I was deeply honored to be on State of Wonder. You can get all the details on their website, or listen here:
I spent the day hanging out with Aaron Scott from State of Wonder, taping for this weekend’s episode. We talked about the show Constructing Identity at Portland Art Museum, the role that art plays during these crazy times, the importance of seeing images of ourselves reflected back to us, and how art nurtures empathy by giving us windows into other people’s lives. We also talked about Art Passport PDX, Artists Resist, and The Others. It won’t all make it into the final cut, but it was such an honor to tape the show.
My contribution to ARTISTS RESIST. If the arts and humanities are important to you, go to ArtistsResist.org to add your voice.
In light of the administration’s intention to defund the NEA and the NEH, I have founded Artists Resist, a national campaign that brings together artists and non-artists to speak about how essential the arts and humanities are to the health of our nation.
It is our mission to bring back into the American consciousness an understanding of the value of the arts and humanities by showing how they affect individual lives and communities and how they shape our identity as a country.
Art in Portland is in trouble.
Last year, we lost nine galleries—including the gloriously experimental Hap Gallery, Duplex, Carl & Sloan, and Mark Woolley Gallery, which had been around since the early ’90s. We also said goodbye to the Museum of Contemporary Craft, which was the oldest craft institution on the West Coast, founded in 1937.
Part of the reason these institutions have closed without much uproar, or even notice, is because many of us have come to think of art as a luxury or an indulgence—something inessential that doesn’t pertain to our lives. It’s not a common value that we hold as a city, so we’re not collectively invested. The reality of our apathy hit home when a gallery owner, who hadn’t had any visitors to the gallery in days, once said to me, “I don’t even care if I sell anything, I just want someone to come in and care about the art.”
The lack of engagement in Portland’s art institutions, combined with impossibly high rents and massive gentrification, means that the creative class is being driven out. Artists are leaving. Galleries are shuttering after decades. Once the artists and galleries have gone, is this a place you’ll want to live?
We take for granted that our cultural institutions will always be there, should we ever decide to take advantage of them. But that’s not the case. If we don’t take an interest in the arts, they’ll wither and disappear.
So, we’re trying a new experiment: Art Passport PDX.
Saying, “Hey everybody, go out and visit the galleries!” sounds simple, but that’s not something everyone feels comfortable doing. We can’t ignore the reality that a lot of people feel intimidated or unwelcomed by the art world, that people are uncomfortable going into a gallery because they think they don’t know enough about art to be able to ask the right questions. Or they think there’s no point, since they don’t have enough money to buy anything.
With Art Passport PDX, I’m hoping to break down some of these obstacles.
I’ve handpicked eight galleries for you to visit. You pick up a free passport book at the launch party on March 16 or at any of the participating galleries, and you collect stamps from the galleries. When all of the passport books are handed in, one winner will get a $1,600 credit to spend on art. (A runner-up will get lots of other amazing stuff.)
There’s a catch. In order to get stamps, you have to talk to someone at the gallery about art, which means you have to be a little curious. You have to be willing to ask questions.
Once, when I was at a gallery reviewing a show, I spotted a painting that I thought was so awful, I was offended it was hanging on the gallery wall. I said (politely) to the gallerist, “I really don’t like that painting. Can you tell me why you like it?” After she explained why she picked it for the show and what the artist’s work meant to her, my perspective on it completely shifted. I still didn’t want to take it home with me, but I had a genuine appreciation for it, because she turned me on to a style of painting that I hadn’t known anything about. I was able to see it with new eyes.
Learning about art doesn’t have to be an academic pursuit. Sometimes simply asking a person to explain why they like something helps you to figure out why you like it. Or vehemently dislike it. This is how we develop our tastes, our confidence and our comfort with art: one question at a time.
These eight galleries will be expecting you. Whether you’re an art aficionado or you’ve never set foot in a gallery before—especially if you’ve never set foot in a gallery before—they are waiting to talk to you about art, to find out what you like, or to tell you about the artists they love.
So let’s try this grand experiment together. Visit the galleries. Collect your stamps. Ask as many questions as you can think of—the passport books will have some sample questions if you’re feeling shy. Together, let’s reinvest ourselves in art, and make it one of the city’s common values.
To register for the program and for more information, go to.
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This article originally appeared in Willamette Week. If you’d like to read it in its native habitat, check it out here.
So excited to share some happy news!
My collaborators (Briana Cerezo and Ross Chappell) and I were selected as the 2017 artists-in-residence at the Oregon Historical Society. We will spend our time in the OHS archives exploring the notion of Otherness.
As xenophobia, hatred, and violence are on the rise in this country, we will be traveling throughout Oregon, listening to and documenting stories of what makes us different.
The project will culminate with an exhibition Newspace Center for Photography this fall. We are honored and thrilled.
Here is the full press release.
I was just awarded an individual artist grant from The Regional Arts and Culture Council in support of my memoir All The Reverence in our Hearts. It is about a year of grief during which, for the first time in my life as a writer, I was unable to write. It explores the ways in which we make meaning, where we find solace and ritual, how we steep ourselves in tradition and make sacred the mundane, and how these things can shepherd us through the most difficult times in our lives.
I will be giving a series of readings in the fall of 2016 sponsored by RACC. Stay tuned.
Oregon Humanities has just chosen my essay Finding Land as a magazine extra. You can read it on their website (and check out the other essays by Oregon writers while you’re there). If you know me, it may be a tough read. If you don’t, I can’t say for sure.
It’s difficult writing about tender moments in your life and putting it out for the world to see. I certainly won’t be visiting the comments section. But sharing stories makes me feel hopeful, like we’re all connected by our flawed human experience, so I’ll continue to do so until I have no more stories to tell.
We made historic strides last week. The supreme court legalized marriage equality. The public called for the removal of the confederate flag from government buildings in South Carolina, finally ready to put a long-held symbol of racism to rest (one brave activist, who didn’t think we should have to wait until it was voted upon, climbed the flag pole outside of South Carolina’s capitol and took it down herself).
Amidst the celebrating, I heard a few voices reminding us that there is still more work to do. As much as I wanted to focus on the revelry and to enjoy the collective back patting, I found myself thinking about the role that we all play in the inequalities of this country. The role that I play.
It is a difficult and shameful thing to admit to having prejudices. We don’t take kindly to it. Even Donald Trump, who was quoted last week as saying that undocumented Mexican immigrants are, “bringing drugs … they’re bringing crime … they’re rapists,” made a point to follow up his comment by declaring, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”
The truth, however uncomfortable, is that it is impossible to live in America and not have implicit biases. Racism, misogyny, transphobia, and xenophobia are part of the cultural amniotic stew. And one of the forces that keeps them alive is our unwillingness to admit that no matter how thoughtful or well intentioned we are, no matter how much we donate to charity, we all carry them around with us.
But this is precisely what needs to be done. So I will go first.
I was raised by a woman whose favorite article of clothing was a tank top boasting the slogan A WOMAN WITHOUT A MAN IS LIKE A FISH WITHOUT A BICYCLE. My mother and father are staunch feminists. I am one too.
Last week, when I called Apple tech support to help me with a complicated and persistent computer problem, a female voice came on the line. “Tech support, how can I help you?” The first thought I had was, “She’s not going to know how to fix it.”
A couple months ago, I was walking to my car late at night in a dodgy part of town. A young African American man was walking in my direction on the opposite side of the street. As we got closer, he crossed the street and started walking toward me. My first thought was, “Uh oh. This is not good.”
In both these situations, I was surprised and saddened by my thoughts. But I am not my thoughts. I have agency over my thoughts, as we all do. Some of our thoughts come from a deep personal conviction, others fly into our brains from the movies, televisions shows, and news broadcasts floating around in the amniotic stew. The trick is to determine which are which. If a thought aligns with your beliefs, keep it. If a thought is in direct opposition to your beliefs, as were the first thoughts that came to me in those two situations, pay attention to it.
I recently heard someone say that it is only by becoming aware of a thought that it can be highlighted for deletion. This is our collective task. To turn our awareness inward (Oh, how much easier it is to point the finger at everyone else). We all have racist, misogynist, transphobic, and xenophobic thoughts, no matter our color or where we fall on the gender spectrum.
These thoughts, when unexamined, lead to unexamined actions, which propagate the violence, exclusion, and oppression that cause us shame. The only way to rid society of these actions is by noticing the thoughts that cause them. Thoughts cannot hurt people. Thoughts cannot ruin a culture. It is only when those thoughts are expressed that they become dangerous.
If we can be brave enough to admit our prejudices, even if only in secret to ourselves, we can begin to highlight them for deletion. When we have a thought, we can ask ourselves if it follows a deeply held belief. If it does, it should be acted upon. If it does not, if it was picked it up from the stew, we needn’t do anything but let it pass. We then have an opportunity to act in a way that is more in line with our beliefs. It seems a tiny thing, but two seconds of consideration can be as powerful as a lifetime of revolution.
After a difficult week (read: two years), what better way to commemorate a watershed a moment, than with a little art and a lot of trespassing?
I like to start my birthdays at the cemetery. Instant perspective: you are alive. You have rounded the corner (or the sharp edge) of another year. But there is no avoiding the fact that you are going to end up in a place like this, so make the most of your time above ground.
On the flip side, the stakes feel peacefully low. Everything that is going to happen to everyone here has already happened. There is nothing to fret over, to falsely dream, to go awry. There are few places that allow me to exhale as deeply as I do when I’m in a graveyard.
This year I brought Bach’s cello suites with me and wandered the grounds for hours, getting so delightfully lost that I had to employ GPS in order to find my car. The mission was a resounding success, because I was reminded of all the important things about life above ground.
I was reminded that nature is always more powerful than man (and thankfully so):
I was reminded of how lucky I am to live in a time when, as a woman, my identity and self-worth can be defined by so many more things than they might have been a century ago:
I was reminded that life is tender and precious:
and that every day counts:
That things don’t always work out according to plan:
That hilarity abounds:
As does creativity (this is a 2D, flat headstone):
I was reminded of how much we all have in common. Take this grave for example. It belongs to a woman who died the year I was born:
But more important than the shared date, is the line that she and I have in common, the line that everyone has in common, the one between the two dates on our headstones that represents our lives:
None of us has any say in how long the line will be but I, for one, am going to try like hell to make sure it’s etched as deeply as possible.
Last night, I went to see the Dance Theater of Harlem at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Allow me to preface what I am about to say by telling you that 76% of Portland’s population is Caucasian and 6% of it is African American. Added to which, there is a significant (and painful) cultural and geographic divide between these two groups.
I have been to that concert hall a dozen times over the years and, in all of those times, one could have easily been under the impression that the 6% was closer to .6%. Last night was a new experience. Seeing so many African American couples and families show up in force made me think about how important it is for all of us to see ourselves represented in art and culture, to see people on the screen and on the stage and in the pages of magazines who look like we do. Caucasians don’t have to try very hard to accomplish this; we simply buy tickets to something, turn on the TV, or flip through the pages of whatever’s closest to our latte.
In that way, it’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like to have so few representations of myself and my community, and what effect that might have on my sense of self. What I do understand, though, is that the need for affiliation goes beyond our physical, racial, socio-economic, and gender identities.
Each one of us has hidden parts that are looking for representation in society and culture. Each of us has emotional and constitutional facets of ourselves that we dislike, parts that we are ashamed of, parts that can make us feel as though we are on the outside looking in. For me, being a highly sensitive person falls into this category. Though research shows that it is, in fact, a neurological phenomenon–and not simply being a “wuss” as it is so delightfully described by many–this information does not, on a bad day when I am curled up under the covers, prevent me from feeling like an alien, unfit for terrestrial life.
Last week I started reading a blog by the actor Mayim Bialik. She is a beautiful writer and a fellow highly sensitive person. She writes mostly about parenting and modern Orthodox judaism, neither of which are a part of my direct experience, but I find a kinship in her words, a recognition, because she writes lovingly and acceptingly about the part of herself that mirrors the part of myself that I most want to hide from other people.
This is the power of art: to provide honest mirrors for others in which to see themselves. This is why it is essential for people of all genders, races, orientations, ethnicities, and physicalities as well as people with a wide array of challenges, neuroses, ideologies, wounds, and qualities that our culture considers “defects,” to share these things about themselves. This is how we make each other feel less alone.
I’ve recently had the experience of interacting with people who have read this blog before they’ve gotten to know me personally. Some (read: men) were under the impression that I needed rescuing. This took me aback and made me feel strange, as if I was staring into a giant funhouse mirror where my reflection didn’t match my face.
I think what’s going on is that, in our culture, we often mistake vulnerability for weakness. Now, as I write this, I look up the word vulnerable in the dictionary, and I see why we have a problem:
susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm: we were in a vulnerable position | small fish are vulnerable to predators.
My job as a writer and an artist is to be vulnerable in my life and in my work. And, yes, in some cases that causes me to be susceptible to attack or harm (read: critics), but that is a rather inconsequential feature of vulnerability as it relates to my purposes.
Brené Brown, the leading researcher in the field of vulnerability, defines it as, “exposure, uncertainty, and emotional risk.” When an artist opens himself up and takes risks, this is the source of his strength, not a detriment to it. It takes self-assurance and resilience and pluck to put oneself on the page, on the canvas, on the stage.
So I may look like a small fish, but I’ll bet money I can outswim you.
“No writing is wasted. Did you know that sourdough from San Francisco is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfrancisensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can’t put in your book can wash the floor, live in the soil, lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better.” ― Erin Bow
“Our first and foremost task is faithfully to care for the inward fire so that when it is really needed it can offer warmth and light to lost travelers.” – H. Nouwen
I’ve begun to wonder if it is possible to tend the inward fire in a culture that encourages us to direct our attention outward at every opportunity. The reason we engage in the outward pursuits of the twenty-first century–namely, social media–it seems to me, is because of a collective fear. We all want to be seen, we all want to matter, we want to stay relevant, we don’t want to miss anything; we believe that if we don’t contribute something to the overwhelming din of information that there will be no chance of anyone ever hearing us.
These are not new concerns. Van Gogh said,
There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passersby only see a wisp of smoke coming through the chimney, and go along their way. Look here, now what must be done? Must one tend the inner fire, have salt in oneself, wait patiently yet with how much impatience for the hour when somebody will come and sit down–maybe to stay?
I’m starting to feel that social media is akin to standing outside your house shouting at everyone who walks by Look at the smoke coming out of my chimney! Check it out! It’s super smokey! It smells great! That’s my house it’s coming from! Watch how it billows! No one else’s smoke billows quite like mine does! and the more time you spend outside shouting about the smoke the less likely there is to be a raging fire when the day arrives that someone wants to come inside to warm themselves by it.
I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. I have languishing Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts which I begrudgingly fill with content just like the rest of you. I am struggling mightily to figure out what is true for me in all of this, all the while wishing I could be spending that time taking bellows to the fire in my soul.
Every year I celebrate Fred Rogers’s birthday the way I would celebrate the birthday of a dear friend who had passed away. For years I marked the day by wearing a red zippered cardigan I got from Goodwill just for the occasion. This year I went simple. I bought Fred some flowers and put them next to the photo I keep of him in the living room. I talked to him throughout the day, and he smiled his beatific smile at me. I told him I missed him and that the world was better for having had him in it.
I’m beginning to worry that people who know me solely through this blog and website may be thinking that I am not okay, owing to the fact that for the last year and a half I have been writing and making sculptures almost exclusively about grief. The truth is that I was not okay, then I was okay, then I was deeply not okay, and now I am okay again. The reason that I’ve been writing about grief so faithfully is twofold: 1. writing helps me to heal in a way that nothing else can 2. I want to explode any taboos or discomforts our culture has with loss, grief, and depression and 3. (bonusfold) I never want to fall into the alluring social trap of curating my life by making it seem brighter or shinier than it is.
That said, there have been some bright spots and they are getting more frequent and closer between.
To wit, my recent trip to Los Angeles:
First, I went to LACMA with a friend thinking I was headed to the quaint little county museum for the afternoon and then holy cow, whaddya know, dum dee dum:
My favorite piece in LACMA. “Prayer Mat” by Mona Hatoum. Object embedded towards the top is a compass that marks the direction of Mecca. The rest of the mat is a bed of tiny nails. This, my friends, is how you make conceptual art.
A casual and artistic segue:
At the age of 43, Simon Rodia, a construction worker, felt he had something great inside of him. For 34 years, he worked every night, weekend, and holiday to build what are now known as The Watts Towers. When they were finished, he handed the deed to the property to his neighbor and left town, never to see them again.
I galavanted. I cavorted. Shit, I even I capered about.
The following photo is significant because of what I am standing above,
which is, of course, the 6th Street viaduct where the racing scene from Grease was filmed (!):
I told Aleshka to pretend to be Sandy waiting in her poodle skirt for Frenchie to come make her over except that Aleshka is way more Cool Sandy than Prissy Sandy, so I think it was a stretch.
I went to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, an experience about which, according to law, I must remain very opaque and mysterious. You can look it up online, but you won’t find any real information. The only way to crack the code is to go and see it for yourself.
I did everything you would want to do in Los Angeles, including getting caught in a downpour in Topenga Canyon, driving Mulholland at night, and having secret information passed to me while walking the Venice canals.
Observe the various and sundry wonderfulness.
I had a boyfriend who was a talented musician. He was from a loving upper-middle class family, which is to say that his life had been pretty rosy and so, as a counterweight I think, he romanticized the life of the brooding tortured artist. Kurt Cobain. Elliott Smith. Layne Staley. These were his heroes. He bought in to the idea that creativity germinates in pain and that you must steep yourself in it if you were going to make anything worthwhile. This struck me as a dangerous position to take for someone seeking to live a long creative life.
In reaction, and because my life had been pretty rosy too, I went the other way. I decided that happiness would be my creative fuel. Nothing worthwhile, to my mind, was going to come from misery–or at least nothing I was interested in cultivating. My writing practice became so dependent on my good humor that I couldn’t write if I was having a bad day. This suited me just fine; I simply didn’t work during my blue moods, which were always unremarkable and transient.
Last year, I had a mood so blue it turned black. And I couldn’t wait it out because it wouldn’t go away. I assumed that my creativity, as it had always done at such times, would abandon me. But in what turned out to be the greatest surprise of my creative life, it stuck around.
I was down to about 85 or 90 pounds then, having not slept or eaten much, and my health was beginning to give me trouble, my anxiety and grief literally consuming me. My doctor ordered blood work and we joked grimly about what to expect. When I went in for the follow up, I said, “So, how bad is it?” She looked at me and said, “These are the best results I have ever seen.”
That same week, I went in for a craniosacral/acupuncture appointment. I was lying prone on the table while my acupuncturist performed energy work on me. I remember feeling as fragile as glass. She said, “your core energy is really strong.” I told her I didn’t understand how that was possible since I felt like I might dissolve into particles at any moment. “It’s your creativity,” she replied. “It’s keeping you vital. You’re lucky you have it.”
I’ve realized something in all of this mess: when your creativity is assigned to you, it becomes an inalienable part of who you are. Your creativity is given to you and you alone; your life is the only food it requires. It doesn’t care if you are having a good day or a bad day. It just wants to flow through you like a river through a dry ravine.
Your creativity can feed on anything–pain, pleasure, mirth, sorrow, defeat, rage, awe–it doesn’t matter. Just give it whatever’s inside of you and it will give you back to yourself.