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?

Arts in Education: Reading Baldwin

I found a chair!

A post shared by Allida (@hemoracallis) on

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.

Contrapposto Cantilevers

Much like we like to take pictures and make sculptures of each other, the Egyptians tried to portray the human figure in sculpture and paint.  See this example below, which is in the Metropolitan Museum of New York, AKA the Met.  She is tall and slim, with great posture and huge eyes.

Estate Figure, Wood and Gesso. 1981- 1975 BCE At the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

QUESTION: What words would you use to tell me about this picture?
FOLLOW-UPS TO GET THE IDEA OUT: How does the picture feel?  What do you notice about the figure?
WORDS WE EXPECT: Stiff, uptight, bored, regal, upset, tense, a little weird

The Ancient Egyptians were trying to figure out a bunch of stuff all at once: how to carve stone, and other technical ideas; how to observe the world around them; and how to make the images they created fit into a symbolic belief system. The textures on the dress are very stylized as is her pose.

The Ancient Egyptians made art because they had a very complex religious system and these images served a variety of purposes in that system.  That is why the figure is stylized.  But there is more going on here.  This figure is made of wood and is around 4,000 years old.  It survived because it was buried with it’s master and preserved in a hot dry environment underground.  A pyramid or other burial location.  She represents a member of the estate of the person who was buried.

This next figure was Greek and it is (only) 2200 years old.  Let’s look at some similarities and differences between the two.  We will look at the stylistic as well as the

Victoire de Samothrace - vue de trois-quart gauche, gros plan de la statue (2)
Nike of Samothrace, Greek 200-190 BCE, Louvre Museum, Paris France
Ok, let’s talk about this one.  It is  The Nike of Samothrace.  She is on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

QUESTION: What words would you use to describe it, just like we did for the first image?
(SAME Follow-up if needed)
WORDS WE EXPECT: cool, relaxed, natural… etc.
PUT PRINT OUTS OF BOTH IMAGES.

OK, so let’s look at how these images are the same and different.
(SAME: subject is a woman, shifting her weight from one foot to the other)
(DIFFERENT: Aesthetic stuff, Time period if they know, color painted, incidentally the Greek statues were probably painted but being kept above ground instead of in hermetically sealed pyramids, the paint has long since peeled. Some have traces though.  The Egyptian Statue is wood, the Greek is stone)

DRAW IN THE HIP and SHOULDER lines… THEN THE S CURVE for the body.

The Egyptian figure has almost perfectly horizontal hips and shoulders even though her foot is forward, so the lines on the hip and shoulder end up making a sideways “H.”  The Greek Figure the shoulders and hips are very slanted.  When you connect the dots and trace the legs, you end up with what we call an S curve.

It’s more a more natural pose because when we put a foot forward, we actually shift our weight from one foot to the other.  But it is harder to balance an asymmetrical figure when you are carving a stationary object because once you take away or reduce stone or wood from a block, you cannot put it back, so if you take away too much from someplace the whole thing falls over and you could lose hours and hours of work.

The fluidity of the style and the reason the Classical statue looks more “cool” is because of the way the artists figured out how to balance that shifting of weight that we do naturally with our moving bodies.  The S curve creates movement because some of the body is relaxed and some of it is tensed to support the weight.

ACTIVITY:
Stand up
Shift your weight from right foot to left.
Try to pose like the Ancient Egyptian figure
Try to pose like the Nike of Samothrace
Then move your left foot and feel which parts of your body shift.
How far can you lean over and what parts of your body move to keep your balance when you do that?
Which muscles are relaxed while you balance and which ones are tense (the ones you are using)?
Finally, stand against the wall and lean forward as far as you can. How far can you go without moving your arms away from your sides?
Can you imagine doing this out of stone?

One thing to remember, if any of you are dancers, this will make sense: For your center of gravity to hold you up, your weight bearing ankle is almost always directly under your neck. Also generally speaking, the part of your body that is bearing the load of your motion is the part that is stiff.

So the Ancient Egyptians and Classical Greeks came up with a couple different solutions. In part because of the different purposes for these statues. First, aesthetically, both design solutions were related to the religious and spiritual needs of their society.  Second as you have seen by paying attention to your body, balance is

The Egyptians had a very compartmentalized religion in which the Pharaoh was the only go-between and protector of the people on their journey through life and death. So the Egyptians wanted a very stylized image, which is apparent in the way it’s painted and carved, and its very graphic nature. The Greeks, well, you only have to read a few ancient tales to know that the Ancient Greeks had a much more human relationship to their gods. So the Nike of Samothrace is very dynamic. The folds of cloth give extra movement to her body, she is very real and very lifelike. The Egyptian dress was also pleated, but the pleats are contained and very straight, looking almost like scales in this image.

The second reason that the two ancient cultures had different solutions was technical. The Ancient Egyptians had not quite figured out how to balance a statue the way people balance, and a few centuries later, working off the knowledge from Egypt and other neighboring cultures, the Greeks had progressed in their technical ability.

Much like you guys know how to do stuff to computers that didn’t even exist when I was your age. Without the people who built the computers who are my age and older, you would not be able to do those things, but we may not be able to figure out the way to do it as quickly as you!

Lastly, most of the sculptures we have shared with you are far far away, but we have some statues of dancers that are at the University of Michigan Museum of Art and at the DIA that you can go and look at. (I have not verified that they are on display, but the Degas (or a very similar one) is almost always out at the DIA, and the Rodin sculptures were there last time I was at UMMA).

Edgar Degas, Spanish Dancer, French, 1900 Bronze. DIA Collection (Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit MI)

These works are cast bronze, which is very different than stone, and has different material properties. To make casts in bronze, one usually first makes an image out of wax and other softer easier to mold materials, then follows a bunch of different steps to cast it into bronze.

Using what we have experienced with our senses is the artist’s way of figuring out how to make things balance. Knowing weights and textures and feeling the structural strength with our hands, but in the engineering design process there are other ways to measure that using Mathematics and Physics.

For more images pertaining to contrapposto, I’ve compiled a pinboard on Pinterest with additional images.  The images above are women, because this was written to support the Art of Engineering for Girls at FLY Children’s Art Center.  But the images on the pinboard are of both genders.