Sunday, December 25, 2005

A Grief Across Time: Cindy Sheehan and the Art of Kathe Kollwitz

On a blue-black evening in August 2005 I attended a candlelight vigil in support of Cindy Sheehan, the mother whose son’s death in Iraq spurred her to leave her home in Vacaville, California and set up her lawn chair in the punishing heat alongside the road leading to George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.

As I stood in a circle of strangers in the middle of Spreckles Park, my candle struggling against the cool night breeze of this California coastal community, I thought of the searing heat of Texas in summer, and the all consuming heat of Bagdhad. A week before I had spoken long distance with my surrogate son, now serving in Iraq with the US Army. He said the heat continued to bear down on them without relief; you could not get used to it, you could not escape it.

It seems incomprehensible to talk to him on the telephone as if he were just down the road in his apartment, checking in with me on a Sunday afternoon. When he calls I talk about working in the yard, going to the ball game, planning his brother’s wedding, taking a drive in the car. We never speak about the war or what his days are like. The conversations about the simple routine of home are part of the unspoken bargain we’ve struck that holds the stalking presence of death at bay.

In the summer of 2005 I, like every other media drenched American, had come to know the compelling image of Cindy Sheehan in her grief-fueled activism. She was the reason why I was signing petitions and attending vigils. Hers was the simplest of gestures; to sit patiently to wait for a president to answer questions about a war that millions of Americans did not understand or support. It struck the imagination of Americans like a hammer, and prodded complacent people to action. And in the lagging days of summer it was a great story for the media; something to keep that frighteningly voracious machine fed. To be sure, the same media that adored her image would also crank the machine into overdrive to tear her image apart, and ultimately (predictably) she would fall off the radar screen. But that would come later. For the moment, I was seeing her everywhere.

A few days after the vigil, I unwrapped the Kollwitz self-portrait that now graces my living room wall. It is a grieving profile done in 1927, five years before the Nazis would strip her of her position as professor of art at the Prussian Academy, and four years before she would complete her 17 year project, “The Parents / Die Eltern,” a monument to her youngest son Peter who died in the first week of World War I. And in the most tragic of bookends, in 13 years she would lose her grandson, also named Peter, in the Second World War.

1927 was then, in retrospect, an interim year; a year in which the accumulating weight of loss might have shifted slightly, giving the false sense of relief of a wound finally healing. The portrait is sculptural, as if the carving of her monumental figures, “Die Eltern,” had impressed itself in the tissue and muscle of her hands, transforming the drawing of her own face into the same exercise of carving, this time with the litho crayon. The artist presents herself in profile with a minimum of strokes of the crayon and the portrait is unfinished in everything except the eyes and mouth, which manage to carry a complexity of spirit and emotion.

Unlike Kathe Kollewitz, in that summer of 2005 Cindy Sheehan did not control the making or reproduction of her physical image. She was, instead, the object to which photographers flocked, filtering their own aesthetic, political, or news vision through her reflection in the lenses of their cameras. And while it can be argued that in a media loaded culture we, as media savvy consumers, are all consciously shaping and reshaping our image, there are moments in which the authentic self breaks through the media lens; moments in which there is no playing to the camera.

I found one such image on the internet, a simple full face head shot of Cindy Sheehan against a backdrop sky. Only a small piece of a structure (a shed? a barn?) is visible in the right hand corner. I was struck by its raw simplicity, the lack of the usual journalistic artifice, and its connection to the portrait in my living room.

I am looking at them both as I write this, and what strikes me most is the description of pain in the faces of these mothers separated by time, history, and culture. A mother reflecting on the possible death of a child (and quick, erase the thought so as not to bring about the unthinkable!) might imagine herself consumed by a kind of careening, flailing, spinning grief, interrupted by too-short periods of unconsciousness. So it is deeply dread-full to view these portraits with their unscreamed screaming, and to feel the weight, the fatigue, of pain that cuts off breathing but won’t allow death.

With Sheehan, as with Kollwitz, it is the eyes and mouth that convey the enormity of suffering. There is a dimension to the Sheehan expression of pain—the eyes squinting as if in a too bright sunshine—that gives away the effort of managing an unremitting physical trauma. The mouth is slightly open like the tiny tear that leaks an almost imperceptible stream of grief. The gaze is direct and completely without the polite conventions that we use in public to shield us from having to care about one another. It is a hard image to look at without turning away in embarrassment; we are seeing too much.

In Kollwitz’ self-portrait in profile, the mouth is closed, and suggests the great weight carried within. She seems carved in stone, but with suggestions of great humanity in the lines drawn around the mouth and the eyes. The tragedies of her losses are evident in her carved countenance, but her human qualities are given away in the lightness and even tenderness of a few strokes of her crayon. What puzzles me most is the direction of her gaze. At times she seems straightforward in looking ahead, at others I think I see her casting a momentary glance to her right, as if her attention had been momentarily captured by something or someone passing by the window. I wonder what might have diverted her from her unceasing sadness.

All grief is cold, and I am reminded of this in the two portraits. Perhaps it is the frozen quality that life takes on when human grief takes hold. One lives in an airless bubble where life moves past and around like a stone in a river.

With the war in Iraq now a permanent part of our present and future, these portraits help me break through the inundation of talk and images that makes even the most tragic and destructive events seem banal.

Monday, August 01, 2005

From Artlike Art to Lifelike Art: The Extraordinary "Happening" of Gavin Newsom and Mabel Teng

Image by

I work in the public sphere—creating public art, advocating for the arts with my colleagues at Public Address, helping to create city policy as a city arts commissioner, and generally talking the arts up everywhere. I'm also a Latina lesbian who's been part of the discussion of gay rights in San Diego. Right now the issue of gay marriage is the hot button that's making both the Left and Right squirm.

The popularity of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "Will and Grace" notwithstanding, the path in this country for advocates of equal rights for the Lesbian/Gay/Bi/Transgender community is uphill and subject to ongoing and random rockslides. When the LGBT community steps outside its current acceptable role—to be the court jesters or style mavens to Middle America—it runs into the reality of its continuing marginalized status. Even the legislative good guys tell you, "Hey, slow down, too much, too fast." It's hard to hear from your friends that you're the reason that the Republicans are in the White House, even if that's the sad rationale for losing an election Democrats would have won had had they bothered to actually run a campaign. The Democrats feel like they're losing altitude in one, long nosedive. They're getting ready to toss out the heavy baggage in the next election cycle, which is what gay rights, especially marriage equality, is to many of them.

So when a straight, white man with matinee looks and a brilliant political future ahead of him, and a stylish Chinese-American woman who looks like a Vogue editor, risk it all to make a statement of conscience, those two officials become more than political figures; they become the performance artists of the new millennium against which all others shall be judged.

I was married in the Valentine Weekend Revolution in San Francisco, when Mayor Gavin Newsom and County Recorder Mabel Teng blew open the doors of city hall and said to gay and lesbian couples, "All are welcome to wed and be legally recognized as a family." And come they did, by the thousands, with their families, their children, their friends; dressed in everything from blue jeans to Armani, arriving in taxis from the airport, hiking in on the BART, huddled under umbrellas in the rain, their arms filled with flowers or holding on to balloons, sitting outside city hall in their backyard folding chairs, accepting coffee and pizza from well-wishers. Once inside the rotunda, the brides and grooms looked around the gilded hall with the kind of disbelief and cautious optimism reserved for immigrants coming ashore after a long and arduous sea voyage. The pure exuberant joy of that time was something I will remember the rest of my life, not just my own, but that of the thousands of other couples, their families, friends and even strangers.

The authenticity of that moment exists, and will continue to exist, like the ground itself. It is why millions of Americans sat glued to their television sets, swept up in the moment, knowing they were seeing something that they had not seen in long memory: a Happening.

In the 1950s a number of pioneer artists were reimagining and reconfiguring the art world. One of the foremost figures in those days was Alan Kaprow, father of the Happening and precursor to Performance Art, who left New York in the 1970s to become one of the founding faculty members of UC San Diego’s art department. I met Kaprow as a graduate student, working as one of his teaching assistants, and was introduced to what, for me, was a seminal work, an article he had written for Art in America in 1983. Entitled “The Real Experiment,” it mapped out a philosophical position for art making that has been part of my intellectual toolkit for almost twenty years. It chronicled his move away from the museum, studio, gallery confines and moved art into the sphere of real life. Everything could and would become art, with a kind of deep intentionality and attention that became part spiritual practice, part democratic exercise. Sweeping the floor became art, catching sunlight in a paper bag became art, running for office in a small town became art, moving furniture became art.

Kaprow has always been interested in everyday life and what he calls “lifeworks.” His biographer, Jeff Kelley, writes, “For him the modernist practice of art is more than the production of artworks; it also involves the artist’s disciplined effort to observe, engage, and interpret the processes of living, which are themselves as meaningful as most art, and certainly more grounded in common experience…Because Kaprow sees most art as a convention—or a set of conventions—by which the meanings of experience are framed, intensified, and interpreted, he attends as an artist to the meanings of experience instead of the meanings of art (or ‘art experience.’)”

Gavin Newsom and Mabel Teng strike me as Kaprow’s direct heirs. Moved by his outrage over the President’s State of the Union Address in which George Bush called for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, Newsom met with his advisors to put together the social and political structure that would frame the next few weeks. The meaning that arose from that structure was not about the structure itself so much as it was about those who participated in it. It was the thousands of couples, their friends, their families, and fellow citizens that gave it, the artwork if you will, its meaning.

Mabel Teng was instrumental in mobilizing her office, the County Recorder and Assessor, into a one-stop wedding chapel, with hundreds of volunteers who performed heroically for four days, answering questions, helping to fill out forms, officiating over the ceremonies, acting as witnesses, processing the paperwork, and taking pictures when called upon. If Newsom created the vehicle for change, Teng made sure it had gas, air in the tires, and all the lights in working order.

The country and the world were riveted by the sheer bigness of it, the spectacle, the unscripted realness. In lives filled with mass produced everything, where the co-option machine works overtime to grind the life out of our most human and humane moments, the San Francisco marriages were a cleansing wind. The process of living, of revealing the processes of our daily lives, became something extraordinary. Mayor Newsom and County Recorder Teng dared to take the sheer ordinariness of marriage and frame it in such a way that it intensified our sense of its sacred nature, so much so that millions of Americans, of every political hue, were asking themselves what it all meant, and by extension, what their own marriages meant.

In true Happening style, the gay weddings made everyday life into art; or as Kaprow would say, it moved our thinking away from artlike art (museum, gallery, studio, and all the commodification that goes with it) to lifelike art. Thousands of people wanted to participate, not just as brides and grooms, but as volunteers and witnesses. You wanted to BE there, to escape the sense of NOT BEING anywhere in particular. People wanted to put their face, their mark, their humanity into the mix; they wanted to be transformed. They were.

A definition of Performance Art on the web talks about its participants (the people that come to the performance and become a part of it):

“Performers are encouraged to capitalize upon unplanned occurrences while acting out fantasies based on real life within a certain roughly pre-ordained structure that suggests symbolic and universally basic themes and meanings. A field of aesthetic operation is thus created in relation to life, combining artfully determined materials with strong associational properties, and dimensions with events and things from the sphere "outside" of customary definitions for art.”

People participated in taking the “unplanned occurrences” and ran with them.

At the end of the fourth day, when the officials in city hall were pleading with people to go home, they couldn’t marry anymore couples, we thought we’d stick around because there was the feeling that anything could happen. Everything was in flux and people were making it up, so to speak, on the fly. Any one individual could make something happen, could alter the outcome.

A young man came out of the building and surveyed the scene. Most of the couples who had been waiting with us had gone home. I don’t know why I saw him distinct from all the others, but something in him was sizing the scene up. I was on the stairs when he asked in a soft voice, “Is there anyone here who still wants to get married? We can take you.” A couple of us heard and grabbed everyone around us who had been waiting and pushed our way forward. We were escorted inside by this bespeckled youngster in a striped t-shirt and khaki pants. As he passed us through the doors of city hall another woman, a temporary supervisor, said, “What are you doing? We can’t take any more people!” The young man, with calculated nonchalance said, “Oh, there’s just a few of them. We can take them.” And with that, a dozen couples became part of the artwork and part of history written from the ground up. Where that young man is I’ll never know. He passed through our lives and altered them forever.

Some images of that weekend remain vivid: the drive to San Francisco from the bird watching marshes north of Sacramento; the ride in the green van with pink flamingo hood ornaments; the line of couples which stretched around the block; the strangers passing out food, coffee, and roses; the cops and officials saying, "Please go home folks, we can't marry anyone else today;" the young man who came out to survey the scene and then, unexpectedly, waved a few of us inside; the volunteers, dead tired, guiding us lovingly through the process; the anxiety about doing the paperwork absolutely right so that it wouldn't be tossed out on a technicality; the transportation official who was deputized to marry us; the vows scribbled on bits of paper; the lines to get the official documents; the cheering crowds as we emerged from city hall; the standing in the pouring rain to cheer those who followed us; a final photo with Mark Leno, soaked to the skin. These memories will stay with me my entire life.

My partner and I, and thousands more like us, got the chance of a lifetime: to make out of our life an artwork that extends itself outside the limitations of the time in which it took place. It, the artwork, keeps extending itself outward in pond circles as the struggle for marriage equality, for substantive representation in civic society, continues into this next electoral year. That forthcoming election, with its measure to strip gay couples of domestic partnership rights, and with the backdrop of Assembly bill 849 (the bill that would create gay marriage in California); that election will be forever in relationship to an artwork that hangs, not in a museum, but in the hearts and minds of people everywhere.

For that we have Happening masters Gavin Newsom and Mabel Teng, and one anonymous young man, to thank.

The essays of Alan Kaprow can be found in The Blurring of Art and Life edited by Jeff Kelley, University of California Press, 1993.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Hand Work: On Deeply Knowing

“June Gloom,” coastal California’s early, grey, summer weather, pulls us San Diegans back into a false winter, to the quiet, hunkering down that we thought was well past. Embarrassed for our city, we pity the poor tourist who has escaped her city’s icy or sweltering extremes to find herself here, cheated by the absence of the sunny and balmy days promised by our vacation brochures.

Winter patterns remerge. There is a strange, disorienting silence that hangs over the house and throughout the neighborhood. Body and mind are ready for summer, but the cues are all wrong. It’s the undifferentiated time—the time without shape or purpose—that makes me feel like small mammals are running around inside my skin. It is during false winter that I prescribe for myself the medicine of writing by hand.

My antidote to this restlessness is a two-part concoction. First I read so that I can be drawn into the voice and thoughts of someone other than my own. For me, reading is a morning activity—a way to gently enter the new day. On reading mornings I forego the newspaper so as not to clutter my head with more of the information “white noise” that permeates our culture. I declare a news moratorium day.

Secondly, as I read I keep a small journal next to me in which I write the date, the name and author of the book, unknown words and their definitions, entire passages from the text, my thoughts about certain passages, and links to new ideas generated by the reading. Often the author’s ideas lead me to forgotten or waylaid events or activities of both my past and present.

This small act is an exercise in and of patience and focus. I do this activity by hand, with a favorite mechanical pencil bought in my intimately stocked, neighborhood stationary store. If I succumb to the speedier computer as my collaborative interface I would not be able to slow down sufficiently to reflect deeply on the task in front of me. Instead, I would rifle through the Internet, my hard drive, and various other pieces of digital and analog information grabbing whatever seemed relevant; writing and erasing, cutting and pasting my way to a re-mix text.

Serendipitously, I’ve been reading the new book by Gary Paul Nabhan, the gifted writer and ethnobotanist. Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods “tells of his year-long mission to eat only foods grown, fished or gathered within two hundred miles of his home.”

Falling into his books is like catching up with an old friend. I know his voice; have heard it across the Sonoran desert as he visits his Tohono O’odham friends, along the pilgrims path to the home of St. Francis of Assisi in Umbria, and in the midst of his rediscovered family in the Bek√°a Valley of Lebanon. He has spent his life studying the plants that have nurtured the indigenous people of the Southwest, collecting seeds and stories along the way. Reading this new book I think, “Old friend, you have set yourself an interesting task. Where do you think it will lead you? What do you hope to discover along the way?”

Nabhan’s work reintroduces a yearning that has been waiting off to the side of consciousness: my desire to know something deeply and all the way through. The author has placed himself in a high state of awareness of an entire network of knowledge. He has done so by slowing down sufficiently to examine all sides of one particular question: how do the food gathering, preparation and distribution systems that underlie our lives affect us physically, politically, socially and spiritually? In this year plus experiment he will make that awareness an inextricable part of his life patterns, and it will lead him to knowing the very DNA of the questions he has posited.

How do I slow myself down in the same way? These days I cannot escape the feeling that I am a fiber optic cable network with millions of information bytes rushing past and through me. I am a conduit. I discover, think about, and share information. When I slow down to write, as I am doing now, I feel barely in control of the wild horses under my hands. In what the poet Diane Gage describes to me as “the squirrel mind” I have already created the ideas and their conclusions; it is just the words that are holding up the finished product!

What I know I fear I know only on the surface. I know that there are a myriad of unexplored, complex and perhaps groundbreaking relationships between objects, people or processes. I might even begin to think about what those relationships look like, and what they might mean. But beyond that, the deep ocean of knowing lies tantalizing beyond the horizon. The information age promised just that—information. What we have, in reality, are the edges of facts, and factoids at that.

I am trying to move away from what I call “the administrative life” so that I can fully embrace, without guilt, “the purposeful life.” Good Calvinist guilt keeps me worried about Getting Organized, that never-ending process of sorting, culling, and restacking. I’ve hired an assistant to help me get my studio and office (finally) under control—an activity familiar, I’ve no doubt, in purgatory, with the same unfathomable version of heaven promised at the end.

This morning, before beginning today’s frantic Organizing Before the Assistant Gets Here, I sat out on my backyard desk eating my breakfast (two fried eggs) and reading another chapter in Nabhan’s work. I was interrupted in his account of traveling to the headwaters of the Colorado River by the sound of scratching above me in the rain gutters. Looking up I met the gaze of a scrub jay that seems to know me, or at least the sunflower seeds and peanuts I bring to the feeders along the edge of our canyon. He has become bolder as the weeks and months have passed, coming ever closer to wherever I am in the yard. A crew of mourning doves, finches, and jays regularly collects on the power lines as soon as I emerge from the house, but it is this scruffy fellow who dares to approach me as a sentient being reminding me of my responsibilities to the canyon community of which I am but a small part. He perches above, then swoops past me to the fence post next to where I’m eating. “Hurry up, I’m hungry,” he seems to say.

That’s when it comes to me, after all the reading (including Sara B. Stein’s inspiring book, Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of our own Backyards) it is the jay that gives me a clue. “Stay here in this urban canyon and deeply notice us. Build a relationship with us—the stay-at-home and migrating birds, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, possums, mice, squirrels and foxes. Let us help you reach that quiet spot inside yourself that allows you to touch your writing and painting; to slow your brain so your hands can do their work. Know us completely and ultimately know yourself.”

So I have begun to focus on this tiny pocket canyon, like Nabhan has done for his ecological “range” of foods, animals and people. I live in the seventh largest city in the United States, and have no illusions that this is “country.” But San Diego is blessed with a network of canyons that separate the mesas on which our urban fabric rests. I know what lies along her busy streets. My path of discovery is located through what lies between.

More on Gary Paul Nabhan:

Gary Nabhan is the director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University. Among his many accomplishments during his years of studying and living in the Southwest, Nabhan co-founded the non-profit conservation group Native Seeds/SEARCH, spearheaded the Ironwood Alliance (responsible for research and public support that led to a 120,000 acre Ironwoods Forest National Monument), and initiated the Traditional Native American Farmers' Association. For such cross-cultural collaborations, he has been awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Conservation Biology. Nabhan crosses disciplinary, linguistic and ethnic boundaries with apparent ease, an essential skill for someone who lives and works among many different communities in the Southwest.

In his position as the first Director of CSE, Nabhan is responsible for coordinating an expanding array of environmentally oriented programs and initiatives which bridge the NAU campus with the surrounding region. He is also a tenured professor in Applied Indigenous Studies and the Center for Environmental Sciences and Education, and helps to oversee the Graduate Certificate program in Conservation Ecology. Nabhan's writing is widely anthologized and translated, and has won the John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing, a Western States Book Award, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Seeing the Forest AND the Trees

"Let me tell you my story," by Terri Hughes-Oelrich and Anna Stump
Urban Trees2, the Port of San Diego's newest public art installation, opened on March 13 along the city's waterfront. This year 30 artists were commissioned to design, fabricate and install unique "tree" sculptures that would line the Embarcadero, the city's historic harbor district. In many ways this project demonstrates the city's struggle with public art—on the one hand making it possible for public art to be installed throughout the city and tideland areas, and on the other rejecting art's core values that would make a rich artistic heritage possible.


The Port did several things right with its Urban Trees project. First—it recognized how San Diegans and tourists use this city and used this information to create a project that would achieve maximum exposure for the new art works. San Diegans enjoy being out of doors in what is one of the world’s most benign climates; strolling, exercising, shopping and, with today’s technology, even working. At the opening of the project, hundreds of residents and visitors walked the length of the Embarcadero viewing the public art pieces along the way, photographing themselves next to their favorites, and sharing their likes and dislikes with other viewers.

Second—the Port created a bridge between artist and viewer. At the opening of the "exhibition" the artists were set up in front of their pieces where they were able to talk to viewers about the work. In an era in which artists are viewed collectively with suspicion, if not outright hostility, the opportunity to break through stereotypes was a significant strategic move. Viewers and artists engaged in dialogue about the work; and individuals and families were heard continuing that discussion on their own.
"Treeway," by James A. Christiansen
Third—there were enough works commissioned to create a significant visual intervention along the waterfront. With thirty works on view it was a de facto open-air museum. Since the works were sited in a familiar outdoor space there was no implication that the viewer was in a sacred space where only the secret society members understood what was going on. Instead, the waterfront was enlivened and re-imagined with the significant addition and placement of new monuments among familiar landmarks.

Fourth—the Port put together a catalog and map of the works, and actively distributed it to the public in two locations. With this tool the public got both a macro and micro sense of the project, and was supported with information on the art works that helped them understand the work and the intent of the artist. The Port also created a "treasure hunt" style game to encourage people to view the entire collection.

Finally, the Port added additional informational and commercial booths that lent the feeling of a street fair, again adopting the frame of the recreational activities that engage San Diegans.


With all that is right with Urban Trees2, this viewer left wishing it was more—more about taking chances with the ideas; more about using the sites more evocatively; more about "the ground of experience;" more about challenging the viewer instead of lulling her or him with something merely "pretty;" more about the San Diego that lies above, on and below the surface.

The brilliant psychoanalyst and artist, Rollo May, has written, "(Modern art) has little or nothing to do with prettiness or niceness or sweetness. In its beauty there is the terror of the ground forms, and the contemporary artists are our 'distant early warning mechanism.' They tell us of the fundamentals of love and the terror of life and death." In its Urban Trees program the Port confuses beauty—the core of art— with what is merely pretty.

Good curatorship would have gone far to include works that captured that sense of beauty that Friedrich von Schiller refers to as "the sphere of unfettered contemplation and reflection. Beauty conducts us into the world of ideas, without however taking us from the world of sense." Few of the works in the project rise to that level, even though all are technically sound and well crafted.

I have singled out Let me tell you my story by Terri Hughes-Oelrigh and Anna Stump, and Treeway by James Christiansen (both shown above) as works that DO, in fact, allow the viewer to enter into a realm of ideas that operate on more than one level. They are evocative, surprising, and penetrate our subconscious, allowing us to touch that real experience of knowledge that exists apart from words. We access that non-verbal experience through the arts and through nature, and it is essential to our well-being as individuals and as a society.

Let me tell you my story is composed of sections of once-living trees stacked one atop another like a stack of coins or blocks. It is strongly suggestive of indigenous totem poles. Here the discreet sections, or slices, function like story blocks. There is text scratched into each one and the narrative voice is that of the tree itself. Each one tells of its life and death and the great Cedar fire that destroyed so much of the native (and non-native) trees of San Diego County in 2003. This tree is constructed of many trees damaged by that fire, and the cumulative effect is an echo of voices straining to reach us from across a vanished, and vanishing, landscape. The work is an elegy—both beautiful and deeply sad.

Treeway, on the other hand, delightfully plugs into contemporary experiences of congested urban freeways. Wonderfully crafted, toylike cars and trucks careen down spiraling freeway "branches." They appear to be going down the drain in a whirlpool motion. San Diegans spend so much time in their cars, stuck in traffic and going nowhere, that the identification is immediate. We recognize our absurd situation (the "aha!" moment) in coming upon this work and we laugh—both out of delight and deep recognition of the stress and frustration of our daily, smog-choking, and seemingly unreversible ritual. And as our natural environment—our chapparal, riparian forests and desert—disappears under the asphalt and our cars, it is bitingly ironic that this "tree" comes to grow in a new kind of landscape.

Strong as both pieces are, they would resonate more deeply in a setting that acted in concert with them, extending their meaning even further.

Today good curatorship is at odds with political anxieties about "creating controversy" in civic society. Again, Rollo May writes, "The artist's job is not to comfort, nor even to inform and instruct. The artist's purpose is to liberate, to cleanse the creative process of those rationalized accretions which we invent in order to shield ourselves from the powerful truth of authentic symbols." And yet, the arts agency's directive to produce work that comforts or educates is the roadblock to a great art program. It demands acquiesence from the artist instead of truth. The result of this kind of policy may be more "objects" dotting the landscape, but very little in the way of art.

The Port would be better served if it rethinks how future works should be sited. The best public art takes into account its site and its surroundings. It allows the site to play a role in the meaning of the world. The unrelenting linear nature of the placement of the works sabotages the ability of the artist to use the waterfront as a collaborating element. What if some of the works were on the old pylons, on boats that came and went, on the historic ships that lay at anchor, on top of buildings, below a pier? Might that not open up possibilities to create richer, more fundamental works, and to reframe the existing monuments in such a way that they, too, become more evocative. What we need is a liberation from the visual clutter that dominates our lives.

We need to move from what is pretty and passive, to what is beautiful and awakening.

In moving toward a widespread policy of art in public places we must not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Quotes attributed to Rollo May come from his seminal book, My Quest for Beauty.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Rethinking Art and Decoration

I have been rethinking the notion of decoration and how it relates to public art. Last week I served on a panel held in conjunction with the exhibition, "Artists and Architects, Modeling Our World," in which we spoke about how the two disciplines are redefining the creation of public space. As it always does, the question "What is public art?" came up. One of the panelists began by saying what it is not—it is NOT decoration. But audience member Mary Lynn Dominguez, an artist known for her elaborately decorative work, challenged that notion. She argued that it is the paucity of decoration—the fact that there isn't much of it to begin with and that what exists is so watered down as to be peripheral or an afterthought—that is problematic. The decorative in art has a long and important history in culture. We tend to use the term in a pejorative sense when we speak of contemporary art, as if being beautifully crusted and skillfully worked was something to avoid.

I admit to being one of those who have used the term decorative in talking about my frustration at public art works which are either so underfunded, or so value-engineered, or so constrained by a political or community process, that the spirit and vision of the artist has been eroded. What's left of these grand ideas?—just a little decoration of urban space, just a little more visual noise in an already cacaphonous environment. But Mary Lynn managed to push through the little mantra I had grown comfortable with, and pointed me in another direction.

I was also, unbeknownst to me, being prepared to shift thinking after seeing an exhibition curated by friends and artists Debby and Larry Kline. The re-examination of Jewish feminist artists at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center featured the work of early feminist artist Miriam Shapiro, a name I remember from my undergraduate art history classes. I hadn't seen this work in thirty years, but it struck a chord with me that prepared me for the challenge to the panelists a week later. Shapiro was much criticized for her working with "women's themes" (read, decorative). On display were works that showed beautifully crafted paper and feather art. They seemed extremely fresh in their revelation of feminist issues, women's work, our ideas of beauty, and the notion of romance. They were unabashedly decorative and skillfully crafted, and their core went beyond, deeply so, the superficial. For more on Miriam Shapiro, click here.

I'm grateful for the challenge of the artist, Mary Lynn Dominguez, and the curatorial skill of Debby and Larry Kline. They have started me down the path of rethinking what we mean when we say "public art." Rather than determining in advance what art isn't, why not allow all forms to exist and see what the contemporary artist can do with them.

Human beings respond to that which is beautiful and well done, not just in the arts but in all that humans touch with their hands, heart and intellect. I think that's why there is a fascination with Martha Stewart and the raging Teutels of "American Chopper." Being an unabashed TV addict I freely admit to spending time watching Martha make an omlette with a great French chef, or Paul and Paulie creating the ultimate theme-machine chopper. You might say that neither is more than its very mundane ingredients—just a few eggs or some bent metal on two tires. But oh the results! Say what you will about the personalities; the great attention to detail, beauty, craft, linked to Ritual / Meaning / Metaphor (the hallmark of good art) keep me watching in admiration.

Maybe it's time to bring back the heroic man on horseback as yet another form worthy of rethinking and reworking by today's public artist's. Who knows what the results might be?

* Miriam Shapiro's "Mother Russia" is a stenciled fan that illustrates this post. Click on the Stencil Revolution link for examples of this populist craft.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Working for Meaning

"The Sacramento Bee (newspaper for the state capitol) found that California spends $0.03 per capita per year to fund the arts. Mississippi spends $1.31, New York $2.75, Germany 85.00, and Canada $145.00 per capita per year. Pathetic is what the Bee called it"

"Everything that happens in my day is a transaction between the external world and my internal world. Everything is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into my creativity."
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

I discovered these two bits of text today. The first was on a sticky note, without attribution, on my desktop; the second from my morning reading. They are both facts for the artist. The former is the outer terrain—that which is known and which must be daily navigated. The latter is the inward geography—the constant migration to and through unknown territories.

That artists are poorly paid is not news. While there are the exceptional living few (think Christo), or our illustrious dead (Van Gogh, Picasso et al), most artists are strictly blue collar. Those with MFA's, if they are lucky enough to get teaching positions, are generally adjunct faculty. A few get the brass ring of tenure and get to retire from the freeway flyer club. We struggle to get wages that reflect our professional training, to have health benefits, and to retire with some sense of security, however modest.

It must seem odd to the general public that anyone would seemingly "work for nothing" at a profession that is peripheral to society. Art doesn't make the Stock Exchange go up or down; neither does it make the the freeway less congested, cure terminal illness, provide affordable housing, or make a dent in the greenhouse effect. Lately I've been conscious at how regularly our local newspaper is filled with editorials and letters to the editor critical of art and artists. Given the poor pay and lack of respect for the profession, why don't artists move on to something more lucrative, say, real estate investment, professional athlete, or "reality TV" participant?

For me, the work I do is not "for nothing." Oh yes, I don't always get paid for all the sketches that fill my notebooks, the research into processes and products, the reading of texts refined, practical, or fanciful. I'm a good advocate for myself (as are most professional artists) so I am, in fact, compensated for the work I am commissioned to do. I will always, however, work more hours than I will ever be paid for. Some of these hours I will begrudge. The majority of them I will not.

I have this certainty in my life: I will never retire. Ever. Imagine the collective shudder such an idea would engender in all those souls whose days are spent in cubicles, under the low green glow of artifical light? The artist does not need to think of the freedom generally associated with retirement—the freedom from the psychic lash, from the boredom, the stress, and the rage associated with all of it. But after the multitudes have taken off the yoke, after enduring years and years of work they would chuck immediately if they won the lottery, what then? Beyond taking well earned trips you always promised yourself, or catching up with the projects that lingered on old "to-do" lists, or getting reacquainted with your significant other—what can life offer that is more than just passing time till the inevitable end?

People are angry at the mediocrity with which they live, writes essayist Michael Ventura. I think they are also angry because they know they are being cheated out of the deep consolation and joy this world has to offer. They eat junk food (junk television, junk popular culture, junk politics, jumk social interactions) because that's all they're offered at the steam table at Hometown Buffet. No one lets them in on the fact that there's a feast one table over and it's being catered by Julia Child and company. They intuit that it's there, and they're angry because some part of them knows it but can't figure out how to get to it.

Human beings are meaning makers. Artists haven't forgotten that about themselves, and they haven't allowed anything or anyone to beat it out of them. And life certainly does try to get you to stop. I'm lucky; I've passed the point where the beating works so I'm freed up to go on my own way. I'm following a creative path because life is strong and demanding and art makes it more than something to be tolerated. Art gets you to see why and how it is magnificent and empowering and your birthright.

The artist is an important contributor to society because we help people to find the feast. It's our role, and it's an important one. We're not entertainers, although some of what we do will entertain. We're not gadflies, although some of our work will prod and poke. We're not decorators, although some of our work will dazzle with its skill.

We are meaning shapers in a world that desperately needs us, regardless of what is spent on us per capita. Personally speaking, there isn't a bank big enough to hold the amount of money that we artists are worth. I can't be sidetracked by measuring out my worth in a system designed by bean counters for bean counters. I'll take my measure some other way.

Oh yes, and I'm still looking for a good and affordable health care plan.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

On Paris, Eiffel, and a Return to Creative Mindfulness

Gustave Eiffel
Recovered Journal Entry, August 2, 2004.

I've spent the summer reading about travel and traveling myself—Berlin, Dresden, and Prague. My reading has included a number of books that speak of both inner and outward voyages of discovery. I have carried around this idea of my own voyage for almost 17 years. I write this number and feel the shock of my surprise at the passing of so much time. My son was six years old when he first told me his story—a great creation myth and voyage from the Old World to the New, to a country called Paris. I hope I someday find the scrap of paper upon which I recorded this child's story. It included Adam and Eve, Native Americans, Pilgrims, and Africa. I've forgotten almost all of it except what the travelers discovered—a land in which the common and expected appearance of beauty in all things is every citizen's birthright.

The vision of Paris as a center of my own journey (its place of both departure and arrival) is as strong today as it was 17 years ago. Since then Paris has become an emblem, a signifier, of a kind of purity of artistic awareness, of the sublime. In that city is is Gustave Eiffel that plays Virgil to my Dante. He becomes the navigator to my cartographer.

I find him, curiously, an historic figure whose material accomplishements are linked to my personal family history. And so I have chosen to search out his bridges, churches, post offices, department stores, and towers, to find traces of ancestors. It is the following of ant trails; something that occupied me in deep concentration as a child. I follow a moving, living, line traced against the contours of earth, trees, and buildings.

I have spent three weeks away, and in that time this country of Paris has, once again, emerged from beyond the peninsula of "too busy." I had not expected to see it, at least not in the way it came to me, in the East. But in Prague there is a scale version of the Eiffel Tower on the hills above the city. We climbed to the top of a great hill overlooking the city and found it there, about one quarter the size of the 300 meter Paris tower. It had been built in 1891—two years after the real one—in the tower mania that swept across the world following Eiffel's achievement. Looking at the simulacra I felt something stir in my imagination: the remembrance of the deep attention that grips every artist when trying to extract from the world what it wishes to have born. I have been a struggling midwife for this "collection of maps" charting this country called Paris.

I have resolved to begin again, although now a new voice wants to begin unlike the one I had imagined would speak years ago. I had begun with Gustav Eiffel himself, gazing out over Paris from his salon / office at the top of the tower. Indeed, I have several journals filled with notes guiding me in this direction, but the new voice has become more compelling and I will acquiesce, at least for now.

The story emerging is my own—my search for a kind of peace in the sublime; a rarefied space that does not shut out the world but helps focus one's attention on its exquisite complexities and beauty. I have lived a most public life to date (for the past 15 years) and have neglected that child following the ant trails, trying to make art serve the common good. Now, more than ever, a shift in course is called for. Or, perhaps not a shifting, but a balancing of the private impulse of the studio and the public outcomes of arts advocacy.

If not now, the return to Paris, then probably never. Would I be able to bear the grief of giving it up for other countries?

Monday, February 28, 2005

On the Consolation of Art and Artists

cabin front door
Woke up this morning at the ranch of artist friend and colleague Nina Karavasiles. The ranch, situated in the high chaparral area of San Diego County, is an integrated system of buildings, gardens, outdoor rooms, and alternative energy production being created daily by the artist and her long-time partner, Scott Richards. I am there to meet with other public artists, members of a group started four years ago, called Public Address. Our art works are part of the San Diego urban fabric, and are also found in other American cities and wild spaces. We come together monthly as a kind of fellowship, but with a focus on arts advocacy, technical support, resource sharing, professional development, and community and binational outreach. Oh yes, and we enjoy each other's company, having come together to break through the usual competitive barriers that keep artists from creating communities of support and common cause.

Several years ago I found myself seated next to a national labor organizer flying home after helping San Diego Symphony musicians negotiate their contract with management. He spoke plainly about the situation of visual artists and their inability to receive appropriate wages, benefits and protections as professionals. We were, in his words, doomed by our failure to organize and bargain collectively. We were at the mercy of whatever commissioning agencies, public or private, might hire us. I agreed entirely, and like other San Diego artists I was beginning to think seriously about how we might join together as a force for changing the conditions under which artists labor.

Today, more than four years after the first group of artists met at a coffee shop, we are about 20 committed members creating links to disciplines in the sciences, the environment, education, and housing. We have managed to accomplish the writing of our own public art master plan ("Public Art is a Verb"), an artists' contract, public art tour, professional development seminars, curriculum year, resource listings, and a hell of a winter holiday party.

These people have kept me coming back to myself as an artist during a time when the artist collaborative team I had formed with my former partner came apart in a long and corrosive dissolution. Some days I had trouble remembering that I was an artist and that my ideas, my vision, and my abilities had helped communities transform themselves. When the practice of creativity seemed to be slipping out of my grasp, these artists were the rope that kept me tethered to a secure landfall.

Today I am actively engaged in rebuilding my singular creative life. I find that the well of imagination is deeper than I believed, and that my hand produces a line which I no longer struggle at recognizing. I am surprised at how easy it has become—that the ideas are spilling out onto the pages of my sketchbook with a quiet, confident force. The possibilites for learning, especially in areas of programming and technology, make the world seem wide and full of choices.

Here I remember what choreographer Twyla Tharp said about a life grounded in art making. "Everything that happens in my day is a transaction between the external world and my internal world. Everything is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into my creativity." This ranch, which underscores the dancer's observation, is filled with Nina and Scott's elegant little touches. The cabin where I am staying,once a tar paper shack with an old trailer bonded to its exterior walls, is a solar lit retreat kept snug by a roaring wood stove. Its windows frame the view of the rocks and valley below and a small deck floats over an outdoor gathering space. An outside table has a collection of bits and pieces of black, industrial feldspar that covers the land. I pick up two for the little altar that hangs in my studio above my computer. Further up the hill the couple have taken an industrial farm building and transformed it into an elegant work and living space. Every corner reveals a surprise, every detail demonstrates a sense of caring about good design and mindful living.

As I wander across the property I notice the native granite stones arranged as "staircases" with little pebbles cached in between the "risers" like funny stone dentures. A wooden cherub stands guard over the bathroom/shower building, the big brother of all the little found sculpture pieces catching you unawares on your walk. There are old tools everywhere, rusting and softening with the elements. Metal, wood, stone, glass, concrete and cloth have come together in this place of balance and repose. And there is a great sense of humor that overlays everything. Nina is, after all, the Director of Mayhem, and no-nonsence Scott has a wicked sense of humor and a potent delivery. They are good, even great, people.

This place has comforted me in its manifestation of mindfulness—the deliberate choices and gestures made toward the beautiful and the humane.

I'll be one my way down the mountain to my meeting in the city by late morning. There I will present my public art concepts for a housing project for working families. It will go well.

Today is my birthday. I am 52 years old.

Friday, February 11, 2005

The Citizen Artist: Spring 1996

This essay originally appeared in High Performance magazine, Spring 1996.
Original Community Arts Network/Art in the Public Interest publication: September 2002

We had known that sooner or later we must develop an explanation for what we were doing which would be short and convincing. It couldn't be the truth because that wouldn't be convincing at all. How can you say to a people who are preoccupied with getting enough food and enough children that you have come to pick up useless little animals so that perhaps your world picture will be enlarged? That didn't even convince us. But there had to be a story, for everyone asked us. One of us had once taken a long walking trip through the southern United States. At first he had tried to explain that he did it because he liked to walk and because he saw and felt the country better that way. When he gave this explanation there was unbelief and dislike for him. It sounded like a lie. Finally a man said to him, "You can't fool me, you're doing it on a bet." And after that, he used this explanation, and everyone liked and understood him from then on.
—From The Log from the Sea of Cortez,
by John Steinbeck

In the United States we presume that most of what we need to know about an individual, at least initially, can be generally inferred from what he or she does. We ask, "What do you do?" instead of the perhaps more useful "Who are you?" upon first meeting. When people in the community where I live ask me what I do (who I am), I tell them that I am an artist. Sometimes I am pressed for a bit more. My own preference is the term "community artist," although recently the designation met with resistance from an art historian trying to define me for an academic conference she was organizing. "Most of the artists who'll be panelists do work about the community. Can't you just call yourself an artist?" I thought about the countless community charettes, redevelopment committee meetings, community association presentations, after-school arts programs, and planning, zoning and safety meetings I had attended or organized over the past several years. I was quite certain that most of my fellow panelists did not work in communities at the micro-level at which I was now working. Still, like Steinbeck's friend, I wasn't about to argue the point that clearly seemed like a lie to the art historian. "Artist will be fine," I said.

In 1991 my former partner and I purchased a home in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego. An older, inner-city neighborhood and shopping district, it had fallen into a slump during the 1960s and '70s, the victim of the new malls and shiny suburbs popping up north of the city center. In true artist fashion, we saw past the tired facades of old buildings to see the splendid commercial and residential architecture. North Park's appeal was its central location, the diversity of its population, its architectural mix and a sort of Midwestern small-town feel. Still, this was a district in trouble, with a crumbling infrastructure, rising crime, a small but nagging gang problem, struggling retail and, as we would discover later, a general sense of malaise.

I wish I could say that my initial venture into being an advocate for my community was engendered by some lofty ideal of the artist's place in society. An understanding of the relationship between the artist and the community would come much later as a result of battles fought, won and sometimes lost in the struggle to revitalize the neighborhood. In reality, my entry into community art was motivated by the search for a good cup of coffee, a well-stocked bookstore and a pleasant place to eat, all within an aesthetically vibrant, urban environment and a short walking distance. I was tired of driving to other neighborhoods where the amenities I was seeking, as well as a vital sense of public life, were present. In those neighborhoods, the hand of the artist seemed present in everything from storefront displays and facade colors, to landscape and gathering spaces.

My neighbors, long-time North Park residents Don and Karon Covington, told stories about the heyday of the neighborhood, when you could easily walk to the commercial center and find every service you might want, from butchers and fishmongers, to locksmiths and violin makers. They described an interconnectedness among residents, business owners and the city itself that seemed as enviable as it was distant. The Covingtons were two of my initial guides into the complexities of community planning and politics. Both are historians, he an architectural historian and designer, she a genealogist. Their combined talents have been central to recovering and preserving the history of North Park, its people and its places. Their efforts are providing a wealth of primary resources to artists working in the community, architects, designers and city staff. Other key community members were also critical to the success of bringing me into the neighborhood rebuilding process. These "community mentors" provided deep background on North Park, facilitating my entry into the often confusing and overlapping system of community and official planning groups. Without them I might have failed to place my energies and skills in the appropriate place at the necessary time. With every community project, I have benefited from the expertise of such guides, those who know how to work the political system: aides to councilmembers or state legislators, local businessmen, amateur gardeners, librarians, social-service workers, playground leaders, parents, journalists and clergy. They are, in effect, collaborators (co-authors) in community arts projects.

Despite a national climate that characterizes the arts as either superfluous or dangerous, on a local level, communities like North Park are using the arts as an important tool for everything from alternative recreation for youth, to the formation of neighborhood identity markers, economic development, cultural tourism, safe streets and much more. Community artists are viewed as creative problem-solvers, unfettered by a particular methodology, who can help communities resolve issues that seem intractable. Previous to my being hired as a part of an artist team (with Gwen Gomez and Lynn Susholtz) for the Vermont Street Bridge project, a struggle over the proposed color of the bridge superstructure arose between residents of University Heights (a small section of North Park proper) and the consulting engineers. The struggle threatened to slow down the construction approval process. These color decisions were based on the notion of making the 500-foot-long bridge "blend" into the canyon it spanned. The uncertainty of the community over whether the bridge should be built—replacing, after 13 years, an old wooden span torn down for safety reasons—was reflected in their confusion over whether to celebrate or hide the new structure.

The artist team presented ourselves and our ideas for the bridge at a community meeting where tension between the engineering professionals and the community was palpable. Since we did not perceive the audience members as our adversaries but as neighbors and fellow community activists, we were able to present the reasons for making the bridge an important community identity marker in an atmosphere of collegiality. A discussion about drawing attention to the bridge, rather than trying to minimize its visual impact, ensued. The community quickly came to the conclusion that a vibrant color statement was in order. It is a decision that the community has been happy with ever since, one in which the artists' participation helped focus the community on what they wanted all along—a strong statement of identity and neighborhood pride.

With artists and their organizations taking a public thrashing throughout the country, how does one account for the acceptance of artists on a local level? In San Diego, the hue and cry that arises when large public artworks are proposed (let alone installed) is dishearteningly predictable. Yet neighborhood efforts—tied to capital improvement projects in parks, on bridges and in alleys, on sidewalks and streets, on commercial facades, along neighborhood entry portals—are all met with general enthusiasm (with the exception of those citizens who consistently object to any type of spending that is not somehow tied to improved street lighting and more police). Community members recognize the value of these aesthetic improvements, both to their quality of life and to more concrete objectives such as economic development and public safety. Urban-planning critic Jane Jacobs' emphasis on the importance of "eyes on the street" and the diversity of a community's infrastructure finds its natural expression in the arts' role in the community-building process.

Small neighborhood arts programs, residencies, artists' workshops and city-supported public art projects can act as catalysts for change. Artists who make a commitment to the neighborhoods in which they live are uniquely positioned to initiate community policy or programming that has far-reaching effects. A modest after-school arts program organized by myself and my former partner at the local recreation center grew to accommodate additional community and staff requests. Murals went up; the colors of the buildings themselves changed; a banner artist was hired to work with children to create symbolic flags for the gymnasium, flags that later became banners for the commercial district; a new playground was designed. Because we were seen as a community members with special design skills, as well as possessing a sensitivity to community needs and budget constraints, we were awarded a contract to design a master plan for the local park, which had suffered from years of neglect. This work is interconnected with other community revitalization efforts. A viable park raises property values (redevelopment), makes the neighborhood attractive to new homeowners (first-time homebuyers program), bolsters the adjoining commercial district (North Park Main Street Program) and provides a new elementary school with an expanded play area (city and school district joint use agreement). Clearly, our commitment to North Park makes it possible for our neighbors to see beyond the stereotype of the artist as intruder, and view us as partners working toward similar goals.

To effect community-wide changes, artists must immerse themselves in the most unglamorous media—community meetings, zoning boards, redevelopment reports, school-board task forces, planning groups and the occasional tree-planting party. For the most part, artists working at this level will not realize the "stardom" of the art-world mill. The heroic scale of Christo's work will be inappropriate, esoteric performances will only garner curious stares, monumental sculpture will set off alarms. The artist may wonder where and how his or her unique vision may be realized, without being subjected to the requirement of community consensus or issues of liability or public safety. In San Diego, artists and arts administrators are reconsidering the strategy of integrating public art into capital improvements, where it must walk a thin line between art and decoration. One questions whether art that disappears is better than no art at all. One also grows weary at being the point person for difficult projects that the city is trying to "sell" to the community. The artist as public relations person does not sit comfortably.

Perhaps community artists are, by definition, artists whose questions, proddings, concepts, schematics, master plans and working processes are the real artworks. The ability to integrate seemingly disparate points of view, to re-present the community to itself, to imagine solutions outside the usual, to forge alliances or act as bridges—these qualities of the community artist make possible a living, malleable artwork that will not fit easily into the gallery. Somehow this ephemeral, unseen work must sustain the artist. But personal satisfaction in the total expression of one's vision often runs up against long-term engagement with a process that does not necessarily end with a product. I confess, I have not resolved the conflict for myself. While I sometimes long for uninterrupted days working on my paintings or artist books, I cannot ignore the neighborhood around me. I continue to lend my skills to my neighbors, to advocate and educate. In return, I receive the fellowship and teachings of individuals of varying interests and backgrounds, united in their efforts to resuscitate a community they love. I suspect the work that binds us together will make of us more than good neighbors—good citizens as well.