social justice

I see you…

This image is something I started and restarted and reworked to near death. Maybe it’s simply a meditation—or a response or both to the world I live in. My state of being which most would consider an absolute luxury, is figuring out what’s next. I am doing a great deal of wandering, info-gathering, looking, experimenting, but it feels a bit like sleepwalking—directionless except for some vague idea here and there. I know I need a “purpose” although after listening to Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens podcast with Liz Gilbert–maybe not. It seems there should be some activity or action beyond taking walks, learning to knit and play pickle ball. It all seems so frivolous and I am completely aware of this. So, I am seeking. Perhaps I can label this period of my life as seeking my purpose or my why. I understand it’s good and important to be a wife, mother, grandmother and friend—-but beyond that—who am I? Am I really a writer? An artist? I know I am a teacher—but now there’s no one to teach. Am I now just the shadow of my ego looking for an identity to cling to? I recognize my inner pull toward issues of social justice, but GOOD LORD where to begin—which issue in this mess of a world? And of course I am adverse to any sort of rigid commitment—-I’ll just linger in the shadows and yell about it from back here—-no walking into the trenches for me—I have grandchildren to babysit and dogs to walk. Perhaps making images that express ideas and emotions have some value… or not. The words I write are all over the place—-3 different stories—-seedlings really. I guess I am really in the weeds—lost in the forest of weeds. Although I am still wandering—looking, listening, wondering, so there’s that. This “problem” will get resolved I am sure. I am just impatient as I have always been. I think I have to just trust—the path will make itself clear… a little light shining through trees in a clearing that will call me. I have trudged and marched this far and long to remember the next thing will appear. I just have to listen and keep looking and I’ll know, and then the work will mean something.

So this image–maybe a visual meditation, an excellent example of me working something to death, and liking many versions and varying effects, but finally settling on this one. I have noticed that I find women standing starkly in their burka is disturbing to me. The kind of burka that covers the entire body with only a screen of fabric around the eyes. It’s like a whole universe being covered–placed in the shadows. I guess I should admit it isn’t just disturbing—but stirs some sort of fear in me. Not fear about the person being covered as somehow dangerous, but the fact that some force can cause a person to disappear. Like a person has been abducted or kidnapped and is being hidden in plain sight. A human is being erased, but the eraser marks are obvious. I understand some women may choose to wear a burka and be completely devout and respectful to a culture’s traditions. After studying and teaching Shirin Neshat’s work “Rebellious Silence,” I became aware that some women prefer to wear a hijab or chador, providing a sense of privacy or desexualizing in a world of endless sexualization of the female body. I do not mean to impose my experience on another person’s cultural tradition. I am an outsider, trying to look in and understand. The image I have appropriated/assembled/modified consists of the lone figure covered in a dark burka in an empty landscape. It was reminiscent to me of disturbing images by photographer Diane Arbus taken at some sort of institution or asylum for the mentally impaired dressed in halloween costumes. The starkness of a lone human, covered in a sheet and mask like a ghost. My inquiry isn’t about the mental capacity of a person, but their state of mind. Are they in there—hidden? Are they fearful or lonely? This also reminds of when my youngest daughter was a child, and me as a busy mom had to wing a last minute costume—simply a white sheet, so she could be a ghost. She would not have it. She was terrified of putting that “ghost” sheet over herself as if she would get lost amongst ghosts under there.

So, I began with this figure. I have been reading and listening to accounts of women under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. It also reminded of novels The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. I understand this is fiction, but I am sharing the amalgamation of thoughts and influences in assembling this image. A recent headline was the murder of a female Afghanistan parliamentary ruler. So the stories of the Taliban persecuting women and taking away their opportunities for education kept drawing my attention.  

I searched for other imagery related to living hidden under a burka and chose one where the lace like screen covers the eyes. The only area of a women somewhat seeable. I was drawn to the textile aspect—the patterns along with the grayish periwinkle blue of some of the material. I made the image so the person’s eyes were barely visible—which is often the case in reality. I darkened this area so the person was even more hidden in this almost tent-like space and emphasized the cage-like netting. In contrast though, my idea is that I want these women and girls to know they are seen, even by white middle-aged grandmothers on the other side of the planet. I took an appropriated drawing based on the famous portrait of an Afghani girl by photographer Steven McCurry and overlaid the famous eyes multiple times with varying levels of transparency and texture. Also, I chose a topographical map of Afghanistan to lay over like the woman’s heart or like a lung—still breathing—as if it’s inside the woman, yet covered by this heavy fabric imposed by men under the trance of religious fanaticism. This is not an anti-Islamic image. This is about seeing through any fanatical religious ideology that professes any human lesser than–restricting basic human rights from another. I am an outsider looking at girls and women who are being denied their humanity, their right to be seen and their right to be educated. If a woman chooses to live and exist inside a burka, choosing not to be seen or engage in the world of the outside—then she should be free to make that choice. But, if the human wants to have a life outside of the tent-like covering, to learn to read and write, to engage with the world, in my opinion she should be free to do so. It feels I am helpless living across the planet, outside of her traditions and cultures to really understand her suffering. I understand I am free to write and make art and read and watch the news, to learn about the goings on in the world—-but I can’t know her and her suffering. I can only assemble pixels and words onto a kite of the internet and let it fly, hoping she knows I see her and I have not forgotten she exists in a realm and place I don’t understand.


Paths We Take

Ella in the Woods

The inarticulate label of “artsy-fartsy” should be banished from the lexicon of all brain-bearers. Is it a lamely bestowed title to those not understood? I perceive it as a phrase that smugly pats the head of those who do not fit in a box—or as I now think of it: a black square—so basic, a flat shape denoting “standard” or definable. So I suppose, this is a compliment to those of us who do to fit in that blank square. 

I spent much of my career defending students who looked at a blank box and thought ideas like can we fill it with analogous colors? Or draw a little thumbnail mandala in it OR around it, letting it be the center of “the answer.” Maybe those numbers and x and y mysteries symbolized a vast surreal Bosch-like landscape where the lines curved and met to form unknown machinery? No, “artsy-fartsy” is an inauthentic smiling nod… ah little one, take your colored pencils over there in the corner and have at it. Algebraic puzzles are not for you—and the answers that fit squarely are of supreme knowledge. Your fanciful ideas about “but what else or why not?” are in the clouds. 

I agree with Temple Grandin as she writes in her recent opinion for the New York Times (1/9/23): “Society is Failing Visual Thinkers, and That Hurts Us All,” about schools who continue to force one size fits all curriculum (specifically math and science dominated) and that innovation will continue to be stifled. I do not discount the importance of math and science curriculum, but I wish it was understood that the importance of creative thinking, especially within the arts is as critical and not just a pretty frivolity to enjoy as entertainment. Life is actually full of unknowable answers that will never fit in a square void. Accepting that there are many ways to think and approach problems would be a more reasonable way of designing curriculum. In this way, perhaps we may find creative ways to work toward solutions that seem unsolvable. I do wonder about the hundreds if not thousands of students I have taught, whose talents and ways of thinking were not acknowledged as valuable and worthy, especially in comparison with the students acing calculus. These students were “less than” in the high school and college entrance competition hierarchy. I wish, and hope they eventually came to discover that their differences, their unique and individual way of thinking and seeing the world is necessary and exactly what we need. Unfortunately, “data” doesn’t address this and can’t measure what could’ve/would’ve been if these potential great thinkers/makers/designers/problem-solvers had been nurtured and supported to seek out their particular path. A path that just might spiral infinitely around that empty square leading to what is currently unanswerable.