transcending silence... 2007 Issue

 

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In Celebration


Casey Davidge*

Portrait Gallery

Abstract

As a senior painting major at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, I have focused on creating a body of work for my undergraduate exhibition. I believe that artists have a social responsibility to their community, and this essay discusses my paintings as they relate to my personal activism. Working with both sheltered and unsheltered individuals, I am striving to use paint, my medium of communication, to give a voice to those who often remain unheard. This essay discusses the lives and characters of six individuals who are homeless in Milwaukee and Chicago, focusing on the nobility of humankind and the importance of finding an internal Center within the midst of change.

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The ancient Polynesians were first guided to the Hawaiian islands by Shaman-like navigators who had the old knowledge of how to sail through the Pacific without the use of any instruments. In a 1998 lecture on this topic, “Wise Navigating Through Change: A Meditational Perspective,” native Hawaiian Steven Smith stated:

There are parallels with the modern concept of chaos theory, the understanding that behind turbulent systems there are patterns, natural rhythms to the universe. This is what these ancient shaman-navigators discerned, because they were in the midst of nothing but change, only change; massive, turbulent systems of cloud formations, storm systems, ocean swells, currents, and wind patterns. They learned the language of the elements, which provided them a map of where they were in the midst of change. Attuned to and one with the naked elements of nature, they sailed for centuries somewhere between their homelands and the extraordinary discoveries of new islands in the sea [1] .

A couple of months ago, I came across a report card that my pre-school teacher had written about me. It read, “Casey does not do well during transitional periods between activities.” Miss Deb went on to say that I often got confused and refused to move on to whatever came next. Nineteen years later, I have realized that I am not alone in this problem. Change is invariably the only constant in the sea, leaving humankind to continually navigate through the unforeseen, struggling and striving to find a center that is independent of outside conditions. By attuning their bodies to nature’s rhythms, the ancient Shaman navigators of the Pacific were able to preserve a psychological field within their own mind where they could center themselves and find stability and strength to endure. It is in this same way that individuals today are able to arise each morning and push their way through the day, finding a seemingly impossible centered strength within the tumult and thrashing abuse of change.

There is an old Japanese proverb, “Fall seven times, stand up eight.” It is precisely this continual endurance and repeated rising, despite the grave awareness that change is constant and one will inevitably fall again, which makes humankind so noble. I have come to believe, through observing this quiet nobility for a number of years, that its accumulated presence results in an incomparable physical and spiritual brilliance which is emitted through one’s pores like an effervescent light. It is an unmistakable human quality shared by all, but only recognized in some.

I have spent the majority of my life living as an artist in Chicago and Milwaukee. In these cities, I have come to recognize the severe socio-economic gaps between classes, and have become aware of an unspoken American caste system. In this social order, those who, for a multitude of reasons, have found themselves to be without a sedentary place to call a home, are pegged as “The Homeless,” and are the American equivalent of India’s Dalits, or Untouchables, the 160 million individuals suffering a form of racist, economic bondage [2]. Through painful personal observation, I have noted society’s inexcusably inhumane treatment of such individuals, and have seen their noble brilliance go unnoticed and without reverence.

In my conversations with such nomadic travelers and temporarily sheltered individuals, I have been moved by the exquisite beauty of their great luminosity, perseverance, and resilience in the face of constant change. As these qualities are shared by all humankind, I have come to recognize myself in others and, likewise, feel it is important to allow others to recognize one’s self in all people.  It is in honor of secret brilliance and unrealized unity that I make my current body of work.

I am creating six large-scale oil paintings on panel. Four of these are 4' x 6', and two are vertically positioned diptychs, measuring 6' x 8'. I am painting portraits of two sheltered women living at the Hope House, a transitional shelter in Walker’s Point, Milwaukee, WI, and four unsheltered men living on the streets of Milwaukee and Chicago, IL. All of the individuals are placed in psychological fields, representative of the inner centered space in which each person dwells. These fields are composed of lush garden and wildflower environments, calling attention to the strength, fragility, and beauty of life, and recognizing the struggle to obtain the basic needs that make life possible.

In September of 2003, The Milwaukee Continuum of Care conducted a study to collect facts on homelessness in Milwaukee. Two hundred volunteers administered the nine-page survey to fifteen shelters, St. Ben’s Meal Site, and on city streets, interviewing 761 homeless adults. Most of those interviewed received a stipend. One small facet of this survey revealed 21% of Milwaukee’s homeless population is employed at jobs paying below eight dollars an hour. Of these individuals, 71% use public transportation to get to work every day [3].

On an average day, I spend between two and three hours waiting for and riding Milwaukee city busses. In an average week, that amounts to somewhere between 14 and 21 hours spent with total strangers. Everyday, I bear the elements with others who ride the bus. It is a diverse community, including: senior citizens; disabled citizens; large families, single men, and women living on a tight budget; those living in poverty or without homes who use it as a means to get to work, to free meal programs, to shelters, to kill boredom, or to get in out of the cold; those who have had their driver’s licenses revoked for a variety of different reasons; non-citizens who cannot get a driver’s license; new U.S. citizens unable to get a license due to language barriers; the environmentally conscious, and students like me. This wide range of people has opened my eyes to our collective humanity and has strengthened my interest in community.

After three years living on Milwaukee’s East Side, I have been able to turn some of those strangers into neighbors and friends. I know Janice, who works at the hair salon by the airport. I know that she almost quit because they did not have enough help. I know Dave, who wears a red jacket and who does not have a home. He once followed my roommate to her car in the Subway parking lot, banging on her door when she would not give him money. I know enough about him to say he is not like this all the time; I have seen him on better days. I have gotten to know John [Figure 1], an unsheltered man who once let me draw him, but would not participate in my thesis this year. He doesn’t remember me from before. I have met Jimmy many times, a beautifully peaceful and loving person who now has an apartment somewhere nearby. He calls me his little sister, and brags about his multitude of bicycles and twenty-one girlfriends. He recently presented me with an article written about him, describing him as the Unofficial Bayshore Mall Mascot. One woman I see many times in the winter, once gave me a child’s communion dress, plaid pants, and an unopened Squirt soda while we shared a bus ride together. She insisted I take all of these items. This woman, whose name I don’t know, exudes an extraordinary brilliance and fragility, and sometimes uses the bus for sleep.  She tells me I am beautiful each time I see her. The more time I invest in getting to know people who would otherwise be strangers, the happier and more fulfilled my life becomes. I have found that, through empathizing and connecting with others, I have become better equipped to respond to obstacles in my own life. I work towards resisting the identification of individuals as “other,” and instead, strive to appreciate the common humanity which binds all people.

“Whoever degrades another degrades me,” writes Walt Whitman, “and whatever is done or said returns at last to me . . .  By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.” [4]  Last winter, while riding the bus home from school around midnight, I was unfortunate enough to witness a bus driver grab a man who had used the bus as a way to get in out of the cold, as a place to find some temporary rest. It seemed the man sleeping in the seat in front of me had ridden a full loop. Back at Wisconsin Avenue, the bus driver yelled to him to wake up and get off. His language was vulgar, sharp, and rude. When the sleeping man did not respond, the driver stood up, walked up to him, and, through a blur of grabbing and kicking, forcibly removed the passenger while yelling, “It’s time to find a new bedroom!” The stinging ridicule in his words was abusive, unnecessary, and demeaning.

While there is never an appropriate occasion to treat another human being in this manner, the most offensive part was my realization that no one on the bus seemed to react at all. In The Visible Poor: Homelessness in the United States, author Joel Blau discusses the contemporary societal response to a man begging for money. He writes, “People walk by. Some look away . . . . Others grimace; in their eyes, the man is a failure, or he would not resort to begging. The more sympathetic give two quarters, then feel helpless at the inadequacy of such a small gift . . . . Cynicism and indifference show in those pedestrians whose gait changes the least. These pass the homeless man as if they were walking through a glass tunnel.” [5]

Angered at the glass tunnel of the bus that night, I realized the importance of acknowledging the refulgent resilience within one who endures such blows on a daily basis. My neighbors on the Route 15 bus recognized the man’s social caste rather than respecting his humanity, his strength, and his dignity. 

In part, this can be blamed on society’s need to enumerate people, turning them into faceless statistics, placing them in a file to be handled later. In de-personifying the individual, one distances one’s self and loses the familial connection and empathetic need to reach out and locate one’s self within each person. Blau quotes a social service researcher for the State of Michigan who observed, “Statistics is a grim business. Most of the time, it seems to me, people resort to counting when they find things too horrible to describe any other way.” [6] Blau continues to discuss the problem of turning numbers into causes. He writes, “Money can be spent for temporary shelter, but not permanent housing, for emergency psychiatric care, but not long-term stays in a mental hospital. The budgetary constraints transform the function of the research. Blocked by the financial obstacles to change, the research has often fed the national inclination to objectify poor people. A reliance on numbers exacerbates this tendency.” [7] Described in this way, individuals who are homeless become a thing rather than a person. This loss of identity is a major feat to overcome.

In many ways, I feel like a child. I am overwhelmed with peace, happiness, and sensations of all that is good whenever I look at another human being. It is difficult for me to understand the way in which people are transformed into numbers in order for them to be shuffled and prioritized like cards, played at the convenience of a few powerful adults. In The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, one of my favorite books of all time, he writes:

Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead, they demand: ‘How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?’ Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him [8].

And so, I find myself a Little Prince in a world full of grown-ups. I want to pay attention to the wrinkles in someone’s skin or the way their smile frames their eyes. These things, I believe, are matters of great consequence. I have made the decision to paint portraits of six sheltered and unsheltered individuals living in Milwaukee and Chicago because I feel it is important to save them from being lost to the language of assumptions and percentages. I feel it is necessary to use my paints as “pots of liquid flesh,” as described by contemporary figurative painter, Jenny Saville [9], in order to capture and speak to that effervescent light of nobility and strength being ignored, as those who are homeless continue to be viewed one-dimensionally. In Tell Them Who I Am, a participant-observer study of the lives of single, homeless women living in emergency shelters, author Elliot Liebow writes, “I realized that [my aim] was to explain to both myself and others how these women remained human in the face of inhuman conditions. I had come to see how inadequate it was to think of them in stereotypical terms such as ‘mentally ill’ or ‘alcoholics,’ as incomplete persons deficient in morals or character, or even as ‘disaffiliated’ persons, go-it-alone isolates no longer connected with family or friends.”  [10]

Through the creation of this body of work, I intend to deflate the stigma of homelessness by reflecting upon the humanity and individuality of each person: their smile or lack thereof, their personal struggles as I have been told of them, and the way they have seemed to center themselves in their own psychological field in order to cope with the specific changes in their life. Through my meditation on their individual lives, I wish to describe to others the powerful nobility inherent in somehow remaining “human in the face of inhuman conditions.” I began to ask unsheltered individuals who I had spoken with if they would like to participate. I simultaneously became involved with the Hope House, a transitional homeless shelter in Walker’s Point, and set up interviews with two female residents there. After traveling down the complicated donation avenue, I was informed that I would not be able to give profits to individuals as I would have liked, but that I could give a donation to the Hope House instead. I concluded that I would give a percentage of sales to Hope House and also accept additional donations for them.

“And as he traveled, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there flashed around him a light from heaven.” (Acts 9:3) [11]

“I am on the road to Damascus,” Audrey [Figure 2], a forty-two year old mother, lesbian, former drill sergeant and current resident at the Hope House, told me.

“Rise, and enter into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do." (Acts 9:6) [12]

“I am here to get the lesson,” Audrey said, “so that one day I can be somebody’s hope. I am the Phoenix.”

Audrey was the first individual I spoke with at the Hope House. She keeps to herself, but as soon as we started talking, she couldn’t stop. She was very open with me, telling me that she does not open up like this to just anyone. Audrey was born in Mississippi, attended college at the Tuskegee Institute of Alabama in 1981, moved to Lake County, Illinois, where she says, “I thrive,” had a daughter in 1990 who is now sixteen and absolutely beautiful, joined the Army in 1991 where she became a drill sergeant, was active for three years and on reserve for three more, worked in Human Resources, and eventually began to fall down a slippery path. She is a recovering addict, and she has decided to stay at the Hope House for a while in order to work some things out in her life. From what I gathered from our conversation, Audrey became homeless when her landlord forced her and her daughter out of their apartment. Audrey explained, “She didn’t like the company I kept.” She was on month-to-month rent when the landlord refused to let her stay the next month.

Audrey told me she has a large family support system: the eldest of five children, and an auntie of one. Oprah, she told me, is even one of her cousins. “I was raised by a family,” she told me, “I was blessed.” Audrey is very close with her daughter, and showed me a portrait that was taken of them. The resemblance is striking. Despite these ties, Audrey feels she needs to be alone in order to “get the lesson.” She does not want to confuse those who are close to her or to wrap them up in her problems as she continues down her road to recovery. “Hurt people hurt people,” she said, “and I don’t want to hurt people.” Audrey is unbelievably strong and exciting and perseverant. She talks fast to avoid the stutter she had when she was younger, she speaks in metaphors, and everything she says sounds like poetry. Audrey told me of the changes she wants to make in her life. She told me how important it is to appreciate people while they are still alive. “Now I try to give people their flowers while they’re still here,” she said.

When one is in the presence of Audrey, it is like standing in the midst of a field bluebells in the early morning sun. It is a forward-looking day, open to possibilities of change. “Turn it over,” she would repeat to me while flipping her wrist back and forth. “We all have one side dark and one side light.”

Audrey is exciting in the way that her presence, her aura, her being, is electric, white hot, reflecting all colors at once. It is nothing short of a vivacious brilliance, produced from the struggle to walk, one foot in front of the next, through thick mud, falling and rising, learning and growing, in beauty and strength. “I am cut from a good cloth,” she told me. “My ancestors are ex-slaves, Indian, Creole, French, and Irish. They are not gonna back down, and I won’t either.”

As Audrey told me she is not here to make friends, I realized that her brilliance is a secret one. I cannot help but think of how many people are missing the experience of getting to know her, of seeing her at her best.

Alice Walker, in her essay, “In Full Bloom,” writes:

I believe people exist to be enjoyed, much as a restful or engaging view might be. As the ocean or drifting clouds might be. Or as if they were the human equivalent of melons, mangoes, or any other kind of attractive, seductive fruit. When I am in the presence of other human beings, I want to revel in their creative and intellectual fullness, their uninhibited social warmth. I want their precious human radiance to wrap me in light. I do not want fear of war or starvation or bodily mutilation to steal both my pleasure in them and their own birthright. Everything I would like other people to be for me, I want to be for them [13].

Alice Walker speaks of her activism, and says that she does it so that she may enjoy people, and so that they will not disappoint her. She says that it is their birthright to be able to live to their fullest potential, as an attractive, seductive fruit. Later in the essay, she tells us that not to act is to miss experiencing people at their best, and writes that this, “has never appealed to me.” [14]

It is for this reason that I paint Audrey and Diane, two of the women living at Hope House, as well as James [Figure 3], Pierre [Figure 4], Greg, and Shawn [Figure 5], four men living on the streets of Milwaukee and Chicago. The everyday battle with homelessness and the stigma associated with the condition prevents these individuals from growing, in full bloom, and thus, prevents them from enjoying themselves, and others experiencing them at their best.

Throughout my conversations with these six individuals, I listened to their obstacles and to their daily routines. Diane [Figure 6] has congenital heart failure. She had her first heart attack at the age of seventeen. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 and is still battling it. This year, she had open heart and lung surgery just six weeks apart. Her diaphragm and lung were growing together and had to be separated. She also had a collapsed lung, and sleeps with oxygen. Shortly after I started my painting of her, she was taken to the hospital again because she was having trouble breathing. She was denied on her first disability claim to Social Security, and had to go to Hope House because of her medical expenses. She has scars on her front and back, clinical depression, was on OxyContin and morphine for four months, has three grown children in Florida and California, and cannot work forty hours a week because of her disabilities.

Pierre Gene is unsheltered and living on the East Side. One time over the summer, I sat on the sidewalk with him, and we shared a loaf of bread I brought home from my summer job. We both liked the butter because it was “real butter” and it tasted good on the asiago cheese bread. Later, I ran into him outside of Jimmy Johns on Brady Street. Our conversation was much different than our last one, as he was not on the medicine he was on that day during the summer. He told me that the government owes him money and that the police are going to make his sister leave his old apartment and leave the money she owes him there. He told me he wanted his money and his dog back. Over the summer, I had met his sister. When we were finishing the last of our bread, she walked up to us with a bag of clothes for him. She invited him home so he could get cleaned up. He seemed happy to see her, and we were introduced to each other. She seemed caring and very sweet. I have learned that these situations are very complicated, and to not presume to understand the complexities of such relationships. I am aware only of what I observe; Pierre Gene is well liked and is very popular on the East Side. As we sat, first at Jimmy Johns, and then, outside of Subway, he received waves and greetings from nearly everyone who walked past.

I met Greg on an Indian Summer day within a bitterly cold week. He was sitting cross-legged in the grass with a hat open for change. In it, he had some bits of coin and two yellow wild flowers. Greg told and showed me that he lost his toe, and said that the rest of his foot was no good either. He got his last disability check denied because of a drunk driving ticket and thirty days in jail in 1998. He told me he had “no place for a while.” I was drawn to him because I had never seen him around the East Side before. I was curious whether or not he was newly homeless. Liebow discusses the visible homeless (those who are chronically unsheltered), and describes them as tragic caricatures of the homeless population. It is easy to fall into homelessness, and it is a frightening time for those newly homeless. Once one has been living on the streets for so long, it becomes very difficult to work one’s way out. Liebow writes, “A few of the women I met in the shelters or on the street may have been on their way down to join the caricature population. To my knowledge, I never met anyone on the way up from there. This is not to say that some do not recover nor that some will not do so in the future, but the cards are stacked against them.” [15] I showed Greg the photograph I took of him to see if he thought it was acceptable. He said, “I look ornery.” I asked, “Do you want to take one smiling?” He replied, “No, I don’t know how to smile anymore.” A couple of months later, I saw him through the window of the bus, sitting, cross-legged, in the same spot. He was stained with the passage of time on the streets. He looked much more tired.

James and Shawn are both from Chicago. I met James on my frequent travels back and forth from Milwaukee to Chicago, during the time my grandmother was dying. He collects change on Adams Street everyday. At night, he washes and waxes the floors of the building in front of which he sits. James plays basketball at the Boys Club, and has visited Milwaukee for their games. He has heard of the Hope House, from those who have moved to Chicago, and has heard it “helped out a lot of folks.” He is temporarily sleeping in a hotel. We have built a relationship of sorts, and I care about him. The last time I saw him, I was coming back from my grandmother’s funeral. He told me he had been thinking about us and had been wishing her well.

I met Shawn outside of Union Station once when I was waiting for a ride. I do not know much about him besides the fact that he calls James “The Hustler,” and that he stays outside the White Hen Pantry at 101 S. Clinton everyday. He gave me the address so that I could show him his painting when I finished. He said that once he helped some kids with a project on homelessness and that they got an A+ on it. He insisted on keeping all of his things with him so that people could see he was homeless. I offered him some of my microwaveable soups, and he laughed. “Look in here,” he told me. “I’ve got a whole suitcase filled with that stuff! Can’t find anywhere to microwave it!” Indeed, he did.

In discussing the homeless women Liebow met in the shelter, he writes, “These, then—problems around sleeping, fatigue, boredom, killing time, storage, finding and sustaining jobs, health, sex, along with harassment and dozens of unpredictable difficulties encountered on the street—were some of ‘the little murders of everyday life’ that confronted homeless women.” [16] These are just a sample of the problems that all of the individuals I am painting face on a daily basis. I am interested in the way in which these six people exist despite the numerous obstacles they face. The center they find within themselves allows them to navigate the streets and the waters of their existence. I have thought about this center as a psychological, almost meditational field that allows individuals to retain their humanity despite the troubles of not having a home or, in many cases, a family, as being homeless is sometimes a direct result of, and equated with, being family-less. Liebow writes, “For most women, living with relatives or receiving significant financial or other support from them was the last stage in their descent into homelessness.” [17]

The psychological fields, a necessary constant in these six people’s lives, vary from one individual to the next, but seem to have consistent attributes. I envision these places as fields of flowers: both wildflowers and gardens. The environments are surreal and fantastical, containing the character, vitality, and consciousness of the individual within it. In this way, they differ in color, chroma, season, and space. Some spaces are flatter while others are vast.

In the paintings I am making, each individual is placed within their personal psychological field, based on my perception of them and their life as they relayed it to me. I understand the needs of a flower to be, in many ways, similar to the needs of a human being: that of sunshine, water, nutrients, and soil for its roots. There are parallels that can be drawn pertaining to the fragility but surprising strength and endurance of flowers, fighting to survive against weeds, changes in climate, and hostile conditions. The beauty that is produced from the meeting of the most basic of these conditions and the struggle to find a location that will allow them to be met is beyond compare and, upon noticing it one can come to appreciate the truth, humility, honesty, and brilliance in nature.

Each portrait is painted in oil paint using traditional mediums. The physicality of the paint and my response to the panels and canvasses on which they are painted, changes with the affect each individual had on me. In painting James, I have allowed for more opaque areas, more untamed areas, and a vibrant pallette. This is due to his specific beauty and the nomadic garden he seemed to carry with him, airily rooting himself. When painting Diane, I responded to her delicate health and constant battle with her body. She is placed in a transitional period between Winter and Spring, inside and outside. The colors are beautiful but faint, vibrant in some areas and nearly washed away in others. It is a tender place where she dwells, a place that is forever on the edge of health and illness, having a home and being homeless, being homeless but believing otherwise. Curiously, Diane was one of many individuals at the shelter who did not consider herself homeless, but rather, in a transitional period. She, herself, is a lightly constructed lady, a soft pink breathed into her cheeks, and hands that seem malleable. She is nurturing, once insisting that I borrow her sweatshirt after getting caught in a rainstorm. In response to this, I have painted her lightly, using the oil paint in thin layers, similar to watercolor.

This body of work is very much about unity, interconnection, and a universal identity. I understand humankind to be intrinsically bound to one another, sharing the same cosmic origins and evolving, as a species, through the same structural changes undergone by our environment. In The Evolution of Consciousness, Kishore Gandhi writes, “Stars must die before organisms can live. In their deaths they generate the elements that come to compose the sun, its planets, and ourselves. The sun’s metabolism powers our metabolism. The salts of ancient seas run in our blood. We see the universe not from outside but from inside; its history is our history, its stuff our stuff.” [18] Human beings are physically born from and are bound to the universe, to the cosmos, and are inevitably elementally united to one another. In his book, The Life Era: Cosmic Selection and Conscious Evolution, Astrophysicist Eric Chaisson writes, “Innumerable stars have perished to create the matter now composing our world. We ourselves are made of atoms fused in the hearts of stars.” [19]

Swiss psychologist Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious discusses humankind’s ancient connections as being buried in the very deepest realm of our unconscious. He terms this realm, the collective unconscious, as it describes modes of behavior such as common feelings, emotions, and reactions which transcend all human beings, and represent the very foundation of humankind. He labels these modes of behavior “archetypes,” and states that they are, “the accumulated experiences of organic life in general, a million times repeated, and condensed into types. In these archetypes, therefore, all experiences are represented which have happened on this planet since primeval times.” [20] In this way, our cosmic heritage is manifested in our daily behaviors and our everyday lives, existing as a constant reminder of humankind’s interconnection.

The ideologies of cosmic evolution, the collective unconscious, Universalism, and Humanism pervade my work and my relationships with the individuals I have met and continue to meet each day. While each portrait is primarily specific to the individual, each also operates on a secondary iconographic level, in that it speaks to concentric circles, representative of masses of people. Within each individual is a vast number of individuals, so that within one person is all of humankind. Perhaps within the first circle are individuals who are also sheltered, or in another painting, unsheltered. Within the next are those who fall into a similar socio-economic bracket, living in poverty or about to be homeless. “In Chicago, it is estimated (1989) that 50,000 to 100,000 additional tenants are living illegally in 40,000 public housing units.” [21] Each circle becomes broader until the individual is examined as a symbol for all of humanity, and the viewer begins to identify his or herself within that person, therefore eliminating the sense of understanding the individual to be “other” than one’s self. “I am large, I contain multitudes,” writes Walt Whitman [22]. By painting my subjects life size or larger, I am adhering to the specificity of their individuality, yet am creating a two-dimensional image of that person, that has the potential to be viewed as iconic or symbolic of humanity en masse.

One aspect of Humanism is described as a “commitment to individual and social ethics that are based on changing human experience, compassion for other human beings, and concern for the related world of humankind and Earth.” [23] I have been influenced by artists whose work exudes this passion and focus, affirming the dignity of each human being. In particular, this body of work has been greatly affected by the photography of Richard Avedon (1923-2004), who began as a fashion photographer, but grew as a fine artist. He is famous for his traveling exhibit of large-scale prints (three feet and larger), taken in 1979-84 and entitled, In the American West. This later became a best-selling book. In his body of work, Avedon documented the lives of miners, cowboys, drifters, wildcatters, adolescents, and slaughterhouse workers living in the Western United States at that time. The images reveal humankind’s nobility and grit. Avedon states, “Sometimes I think all my pictures are just pictures of me. My concern is . . . the human predicament; only what I consider the human predicament may simply be my own.” [24] The identification of himself within others is apparent in this work, and it is transferred onto the viewer. This is a goal of my present body of work, and of all the figurative work I do.

As a part of life, I have tried to make myself aware of what is being born, what is barely living, what is thriving, and what is dying all around me. On any given day, there is much of this to recognize and absorb. As a student, artist, twenty-two year old, daughter, U.S. citizen, Canadian citizen, friend, and human being, I am influenced by the past, present and future, by politics, culture, philosophy, the arts, human needs, desires and emotions, nature, and the whole of humankind. Above all, I am influenced by the lives of people around me and the history of individual and societal choices that are made every day, and which direct the path of a person’s life.

As a contemporary painter, I believe it is important to be a listener, observer, and participant. I believe that if one encompasses this triad, he or she is in a good position to use art to enhance both one’s own life as well as the lives of others. Though personally, I feel it is important to use the privilege of a visual, universal language in order to give voice to those who are largely unheard by contemporary society, I am adamantly against the notion of the personally expressionistic or cathartic artist as being “selfish,” “isolated,” or somehow frivolous. Rather, I believe that anything that is created is a drop of rain, aiding in the growth of at least one new blade of grass. Post-minimalist painter Richard Tuttle once said, “You’ve made something, when before there was nothing.” [25] The act of creation is a way of enhancing the life of the artist. From this, one can grow, become a better observer, a more concerned human being, and a more enriched person. This growth and learning is transferred into that individual’s relationships and into the community. Whether a piece is viewed as successful or unsuccessful, it is a necessary creation and tool, and, whether used directly or indirectly, can only serve to strengthen society.

I agree with Alice Walker, in that, for me, painting is a way to revel in the creative and intellectual fullness of other human beings. As she has said before me, “I want their precious human radiance to wrap me in light.” [26] I paint to celebrate blossoming human radiance, and strive to make the invisible visible. This body of work is as much a meditation and tribute to life and humanity, as it is a documentation of the lives of six individuals and a call for compassion. I believe that there is truth in one whose belly has been scraped by the sea, yet pushes forward, unceasingly, tattooed by the sands and stones of the deep. Through this recognition of beauty and strength, there is the possibility that others will wish to help men and women reach full bloom, so that, they, themselves, might enjoy and relish the brilliant beauty of humankind a little longer.

Notes


1. Steven Smith, “Wise Navigating Through Change: A Meditative Perspective.” Vipassana Hawai’i. 14 November, 2006, <http://www.vipassanahawaii.org>.

2. Untouchables. The Untouchables: History. 13 November, 2006, <http//www.untouchables.org>.

3. Milwaukee Continuum of Care. “Under the Radar: A Survey of Homeless Adults in Milwaukee.” Homelessness Facts. The Open Gate. January 2004, <http://www.theopengate.org/facts> (accessed October 2006).

4. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (Ann Arbor: Borders Group, 2001.): 44.

5. Joel Blau. The Visible Poor: Homelessness in the United States ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1992): 3.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince ( New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1961): 17-18.

9. Allison Roberts., “The Saatchi Artists: The Female Gaze: Jenny Saville,” Guardian Unlimited Arts. 20 Apr. 2003, <http://www.arts.guardian.co.uk/saatchi> (accessed October 2006).

10. Elliot Liewbow, Tell Them Who I Am ( New York: The Free Press, 1993): 1.

11. The Holy Bible, American Standard Version. New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1901.

12. Ibid.

13. Alice Walker, “In Full Bloom,” The Nation, 20 Sept. 2004, <http://www/thenation.com/docprem.mhml?i=20040920&s=walker> (accessed October 2006).

14. Ibid.

15. Elliot Liewbow, Tell Them Who I Am ( New York: The Free Press, 1993): 2.

16. Ibid: 48.

17. Ibid: 82.

18. Kishore Gandhi, The Evolution of Consciousness (New York: Paragon House, 1983): 5.

19. Eric Chaisson, The Life Era: Cosmic Selection and Conscious Evolution (New York: WW Norton and Company, 1987): 12.

20. Quoted in Walter A. Shelburne, Mythos and Logos in the Thought of Carl Jung: The Theory of the Collective Unconscious in Scientific Perspective (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988): 54.

21. See Liewbow, Tell Them Who I Am: 82.

22. See Whitman, Leaves of Grass: 34.

23. Harvey Lebrun, “Humanism with a Capital H.” American Humanist Association, <http://www.americanhumanist.org/humanism/lebrun.html> (accessed April 20, 2007).

24. “Richard Avedon," <http://www.temple.edu/photo.photographers/avedon/Avedon.html> (accessed November 14, 2006)

25. Chris Maybach, Richard Tuttle: Never Not an Artist. (V) 2005.  

26. See Walker, “In Full Bloom,” The Nation, 20 Sept. 2004, <http://www/thenation.com/docprem.mhml?i=20040920&s=walker> (accessed October 2006).

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*Casey Davidge is a senior at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, graduating in May 2007. [Return]

Edited by Sarah Clark and Alicia Deleon.

 

 

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