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.