Can Beauty Open Our Hearts to Difficult Conversations?
This was such a good Ted Talk, which answered some questions that I have been struggling with. I have always been averse to cynicism and the belief that there's not much we can do to change people's minds. On the other hand, I think about Nina Simone, and how she says it is it is the artist's duty to reflect the times, the "shape and mold" this country. What Kaphar says below is so powerful and gives artists a game plan.
"There's the aesthetic beauty of the work that in some cases functions as more of a Trojan horse. It allows one to open their hearts to difficult conversations. Maybe you feel attracted to the beauty, and while compelled by the technique, the color, the form or composition, maybe the difficult conversation sneaks up."
This is "Behind the Myth of Benevolence." Yes, Thomas Jefferson one of the Founding Fathers was a slave owner. The combination of the title and the image makes us uncomfortable, but it is necessary to be made uncomfortable in order to provoke change. He says it not only represents Sally Hemmings, whom he had children with, but also every other black woman who was on that plantation, but it's bigger than that. The juxtaposition of the " two separate paintings that are forced together on top of one another to emphasize this tumultuous relationship between Black and White in these compositions. And so, that -- that contradiction, that devastating reality that's always behind the curtain, what is happening in race relations in this country -- that's what this painting is about."
I hope beauty can open hearts to difficult conversations. Shying away from them will not.
You cannot help but have chicken skin when you see this video of Hawaiian musicians led by Kumu Hina Wong-Kalu, who wrote the mele about protecting Mauna Kea from further desecration.
I had heard of this artist, but learned a lot by listening to a podcast, the Fearless Storyteller, in which he was interviewed. It was around the time that I was redesigning my website to focus on Creativity Activism. I have personally met all the other artists on this page, and Makana is the first that I don't know personally (yet). What he embodies is exemplary of what I mean by creative activism. Going to his website, on his Kuleana page, I found there's so much he has done in this realm. My goodness, from Mauna Kea (of course) to going to Russia to understand nuclear proliferation, to protests against Monsanto, and so much more - this man is incredible, He's turned down major industry contracts so that he could follow his na'au (gut, instinct) on what he wanted to do with his music. On his About page, he describes his philosophy, which has been an "unorthodox journey of using my art to inspire the change I want to witness in our world. For it is said: giving never leaves one with less, and the principle of Makana- a gift given freely- has brought me a richer life than I could have ever dreamed."
I have known Dan for decades. As Director of Drama Education for the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, he hooked my daughter into attending Saturday youth playwriting classes when she was in 8th grade. She was involved in that program throughout high school, and it contributed greatly to her development. Somehow he knew that I wrote plays too, so he told my daughter about a playwriting group that was starting by the new, at the time, artistic director. I had not written for a while, and it got me back into it. This is only to say - we go way back, including as a visiting teacher in schools where I have taught. The impact he had on my daughter and me is a sliver of how he has influenced students all over the world. He has been a Fulbright scholar in India twice. It is hard to summarize all his accomplishments (author, storyteller, playwright, actor, etc.), so a story will need to serve as shorthand. I had a student who had just arrived from the Marshall Islands. He could barely speak English, and was very shy, but he became the star of the show in the drama workshop that Dan taught at my school. I saw this student years later, and he was brimming with confidence, and still talking about how much he appreciated the drama workshop. The work that Dan does with these students is magic. It is pedagogy at its best. They learn language in an organic way, through action and context. I have used his book, In Their Own Words, in my own teaching.
I met Dee at a Storytelling Retreat in Oaxaca in March of 2019. She had interesting stories to share and I was most impressed with how she blended her love of painting with her desire to use art to help others. She administers a program, Painting Syria's Children, in which artists use photographs of Syrian refugee children and paint their portraits. The portraits are then offered for donations which go to charity organizations that work with the refugees.
Marietta hosted us one day during the Art Immersion Tour in Oaxaca in March 2019. She was the curator of a show we had seen at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca (Museum of Contemporary Art), in which she brought together traditional artisans with modern artists and they collaborated on work. This was a fascinating exhibit with so many layers of meaning and so many stories to be told.I hope she writes about it soon, At her house, she told us these stories and she also told us about the other work she does. One project she had was bringing in sewing machines, materials, and teachers, to teach women of a small town to make these patchwork hangings. Another of her projects was the Patchwork Healing Blanket: La Manta de Curaci'on in which women from all over the world were asked to contribute a decorated fabric square about violence against women. The pieces were sewn together and displayed in a demonstration in the Zocalo of Mexico City in January of 2020. The plan is for it to travel.
A few years ago, I decided I wanted to try to write songs. I was pleasantly surprised when I found out The Hawaii Songwriting Festival was held on my island every year. I have gone 3 times and am always impressed (and intimidated) by the talent there, the budding songwriters as well as the professionals who come to teach or mentor. There are 3 sessions through the weekend in which you are randomly placed in workshops. Greg Holden was the mentor in one of my workshops, and I fell in love with his music. He wrote Home which was the song that Phillip Phillips won on American Idol in 2012. But his other songs have more meat. One powerful one that he performed was Boys on the Street, which tells a powerful story about the relationship between a gay son and father. Here's a Time article about how he got it right. His songs are full of rich, sensitive, story-ish songs. His latest (as of this writing) is called Honest. He's talking about himself, but don't we all want to be Honest? Why is this activism? If the world had more honest people, wouldn't this world be a better place.
I wrote about going on Art Immersion Tour in Oaxaca in which Rogene was the art teacher. I learned so much from her, but I also love her work as an artist. What I love about Rogene is she is so unpretentious. She doesn't say that she has "messages," but she does. Her Everyday Saints series are personal, but also represent so much shared experience. Our Lady of Not Taking it Anymore, Our Lady of Being Kind to Yourself. Our Lady of Setting Your Soul Free. There is power in company, and these tell us that we are not alone. She also has a series called The Going Away Party, which calls attention to endangered animals. The goal is to have this as a traveling exhibit to call attention to their plight. The art is not for sale, but there is merchandise and the proceeds go to conservancy organizations. At the bottom of the series page on her website are links to these organizations. Now, there's an idea for activism!
I have heroes in this field that I call Creativity Activism. They donʻt call it that, they just do their thing, be it art, writing, music. There are SOOO many and the task is huge, but I will start with people I have personally met. My intention is to shine a spotlight on them to serve as examples for ME (and hopefully for you) of who I want to be as an artist. Itʻs not just about skill, but about their skill AND vision (though they may not see it that way.)