I am thrilled to be able to call this my summer studio! Thank you to my friends Shekinah and Peter for the use of your backyard cottage.
My goal this summer is to work on and reflect on my 180 days project—so far (in four days), I’ve been able to hunker down and create 4 drawings and read one full education book!
We Americans have an obsession with Hollywood. It’s what leads us to pay $26 to visit a prison, a place where fellow Americans were locked up in tiny cells and separated from their loved ones. Filled with happy go-lucky tourists buying kitschy keepsakes, Alcatraz was doubly nightmarish, both as a real, scary place and as a consumerist trap. Once we stepped inside the main barracks, we were given headphones to listen to a well-produced audio tour; for over an hour we walked with hundreds of others, each listening through our headphones to the voices of former inmates and guards. As I listened, I searched for visuals that caught my eye.
Also: If you haven’t been to Alcatraz, consider going in the next week to see pieces from Evan Bissell’s latest project, What Cannot Be Taken Away.
Since moving out of my studio in April I haven’t been able to focus on any serious work in our living room. And since we recently adopted two kittens I haven’t wanted to anyways— they’re so darn adorable!
I have created a few present pieces, which keep the hands and heart busy. Above is a fun visual equation for our expecting friends, Ellie and McClure. They have an incredible sense of humor and have for some unknown reason named their unborn baby “Mancat.” They pronounce it quite nasally, making it more like “Mahncat.”
This month I am guest blogging at From Studio to Classroom, an arts education resource which originated out of Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. http://fromstudiotoclassroom.blogspot.com. Check it out!
In March I was asked to create an art chair for a fundraiser at Willow Creek Academy, one of two schools where I teach. “A Toast to Teachers” annually raises funds to supplement teachers’ salaries. I am happy to report that my chair raised over $500 for the faculty.
To create the piece I took a bare Ikea chair and sawed it down the middle, then painted one side white and one side black. I wanted to show off my new sewing machine skills, so I created a pillow, with a new print that includes my yelling self screaming at my stubborn self.
The school district is, unfortunately, fraught with division. On the same campus we have a regular public school and a charter school. Luckily, I am one of the few teachers who gets to serve both sets of students, so I have the rare opportunity to look at the campus as a whole. But because I work on both sides of the divide, I also experience the intense anger, confusion, and stubbornness of both sides to find middle ground, to compromise, to collaborate. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in it myself. Since the new art program has started this year, there have been many successes (district-wide professional development, community art walk, inspiring and talented students), and I am honored and challenged to be a part of the conversation.
In January I participated in a workshop with Evan Bissell, the set designer for Mirrors in Every Corner, a new play written by Chinaka Hodge that just opened at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco. The piece I created during the workshop is a part of the set, which includes an installation of artworks and writings by and about families. At the time I had just started experimenting with printing my family in conjunction with patterning. Here they were printed on photographs of the patterns from my parents house in Glastonbury, CT. GO SEE IT! This play is moving, complicated, and dark. It raises complex questions about what is means to be black in the United States. An African-American family in Oakland grapples with the fact that their youngest daughter/sibling was born white.
On the ride home in the car Ian and I kept posing each other questions: What does it mean to be black? Who/what defines race? Is race visual or emotional, or both? Is it societal and/or cultural? Is it about the way you feel or the way you look? (Photo by Joan Osato)
Check out “Do Not Pass“, a short essay in the New York Times highlighting well-known black novel characters who pass as white. The writer, Touré, connects these characters by their ultimate demise in each case, brought on by the falsified construction of identity. At the end of his essay, Touré asks, “So my question is: Why aren’t more white people trying to pass as black?” His question points to the negative cultural status of African Americans, implicating the privilege of white people and asking the central question of those scholars who study white privilege: Why would white people want to give up their privilege?
Of course, there are many white folks who have imitated black people. In most instances this is a racist act for the sake of entertainment or exploitation. But I am reminded of a book I read a few years ago, Black Like Me, by a white journalist named John Howard Griffin, who in the late 1950s chronicled his six weeks in the south passing as a black man. In his earnest and controversial attempt to understand what it means to be black, he was astounded at the disparities otherwise unnoticed and did some very important identity work on what it means to be white. Griffin’s attempt to pass, as you might imagine, didn’t end in his demise. While he was burned in effigy in his hometown and reviled by white supremacists, his book made him an internationally known civil rights activist. Ahh … privilege.
On Friday I went to a “down and dirty” (their words, not mine) sewing class at Stone Mountain & Daughter Fabrics in Berkeley. I learned all the good basics on using a sewing machine. If all else fails, thread the machine a second time. In November we went to dinner with a family friend who wondered if I was interested in a sewing machine. I never expected to use it in my own artwork, but I’m so glad I said YES, since it’s become integral to showcasing my prints on fabric. It’s a Montgomery Ward, probably 30-50 years old, but works great. It’s really heavy. Above it is artwork by friends, a pinhole distortion by Tenaya Plowman Kolar and a documentary photo by Serge J-F Levy.
Yesterday I went to a sold-out and packed Tim Wise talk in Oakland. The author of White Like Me, Wise has been a huge influence in my transformation as a white person striving to understand my “whiteness.” I took copious notes while laughing, crying, and nodding my head in agreement with Wise, who is a powerful and entertaining speaker. He started the talk by paying homage to the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro Sit-ins, which started when four African-American college students sat down at the whites-only lunch counter and ordered coffee at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C., on February 1, 1960. This individual and courageous act by average, everyday people helped ignite the Civil Right Movement. The next day, a total of 25 students showed up and sat at the counter. While they were cheered on by some white customers and heckled by others, one thing remained constant: They were still refused service. So the day after that, they returned again with over 60 students. On the fourth day, over 300 students were present—and it continued to increase. Their actions started a groundswell of sit-ins.
Wise’s talk focused on the negative effects of colorblindness and how it deepens the divide between the races. Following President Obama’s election in 2008, liberal pundit Chris Matthews thought he was being enlightened when he blurted out mid-telecast, “I forgot he was black for an hour.” Matthews implied that forgetting was a good thing, that our goal is for all people of color to transcend their race and become “white,” which implies that being white is essentially a non-race, the absence of race. Wise goes on to make the point that Matthews, as a white person, has the privilege of forgetting about race, whereas people of color never have the luxury of forgetting such an essential, dangerous distinction. In a country where race has gotten and can get you killed, people of color do not have this privilege of “colorblindness.”
Some of Wise’s other points on this subject were:
Education: It has been proven that students of color, because of institutional racism, have distinct needs from those of their white classmates. When teachers speak of their classrooms and state that they hadn’t noticed who was of what race, they doing a disservice to all of their students. “It is an erasure of someone’s identity,” Wise states. It’s also just a big lie—who doesn’t see race, seriously?
Politics: When Obama says, “We are not a black America, a white America … we are the United States of America,” he is implying to the white viewer that we are in a post-racial society. He is using rhetoric to gain the votes of white America by telling them what they want to hear. But this is not at all the truth—our country has been built on inequalities between the races, built on making constructed distinctions that have no truth to them. Wise understands Obama’s need to use this rheotrical device, finds it inspirational and aspirational, but he also sees it as destructive.
Health Care: Studies have shown that affluent black women have lower health outcomes than poor white women. At the same time, African women coming to the US directly from Africa have the same health outcomes as wealthy white women. After one full generation of living in the US their health decreases drastically. Wise stated that over 100 studies have proved the cumulative effect racial discrimination has on health.
Culture: Colorblindness implies living in a post-racial society, which ignores the need to talk about race. This de-racialized conversation, in our homes, schools, and workplaces, will make racism even worse. Wise says, “How will people process the disparity if the language for racism has been removed?” Essentially, this is a war between disparity and meritocracy. If disparity is not discussed and pointed out, then people will use the default position of meritocracy, the notion that the harder you work, the better you do. Instead of understanding institution racism and bias, a lack of success will be blamed on the individual.