Thursday, November 08, 2007

Contemplating the Phoenix

These are the sooty days and nights of fire, ashes, and displacement. The aftermath of loss is reassessment and, ultimately, response. We artists (poets, dancers, musicians, painters, photographers, craftspeople, writers, graphic designers, actors, sculptors, singers) possess the skill set that can unpack the events and emotions brought forward by the devastating inferno of 2007. Our skills will also help us imagine a new San Diego/Tijuana. Our creative response to this tragedy serves not only ourselves, but our neighbors, colleagues, and students as well. We have not suffered more than others. Instead, we suffer in league with our fellow humans. We must help them cope, recover and flourish anew.

Our response to this tragedy will fall outside claims adjusters and contractors but we, too, will sift through ashes looking for precious family photographs or our grandmother’s wedding ring. We will mourn the spaces we created in love. We will bury the remains of beloved animals. We will turn over our gardens.

Artists deal best in what ultimately cannot be burned, boxed, or quantified. We handle the human heart, mind and spirit with open hands and look deeply into the center of the sunflower to find the rain, sunlight and earth that brought it forth. What will we make of the firestorm? What will consolation look like? What will the San Diego/Tijuana region become as this Phoenix rises?

I was torn between calling this essay “Beyond the Phoenix,” or “The Fire This Time” in honor of James Baldwin, that brilliant American essayist of the 1960s. The fires here in San Diego are, as the newspaper reports, down but not out. We breathe a little easier for the time being even as we scan the internet and the television for the latest news. We are still looking for loved ones, checking on homes abandoned in the evacuations, trying to get into neighborhoods red-tagged by the authorities. Some of us are already rebuilding. Some of us are too shattered to form a plan, much less take action.

And the days pass…

In this interlude while we pause before acting let us think of what we want to become, ever mindful that this is both a disaster and an opportunity to shift the cultural and political ecosystem dramatically (for good or ill.) While we are doing so we will have to be mindful of our privilege and our assumptions about what is “good” or “the best way” or “the way that gives us the most advantage. Theorists like bell hooks and Audre Lord remind us that “the master’s tools will never bring down the master’s house, and Baldwin asks, "Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?"

We who have watched our houses burning must consider carefully how we rebuild and with what sorts of tools. We can replicate the power dynamic we currently live under, or we can imagine something completely different--quite beyond the Phoenix.

Aida Mancillas
San Diego, California
October 26, 2007

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Acorn Bandit

I am an artist walking the cancer path. Every time I say that I feel a tightening in my chest, like I’m about to fall off the edge of a steep traverse. Cancer is not an illness; it’s an attitude toward life and living. I do the treatments, I get pictures of my brain taken regularly, generally taken while the technicians are injecting me with contrast dyes. I interact with technology that I have to stare down every single time I have an appointment for an MRI or chemotherapy. I wait in waiting rooms with my wife and sister, alongside people I don’t know but who are in pretty bad shape. Some of them are clearly not going to make it, but then, am I? I’m pretty sure I’m going to celebrate my 100th birthday. Centenarians run in my family. But life can throw you topsy-turvy on your head in an eye blink.

Last June 2005 I thought I had a sinus infection, a headache and a nosebleed. My wife Andrea took me to urgent care as per the suggestion of my primary care physician and her nurse. The next thing I knew some young doctor was leaning over me in a strange bed in a strange room telling me, “you’re not suffering from a sinus infection. You have a tumor in your brain. We think its bleeding into your head” Right after that an elegant authoritative man—the surgeon of course-- came in. He had removed the tumor, telling me what would happen next. I don’t remember how I got to the hospital and in that recovery bed. I remember nothing of surgery, but somehow my loved ones and priest were around my bed with smiles and hearts open to me. Evidently I had been in surgery for hours. In the months ahead I won’t remember any of this except in little snapshots that flash up without intention on my part. That’s how it was for me. That’s how it is. No day is promised.

My response to this part of my life is to look for oak trees. When riding in the car I scan yards, shopping centers, parks, yards, and utility roads from a main road. I’ve met a neighbor who cleared away a pepper tree in her yard that had strangled the beautiful specimen oak in her yard. I left a note telling her how much I appreciated her work. She in turn invited me to dig up some seedlings from under the mother tree. It connected us to talk about her oak, her garden, and the loss of her beloved dog. Today the oak seedlings are thriving in containers in my back yard while I get them stronger and ready for permanent planting. The oaks and I seem inextricably linked. My daughter in law, Megan Williamson, knows about planting seeds, having worked for a commercial nursery outside Sacramento. When I gather acorns off the ground she instructs me to put them in water to see which ones float. Those won’t germinate. I look for the striations on the outside that mean the acorn has no moisture and is not viable.

More than the sunflowers that I grow for my upcoming grandbaby as his own yellow fort, the oaks mean that I will be here to celebrate my 100th birthday, the baby’s wedding, my son’s parenthood and grandparenthood, my parent’s 70th wedding anniversary, my sister’s grand motherhood.

All that I love about California is in these little oaks whose promise is a towering canopy where birds that we rarely see anymore can return. Who knows, maybe the moist roots will mean the return of the frogs that we saw all the time as children, all over San Diego.

It is a dry Santa Ana day, better than yesterday but still dry. Fire threatens if we are not careful with our cars and cigarettes. But fire is appropriate even if feared and unwelcome. It is the natural course of things here in southern California. The fire of the lasers and chemo has been burning away the cancer. It is a fearsome treatment and, as my priest says, a fearsome e blessing.

My mother sent this after my surgery:

“Let me look upward into the branches of the towering oak and know thwt it grew strong because it grew slowly and well. Slow me down, Lord, and inspire me to end my roots dwwp into the soil of dnduring values that I may grow toward my true destiny. Amen.

I look to see if friends and neighbors have acorns or seedlings that I can “liberate,” plant and restore to this micro canyon on which I live in urban San Diego, California. I do this to stay engaged in life at a time when so much around me is about illness, surgery, radiation, and sometimes death. I have long days when the members of the household go off to work and so it’s just me and the dog Sadie, a pit bull mutt whose chosen job is to watch me all day, lay down next to me when I rest, and pull me outside to the garden. It can get a little too easy to contemplate my mortality. Planning my next acorn raid gives me a sense of purpose and commits me to caring and nurturing life, not just my own.

Just recently I’ve gotten angry and snarled at death to “bring it on. I can say this because of the oaks for some strange reason.”

Yes, it’s whistling in the dark but it’s also the kind of defiant energy that focuses me on the goal of LIVING, and engaging a creative life. So I’m making art again that is more intimate and personal than the larger, civic art works that I’ve been known for. The foundation of this work is the garden, the oaks and other natives, and the canyon whose name I just discovered. My little canyon has a name! It is North Arroyo Canyon, or on some maps the Albatross Canyon. Somehow its having a name makes is even more important to restore it back to health. It somehow makes a difference to know it by its name—to make it healthy as I make myself healthy.

I’ve written before about the canyon, but until the cancer I had not put my full attention to the ecosystem except to note that there were no native plants in my little dead end canyon except two lonely toyons—one under a telephone pole and the other next to the Eucalyptus that sits in the middle of a sea of asphalt that is my driveway. Everything else in this little canyon is considered an “invasive exotic,” mainly eucalyptus, a few sad nopal cacti, jade plants, flowering apple ice plant which swallows everything, and a scattering of pepper trees and whatever Christmas trees that people have transplanted to their yards instead of composting them or sending them to the landfill at Miramar. When the winds and rains come they will topple like the eucalyptus. These orphaned Christmas trees have no deep roots to keep them in place when the weather turns nasty. I have already introduced deer grass, Cleveland sage, Pink Cat’s whiskers, Hummingbird bush, Cleveland sage, California poppy and other old friends, with many more to come.

Out of some unknowable and miraculous circumstances a couple of oaks survive in two of my neighbors’ yards. They are very old /California coast live oaks. They must be 100 years old because of their size and the time it takes for them to reach any kind of height. I’ve become deeply attached to the oaks, perhaps because of their links to my California heritage, perhaps because of their solidity and the incredibly deep taproot. I want to see myself in them. Perhaps it was the poem my mother sent me which was meant to bolster my spirits and remind me that the race doesn’t always go to the swift, and the oak grows well and strong because it grows slowly.


I used to be a multitasked—able to read, watch television, write a policy paper and answer my email all at the same time. Now I move slowly as I retrain the body, mind and spirit. With the aid of therapists, doctors, family and friends I am slowing down and savoring the jay that watches for me to emerge from the house, expecting the peanuts I throw out. I sit quietly with the dog Sadie. I watch a squirrel do acrobatics from the bird feeder. All this is gift to a woman who was given little chance to overcome the stage 4 geoblastoma.

I’m still here, just like the oak.

And I’m thriving just like the corn, the tomatoes, and the sunflowers.

Aida Mancillas, San Diego, CA

Monday, August 27, 2007

Going Green in the City



My family recently began taking measures to live in line with our concerns
about the impact we were having on our environment and how we might respond
to our collective, challenging financial circumstances. I’m a public artist
and cancer survivor on disability. My son and daughter-in-law live with me
to help care for me. They are expecting their first child on Christmas eve
2007 They are typical GenX individuals: well educated, creative,
interesting and facing the decline of the American economy and diminishment of economic opportunities with grace, optimism and cheer. I’m a baby boomer. without a
safety net. I look at the whole national and international situation with
great wariness and alarm My partner maintains her own residence but spends a significant number of days and evenings with me in this typical southern California ranch house on the edge of this little urban canyon She’s the one with a viable job in the growing technology sector. It often appears to me that she works all the
time and is on call 24/7. Clearly this is not union work. Her activities
stretch across time zones and continents. In fact, we all work all the time
and all hours. This is the “new economy.”

Fortunately the presence of the canyon gives us a sense that we’re living
inthe country even though we are steps from the center of a bustling gay
neighborhood. That brings some sense of peace to otherwise frantically
constructed lives. Our communal life reinforces us as a family. We are
>doing
>our best not just to get by but to live a peaceful, aware, creative, and
>non-destructive life. We are spiritual without being religious even as we
>learn about and respect all spiritual paths. I don’t know where our future
>will take us but we will face it together with love and faith in each other
>to hold us steady when we don’t always see the way forward and feel off
>balanced. We are all artists of some sort—collagist, painter, dancer, turn
>tableist, musical composer, writer, and designer. I also serve on the
>city’s
>arts commission, advocating for the arts and helping create policy to
>extend
>the arts into the community.
>
>I wish I could say that I come to eco-awareness after years of practice,
>commitment and understanding. But this move to conserve water, recycle,
>compost, grow my own food and restore the habitat of this canyon is born
>out
>of necessity and an effort to stay engaged with a life’s routine gestures.
>
>An important part of this engagement is the restoration of the surrounding
>canyon habitat. With the exception of two toyon bushes and two magnificent
>California oaks up the street, every other plant in my little canyon is an
>invasive exotic. So even though the landscape looks lush it provides little
>or no sustenance for the birds and critters that populate the area
>including
>coyotes, raccoons, possum, fox and a variety of birds and butterflies that
>cycle round the seasons. Everything is going without the food and shelter
>it
>needs. We are trying to get back to balance with the reintroduction of
>manzanita, coyote bush, lupine, rabbit bush, poppies and more. It’s a slow,
>steady commitment of generations. I plant now so that my grandchild will be
>the steward and inheritor of a healthy environment that doesn’t bleed the
>people and animals it shelters.
>
>Recently I came across a short video of the outside artist Tressa (Grandma)
>Prisbrey; that lone elderly woman in Simi Valley making her environment of
>glass bottles, doll heads, pencils, tires and whatever else she picked up.
>Everything ha d the potential to be something else—something both useful
>and
>beautiful. In this vein I have taken to looking at my recycling materials
>as
>the beginning of something new, funny and useful. There are Starbucks cups
>that hang from my trees as birdfeeders. Altoid boxes are shrines; shredded
>newspaper is the filler for sofa pillows. Even fallen twigs become the
>structures that hold up the young green bean bushes and sunflowers. I am
>increasingly aware that my world does not require the money I was used to
>spending, but it does require a radical shift in how I do everything from
>washing the dishes to cutting up the items that will go to the compost pail
>instead of the garbage disposal. This shift bends my interior life. When I
>can’t sleep, which is often when I’m taking the steroids that keep the
>swelling in my brain down, I’m constantly reviewing the house, studio,
>garden, kitchen, car, etc. to see what might be easily re-thought or
>revamped to give us what we need and not cost us. As my sister-in-law says,
>“If it’s free, it’s for me!” I’m totally in support of that attitude which
>for me, having lived parts of my life in extreme privilege, was an
>emotional
>shift that was difficult to navigate without anger, frustration and fear.
>Safety, which to me meant lots of discretionary income, was gone from a
world which was now completely upside down. My new mantra became “trust
over
fear,” borrowed from the artist Margi Sharff who walked the world picking
up
detritus and reconstituting it into new art works. A few weeks ago she died
of cancer after spending her last weeks in India still pursuing her vision.

I don’t know what makes a Margi Sharff or a Tressa Prisbrey. When asked by
someone why she built all the unique structures on her land Tressa said she
“just had a notion.” She started in her 50’s doing the work that would gain
her fame and continued to her death. Maybe this family’s shift to green is
just another notion; one that allows things to grow or regrow. I know it’s
me that needs to hang on to the idea that things are getting healthy—that
everything I touch is getting healthy, stronger, more alive. That’s how I’m
facing a hopeful but still uncertain future.

Thank you Tressa.
Thank you Margi

I am 53 years old working on 100.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

From coffee cups to birdfeeders: Going “green” in the city.



August 25, 2007


My family recently began taking measures to live in line with our concerns about the impact we were having on our environment and how we might respond to our collective, challenging financial circumstances. I’m a public artist and cancer survivor on disability. My son and daughter-in-law live with me to help care for me. They are expecting their first child on Christmas eve 2007 They are typical GenX individuals: well educated, creative, interesting and facing the decline of the American economy and diminishment of economic opportunities with grace, optimism and cheer. I’m a baby boomer. without a safety net. I look at the whole national and international situation with great wariness and alarm. My partner maintains her own residence but spends a significant number of days and evenings with me in this typical southern California ranch house on the edge of this little urban canyon. She’s the one with a viable job in the growing technology sector. It often appears to me that she works all the time and is on call 24/7. Clearly this is not union work. Her activities stretch across time zones and continents. In fact, we all work all the time and all hours. This is the “new economy.”

Fortunately the presence of the canyon gives us a sense that we’re living in the country even though we are steps from the center of a bustling gay neighborhood. That brings some sense of peace to otherwise frantically constructed lives. Our communal life reinforces us as a family. We are doing our best not just to get by but to live a peaceful, aware, creative, and non-destructive life. We are spiritual without being religious even as we learn about and respect all spiritual paths. I don’t know where our future will take us but we will face it together with love and faith in each other to hold us steady when we don’t always see the way forward and feel off balance. We are all artists of some sort—collagist, painter, dancer, turn tableist, musical composer, writer, and designer. I also serve on the city’s arts commission, advocating for the arts and helping create policy to extend the arts into the community.

I wish I could say that I come to eco-awareness after years of practice, commitment and understanding. But this move to conserve water, recycle, compost, grow my own food and restore the habitat of this canyon is born out of necessity and an effort to stay engaged with a life’s routine gestures.

An important part of this engagement is the restoration of the surrounding canyon habitat. With the exception of two toyon bushes and two magnificent California oaks up the street, every other plant in my little canyon is an invasive exotic. So even though the landscape looks lush it provides little or no sustenance for the birds and critters that populate the area including coyotes, raccoons, possum, fox and a variety of birds and butterflies that cycle round the seasons. Everything is going without the food and shelter it needs. We are trying to get back to balance with the reintroduction of manzanita, coyote bush, lupine, rabbit bush, poppies and more. It’s a slow, steady commitment of generations. I plant now so that my grandchild will be the steward and inheritor of a healthy environment that doesn’t bleed the people and animals it shelters.

Recently I came across a short video of the outside artist Tressa (Grandma) Prisbrey; that lone elderly woman in Simi Valley constructing her environment of glass bottles, doll heads, pencils, tires and whatever else she picked up from the dump or wherever odds and ends accumulate. For Tressa, everything had the potential to be something else—something both useful and beautiful. In this vein I have taken to looking at my recycling materials as the beginning of something new, funny and useful. There are Starbucks cups that hang from my trees as birdfeeders. Altoid boxes are shrines; shredded newspaper is the filler for sofa pillows. Even fallen twigs become the structures that hold up the young green bean bushes and sunflowers. I am increasingly aware that my world does not require the money I was used to spending, but it does require a radical shift in how I do everything from washing the dishes to cutting up the items that will go to the compost pail instead of the garbage disposal. This shift bends my interior life. When I can’t sleep, which is often when I’m taking the steroids that keep the swelling in my brain down, I’m constantly reviewing the house, studio, garden, kitchen, car, etc. to see what might be easily re-thought or revamped to give us what we need and not cost us. As my sister-in-law says, “If it’s free, it’s for me!” I’m totally in support of that attitude which for me, having lived parts of my life in extreme privilege, was an emotional shift that was difficult to navigate without anger, frustration and fear. Safety, which to me meant lots of discretionary income, was gone from a world which was now completely upside down. My new mantra became “trust over fear,” borrowed from the artist Margi Sharff who walked the world picking up detritus and reconstituting it into new art works. A few weeks ago she died of cancer after spending her last weeks in India still pursuing her vision.

I don’t know what makes a Margi Sharff or a Tressa Prisbrey. When asked by someone why she built all the unique structures on her land Tressa said she “just had a notion.” She started in her 50’s doing the work that would gain her fame and continued to her death. Maybe this family’s shift to green is just another notion; one that allows things to grow or regrow. I know it’s me that needs to hang on to the idea that things are getting healthy—that everything I touch is getting healthy, stronger, more alive. That’s how I’m facing a hopeful but still uncertain future. Iam 53 years old looking towards 100.

Thank you Tressa.
Thank you Margi







video

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Revisiting “Art Rebate” 1996

An Artist Looks At National Funding And Its Impact On Communities

Originally written and published in 1996
by Aida Mancillas*


In 1996 a group of neighbors gathered to talk about strategies for preserving the unique histories of some of North Park’s oldest residents. Many in the group were long time community residents and activists; some came as representatives of the adjacent neighborhoods of Burlingame and University Heights; others, were relative newcomers to the older, midtown neighborhood. Like the district at large we represented a variety of backgrounds, age groups, interests, and political and personal beliefs. Yet we came together to work toward a common goal: to strengthen the vitality of the North Park community of San Diego and encourage a renewal of civic life through preservation of our historic and cultural resources.
Present at the meeting was Mr. Ralph Lewin, at that time head of the San Diego office for the California Council for the Humanities, who gave us an overview of what the council does working in partnership with communities. There was a great deal of discussion that evening about how the arts and humanities could be utilized to bring the oral history of North Park to a community audience. The North Park oral history project might continue in the spirit of CCH’s successful “Searching for San Diego” project. That series recognized the need for San Diegans, often isolated from their neighbors, to get to know one another. Five selected neighborhoods participated in discussions led by humanities scholars, took history tours, shared foods and learned about the larger history of San Diego. A culminating public lecture by noted author N. Scott Momaday on “a sense of place” attracted 500 people. With the “Searching for San Diego” project serving as a possible model, ideas and examples were tossed around the Covington’s living room, generating both excitement and an awareness of the enormity of the work ahead. Still, we came away from that pleasant evening with a sense of what is possible and how the council might work with us to develop and fund a strong community project.
On any given day, throughout the nation in our common meeting spaces, thoughtful citizens meet to propose programs and events which address the needs of the community through the arts and humanities. In San Diego the results of those programs are all around us, thanks to the hard work of community members, artists, scholars, writers, librarians, dancers, museums and cultural centers, actors, business owners, poets, musicians and social service organizations. North Park has been blessed with neighbors who for many years have collected information on the history and architecture of the district, preserving what might have been lost and serving as informal resources and mentors for a new generation of residents. Many artists (both visual and performing), architects, and other design professionals now call North Park home, and we have begun to see the visual arts playing an important role in the revitalization of the community. Recent efforts to include public art in the North Park redevelopment plan, and to designate capital improvement projects as sites for public art have been successful. Artists, designers, and architects have been meeting and working informally or with community organizations to discuss ways of bringing back the commercial shopping district. One senses that the renaissance of North Park is just around the corner.
Community building through the arts and humanities is funded through a variety of formal and informal collaborative efforts. Residents might donate time and supplies for a community event, or they might appeal to community groups for funding. Often the city will provide matching grants for community projects, or a city department will undertake a local event. However, the bulk of the funding for these programs, nationally and locally, is generated by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, their financial assistance to the state art and humanities councils, and locally through grants to agencies like the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture. In San Diego county the combined contribution of the NEA and NEH is approximately $2.2 million dollars. These dollars are matched by their recipients, and generate revenue for state and local government, as well as generating 3,000 full time employment positions in San Diego County in the visual arts alone.
Over the years the arts and humanities have proven themselves to be strong contributors to the local economy, providing not only opportunities for education and entertainment, but helping engender the success of other, non-arts related businesses. Local examples of this can be seen in the downtown Gaslamp Quarter, where a strong street culture has been sustained by the various theaters and performance halls located in the area. Not only does a visitor pay an admission fee to a performance or arts center, he or she will normally also pay for parking, for a good meal, perhaps dash into a boutique, and finish up with coffee and dessert. Federal and state arts money can generate resources far beyond individual or organizational grants, pushing money into the local economy.
In 1994 the NEH and CCH funded programs in education with grants to the Oceanside Unified School District and San Diego City Schools. Money went to San Diego State University for teacher training seminars in the humanities. CCH moneys also went to such diverse groups as the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego, the San Diego Public Library, Centro Cultural de la Raza, the San Diego Museum of Man, and the Museum of Photographic Arts to name but a few. Locally the NEA and its state affiliate, the California Arts Council, supported programs in the city’s museums, performance halls and cultural centers, as well as local universities and public schools, and the city arts commission. Artist residency programs, funded through the CAC, have been responsible for after school arts programming throughout the city and county, programming for seniors, community center activities, poets in the schools, traveling storytellers, ethnic dance and musical performances, poetry readings, dance workshops and a myriad of other arts and humanities activities directly available to the community. Artists acting in partnership with communities have enriched the lives of thousands of urban and rural citizens since the inception of the NEA and NEH nearly 30 years ago.
In recent years the NEA and NEH, as well as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute for Museum Services, have come under increasing attack from individuals and political groups whose vision of the American experience represents a rigid and narrow ideology. Calling for the elimination of these organizations, the opponents of the NEA and NEH (as well as CPB and IMS) label them elitist, frivolous, an affront to the Constitution, dangerous, and representing values outside mainstream America. The so called “cultural war” that began in earnest during the last presidential election (Bush/Reagan/Buchanon on to today's shock jocks and Bush/Cheney) threatens to rob communities not only of the cultural and educational resources which are our common national heritage, but also of the tools by which we may build and strengthen our communities.
Much has been written recently about the few cases of funding for “controversial” art and the inclusion of the historic and literary contributions of minority groups in suggested teaching guides. The debate is bitter, laced with acrimony, and ultimately destructive to our national cohesiveness and well being. The NEA has, in its thirty year history, funded thousands of well received programs, artist/community partnerships, institutions, and special projects. The NEH has expanded our knowledge of the history and literature which is uniquely American. Yet momentum is gaining to seriously decrease or deny funding to our national cultural administrative organizations. To advocate elimination of the institutions which help us preserve and disseminate our complex common cultural heritage, simply because there is some aspect of their funding with which we disagree, is more than “throwing out the baby with the bath water;” it is throwing out the sink, the plumbing, the bathroom and burning down the house!
As a representative of the arts, I am often pressed with protests by community members (as well as friends and family) about “controversial art,” such as the recent piece done by a local artist in which he gave away ten dollar bills to undocumented workers. The issue of illegal immigration is a serious one here on the border. Good people find themselves on different sides of the problem, confronted with the enormous complexity of the economics driving the problem, with issues of human rights and equity, with dwindling state resources, and national fears about race and class. The “Art Rebate” piece failed to raise any of these essential questions. In fact, it never intended to do so. Instead, it was designed to gain maximum exposure for the artist, which it accomplished quite neatly. National opponents of arts and humanities funding seized upon this work as yet another example of art which was outside “mainstream” American values, clamoring for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts which indirectly gave a small grant (around $750.00 ) to the artist, David Avalos through the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. The ruckus raised allowed a number of local and national politicians to increase their public exposure, as artist institution, and radio shock jocks gave interviews and made pronouncements designed for their media “soundbite” qualities rather than a calm assessment of the merits and weaknesses of the work itself. The distinction between an artist bent on achieving notoriety and public figures eager to stand in front of the media to denounce artists was a slim one indeed. In such cases artists and politicians prove to be two sides of the same coin.
We are fortunate indeed to live in a country where the free exchange of ideas and opinions has been the very foundation of our national structure. Freedom, however, carries with it responsibility; to be careful and reasoned in our public discourse. The “us vs. them” mentality which pervades our national dialogue continues to erode America’s most cherished values: democracy, consensus, tolerance and diversity. Ideas in the public sphere are meant to be tested; to challenge our preconceptions at times; to generate better, more comprehensive ideas; or perhaps, ultimately, confirm our long held beliefs. “Art Rebate” failed as a generator of ideas. Its concept and execution were slim, and many in the arts community refused to defend it, seeing it as exploitive of the lives of the people it purported to illuminate. It hardly deserved the attention it garnered and certainly should not have posed any destabilizing effect on the NEA. Without the superheated rhetoric of the “cultural war” that seems to have taken possession of our national discourse, “Art Rebate” would have suffered the fate of other poor artworks: it would have sunk into oblivion.
It is clear that public funding for the arts, humanities, public broadcasting and museums cannot survive in the present atmosphere of intolerance. The repercussions of the constant assault on the arts and humanities can only result in a tepid, homogeneous version of the arts and arts programming, as artists and organizations shy away from the challenging, the experimental, the overlooked and, yes, even the outrageous. The arts and humanities are, at their best, a deeper look into the everyday; a search for connections among disparate ideas, realities, objects or media; a presentation of some small truth meant to illuminate; a recitation of joy and beauty; a presentation of life’s pain; an agent of empowerment and community building.
The arts and humanities are not about mass entertainment, yet they are also not elitist. Last year more people attended galleries, museums, the opera, symphony, dance performances, lectures, cultural arts festivals, jazz festivals, and other arts related events than voted in the last election. The New York Times recently reported that in 1992, 41% of the American population attended a live performance or exhibition at least once, while in the same year only 37% of the public attended a sports event.
Individual Americans pay 67 cents and 70 cents per year, respectively, to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities for their funding. The annual budgets of each of these organizations is less than what the country spends on military marching bands. Indeed, the total yearly budget for the National Endowment for the Humanities is less than the allotment for the Marine Corps Band. Every nickel funded on the state and local level is matched by local contribution or volunteer service. With all the discussion about “privatization” and “paying your own way,” the arts and humanities are a shining example of the impact of responsible government funding on the quality of American life.
As North Park residents look around their neighborhood and meet with new and old neighbors alike, they will discover the many efforts underway to rebuild our community. These efforts include not only the physical and economic restoration of our residential and commercial areas, but also the sense of public life. The arts and humanities are a useful and necessary tool which can be applied to this restoration process. In our collective work we will need the assistance of programs like the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Their support is vital to the people of North Park, and Americans across the country, to claim the intellectual and cultural heritage which is uniquely ours.


* Aida Mancillas is a public artist living and working in San Diego.

March 5, 1996

Friday, April 13, 2007

The importance of Elitism in the Arts (and why everyday folks should demand it)

By Aida Mancillas

Those of us who advocate for the arts here in San Diego and elsewhere have not been exactly candid with the powers who shape the budgets we live and die by, or the average citizen who wants to know where his or her tax dollars are going, why his trees aren’t trimmed, and why the potholes in front of her house remain unfilled.

We arts advocates have made a good case for why the arts are an economic engine; why visitors stay in San Diego longer and spend more money when they are also drawn to arts & culture experiences when they visit here. We do it by hiding, however, the fact that we ARE elitist. We do sometimes give off the sense that WE know what’s best, with an artspeak that can seem dense or undecipherable. The general public can only react to this with anger. “You think I’m not as smart as you,” is how it goes. Or worse, “you’re trying to pull a fast one.” No one wants to feel this disrespect, even if it’s unintended. Being a populist is a much easier position. You get to be the “good guy: non- threatening and unobtrusive like everyone else.

So, in the interest of plain speak, WE IN THE ARTS ARE ELITIST, or more accurately we have a high level of expertise that comes via years of training and practice and it’s important that we maintain that level of what is erroneously characterized as excluding or exclusive.. Here’s why:

In any given arena, from the arts to sports, to medicine, engineering, or any professional field, we owe it to ourselves, our city and our region to demand excellence, practice it, and reject mediocrity. There is enough that is mediocre to bury our vibrancy as an innovative, inspiring, risk-taking city, region and environment.

I want to be able to sit in the Encanto, or Scripps Ranch, or San Ysidro, or North Park, or Golden Hill or Barrio Logan library or rec. center and find myself in conversation with the next Maya Angelou, Sandra Cisneros, Pablo Neruda, James Baldwin, Spike Lee, Sydney Bechet, Paul Robeson, Wilfredo Lam, and a host of other great Americans that open us to a wider and deeper experience of American life and life in general. The arts provide the place for the exchange to happen and we need that meeting ground so that new understanding and arts and culture forms can take shape. I want and need the excellence of these new artists-becoming. We all need them to help us shape our collective American experience; something that brings us together as one people rather than separated as The Blue States' people and The Red States' people. The arts are one of the few things that can do this. Just recall the genius of Maya Angelou and her presidential inaugural poem. Who didn’t feel the power of that brief address, or more collectively American at its end?

In those libraries and coffee shops or houses where young people gather they are throwing each other soft looks, risking asking about what the other is working on, what music they’re listening to. Next thing you know there is a connection, and lumpia and collard greens and menudo get tossed together. Who knew it would be so unexpectedly delicious, or at least complex and interesting? Let us support that American genius for innovation, observation, and “why not” can- do attitude. Let’s support curiosity and freedom by claiming our own elitism and supporting everyone’s right to the finest arts & culture we can provide or produce.

Aida Mancillas
April 16, 2007

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Poetry and Politics: The Quiet, Unfolding Lesson of Alan Kaprow

Written for his memorial 2007UCSD Visual Arts Gallery

I worked for Allan Kaprow as a graduate student in the late 1980’s, one of many. I doubt that he would remember me., but his contribution to my education was more profound than I realized at the time. I was introduced to his seminal article, “The Real Experiment,” by one of my fellow teaching assistants and it has directed my artistic and political work ever since.

Once I left graduate school I found myself working in community settings in which I was continuously asked to take a leadership role in helping shape policy or initiatives that would extend arts education to children, fund and support public art, strengthen existing arts organizations, form new artistic support groups, link the arts with social justice issues, and generally create a space in which both community need and artistic vision would come together.

As I wrote in an early essay, “The Citizen Artist,” this has not always an easy dance, this tango of poetry and politics. The navigation of bureaucratic minutiae, the endless lobbying of those with power, the constant “dialogue” with individuals and groups who cannot agree; these forces can combine to wear down even the most ardent activist.

It is during those times of battle fatigue that I call up Allan Kaprow and his gentle vision outlined in “The Real Experiment.”

In the article Kaprow gives the examples of a woman recreating a walk, and a man running for public office. Both are artists. The first example is pure poetic vision, the second is problem solving. Both were done with such great intentionality that it moves the reader to reconsider the arbitrary lines we draw between Art and Life. He turned my attention toward the idea of “lifeworks” that get to the core of connectedness between the gestures we call “art” and the very essence of our humanity.

It is this connecting line that I walk every day, and the place into which I retreat to refresh when the culture wars get too noisy. I am grateful that Allan Kaprow created that sanctuary and conceptual framework for me; that he pointed me to the deep well of water that exists whenever I need it.

Today I swept the yard and I thought of Allan sweeping in a place without lines of demarcation.

Aida Mancillas, MFA 1988

Public Artist
Commissioner, San Diego Commission for Arts & Culture
Founding member, Public Address, a public art advocacy group
Founding member, Las Comadres
State Representative, Marriage Equality USA
Latino Outreach Chair, San Diegans Against Marriage Discrimination
Member, Latino Services Advisory Committee, San Diego LGBT Center
Past President, Centro Cultural de la Raza

Thank you Allan.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

On unexpected Treasures: Discovering the Drawings of Luis Nishizawa

April 7, 2007



A couple of years ago I chanced to be seated at a luncheon next to a young man whose family business was art collection and sale of Mexican master printers. We engaged in a pleasant conversation and he offered to show me the work that he and his father had at his home, followed by lunch. I decided to take him up on his offer and invited the Latin American art historian, Dr. Janet Brody Esser, along for authentification and education purposes. She and her husband Bob Radlow have a grand collection and she would know what was authentic from what was derivative.

We gave each other a signal that would indicate, “this is the real thing,” and I was to note it and pass along. As my appreciation for his collection grew I admit I forgot the signal.

The house was full of wonderful work, mostly prints but some original works. They were in closets, hanging about in the rec room, and in trunks and portfolios in the garage. We went through all of it like greedy children at Christmas, wondering what treasures were hidden. Most of it, again, was intaglio prints by Mexican Masters like Tamayo or Rafael Coronel, But to our amazement, in their own yellowing portfolio was a stack of black and white line drawings of the most exquisite quality. Japanese in sensibility but definitely the work of a Mexican Master. We had come upon the rarely seen work of Luis Nishizawa, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luis_Nishizawa)

The product of a Mexican mother and Japanese father he is considered a living national treasure, a gifted and generous teacher, and the author of many landscapes. He was born in Mexico in 1920 and lives and teaches there at the Academy of San Carlos where he also received his training.

I cannot describe the over whelming delight of seeing something completely new and outside of my experience. The delight mingled with the immediate thoughts of preservation and display. Thank fully a local institution took the work on loan so that it might have a better preservation location. It still needs proper presentation and documentation but for now it is safe and out of the garage so easily accessible through the alley of the collector’s home.

Nishizawa demonstrates a delicate, almost calligraphic technique known to Japanese landscape painters. His work is of people in relationship to each other, and he demonstrates intense feeling and relationships through just a few marks; heavy, light, barely there, His figures are not the heroic of Caravaggio. but they have great presence. They are small, delicate, and yet have such a deep presence.

I hope they finally find their way to exhibition once all the work of insuring, etc. is complete. For me it was an astonishing afternoon find. It was Easter and Christmas and my birthday combined. I believe I shall never again stand in front of something unknown and splendid like that. I am grateful to have experienced that once.

In San Diego there is still the possibility for that to happen. In Balboa Park, in obscure offices, there are wonderful little WPA paintings that never see the light of day, much less are accessible to the general public to whom they truly belong as part of the Civic collection Treasures are scattered everywhere. Slow down and notice the art around you, and don’t be afraid to note when something is excellent. Trust that sense that tells you that one thing can be better than another without being elitist.

Perhaps the Nishizawa drawings, will find a permananent home in an appropriate venue. For now there is no Civic Gallery and no funds to create on. City staff does their heroic best to catalog and keep track of what is out there and will continue to keep these orphaned works on their radar screen. As citizens we should care about these works as we are their stewards as well.

There is so much out there; so much to discover, so much to help bring back before it’s gone forever. I’m so glad to meet Nishizawa and claim him for my own cultural patrimony.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Tyranny of Like/Don't Like

The Tyranny of Like Don’t Like

By Aida Mancillas


Introduction


The woman brought herself close to me. She was shaking with rage; an athletic woman; petite, chic, progressive, had sailed the world with her children and husband so that the children would have a different kind of growing up experience; other than the kind of slacker Southern California experience that can be so seductive. These were parents planning “peak experience” lives for their kids. I had played tennis with her Coronado. She and her husband were intense, but they were for Howard Dean. Right politics goes a long way in getting acquainted with new people.

Now she had cornered me demanding if I was responsible for the sculpture along the waterfront that had recently been installed. ISIS a loan to the city and port for one year and is the work of a major American artist, Mark DiSuvero .It was on loan from the Hirshorn Museum in Washington, D.C. In any other city it would have been considered a coup to acquire it; but this was San Diego, county and city. There would be the usual limitations set for the work. It would only be up a year and could be removed permanently after that; which as becoming a way to reassure folks that public art could be gotten rid of. We would, of course, plan in advance for any public art’s removal.

I had never been able to convince my colleagues on the Commission’s role as stewards of the people’s public art collection. Shouldn’t it remain up longer, a number of years that we could agree upon that allowed access year round for public art works? But this woman’s reaction was what the city and port had to deal with on an ongoing basis and so both agencies had prepared to support public art but in ways that gave them a way out of “controversy.
ISIS, the work which now occupies the corner of Laurel and Harbor Drive, had enraged this woman; had disrupted her usual, private walk albeit in the public realm. She wanted accountability She was used to getting it. . I explained to her that the decision making process for the acquisition and silting of ISIS had been transparent. It had involved months of work, meetings, reviews, open and noticed public discussion. The process was transparent. But today, buttonholed, I was the impediment to HER unequivocal right to have her very singular experience of morning walk. There was no public space, shared space issue. I had broken into her home (into her waterfront condo that I felt was the scar upon the landscape, cutting off both views and access to the bay for San Diegans and visitors and depriving us of our cultural landscape.) and my cohorts and I had made her good life less than.

It occurred to me that she and I entered into public space in very different ways. I assumed that the public space into which I entered did not belong to me or anyone else. It was held in trust together. But no, that’s not what was happening. People were entering public space e and thinking of it as quasi ownership. What happened in those grey spaces that are governed by downtown masterplans, CCDC, City master plans and the orphan spaces frequently found in urban areas?

My explanation of the process and my comments on the merits of the work did not assuage the rage. It was if I had done something purposefully to harm her peace of mind, her life. I wanted to shoot back that it was her horrible waterfront condo and all the condos and banality that it brought to the waterfront that was the real crime. They were stealing the waterfront, its views, and its public access, from the Citizens who had a right to them. THAT was the real crime here. But I said nothing more, just trying to be politic and reassuring, but I felt assaulted, and the disturbing quality of that exchange is still within me.

There was nothing I could do to break through the personalized anger she felt to a place where we might actually look at and talk about the work; its size, the materials, its relationship to the artist’s father and his life as an Italian seaman.

No entry in to any kind of dialogue.

I prided myself on my ability to engage people and turn them, at least to a place that we could agree to take a broader view. The rage coming off the woman was a force field.


I gave up.



Every day folks are more cultured than we believe they are, making culture choices that the culture mavens might deem lesser, or incomprehensible; but it is still culture they are choosing.

Some citizens have to get over that not everything that is in the public right of way is theirs for their living rooms. They try to stop the moving forward of public art or other initiatives. This is not how the arts work. Ultimately the arts are engaged with the notice of very small things. I found that these small things, small gestures, have contained an incredible richness of meaning, that I would not have know had some artist not shared that with me.

“Quirky, off beat ideas, are not something to be afraid of. They are the genesis of new, sometime more powerful ideas. Sometimes they don’t go anywhere, they just fall flat. And that is ok. The arts are about failure and risk as much as they are about success. Sometimes our paintings are crappy, things not turning out the way we thought. Oh well. Something else will come from that. Maybe not now, but down the line. That’s the whole reason for the failure in the first place. Take risks, and more risks. The mayor of Paris, a few years ago, covered the banks of the Seine a few years ago with sand. He wanted the workers to be able to go some place else while they worked in a shut down August to service tourists. How charming and delightful. How compassionate and humane. The citizens, not the elite, come first. It is their dialogue and delight and education that come first. We can do that here. It only requires vision and will. No grand flourishes. Just play. Be willing to play. It is essential in building great cities. Water the plants that are here, not on the leaves, but at the roots.”

I think the trick is to make sure that there is enough “small culture gesture” sprinkled liberally throughout the city. Like a big discovery of small presents everywhere, an Easter egg hunt. Everyday you discover your old favorites, but you can also find new ones. Maybe that way people would feel that they were not being forced to eat their broccoli, get all cultured up. But they could find their own special present made for them, everyday. Perhaps that’s a bit of public art. An artist garden set in a public part. A film festival set on the lawn bowling courts. Like throwing a dinner party on the Vermont St. Bridge. A moonlight dance on the redwood circle of the Marsten house. The stage is all here. The players are here. Let them create and don’t stand in their way with preconceived ideas. Give it enough time to work and root!

People have culture. They are savvy culture consumers. Unfortunately culture produces junk and we seem to be eating a lot of junk. But we don’t have to keep eating it. There are good people here is SD using there considerable resources to make what is here happen, and to stabilize what is already here. I honor them for their devotion. My suggestion is to create new metaphors for this border city, for this city that shares a border with Mexico. One of my suggestions is SD as city of museums. But the kinds of museums that are experiential, discovered by a little walk… perhaps a storefront museum of keys that takes place in a “vitrine”. (A glass case or storefront window.)(A glass case or storefront window. Full of the most interesting installations (Paris). It could also be the city of interlocking gardens. Some public, private, viewed over the fence, for having your coffee in and for playing soccer in. They could have their own artistic component. In Rome I played the game of re naming piazzas to suit what was happening in them. I was proposed marriage in the piazza of wild horses, but it’s just a piazza outside Trader Joes. It is a lovely activity to see what is there and restructure it, so that it fills space with a different kind of meaning. The purpose of all the reimagining SD is not about money, prosperity, or economic engines (all those Calvinsit bags we bring with us). It’s about the people who live here: the old, students, children, artists, immigrants, differently-abled, married, single Any time you leave your home you should feel enveloped by it’s excitement… its possibilities. It is not about filling the potholes or decorating the city so that it is “pretty” like some HDTV special. It must be authentic. No gimmicks. Gimmicks are like sugar, Quick rush, a crash, and then bad headache.

We must search out what is authentic and not bring in Mr. Marstens squirrels. When we plant even the stick of a native oak we see native birds we rarely see come back. It is immediate. I imagine this is true in the arts as well. We can look to the lighthouses of Paris and NY, but what shines for us is here in SD that is what brings people here as well.


The woman brought herself close to me. She was shaking with rage; an athletic woman, progressive and adventurous. She had sailed the world with her children and husband, living on their sailboat visiting many countries and ports.. I had played tennis with her.
Now she had cornered me demanding if I was responsible for the sculpture along the waterfront that had recently been installed. ISIS is on loan to the city and port of San Diego for one year and is the work of a major American artist, Mark DiSuvero.

ISIS, the work which now occupies the corner of Laurel and Harbor Drive, had enraged her; had disrupted her usual walk. She wanted accountability. I sat on the Commission for Arts & Culture and we had, indeed, been part of the review and decision making process. It had involved months of work, meetings, reviews, and public discussion. The process was transparent.

My explanation of the process and my comments on the merits of the work did not assuage the rage. It was if I had done something purposefully to harm her peace of mind, her life. I wanted to shoot back that it was her horrible waterfront condo and all the condos and banality that it brought to the waterfront that was the real crime. They were stealing the waterfront, its views, and its public access, from the Citizens who had a right to them. THAT was the real crime here. I said nothing more, just trying to be politic and reassuring, but I felt assaulted, and the disturbing quality of that exchange is still within me.

There was nothing I could do to break through the personalized anger she felt to a place where we might actually look at and talk about the work; its size, the materials, its relationship to the artist’s father and his life as an Italian seaman.

Unfortunately, I was unable for find an entry i to any kind of dialogue.

I prided myself on my ability to engage people and turn them, at least to neutral—the starting point of conversation, but this was hard. I was feeling assaulted, so I did what I rarely do at these moments. I gave up, said a few “uh huhs, and said goodbye., my regards to your husband.”.


How do you change peoples fear? How do we change ourselves so that we can lead with open hands and heart?

The thing is how do you move people to this place of pause and evaluation? How do you get them to engage their delight? How do you get them to be curious and not angry when they don’t know or recognize something immediately? Something they don’t already know or understand. they take as an insult. They project ELITISM on the idea, project, person delivering the message, etc. They are not willing to wait to see what unfolds and consequently just reject the whole thing. So Instead of dialogue and mature democracy one gets “The Tyranny of Like Don’t Like”

You cannot keep art away from people by presuming that they like what you like. You can be sure they’re not going to like something. Those things need to come out and be debated or talked about or engaged in some way. No one individual or agency should stop that from. But no one individual or agency should hamper an organic dialogue. Instead, the support of the arts needs to be an ongoing commitment with plenty or time and room to learn from failing and odd tangents and experimentation.

Aida Mancillas
San Diego, CA
Wed. Feb21 2007 6:00 am