16 May 2015

Connection and Clay . . .

In May of last year, I was part of a pilot arts program at The Singapore Boys' Home. 

The Singapore Boys' Home is a juvenile residential home, run by the Ministry of Social and Family Development. It provides care and rehabilitation for boys between seven and sixteen years old, housing about 380 youths. 

I taught a clay workshop for 12 boys on 3 consecutive evenings. We made masks and pots and--on the last night--they were able to make whatever they wanted. Then I went back in August and we painted all of the projects. 

It was an amazing experience. 

Most of the boys had never worked with clay before. And they absolutely loved it. I basically just had to show them how to score and slip, and they took the reigns from there . . . 

The guys took a lot of risks, building relatively large pieces and things with quite a bit of detail. It was fantastic! And their response was overwhelming. They wanted more classes and more creative experiences . . . 

Clay can change people's lives. Or it did for me, anyhow . . .  

The first time I really felt like art (A.R.T.) could make a difference in my life was in the clay studio. I talked about it here, during my heartbreak at the closing of the clay facilities at The University of Texas. I grew up there. I became a real, live artist there. (In my head, at least.) It was my home

I could make anything I wanted out of clay. It was like being in a kitchen with all of the ingredients laid out in front of you. A lot of chemistry takes place in the studio, from glaze mixing to firing the gas kilns to making clay. And it's incredibly labor intensive, which I completely respect. You have a relationship with clay from the moment you touch it and begin to work with it. You have to hold it's proverbial hand every step of the way. There's fragility, strength, imagination, color, fire, and comradery. It's all-encompassing.

I've been investigating more on this "change" topic lately. Especially since embarking on my newest project. And teaching the introductory clay class at The Singapore Boys' Home helped to reminded me why I do what I do.

I mean, I teach art every day. But within giant, fast-paced schools, art doesn't get the notice it is well-deserved. Students can still love it and be affected by it. Sure. But in smaller, more intimate environments, lifelong connections can be made. And more times than not, clay can facilitate that connection. Maybe it's because of the transformation that happens: the change within mirrors the transformation of the clay from mud to object. 

I've never had a connection to another kind of material like I have with clay. Fabric comes close, but it's not the same. There is something so magical about clay. Molding of the earth, perhaps.

One of the first books I read in my Community Arts graduate program was called Make The Impossible Possible by Bill Strickland. Mr. Strickland founded the Manchester Craftsman's Guild in Pittsburgh, an innovative nonprofit that uses the arts to inspire and mentor inner-city teenagers. About clay, he said this: "I was a young kid just about flunking out of school. And one afternoon I happened to walk past the ceramics studio. I glanced inside and here was this man throwing pots. Frank Ross. Now, I don't know how many of you have ever seen a ceramics wheel turning, but if you have, you know it's magic. It was like a big invisible hand lifted me up and carried me over to that wheel."

More recently I came across a link on the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Art's (NCECA) Facebook page. It was an image of a pottery wheel with the words, "this machine kills hate" scrawled on the front of it. I had to know more . . . Upon further research, I found Roberto Lugo. Below is his Emerging Artist talk published on March 30th of this year. It's completely filled with emotion, and rightfully so.

Superman. Power. Building strength through making. It's a relationship, right? Connection as relationship. I found this video on Baltimore Clayworks' website. "Spiritual" comes up several times in the video. I think that says a lot . . . 

I don't know if the students I taught at The Singapore Boys' Home will ever work with clay again. From their playful banter and excited conversations during our time together, I can tell you that something was happening. Was it a lifelong change taking place? Perhaps not. But for that brief moment in time, there was magic.

03 May 2015

The Lift . . .

Wow. 2015 has been a big, giant mess and it’s only the beginning of May. I guess I should try and stay positive, because that gives about 8 months for this year to turn around. Lot’s of my energy is being thrown in that direction in hopes that it does--in fact--turn around . . . 

I can't just jump back into my regular blogging without mentioning a few notes. There are a lot of exciting projects coming up that I am going to share over the next few weeks. But I can not move forward without thanking all of the people and organizations that have gotten me through the last month or 45 days. So I hope you'll stay tuned . . .  

A little less than two months ago, Ben passed away. I can’t believe that it hasn’t even been two months. It feels longer. These last several weeks have seemed to drag on and on and on. I don’t think there has ever been a moment in my life where I have been more sad. Perhaps I have mentioned this before. But I honestly didn’t think this heaviness would ever lift. But it has, to some degree. I’m still sad, of course. But the tears have dried up for now. I actually don’t know how I had that much liquid inside me to begin with! 

Several things have taken place that have sort of helped to lift me up, so to speak. 

For one, I was introduced to the most wonderfully kind lady on the planet. She and her husband were friends of Ben’s a few years ago at the Men of Nehemiah. They were volunteers of the ministry and visited him every once in a while. She is also a grievance counselor, by profession. She has been helping to walk me through this whole process, all the way from Dallas, Texas. About every three to five days, I get an email from her with all sorts of information in it. Sometimes she mentions passages to read in the Bible (which have been an amazing source of calm to me), sometimes she suggests things that I can do to keep myself busy (walk, walk, walk!!!), and sometimes she agrees with my sadness and basically just says, “Yes, this absolutely does suck!” She has also been very helpful with the questions I’ve been asking. A couple of weeks ago, I was asking a lot of questions—I was pretty much feeling very inconsolable and alone. Some of the questions were just plain unanswerable. So I had to let things go, forgive the unanswerable, and make peace with what I did know. 

About halfway through my Spring Break, Ben's mom suggested that I text his older son to see how he was doing. I was kind of worried about this: I have only met him once and I didn’t know if it was appropriate or not. But I did it anyhow. I was really lost during Spring Break and feeling a bit miserable. So I was ready to do anything anyone asked. It’s actually indescribable how much texting with Ben’s son has helped me. From what I hear, it’s been really good for both of us. It’s lighthearted, for one. And we have similar senses of humor and music tastes. And, I can tell him stories about his dad. I haven’t gone into huge, detailed stories with him about his dad yet. But we’re building up our relationship slowly. We text every other day or every three days. Sometimes, every day. It’s hard to explain, but we can be each other’s sounding boards, which is so nice to have. He’s a really, really great person. I’m so incredibly thankful for him.

My friends have been an incredible source of strength for me. I have contacted all sorts of people, from my friends in Singapore, to my friends that I haven't really spoken to in a long time, to friends of Ben's whom I've never actually met. Some of them have gone through similar experiences, some of them haven't. Some of them knew Ben, some of them didn't. But all of them have been so kind and informational and loving. They've helped to breathe a new source of motivation in me. Especially when I didn't think I could go on. Really!! All I wanted to do was lay in bed and weep.They helped to push me forward, and I am so grateful. 

Just before I started talking to Ben’s son, I decided to start doing research on how I could help out--either with addiction services or suicide support organizations. How could I share Ben’s story with other people? I felt like if I could have a purpose or “crusade” about this, it would help. Perhaps it would comfort me and aid in my processing of things, if I were able to tell his story (our story) to as many people as I could. 

My goal for sharing his story was simple:
A. To honor Ben. People need to know about him. He was a very important man.
B. To help other families who are struggling with similar issues.
C. To build a visual legacy for his boys. 

This "crusade" was prompted by an email I received. Very rarely am I able to read through all of my emails. Usually I file them almost immediately upon receiving them. But one came through from an organization in Baltimore that made me stop and read it. The top of the newsletter said this, "Led by artist, curator, and organizer Peter Bruun, the New Day Campaign is an arts-based initiative in Baltimore to challenge stigma associated with mental illness and substance use disorder, making the world a more healing place." 

A light went off. Couldn't I channel the energy I was using to be sad into something more positive? Couldn't I make artwork about Ben for shows and share his story visually? Wouldn't that be a better way to work through this grief? Turns out: YES. Finding ways to express my sadness visually or lift Ben up through visual expression seemed like the perfect fit for me. Besides, I don't like being sad. Some people do. But I don't. It usually stops me from being creative. But giving my sadness a purpose was motivating! 

During Spring Break, I put together a plan for a visual legacy project and sent off my proposal to Peter and the New Day Campaign.This started more research into venues for showing work or storytelling. Through the New Day Campaign, I found out about an addiction rally that happens in DC on October 4th. The rally is called UNITE to Face Addiction, and thousands of people show up on the National Mall to bring awareness to addiction related issues and talk about recovery. They are accepting stories to be featured on their website. I will be sending in a story about Ben before the end of this week.

Finding the UNITE website led me to start searching for suicide support websites. I found the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Hunting around on their website led me in two new directions. One link led me to an overnight walk that was happening in Dallas. They choose a few cities to do their overnight walk in each year. I am so lucky--for lack of a better description--that they chose Dallas this year! The walk is called, Out of Darkness. Their website describes the walks like this: "As you walk through the night, you'll feel safe and cared-for in a community where everyone supports each other. It's a place to laugh, to cry, and to heal - to honor the past and embrace a future that your work will change for the better." Obviously I couldn't be there because I live on the other side of the planet. But I contacted one of the walk coaches in Dallas and she made a luminaria for Ben that was featured at the closing ceremony. I was so happy and thankful that she was able to do this for me and for his family. He was represented in his hometown! How amazing!

The second link on the AFSP website led me to the International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, which happens on November 21st. People can offer to host get togethers for people who have lost loved ones, all over the world. I will be hosting a get together in Qatar. My plan is to have people screen print t-shirts and have a wonderful home cooked meal . . . Time where we can all sit around a beautiful table and have some great conversation. I'm very much looking forward to this!

My third summer in graduate school is coming up. It begins in late June. For this coming summer, my plan is to work full force on the visual legacy project. The work includes felt portraits, sound clips and interviews, interactive art pieces, songwriting, performance and video. It's a giant undertaking, but I think it's doable. I am very productive during my summers in the studio. And I am so motivated by this project, that I think it'll come together quite nicely. A huge inspiration for the work is Salvation Mountain. If you haven't had a chance to see it in person, check out it's website for some beautiful images.

I won't always be this active in sharing Ben's story or creating work that is focused on a visual legacy about him. Life changes all the time and I might be in a completely different place in a year or even 6 months from now. But at this moment, this feels right to me. It feels like the thing I want to do and the thing I need to do. This is a major step in my personal healing and establishing a positive collection of work for his boys that can honor their dad with all of the goodness he brought into the world. 

Watch for more blog posts soon! Sending love . . .