The Community Artist

Using Art for Education

Lee Ann Woolery wants to expand how people see art. As the Community Arts Specialist for Community Development Extension – a new position within CAFNR – she sees creativity and innovation as the very foundation of art. In fact, Woolery has used the arts to teach science, for example, for many years.

“I’ve always been an advocate of teaching science through art,” Woolery said. “Artist and scientist have many skills in common — keen observation, synthesize diverse knowledge, proficient in analysis and evaluation, and creative problem solving. They may travel different paths to get to a similar goal.”

In her new position Woolery will build a pilot program with MU art faculty members and a community, or cluster of communities, within a 60-90 mile radius of Columbia. What form that program takes is like a work of art itself, Woolery said.

“It’s a work in progress,” she said. “It’s organic – the form and shape will be determined by the community.”

Woolery is a native of Columbia — she received her bachelor’s degree in graphic design from Columbia College and directed the MU Student Media Center. She left Columbia two decades ago to pursue a master’s in art therapy at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Since then her work has taken her to many different parts of the country: Woolery has created a mentorship program for youth in the arts in Chicago; was a professor at the University of Washington teaching in a program that integrated art, science and technology; developed curricula for museums such as the Seattle Art Museum; and served as the artist-in-residence for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson. During that time she also received a Ph.D. in environmental studies from Antioch University New England.

She always wanted to work for a university again and although she hadn’t been back to Columbia for years, Woolery said she checked the MU website from time to time for job opportunities. When she saw the Community Arts Specialist position, she knew it would be a great fit.

Woolery’s Palette

The White Dress ProjectThe White Dress Project

Her own artwork includes large-scale acrylics and installations. Most recently Woolery has worked with National Geographic in the Sonoran Desert to map ecological biodiversity. She created a series of drawings, sketching the shadows of different plants at different times throughout the day.

“Surrounded by the drawings or standing amidst the drawings, the idea is that you have a physical sense of the desert, an embodied knowing or a sense of place,” she said. “The installation creates dialogue about what part we play in biodiversity.”

Another project that has integrated her interests in arts and science is The White Dress Project, for which hand-sewn infant-size white dresses are dipped into community water sources and used metaphorically as an indicator of pollution. Woolery has exhibited this project in both Florida and Washington.

An Educational Model for Communities

The Community Arts Specialist position grew out of Extension seeing the opportunity to engage a variety of people across campus with communities. Housing the position within Community Development in the Division of Applied Social Sciences was the right fit. Extension specialists around the area have helped Woolery get in touch with community leaders about the pilot program.

The pilot program will run for three years, and the hope is that it will become sustainable and replicable around the state, Woolery said. Right now she is meeting with community leaders around the area; creativity workshops with those interested communities are in the making. Proposals to become the program’s pilot community are due in July; soon after, Woolery’s advisory committee will determine what communities will be part of the project.

Although the form the project will take will be determined by the community or communities, Woolery envisions a variety of possibilities, including artist-in-residence programs or physical art venues.

“We want to change their perspective and open them to possibilities,” she said, all leading to the goal of showing how art can be a strategy for community development and economic development.

“I want to help folks recognize the potential of the arts — creativity and innovation — as being the very fabric that binds their community,” she said.

Contact Lee Ann Woolery at  A website for her program is coming soon.