The Real Ways of Art Are Found in Hartford

All Photos by Randy Stern
All Photos by Randy Stern

How do you define art? How do you digest it?

On my travels to Connecticut recently, I was invited to experience a place in Hartford that is interdisciplinary and immersive. This place is an intersection of artists of all genres and disciplines – from music to film to interactive exhibits…

Welcome to Real Art Ways in Hartford.

Real Arts Ways was started in 1975 by a group of artists that, according to Executive Director Will K. Wilkins, wanted to “create a lived workspace.” Today, it stands as an interdisciplinary art center with galleries, a movie theater, and artist studio crafted from a former industrial warehouse site in the Parkville Neighborhood of Hartford.

Wilkins’ imprint on Real Art Ways has been well known throughout the Hartford area and beyond. Mainly because his organization has been ableto open doors to many artists and artforms at this location. That also includes bringing films to a part of Hartford that is underserved by major theatre chains – both mainstream releases and art house cinema.

Will K. Wilkins

The theater opened up in 1996 and, today, it is open seven days a week. Wilkins explains that they even showed the blockbuster film “Barbie” for two weeks at their theater.

However, the core of Real Art Ways comes back to the essence of presenting and cultivating art of all forms. “Having movies that are not always the mainstream movies but are different,” explained Wilkins, “and then having a place for people to see these independent voices, to see the international voices is just an essential part of somebody who loves art, somebody who’s interested in ideas in the world. I think a community needs to have a movie theater and more than one.”

For now, Real Art Ways has only one screen. Wilkins added that Real Art Ways is expanding, “and we’re going to have four screens in hopefully about a year and a half. We’ll have four screens here. So, it’s, I think, an essential part of contemporary culture.”

Of course, art is more than just one medium. The organization’s way to bringing it altogether is better explained by Wilkins: “In terms of visual art, having a place where people can play with new ideas, that’s a really nice thing for a community to have as well. Music, I think you could look at it and say, ‘This is Real Art Ways history. This is what we’ve always done, this is why we’re doing it.’ You could also say, ‘I’m doing a lot of this stuff so that I can keep myself entertained.’ That’s definitely part of this. I trust my own instincts, and if I’m interested in something, I’m like, ‘Hey, let’s bring it!’”

Just like many arts organizations in the past few years worldwide, the COVID-19 Pandemic paused a lot of activity at Real Art Ways. As Wilkins explained, “it’s been a challenging time for smaller arts organizations, but it’s always been a challenging time for smaller arts organizations. We got through COVID. We’re small, we’re light on our feet. We were able to shift and adapt, and we opened as soon as we could. COVID, we closed down in March of 2020. We reopened our gallery spaces in August. We really thought it was important to be open. We started doing outdoor movies, movies with music outdoors, and then we started showing the indoor movies again that fall.”

“We’ve been just gradually going through the different waves of COVID and we want people to know we’re here, we’re survivors just like they are,” Wilkins said. “And people are starting to come back. Over the entire country. The audience for art house cinema tends to skew to the Baby Boomers and Older. That’s true everywhere. And so that’s the audience that’s slower to come back because people are more concerned about their own health. They feel more vulnerable to what’s going on. But they are coming back.”

The programming at Real Art Ways has also returned. On the third Thursday of each month, they host a Creative Cocktail Hour. Wilkins stated that in July, they had a diverse crowd of 350 people. He also made it clear that the organization welcomes the LGBTQ+ community at their space.

The real treasure behind Real Art Ways mission is in the installations they have in the galleries. When I was there, they had a multi-disciplinary visual installation called “Burn The Midnight Oil” by Hartford area artist Ying Ye. Her installation reflects her family’s journey as immigrants towards building their restaurant to serve the people.

From Ying Ye’s exhibitionm “Burning The Midnight Oil”

Wilkins explained that Ying was one of six artists out of 300 “who were chosen to receive solo exhibitions by a jury that we set up.” Wilkins further explained Ying’s exhibition Ying’s artwork incorporates “the work in the restaurant, the material like the dumpling skins and tofu skins that are in the restaurant. She actually, at the opening, prepared food and then served it from a rolling bicycle that she pedaled. And she’s really just calling attention to the labor involved and to the sense of community that she feels. And that ideally, I think any food establishment, it reflects a community that is just so important. It’s one of the threads that holds everything together.”

In another exhibition, local photographer Roni Aviv created a series of images that appear to be dark, but offer a three-dimensional perspective. “It’d be very easy to pass by it and just think, oh, there’s not much going on there,” Wilkins explained. “But then as you look closer, you realize that she’s been able to work with the light and the photographic process to create something that is, even as you’re looking at it, you can’t believe it’s not three dimensional, and yet that’s what it is. So she’s playing with issues of perceptions.”

In all, Wilkins states that Real Art Ways is “interested in artists who are formally inventive and experimental, and also artists who are kind of more content driven in terms of the work that they’re presenting. Some artists are driven by ideas, some are driven by materials. There’s room for all different kinds of art making here at Real Art Ways.

“Because we’re a contemporary art center, most people don’t have much experience with contemporary art,” states Wilkins. “Where they hear about it as a market driven thing, and that’s clearly not what drives us. With us, it’s more about ideas and about a sense of community and connection, human connection. And I think at the same time, people can feel put off by contemporary art. They can feel alienated from it. They can feel like it’s mysterious and that it’s talking down to them, or it’s just for the in crowd. It can make people feel very uncomfortable.”

Wilkins concludes that Real Art Ways to have “an environment…where it’s very welcoming. And when people come in the door, we’re acknowledging them. We’re saying hello. We’re creating an environment where you can just walk through and not feel like you have to have any prior knowledge to enjoy the experience. And we really encourage, we have a bunch of kids who come through here with school groups, especially during the school year. And one of the things we tell the kids about the artwork that they see, we tell them there’s not going to be any tests and that there are no wrong answers. So it’s just like, relax, this is not a school classroom. This is a different kind of experience. Try to just let it come into you.”

Next time you’re in Hartford, find yourself at Real Art Ways for an experience that will provoke thought and your appreciation for all art forms.

Real Art Ways:

5100 Eden Ave, Suite 107 • Edina, MN 55436
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