By Kathy Chouteau
Like many creative firebrands before him, Ross Holzman found his inspiration in India.
The East Richmond Heights resident, artist and founder/executive director of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Create Peace Project — responsible for peace-inspiring art projects internationally as well as right here in downtown Richmond — moved here five years ago after stints living in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“We wanted to be closer to nature,” said Holzman of his decision to relocate to Richmond, and “having Wildcat Canyon in the backyard is really nice.”
But it was Holzman’s time living in India that proved truly transformative toward his life’s calling. In the early 2000s, he was working in Delhi for a call center consulting firm when the sports enthusiast with no artistic background suddenly found himself drawn to the arts in response to his new surroundings.
“I lived in India for a year…and I came back and I moved to Los Angeles. It was a combination of having seen the extremities of India—and having an introduction to some spirituality and religious practices there—and then moving to LA. I just had a burst in my consciousness and woke up to the plight and to the struggle that this country is dealing with, which is a capitalistic, consumeristic obsession with keeping up with the Joneses, so to speak,” said Holzman.
“In that experience…I was writing a lot, I was making art and I really discovered for myself how the practices of being creative allowed me to learn a lot about who I am and my relationship to the world,” he added. “And so creativity became the catalyst for my practice—the thing that I wanted to do the most and the way that I wanted to be of service in the world.”
In 2008, Holzman realized his professional calling by founding the Create Peace Project.
His impetus for launching the organization was twofold. “The number one thing is that there’s so much violence in the world and so much violence in the street and in our schools,” he said. “The other [reason] is that the arts have been cut and public education is losing arts funding and has been for years. Arts are one of the first things to go. So I had a pretty profound wake-up call in 2001 and started making a lot of art myself, and in my own processes in being creative, realized the transformative power of art. And so I wanted to make that more accessible to others.”
In terms of Create Peace Project’s mission, Holzman said: “Our mission is to raise the voices and share the visions of peace from children around the world using creativity. And so we do that with a multitude of projects and programs; our focus is really on collaboration, spreading positive messages and giving kids a platform to express themselves in a meaningful, positive way.”
One of the organization’s mission-fulfilling initiatives is “The Peace Exchange,” an international exchange of art and written messages of peace between students around the world where the nonprofit gives participants blank postcards to share what peace means to them.
A few years ago Create Peace Project collaborated with Malala Yousafzai’s Malala’s Fund and other entities on a “Peace Exchange” project.
“We partnered with the Malala Fund, Students Stand with Malala, participant media, an organization in Mumbai, India and another in Nairobi, Kenya and we had about 10,000 students creating postcards, making artwork and sharing messages about the importance of girls’ education as a catalyst for creating peace,” said Holzman, who facilitated the international project from his local office.
“It was such an honor to be invited to facilitate this thing and to be connected with her foundation,” said Holzman. “Every student who made a postcard then received one from another child in another part of the world.”
The nonprofit’s other projects include “Banners for Peace,” a multi-week workshop that sees students designing and painting an art banner and accompanying mural with uplifting messages to display at their school; “Community Murals,” a community mural project where a group of people paint or mosaic an inspirational work of art; and “The Singing Tree,” a school-wide, community-building arts project that brings a large group of people together to create a massive mural surrounding the theme of a tree on the Earth in space.
Another of the nonprofit’s particularly meaningful projects just wrapped up in San Francisco’s Crocker Amazon neighborhood.
“One of the most meaningful, and the largest in my career, I just completed in February,” said Holzman of the recent project. “It was a 14 month long initiative that culminated with Create Peace Project spending three months at Longfellow Elementary in San Francisco and we created a 2,500 square foot mosaic mural with the population of 550 students and bunch of families, local community members and we created a massive thing that turned out beautifully. It was an amazing amount of work but the result was spectacular.”
Richmond residents may recall Create Peace Project having organized projects in our community as well. In recent years, the organization was awarded grants from the Richmond Arts and Culture Commission.
In 2016, Create Peace Project brought 250 Richmond residents together to paint a massive mural that now hangs on the side of a Kaiser building overlooking the Community Green Space on the corner of Harbour Way and Macdonald Ave.
Last summer, the organization also worked with 120 sixth grade students from Lovonya Dejean Middle School, 30 girls from Girls, Inc. and a group of seniors to create a large mosaic mural that was installed on the exterior of the Richmond Senior Center.
“I would like to do more work in Richmond and in Richmond schools because there’s a lot of need,” said Holzman.
So what does this local peacemaker love about living in Richmond? “Richmond is real. Richmond has a very authentic feeling and it has a very strong sense of community. Even in our neighborhood here, I know a lot of people and people feel friendly, open and warm and my sense is that…Richmond offers that and Richmond gives people a sense of a valued community,” said Holzman.
Want to learn more about Richmond resident Ross Holzman and the Create Peace Project? Click here. To check out KCRT video coverage of the Create Peace Project’s mural project at the Richmond Senior Center, click here.