Post date: Jun 24, 2020 7:20:8 PM
Over the years, I have gotten emotionally mired in the less than favorable circumstances around me. It is easy for me to be pensive and melancholy. This year has been fraught with unfavorable circumstances.
It has been bad from the start. Drought and fire consumed the entire continent of Australia. A pandemic has pummeled the world and over 477k people have died. In the United States, there have been mandated lock downs, quarantines, and social distancing. People feel distant from one another. The situation here has morphed from “we are all in this together” to “your mask (or lack there of) is a political statement”. Social distancing has become essential or ridiculous, depending on the crowd you hang with. People are fighting viciously about how best to handle the crashed economy. All the while many Americans - many of my neighbors - are faced with job loss, food insecurity and gnawing loneliness.
Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, our nation watched in horror as George Floyd was killed by police, slowly, over a $20 bill. This served as a catalyst, spurring many Americans into conversations about systemic racism. We wrestle with our beliefs and our culture, and thousands took to the streets in protest. A few riots took place and the political right and left began to address the situation from vastly different perspectives making it nearly impossible to solve the problem calmly, with dignity and sensitivity. Rhetoric is harsh; accusations fly with intensity making it impossible to find solutions to our societal brokenness.
It is easy for me to think I am just an artist who makes very little money; there is nothing I can do. I live in an old house, in a small town, in rural New Hampshire. The problems are too big and too established. The situations are too nuanced. I see no wise path forward. Our sins are so ingrained in us that we cannot even see them. I am too small and too insignificant to make a difference. I convince myself that I don’t matter.
Over the years I have learned to deal with my melancholy. I learned music is able to quiet my soul. Poetry can move me. Other people's words and lyrics can give voice to my big emotions that leave me speechless. Something as simple as a clean room with a beautiful paint color on the walls and a bowl of fruit on the table can relax me. A sculpture can ignite a fire within me. A painting can arrest my inner storms. When those storms are calmed, I am able to hear other people and have a healthy perspective. Aesthetics are vital. We intuitively know this is true. This is why we wish pictures in home magazines were our own.
Art fits and expresses our uniqueness, and it holds tremendous power. It comforts, calms and unites. It has the power to create awe. It lights fires. It even has the power to bring to light something horrific so we can see it, admit it and then process and change it.
Some artists have the power to make art that highlights hard issues with which we are faced. Clara Aden’s Slave Relic moves me. I cannot look at her work without feeling profound sadness. It shows us the ugliness of our human desire for power and control and money as it explores the history of slavery and exploitation. While atrocities are painful and difficult to see, wounds cannot be healed without examination. Her work serves as a mirror that reflects our brokenness. I am grateful for artists like this. They have important voices - so very, very important. After all, realization and acknowledgement are the first steps toward improvement.
Sometimes I wish I could naturally convey things as important as this. But this is not my tendency. It is not my voice.
Yesterday, I took my children strawberry picking at Wellwood Orchard in Vermont. I have done this every year of my children’s lives. And as I stood there in the splendor of the mountains, picking sun-kissed berries, I realized the truth of the importance of my work. My voice is not big or loud or confrontational. My voice is quiet. However, it is equally important because it marks the next step toward change.
Years ago, while working for Nancy Zalusky Berg at her family law firm in Minneapolis, I saw lots of division and fighting. Nancy had the unique ability to provide a space where two parties could meet in mediation, pushing forward toward reconciliation and resolve; she made all kinds of people feel valued. She had the ability to challenge people to examine themselves while maintaining humility to examine herself as well. She did this both professionally and personally; it was in her home that I saw this first hand during a difficult conversation in which my actions were called out. Mediation is usually uncomfortable and difficult. I observed the path forward began with a space safe enough that both parties could come together with their guard down, even if just for a moment. A safe place is one where healing begins. Without that safe space, people remain on the defensive and horns lock. Bitterness takes root and consumes without this safety. To be sure, some situations are so dire that courts must be utilized. However, let us not underestimate the power of safe environments and the conversations they allow. It is slow and time consuming, to be sure, but incredibly useful for effecting improvement.
Artwork can help create that safe space. It can be used as an invitation to a path of unification. My work is that of a peacemaker - a mediator. Once the chips are on the table - the divisions laid bare - the ugliness exposed - we must find a path toward repentance, forgiveness, mercy, justice, grace. And that space must be safe for all parties. My work helps to create that safe space where these things can begin.
My voice is not a political sign on the lawn. It is just a beautiful hand thrown bowl of strawberries with the question: “Would you sit with me awhile, share my snack and talk on my porch? Tell me, what do you think about what happened last night in the news?”
My voice is not a protest sign. It is just a pottery vase of heirloom peonies with the question: “Did you smell them? I love them. This is a small piece of me. Tell me, what do you like? What is your story?”
My voice is not a t-shirt with a slogan. It is a mug that fits your hands just right with the question: "Cream? Sugar? Have you ever thought of it from this point of view?"
My voice may be subtle. Yet, it is equally as important. My voice is a simple painting and a story behind its creation which serves as a place of rest. It is a place to turn to when that porch conversation gets to testy. It is a safe place of respite until the hard conversation can resume. Use it to flip to your back for a restful float when you are too tired to swim any further. It is a safe place to catch your breath. Art can prevent you from drowning.
If you find yourself watching the news and feeling disturbed and indignant, and yet you are uncomfortable proclaiming your beliefs on a street corner, consider the possibility that your voice is a different kind of voice. That does not mean it is weak or morally inferior. Actually, it takes great strength, wisdom and self discipline to do what I am proposing. Consider capitalizing on hospitality to foster change. Create a space to share with others. And if you are able, consider investing in a few pieces of art to make people feel comfortable. Use these things as the blessings they are - items to help create beautiful, safe places where meaningful, transformative conversations can happen.