagine peacebuilders doing dangerous and grueling work, we imagine artists differently: a painter, safe in a studio, studying a canvas and waiting for inspiration. “We get what artists do, to a certain extent,” says Billy Price, unRival’s Chief Creative Officer. “We think of them as visionary, mission-driven, and creative.” John Paul Lederach, one of the leading voices in peace studies, urges practitioners to rediscover the serendipity, spontaneity, and openness to unconventional solutions we associate with artistic practice.
Billy leans into these expectations in his film, Artisans of Peace. In the first minutes, we meet a painter working in her studio. On the street below, her community is in disarray. For a moment, we wonder if her creativity disconnects her from the outside world. She fits our preconceptions of what it means to be an artist.
But this artist is not ignorant of conflict. She has embedded herself amongst others in a tragedy. Even when alone, she works feverishly to bring meaning to a terrible situation, with the tools available to her. We see her try, fail, and ultimately find inspiration in the struggle to give back to her community.
“She doesn’t lean out of her own skill set,” Billy says. “She leans into it and offers it. Being an artisan means engaging your community artistically and creatively through your techniques and your mediums and your practice. It takes more than a mural to heal the wounds of conflict, but there’s a lot to be said for people who make those gestures to cover up hate, or to render loving kindness in a more permanent way. To not allow those who are suffering to be erased.”
In his film, Billy challenges our expectations of artists by presenting us with an artisan. This painter hasn’t closed herself into her studio; she’s made a habit of connecting her skills to her neighbors and their realities. “Habit [sustains] you whether you’re inspired or not,” writes author Octavia Butler. “Habit is persistence in practice.” This is how artisans of peace treat conflict transformation. Their habits of showing up and paying attention to their communities generate the flashes of inspiration we call “creative peacebuilding.”
The term Artisans of Peace comes from a book of the same name. The authors find the phrase in the Catholic church’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:
Moving gradually together and everywhere more conscious already of its unity, [humanity] cannot accomplish its task of constructing for all men everywhere a world more genuinely human unless each person devotes himself to the cause of peace with renewed vigor. Thus… the Gospel message… declares that the artisans of peace are blessed… securing among themselves a peace based on justice and love and in setting up the instruments of peace.”
One need not be religious to find inspiration in these words. They frame peace as “construction”, and human beings as “instruments.” They evoke images of carpenters, potters, blacksmiths, or other craftspeople, making things that are both beautiful and useful. The quality of their work comes from the habit of their efforts.
Yet painters, poets, novelists and musicians are more like this than we think. They practice their arts so they can seize on feelings, melodies, and images that touch hearts guarded by pain, suspicion, and weariness. Grassroots artists, like the painter Billy depicts, prepare themselves for opportunities to meet people where they are, helping them heal and change for the better. They are intuitive readers of their times and places. They recognize opportunities for using rare skills and unconventional wisdom.
These habits rarely attract institutional privilege or media limelight. The most visible peacemaking often focuses on descriptions and numbers, procedures and policies, and on getting the “right answers” through expensive frameworks. Artisans of peace are invisible by comparison. Rather than making policies for people to follow, they tell stories and create dialogues where people can find themselves anew. They don’t strive to get the peace process “right”, knowing perfection is impossible—and inhuman. Their goal is to spread life: real, messy, and joyful.
Artisans of peace exhibit consistent values in their lives and work—values we endeavor to share at unRival:
Artisans of peace are often invisible to the wider world. While they seek support, they don’t seek notoriety for their expertise. They use their skills to put the focus on people and on justice.
Creativity and Beauty
Artisans of peace use the arts to transform people in ways that policy cannot. They create tangible experiences in their communities, drawing on their skills and those of their neighbors to renew meaning and hope.
Artisans trust the creative process. “There are parts in the process that expose us to pain, self-doubt, self-hatred, and anger,” Billy says. “But there’s something about getting deep into the struggle that makes breakthroughs possible. One definition of creativity and artistry is releasing possibilities that were previously locked up.”
We may stereotypically see artists as solitary and competitive, but artisans of peace need communities. They know their contributions are unique, but small, and they rely on the gifts of others.
This non-rivalrous spirit forms a foundation for nonviolent action, because every loss to a community is the loss of a unique gift. Because of these commitments, these artisans have much to teach us about truly durable and creative peacebuilding.
The “health of a community” is hard to measure. Artisans of peace approach this vagueness with an artistic willingness to confront ambiguity. They treat people as people, inviting them into the complexity where true thriving begins.
If you resonate with these values, or if they remind you of someone you know, we hope you’ll reach out with your stories. The world needs models of these artisans, and their habits of creative peacebuilding.