On Tuesday afternoon we held our first expressive art workshop in preparation for the exhibition, “Righteous Dopefiend: Addiction, Poverty and Homelessness in Urban America”, a traveling show from the Penn Museum, based on the ethnographic work of Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg. The workshop, organized by expressive art therapist Nan Doolitle and undergraduate intern Maggie Bauermeister, was hosted by Gallery One in downtown Ellensburg. Dinner for participants was kindly provided by Grace Episcopal Church. Members of the homeless community were invited to participate, as well as those who have direct experience with addiction and substance abuse.
We met in the Gallery One ceramics studio, where Nan and Maggie had set up a great variety of art materials. The workshop, they explained, was organized around the theme of “Homeplace;” participants were invited to create artistic renderings of dwellings or temporary shelters in which they had lived, or to envision an ideal home in which they might want to reside someday.
One participant, a skilled artist who is currently homeless, produced a beautiful drawing of a grand castle of unimaginably large proportions, to which were loosely tethered entire planets, including a planet with Saturn-like rings, all floating above a lovely cloud-covered landscape beneath a brilliant multi-hued sky. (Thinking about the work afterwards, I wondered if the various floating planets might for the artist be associated with the multiple places he has been staying, loosely, even tenuously, connected to one another. Or would he dismiss any direct link between this evocative fantasy image and his own present condition? I hope to talk to him about this next time we see one another.)
Another participant, who has close experience with the impact of chemical dependencies, created a striking series of sculptural pieces out of cardboard on the theme of walls. In one work, a large, high wall wall encircled several figures, made out of pipe-cleaners. Each figure within the large wall in turn was encircled by low walls. The artist explained that the low walls signify for her the barriers that addiction erects around a person; drug use, she notes, allows a person a way of maintaining distance from others who might seek to know them too closely. At the same time, these walls are to her mind pretty permeable, since users can at times easily step over them to deal with other users. The large encircling wall, she explains, represents the collective (and to her mind rather protective) barrier that drug usage creates around the community of users. Those users who endure challenges together, on the street or elsewhere, are bound together in a way outsiders can’t quite understand; hence she located several figures outside the great wall, unaware of what was happening within. (Thinking about the piece later, I find myself speculating that in a curious way the large walled space recalls the Biblical Garden of Eden, which was also walled. Might drug use in any sense for the artist be equivalent to the prohibited Tree of Knowledge at the garden’s center? Once again, I’ll need to ask the artist at some point.)
|"Home is where the heart hides" (Anonymous)|
The same artist made another work, entitled “Home is where the heart hides.” She created a building with many scored, cracks on it (equivalent, I believe she told us to scars on a person); two of the cracks open up to be like windows. Inside, barely discernible to a viewer, she has placed a heart shape, made out of a pipe cleaner. A person who suffers, she explains, erects many barriers to others, and only allows them, at most, a glimpse of her inmost feelings and longings. In front of the building she created a small assemblage of heart shapes. The entire piece, she emphasized, is made to be accessible to low vision and no vision visitors, who can experience it in tactile fashion. The front hearts are open, like that the exposed emotions of a young child; later on in life, a person has learned to hide her emotions behind a thick layer of scar tissue.
Nan and Maggie urged me to try my hand at making my own imagined “homeplace.” I found myself creating a kind of bird’s nest, complete with plastic eggs, out of which a small, sheltering tree sprouted. Having recently taught Claude Levi-Strauss’ classic essay, “The Science of the Concrete” , I found myself thinking about the ways in which our ancestors, observing bird nests, may have been inspired to think about their own dwelling places. Humans are characterized, after all, by the extremely long period our offspring need to be sheltered; in that sense we are different from most of our fellow mammals, who can turn their offspring loose within a year or two. Our homes in a sense must maintain our children in metaphorical egg states, until they are ready to be “hatched” out into the world in adult or quasi-adult status. I called the piece, “First Home: Nest Eggs.” Reflecting on this piece, I now find myself re-thinking the first artist’s drawing of the castle with the tethered, floating planets; might for him those planets, bound by umbilical-like cords to the great castle, be like children tethered to a parental figure? Is the homeplace he depicted a remembered scene of early parent-child connection?
|"First Home: Nest Eggs" (Mark Auslander)|
These complex dynamics are certainly consistent with the lifeworlds on the street explored by Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg in “Righteous Dopefiend” , which we’ll start hosting next month. I’m grateful to Nan and Maggie for their creative vision, which has allowed us to start reflecting on these themes in anticipation of the show itself.
During the workshop, we talked about how these art works and others by students and local community members might be incorporated into the upcoming exhibition, "Righteous Dopefiend. " Perhaps we might attach small shelves to the lobby wall and place the art on these, along with commentary by the artists, whom we expect in most cases will choose to be anonymous.
Nan and Maggie will hold another expressive art workshop on the theme of “Homeplace” in the Museum's lobby on Saturday, January 10 from 11;00 am-2:00 pm. This will be open to everyone, and we are eager to see what new visions of homes, present and absent, will emerge. Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Shonberg will be on campus on January 29, and we hope we’ll have many such visions, by community members and students, to share with them.