Monday, September 12, 2011

Got to Get Back to the Garden

Eat me, I'm edible.

Before we move completely into Fall, I want to share some photographs from the daytrip my mom, sister and I took to Powell Gardens in early August. It was a glorious day, if a bit humid. You accept summer gifts when offered. A mild muggy day is much more appreciated than a hot humid day. We visited Powell Gardens during their Butterfly Festival, which allowed us to get up close and personal with a variety of the winged creatures. During our visit, we ate food grown on site, paced the vineyards, wandered through vegetable gardens, reveled at the variety of flowers, moved along overgrown paths, and gazed into water gardens. It was absolutely stunning, and I felt like I belonged to Nature. 

Grrr!!! Lisa makes a good Tyrannosaurus Rex, no?

Mom had to pose twice. Can you tell she was ready to stand up!?

I think I was going for vapid and confused, but it didn't quite work out.

The “Jurassic Gardens” exhibition ran simultaneously. We essentially stepped back in time by focusing our attention on ancient plants. You could almost smell dinosaur in the air.

Powell Gardens is located about 30 miles east of Kansas City on a beautiful tract of land. Or, more likely, it’s all the gardening that’s made the place so gorgeous. I highly recommend visiting. It’s good for the body and even better for the soul. Walking a garden path allows you to take one step at a time. You have space to breathe deeply and contemplate.

Look on for a little visual stimulation:

Complementary colors on green. 

That is a gorgeous green, whether it appears as pond scum or lily pad.

Do not eat. These are meant for decorative purposes only.

That the vegetable patches formed a "Quilt Garden" was only apparent from above.

Lisa and I climbed to the top of the silo to view the Gardens in their entirety. Mom refused the view. She's afraid of heights!

Sunflowers are my favorites!! They remind me of home. They remind me of wild, beautiful bright things!

I like conjoined sunflowers (with feeding bees, no less) even better. I'm one who appreciates a good anomaly.

Not that I am anywhere near marriage, but I couldn't help but daydream when I saw this charming chapel on-site.

It's no wonder predators retreat when they see guys like this. Even I found his red "stare" to be a bit intimidating.

Both the asymmetrical drying and the symmetrical growth apparent in the cacti appealed to me.

I named him "Little Boy Blue."

Shaggy texture paired with abstract shot.

Green tomatoes all in a row. They put me in mind of grapes. See below.

Mom and Lisa sure look intent, intent on plucking a bunch of grapes, that is. ;)

Where's Waldo? Amid the dried leaves, I found a copycat butterfly! It was my best discovery of the day!

Not quite ripe!

There were many gorgeous types of lily pads. These resemble cannibalistic Pac-Men.
What are your favorite plants? Like I said, I have a thing for sunflowers and wildflowers, as well. I’m a fan of succulents, and I like owning plants that allow me to mistreat them more often than not. I LOVED the lily pads I saw, too! Do you garden? Where would you recommend a beginner like me to start if I wanted to grow my own?  Which public gardens do you recommend I visit?

Alison :)


The World Trade Center, September 11, 2001.

Shell-shocked is the best way to describe how I felt by the end of the day on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. The day started out ordinarily enough. I was a junior at the Kansas City Art Institute, and, as an upperclassman, I finally had tons of creative freedom and the opportunity to get into the classes I was really excited to take. Like every non-studio day that semester, I had gotten up early to attend my Performance Art elective. It wasn’t always easy to wake up after late nights in studio, but I really loved everything I was learning. Our class was tiny, with no more than five or seven students. We were all sitting in a circle on the floor of Epperson Auditorium, the school’s main lecture hall, discussing the day’s chosen topic. A student who was not in our class came in the side door and told us the US had come under attack by terrorists. He also said the Media Center was playing the footage on TV.

Our teacher was permissive, so we all headed from our building across the sidewalk to the building next door, where the Media Center was located. We all felt a sense of excitement, as if we were going on a field trip. It was fun to have our normal schedule shaken up. None of us had any reason to suspect or expect the worst. As we entered the building, one of the long-time Art History professors came running down the stairs looking bewildered and more disheveled than usual. As he passed by, he said, “This is what the US gets for its defiance.” (You have to remember, the 9/11 attack took place less than a year after the United States had pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol. It was not a leap to think American attitudes on international issues and the environment might have had something to do with the attack.) That was the first signal that something was clearly very wrong. Whatever had happened was severe enough to scare the heck out of an old hippie who seemed to have witnessed it all.

When we got upstairs, the room was full of people. I sat on an empty stool in the back row. A TV on a cart had been pulled front and center. I saw the New York skyline covered with billowing smoke. I turned to the guy sitting beside me and asked, “What’s going on?” He said one of the towers of the World Trade Center had fallen down. I said, “What do you mean, it fell down?” Then, as I watched, I saw the second tower follow the first to the ground floor by floor by floor. I still don’t think I understood what was happening. I don’t think any of us did.

I don’t remember if I went to any other classes that day or if they were canceled. All I remember is sitting on my best friend’s couch, where we watched hours and hours of news footage. I don’t think we could watch the Twin Towers fall enough times. We listened to eyewitness accounts and stories of survival. We watched firefighters, police officers and EMTs canvass the area. We flipped the channels for new footage and information. We never tired of hearing the same details repeated, clarified, and then reworded again. I don’t think I even blinked that day - except when I was crying. We just couldn’t understand how or why the Twin Towers and all those lives were simply gone.

Either a day or a week later, the campus gathered together for a candlelight ceremony. Afterward, we painted banners to send to New York. As I recall, none of the work was particularly good. I don’t know if the paintings ever actually made it to New York. I don’t know if it even matters. The action of painting felt good; it was a cathartic group event. We were stuck in the Midwest and unable to see or help anyone in New York. There was such a strong desire and a need to DO SOMETHING. Like a lot of people, I think what I was feeling for the first time was a joint patriotic goal in the PRESENT to work toward. This was nothing read in a history book. I was INVOLVED. I wanted New York to heal, but I had no idea how to make that happen.

I didn’t know where the actions of that early morning would lead, but I knew whatever happened, it would be bloody and more innocent lives would certainly be lost. Already, I heard people calling for payback and Saddam Hussein’s head. I am not sure if I learned the word Taliban that day or not, but it and the name Osama bin Laden entered my vocabulary soon enough. Overall, I felt fearful and worried for the lives of Americans and non-Americans alike.

Fear became a steady state of being in the United States. For the first time in my life, I felt like the United States was vulnerable to outside forces. It seemed like the main political goal was for America to secure itself from THE OTHER, no matter what the cost. I remember hearing the words “Terror Alert” so often, they became meaningless. It was just the status quo. I think about the kids I work with in my new job in higher education. The majority of them are no older than 22. Most of them developed their political consciousness in a United States changed by 9/11, its aftershocks and the rhetoric that has developed as a result.

My sister, an 8th grade English and Social Studies teacher, has students who have NO memories whatsoever of a pre-9/11 world. What do we tell them? How do we explain this event to people who haven’t yet been born? All I know is the last ten years have passed quickly, and they have wrought many changes, some I agree with and some I don’t. At the same time, daily life remains, in many ways, unchanged. I wish I knew where we would be on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, but I can’t predict it. I hope we are recovered and more hopeful as a nation. I hope the people who lost loved ones or experienced horrors that day find peace. I hope all the societies we have affected since then will be on their way to recovery, too. I hope I can have something personal and true to tell my (future) children about that day and about these past ten (and forthcoming) years.

What were your experiences of the original 9/11? How have they influenced you and how you think today?


Friday, September 9, 2011

"Is Work Art?"

Touch Sanitation, Performance, 1978-1980.
Artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles spoke with candor, compassion and common sense during her lecture last night at the Kansas City Art Institute. Her work centers around maintenance, labor (both personal and communal) and the environment. For 30 years, she has cultivated a connection with, and created work about, the New York  Department of Sanitation. In addition to her long-standing role as artist-in-residence with DSNY, Ukeles has installed public art and put on performances both nationally and internationally. She has also been the recipient of many prestigious awards and fellowships.

Ukeles’ work derives its power from ritual, repetition, compassion for others, and sensitivity toward the life cycle of objects. Anger with how dismissive people were of her after she became a Mother inspired a new body of artwork. Her indignation led to her “Maintenance Art Manifesto,” written in 1969. Since then, Ukeles’ work has been preoccupied with the systems that make our lives run smoothly. She asks, “Is Work Art?”

In her well-known performance, Touch Sanitation, 1979 - 1980, Ukeles sought out and shook hands with each of New York City’s 8,500 sanitation workers. She told each worker as she took his hand, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” During this eleven month project, she spent 8- to 16-hour shifts with the workers, getting to know them, how they position themselves, and how they are positioned by others, in our society. 

Ceremonial Arch Honoring Service Workers in the New Service Economy, Steel arch with materials donated from New York agencies, 1988.

Ukeles’ artwork makes clear the disconnect between the making of trash and the dealing with trash. Cleaning up after others does not make one garbage, but people often overlook, or treat as trash, those who perform dirty work. I know this from personal experience. I worked as a housekeeper in a hotel one summer during college. Even though some people were polite to me, there were just as many people who either discounted me or treated me badly. These people did not know me, yet assumed they were better than I was, due to the role I performed in their lives. Ukeles turns that notion on its head by making us conscious of who takes care of the trash we create. The life cycle of trash continues after it leaves our homes.

I very much admire Ukeles’ respect for and connection with an overlooked population. As some of you know, I teach art and other skills-building classes to adults with intellectual disabilities, and I think the general public is equally dismissive of these amazing individuals, too. I know better than that, though, because I have spent time getting to know my students and their thoughts. Each of my students has as much depth as any other person on this earth. Like Ukeles, I love the group I have adopted as my own. Because of my experience, my students, the other teachers, the student aides, teachers’ assistants and I together make a we. This is a very important aspect of Ukeles’ work. She transforms they and them into we and us, essentially erasing the stigma attached to one’s work or the words with which we define a person. 

The Social Mirror, Mirror-covered New York Department of Sanitation truck, 1983.

Ukeles also makes transparent the relationship between what we do and how it affects what we do it to(meaning the Earth). Her relationship with Fresh Kills is a good example of this. Fresh Kills is a “retired” landfill on Staten Island. At 2,200 acres, it is the largest landfill in the world, and a section of it is being developed into Freshkills Park. Ukeles is essential to the process. She has spent years considering, conceptualizing, walking, filming and photographing there. She has reflected upon the nature of this place and has planned permanent sculptures. Sadly, and confusingly for Ukeles, part of Fresh Kills was reopened less than a year after its closure in 2001 to become the resting place for the wreckage and debris from The World Trade Center after 9/11. In fact, Ukeles’ brothers and sisters at the DSNY performed a lead role after the attack on the Twin Towers. They cleared debris from the streets so first responders could access the site. The wreckage from the The World Trade Center fills 55 acres at Fresh Kills. Ukeles had been involved with the site before 9/11, but she knows the presence of its wreckage, including the dust left from incinerated human beings, changes what the site means to people. The renewal and re-balancing that takes place here will have to be psychic, as well as physical. This space, reliant upon natural cycles and human ingenuity, will grow over time into a place of healing, in more ways than one.

Ukeles is a storyteller extraordinaire and a generous spirit. I feel so lucky to have heard her speak. Her lecture was incredibly moving and meaningful to me. After the lecture, I made sure to shake HER hand and tell her just how inspiring I thought her words and works were. Throughout her lecture, I noticed ritual was apparent in all of her works. Because repetition and the ritualizing of repetitive actions are important in my own work, I just had to ask her which came first - an interest in ritual or an interest in repetitive labor which led to ritual. She told me her father had been a rabbi, and ritual was something she had always known and been inspired by.

As a last thought, we (I) often refer to art making as work - it’s either what you do or the product of what you do. As anyone who creates can tell you, art making IS work, work of the most fulfilling sort. 

What kind of art do you love? Which artists inspire you? What can you "work on" for 8 hours at a time?

Alison :)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Do Do Di Do Do


Just taking a moment to say, "Mahna Mahna!"

I attended a GREAT lecture tonight at the Kansas City Art Institute. I'm feeling pretty hopped up about it. I'll give more details tomorrow.

Alison :)

P.S. I LOVE The Muppets, in particular, and puppetry, in general. What are your favorite segments from the The Muppet Show and/or Sesame Street?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Moving Toward Entropy

The auctioneer spoke so fast! The bidding went almost as quickly.

Personal connections imbue memorabilia stuffed into drawers, great finds mounted on walls, and random junk filling space with significance. As soon as a family is gone and its belongings are dispersed, a home becomes a house, devoid of specificity. Possessions travel along different trajectories; this particular commingling of things cannot recur. The stories and memories remain, while the props and stage are lost.

Morose were my thoughts at the auction of my grandmother’s belongings last Sunday. A life is so much more than its trappings, but it hurts to witness the palimpsest which wears the meaning of objects smooth.

My little cousin (who's almost as tall as me!) and I. We found the mask in Grandma's basement.
On the other hand, even this last gathering at my grandma’s house allowed my family to forge new and lasting bonds.

Before the auction, we took home an assortment of my grandma's belongings we really loved, but it was still sad to separate everything amongst each family member! Have you ever auctioned off a family member's possessions? How have you incorporated objects you've inherited into your own home?


I love the wonderful surprises to be found only at auctions, thriftstores, fleamarkets, antique stores, and other such locations, but I often wonder about the past lives of objects. How 'bout you? What objects with a mysterious past have you bought? Have you ever determined their provenance?