“Art connects us to what we feel and when we feel something, we act.”
Last Wednesday The Center School hosted photographer Chris Jordan as a guest speaker for one of its Community Meetings. I made the arrangements, at the behest of The Center School math diva Sheila Henneuse, who cites Chris’s Running The Numbers series when teaching her statistics unit.
Chris is internationally known for photographs which illustrate the intersection of art and environmentalism. Mass consumption and waste have inspired him to create deceptively appealing montages of soda cans and Barbie dolls. What you see from a distance is not what you get up close. More graphically unsettling is his photo-journalistic work on Midway Island documenting the deaths of thousands of albatross chicks from ingesting plastic flotsam fed to them by their parents. Colorful, but not pretty. A feature length documentary is scheduled to be released later this year. To say Chris is passionate about these issues is like mentioning that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist.
The relationship between the individual and the collective is key to Chris’s work. We may feel as individuals that we can do little to divert the Hell-bound handbasket we are in, but his photographs antithetically demonstrate how singular acts multiply to undeniably monstrous proportions.
Chris reiterated to the students that art is more important than ever, that beauty is the most effective means to communicate what we don’t want to know, and that young artists like them have the potential to make or break this world. “Art will help us reconnect on a global and international level.”
When the presentation was finished, and in spite of the fact that we had over-stayed our reserved time slot at McCaw Hall and the students already had forfeited part of their lunch period, Chris was surrounded by teens (and staff) eager to express their appreciation for his work.
Back on campus, I had students come up to me wide-eyed to say Thank you! He was awesome! One girl, however, complained that Chris “talked sooooooo much.”
Well, yes. That’s what guest speakers do.
Admittedly, some kids were less engaged than others. So I’ve been thinking about Chris’s words, his passion, his imagery, and wondering why some students are so open, and others are so difficult to reach.
Actually, I believe this bipolar attitude is two sides of the same coin; one student says “show me something I haven’t seen … ,” while the other begs, “show me something I haven’t seen!”
Is it worth bringing an artist to speak to the many, when not all will listen, and maybe only a few will hear?
Yes, of course it is. The passionate ones will create art to communicate and inspire. The others will use their talents to entertain and adorn. Some will just sit back on the couch and watch everyone else, but hey, maybe not indefinitely.
Chris also talked about fear. On Midway Island, he watched through his camera lens as curious albatross approached to investigate what he was about – without natural predators on the island, they don’t know any better. However, once startled, curiosity quickly exits and fear moves in. Us humans can be like that too. Nobody wants to leave the couch if we might break an ankle.
Perhaps that explains the different reactions of The Center School students. Maybe some students are risk-averse, and others, like Chris, are willing to get past their fears and explore something new. Either way, I don’t think Chris’s message was lost on anyone.