Action and Inaction

The last few weeks have been interesting. As I adjust to this return to reflective time, it is dawning on me that I have not stood still much in the last several years. It has been one active engagement with hands on fabric, or paper, or keyboard after another. There has been precious little time to walk, sit, think, or breathe the momentousness of any single action.

This week I have had to stop.

Not that it hasn’t been its own kind of frenetic, but instead of acting and doing, I have been forced to actively attend meetings, readings, discussions, and decisions.

This week I have had to breathe.

In order to be sure of the next steps I have had to take stock of my surroundings and attend not just to operational decisions about which thermos to buy (and then break), but which opportunities to set my sights on (and then to lose them).

This week I have had to contemplate.

What meanings can I find woven in the words of our readings? What connections can be made between my classes? How can these things inform the burning questions that light up my mind without causing a deluge of more questions?

Is the deluge of more questions so bad?

Safety Pin Necklace, Absurdist Theatre, and Art as Action

Gabrielle's NecklaceSafety pins don’t poke you, so they are safe, but they are also a powerful symbol because they hold things together when they are broken.

As a costume designer I use them ALL THE TIME!

This necklace is for a costume in a play.  It is worn by the character, Gabrielle, who is selectively blind and deaf.  Her sewing machine speaks to her.  She acts as the allegory for Equality in a French Absurdist play, called the Madwoman of Chaillot.  It was written by Girandoux and it was first performed in 1945.  At Greenhills this term the students are doing this play with a new translation which has replaced obscure French political figures from the 30’s and 40’s with modern references, including a few to Trump, Goldman Sachs, and others.

We are doing the play at Greenhills School, a smaller bubble within the privileged bubble of Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Working on this play during our current election cycle has opened conversations about politics, privilege, and lots of other things.

My designs are inspired by pioneering women artists, Sonia Delaunay, and Elsa Schiaparelli.  They are surreal and abstract and play into some of the overt symbolism that gets packed into French Absurdist theatre.

I will write about them in a separate post, but let me describe for you Gabrielle’s costume: She wears a hat that has hands that cover her ear or eye, whichever is currently selectively deaf or blind.  Her outfit has hands holding her back at the waist to keep her from acting.

She is the personification of the saying: See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.  Inaction as the equalizer before evil.

As an artist-teacher, costume designer and privileged white person, in some ways the selectively blind and deaf madwoman whose sewing machine speaks to her couldn’t be a better archetype for me to favor.

I cannot see or feel or hear the oppression that happens to many members of my community, despite my best efforts to do so.  My perspective is as limited as that of Gabrielle.

However, nobody is holding me back from acting.  I live my life by reaching out to my whole community.

In addition to my job with students of privilege, I am also the Program Director at FLY Children’s Art Center in Ypsilanti.  We take art programs to the kids in the schools and have community events, free and affordable classes in our studio in the Riverside Arts Center.

I do not go out and protest* with Black Lives Matter.  It addresses a specific problem, and while I’m proud to be a white ally as often as I am “woke” enough to do so, I am not a valuable warrior as a protest organizer.

I am more valuable as a teacher and connector between communities, and that is how I see the safety pins.  A way to open conversations.

I plan on making myself one of these safety pin necklaces so that I can hand safety pins to other blind and deaf people who want to be able to connect to members of their community and be stronger together by starting conversations with each other.

Who says the safety pin thing is just for white liberal people to feel good about themselves?  Why should it be just an instrument of privilege?

Let’s make safety pins into something that can be worn by anyone.  We can all stand together and wear them.  I know I probably sound as blind and deaf as the character Gabrielle now, but I think there are powerful ways to grow stronger together and overcome implicit biases and eventually overcome systemic racism.

Right now we are falling into the trap where we are looking at each other like we are the 2-D allegorical characters whom I’ve built costumes for this last several weeks.  As Chimananda Ngozi Adichie says in her TED talk about how we see Africa, we Americans are not single stories, and we are not two dimensional or metaphoric.

We are live human beings who are striving to help each other.

I encourage everyone to put on a safety pin and talk to each other.  If you see me, ask for one, or maybe I’ll stop and give you one!

By listening to each others’ stories and getting to know each other, maybe we will be less blind and deaf to one another.

Right now, by hearing, seeing, and speaking no evil, we are allowing evil to happen.

Even in our Ann Arbor bubble, yesterday a woman was threatened and forced to remove her hijab near the U-M Campus.  If any one of us had been there to hear it and see it and do something, maybe she could have been spared that assault.

[Edit: I read something yesterday evening after I wrote this that resonated.  A 40 year old white man posted on Facebook in one of the “secret groups” that Hillary referenced in her speech about why he wants to wear a safety pin.  He said something like, “It’s not because the marginalized or frightened people need to know.  It is because the other white people need to know how many of us there are.”

If we wear them and talk about what it means and be rational about why we are upset, maybe it is a good reminder to be an ally in spaces where marginalized people are invisible because they are inhabited by people who are all white.  The more proverbial version of “Locker Room Talk” is one way of putting it.

I have had white people who say some really mean and ignorant things in front of me be surprised when I call them on it in the past!  I’m already a stand-out without the pin, so it is a bit shocking that people ever say ignorant stuff in front of me, but sometimes they do.

This idea is most useful if BOTH Liberals and Conservatives who do not support the angry rhetoric of the campaign put on the safety pins and agree to stand up when they hear ignorance.]

As long as you plan on being safe with each other, whether you are, Liberal or Conservative; Black, White, Asian, Arab, Native American, Non-White Latino; LGBTQA; Rich, Poor, or Anyone Else who isn’t mentioned in this list!

Putting on a safety pin is not enough, but it is threading the sewing machine so we can hear it speak as Gabrielle does.


*[edit 11/14, addendum about protest] I do not protest much anymore.  I believe that Black Lives Matter, that Black Youth Matter, that Black Art Matters.  Implicit Bias, however, is hard to fight with protest.  It has to be un-learned.  I should know:  I also suffer from a variety of implicit biases about race, gender, and other human differences upon which I endeavor not to act, but I am imperfect, sometimes deaf and blind to my own biases.  As I have grown older I find more continuous engagement in the communities where I live to be more effective than street protest.  However, I have participated in a few protests in the last several years, including one for BLM in Detroit on Noel Night a few years ago, and given time and money to other kinds of community happenings that hopefully have helped raise awareness.  The ineffectiveness of the Iraq War street protests left me very disillusioned with that form of political discourse.  Many friends of mine were arrested during that time, and nobody listened to us, so I began to find other ways of connecting and countering ignorance by listening to people, trying to form lasting community connections, and becoming an artist-teacher instead of trying to be a gallery or commercial artist.

Goings On About Town

Big things are in the works. Baby steps!!!

Though my drawing a day project has once again fizzled, I have in fact been making art nearly every day.  When I started the project, my intention was to do all kinds of work, showing progress, drawings, sketches, and finished work as it went on.

But as the project went on, my parameters got more and more narrow.  First, somehow, I decided it had to be a drawing. Then I decided it had to be a drawing on a particular size of paper.  But as an artist, I’m all over the place.  I do several bodies of work in several media all the time.  All those limitations are not how I work, but somehow I talked myself slowly into that consistency and regularity.

Some of the work that I do as an artist is less photographic.  Like the above shot, a photogenic rearrangement of something much less exciting to look at: making the “paints” for my “paintbox.”  Each sheet has to be torn and in order to use them more efficiently be rolled into a ball so when it comes to making the carpet, no detangling is needed.

In any case, I wanted to outline for you some of what I’ve been working on, though each of these things will get more attention as time goes on this summer, perhaps you would like to know the whole list of “what’s up” in Adventurous Art land.

Recycle Ann Arbor had an Earth Day Art Contest, and my “Sun Rug” was selected to be a finalist.  Though the turnout was small, I stuck around for the Public Reception and made some good connections to people in the community.

My small success in that contest persuaded me to shoot higher and I’ve been working on a proposal for a larger series of rag carpets to be displayed in narrative series from Cloud, to Rain, to Rainbow, to Sun.  The first proposal contains some mistakes and omissions, so we will see.  In either case, I’m excited about the project and you will see some progress shots soon.

One person I met through the program was the Outreach and Zero-Waste coordinator for RAA with whom I’m coordinating the translation of some of their materials about how to recycle in Ann Arbor into Spanish.  It’s cool to get to do some translation work, if only as a volunteer.

She also introduced me to someone at the Ecology Center, and I’m volunteering with them to do an interactive recycled art table at the Eco-Ride on June 23 at Riverside Park in Ann Arbor.  Yes, Ann Arbor, not Ypsi.  I’m going to do a whole entry about this since I made them a video and I think you’ll enjoy our project, even if you can’t attend the Eco-Ride.

Another of the people I met through the Recycle Ann Arbor Earth Day Contest was the director of FLY Art Center, an Ypsi organization that does outreach to under-served public school children.  We met up and I’m going to teach some “Studio Skills” classes (one about no-sew upcycled t-shirts, and one about rag rug coasters or placemats), and do some volunteering for them in their outreach and public programs.



086:365 The BIG Smokestack

086:365 The BIG Smokestack

When I was in pre-school, a time most people probably don’t remember, there are few things I remember. One of them was that I loved when the carpool/volunteer-for-the-day-at-the-co-op-nursery would drive by the BIG smokestack instead of going through campus.

It used to be that the bottom of the smokestack for the U-M physical plant used to be exposed. It produces hot-water, some electricity, and heat for the university to keep it somewhat isolated from the “grid” and whatever else a “Physical Plant” for a university should do. The details are fuzzy.

Today we went around to various places in Ann Arbor to take pictures of various improvements and disimprovements before the trees get leaves. We could see a wider swath of downtown from the park at the top of Sunset, and we took some pictures to share with our out-of-town acquaintances who remember the A2 of my childhood at newest, but don’t know how many more buildings have taken root on the skyline.

The BIG smokestack was the one sign that Ann Arbor was a big city when I was a kid. I remember walking there past the Power Center (where I scraped my knees) to see the base of the smokestack. We could actually walk up and touch it. Though it was a little too far for my 4 year-old self, and I remember after the time I scraped my knees, we didn’t do it again. It has been covered for a long time, but now, instead of a simple shanty at its base, there is an enormous building, and they built a commons.

So much has changed that sometimes, perhaps because of my long absences from Ann Arbor, I can’t remember what was where the Taubman Biomedical Chemistry Building, or the Potato-Chip in townie speak, is. It was nothing that fancy, though there was a building there.

Change can be good, and I think that much of the space in downtown and on campus is being used to a much livelier degree. Ann Arbor feels alive now. Maybe it always did, and I’ve finally been away long enough to feel like it is a great place.

On a day like today, which Angelinos would take in full winter get-ups, Ann Arborites were running in short-shorts. There is something to be said for seasons. The human body can take hot and cold. Change is good. Spring is here!

081:365 Moving Mountains

081:365 Moving Mountains

Today’s drawing is a contemplation of illusion and space.

At first glance it is the same drawing as yesterday, but I decided to put more emphasis on analagous colors and leave only blue and orange complementary colors.

Though I didn’t notice it until the second row of blue triangles were drawn, the process ended up creating heart-shapes, an unintended side effect of the tiling process. So I decided to use the second layer to break them back up into analagous sets of triangles.

The ending effect leaves me pondering vanishing points and reflections. They look like hills and valleys, perhaps desert terrain and mountains, all vanishing into the distance with something that feels like reflections.

This drawing is a contemplation of progression in color, space, and maybe even time. Maybe I’ll turn the concept into a video of ever changing progressing colors along triangular rails that end in a vanishing point.

It almost reminds me of that Sesame Street video where the lights are sort of disco-flashy.