Last week the leader of the Charles Houston Community Writers (CHC Writers) interviewed me in my studio at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton. Check out the resulting podcast here or on the CHC Facebook page.
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.
-Muriel Rukeyser, from “Käthe Kollwitz” (1968)
I discovered Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Käthe Kollwitz” in the late 1970s, just as I was discovering my feminist consciousness. The words resonated with me as I struggled to tell the truth about my own life. Poetry is powerful. Something about the intensity of the condensed language and the cadence. It worms its way into the unconscious and lies there dormant, ready to reanimate with a new layer of meaning when you least expect it.
Feminism profoundly threatened the status quo of my pre-feminist life, stitched together as it was from the small scraps of self-worth and autonomy I could put together. With the help of Rukeyser’s poem, I learned to stop fearing that my patchwork life was coming apart, and to see it instead as splitting open, metaphorically, giving birth to something new. The task of hatching an authentic self required every ounce of my courage; I had to accept the risk of being reckless, disruptive, even crazy.
Once I burst the seams and admitted – to myself and others – that I had fallen in love with a woman, I began emerging. That was in 1980. I didn’t fully hatch my authentic self for a number of years—you can understand why if you remember what the world was like for LGBT people in 1980. Nevertheless, I persisted. Kept living through the reverberations.
Not everyone today is in a celebrating mood, however. I hear the old language being applied today to women who dare to be strong, vocal, independent: words like nasty, angry, aggressive, cold, histrionic, and, of course, crazy. Although much has changed for women since Rukeyser wrote her poem, her words rings true to many women today.
And not just to women. The personal truth of her words reaches far beyond the borders of their 1968 context to touch the lives and hearts of any human beings who feel different, who dare to be different, who try to be honest and vulnerable, to be themselves no matter how weird or undisciplined, nasty or crazy they may appear.
“Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind—even if your voice shakes,” wrote Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers. Yes, the world may well split open when authentic voices speak. The aftermath may not be pretty, or easy, or quick to resolve. Yet in my experience, it’s worth speaking the truth about our lives. We all have our stories to tell – some softly, some loudly – and we must tell them, even if our voices shake.
What would happen . . .
- If one veteran told the truth about deployment?
- If one black woman told the truth about fearing for her son’s life?
- If one Muslim woman told the truth about the discrimination she faces?
- If one frat boy told the truth about being scared or sad?
- If one Jewish person told the truth about fearing attacks on person and property?
- If one older white man told the truth in economic down-times about the pressure to be the provider?
- If one gay man told the truth about being bullied?
- If one lesbian told the truth about feeling shame from her friends?
- If one trans person told the truth . . .
- If each of us told the truth…
THE WORLD WOULD SPLIT OPEN
And when it splits open at the stitched-up seams, there is a possibility of new life, new freedom, and a new kind of wholeness, even if sometimes still stitched-up in rather haphazard ways, but uniquely yours.
Please ask questions, make comments, affirm or challenge my assumptions. This series is in the embryonic stage, and I expect it to grow and evolve as I dig deeper into the subject matter.
Surveillance. It’s one of my obsessions. You can see it in my eyes: I draw them, I paint them, and I wear them embedded in necklaces and earrings. I convert into eyes objects in the world such as oval shaped boxes or discarded lamp globes. Sometimes my obsession takes the form of painting nude women in positions of submission, with disembodied eyes staring. At other times, it emerges as a strong nude female staring back, reclaiming the power of the objectifying gaze.
In the image here, my obsession with eyes merges with a painted blue eye that includes the names of some of the unarmed black men killed by police since 1999. That year is burned in my memory because of the public shock and outrage over the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant with no criminal record. Four NYPD officers shot him 41 times outside of his own home. We know his name, and some of the others, such as Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, and Tamir Rice. I discovered the names of many more when I went on a mission to name all of the other unarmed men of color killed since Diallo’s murder. A shameful number of names filled up page after page in my oversized sketchbook. Although some of the names are duplicated in this painting for visual effect, I could not have written every name on this artwork.
What is the visual connection between the names and the single blue eye in the middle of the names? Students frequently ask that question. My response is, “Because it is I.” Even though the eye serves as a symbol of the gaze and of surveillance, it also connotes the Third Eye, the eye of intuition. According to some philosophical and religious traditions, the third eye is the gateway to forms of higher consciousness. In this painting I am calling on myself and others to allow ourselves to look deeply into the names of real men and boys and to see what is invisible to many people — the relationship between these killings and mass incarceration of black men for minor offenses. But pointing a finger only at police for the senseless killings and for mass incarceration of black men is too easy, and it lets the rest of us off the hook. That there are too many names to include in one small painting is indictment against me – and all of us. As Attorney and Professor Nikema Levy-Pound points out, we are all complicit in the institutions that allow the indiscriminate use of force against anyone, but especially those who are unarmed. We allowed the war on drugs that targeted poor inner city blacks, the build-up of military-style police forces, and the creation of the for-profit Prison Industrial Complex. In my created world of art, the eye becomes an I; as others observe the eye, the I becomes a We.
In the upside-down world of surveillance that has resulted in mass incarceration and untold numbers of black men (and women) killed, the eye in the painting also represents the revolutionary gaze, which has literally made the invisible visible. The intrusive security cameras in buildings, on streets, and in airports may have been used against marginalized people in the past, people without the social, political or economic capital to resist. But now, the gaze is in the hands of those marginalized, in the form of smart phones recording photos and video that make it instantly onto social media.
So my obsession with surveillance becomes even more complicated as I applaud the revolutionary gaze of the smart phone camera and make art about the confirmed record of unarmed black men shot dead in the U.S. I acknowledge that I am more troubled by the objectifying gaze than by the anonymous surveillance from airport scanners and security cameras, which I have come to ignore. I also am far more troubled about search and surveillance procedures by authorities than I am about cameras in the hands of those subjected to search and surveillance. It’s about who controls the surveillance; who has the power, who does not.
I am now settling into my own art studio in Building 5 at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Virginia. My building houses 15 artists, all working in different genres and media. I shared a small studio for a month with my friend and colleague, Rebecca Chase, for which I am thankful. But I knew I wanted a “Studio of My Own,” and I kept saying that out loud. Whenever my wife overheard me, she was always quick to point out that I have always had a studio of my own. She’s right, of course. So what I really should have been saying was that I needed a studio of my own in a community of artists. Yes, that’s it!
Art is a solitary act, like writing, yet being with kindred spirits makes my obsessions, compulsions and preoccupations seem somewhat more normal.
As I settle in and get to know the other artists, I feel more and more at home. But the truth is I am a little bit obsessed. And even though I haven’t had an outside studio for the last 10 years, I have been compulsively making art the whole time. Small works on paper, mostly, but now I have a place to put some of the work — and space to work, too. Watch this space. More to come about the content and subject matter of my art!
For the last 10 or so years, I have made my art in an at-home studio. It seemed like a luxury, at first, to be able to be with my materials anytime of day or night and to see the works-in-progress every day. There’s something miraculous about letting multiple works settle into my consciousness and working on them a little bit at a time.
But after a while the frustrations overtook the convenience. Too much stuff. Too little space. And every now and then I had to put stuff away, which meant that starting over each time was like awakening from a hypothermia-induced coma: Where am I? What was I doing?
So the time is now to move to a studio space, where I can leave my materials out, chat with other artists, ride the creative energy waves in the building, and simply make art. Until a studio of my own opens up, I’m sharing a small space with Rebecca Chase, a fabulous artist and friend and colleague. We are located at the Workhouse Arts Center, 9518 Workhouse Way, Lorton, VA 22079. Photos will be forthcoming when I am a little more settled!
Summer seems like as good a time as any to start the blog I’ve been itching to write for at least the last five years. Students, most of them anyway, are away for the summer months, and it’s a little early to begin the preparations in earnest for fall classes. And, perhaps most importantly, I’m recovering from total knee replacement surgery, and learning to master the Word Press site gives me something other than my flexibility to test my patience.
Here I hope to write about my art practice and my teaching practice, both of which focus on my passion for social justice issues. To learn more, read on!