Arts in Education: Reading Baldwin

I found a chair!

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As a part of the Arts in Education program that I’m entering, we have a series of readings.  I’m not sure I will journal everything this year, but one thing that I miss lately is the reflective practice that I have often had, so it is a goal to share at least some of my reflections with you, my readers.

I am struck in reading the article, “The Creative Process” by James Baldwin as found here on Black de Cool Sun’s Blog, by how nearly Baldwin’s reflection on his practice and sense of self mirrors the last few months of my life (if not longer). I have recently been reflection on how the image of who I thought I wished to be is so divergent from who I have become.

That is: I have always held myself the goal of a life with a sweet domesticity, with a beautiful stable house with a garden and a family, but the life that I’ve lived is far more wild.

Everyone but me has perceived this other wild Allida. When I talk about this dichotomy that has been particularly sharp lately, they say, “What do you mean? You have gone on adventures; you’ve always longed for broader horizons.” And I have gone on adventures: Chicago, Madrid, Florida, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, home to Michigan, and now Cambridge.

As Baldwin says, “…”[anyone] knows that the one face that one can never see is one’s own face. One’s lover– or one’s brother, or one’s enemy– sees the face you wear…” the implication being that the same is true of our own foibles and choices. As he goes on to say, “We do the things we do and feel what we feel essentially because we must– we are responsible for our actions, but we rarely understand them.”

Along those lines, much of the path that drew me here has felt surreal. My choices have led me here, to this moment of pushing my boundaries, but my comprehension of how I “dare disturb the universe” is meagre. Pushing myself and my creation out of the proverbial nest. To fly or fall, though “In a minute there is time/ For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”*

The other pervasive feeling, perhaps the one that led me to risk this adventure in the first place, is that I feel very precarious. In this I am not alone, many people in my X-ennial generation and the ones that follow me are members of the Precariat, a term meant to describe the precarious nature of work as it is becoming in the 21st Century.

Here too, Baldwin has something to say, perhaps because the life of an artist and writer has always been a bit precarious,

There are so many things one would rather not know. We become social creatures because we cannot live any other way. But in order to become social, there are a great many other things that we must not become and we are frightened, all of us, of these forces within that perpetually menace our precarious security. Yet the forces are there: we cannot will them away. All we can do is learn to live with them. And we cannot learn this unless we are willing to the ll the truth about ourselves, and the truth about us is always at variance with what we wish to be. The human effort is to bring these two realities into a relationship resembling reconciliation.

It is a feeling both of joy and of loss as the seasons change and I migrate to new horizons. And I am actively in that moment of reconciliation between who and what I am and who and what I perceive myself to be.  The prospect of what I will learn and how I will grow and the new friends I will make are joyful. The loss of the work I have loved, has incited an introspective attempt at reconciling my outer artist-adventurer with my inner domesticity. I will miss you Ypsilanti, I will love you Cambridge!

*a second reference to the same T.S. Eliot poem,

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.

Detroit Art City!

Nick Cave Costume Heard Herd
Nick Cave Costume Heard Herd
Nick Cave Costume, with happy young dancer!

Saturday was an outdoor performance extravaganza of Nick Cave’s costumes from his residency at Cranbrook.

Starting first with the lovely afternoon, and the sense of community that manifested in crowds of people on the hill ready to watch the dancers in anthropomorphic costumes dance and move to the beat of a small marching band.

I went with a friend who lives in Detroit, and the first thing that happened was that we decided to park far away and walk rather than pay $10 to go in the structure. It is in a very pretty part of the city, so we got to walk through a beautiful (if poorly maintained) park, and then down the hill to the park, which has another hill in it.

Grazing horses in front of the Renaissance Center
As they played L’après Midi d’un Faun, Horses grazed

Then, once we found a spot, we ran into the first person that we know, who had brought her mother, in from out of town. They shared our sheet and watched the show, chatting about the world, the community etc.

But the young woman wanted ice cream, so I went down the hill to get ice cream with her. And who should follow us back up the hill, but 2 of my students from FLY! I vaguely knew that one of them might be there since I had been talking to her mother earlier in the day. Even so, it was very random to be chased up the hill by 2 kids under 12.

Then the show, and afterwards, another FLY teacher was there with her kids, who were in our camps this summer too.

It is amazing how small the big scary world is, when it comes down to it!

Then someone said there were installations in the Dequindre Cut, so we walked down there and saw several installations: swings on an overpass, crazy steel-wire lightning erupting out of a hill, some weird constructions made out of gator board, and lots of beautiful murals/graffiti.

Having walked down the Dequindre Cut required a decision: to walk back to where we parked a few blocks from Milliken State Park, or to walk towards downtown and back up the river. I always love a good walk.

So off we went, down Gratiot, past a church with an Oktoberfest and a live pretty good live (high school) jazz band. Past the Fail Jail. Past several pieces of public art including some I’d never noticed before. Then into Campus Martius, and walking down Woodward to Hart Plaza we found some of those wacky merry-go-round chairs and some neat gazing balls.

The Ren Cen ever present with us on our journey, and Canada within sight for the last angle of the triangle.

In the photo of me, although the new landscaping in the park is more interesting than the statue, it is of one of the Stroh’s who loved bird-watching. We did see and hear some birds (and freighters and steamboats, oh my!).

Detroit Art City!!!

Cathedrals and Time

Buttresses of the Cathedral of M-14. Nice long walk in Bandemer towards Argo

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Over the years I have always loved bridges. They have great acoustics. They are beautiful in their way, even the ones that are very boring infrastructure have their moments of numinous beauty. Over the last few years, I’ve been taking pictures of the bridges that cross over the parks in Ann Arbor. Watching for that difference of the light, much as Monet painted quotidian haystacks over and over. In a way, it is even more impressionist than the Impressionists, this photographic documentation. But it misses something of the feeling that I get from the bridges. From the human-made space as it interacts with the natural world. The most beautiful of the bridges have not only the organ music of the freeway traffic, but the rose windows of the sunlight reflected up onto their latticework from the reflected light on the water.

Cathedral of M-14 A video posted by Allida (@hemoracallis) on

But even that sound misses the numinous nature of my meditation under bridges. There is a moment when the bridge turns from being dark to being light that makes it mysterious and beautiful. The transformation from shaded cavern to glowing life and light is a numinous experience, and so I’ve started to take time-lapse videos to document this metamorphosis.

 

Time lapse with less frames. Watch the bridge light up

 

A video posted by Allida (@hemoracallis) on

We Build grand structures these days, but they are not always built for their beauty as the cathedrals and basilicas of old. They are build for practical purposes, their architects and builders are nearly invisible to us, but this does not mean that they cannot be beautiful.

Fallen Angels

2014-06-05 16.00.26

Come see the latest show for PTD at the Riverside Arts Center, Fallen Angels Opens June 12.

Set in the 1920’s I’m taking inspiration from Erté in the gowns and dresses. Mostly they are dressed up contemporary evening gowns, but one was made from scratch.