I am very pleased to have a guest blogger for this post: Grace Walker-Stevenson. Grace graduated from The Center School High School last week, class of 2012. At Center, each Senior must complete and present a senior project as part of their Citizenship/Social Justice (teacher Jon Greenberg’s version of Language Arts/Humanities) class requirements. This is a year-long project, the final phase of which must involve at least 30 working hours towards a final product. The goal of this product is to inspire or enlighten others regarding a social injustice. I attended Center’s “Senior Celebration” this year, where I was fortunate enough to hear Grace give the following presentation. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
There’s this gracious intangible thing with lots of names like “Peace,” “Love,” “God,” “Salvation,” “Happiness,” “Equanimity.” Call it anything ya wanna call it, but everybody – whether they admit it or not – wants it. It doesn’t speak or move or invade or deny or convince. It just is, like air. Exactly like air. Whenever I find I’ve trailed off too far from my awareness of it, I know that I can write my way back inside. It’s why I write. You are reading the words of a sucker, a sucker for solution, and catharsis, and clarity, revival, redemption, and release. Taking the time to write my way back Home, through any given space that might slip between me and Happiness, is my life’s work. And for a moody guy like me, there is much work to be done. – Buddy Wakefield
As a poet, artist, neurotic social justice advocate, student, and above all else; human being, I’ve discovered that there are a great number of people living in poverty. Financial poverty often scares society into the type of poverty I’d like to discuss, which is poverty of spirit. I would posit that there is a great number of office workers who dream of the theater, lawyers who wake up in the night with inspiration for more creative things than case work. The closet poets, the sometimes painters, the sculptors that try to release their craft as surgeons or architects. Those hum-drum office workers in search of keeping an “honorable” career path while they tuck their dreams deep inside themselves. Now, of course not all scientists want to be ballerinas, and as well they shouldn’t. A lot of fulfillment can be found in the realm of math and science, no one would argue that they do an incredible amount for society. However, there is a problem inherent in how our society accredits intelligence to those that do not choose the conventional career paths.
I’d like you to put yourself in the shoes of an artist for a minute, even if you aren’t one. Now I’d like you to imagine relying on art as your only means of income in your adult life. If you’re pulling out your hair in reaction to the stress of that reality, or sighing in relief because you majored in engineering, well, you’re probably right. Within the American capitalist system, and probably throughout the rest of the world, artistic intelligence is conventionally disrespected. This happens throughout the educational system and is reflected in the working world. The National Association of Colleges and Employers recently reported that “the median salary of math, science, and computer science majors’ first jobs rose five times as quickly as the median salary of humanities and science majors’ first jobs in 2012.” Because the working world is predicated on the idea that the highest qualifying jobs theoretically earn the highest pay, this data is a bit of a wake up call. The Huffington Post released an article on this growing wage inequality as well. They echoed a similarly disparaging statistic that workers who “start our at a lower salary will likely be making less money for the rest of their lives. Workers that majored in math, economics, biology, and engineering make between forty and fifty dollars per hour on average in 2012.” This wouldn’t be so disturbing if not for “workers that majored in nearly anything else make less than forty dollars per hour on average.” Often the higher paid college majors make nearly twice as much their lower paid counterparts.
After reading these statistics, and hearing the stories of many “would-be” artists, I found that I have stumbled upon yet another social injustice to grumble about. My personal connection to this topic isn’t incredibly unique, but once I reflected upon it, I found that poverty of spirit was all around me.
I was the child with the enormous forehead. My parents shoved me into every movie audition, ballet lesson, neighborhood music camp and child orchestra in the greater Seattle area. One of my mother’s first and most telling life lessons was “if you’re going to make it, you’ll have to start now.” With that, I was off. Trying to learn as much as I could about artistic expression in order to attempt to excel at it. Somehow, I thought if I could get the movie role or learn the pirouette perfectly, I would buck the odds and actually find a stable career in the arts. Needless to say: privilege can’t buy talent. If you don’t believe me, go turn on MTV. I wasn’t built for those dreams and quickly I found myself taking the practical advice of my kindergarten teacher and sought out more “respectable” dreams for the next decade. My story is not only cliché’ but it’s probably hereditary. Closeted artists are littered across my family tree. My grandfather was kicked out of art college, and quickly became an engineer under the Reagan administration. He helped to build bombs and satellites, and they became his legacy, although his art went totally unrecognized. My father is an oil painter and an ex-actor who now works for a school district. Of course, building schools and satellite systems are incredibly valuable, but I’ve also sensed the ache for something different. I couldn’t help but think that if all budding artists had the privilege of receiving artistic education in a supportive community, they might thrive and fully realize their potential.
Kurt Vonnegut once compared artists to canaries in the coal mines of society, they support the organism by keeping it honest and in check. When the artists start dropping dead or producing alarming works, we’re forced to pay attention. And we do pay attention, media is everywhere constantly. But as it’s funded largely by the system, it often does not criticize the system. However, if honest reaction to the status quo isn’t valuable, I don’t know what is. Sir Ken Robinson gave a speech on a similar topic to the Dali Lama Foundation earlier this year.
Now our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. And there’s a reason. The whole system was invented around the world, really, during the 19th century. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism. So the hierarchy is rooted on two ideas. Number one, that the most useful subjects for work are at the top. So you were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. Is that right? Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician; don’t do art, you won’t be an artist. Benign advice – now, profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution. The second is academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at in school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized. I think we can’t afford to go on that way.
(Actual poster from the mid-50’s issued by Senator Joseph McCarthy at the height of the Red Scare. All artists were suspect.)
Generally, being an artist usually comes from a place of privilege. If you have the financial privilege, as well as the luck and talent, to be one of the few who make it famous, or make it published, or get recorded assuming that is your goal, it is probably because you relied on your privileges at least somewhat to do so. That’s class privilege but class privilege encompasses a lot of race and gender politics. I mean, just look at the wealthy in this country. If old white men decide who is intelligent, shockingly, mostly old white men will be rewarded as intelligent.
I think this is a problem, so I set out to even the score. To make art and arts education more portable, accessible and well-funded. I believe that arts education should be available to everyone. So, I gathered some beautiful and utterly talented individuals and decided to put on an event to benefit a local arts non-profit that had recently gotten a large percentage of their funding cut – they’re called 4Culture, so the name of the event became Arts4Culture, naturally enough. You probably didn’t know they existed, and well I didn’t either. But they do fund The Center School, Fremont Abbey my event venue, as well as a bunch of other really cool, arts-friendly spaces around Seattle. The process took weeks of work, calling emailing, advertising, and trying to corral all of my performers into one space so we could plan. I definitely did at least 30 hours of work, but the final product was really worth it. Roughly seventy people came, and we filled our entire space pretty nicely. We raised a total of five hundred dollars in donations, and another two hundred in order to pay for all of our expenses. We served cupcakes and entertained people. We played music, recited poetry and set up a live painting auction. It was great, really. I found that creating supportive spaces for artists is easier than I thought, and I take this as a sign of societal progress. Or perhaps so many people came because the snacks were delicious, either way, I found that I made a small impact. Even small triumphs feel powerful in a system that leaves artists often feeling powerless.
In the spirit of “unconventional” expression, I’ll leave you with the poem I performed to close the event.
In the beginning there is always darkness, the shaking in the closet, the monster under the bed, the nameless and forever absent heroes. Childhood unfurling in shadows and fear. But I do remember laying out in the garden. Cupping soil with my tiny hands and learning about the magic of seeds, how entire worlds can grow from hope and a few small ideas. I painted constellations on my ceiling that winter, so I could learn the stars even through the clouds of snow and city lights. Black holes and comet rocks taught me that deep within the overcast sky, past the satellites and frozen air, some people claim the truth lives up there. Now, I’ve never been much for absolutes or believing in things I couldn’t see, gods and ghosts just move too quickly. But there is a fire flickering inside all of us, caught sometimes in the static before the song, the peeling paint chips, the sunburnt photographs. I’ve made my throat either a chimney or a fire escape and all that love down in there is going to burn its way out. Like cigarettes smoldering the cheapness of receipts, my paper is getting thinner and easier to see right through. I’m not the only one, please no, I’m not the only one. The girl vomiting up sparks on to paper. The colorblind boy who paints with his eyes closed, he knows every line too well already. The hermit man who claims that every flower holds the face of his beloved, so he writes her name in the soil, pours the seeds in the ground, and waits. In this place littered with hot, bright ugliness, at least we know how to find beauty. It’s rusty and it’s flickering but it’s still there. Still right there. Still “three chords and the truth, they call it.” You’ll find us there, making beauty as we dream, as we learn that pens are mightier than swords because war could never really write a good ending. The sun is climbing its way into the worn out bomb craters, grass is growing in the sidewalk cracks of cities that would have otherwise known nothing of oxygen. Creation for some, is like oxygen. Take that away, America, and what have you got left? The canaries in your coal mines are getting back up from their perched deathbeds, learning to scream poison because casualties have never dissuaded you, but noise, that ought to. This poem is for the factory worker learning to paint in his own chemical blood. The five-year old girl pouring her soul into sidewalk chalk and piano lessons. For the starving artists and the fat cats of wall street. For bridging the income gap. Writing a rain too heavy for apathy to swallow, so it’s forced to down. Finally, this is for painting over the monsters, swallowing them up and most importantly – teaching the world to listen again.
– Grace Walker- Stevenson, age 18, Seattle