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Sherri Cornett’s grandmother used to say, “You always give back. No matter how little or much you have, you give back to the world.”

Cornett gives back through her art and exhibits. Her work has been displayed nationally and globally. She is taking her most recent idea, “Flow Interactive Exhibition and Community Project,” to Montana State University Billings. The installation will be displayed from Jan. 28 to March 18 Northcutt Steele Gallery, MSU Billings.

Even at a young age, Cornett followed her grandmother’s mantra. While growing up she spent time in rural communities helping to rebuild houses for locals. The time spent serving community members would also give her a unique perspective on communities that didn’t have the same privileges or lifestyle she had.

“I learned how to work power tools during that time. I learned not to be patronizing towards people who were in need. These people deserved respect. The project was more a hand up than a hand out.”

The acquired skills would come in handy on later sculptures and artwork. Today, Cornett, who has degrees in political science and art, creates installations some have labeled as socially-engaged art.

“Projects that are more focused on those that encourage conversation, dialogue and collaboration, problem solving, generation of further projects to further enhance the conversation around that particular social issue,” she said.

Cornett's art focuses on conversations and community building. The central focus of “Flow” will be the “Voice of the River” Symposium and Community Conversation from 4:30-8:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 25 at Northcutt Steele Gallery, MSU Billings. Community members are welcome and encouraged to participate in the conversation. Cornett has conducted 10 conversations.

“They aren’t necessarily Utopian. It can get messy.”

But she has found success in all the conversations she has lead.

In addition to the community conversation, “Flow” will feature readings and musical improvisation, with students and staff from 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 11 at Northcutt Steele Gallery, MSU Billings. It will also be the backdrop for a film screening and discussion of "Mixing Oil and Water" from 5 to 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 18 at Northcutt Steele Gallery and Library Room 148.

“Flow” will feature various artists, including Cornett’s own work. Her most recent series “Grottoes” combines sculptures and mixed media. The sculptures intertwine weaving and metal work to create grottoes. People have used these cave-like enclosures for centuries for various purposes, including meditation. So it's no surprise that Cornett has found inspiration for the series in the Yellowstone River.

“I was hiking and taking video clips and I’d sit there and take a break and meditate on the water and look at different aspects. How important water is and how privileged we are in Montana to have clean water sources.”

Cornett eventually came upon a research project by faculty and students up at MSUB. The study caught Cornett’s attention for many reason, especially the finding that all the groups using the water source were interested in the health of the Yellowstone.

“’Flow’ is about using common ground and art as a jumping off point for conversation,” she said.

Hopefully the exhibit can inspire the community to generate some ideas on how we can protect the river.

Cornett may not be building houses for rural community members anymore, but she is still laying down foundations.

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