Holiday card 2015

This card design came out of a Holiday Print workshop I taught at the HPAC. I got the idea from a birthday card my brother-in-law sent my wife for her birthday. Its part of a series called Zoo Portraits by Yago Partal, European-Badger-Meles-meles-copiaand featured a badger in a sweater and suspenders (jumper and braces actually, but I thought writing that would present a different mental image to us American English speakers). Animals in sweaters are adorable. Period.

Four different sweaters, Four different animal heads, a blank area to customize and some glitter glue and stamps for added decoration resulted in an explosion of cute variations. Looking at the table spread out with everyone’s different but similar cards, it was like  a holiday work party at the zoo complete with an ice breaker activity of walking around IMG_20151205_131620with a placard and trying to find a mate. My sister Lisa was at this workshop and at the beginning she said to me ‘You like to use animals’. ‘Yeah, because everyone can see themselves in them’, I replied. I wanted to have a card that people could customize in their own way but also give to anyone who would identify with it. We had a Hanukkah sweater, a Christmas sweater with trees and reindeer, a winter sweater in the Pan-African colors for Kwanzaa, and a Star Wars themed sweater for the rest of us. There were stamps of different hats and people made their own for the placard area, candles, coffee cups, hearts, the word Joy. We all got to make cards to give out that were handmade and personal, fun and meaningful, a good expression of what we call the holiday spirit, a communal act of giving and celebration. IMG_20151205_131609

For my own cards, I thought a lot about what message I wanted to say. It’s presidential campaign season so everything in the news is really polarized, whipping up our fears so that we throw our votes and money behind a candidate. Meanwhile, the Chicago political machine is (rightly) under fire for corruption, for police shootings, for cover-ups and purposefully withholding public information.  I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, the most segregated city in the US, and the damage of that systematic discrimination is undeniable. It has become clear that the people of Chicago do not care about Black people. I’m speaking generally of course, but its definitely not a priority because we keep electing aldermen and mayors and judges who keep this system going.

There is always a lot of talk about the Constitution during an election year and how it should be interpreted and preserved and which parts matter more and which parts matter less. The part that has always stuck in my brain most was the 3/5 compromise, or the agreement to count slaves of African descent as 3/5 of a person when determining population since they held no rights as a citizen and could not vote or exercise any self determination. Until the 14th Amendment, added almost 80 years later, this was the law. I owe a lot to the 14th amendment. Invoking this amendment in Obergefell v. Hodges is what paved the way to my marriage being recognized everywhere. The 14th amendment came at a great cost. 80 years of a significant population of our nation, a population that worked their entire lives in servitude, bore generations into servitude, legally being counted as less than a whole person. It took a bloody, bloody war that cost many lives and devastated cities and communities to get this changed and it was still a fight. It was a fight for another 90-ish years to get segregation to not be protected by law.

So this year, the cards my cute, wintry animals carried read Black Lives Matter. Not because Black people matter more than anyone else but because it is important to finally stand in solidarity and make it clear that Black lives matter equally.

 

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Spreading the Mandala Love

 

It has been a long year of reflection and working out the details of living with my wife Megan (Yay!!!). Time to get back on track and update the continuing work of Intention Generator. IMG_0648

I had the pleasure of designing an art activity for the monthly Second Sunday at the Hyde IMG_0647Park Art Center in January. Generally, you are encouraged to do something simple and easy to manage and clean up. My workshop was making Sand Mandalas. The basics were simple, brush or draw out some glue, cover with colored sand, carefully put sand back into it’s own container to not contaminate the colors, and enjoy your beautiful design. IMG_0644The fact that most of the participants were children made the resulting work and relatively easy clean up  a pleasant surprise. Perhaps there is a kind of magic to mandala work…..

Using sand made it easier to encourage the kids (and parents) to work from the center out and give some thought to the colors before they started. The word mandala is sanskrit for circle and can mean both the shape and the concept of a whole and complete system. Most cultures use mandala, or circular designs, in artwork, spiritual and healing rituals, and community layouts. It is a mirror of a natural layout. Flowers, atoms, our solar system, galaxy, our universal understanding of where we exist in space all follow a circular pattern.

IMG_0651The American cultural view doesn’t place much emphasis on a circular view, seeing how you fit into a community, support and are supported by others. We are linear minded, with lens of constant progression. How do I build more, expand more, make more, feeling that moving up is the only valid way. But there are so many of us that make up the base for the few to reach really high success that doing a practice where you a paying close attention to how the full system complements and completes each individual part is really valuable. Not to mention that its just pretty cool too. Who doesn’t love delicately arranged patterns? And bright pink sand?!!? It really doesn’t get any better.

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Exodus

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All the projects on this blog so far have been well thought out and try to tie up so many influences that it seems like cheating to do this one. Ever since I’ve started working at Kaufman’s Deli and Bakery, I’ve wanted to print on butcher paper, handing out artwork wrapped around meat and fish. It is just a perfect fit for the method I have for putting my work out into the world. So simple and elegant, it’s taken me years to find an image that would match. I finally settled on portraying The Exodus, the biblical story of Moses leading the Jews out of enslavement in Egypt and into the Promised Land. IMG_0481

The events leading up to Passover are pretty gruesome. Plagues involving infestation, famine, rivers of blood, and a wrathful God who kills children to make a point. This year, Passover closely coincides with Easter, the Spring celebration of my upbringing, which also involves a lot of gruesome imagery. 40 days of fasting and temptation in the desert followed by an arrest, a torturous walk to crucifixion, and after 3 days, if you dared not believe in miracles, the challenge to poke your finger into the still existing wounds. All this graphic suffering just to get to the salvation, the delivery, the escape from enslavement, the survival of a cold and hungry season.

If you have come into the deli on Friday, April 3rd, you might have gotten this wrapped around your sandwich, lox, or pastrami (it water based ink, non-toxic, and on the non- food service side). Not everyone is familiar with the biblical story but we all have at least a seed of desire to lead or be lead to a Promised Land, whether it’s to escape the unsatisfying job we have or to overcome societal inequality. Here’s to hoping your struggles end soon.

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“Open your eyes and look within, Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?” Bob Marley

Motivation

Just in time for Valentine’s Day! Not really, not at all in fact. This card has roots so long they work their way off the page.

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I have the incredible fortune to work at the Hyde Park Art Center, which allows me to chit chat with a large array of people who all appreciate creative expression in some form. Even Leonard, the guy who comes in and hangs out when its cold, reading the paper and napping in our Library, who has never taken an art class, stops and talks to me about the new exhibits and how my changing the light bulbs is an essential part of the experience. One of the many benefits is that I get to take a class each term. Usually it is the Screenprinting class but this past term I took a new class called Practice Makes…. where they highlight one of their teaching artists for a short class, focusing on their method and practice style. The teaching artist this time was Lee Blalock

I could gush about Lee, but since I find it very difficult to explain what she does, I fear it would be too confusing. It involves mad amounts of exploration and bits about feeling alien, and creating cyborg parts out of bondo and skin from Xerox copies and gel medium. all I can say is that I saw her teach kids during the summer camp and I was so impressed with what they did in a week and how she taught them, that I signed up for the class.

After her initial talk and studio visit, we all sat down and took 15 minutes to brainstorm about our practice and work. This really bothered me. I found it very difficult to really look at myself in this way, to look at my practice of art making with some playful space. I am not a technical printer, nor am I meticulous or exacting but to think about something other than the efficient steps from idea to finished print is alien to me. I drew out two columns on a sheet of paper, tried to fill them, made fun of myself, wrote down some snarky comment and when it came time to talk, confessed that I don’t really know how to brainstorm. I’m a problem solver. Is there a problem? Yes? What are the potential solutions? Let’s pick the easiest, best, and most efficient of them and do it. Problem solved. ish.

So my task was to not do anything. Don’t produce anything, don’t make anything, just play. (the existence of this blog and this specific card is testament to how I just cannot follow rules) I practiced brainstorming, taking time to consciously follow thought streams, to notice connections my mind made and following them. IMG_0462I even drew out a big map of them. I made some funny doodles of others instead of writing down the words.

Now, I have spent years in meditation practicing NOT TO DO THIS VERY THING. Do not follow your thoughts, do not string them together, do not assign significance, do not take a break to write anything down or make a doodle! This was a practice separate from meditation and contemplation, which allows for it’s own arising of insight. This was a practice to do what I was not supposed to do. Sit and kind of waste time doing nothing, not solving anything, not fixing or finishing or starting anything. Let myself be frivolous with this precious, precious life we have. In the Third week of class, I was in Phoenix, AZ, waiting for a plane back to Chicago, sitting and doing this frivolous practice, thinking about my visit with family, both born with and chosen. I decided to get my boots shined, an activity I always think about but never do. After waiting for a turn, I strike up a conversation because it’s weird to have someone clean and polish your shoes without talking to them. The shoeshine guy, as it happens, was a lawyer in Ethiopia with a good life, a home, a career. His wife and kids had come to the US in search of a better life and he had waited the better part of year to join them only to now have a job shining shoes in Sky Harbor Airport. What a trade off so that your children have a shot at an education that is more valued in the world, for them to have more doors to open, but for them to lose a part of their Ethiopian culture to accommodate their new American/Ethiopian culture.

A shoe shine lasts maybe 5 minutes. In this short time, this man had gotten to the pith of one of his struggles and conveyed it to me. And in this new age of transience and technology and viewing the world on a screen which was captured through a lens and transmitted through nothing, a lot of emphasis is placed on genuine connection and interaction. But what of these small interactions? I introduced myself and he told me his name but I don’t remember it. Chances are that I will never meet him again, we’ll never be able to catch up, I’ll never tell him how much our interaction had an impact on me. We meet so many people that we can’t possibly maintain a relationship with everyone but does that mean our momentary relationships are meaningless? Or less than the relationships that we hold for years and years?

It is with this mind that I returned to Chicago, read an amazing Facebook post from a friend that perfectly encapsulates the thrill and open hearted-ness that comes with fresh love, caught up on Skype with Megan, and dropped in on the Thursday night Screenprinting class. When I wrote down this bullet pointed stream (I had moved on from the mapping and the doodles to bullet points), I saw this image of a heart, with all it’s ties and tendrils, exposed and vulnerable. IMG_0474I made a mock up of this card that night and decided to make a set of cards and give them out to people, to foster these brief interactions and practice communicating authentically in every meeting, no matter how small. I also decided that it wasn’t fair for me to be so stingy with this project. What if a stranger who receives one of these cards wants to find out what it’s about, or who I am, or leave an opinion of it? Instead of giving out these cards in anonymity, I should be fair and leave myself open to being contacted, to risk receiving their praise, condemnation, or indifference.

There is risk in being available to others and I had formed a method, a practice in my life that minimized this risk and prioritized efficiency and a safe emotional distance. Is connection and vulnerability and openness only to be meted out to the select few who are close to me? It would appear that was my method, my modus operandi. It would also appear that this Practice Makes….. class has given me a new practice, an exercise to atrophy the protective muscles. Practice makes Michelle more accessible. We’ll see, right?

I’ll be giving out these cards as a practice in the next few months. If you have gotten one, it is because I have felt some connection with you, however brief or long standing, that has pulled away this protection and laid my heart bare.

Everyone Loves the Sunshine

As the project stands, I’m thinking that I’ll print 50 cards of a simple image, with a simple message that will inevitably be layered with meaning. I’ll give these cards out that will have this blog address and a short note like ‘wondering why you got this and what it means?’. Huh?!? you say? Alright, I’ll use my recent holiday card as an example.

Why Did You Get It?

If you received this card from me, it is because you are either a member of my large extended family, a co-worker, a neighbor, or a long time friend. If you’ve sent me a card or gift, then you’ve received one of these cards, etc. etc. I started sending out my own Christmas cards in high school (with Bible quotes and everything!) and except for a few college and post college years have continued to do so. Honestly, it just seemed like a nice thing to do and now its so rare to get anything in the mail that I like to think it’s a bit of a surprise gift.

What Does It Mean?

Most of the people who got this card were either Americans or people living in the US. The climate here has become increasingly polarized in the past few years, especially around racial dynamics. The US is still largely segregated, not only physically but economically, and educationally. This reality, this legacy of our society being built on the backs of slaves and indentured servants and poor immigrants erupted in a big way last August with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. And while there were conflicting eye witness accounts about what happened it became undeniable that more American citizens are killed by police officers per year, by far, than in any other ‘first-world’ country. What is also undeniable is that a disproportionate percentage, by far, of the Americans in these cases are African-American men.

There has been a lot of anger and violence and judgement but what i mostly saw was pain and sadness and overwhelming hopelessness. I am a White person who lives in an African-American part of one of the most racially divided cities in the US, Chicago. When I get pulled over because I’m driving out of my alley at night and I’m White (suburban people coming to the city to buy drugs is a big issue), I get a lecture about how I need to move, how I shouldn’t be living with ‘these people’, how I need to get a gun for protection. Honestly, I don’t trust that these same officers treat my Black neighbors with respect or that the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ view applies. On the other hand, I have two cousins who are police officers, and friends who are police officers and they are good people who put their lives in danger all the time. They spend a good deal of their workday on the defensive, ready in case trouble erupts. The biggest danger in my job is burning myself because I’m going too fast and not being mindful. I can’t imagine the pressure.

It was with all this in mind that I sat down to think about how to address this in a card. I had been watching a lot of the series Cosmos and was reminded of the fact that each one of us is made up of atoms and trillions of living organisms and space, mostly empty space between the atoms and the bacteria (I’m simplifying, I know). We exchange atoms. When you take the bus, you exchange part of yourself with the other people who are on the bus. Or at work, or in the line at the cafe as you wait to get coffee. Something that was part of ‘you’ becomes part of someone else and vice versa. Despite this commonality, the fact that we are collections of bits of exploded stars that fluidly transfer back and forth like we are all part of one giant organism, we appear and act so differently. Nobody is going to mistake me for my six year old neighbor.

Most of our life is spent focusing on the differences but there are a few times when we really all come together. That first warm day after a long Chicago winter, when everyone goes outside and you see your neighbors and everyone is listening to music and happy, we are all the same. As I was thinking this, the Roy Ayers song ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine‘ popped into my head. It is such a good summer tune, a soul classic and it starts out with the line ‘my life, my life, my life, my life, in the sunshine.’ It just spoke so much to my belief that our fear separates us, but when we all leave the house and step into the sunshine, hope returns.

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If you have gotten this card from me, please feel free to leave a comment. And yes, I realize I got the words wrong. What can I say? The screen was already made.

The Raccoons

family firstI had spent a little over a year working maintenance between a Buddhist Abbey and a retreat center in Nova Scotia, Canada, and when I returned to my home in Chicago it felt like my neighborhood had sunk even further into economic decay. There were many more vacant lots and houses, many of my neighbors either still unemployed or barely working. At the time, I was overwhelmed with trying to get back in the swing of society, go back to my old jobs, somehow get my new wife who is a UK citizen into the country (we’re still working on that….). What can you do when you are an introvert with no energy, time, or charisma to organize a block club or community garden? Being a printmaker, I made a poster. It was a simple desire to attract positive energy to the neighborhood. The print, with the raccoon and amended Walt Whitman quote was the beginning. I put these posters on abandoned houses, garages, light poles, closed storefronts etc. Why raccoons? Because we have a gang of huge, hearty, bold raccoons that own their part of the streets and houses same as me and my neighbors. They are thriving in what is considered a dying, if not dead, part of Chicago. learn one, teach oneI felt that there was a lesson to be learned from them, a way to see the richness of our surroundings instead of just the trash. The result however,  was to cause my neighbors to think the city had put them up as a warning, that the raccoons had taken over. Clearly, the project had to change, to be clearer, and communicated better. I decided to make them big, and talk to everyone I came across about them. The larger raccoons are 5 feet high, big enough to not be misunderstood as a poster, and the slogans in the speech bubbles are given to me by people I meet in the street and tell about the project.

Not everyone reads it as positive, many think it’s a blight on an existing eyesore, insult to injury. Not everyone understands why I do it, even when I tell them directly. Some people think it’s cool. One friend told me point blank, ‘I didn’t know you had this in you’. I had to give up my assumptions of what another person was thinking about my work. It was clear that I really had no idea how it was being seen by others. I cannot control what people think or see or understand. All I can control is my intention and I intend to generate positive energy, to cultivate a peaceful and respectful co-existence with all things.

What started with a poster has blossomed into a project about miscommunication, misunderstanding, our interconnectedness, and what simple gestures we can do that fit into our everyday lives. This blog is set up for this new project. Each year, for the past 15 years or so, I have made a card and sent it out to about 80 family and friends. Essentially they are holiday cards, without a specific holiday in mind but usually sent out around Christmas. This year, I had 20 extra cards and decided to give them out to strangers, along with a dollar or two to someone asking for money or as part of a tip. Instead of dropping them in the mail, I handed them to a stranger, told them that I made a card for them, and witnessed a free exchange of a gift and their acceptance of it. That will be the project, making cards, handing them to people (sometimes sending them) and inviting them to visit this website to leave comments, ask questions, or just find out why. I invite you to leave your comments and ask your questions too.

I can’t wait to see what happens.