|Photo by Teresa Yeh|
Monday, December 26, 2011
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Monday, December 12, 2011
My last post was about the wonderful Beauty Amid Destruction project in Tuscaloosa, which put works of art all along the swath of devastation left by the tornado that devastated the city last April. The post before that was about Juliana Santacruz Herrara's playful "patches" of colorful yarn, which she fitted into the cracks of Paris's sidewalks.
But acts of beauty for wounded places don't have to be big. They don't have to take a lot of time. They don't even have to involve more than one person. And sometimes you get a surprise burst of beauty and delight in the process.
Last month a family in our small village of Thompson, Pennsylvania cut down the three beautiful old catalpa trees that lined their front yard. One of the trees clearly had heartrot, but the others were perfectly healthy, and I was very sad to see them go. Their big heart-shaped leaves and dangling mahogany-colored pods looked very elegant, almost whimsical, on this block of small homes.
After the tree surgeons and their shredding machine had left, I went over to the house with a bag of birdseed and started sprinkling offerings on the stumps for the birds that had lost their home. This was my simple act of "making beauty," which Radical Joy for Hard Times suggests as part of every encounter with a wounded place.
A sudden movement startled me. I looked up and saw nothing. Then the movement flashed again. This time a chipmunk popped up from the tree with the hole in its core. The chipmunk had immediately adjusted to the new situation. Now it had a place to hide, both itself and its store of food. Its appearance was a delight, proof that nature invariably and persistently will find a way to prevail.
The chipmunk would have moved into that hole in the stump anyway, but because I happened to be there attending to the broken trees, I got to witness it... a little joy for hard times.
Monday, December 5, 2011
When a tornado tore a swath a mile wide and seven miles long through the city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama last April, killing 239 people and leaving thousands homeless, offers of help poured in from around the country and around the world. People gave freely of blankets, food, clothing, the basic necessities of life, and many generous services. However, as Tuscaloosa resident Jean Mills thought about all these much-needed contributions, it seemed to her that one thing was missing: beauty. People needed some beauty to lift their spirits.
Thus was born Beauty Amid Destruction, a remarkable response to a large-scale calamity. Jean set out to invite artists to contribute digital images of their original work, setting only two criteria for submissions: that the work be beautiful and that it not challenge anyone’s idea of what was appropriate (i.e. no nudes). Photos of original paintings, drawings, sculpture, quilts, metalwork, and photographs began to arrive. With donations from individuals and suppliers and the support of the Tuscaloosa city council, Jean and the other Beauty Amid Destruction team members had the images copied onto vinyl banners measuring 4 by 6 feet. They then hung the banners between poles and placed them free of charge in front of homes, public buildings, and lots whose owners requested them.
The result is a gallery tour unlike any other. Brightly colored art works stand like gateways in front of empty lots, skeletal houses, and on chainlink fences in both residential and business neighborhoods. Right after the tornado, when people drove or walked through the damaged areas it was to stare at the devastation; now they go to admire the art works and the spirit of compassion and generosity that put them there. "Garden Play" by Kevin Irwin is pictured above.
“The main message about putting paintings in front of the destruction is that art can help with recovery,” Jean said recently. “There is the recognition that one’s surroundings impact one’s emotional response and how one feels about life. Putting art out there where the tornado had done such damage was a way to acknowledge that and to try to provide a counter to all the negative stuff that people were being bombarded with.”
Reflecting on the long process of trial-and-error that the Beauty Amid Destruction team went through to find the best way of reproducing the art works and placing them, Jean has volunteered to make the group’s expertise available to any other community wishing to mount a similar project. See BeautyAmidDestruction.org for more information.
Monday, November 21, 2011
Tired of stepping over all the cracks in the sidewalks of Paris, artist Juliana Santacruz Herrera decided to take action. To make her repairs she chose not concrete and asphalt, but a much softer material: yarn. Weaving together brightly colored pieces that fit each of the broken places like their own cozy sweaters, she set to work, embedding the fabric in the cracks and holes. Instantly have become magically transformed.
Whimsy is a gift, and it's relevant and welcome under all kinds of circumstances, including trying and difficult ones. By exaggerating the ubiquitous cracks, Santacruz Herrara actually transforms them into something friendly and delightful. She points to the problem, but without blame or judgment. Her work and that of other street artists bring beauty to the city in an unexpected way.
To see more great street art, visit StreetArtUtopia.com.
Friday, November 11, 2011
Saturday, November 5, 2011
When you think about a big, long, arduous environmental struggle, you are likely to picture legislation, lobbying, education, late nights spent strategizing and stuffing envelopes... but you don't typically think of art, theatre, and children.
Those elements played a big part in the twenty-year struggle of activists in southeastern Washington to get the 100-year-old Condit Dam torn down. When the dam was constructed, it blocked not only the White Salmon River, but also cut off the run of wild salmon and steelhead to their spawning grounds.
And from the start, salmon have been big players in the efforts of the activists, including Daniel Dancer, an artist (and member of the Radical Joy for Hard Times Council of Advisors). Frequently, the group held "Salmon Pageants," where children, carrying large, colorful cut-outs of the fish, would "breach" a wall. Part-ceremony, part-theatre, the pageants kept the vision of an undammed river a reality for the activists.
Repeatedly the officials in charge of the dam insisted that they would not remove it. By 2011, however, they determined that the cost of repairing the century-old structure would be higher than tearing it down, so, thanks to the persuasiveness of economics, the activists and the salmon won.
On October 26, 2011, when the children who enacted the first pageants had become young adults, the dam was exploded. Daniel Dancer has made an engrossing short (18 minutes) film, "The Art of Dam Removal". It includes footage from newscasts of the first protests, interviews with activists along the way, and the exuberant salmon pageants. The pay-off is exhilarating. When the pent-up river bursts through the breach, you can't help feeling it's a wild creature jubilantly bursting out into the world it remembers from long ago and can't wait to get back to. Even the guys in hardhats are exhilarated. "She's free!" one of them exclaims!
Sunday, October 30, 2011
Powers of Place Initiative is a remarkable (and gorgeous) website and cyber-meeting place for those who recognize that places and people have a vital, living, flexible connection with each other. One of the best features of Powers of Place is "The Field," a terrain of the website where you can sign up and be in communication with others doing interesting things to delve more intimately into the question of place... spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and artistically.
A recent article on the site by Maila T. Davenport describes three different ways to be a "pilgrim of place," in this case the Love Creek area of Santa Cruz, California, which underwent a terrible mudslide that killed a child. Davenport joins two other healers, each with a different experience, approach, and perspective. Her story shows how "we live in layers of lived experience and each one operates from a particular kind of intelligence, telling a vital part of a place's Story."
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
"A barren or desolate country always seems ugly and disagreeable, and commonly inspires us with contempt for the inhabitants. This deformity, however, proceeds in a great measure from a sympathy with the inhabitants, as has been already observ’d; but it is only a weak one, and reaches no farther than the immediate sensation, which is disagreeable. The view of a city in ashes conveys benevolent sentiments; because we there enter so deep into the interests of the miserable inhabitants, as to wish for their prosperity, as well as feel their adversity."
Now, we can (and should) argue that it is arrogant and insensitive to contempt for those who live in a poor, unlovely place. But what's interesting here is that three hundred years ago Hume was thinking about how nature strikes the mind and heart in different ways, depending on what has happened to it.
How can we move deeper into this question? How can we assess our own responses to a city torn apart by an earthquake... and a city falling into disrepair as a result of poverty? Where is the "environment" in each? Where is "Nature?" Where does our compassion lie in each circumstance?
Saturday, September 3, 2011
Here's something from that innovative and opinionated psychologist James Hillman:
"That the world is loveless results directly from the repression of beauty, its beauty and our sensitivity to beauty. For love to return to the world, beauty must first return, else we love the world only as a moral duty: Clean it up, preserve its nature, exploit it less. If love depends on beauty, then beauty comes first, a priority that accords with pagan philosophy rather than Christian. Beauty before love also accords with the all-too-human experience of being driven to love by the allure of beauty" (from "The Practice of Beauty" in Uncontrollable Beauty, ed. Bill Beckley, with David Shapiro).
Hillman goes on to say that what's really repressed in psychology today is not violence, not misogyny, not child abuse: it's beauty and the acceptance of how important beauty is to the well-being of people. Perhaps there wouldn't be so much absenteeism at work, he suggests, perhaps the attention span of school students would improve, if people could spend time in places that were lovely and cared for rather than sterile and ugly.
It's a great essay, worth buying the book for, although there are a lot of other interesting pieces in this collection as well.
Wednesday, August 31, 2011
I arrived home late Monday night after leading a workshop in Puget Sound, Washington, to discover that Hurricane Irene had knocked out the power in our rural community. Yesterday morning I was able to work on my laptop until the battery ran down, then my husband and I drove to Scranton, 35 miles away, and spent a few hours in a coffee shop, recharging our electronics and catching up on email.
We then bought some bags of ice and went home to move the food from the refrigerator into coolers. Even though practically everything on my to-do list involves the internet or the computer, I was looking forward to cooking dinner on the gas stove, then spending the evening reading by kerosene lamp. In late afternoon, however, the power came back on.
What, I wondered, would we as a culture do if the internet really went haywire? Forget the monumental problems that banks, airlines, governments would have keeping their systems running. How would we behave as individuals? I like to think that, despite the shock and initial inconvenience, we’d take some pleasure in the new reality. In the evening people might haul out old board games to play. Couples might sit in front of the fireplace holding hands and talking. Parents might tell stories to their children. Students on college campuses might once again exchange ideas in the student union instead of sitting in isolation over their smart phones. When the power was eventually restored, we would all be relieved. But perhaps we would also feel a tug of regret, as I did yesterday, that something creative, quiet, intimate, and sweet that had briefly touched our lives had now been snatched away.
Sunday, August 21, 2011
An article in the Arts & Leisure section of today's New York Times discusses Andrew Moore's photographs of the crumbling grandeur of Detroit: the abandoned Beaux-Arts railroad station (above), the hollow steel skeletons of former assembly rooms in the Ford plant, a moldy carpet in what was once Henry Ford's office. Although some people, particularly residents of Detroit, have criticized Moore's work as "ruin porn" that presents only a negative view of the city, Moore obviously finds a strange beauty in what he sees. He describes Detroit and his photos of it as the place "where art confronts anxiety."
The emergence of art from waste and the grand visions of former times also suffuses the work of photographer Emmet Gowin, who took aerial black-and-white photos of the Hanford Nuclear plant, mining operations in Montana, and the battlefields of Kuwait.
What the work of both these photographers has in common with the philosophy of Radical Joy for Hard Times is a willingness to pause and look more closely at what would seem, on the surface, to be so ugly and obsolete that it requires nothing more than to be ignored. A quick look at the old Detroit train station evokes sadness; one at the Hanford Plant a sense of awe and fear. But Moore and Gowin show that the willingness to simply witness without judgment reveals new beauties.
In the work of Moore and Gowin, however, the human is absent, and the message is that in these places there is no threshold whatsoever over which humans can cross. It is as if all the people who built these places, worked in them, lived in them are as extinct as the activities that went on there. With Radical Joy for Hard Times, one actually enters those deserted places and spends time there. The resulting photographs would zoom out to show not just the place but the people contemplating the place, the people telling their stories about what the place meant and still means to them. Finally they would show the people making an act of beauty from found objects, so that deserted, desolate place acquires, quite simply, new meaning, new purpose, new beauty.
Monday, April 25, 2011
"Is There an Ecological Unconscious," by Daniel B. Smith was published in the New York Times Magazine more than a year ago, but it's such an important piece that it's worth recirculating. Smith explores the science and psychology in the relationship between humans and nature.
Smith opens the article with the story of Glenn Albrecht, the Australian philosophy professor who coined the term "solastalgia," meaning “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’ ” Albrecht came up with the term after getting calls from people suffering from anxiety, stress, and depression as a result of the massive open-pit coal mining taking place around their homes in Hunter Valley, a formerly lush and beautiful place known as the "Tuscany of the South."
Albrecht has continued to study the effects of ecological damage on people's psyches. This link will take you to his blog, where he pursues the subject from many different angles.
That's Glenn Albrecht in the photo above. It was taken on June 19, 2010, as he and his wife participated in the first annual Radical Joy for Hard Times Global Earth Exchange. He writes: "The location was chosen as it has a commanding view of the desolation of the Hunter Valley by open cut coal mining. My wife Jill and I selected white stones in the immediate area to build an Earth Dove [Radical Joy for Hard Times bird]. The Earth Dove had an olive branch placed in its beak as a peace offering to the earth. The olive branch was taken from the garden of a person in the Hunter Valley whose life has been badly affected by open-cut coal mining. She has had to move from her ancestral home to a new location to avoid mining, but now it too is under threat from an expanding coal mine."
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Besides practicing non-violence, the young rebels rallied people to their cause by making fun of the despot who was universally feared and hated. One stunt was to put Milosevic's picture on a barrel and roll it down the street, inviting people to hit it with sticks.
After Otpor helped bring about the overthrow of Milosevic, they began holding seminars for other oppressed peoples, including several Egyptians, who went to Serbia to get ideas for their own recent revolution.
The use of humor as an antidote to fear, of wild creativity to fight rigid oppression, of singing and talking in public places to fight the rule of silence—these are important tactics, not just for overthrowing tyrants but for dealing with other regimes (corporate, industrial, political) in which we feel powerless, humiliated, and helpless.
Radical Joy for Hard Times confronts environmental assaults with beauty. This is not elite beauty, beauty made only by the recognizably talented, but beauty re-imagined by ordinary people. Expressing sorrow and compassion for a place in the moment, we use materials found at the wounded place to transform our relationship with the place. It's democratic, empowering, and creative.
I'm very interested in exploring how other Otpor tactics might work for the environment.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Last Sunday, the celebration of Earth Day at the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Binghamton, I gave a sermon called "Rebalancing Act," in which I reflected on different ways of thinking about the "balance of nature" under current global conditions. What prompted this subject was a memorable experience of witnessing dolphins swimming in the Gulf of Mexico last fall, just three months after BP capped its leaking well, and how we, the witnesses to their lovely, fluid play, responded.
I had flown to Louisiana for Gulf Coast Rising, a day of making beauty and generosity for the land and people affected by the BP oil spill. The event was sponsored by Radical Joy for Hard Times. A few of us met on the southern shore of Grand Isle, a long, narrow island south of the Louisiana mainland that, because of its vulnerable geography, stretched out from east to west in the Gulf, was particularly hard hit by the flowing oil.
There on the beach we could see rescue teams and vehicles cleaning up other beaches. But it was a beautiful fall day. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, gulls and pelicans flew overhead, and the water looked clean and clear. We made a labyrinth in the sand and filled it with birdseed. We were holding a ceremony just prior to walking the labyrinth for the first time when we noticed that a pod of bottlenose dolphins were swimming very close to the sea wall just a few feet away.
Immediately we left off the ceremony... or rather we went over to be with the dolphins, who seemed to have arrived just in time to participate in the ceremony. There were about ten to twelve of them not more than 15-20 feet out in the water. They were diving, arcing in the sunlit air, leaping and flashing. They were beautiful, and they exemplified playfulness, freedom, and fluid movement.
As we watched them, we were full of joy. And at the same time, we were full of sorrow, for we knew that these animals were living in a dangerous environment. Even though the water looked clean, we knew that the entire food chain, from microorganisms that ingested the oil and the dispersants that BP sprayed to break up the oil, all the way up to the fish and the dolphins themselves were toxic. We knew that the dolphins were at the top of that food chain. Our rapture in the moment was mixed with dread for the dolphins' future.
Joy and sorrow, rapture and dread: we stood in the balance, holding both. Perhaps receiving those two apparently contrary burdens and holding them both gently and mindfully, honoring the utter validity of both, will be our primary responsibility as we encounter ecological crises in the years to come.
(The photo above was taken that day. I didn't try to photograph the dolphins, because their presence at that moment seemed sacred and not to be "captured." However, that's the patch of water they visited. You can see the clean-up equipment in the distance.)
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
How do you ride into the wave in hard times? Reflections on the story of Susumu Sugawara, which I posted yesterday, about the Japanese fisherman who piloted his boat, Sunflower, right into the oncoming tsunami, survived, and ever since has been using the boat to ferry people, medicine, and supplies:
1. Don't attempt to flee. Head right into the thick of it.
2. Even though you're overwhelmed by your opponent, neither fight it nor capitulate to it. Find a rhythm with it and hang on.
3. When the onslaught ends, take a while to get your bearings.
4. Make your way back to familiar shores.
5. Reach out and help others using what you've brought back.
(Image above is "The Great Wave of Kanagawa" by the 18th century Japanese artist, Hokusai)
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Susumu Suguwara was in his fishing boat, Sunflower, when he saw the tsunami racing toward him. Instead of turning back to shore, however, Suguwara did just the opposite. Saying a silent goodbye to fishermen in the other boats he passed and offering his apologies for not being able to save them, Sugawara headed for the wave.
"I talked to my boat and said you've been with me 42 years. If we live or die, then we'll be together, then I pushed on full throttle."
The fisherman was inundated by the thirty-foot wave, but when the water had slipped by him and he saw the shore, he knew he had survived. Four or five more waves followed, but in the end, Suguwara and his Sunflower were intact.
In the weeks since the earthquake and tsunami set off physical, emotional, social, and economic aftershocks in Japan, Susumu Sugawara has been working to transport people, supplies, and medicine to people. He charges no money for his services.
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Here's the poem:
Monday, April 4, 2011
A week ago, a gray, rainy afternoon the day before I left Bali, I impulsively asked my driver. Eka Merta Sedana, to take me to Tanah Lot. I had never been to this temple on the sea, only accessible at low tide, for it is known to be inundated with tourists who come to take photos of the sun setting dramatically behind the open-sided building. But I was curious and needed a lift. I was feeling sad because a Balinese friend is very ill, because the weather in Bali has been so unusually rainy (people blame global warming) that all flowers of the fruits and crops are being knocked off the plants, and because the situation in Japan is so sad and frightening.
What I found at Tanah Lot was not what I expected. The tide was coming in, and people from many places—Java, Japan, Australia, France, Bali, America—were wading out on the rocks to get a photo of the temple, still dramatic under gray skies. But the real drama was elsewhere. As the waves came in and people got splashed, they were shrieking with laughter and delight. It was a scene of joy, childlike play, and a momentary release of all the national differences and personal cares that usually bind us.
When I got back to the car, I was feeling so exhilarated that I babbled to Eka about what I had seen. I showed him the photos I had taken. "Where's the temple?" he asked in surprise.
But I had seen something more wonderful even than the temple: radical joy in hard times.