Magical Moments: Molly Taylor honored for life of work in the arts

A journey that began with a magical moment on a front porch 40 years ago culminated in another magical moment  recently when Molly Taylor, of Oak Park Heights was honored with a lifetime achievement award recognizing her commitment to promoting the arts in Minnesota. Dec. 5 was declared Molly Taylor Day by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.

Taylor is credited with founding COMPAS (Community Programs in the Arts and Sciences), a group that provides arts education in health care facilities, for seniors and in schools with artist residencies. COMPAS itself provides a variety of education opportunities including everything from spoken word, writing, playwriting, theater music and other kinds of music and painting activities. The organization hosted its inaugural “Molly Taylor Legacy Award” event called “A Masterpiece in the Making Gala.” The “Molly Taylor Legacy Award” will be an annual award presented by COMPAS to honor an organization or individual who has demonstrated a long-term commitment to arts access in Minnesota.

“It hasn’t quite sunk in yet,” Taylor said the morning of Dec. 4. “They are calling it a lifetime achievement award, but it’s funny because I’ve been involved with the arts ever since I was a little girl. It’s a necessity for me. My father was a scientist by day and violinist by night. My mother was a writer, and we’d always be reading and singing. They (the arts) make life enjoyable. It’s a necessary kind of normal that’s so permanent for me.”

Her very passion for the arts is what made Taylor the perfect person to start COMPAS. Taylor worked as a volunteer with the Walker Arts Center when the National Endowment for the Arts was working on creating programs to get more arts in the classroom. Programs were set up on the West Coast, East Coast and in Minneapolis, which Taylor started with a program called Poets in the Schools in 1968. Poets in the Schools was a cutting-edge program that brought teaching artists into schools to teach poetry.

“The NEA had heard that I was a volunteer at the Walker and they asked if I’d like to head up the Minneapolis program, so I somewhat naively agreed,” Taylor said. “Someone told them I was the best, and they gave me $10,000 which I had to match. I’d been looking for a long time, and I was getting nervous. Then almost like magic on Christmas Eve, a courier came to my door with the matching amount that I needed as long as I promised never to tell who gave it to me and to never come back for more. It was a wonderful magical moment.”

Poets in the Schools became COMPAS in 1974 and was spun off from United Arts to become a model for teaching artist residencies nationwide.

Magical moments are something that COMPAS isn’t in short supply of, according to Taylor.

“Magical moments are everywhere in this program,” she said. “The young people that we seem to reach with this program are the ones who feel like they don’t count, and don’t have a voice. Then a poet comes to school and teaches them that it’s okay to have a voice and allows them to express themselves.”

Finding their voice is what Taylor hopes people can take away from their experiences with the resident artists. She relayed several stories about young people who had found their voices and expressed themselves in the most moving ways they could — a young girl in a wheelchair who finally talked from the heart about how her disability had affected her life, a doctor who had a poet in his class in third grade and now teaches his children how to write poetry, and an older gentleman who found purpose in his life again after relaying his life story to one of the artists.

“It’s been 40 years now, and it’s really quite remarkable when you think about the thousands and thousands and thousands of people we’ve brought the arts to,” Taylor said. “We’ve touched the lives of all of these people.”

Today, COMPAS brings professional artists into approximately 100 Minnesota communities to engage people in the arts. COMPAS reaches more than 540,000 people of all ages each year through its varied programs that help with patient recovery in health care facilities, provide community members and school children with quality arts experiences and offer youth meaningful employment through the arts.

“We are so thrilled to be able to honor Molly,” current COMPAS executive director Dawne Brown White said. “She was the very first executive director, and to be able to honor her and call attention to the arts and the community and how important it is to get access to theater and the arts — I’m just so thrilled on both fronts.”

Taylor’s advice for those who want to continue getting the arts into the community is simple: Keep arts in the schools.

“We know the arts are always the first to get cut when there are budget issues,” Taylor said. “And I’d like to put in a plug for Stillwater Public Schools if I could. This school has a system that is very dedicated to the arts, and their devotion to keeping the arts strong and alive is impressive. When it comes to the arts being in the schools, not all students go to schools with the arts. But if we make it a part of their life, it’s necessary to provide that experience in schools because those children will become parents, voters and maybe even school board members, and they’ll know how important the arts are to everyday life, and they’ll strive to keep it going.”