The air was so thick. Even our N95 masks didn’t seem like sufficient protection. Fine particulate matter that comes from forest fires is mostly invisible and toxic, stealthily moving through the lungs into the blood stream, causing all manner of ills, but I observed, as I’ve done during previous smoke seasons, that very few people were conscious enough to wear masks. I sat inside my studio looking out at people sitting on their condo decks, unprotected, and shook my head.
It’s amazing to me how delusional we can be as a species. If you look at last month’s photo of Seattle (where the AQI was even worse than Tacoma’s for several days), it gives a portrait of what we were sitting inside. Thankfully we have an air purifier in our bedroom as well as in my studio, so we made it through this episode of around 200 AQI without any symptoms other than irritability and a quiet foreboding about our future as a species. I feel for those who have either no awareness about what this kind of air quality means for all living things, but especially for those without access to shelter, masks, or options.
After the Tacoma Studio Tour that happened last month, I kept my mini-retrospective up for those who could not come that weekend. A new friend came to visit the following week. They were astonished by the range of work and found it hard to believe that all of it was done by me. The idea that an artist comes up with a style and keeps producing in that way, decade after decade, must be a leftover notion of consumer culture or a poorly-taught art appreciation class. Or maybe it’s a recent experience of artists selling their particular brand on Instagram. I’ve encountered this bias towards consistency of style whenever artists are being reviewed for funding or teaching positions. There’s not much space or an embrace for those artists who frequently morph into new ways of making and seeing, finding inspiration from diverse topics, and the mediums we scavenge. We inhabit the margins and are not easily boxed.
I took my visitor to spend time with various pieces, and shared some of the motivations behind certain works or the locations where they were made. I let them ponder the huge range that my muses inhabit. I should mention that they were not critiquing the fact that my work had such a wide range, in fact, they were excited by it, as if they were exploring a secret treasure box. Perhaps my work is best digested in this way.
To prepare for the annual Tacoma Studio Tour, I had spent weeks diving into some decades-old, bruised boxes, and dug through a dozen flat file drawers, deciding which pieces or bodies of work needed to be aired. The exhibition was installed and pieces were selected with the help of my friend, A.P. She has been my friend since 8th grade Algebra class back in New Jersey. She knows most of the chapters of my creative output well, She has her own significant collection of my work on display in her home. She’s not a fan of public exposure & social media of any kind, so I’m not naming her here on purpose. During the hanging, we reminisced about the times when certain work was exhibited, and ways that she and her partner, both retired architects now, helped me install various large projects in museums and galleries from NYC to Long Beach, CA and Seattle, WA.
As work began to populate the walls, I became excited by the visual and conceptual tensions revealed by work and how this kind of mini-retrospective began to suggest an integration of diverse parts of my psyche. Of course, without evidence of my many interactive installations (from “THIS IS NOT A TEST” http://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/THIS%20IS%20NOT%20A%20TEST.html to “We Almost Didn’t Make It,” http://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/We_Almost_Didnt_Make_It.html, this exhibition is missing a huge part of my practice. Only a few folks who visited the space thus far know anything about my long career, and given the overwhelm or delight that many expressed, they did not need to know about this historical omission. I had begun to prepare a slide show of installation work to run on a loop in a corner of the space, but once people were in the space, I saw the absurdity of that plan.
My studio of the past few years on the third floor of what was originally an “odd fellows home.” It has an interesting history that I’m only beginning to research more fully, as a charitable organization and residence for single Black men who worked on the railroad. Built in 1904, some of the spaces in the building (the Tai Chi School and the Tacoma Ballet School) have a grandeur that is very evocative. My own narrow but very commodious space looks out on the Port of Tacoma’s industrial landscape, and if one skews one’s head at the left-hand window, on a clear day, you can see our beautiful volcanic mountain, Tahoma, Tacobet, or təqʷubəʔ (aka Mt. Rainier) in all her grandeur. When I’m not fretfully contemplating the “EYE OF MORDOR” offered by the pulp mill, the endless arrival and departure of container ships, the ever-present dangers of the LNG refinery (often in view), the evils of the private prison for people without papers, the countless violations of the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854 and the resulting harm done to the Puyallup people, and the continuing plunder of this sacred estuary by petro-capitalism, I can gaze across the harbor at the often hazy, purple Cascade mountains and remember that all of this is temporary. This view is one of my muses, a trickster who conflates the horror of these times with the deep time of geology and the flow of the tides. I am enormously grateful for the luxury of this space and the time to contemplate what has befallen us, a species sitting both on the edge of extinction and within a portal of possibilities.
In writing about this current studio and the amazing privilege that it offers, I began to reflect upon when I first had a studio of my own, and what it’s meant to claim a “room of one’s own.” If you have the patience to read this mini-memoir focusing on my nomadic artist’s life, please know that writing this was a good distraction from the pain that I’m feeling about the world right now as well as the stress and grief of witnessing my beloved husband of 34 years going through chemo treatments for Stage 4 Melanoma.
I was not conscious about the arrogance it took for my 20 year-old college student self, to move into a vacant storage room, adjacent to the painting classroom, when I was a junior art major. I had no permission for such a takeover. Perhaps this action predicted my predilection for doing disobedient art over the years? Instead of inhabiting the square feet surrounding an easel with a patch of wall, I could close a door and experiment without observing eyes. Such a luxury was not accessible to me again for over a decade and a half. No one asked me to leave, so from this experience, I can suggest a certain entitlement began to accumulate in my ego. Perhaps that was good practice for occupying space in the capitalist art world, but now my more culturally democratic self is a bit aghast at the behavior. As I write this account, I continue to decolonize.
At the same time I had self-isolated to do my work, I was organizing with my female peers. We were fed up with the sexism in our education, and had a sit down strike in the chair’s office, demanding funding for a women’s art show, visiting women artists, a women’s poetry and performance festival, and the inclusion of the work of women in the art history classes. I had also gotten fed up with being treated like a “queen bee” by the male art faculty. According to them, I was the exception among my gender, the one who was going to go on to become an artist, while my sisters were going to marry well and buy art. I was deeply offended by this attitude, and the best way to respond was to create solidarity. All of us “baby feminists” became artists and designers, by the way; an excellent way to respond to the male faculty blinded by their bias.
I was doing my best to remove my own blinders. I wasn’t as aware then about the truckload of bull shit that I needed to deconstruct thankfully. I would have been overwhelmed. I just started with the ways I’d been programmed to be a “good girl” and that topic kept me going for years. There were angry, red paintings cut into pieces, and intensely emotional portraits of the spaces I inhabited. While few of those paintings exist today, I remember them all, and recognize the strength that my sister art students gave me to shout, wail, and guffaw – the not-so-tender beginnings of my artist’s voice.
There was a wonderful exception among the art faculty, the lovely and kind George Jones, a Black painter from California who worked with me my final two years of college. He was as supportive as they came, and always gently admonished me to not be so impatient and hard on myself. George, if your ancestor self can hear me from the great beyond, please know that the seeds you planted within me still buoy me up. I wish you were still here on this plane, so we could schmooze.
Another influence during those last college years was that of Andrew Leicester, a British conceptual sculptor and public artist. He introduced me to the wonderful art of scavenging materials (our first field trip was to an army/navy surplus store) and working with found objects. I credit him with directing my attention towards the whole conceptual movement, and as a result I discovered my first book by Lucy Lippard, Six Years: the Dematerialization of the Art Object 1968-1972.
During the last two summers of college, I headed east to study at the Provincetown Workshop on Cape Cod. I shared a working space with a group of about 20 young painters, all crowded into one room, all on full scholarships, each claiming a battered easel and a table for our supplies and palettes. The teachers, Victor Candell and Leo Manso, were both committed modernists who encouraged us to drop anything representational in our work. This philosophy was ultimately very freeing, although difficult to follow at first.
Most of the students came from Cooper Union in NYC where they paid no school tuition, and as a result, many of them had the budgets to be well stocked with paints and brushes. I would gasp when I saw some of these students lather on thick coats of paint and then later in the day scrape everything off into a pile of mud on the floor. The waste of it all tested my frugality, as I thought about placing containers under their canvases to collect their excess to be reused on mine.
In the midst of the crowded room, every precious mark I made could be observed, and, at the same time, I could witness the images emerging from others. I thinned my paint carefully with linseed oil and turpentine, cautious to make my meager supplies last the summer, using the contrasts of translucency and opacity, lined with charcoal, as a regular recipe.
I had begun journaling a few years earlier. In those pages, I documented my thoughts about the cognitive dissonance of cleaning the vacation homes of the wealthy for several hours a day before coming to the painting studio. I was a very imperfect house cleaner, but no one complained; I received many welcome perks like the leftovers from fancy parties. My roommates and I ate well.
Another perk of the last summer in P’town was gaining the peer network to help me find an apartment in NYC. The former occupants of the tiny cockroach-ridden tenement apartment on the edge of the East Village in Manhattan were two P’town peers. who had moved into a nicer place.The rent was $200/month and a college friend and I shared that cost. The work I created to get into grad school was made on the floor of our living room (also my bedroom). Frankly I was amazed that these small paintings, created with so much self-doubt, offered me a free ride to grad school, but grateful I was. Little did I know that the acceptance at NSCAD would determine so much about my decades-long art career.
During my first year of grad school in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I shared a loft studio space, one of the many perks offered by this free MFA program. In retrospect, it was one of the most generative spaces I’ve worked in, a section of a floor of a former warehouse, not too big and definitely not too small for all sorts of mischief to emerge. My studio mate was an erudite, inquisitive, and conceptually sophisticated, performance artist from New Zealand, Bruce Barber. He sat at one end of our space with his neatly arranged, push-pinned posters, a file cabinet, and a very orderly desk with typewriter, and I roamed around my end with a lively sort of chaos that included small piles of paper, scavenged supplies, all manner of found objects, tools, and random hardware. My projects in process flowed from the tables onto the walls and the floor. The contrast between our sides of the loft was distinct. Despite the lack of privacy, his questions often expanded my practice in unexpected ways. He introduced me to John Berger, Ivan Illich, and other radical thinkers who became important to my thinking about art’s place in the world, eventually influencing my teaching practice; his observations about my painting and drawing habits began to shift those practices as well. He already had a Master’s in Art History and was actively engaged in theories that emerged from Marxism and the Frankfurt School. So it was no surprise that a hand-me-down typewriter began to occupy my creative landscape, with a dictionary nearby to translate words like “reify” and “putative” that flowed out of Bruce’s mouth with ease. I started placing short and long texts on the wall next to my imagery or as stand alone’s, and began a series of “readymades.” The latter eventually grew into installations filled with scavenged objects and text.
Over time, the parade of visitors into our space included many luminaries from the NY, Toronto, and European art scenes. One of them was Laurie Anderson who took one look at the texts on my wall and asked me if I liked the idea of recording them in the sound studio. Having played with a hand-me down dictation recorder as a child, telling stories to the machine, delighting in the sound of the playback of my voice, I responded to Laurie with an enthusiastic “YES, of course!” With her support for the next few days, I began a journey into multi-layered tracks that satisfied my desire for performing as much as anything else. The challenge was that after grad school, there was no free recording studio. I had to scavenge access to equipment for the next 20 years until I put that passion to rest.
When the NY Times’ art critic, Donald Kuspit, visited our NSCAD studio, he took one look at some of my older paintings and spoke frankly with me, “stay away from this installation stuff, it’s just a trend that will not serve you. At your core, you’re a real painter and you have the makings of a great painter.” Despite the unexpected compliment, I was saddened by this response, and was even more determined to shake that strangely appealing painter out of my system. Although I didn’t like the cliché, “painting is dead,” I began to embrace the possibility that my practice would not include making commodities for the wealthy. That meant I’d have to figure something else out or have a clandestine painting practice.
There are many other stories that I could tell about visits to my NSCAD studio, but I think this post will become too unwieldy if I continue sharing them today. So moving on:
After grad school, my studio space contracted for a bit. It was the surface of a hand-me-down drafting table at my end of the Beaver Street loft in Lower Manhattan. With barely any privacy from my incredibly nasty loft mate (then a feminist editor who went on to become a ruthless CEO of various corporate media institutions) and the not-so-interested office workers across the street at RCA Global Communications, the notebooks and drawings I did on that table were crucial to my well-being and ability to navigate those first, intense years of the “NY art world.” The loft space was cheap ($325/month); it smelled like greasy hamburgers (two floors above the Kansas City Meat Exchange) and precious “natural” light was reflected off the windows across the street in this urban canyon dwelling. Despite the challenges of this living & working situation, I was able to organize and install two major works, Daily Reminder about 9-5 work life: https://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/Daily%20Reminder.html and Apply Within that explored the difficulties of being unemployed and the misery of looking for work,,https://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/APPLY%20WITHIN.html Soon before the latter installation opened to the public at the Franklin Furnace, we had a fuse blow in the loft, and a visiting electrician advised us to move out immediately, and told us that we were living in a fire trap with illegal and dangerous wiring. So off to Brooklyn, I fled, grateful to be out of the emotional and physical sphere of my loft mate and her racist, skin head boyfriend.
“Beaver Street Loft” watercolor, pastel, and pencil, 1980
In a former factory on Atlantic Ave, I rented a recently renovated space. I scattered some hand-me-down furniture in its 1500-square-foot vastness, feeling a bit overwhelmed by this next chapter. Downtown Brooklyn had not yet been gentrified, but my presence as well as that of a few other artists who I began swimming with at the local YWCA, clearly indicated an economic shift in process. I loved the neighborhood, the local library, the thrift shops, the Arabic groceries, and biking around Prospect Park and over the Brooklyn Bridge to work. The loft had huge windows, with NW light, and a sunset view over the rooftops of brownstones. I was entertained by passionate rehearsals and performances of the local gospel church next door, and had a fascinating group of friends, that included Black & Puerto Rican Muslims who swam at the pool and a well-known jazz pianist. I threw a few good parties, enticing Manhattanites out to what was then considered “the wilds of Brooklyn” by serving up homemade knishes or latkes & borscht.
Despite all these benefits, I found it hard to concentrate and be with my work. I was financially squeezed by the higher rent, eating more than my fair share of rice & beans, and looking for new ways to get income. My creative blocks were a combination of lots of self-doubt, unresolved and challenging romantic relationships, a shitload of unprocessed childhood trauma, a fair amount of imposter syndrome (caused by early recognition of my work in the art press), and ultimately so much more. There was an intimidating, yet enticing, big wall on which I could make art. There were days when I walked by it in shame because I hadn’t yet punctured it surface with a push pin. Eventually I found that it was easier work to deadlines than to produce work for my own pleasure. I still procrastinated quite a bit, even when I was deeply passionate about the project. I felt that I was cheating myself and others when what I considered were half-baked projects emerged. I was swimming with many responses to the world of the early 1980s: the damage of Reaganism (from housing, job insecurity, environmental degradation, and nuclear fears). Perhaps no one knew that the work I produced then felt half-baked to me. My inner critic was well-weaponized, and did a remarkable job of taking away the pleasure of my creative process.
Although the hurdles created blockages, I did make a fair amount of art in my downtown Brooklyn space. The media attention generated by my installation at the Franklin Furnace brought offers to participate in shows. I was invited to participate in my first international exhibition at the ICA in London; a show curated by Lucy R.l Lippard called Issue: Social Strategies by Women Artists. My contribution, an audio installation called “The Sky is Falling, The Sky is Falling: A Panacea for Pre-Millenial Tension,” talked about my fears about the cold war heating up, the damage being caused by Reagan, and my feelings of cynicism and powerless. I had not yet discovered the work of Joanna Macy and other anti-nuclear activists to help me transform those feelings.
Still, I was truly beside myself when I was invited to participate in this show. I was 26, showing with some of my s/heroes. It was a real honor! Unfortunately, I was less than pleased by my contribution to the show, created with with scavenged subway posters, photocopy petitions, and a very layered, audio loop. I had no funding to create it or ship it, with just enough funds to eat one meal a day while in London. ICA paid for the hotel and air fare and I was grateful to be there. I never share images of this work in my slide talks about my work because even today, I don’t feel that it measures up. Thankfully, I’ve remained in warm relationship to several of the artists, and sadly three of them, Nancy Spero, May Stevens, and Bonnie Sherk, are no longer on this plane.
While in Brooklyn, I developed a series of drawings called “The Empire’s New Clothes” as provocations for people to do creative interventions in public spaces. Accompanying that series was a package of stickers (commissioned by Collab) called “Stick-its: Ra-decals for the Angry Consumer.” They were well used by high school students and others. Another project was a series of photocopied collages about gentrification; they were wheat pasted in various frontline neighborhoods and exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum. My previous obsession with satirical game boards (I started inventing them in grad school) returned as collages. The one below was printed in Heresies Magazine and another chronicling the not-so-visible crimes of James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, was put on display in one of Lucy’s curated exhibits about environmental issues.
“The Waiting Game” collage and ink, 1981
At the same time these overtly political works were being made, exhibited, and published, I was painting more banal imagery on stretched canvas: views of the loft’s interior with a phone, often off the hook, and an unmade bed or an empty table, with views out the window. These themes struck me as strangely neurotic at the time, but now I treasure the intimacy of the subject matter. One of them is the collection of A.P., but the others are only documented in photos, whereabouts unknown.
Two painters from my grad school days, Eric Fischl and April Gornik, asked to come and see my new work. When they visited, they expressed delight and curiosity when viewing this series, and asked why there was so little paint on the canvas. I explained that I had learned to stretch my paint well during many years of low income, and that I did actually like the contrast of translucent and opaque that emerged from diluting the paint. They encouraged me to create more and to find a dealer to sell them. I held off on the latter until another friend, Mike Glier, Jenny Holzer’s partner, persistently asked me to get a major dealer to come to my studio.
One fine day, a year or so later, Ms. Annina Nosei, a short, attractive Italian woman who ran the Nosei Gallery, arrived an hour late to our appointment at my studio. She was full of apologies, saying her driver did not know Brooklyn, and, after all, these were the days before GPS’s and cell phones. She was bubbling over with excitement because she had just been visiting with Jean-Michel Basquiat, then mostly known for his street graffiti. His work and their discussion had made her very animated and she told me that she had decided to lock him the basement for the summer, with a plan to bring him food and supplies, so that he could paint her an exhibition. I was stunned and horrified by her comments. I knew of JM, and had respect for his enigmatic presence as a street artist. I could not imagine how he would respond to being locked in her gallery’s basement, but it sounded awful to me.
Annina started looking at my work, most of which were small works on paper and canvas. She said, “I really like your work. I can give you a show in the fall if you can make these small works much bigger. I can’t pay my rent with art of this size.” She stretched her arms wide suggesting that 10’x12′ might be a good start. I was polite, but I had neither the funds for making large paintings nor the interest in making my work to accommodate her needs. I could see her vision of my work on a production conveyor belt, like pairs of shoes in different sizes, and the image did not nourish me. She invited me to a party of her clients and artists, a week or two later, where I heard real estate investors and others complaining about their legal problems. I left wondering if they were living in the same moment in history that I was. I did not contact her again. I met a few more dealers over the next year or so, but had decided at that point that I would find another way to support my art habit.
In my quest find more work in order to pay the bills, I trained to do paste up and mechanicals (a now extinct aspect of graphic design and typography). After a 6-week course, I was able to find work that paid decently. My first gig in that genre was deeply ironic, given my future challenges with environmental illness: I was pasting up labels for pesticides, and as the rules at the EPA keep changing, the word “victim” shifted from “person” and then back to “victim” multiple times. Thankfully I was lured away from that position by the lovely Sara Seagull, a graphic designer who offered me well-paying work assisting her with brochures and catalogs for art spaces. She also gave me time off to develop my art projects.
To that end, in the fall of 1983, I was offered a month-long residency at the Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondack Mountains. My studio consisted of a desk in my small bedroom. I was the only visual artist in residence at the time. The others were all writers. The view from my window of the lake and my daily hikes expanded that desk studio into the amazing fall landscape. This retreat ultimately shifted my relationship to urban life. Walking the trails alone (something I had not dared do before as a single woman) gave me a sense of agency and strength that I had not expected. I realized that I could no longer pay the emotional and spiritual price that was charged by my daily NYC life.
Blue Mountain Center had been founded by a philanthropist who made his money as a timber and mining baron. I’m not sure what shifted his values, but towards the end of his life he began to invest in artists whose work might be described as critical realism and whose politics were definitely progressive. Above my bed was an original George Grosz ink drawing of a tree. It filled me with so much compassion for the artist who had witnessed and painted so much horror during the Weimar period in Germany. That many of his first art works upon arrival as a WWII refugee in the States were images of trees somehow gave me permission to take breaks from revising the text of THIS NOT A TEST (my piece about my nuclear nightmares). When I wasn’t wandering through the woods or boating on the lake, I drew and painted the landscape with a deep thirst for a kind a nutrition that I was lacking. I knew my time in NYC was over. Despite receiving praising reviews for my installation int the New Museum’s The End of the World show, multiple incidents during my last months in the city confirmed the decision to leave. When my alma mater offered me a visiting artist gig in Minnesota, I jumped at the opportunity.
I spent those two years in Northfield, Minnesota either working in an unheated porch or sharing a small studio space in the campus art building with senior art majors. It was less private than my own senior year art space, but, in some ways that helped with my tendency to procrastinate. I did many, many paintings on canvas and on paper during that time, almost all of them were done from memory of landscapes, buildings, and spaces in NYC, rural farmland, and warehouses in the Twin Cities. I had a solo show in the Carleton gallery where I also rebuilt a version of THIS IS NOT A TEST.
The above painting was a memory of my Brooklyn loft, filled with hand-me down furniture and plants from my grandparents’ apartment. I find the perspective in this view of the space fascinating. I have no idea where this painting ended up.
Another favorite piece from that period was this small ink drawing. I had just given a short lecture on my work for students at St. Olaf, the Lutheran college on the other side of town. Some students in the audience were a bit concerned about my subject matter, particularly the pieces that dealt with the possibility of nuclear war. I did this drawing in response to a student’s question: “What are you gonna paint in the middle of the cornfields?” And I responded, “there’s plenty of nuclear missile silos out there in those fields, if you have a mind to look for them.” I painted this one from my imagination and then learned that there was a particular site outside of town that looked somewhat like this image. A friend drove me there; I was flabbergasted when he showed me this place that looked like my imagined landscape.
In the spring of 1986, I was offered a tenure-track position at Cal State Long Beach. My first years in southern California were difficult ones. Aside from the adjustment to southern Californian culture, I was in a difficult, long distance relationship that should never have happened. I developed a creative block for months at a time. I had no studio other than my living room during that first year in Long Beach. I made a few pieces – a satirical calendar to playfully acknowledge my culture shock and a slide tape piece that was performed at Beyond Baroque called DON’T LOOK AT THIS. The latter work featured graphite illustrated scenes that provoked my cognitive dissonance in southern Cali culture, with the red stenciled letters of the title over each scene. The sound track has been lost in the winds of time. As this blog post indicates, I’ve moved a lot in this lifetime.
After a year working in the living room of my first rental in Long Beach, a sweet, vine-covered California Craftsman cottage on Walnut Ave (a neighborhood with a reputation for crack dealers living harmoniously next door to old, retired ladies), and a much needed break up, I moved into an apartment closer to the beach with the best landlady ever. I had a garage where I worked for a year or so, creating paintings about the bad air and water quality. I reworked my series, Taking the Empire’s New Clothes to the Laundryhttps://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/TheEmpire.html built the first version of the installation, Please Take a Numb-er, https://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/Please%20Take%20a%20Numb-er.html and created a facsimile of THIS IS NOT A TEST for the Long Beach Museum of Art, just a block away from my apartment.
Sadly one day, at the end of the summer in 1988, someone was observing me at work in that garage and when I went into the apartment for a few minutes and left the garage open, my keys were stolen, as well as my car that was on the street around the corner. It was a traumatic situation that left me feeling quite vulnerable about garage studio life, so when I learned that a studio space had opened up at the Angel’s Gate Cultural Center in San Pedro, I decided to pay rent for an external studio for the first time in my career.
The San Pedro studio chapter (1988-1992) coincided around the time I met Bob, my partner of the past 34 years. I only have positive memories of working in that space. Even though I had to drive to get there, the industrial landscape of the Port of Long Beach was inspiring, as was having a repurposed army barrack as my studio. I loved the mostly neglected, windswept grounds of the center, filled with roaming stray cats (I brought home two kittens). As someone who grew up in a different bioregion, the wildly expressive and exotic native plants dancing together with invasive species delighted me, as did the exquisitely peaceful views of the Pacific Ocean. My co-studio resident neighbors included many fascinating folks, and that meant for good brainstorming when I was distracted. And I was distracted a lot, roaming the grounds, looking for conversation, foraging for harvests and catalysts for my unconscious. This was long before the era of smart phones, the world wide web, and so much that has exacerbated my distractibility.
Before leaving the studio in San Pedro, I built REMOTE CONTROL, an audio installation about what it means to feel disconnected from the web of life and how our educations may have increased that tendency. It looked like a surreal classroom. It was inspired by Bush Sr’s statement that he was the “education and environmental president.” I found that presumption mortifying. I used mostly scavenged materials found in piles on the grounds of Angel’s Gate, and imagined the drum-like desks made of tight tracing paper inscribed with repeated phrases, healing from the mound of dirt at one foot. Four desks in the room, discarded grade school desks, had vegetation pouring out of them in an uninhibited way, demonstrating subversion in the midst of oppression. The walls were painted green like many traditional blackboards were, and people wrote on the walls, sharing their stories about their educations and how they helped them connect or prevented connection with the web of life.
In 1992, a group of local artists of color organized to do a counter-quincentennial exhibition at Angel’s Gate and they asked me to participate. I was honored to be invited and created “A Klug Tzu Columbus: A Curse on Columbus,” an audience-participatory installation that looked at assimilation and fear of the other through the lens of 1492, that included the beginnings of genocide against indigenous peoples and the Jewish expulsion and executions during the Inquisition. That project expanded into the artist’s book, What Kinda Name Is That?, commissioned by the Jewish Museum in NYC. It traveled around the country in dozens of exhibits. I was very sad to leave the community at Angel’s Gate when we moved to Venice, CA, but it made no sense to be commuting to both work at the university and a studio elsewhere. In Venice we had a small, covered room in the backyard, and I used that space as my studio during three years of a disabling environmental illness.
My husband got his first Master’s degree from the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont soon after we met. For many years, ISE was located at the Goddard College campus. Bob’s thesis was on activist art and after meeting me, I became a part of his thesis. ISE decided that we should both come and teach in their month-long, summer session. Starting in 1991, for more than a decade of summers, we facilitated “Activist Art in Community” for students who came from all over the world, some who were already full-time community activists wanting to learn more about organizing for social and ecological justice, permaculture design, and ecofeminism. I felt such a deep alignment with the values promoted at ISE and was grateful for being able to participate in that unique pedagogical experiment for over a decade. During that first summer, I was given access to the art building on campus to use as my studio. It was in that very funky & echoey, but clearly well-used space that the images for The Fat Book, originally a photocopy book, (later retitled One Size DOES NOT Fit All by my publisher) emerged. I thank the anthropologist, Dr. Chaia Heller, for inspiring this project. She invited me to sit in the ecofeminist class where I learned about body hate as a form of ecocide. I left a group discussion enraged about the damage done by consumer society to creative, beautiful people, finally understanding that body dysmorphia, eating disorders, obsessive exercising, and dieting were the result of a systemic problem, a form of patriarchal and class oppression underlying capitalist exploitation. What seemed like a private neurosis was much larger. I went back to studio to paint, draw, and collage the stories I was hearing from my younger peers, and I could not stop.
In 1994, after years of struggling with my health in the smog & aerial pesticide spraying of LA, we made the difficult choice to leave my tenured position at CSULB. At the invitation of friends, we moved to Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts just a few weeks after our son was born. One month was spent with these generous friends, after which we rented a small Victorian house with one of those classic front porches on the Deerfield River. It was owned by a distant family member. After a few months of attempting to make art while our son was napping, I realized that I needed a space outside the house so that I could regain a sense of my identity as an artist. I was very sleep deprived and still healing from my environmental illness, but I knew that having a studio would help in my recovery. A very inexpensive space, two blocks from our house, was available in the Art Bank, a new community art center in this village of 2000 people. With a view of the hills surrounding the village and a fascinating neighbor, a drama teacher in the studio next door, I began to feel more grounded and at home in this rural village.
During this period, I learned how to paint on a computer and developed my photoshop skills through trial and error. I didn’t have a mentor or YouTube videos to help me, so I made many newbie mistakes with my first experiments. The World Wide Web was brand new at that point so I didn’t have a place to get good feedback. My first digital project was the artist’s book, What Kinda Name Is That? Looking back at that project, I’m somewhat amazed that I sold out 500 copies of the photocopy version at the Jewish Museum. Despite the less than proficient technique, the content spoke to people. Someday I will make time to rework that content with the skills I’ve accumulated in the past 25 years.
My second digital project was “Canary Notes; The Personal Politics of Environmental Illness.” As I traveled to local clinics to treat my environmental illness, I met many environmental refugees who were recovering from chemical exposures in all kinds of settings: working in a lumber yard, at a dry cleaning shop, in newly carpeted and painted offices, etc, I started to paint their portraits from memory, after hours of sitting together getting IVs of nutrition, when I returned to the studio or to my desktop. A collection of Time Magazines from the mid-1940s that I had found in an attic while living in Minnesota, provided me with dozens of advertisements for pesticides. I started to scan these ads, inserting stories of those who were sick, and culture jamming the lot of them by changing the company name to something satirical. It was very therapeutic. One day, our four year-old son, Sam, was watching me paint on the computer, and said, “why are you always painting sick people?” His simple question and observation caused a huge shift in my work. I started painting Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and yoginis, and not surprisingly my body began to heal more dramatically. CANARY NOTES has been shared in many forms over the years, including a slide show with a dramatic reading for various conferences. This project introduced me to a wonderful cohort of ecoartists, sitting on panel at the College Art Association. Ironically, I was finally well enough to fly and give a talk at the conference in Los Angeles without any health repercussions. This project needs to be rebooted and updated since it was never published.
I’ll always remember a visit that my parents made to Shelburne Falls, not long after I moved into the Art Bank studio space. My father was excited to see what I was conjuring up in the space, but my mom refused to walk up the stairs, and expressed deep concern that I was spending money on the rental of something so “frivolous,” especially without a very secure income at the time. She had found it very difficult to accept my choice to be an artist and tried unsuccessfully to steer me in other directions when I was younger. As much as she enjoyed going to museums, she had hoped that I would be an art consumer not a practitioner. She would often complain, “you have such a good brain, you could be making money with it.” Only after I became a full-time professor with tenure, for the second time no less, and after publishing a book that she felt was well written, did she stop pushing me to consider another career. Her childhood of poverty as the eldest child of immigrants had really scarred her, not to mention the years that my dad was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. Having a daughter who was seeking personal and collective liberation through art making and social engagement was a real trial for her.
In the 19 years that we’ve lived in the Pacific NW, I’ve had a plethora of studio spaces, only two of which I’ve paid rent for, but the so-called free ones came with a price. When I was offered the job at UW Tacoma, the search committee requested (or demanded) that I be given a studio space on campus since my salary was so low. Like a research laboratory, students would be able to come see me at work and assist with projects as needed. I loved this idea since it meant I could really build community that way. The Arts program’s start up funds paid for the expensive renovation of a corner room in a warehouse space owned by the campus. Overlooking the library, it was a very airy space with great light. I shared it with my colleague, also a new hire in the arts, and despite the lack of insulation and privacy, it was a great place to build the installation, “AND NOW, Behind Curtain #2.” There were many weeks when students came to help sew the curtains that created the structure for the project. I had developed the concept of sewing together curtains made from used clothing after the curator at the Lehmbruck Museum in Germany told me that there was no budget for materials or for shipping my work. I could pack the whole installation into 4 large suitcases, and with my assistant, we were able to carry everything and install the work successfully in the museum.
Unexpectedly, soon after returning from the show in Germany, we were evicted from that studio space and moved into a basement under a restaurant on campus. The real estate powers on campus decided that our newly renovated space could make them a tidy sum as a rental to 12 artists sharing the space. It was a corrupt move followed by many corrupt decisions during my time with UWT.
The basement studio was dark, dirty, and unpleasant, even for this artist who had worked in rough spaces before. Liquids from the kitchen above my drawing tables started dripping onto my work. It took months of complaining before a catchment system was set up next to the ceiling to protect me and my work. Sadly that system was never cleaned, so spending time in my studio was not desirable. The place smelled terrible. I complained again, and was moved into a space in another building that had brick walls (so the walls were unusable). I was told that this space was temporary as well, and was so frustrated at that point that I stopped negotiating for an on-campus space. At one point, an interim administrator told me that if I did not use the space, they would assume that I did not need a studio. The behavior of the administration towards the one tenured artist on the faculty was despicable. If I had had other job options, I might have left UWT at that point. I had also been told that I could not be promoted until the arts major was approved, and although it had been approved by the faculty (actually four times over the 17 years I spent on that campus), it is still not in place.
What kept me at UWT was the ability to create and teach innovative curriculum and the very eager and diverse, non-traditional students. They wanted to tell their stories and be in a safe space to create and share with each other. I decided it was time to write my book about the nascent program and what it meant to teach art for social change and healing in an interdisciplinary context. I was encouraged to write this book by an activist artist peer from my NYC days, Greg Sholette. He was incredibly supportive. The book emerged like a series of letters, interrupted by a fable, that included the stories of 33 other artists who worked with students in similarly socially engaged ways. Arts for Change: Teaching Outside the Frame is still in print. Get your copy from https://bookshop.org/p/books/arts-for-change-teaching-outside-the-frame-beverly-naidus/10531427?ean=9780981559308
I moved my studio art practice to a shed in the woods next to our house on Vashon Island. The space was large enough for a work table and two shelves with supplies. It was a tight fit and required a portable heater. In warm weather, I worked outside on a small patio so I could build larger pieces. My practice became more improvisational. I had just learned “contact improv” at Earthdance https://www.earthdance.net/ in Massachusetts where I had been a visiting artist soon after my book came out. I came home full of the desire to move with my materials, “dancing” as I worked with found objects, the trees, the lichen, the rocks, as well as more traditional art materials. I joined an artist collective on Vashon and gifted them with their name, Vashon Artists Linked in Social Engagement aka Valise Gallery, and shared some of my new projects in their space. The contact improv series became “underGROUND: Artifacts of the Present Moment.” It focused on things that I was finding out about the ecocide under my feet, including the toxic soil caused by the copper smelter in Tacoma and its particulate plume, the vacant Nike missile silos at the top of our hill leeching chemicals into local wells, and the legacy of pesticides at long-closed nursery known as the Beall Greenhouses. https://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/underGROUND%20Artifacts%20of%20the%20Present%20Moment.html All of these pieces featured mulberry bark that I’d received for free. I was fascinated by the material and just let it take me where it wanted to.
The next phases of my post-studio work (aside from writing a book and fooling around with all sorts of materials on my patio) were two projects feeding into each other, Reframing Edenhttps://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/Reframing%20Eden.html and Eden Reframed. Both centered around the idea of healing traumatized ecosystems – one was more symbolic, digital collages created with found photos, and the other was a permaculture design project created with the community.
Eden Reframed would not have existed had I not been part of an international ecoart network, https://www.ecoartnetwork.org/ who inspired me to consider creating works that remediate damaged or toxic sites. Also my husband’s organization, SEEDS (Social Ecology Education and Demonstration School), was looking for ways to demonstrate soil remediation using mushrooms and plants. I combined that intention with some training in permaculture design and my desire to make healthy food more accessible. I also was interested in creating a public conversation about the task of planting seeds in a time of ecocide.
With funding from various places, I was able to hire consultants and engage the community in contributing to and working on the project with me. It was a huge effort, but thankfully I was on my first sabbatical ever and could afford the time and energy to complete the project in 2011. Circumstances in our family unexpectedly caused us to move off-Island and into Seattle, the day after the project had its opening ceremony, but despite being over a decade old now, this project continues to thrive through the love and care of continually shifting stakeholders, and has been recently renamed “L’il Detroit Community Garden” by the current team cultivating food in the space. For more information about that project go to:https://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/Eden%20Reframed.html The food forest continues to be a snack bar for those who use the park, including critters of all kinds.
Around the time of our move into Seattle, a new dean at UWT was dismayed to discover that the only tenured artist on the faculty did not have a studio on campus for students and the community to visit. He fought hard for me, and finally I was offered a storefront space about a block up the hill from my original campus studio. It was a wonderful space in what was known as the Swiss building (a place where Swiss union workers gathered back in the day). It had an office type area with cabinets and shelves near the street. Adjoining that area was a small room with big blank walls and sufficient lights where I created very large (mural-size) drawings. I felt blessed. I worked there whenever I could, especially on days when I had faculty meetings that brought me to Tacoma. For the first time, I felt valued by the administration. I was able to participate in the Tacoma Studio Tour twice and that connected me a bit more to the community. Sadly, this perk only lasted only as long as the Dean did. He resigned after two years, and I was evicted soon after. I was told to make my art in the classroom. Imagine a scientist doing their research in the classroom?
Realizing that this was an unworkable situation on my campus, I soon discovered a studio in Seattle, not far from our rental house at the MLK FAME Art Center in Madison Valley. It was a former elementary school, now under the auspices of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. The administrative staff was very welcoming and helpful as I moved into the former first grade classroom. I was happily installed there from 2012 until 2016, creating many new series of works, including Curtain Call: Portable Altars for Grief and Gratitude that traveled to a gallery at Plymouth University in New Hampshire.
Probably the most important aspect of my time in the Seattle studio was the organizing of monthly gatherings to talk about art and social change. Without much history in the Pacific NW, I was always fascinated by who showed up and what stories they shared about activist art projects of the past. A few of us eventually formed the collective, ARTifACTs, with Ed Mast, Carol Rashawnna Williams, Camilla Cooper and Matthew Hamilton. We were a mix of visual & performing artists who were eager to address issues like abolition, the environmental crisis, and social justice. We worked together on a series of projects and the group was especially helpful in supporting my new installation, “We Almost Didn’t Make It” that traveled from Seattle to Brighton, England’s ONCA gallery.
In 2016, I had to leave the wonderful MLK FAME studio and our Seattle community. We searched for months to find housing we could afford and were unsuccessful. We could afford Tacoma, so this is where we found our current home. For the first year living here, I worked with the new Dean to try and find a studio space on campus or near it, but she was unsuccessful at convincing the former engineering-obsessed Chancellor that my studio was a necessity. Even with two international shows on my calendar, and a Fulbright scholar/artist from Spain working with me that year, my request for a work space was left hanging.
So I ended up working in my classroom, a huge sanctuary space in the former Japanese Methodist church that had been renovated to become the art building. It was a very unaccommodating space with poor heating, acoustics, and it was not ADA accessible. Despite the huge scale of the space, it was not a comfortable place to work, as I had to roll up my projects or store them carefully so that students would still have space to do their own work during class time. Obviously this was not sustainable.
During this time, I created our canoe garden with the help of Bob and Antonio (our Fulbright scholar who came to learn how I taught eco-art) and eventually called this project, “Navigating the Flood.” It sits on what had been developed as a putting green by the former owner of our home. Now it grows organic food that is often shared with our neighbors.
I also reworked The NIGHTMARE QUILT from 1989, adding more nightmares and dreams to make THE NIGHTMARE QUILT REVIVAL and installed it at the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture’s storefront gallery. I also finished the work on the installation, We Almost Didn’t Make It. I feel that my practice was amazingly adaptable, considering the working conditions. Soon after Antonio went back to Spain, I learned that there was an empty studio in the Merlino Art Center, a mile from our house in Tacoma.
This coming June 2023, I will have been working in the Merlino space for 5 years. During the Pandemic it was a goddess-send to be able to work there whenever I wanted. Other than the sound of sirens, it was a quiet place to contemplate the world. Looking out at the Port of Tacoma, I noticed that there was little interruption in the flow of capitalism. Smoke stacks were still belching out their particulate, and container ships were still moving goods. It was cognitive dissonance multiplied to the nth degree.
In the past four plus years in the Merlino, I’ve produced a lot of work, written many words, read many others, struggled with stuck places, hosted gatherings, and daydreamed. When the ballet school is rehearsing the Nutcracker for the hundredth time below me, I just put on my noise cancelling headphones, and remember that having this studio is a rare thing in today’s world. I almost moved out of the space in May of this year, due to our dwindling income and the annual raise in the rent, but I was convinced by various visitors that the price for this space is actually quite reasonable in today’s market, and was reminded that it offers multiple benefits for exhibiting and teaching; it’s almost 4 times the size of our garage on the alley. The garage was renovated last spring with a new roof, insulation, lighting and a skylight. Rather than being my austerity studio, it now functions as our Zendo on a weekly basis and nicely fits our sangha of 10-12 people. It also provides a peaceful place to sit or get healing treatments during the rest of the week.
After writing this blog post off and on for a month, I have realized that I might be able to grow this into an honest memoir, but there’s a part of me that hesitates. Another memoir of a life that is no longer accessible to younger artists, what would be the purpose of that. It makes me quite concerned that someone might be inspired by what I experienced and then become deeply frustrated because they won’t be able to find the cheap housing and the part-time gigs, the free MFA, the honorariums to support installation work, and the time to just muck about being an artist.
That’s why I’m writing a book that might serve better for folks on restricted means, with less creative time than they would like, who want and need to create things and experiences that might be useful, illuminating, or necessary in this time of great sea change. These blog posts are helping me see where the book needs to go: how I might inspire others to find the resilience to create without a studio. There’s so many people without sufficient time, energy, or resources, who have so much to say and share that can enrich our world and help us move from the end of THIS world into the next one.
As a final note, I noticed many feelings emerging as I wrote about the hurdles I had to jump with my self-doubts. I’ve thought back to my earliest memories of creating: the child who doodled, scribbled poems and told stories with abandon; whose passionate improvisations on an out-of-tune upright piano sent her into magical realms; the altars – she created altars everywhere, before she knew what an altar was; who took random inanimate objects and performed with them in the intimacy of her bedroom, scripting her dolls and rocks into outrageous dialogs; and who made wild & wonderful constructions out of anything she could scavenge. Back before I became conscious of myself as a CREATOR, there seemed to be nothing hindering my process other than some aspects of dysfunctional family life and my chore duties. I had air to breathe that was uncontaminated by judgments, both internal and external.
Yet, after years of schooling, and developing an artist’s mind, I rarely started with anything that resembled confidence. It was often a struggle to believe that my strategy or my content was worthy of an investment of time. Sometimes my rage or grief overcame this hesitation, other times it was my love of a material, a color, a texture, or a phrase that helped me dive in. Each time I traveled into mostly unknown turf, risking failure, as all creatives do, but I worried so often that what I had to say was meaningless and ineffective, and that my strategy for saying it was not the right one. Given the fact that many of my projects resonated deeply with others, you’d think this feeling of self-doubt would dissipate, but I now know, after lots of self-reflection, therapy, and the wisdom of aging, that the opinions of others are not the important piece. It’s allowing MYSELF deep permission to be my full creative self, with all the messes and beauty that emerge. It is an essential key for contending with this shadow and a mean super ego. Making art just for the pleasure of it and as an act of service to oneself and the collective requires decolonizing from a shitload of stuff, including early programing. That programming can cause a kind of claustrophobia, a narrowing of the throat, and shallow breathing in a smog of one’s own making. The antidote requires deep breathing, moving the body in expressive ways, modeling more joy, and accessing it as a revolutionary act in a world of angst.
The Port of Tacoma, view from my studio window, with neighbors across the street, enjoying a bite on their deck.
And from one corner of my studio if you skew your neck and look southeast, you can see this beauty on a clear day. No complaints about this particular delight.
Small towns are not places I gravitate towards; my history with them does not look like a Disney film or a Hallmark card. It all started at age 4, when I was chased by a gang of kids, yelling “Dirty Little Kike” and throwing things at me. I didn’t know why this was happening, nor was I familiar with the k-word. I just knew I wasn’t safe, and that early trauma, compounded with other nasty experiences of exclusion & violence that accumulated over the years, have haunted me as I’ve moved around the country.
Many of us struggle to feel at home in the community in which we’ve landed. Our current system can create a persistent sense of displacement. As suggested above, I suffer from this challenge, not only from my personal experience, but because I carry the ancestral legacy of being cast out, erased, and rejected. Add to that the experience of my father being blacklisted during the McCarthy Era and we’ve got a recipe for not sitting comfortably anywhere in the US of A. Parenthetically, I was unaware of my father’s history until he shared it with me in my early thirties, but the aura of that economic and political assault on our family was palpable throughout my childhood.
Despite the resonance of those traumas, I’ve felt lucky when I’ve found or made safe and welcoming spaces. Given the sea changes caused by the crazy and oppressive systems we live within as well as the chaos of the climate emergency, those places can be hard to find and hold onto.
Some of us have moved a lot, not necessarily because we wanted to, but because work opportunities, economic hardship, housing, environmental issues, and health needs required it. In those cases, it is not so much restlessness that contributed to our hyper-mobility, but rather the displacement phenomena that is so common in our modern world. Sometimes we feel claustrophobic living where we live, stuck in routines and obligations, and sometimes we feel simply alienated, not knowing our neighbors or much of the complex histories of the land and people, so we adapt poorly and incompletely to where we’ve landed. We can develop the often unproductive habit of imagining a place where we can better thrive and feel a sense of belonging or we can get strangely nostalgic about past living situations, romanticizing them, and seeing them as somehow better than where we are now.
Many of us look to find a little pod of safety such as a political affiliation, a religious group, a sports club, or an online niche; and then we barely venture out for fear of the “others.” Those pods can easily become parochial, cliquey, and xenophobic because their membership has not become mindful of their own wounds and insecurities. Instead they claim an allegiance to something that is exclusionary; not the best solution to a feeling of being displaced.
Given all of these complex issues, it may seem like an impossible task to deeply arrive where we are. We find excuses, seeing what’s wrong or what’s lacking, and may be unable to stick our feet in the local mud and dance with what’s there. Or we may take the risk to do the latter and then discover that we are perceived as an enemy for naming the contradictions we see. That kind of backlash can be intense.
Being indigenous to a place is something I’ve never experienced, but it’s clear that it comes with its own extreme trauma if your ancestral lands have been colonized and exploited. If one is a descendant of multiple generations who have carved a sense of home that might be a comfort until you realize that your ancestors were settlers who stole the land from others. And I know that there are some people who are good at claiming space in a new location, despite being a new arrival, but that process can come with an assimilation price, forgetting who your ancestors were or perhaps being ashamed of them, and at the same time erasing those before your arrival. New arrivals can also be seen as cultural imperialists, arrogant invaders, gentrifiers, or as the unwanted hordes (very visible in countries where climate and war refugees are arriving en masse). At best, new arrivals can be seen as bringing a fresh spice to the local stew, but that framing takes folks who are unthreatened and embracing, and that is rare in times of perceived or actual scarcity. So the dance of displacement is a complicated one, with many things to be mindful about and address if one wants to really arrive. It’s really a process of decolonization and there can be many missteps along the way.
In my quest to decolonize from my academic life (from 1984-2020 at many different institutions), I’ve been reflecting on the unhealthy practices of those institutions and their impact on communities. When I was hired as a tenure-track faculty member by the University of Washington, Tacoma in 2003, I understood that they brought me in as their imported, outside talent, their NYC artist. During my first day of classes at UWT which was significantly my 50th birthday (I smugly felt like I had outfoxed the ageism so rampant in academia), I learned that there had been, at least, one local contender, a beloved teacher and artist, who had been passed by in favor of my selection for the job. The committee had chosen to bring someone from elsewhere, which is often the case. The students were initially not happy about my presence or my approach to teaching art, and it took a little while to win them over.
This phenomena of bringing someone from afar, often someone who will garner the institution prestige is not unfamiliar to most of us in academia. This had happened to me once before, at CSU Long Beach. There, I had been told by a member of the search committee soon after my arrival that they had wanted a NYC artist with recognition, and the fact that my work had been written about in the NY Times and various art magazines had impressed them. Search committees often want to find find colleagues who will bring more esteem (and perhaps more funding and networks) to the institution, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee any benefit to the students.
First off, assuming that one’s “success” in the NYC art world brings something special to the institution reproduces false hierarchies of merit. Secondly, faculty who arrive with notable recognition may not have the same commitment to teaching and can feel somehow protected from collegial commitments by their status as scholars or artists. In other words, the benefits may be fewer than the search committees imagine.
This kind of hiring happens in academia frequently. While this may be appropriate for the values of neoliberalism, it is rarely a healthy strategy for the students or for a place-based, public institution that has a mission of building of breaking down the town/gown polarization.
As much as my interdisciplinary studio arts curriculum at UW Tacoma was about nurturing the values of social justice by helping students share their stories about their experiences of the environmental crisis, violence, body hate, consumer culture, the labor market, systemic oppression, and their dreams for the future, it was not sufficiently imbedded within the histories and controversies of local culture. Why? As an outsider, I arrived poorly educated about local struggles other than what I slowly learned from my students and a few colleagues. As someone on the tenure track, there was never time between my class prep, my parenting obligations, my career deadlines, and my other domestic responsibilities to get that particular education. Living on an island for the first eight years of my tenure, I had chosen a literal mote between my home and the school, so that I would not be consumed by institutional life. This choice was not good for developing a deeper understanding about the communities in which my students lived.
Each quarter, on the first day of class, students would tell us where they lived and I would hear the names of communities that were new to me. Very few of my students actually lived in Tacoma. I would sometimes ask them questions about the places where they lived, but I never had time to visit those places. What would it have been like if the university had invited new faculty to meet local leaders in the culture industry, in politics, in activist groups, etc? What if hiring practices alternated between choosing a new faculty member from the local context and the next hire from afar, and to have those new faculty members collaborate, one local and the other imported, to create healthier bridges? Neither provincial or exotic. Everyone would benefit from this.
These reflections may seem irrelevant and idealistic in this time of crisis, as academic life is more in chaos than I’ve ever seen it. The mess is complex, and stems from not only the poor decision to focus on profit rather than a rich educational environment for students, but the culture wars, with threats to free speech, censorship of faculty and students, the financial toll on students and their families, and the violence of this time. All of these assaults on institutions of “higher learning” are reaping a harvest of low morale and desperation. I’m grateful to have left it all behind. I am now experiencing the world without its filter and taking the time to learn more about the surrounding area.
The Pandemic has taught me to sit with my unease about the local. I’ve had to really study this tendency to want leave the present and whatever discomfort it offers. Thinking that the cultural life and community energy is better somewhere else (whether it’s NYC, LA, Berlin, or Mexico City) makes it hard to arrive where you are. That mindset is all too common in our dislocated world and offers a definite recipe for suffering. You can never really sink into the beauty of the present. There’s always something wrong with its offerings, and, therefore, you can never really settle. Some of this anxiety has its roots in childhood trauma, and an inability to sit with difficult feelings can foster the desire to escape, but there’s a broader cultural meaning as well that I want to explore.
One could say that we arrived in Tacoma by default. First there was the job that grabbed me from the east coast and the tantalizing bait of being able to teach whatever I wanted in an interdisciplinary program. From my initial view of the Port of Tacoma with its refineries and pulp mill, I was certain that this industrial town, with my history of environmental illness caused by pollution and the aerial spraying of pesticides, would not be suitable for our family. Instead, we found a place on Vashon Island, with an easy ferry commute to Tacoma.
At first, the island seemed idyllic, but by the time our son reached high school age, he had needs that required more resources, so we moved into Seattle. We rented there for five years, finding community in several warm pockets hidden within chilly “Seattle freeze” culture. Without the connections we made with local activists, the BIPOC artists salon, our POCAS (People of Color and their Allies) meditation group, and the ecstatic dance gatherings, we would have been very isolated. Also renting in communities filled with home owners makes one appear transient to your neighbors. We tried to buy a place in Seattle, but couldn’t afford the prices, so ultimately we landed in Tacoma (when it was still affordable), six years ago. Thankfully my health has not relapsed and despite my discomfort of having landed in a place that was not where I imagined I would end up, I have found ways to make it home.
Lucy R. Lippard once asked me about this in a gentle way, “when are you going to stay put where you are?” Of course, I had to explain that I wasn’t moving on a whim; that it was always financial, housing, or health reasons that motivated each move; that I never chose to make more chaos for myself, but her words have stuck with me, as I more fully enter this next chapter of my life.
I’m going to digress for a bit here, but I want to pay homage to Lucy’s broader influence on my thinking. I have respected her writing since I first discovered her books on conceptual art (De-Materialization of the Art Object) and Ad Reinhardt’s work when I was in college. In grad school, her brand new book on feminist art, From the Center, shifted many of us in profound ways. Although in those early days, there was a fair amount of essentialism being promoted (if your work is feminist, it will look like this…), I was glad to have her writing as a pivot point or a portal into a new era for understanding how feminism and other social movements were impacting the making of art.
In 1980, after seeing my audio installation about the perils of unemployment, Apply Within, at the Franklin Furnace, she wanted to meet me and learn more about my work. As Lucy opened the door to her book-filled Prince Street loft in Soho, I tried to keep the trembling excitement of a 26-year old with imposter syndrome tamped down. I carried a few loose-leaf notebooks filled with photos and texts documenting three earlier installations. I didn’t feel at all confident that my work would merit her attention. She was a bit gruff and business-like, saying I will take a look at what you have here, but there’s no guarantee that I will write anything. I awkwardly thanked her and went on my way, feeling the strangeness of interacting with someone whose work I greatly admired, but who was just a person that I was projecting all sorts of images upon.
As I got to know Lucy better over the years, I grew to deeply appreciate her direct manner, her healthy boundaries, and her sharp intelligence. Although I have not seen her in person for several years, I continue to be grateful for certain lessons she’s offered me, particularly ones about walking your talk as an activist, not spreading oneself too thinly, and looking closely at one’s sense of place.
Her 1997 book, The Lure of the Local: Sense of Place in a Multi-centered Society, examines cultures far from the NYC art world and how art can speak to a regional identity. It tears down the snobbery and provincialism that can plague the elite art world, and reminds us that many forms of beauty emerge in so many contexts; we just need to be open to receive these gifts. As Lucy has embraced both the cultural workers of Maine (her roots go deep there) and those of New Mexico, she looks carefully at the historical legacies of oppression and environmental degradation; I’m reminded that this focus has been part of my work, most recently in relation to the many local struggles in the Salish Sea region.
My project, “Extreme Makeover: Reimagining the Port of Tacoma Free of Fossil Fuels,” was provoked by the illegal development of an LNG refinery by the multi-national corporation, PSE (Puget Sound Energy). Through my work with 350 Tacoma, I realized that public and city officials were not responding sufficiently to the environmental activists’ campaign to stop the building of this refinery. For over seven years, there have been many protests, arrests, well-researched reports, passionate speeches condemning the project, damning testimonials at City Council meetings, sit-ins at the State Capitol, a powerful film, Ancestral Waters (https://nativedailynetwork.org/ancestral-waters/) about the Puyallup Tribe’s stake and activism in the Port of Tacoma, and long walks facilitated by the Protectors of the Salish Sea: https://protectorsofthesalishsea.org/ to educate the public, and still PSE persists with its greenwashing and the public seems ignorant about this time bomb in their midst.
I recognized that much of the campaign focused on the dangers of LNG (liquified natural gas), its volatility as a gas, its potential to ignite and explode with the devastating impact of several nuclear bombs, and the history of international accidents. There was also scientific research offered that this kind of fuel was unnecessary and definitely not green, but still the public and city officials seem unmoved. So I thought it might be a good idea to do public workshops to reimagine the port without fossil fuels, with remediated superfund sites, and with a restored estuary. Those workshops, mostly held at the local 350 storefront, attracted a good crowd, and over a 100 collaged and drawn images were submitted and digitized. We had a plan to project those images on walls in public places, and then the Pandemic arrived, and the project stalled. The building of the LNG refinery is completed now, but there’s litigation in process to prevent it from going online. We still hope that this will be enough to shut it down forever, so that our community does not have to pay for this heinous misadventure and does not have to live in fear of an awful explosion.
As the pandemic “lock down” started, I realized that my impressions of Tacoma as a corrupt, toxic, heavily industrialized, and militarized place had cut me off from seeing its wonders. The prejudices that surrounded the “aroma of Tacoma” had influenced me more than I wanted to admit, and there was some unease with being associated with a stinky place, given my own history. I became curious about how certain kinds of shame can created a barrier to being at home in a new place, and make us yearn for somewhere that appears to be more comfortable, exciting, or life-sustaining.
I’ve lived in many places that carry a bad reputation, mostly due to environmental toxins, economic class, racism, and other factors. As a young child, I spent two years in Sanford, Maine, a factory town where my dad worked in a plastics business. I can still remember the sickening odor that covered the town daily. We moved from there to New Jersey, to a town that had no overwhelming chemical smells, but to a state that has a reputation as stinky and being “less than” compared to New York. My two tenured teaching jobs took me to two places with intense smells: Long Beach, CA, with its abundance of refineries and other industries and now Tacoma with its aroma.
If we look closely at this time on the planet, we will find stenches everywhere, whether it’s the corruption of the local city government and their henchmen, the disgusting actions and foul residues created by extraction corporations, the despair that comes from war torn areas, the smoke from the increasing forest fires, the rotting, moldy mess after the floods, and proliferating hate groups and the stench of their influence. The places that appear to have glamour and allure are like celebrities with clay feet. Every place is culpable in this time of societal collapse and climate emergency. So our desire to escape from the “stink” of where we are by seeking somewhere that seems to have more romance, more connections, and a more welcoming community can be a parachute with holes.
Of course, I do realize that some parts of the world and communities are truly dangerous for those of who have been marginalized and oppressed by dominant culture, and often there are no options for those people to escape other than through their imaginations or by grass roots organizing of some kind. And let’s hope for lots more of the latter, despite the risks to those involved.
Despite the many ecocidal and social justice challenges evident globally and locally, I have written this to remind those who are feeling stuck and discouraged that there are ways to be present with gratitude for being alive and in a body where ever you have landed. There’s so many ways to arrive.
The pandemic has given many of us some hard lessons about being present to what is. For those of us with the privileges of sufficient resources, meditation, and creative practices, our being less mobile has been a gift, even if it feels covered in thorns at times. Sitting calmly and quietly, being mindful of our breath, and noticing our connections to the air, the soil, the water, plant life, critters, minerals, mycelium, each other, and the cosmos, can give us an opportunity to be in relationship to this amazing planet and the local ecosystem, anchoring us to place, even places that may feel hostile at first.
Our Story Hive project www.tacomastoryhive.com , created in 2021-22, successfully hooked me into the local in ways I never would have expected. It started with some friendly conversations with our neighbor across the fence. I had told her about some of my projects to bring communities together via stories, including the project on Vashon Island, called Eden Reframed, http://faculty.washington.edu/bnaidus/Eden%20Reframed.html that featured a story hive for gardeners and farmers. She volunteered to offer a corner of her property, adjacent to the well-trafficked intersection, as a site for a local story hive. She and her wife also offered their front yard as a place to meet. I designed flyers to invite folks and left them on the front porches of about 50 homes in the surrounding area.
As the weather improved in late Spring 2021, we gathered and met every week to develop the project. Our meetings were informal: we did check-in’s before discussing practical issues. Our skill inventory of the 20 or so people who came was essential; we learned that we had a wide variety of skills in the group from gardening to wood working to website design. As we discussed our intentions for the project, I suggested that our project would give us more insight into how our neighborhood was navigating this difficult time of so many uncertainties and polarizing points of view. We focused on asking questions like, “what skills have you learned? what challenges are you facing? how can we offer mutual aid? what are your dreams for the world we can co-create now?”
My co-facilitator for this project, Bob Spivey, who has also been my partner for the past 34 years, was taking a year-long online training with the Upaya Zen Center in 2021. It focused on socially engaged Buddhist practice, and the training required a community practicum. As a long time practitioner of meditation, a healer, and a grass roots activist, his skills were essential for making our project successful. We both made sure that everyone felt respected and included in the brainstorming process, but Bob was always available for the real grunt work: like hauling the dirt and getting materials necessary to build the hive. We received many donations from neighbors who didn’t have the time to participate in our meetings, so without any external funding, we were able to scavenge the materials and talents to make the project successful. Many of our recently arrived neighbors had young children and were eager to get involved. We had a few meetings that involved some hilarious dancing in the mud & straw to make the cob for the hive structure https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cob_(material) and our conversations created deeper connections than a morning greeting on the way to work. Our celebratory form of collaboration was important medicine during a time of lockdown.
When we feel too overwhelmed to join in with other movements, it may be time to either get outside to enjoy the nature that is accessible to us. If available, forest bathing is highly recommended, as is time with the critters and plant life that are always present, even in microscopic forms. Finding a place with a vista looking out towards mountains or ocean, or a local tree that is lonely for a hug, can help us process stress and increase our mindfulness that we live in a web of interbeing, sharing air, water, & nourishment with the more than human. For those of us who feel displaced in any capacity, this practice can offer us one of the best places to sink into while humanity travels through this difficult chapter.
I’ve been working on a book since I left my academic position in 2020. This project has been morphing from a long essay about the ways that creative energy and imagination can move us through this threshold time into a future where we all can thrive, to a hybrid memoir that includes pieces of fable or speculative fiction that create a braided rhythm within the narrative. The book will highlight stories from artists, activists, and collectives who are defying the backlash of this time by gestating the beneficial bacteria that will move us into the next chapter. Mostly the book is about how to process the traumas we carry with ancestral tools and creative magic to build something that we haven’t yet imagined.
Ever since Lucy R. Lippard published The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society (1997), I’ve been fascinated by the ability to break genres apart in unexpected ways, and I’ve experimented with this inventive style in some of my published essays like “So You Want to Be an Eco-Artist: Lessons in Grief and Gratitude,” Elemental: An Arts and Ecology Reader, edited by James Brady, England, Gaia Project, 2016. https://www.academia.edu/12265018/So_You_Want_to_Be_an_Eco_artist_Lessons_in_Grief_and_Gratitude. I found that this way of writing, fracturing the narrative, was liberatory and I’ve been doing it ever since. Subverting the standard seems to be my way of moving in the world. It is more in alignment with my brain’s wiring. The latter can be flighty or scattered at times, as well as a bit greedy to absorb two or three things at once. I can imagine that there are more linear-minded folks who would find this kind of hybridity exasperating. I am not writing for them obviously.
I think of myself as an untrained writer, since I never took rhetoric & grammar in school (not that the study of the latter is necessarily useful to a writer). I have learned most of what I know about writing from practicing, reading of books that move me, and from helpful, better educated friends who have edited my less well-crafted efforts. Much of what I have learned about writing and art making is to get out my own way. Last week, I heard the author, Deena Metzger, say something similar on a zoom – she makes herself receptive to what is being transmitted to her. Similarly, my words come from intuitive messages I receive in the present moment, phrases that wake me up in the morning before I realize where I am, images that alert me in my dream time. I always create better when I am able to quiet my ego’s voice; the part of me that is so eager to make something profound or beautiful that I trip on my own intentions.
I want to encourage others to allow to find their voices using this particular kind of receptivity, stepping out of their own ways and to lean into the collective consciousness that can offer them unexpected treasures and necessary tools. To that end, my working title for this new book is “Rewilding Our Muses: Creative Strategies for Navigating the End of THIS World.”
Despite what I am carrying as the partner of someone in the midst of chemo treatment and the mother of someone trying to launch in the midst of his difficult journey with mental health, this writing is an essential part of my self care, so that the overwhelm that is a big part of this time in the world, can be narrowed down to “present moment, wonderful moment.” And, at the same time, the writing allows me to see a bigger picture of interlocking patterns and layers of deep time, something that seems to be the harvest of all my inner work. We will see. The discipline of sitting here and allowing the flow to take me wherever it needs to will eventually get the book done. I am grateful for this privilege.
As I sat at Jacki Apple’s zoom memorial, 8 days ago, I reflected on the ways that a life gets compacted into phrases and anecdotes, delivered with humor or tears, and what that says about one’s memories of the person. I didn’t get to speak (other than claiming some sentences in the chat) because I hadn’t thought to write to the organizers to claim space in the script. I had thought there would be an open mike. But there wasn’t. That meant that my grief and my memories had to be more contained, more invisible than I had planned. In retrospect, I understand why the producers of the event did not open things up to the guests. It could have been a zoom filled with endless, painful, and unbridled contributions, long monologues serving the speaker, and no one else.
We arrive at different stations within the deceased’s journey, some of us knowing of each other intimately and others who have never heard of each other. But somehow, there’s a desire to claim the turf you occupied with that person, as both an act of love, and an impulse to make your own life visible in the the thread of theirs.
So I’m going to use this morning’s blog to claim space for each of those who’ve become ancestors in the past few years. I don’t want to describe them as losses, even though I ache for more conversations with each of these folks. Each one of these people had an impact on my life that was truly significant, something that can’t be recaptured in a short monologue on Zoom, so I’m gratefully claiming space for what they offered me as well as some of what they offered the world.
Dear tender spirits, you shaped my life’s journey in profound ways. I will lean into my memories of you respectfully to recall the evidence of your impact.
Rachel Kahn-Hut (1938-2020)
Rachel was my cousin. The details of how we were related get confusing to me, so I will leave them be for now. Rachel was a fixture at family gatherings, usually one in the summer, and Thanksgiving, and she usually traveled long distances from California to be with us. She came solo, was never married and had no kids. For many years, she cared for her aging mother. As the first family member with a PhD and a college professor, she was admired greatly, especially by my parents, and the conversations had with her were rarely shallow. I have many stories about her, but I’m going to savor just a few here: while browsing in the journal section at my undergraduate college, I discovered an article that Rachel had written in a newly published feminist journal called SIGNS. It came out of Barnard or Columbia in NYC and I was startled to see her name there. I was a “baby feminist” coming to understand how patriarchal values had affected my place in the world, and I was beginning to express my rage with my peers. Rachel’s writing gave me a sense that I was not alone in my family, claiming space for the voices of women. Her writing buoyed my spirit and gave me courage, just when it was needed.
Rachel also took me, during one of my first visits to San Francisco, for my first dimsum feast in SF’s Chinatown. I will never forget those endless carts with difficult to pronounce dishes and how much I delighted in those flavors and textures. She also drove me to the Redwood forest in Marin, and as I gazed and smelled the fragrances of those mossy beings, I felt the enchantment of California graze my cheeks and settle in my bones. I knew I would be back someday, and so I was.
I was sad to learn, after I moved to the West Coast, and saw Rachel more frequently, staying at her home in Oakland, that writing no longer interested her, other than the postcards she faithfully sent to our son from her many travels, post-retirement. I tried to find out why she stopped writing for her field, and it seemed that she no longer had the energy for claiming space in that way. At her zoom memorial, I learned from her colleagues and friends that she had had an enormous impact on the field of women’s studies, as well as many students. I was grateful to hear those stories; they reframed my portrait of her in the best way.
I met Rudolf and his family, Cornelia (Nele), his wife, and his two sons, Tobias and Simon, in 1986 in Long Beach, CA. Rudolf & family had come to CSU Long Beach as part of a faculty exchange. He was a professor of design and art from Essen, Germany. The fall of 1986 was my first semester as a tenure track faculty member at CSULB, and after we had a few rich conversations in his campus studio, I was invited home to Rudolf’s family for a meal, and then another, and before long we were doing many things together. Rudolf, Nele Bruninghaus-Knubel (an education curator at the Wilhelm Lembruck Museum in Duisberg, Germany) and I had long discussions about art and politics, and it was a real education for me who had had little contact with Germans before. It was only natural that we maintained a friendship long after he had returned to Germany.
In 1990, Bob and I visited them in their amazing historical home (a remodeled orphanage that was hundreds of years old) outside of Essen, in the village of Werden. I unexpectedly fell in love with Germany, and the work of so many to heal the wounds of the war. I loved walking through the cobblestone streets of their village and savoring the amazing breads. Rudolf would often say that Germany lost so much of its culture, particularly the arts and sciences, when their Jews were persecuted and murdered, and one of the only aspects of German culture that remained was the bread. I met several of Rudolf and Nele’s friends who were doing important cultural work with Turkish immigrants. During that visit, we had the amazing experience of witnessing the German weather report transition from being East & West to just Germany. Tobias and Simon, both teens at the time, were so excited when they heard that broadcast that their hopes for future were palpable.
For almost 3 decades, we visited with each other. Once when our son was 7 years-old (2002) we were able to offer him a taste of German hospitality. After a few days in their Werden home, we traveled with Rudolf and Nele to see the Documenta show in Kassel via fast train. I had never been to a major international art show and I was not disappointed. There was a ton of provocative work dealing with imperialism, racism, and colonialism. In 2004, Rudolf & Nele came to Tacoma, where Rudolf had an exhibition of his work at our campus gallery (that sadly closed soon after). In 2005, I had an exhibit of a new installation (AND NOW, Behind Curtain #2) in the show, Spielraume (Game Room), thanks to Nele’s curation, at the Lehmbruck Museum. In 2010, we met up in NYC in the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, and I remember their assistance in purchasing an ultra modern watch that I ended up barely wearing. It was the second time I had purchased a rarely worn watch in their company (the first one was at an Yves Klein exhibit) and I wonder what that says about our relationship (LOL). I believe that the last time we saw them both was in 2011, in Berlin, where we celebrated our son’s 16th birthday. Getting a tour of Berlin with two people who had gone to university and art school there, when the Berlin Wall still divided the city, was a fascinating experience. Again we had many conversations about art & politics, especially when visiting the town of Potsdam and learning about its significance during the Nazi regime.
Rudolf once told me during one of the visits to his home that he was a carrying a story that was a burden to him. When we had first become friends at CSULB, some of the white male faculty had approached him and asked him, quite insistently, why he had chosen to be friends with “that NY Jewish Bitch.” He was horrified at the time and decided to keep that little gem to himself until I was long gone from CSULB. He and Nele had made it their business to befriend many Jewish people over the years. It seemed like a very noble and personal reparation quest since they both had been quite young during WWII, and had experienced the bombing close to home.
The truth is that Long Beach like many parts of AmeriKKKa contains the seeds of anti-Jewish racism, one of the building blocks of white supremacy. That a woman from NYC who was not raised with religion, but who looks like an “other,” would be perceived as dangerous to the locals, especially if she is teaching art for social change, is no surprise. Rudolf had naïvely believed that the U.S. was free of the hate and fear that had fueled the rise of Nazism. Perhaps he realized, after the rise of Trumpism, that our country was built on white supremacy, patriarchy, and Christian hegemony. I never got to ask him. I had hoped to visit him again after leaving my most recent academic position, but he died of the cancer that had caught him just as the pandemic was in full throttle.
We met our dear friend, Sylvia, in 1993, at a training for activist artists in Ukiah, California. She and two colleagues from Jubilee Arts in the UK (The West Midlands in England) had been brought to CA to help teach community art practices & ethics to a group of us, with facilitation support from Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard. They used a community-based arts action research model that really spoke to us. Bob and I went on to lead workshops on “activist art in community” at the Institute for Social Ecology using some of the techniques offered in that intensive. Our work with Jubilee Arts also influenced my teaching at CSULB, Goddard College, and UW Tacoma. Major ingredients were: 1. being clear about the intention of a community-based arts project, 2. think about the context, 3. who is the audience, 4. make a skill inventory of the participants, 5. listen carefully and respectfully as we collect stories and brainstorm creative strategies, and 6. be transparent with and responsive to community members. It was really the Ethics of Community-based Arts Practices 101, although it was not named as such, and I’m forever indebted to that training. Sylvia invited me to be an artist in residence with Jubilee Arts in England in 1994, but the Dean at CSULB denied me a sabbatical that had been approved by the sabbatical committee and the department chair. The chair believed that the dean was punishing me for receiving tenure. As mentioned in Rudolf’s piece above, there were several white men on the faculty who were desperately and sadly scared of me, perhaps because my students asked challenging questions in their classes and several were furious that I’d actually received tenure for the right reasons like doing a good job, being a good teacher and excelling in my art career. The hostile climate at CSULB was one of the reasons I left my position soon after being denied sabbaticals two years in a row. Despite the huge disappointment of not getting that particular sabbatical, Sylvia invited me to give a public talk at Jubilee during the period when they were building a major community arts center, The Public. The tragic story of that cultural center’s rise and demise was devastating for Sylvia both on an emotional and physical level. Witnessing the impact that the collapse of her visionary project had on her health during our subsequent visits to England was really hard. Over the years, Sylvia became one of our dearest friends. She was incredibly supportive and kind in every way, and we felt blessed to know her. We’re grateful that she had such loving daughters and friends who saw her through her final decline. I last visited with her in 2018 right after my exhibition opened at ONCA in Brighton, and Bob saw her in 2019 right after meeting with his PhD advisors at the U of Roehampton. Sylvia, we feel your spirit and laughter close to us. While I did not get to attend a zoom of the memorial, the notes from her daughters and watching the recording helped me feel included in the celebration of her life.
While I was not invited to his zoom memorial, I was able to write about Lauren on social media and on the Carleton College memorial page. Lauren was a significant “gate opener” in my life, particularly in relation to my academic path. He would often tease me that I had “sold out” by becoming a professor.
I wrote this message on his memorial page, https://www.carleton.edu/farewells/lauren-soth/: “Lauren launched my academic career when he offered me a visiting artist gig at Carleton College from 1984-86. It my first full-time teaching position. He had invited me to campus in the spring of 1983 to give talks on my work. He had been following my art career in NYC and thought it would be good for students to hear from me. Students loved my talks, and when the art department suddenly had to replace Deborah Brown who had taken an emergency leave, I was the first person they called. I am indebted to him for this – he truly believed in my work.
Lauren had a persona that bristled; he was not shy to give acidic retorts or wickedly probing questions. He was also unexpectedly kind and curious. Given that I and a fierce cohort of baby feminist artists did a sit-down strike in his office when he was chair of the art department when we were juniors (in 1974), and that he conceded that we were right and gave us a budget to bring in visiting women artists, brought in female art historians, and more, it was to his credit that 10 years later, he was able to offer me a teaching gig with all sorts of perks. He was on board with my retooling traditional art classes to make them socially engaged and interdisciplinary, and to my great delight, I saw that he had added a plentitude of women and artists of color to his art history lectures. We met up at the College Art Association for many years after my return to Carleton and he was never shy to tease me about my career, and I was always glad to hear his stories.”
One bonus story is that our dear friend, Danny Kolker, also a Carleton grad (’74), was transformed by Lauren’s freshman art history seminar, and has become one of the most well informed & passionate art lovers I know. He is a fixture in the Miami Beach art scene, and beloved by the arts community for his deep insight about the work he encounters. Another gift, courtesy of Lauren’s influence.
Suzi Gablik (1934-5/7/2022)
Although I had heard of Suzi Gablik in grad school, it wasn’t until she unexpectedly wrote about my work, that we connected and became friends. She was visiting NYC (from London where she then lived) to see and write about exhibitions for Art in America. In her 1984 review of the exhibition, “The End of the World: Artists Visions of the Apocalypse,” at New Museum of Contemporary Art, she highlighted my installation, THIS IS NOT A TEST. Her review was insightful and praising in such a profound way that I felt compelled to write to the magazine and thank her. They forwarded my letter to her, and she responded quickly. She was already back in London, but she invited me for lunch when she was next in NYC. We ended up eating, walking, and talking several times during her visit. We discovered that we shared a distaste for the commodified art world, and a passion for art for social change. About two months after we met, I was invited to be a visiting artist & professor at my alma mater, Carleton College. I was given a huge budget with which to invite visiting artists and scholars, and Suzi was among the many I invited.
The most profound aspects of our relationship emerged after we both moved to southern California. I was hired by the art department at CSU Long Beach and Suzi was a visiting scholar at UC Santa Barbara. Suzi learned that one of the people who inspired the revision of my audience-participatory installation at the New Museum, Joanna Macy, was going to be leading a workshop at the Ojai Foundation. She encouraged me to go and meet Joanna in person. Suzi and I made the journey to Ojai together and to say that the experience was life-changing is an understatement. Suzi introduced me to Joan Halifax, now Roshi Joan of the Upaya Zen Center, but back then, Joan was the director of the Ojai Foundation. Both Joanna’s work and the experience of being on that sacred land deepened my capacity to be present and alive to the creative work of social change. I felt truly anchored. A year later I was invited to a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh for activist artists. I was deeply honored to be there, and again it was life changing. It was an intimate retreat with less than 40 participants. I was about to marry an ordained lay monk in the Vietnamese Zen lineage, Bob Spivey, so having Thây’s introduction to sitting meditation helped to nurture the beginning of our marriage.
I credit Suzi for opening many doors: particularly that of my many layered, spiritual path, one that I had been avoiding, due to so much early conditioning from my family of origin. But with Suzi’s encouragement to meet my mentor, Joanna, an exquisite thread of my life’s journey was reinforced, and I am deeply indebted to her for that.
In return for that gift, while Suzi was brainstorming her new book, The Reenchantment of Art, I began to offer her the names of artists whose inspiring work needed to be included in her research. We spent many meals discussing who and what represented the new paradigm she was trying to put forward. I was grateful to be part of the birth of the book and was honored to have my work highlighted in it.
Suzi eventually decided to leave Santa Barbara, realizing that she could not afford housing there, even in exchange for the treasured Jasper John’s painting that she had been gifted. She moved to Virginia, bought a house in Blacksburg, and we kept in touch for some time. When she visited her aunt in Los Angeles, we would always meet for a meal. During one of those visits, I shared that I was pregnant. Suzi’s response was unexpectedly negative; she blurted out, “you’re throwing away your career.” Her conventional notion of the female artist, solitary, without children, startled me. I don’t think she realized that her role in opening the door to spiritual work begun at the Ojai Foundation was part of the reason that I became open to hearing the disembodied voice who became our son. I’m not going to share the details of that story here, but it’s important to offer that Suzi’s discouraging words actually goaded me to become more focused and determined to commit to my art practice from the beginning of our son’s life. I also wrote an essay about it: “You Might As Well Throw Away Your Career” that was delivered at the Women’s Caucus of the College Art Association in Chicago in 2014. Sadly, my correspondences with Suzi ended not long after our son’s birth in 1995. She sent a gift and a note and I’m sure I responded, but I felt estranged from her and disappointed that someone so committed to shifting paradigms had internalized such a deep stereotype about women artists.
During the memorial zoom for Suzi, I shared small tidbits of my journey with Suzi, but found myself feeling saddened that I had not maintained our relationship over the years. I was glad to know that so many artists had benefited from her support, some of whom I had met in different ways over the years. I felt a bit bereft that I had never really mended the wound.
THICH NHAT HANH (October 11, 1926- January 22, 2022)
I had never heard of Thich Nhat Hanh until the winter of 1989. I had just met the man who would become my husband in October of 1988, and I was slowly learning what it means to have a commitment to a meditation practice. Bob was not a proselytizer for Buddhism, by any means, but when he heard that I had been invited to an activist artist retreat with Thây, he encouraged me to go. I had never experienced a silent retreat, and the first three days of the week were in silence. There was something both soothing and strange about it, because for the first time I was able to see/hear the voices in my head making up all kinds of stories about the people around me. When people finally spoke to each other, I was astonished not only by the timbre of their voices, but the way they articulated their thoughts. It was so distinct from my own fantasies and assumptions that it gave me pause.
Bob and I chose to go to Plum Village a year later, and we loved the energy of this refuge in the south of France. I loved the tea ceremonies and the dharma talks (although I fell asleep in at least one of them, and remember Thây’s kind voice saying, it’s okay if you fall asleep because you’re still getting the message). My favorite memory is making potato knishes on Ancestor Day with two Vietnamese nuns, one who spoke Italian and the other spoke German. There was something deeply moving about all of us in different diasporas sharing the intimacy of my grandmother’s recipe (revised in my particular way – sour cream replaced by yogurt, and white flour replaced by whole wheat) together.
The most important lessons that I received from Thich Nhat Hanh happened at another retreat in Malibu, CA in 1991. It was retreat for Vietnam War veterans and peace activists and it was well attended. Maxine Hong Kingston led a writing workshop for the handful of vets who had the courage to attend. The experience of hearing the veterans stories of their trauma and shame on the last day of the retreat broke open all of our hearts. Witnessing how the system of war abuses everyone, taught me deep compassion that I was able to carry into my work as a teacher who works with vets and people who are part of the military or military families. It was deeply humbling. It was at this retreat that I learned the importance of a sangha for maintaining the practice and when we returned home, we formed one with lovely people who lived in the Venice, CA area. And when we moved to western Massachusetts, after I left my tenured position at CSU Long Beach, we found another lovely sangha who became a family of choice during our eight years in Shelburne Falls. And now, going through my husband’s cancer journey, we have created The Bad Buddhist Sangha to offer support and nourishment to our community and to our family as we navigate this time of uncertainty.
Our last retreat with Thây was in 2011 in Vancouver, BC. We had not been able to sit with him during our son’s early years, but at age 16, he was able to join us for part of the retreat. It thrilled me to see Sam do walking meditation next to Thây, and as someone with sensory issues, he really enjoyed the silent meals. During the five years we lived in Seattle, we belonged to Vipassana meditation groups that introduced me to many different and wonderful teachers, but we have always returned to Thich Nhat Hanh as our anchor.
I attended many online celebrations of his life after his passing and was very moved by the ceremonies held at his home temple in Hue, Vietnam where he’d been living for several years after his stroke in 2014. I feel Thây continuing inside me, so I have not grieved his passing. I recite his gathas (meditation poems) every night when I have insomnia which has been nightly these days. I listen to the podcast, The Way Out is Inhttps://plumvillage.org/podcasts/the-way-out-is-in/ every week to strengthen my practice through the resources offered in their recordings. Our sangha is currently reading https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/52575747-zen-and-the-art-of-saving-the-planet and our discussions have been rich.
I should mention that I was not raised with religion, but rather with strong ethical principles and the values of tikkun olam (although it was not named as such since my parents did not practice the Jewish religion). Tikkun Olam means to repair the world. I’m not a card-carrying Buddhist or even a Bu-Ju, or Ju-Bu, but I am someone who is deeply grateful for the teachings generously given by the honorable Thich Nhat Hanh, poet, activist, and monk. I would not be me without his deep insights guiding me daily.
Jacki Apple (December 11, 1941- June 8, 2022)
I started this blog post almost two weeks ago with Jacki’s memorial fresh in my mind. I met Jacki through my grad school studio mate, Bruce Barber. Bruce and I were both attending the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design in Halifax, Nova Scotia and were in the middle of our first year of the MFA program when we traveled to NYC for winter break, 1977. Bruce, originally from New Zealand, had met Jacki and her ex-husband, the artist, Billy Apple, when they were traveling in NZ. Bruce remained friends with Jacki and wanted me to meet her when we visited the City. Jacki was then working at the Franklin Furnace, an alternative space that specialized in artist’s books, window installations, and performance art, and Jacki was the curator of the latter two offerings. In 1979, after I moved back to the City, Jacki offered me a slot in the window installation line up. I knew exactly what I was going to create there, a facsimile of an employment office. At that time, I had just left a full-time position with the NY State Arts Council as an administrative assistant in the Museum Aid Program. I was full of questions about what meaningful work might mean during the recession in NYC, and I wanted to engage with other underemployed folks to find out how they kept their spirits up during the job hunt. Jacki was excited about this project and gave me full license to play with the idea.
The storefront of the Franklin Furnace was disguised as an employment agency, with signs advertising various opportunities and perks. It was not at all obvious that it was a satire. People came in, with resumes underarm, looking for work. As someone without gainful employment myself, I was almost always there to invite people in, have them sit in the booth, where the chairs were rigged with an audio switch. As soon as someone sat down, the 5-minute audio loop would go on. The audio was full of questions, inner thoughts of a job hunter, and lots of humor. People quickly got hooked, and once the tape was over, they would remark, “I don’t know what that was, but I feel much better.” Behind the office booth, was a space with coffee and tea, books about creating your own job, and comfy seats in which we could sit and schmooze. Jacki sometimes joined us in conversation. The installation, “Apply Within,” attracted the attention of Lucy R. Lippard, who wrote about it in ArtForum Magazine. And thus, my art career was more firmly launched.
Soon after this, Jacki and Martha Wilson (founder and director of FF), hired me to be an artist’s assistant and publicist for the gallery. Both of my “bosses” were deeply committed to their work, intelligent, and eccentric, but it was Jacki who took me underwing. Through her invitations to events and my work at the FF, I was able to meet many local and international artists, many who expanded my sense of how art could function in the world.
This generosity continued after Jacki moved to Los Angeles. When I visited LA for the first time for a cousin’s wedding, she hosted me in her apartment, sharing her delight in her new home, taking me on a tour of favorite spots, like the local Trader Joe’s in Culver City (it was one of the first of that chain) and the beloved Rose Café in Venice.
A few years later, I joined Jacki in southern California. I had become a new faculty member in the art department at CSU Long Beach, their NYC artist. I felt very much like a fish out of water in Long Beach, so Jacki invited me to parties, events, exhibitions, and dinners to help me find my cohort.
Soon after moving to LA, at one of those parties, she introduced me to Sheila Pinkel, saying “you need to know Sheila; she’s one of your activist artist peers in town.” Sheila and I shared many interests in common; over the years, we shared meals, spaces in exhibitions, and on stages as speakers. I discovered, to my delight, that LA was filled with feminist artists, many of whom were very welcoming, without the pretensions and competitive energy that I found so off-putting in the NYC art world. I thought that Jacki fit in beautifully in LA where she curated shows, experimented with her own work, performed, wrote, was an inspired teacher with devoted students at the Pasadena Art Center, and ran her KPFK-fm radio show about sound & performance art. She was in her element and highly successful.
When my artist’s book, One Size DOES NOT Fit All (originally known as “The Fat Book”) was published in 1993, Jacki confessed to me that she was “fat-phobic,” a common prejudice in our current society, and that she found it difficult to even sit next to fat people in public. I was grateful to hear her speak so honestly about her struggle to see all bodies as deserving of love and respect.
We were able to share our growing interest in sitting meditation as a spiritual practice, and in the last year or so before I left Los Angeles, we sat together in Venice, CA, in a sweet, little sangha inspired by our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. Jacki maintained a sitting practice, attending retreats, long after we left LA in 1995.
In subsequent years, I visited with Jacki every time we came to LA, whether it was for an exhibition that I was participating in, a conference I was speaking in, or for a family occasion. She was always a gracious host, sharing her passions for her current projects and her excitement about the work of others. I last saw her in person in 2018 when I was attending the College Art Association meeting. She shared some of the process of archiving her huge body of work, I was impressed by her incredible vitality and passion for leaving a legacy for future students and historians.
We only spoke a few times during the pandemic and her cancer journey, and I regret that my husband’s own cancer journey kept me from keeping better in touch with her. When I last spoke with her, she expressed deep compassion for what we were going through with our son’s mental health struggles, and shared her disappointment with what had happened to the once lively arts hub of LA once the internet and social media interrupted more in-person connection.
Ultimately, the process of memorializing someone in the distant forum of zoom can be deeply unsatisfying, especially if you carry many layers of experiences and stories about a significant person in your life, and there is no open mike in which to share them. Even with the opportunity to say your piece, the lack of physical contact while mourning someone is challenging. How to manage this grief then? Well, this writing is the first step. I know that these losses will continue. It is that time in my life when more and more of those around me will become ancestors, and I need to prepare somehow for that inevitability. The hyper-mobility of my pre-pandemic life connected me with many people all over the world, so my losses with be many, and given the current chapter of climate emergency, increasing poverty, violence, and polarization, and pandemic, the work of grieving will occupy many of us more than ever. May we find the tools to navigate it all with generosity, kindness, and grace and inspire our communities to imagine a world where seven generations will thrive.
For those who don’t know what a sangha is, think of it as a chosen community with whom you do sitting meditation or some kind of somatic, mindfulness practice where you quietly follow your breath. You may read sutras, writings of various Buddhist teachers, inspirational philosophy, the treatises of radical activists, or speculative fiction, and have discussions about what is read and how they relate to your life. You may plan and do acts of service in the community. If you are lucky enough, your sangha may become a family of choice and nourish you spiritually and through times of grief and illness. We brought together a sangha in the lineage of Thich Nhat Hanh (who we gratefully sat with quite a few times) to help guide us through my husband’s cancer journey. Since my husband is an ordained lay monk in the Vietnamese Zen tradition, this was a no brainer for him to co-facilitate. We love the people who show up and are working to make the space as collaborative and inclusive as possible.
So why do we all need one? Because our mental health as a species is as challenged as I’ve ever seen it in this lifetime, and this is one way to ground ourselves for the challenges of this time and the times to come. For the introverts and folks who are group-adverse or who have been traumatized by group dynamics who are reading this, please know that this is one way to ease into a collective conversation that is as respectful, safe, and generous as they come.
A sangha can start with two people who sit together, but ideally it can start with four. Then you build it slowly, at the speed of trust. Send me questions and comments if you have them.
I started writing this post yesterday, after seeing photos of dry river beds in many parts of the world: the Loire, the Rhine, the Danube, and the Yangtze, all rivers I once saw in person in a time that now seems long ago. My heart was frayed by these images, especially since I’m preparing work to be part of an exhibition about the climate emergency that will be on display in Chongqing, China (where the Yangtze barely flows now). With all the work I do to try and stay present to everyday joys, I found that my normal filters for this level of grief are now as cracked and dry as a river bed, and my typically reliable resilience has just vanished. As did the paragraphs that I labored over yesterday, in what seemed to be a flick of the trackpad or some other quirk, every word was gone and I was left with that sour feeling that often comes when realize that you didn’t click the “save draft” button.
Non-attachment is the way of the day. Non-attachment to daily routines because they will be upended by something unseen. Non-attachment to the moods of our son. Non-attachment to being able to see the future of my husband’s cancer journey or our son’s next chapter in Oregon. Being able to hold uncertainty in this particular life and in this particular moment in history seems to be the most desirable skill, and being able to remind oneself that nothing is permanent, whether it’s the abundance in our backyard food forest or the feelings of being stuck or root-bound, being involuntarily leashed to a place that often does not feel like home due to the obligation of family care. I do love my family and my neighbors, but I have such a yearning for touching the landscapes of my past, even things that repelled me as a child, like the smelly streets of NYC. I have to stop myself when I get too thick with that sort of nostalgia and remind myself that NYC is not what it was, that everyone with few exceptions has dispersed or died, and that my desire for home won’t be satisfied there. My desire for home needs to be satisfied now with the soil, the water, and the air, and when that seems too abstract, the flavor of a fresh tomato just picked.
And in that vein, what brings me back to a joyful present moment is the harvesting of golden cherry tomatoes, the ground cherries with their delicate outer shell like a Japanese lantern, and the plump scarlet runner beans that were happily pollinated by hummers and bees. The ache of this time doesn’t go away, but it becomes just another flavor in the mix, one that I can write through or breathe into. I might not have what one considers a glamorous life filled with adventures and travels at this moment, but it is a rich one, with textures and colors that I will continue to report on here, even as those previously mentioned filters become more cracked with the news of the day.
After viewing the film about the comedian, Tig Notaro, my husband likes to introduce himself in this way, “Hi, I’m Bob, I have cancer.” My husband has stage 4 melanoma. He was diagnosed with Stage 2 in January, but this is an aggressive strain of cancer. After no success with immunotherapy, he started a new protocol two weeks ago; chemo pills that he takes twice a day. He’s lost a lot of weight (cancer cells secrete appetite suppressants) and has days when he exhausted, nauseous, vomits, and can’t get out of bed. Our last road trip was almost two months ago to pick up our son in southern Oregon who needed our care and housing. Our son’s story is a long one that I’m not ready to share here quite yet, but let’s just say that at age 27, with High Functioning Autism, and many gifts that have yet to fully blossom, he requires a lot of support, particularly in relation to medication management. With both of them not able to fully be in the world, my trajectory into the life of summer pleasures has been quite limited, but I am grateful for my garden, our little food forest, and our new meditation sangha that meets in our renovated garage, B & B’s Bad Buddhist Temple. We meet every week and it has been immensely nourishing for all of us. I also get to write, walk, enjoy beautiful weather, friendly neighbors who are always offering support, cook up lots of tasty things to tantalize the family (even if they can’t eat them), paint in my iPad, listen to stimulating podcasts, do Physical therapy for my pseudo-sciatica, get massages every 2 weeks, and generally have a very good life. I can get wistful for a life of traveling, but I remind myself of the climate costs of such an indulgence. If I stay off of social media with everyone’s photos of their journeys, block the borderline personality disordered folks who I seem to be a magnet for, and remind myself that every day is a miracle, I will make it through this threshold somehow.
And, with the upcoming gathering in my studio, “Re-emerge and Reboot,” I get to brainstorm with locals who might be interested in figuring out new strategies for navigating this time, or as my book title says, “Rewilding Our Muses: Creative Strategies for Navigating the End of THIS World.” Perhaps with the help of folks who gather with me, I will sense that the only thing on hold might be my attitude.
I’m grateful that I created this blog, despite years of ignoring it. Now is the time that I can recommit to sharing thoughts and inspirations here. Hopefully I will be able to channel a flow of sprouting seeds for others to plant. The discipline of posting scraps of thoughts here can help me build the momentum for writing my book. My partner’s cancer diagnosis has made my concentration touch and go, but I recognize that this period is also one of relative stability, so it’s the time to get things moving.
In this vein, listening to an audio book (not my usual) about the quantum: The Quantum Revelation by Paul Levy, has been a fascinating accompaniment to my off & on meditation practice. I see how present moment is all I get to hold and release with each breath. In that same way, I get to hold and release words, allowing them to flow through me so I can learn from them.
Yesterday, my therapist who is also tuned into some psychic realms, said that there was about a year and a half to get the book out before things go to hell. I breathed that in all day and in my dream time. I understood from talking to her that this book will be like stone tablets to guide any survivors of the collapse. I need to take this work seriously. And given the messages I’m receiving via my screens, Inspiring others seems to be the deepest layer of my work now.
The threshold that we sit in as a species requires a complete reframing of time, space, and what we consider reality. Mystics and physicists are joining hands, and artists are essential part of the mix. DaVinci stated that art is the first science…and it’s fascinating to see how that insight has been distorted by capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and all the other oppressive systems. I am so grateful for this time of relative ease to untangle what is happening to us on the ground. My home office is cool and filled with the light of the day, a lush garden is outside my door, my partner is busy making his breakfast in the kitchen, and the sun is shining. The harshness visiting so many today is being kept a bay and I’m going to take advantage of this as long as I can.
Yesterday, I finally tested negative, after over a week of fatigue, then cold symptoms, and finally the loss of smell. At the end of April, I thought my intense fatigue was either caused by our two-week road trip down to southern Oregon and then on to the Bay Area or the doctor reducing my dosage of thyroxine, but it turned out to have another cause. For three days, the cold was accompanying by a somewhat comforting brain stupor (only remediated by binge-watching the last season of Frankie and Grace, followed by Inventing Anna). Once the symptoms dissipated I got tested, and went home to quarantine. My sense of smell only vanished during the last three days, but now the most pungent of my essential oils is clearly registering. What a relief.
People keep asking me if I know where I picked up the germ. It could have been anywhere. Our last restaurant meal during the road trip in Eugene or at an outdoor gathering, dancing in the woods. I spent most of the week before I came down with the illness alone in the studio or in the garden, but there were a few exceptions, and in recent months, I almost always walked unmasked in the hallways of my studio building. My masking indoors had become a bit sloppy…..sooooooo….this is how the virus arrives now. My husband is still testing positive, and he has hay fever and Stage 4 melanoma on top of everything, poor guy.
Now it’s time to get back in the studio after a long hiatus, and to welcome in the crowds this Saturday and 2 subsequent Saturdays as part of my farewell to the space.
I had a great turnout and deep discussions with folks who joined me in the Merlino studio yesterday. I was exhausted afterwords, but grateful to share work and stories with those who came. I’ll be doing this again next Saturday, and the Saturday after that. In June I will pack up the studio and put much of it in storage in the basement. My new home studio in the renovated garage is complete (other than the floor surface), so I’ll be setting up there to begin a new chapter, slowly but surely this summer.