Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Friday, September 16, 2016

No More Snake Oil!

In solidarity with the Water Protectors of the Sacred Stone and Red Warrior Camps in North Dakota, who are on the front-lines in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Feel free to copy, print and post. #NoDAPL, #waterislife, #nomoresnakeoil, #lawrencestandswithstandingrock

Thursday, September 8, 2016

From Lawrence, Kansas to Sacred Stone: Standing up for Standing Rock

(This is a recollection of my September 2-5 journey up to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation near Cannon Ball, ND, site of the opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. It is a glimpse into one story. For up to date information about the camp and continuing DAPL opposition, I encourage folks to visit the Camp of Sacred Stones website and facebook page.)

Two thumbs up
Early last week Lawrence and Topeka friends began collecting supplies requested by the Sacred Stone and allied camps in their ongoing effort to protect sacred land and water and stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). By Tuesday, my studio was designated as the drop off spot for supplies. Friends Nicholas and Amber would deliver the supplies as they were already going to Standing Rock to document stories from the struggle that the mainstream media was ignoring or misrepresenting.

On Wednesday, as we loaded sleeping bags, rice, beans, flashlights, toiletries and art supplies into a mini- van parked at the studio, Nicholas looked over at my friend Connie and I, while we we’re working on a new mural design, and asked, “Are you two going?” After a pause to consider the trip, I glanced over to her for a sign. Without hesitation, she gave an emphatic double thumb’s up. Yes, we were going!

Nicholas left the next morning, Connie and I on Friday with our car full of camping gear and everything we could think of to make art in the elements. On our way out of town, we picked up Chloe, a KU student from the Cheyenne River Tribe who was returning to the camp for her second time. Then we drove and drove with me behind the wheel and Connie as DJ.

Arriving at Oceti Sakowin Camp
After a twelve-hour, 750 mile wind blown journey north, the encampment (really a village) appeared as we coasted into the valley where the Cannonball River meets the Missouri. Like an embroidered quilt spread out in front of us framed by sage green hills and blue blue water, it’s shimmering patterns and colors from afar resolved into a mosaic of tents and tepees and flags and fires as we got closer. I’d never seen anything quite like it. The closest I could come for a reference was a giant family reunion combined with the encampment at Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Movement’s beginnings combined with a county fair. But it was much more than even those. There were people representing more than one hundred-fifty Nations, a school for kids, corral for horses, community kitchens, medical tents a radio station and on and on.

Traffic slowed as we got to the entrance decorated with hand painted signs, where we were welcomed with open arms and ushered through a corridor of brightly colored flags from Tribal Nations across the continent. Once through, we found the donation tent and with the help of others unloaded. Everywhere there was a flurry of activity, festive and purposeful. People lifting, cooking, chopping, organizing, playing, conferencing, planning, befriending.

We made camp on the east side (of course) close to the shore of the Cannonball. Soon after we set up our tents, another caravan from Lawrence arrived, with folks from the KU First Nations Student Association and Black Lives Matter- LFK who had driven through the night. Solidarity in action!

Tents up, Nicholas and Amber went off to schedule interviews and start filming. (With little or no cell phone reception, we all had to rely on old school methods of communication – agreed rendezvous and notes). Connie and I started unpacking our outdoor studio. In no time, we were joined by sisters Kaya and Nakita from across the road. Painting and talking. Talking and painting and laughing.  

A community of art makers
In the camp art was all around us, as celebration, heritage, protest, identity and history. In fact, it was so interwoven into everything that it doesn’t feel right to separate art out from the overall spirit and culture of what I experienced. On trucks, teepees and t-shirts, concrete barriers and chip-board; in processions and prayer songs; with friends and strangers and new friends, we fought with our brushes and celebrated with songs; we built solidarity through dance, and memory with poetry. Together. 

People from a hundred nations and a hundred years. Teepees and tents and trailers. Two pelicans and a DAPL helicopter circling above. A leopard frog in the grass by our tent. Fires and flags being blown by the wind. People chopping wood and breaking bread. Horses all around. The amplified voices of new arrivals sharing their stories on the camp radio broadcast. A feeling of something big.

We carried our first completed sign-paintings up to the donation tent only to discover that while we had been working, front-line protectors were being attacked by DAPL private security at the site where bulldozers had destroyed documented sacred sites. Medics were dispatched. Democracy Now! was there. Here is their account. 

To see for ourselves
While still gathering information about what had happened in the confrontation, Connie and I drove north on Rte.1806 to see for ourselves. We wove our way through beautiful rolling hills with glimpses of the river between them, until, around one turn before we could stop or turn back, the road was blocked by Morton County police and the North Dakota Highway Patrol. Fortified with heavy-duty concrete barriers and about ten officers in full military gear, it was not clear what their purpose was. We slowed while a camera mounted on a pole took photos of us and our car. No questions, just a motion to keep going. Getting back was a different story. Nearly everyone was being rerouted thirty miles out of the way, but somehow we squeaked through (Most likely because I’m a white guy in my 40’s and told the officer we’d just been out getting ice cream cones…all true).

The ACLU and Amnesty International called the road-block a civil right’s violation and have demanded that it be removed saying, "The U.S. government is obligated under international law to respect, protect, and fulfill the human rights of Indigenous people, including the rights to freedom of expression and assembly.” "Public assemblies should not be considered as the 'enemy.'”

Later that evening at the campsite, a group of us talked about what we’d experienced, what was needed and what our roles could be. It’s easy for me to get stirred up into the intensity of the moment, lose track of time and not follow through on what I feel like I can offer. Even though I want to be present for the latest news flash and call to action, I know I wouldn’t contribute much if I always left what I was doing to rush off to where something had just happened. 

Nick and Amber went up to reception hill (where there was a limited cell phone signal) to check messages leaving me to the stars above. Later, Connie, who had been over at the other Lawrence camp, reappeared exhausted after an extended and unplanned wander, lost in the camp's maze of improvised roads and blinding headlights. She collapsed on a quilt laid out in front of the tent, reorienting under the cosmic map and joining me in gazing up at tiny lights (spaceships?) weaving through the Milky Way.

The march
The night brought more big winds, brief showers and lightning, and by morning the tent had turned into a giant blueberry pancake (Connie’s description). The tent stakes had vanished, so I improvised and used extra paint brushes pushed into the ground. It worked. (Bertolt Brecht said, “Art is a hammer” or tent stake, I guess, depending on the situation…)

Painting in our outdoor studio continued. Kaya and Nakita were drawn in like magnets, and now other folks including Chloe, the KU First Nations Association president joined us. Some signs were taped to pickup trucks, while Connie and I brought ours to the top of reception hill and tied them to the barbed wire fence facing the road.  

Photo by Connie Fitzpatrick
Photo by Connie Fitzpatrick

At four in the afternoon the majority of folks and horses at the camp made their way north on Rte. 1806. We marched to the site where destruction had been halted and the dogs had been unleashed. Our procession was a half-mile long of raised fists and emboldened spirits. At the site, we crossed the fence and with a blessing entered sacred land. We formed a large circle on the prairie filled with sage and wild flowers. Elders sang. We all prayed.

photo by Dallas Goldtooth
I was nearly overwhelmed by feelings of loss, joy and a sense of purpose all at once. I thought while standing in that circle that this was not only a denunciation of something destructive, it was and is a clarion call to the world, reaffirming the values of interdependence, gratitude, and love, and an acknowledgement of the incredible gift (and responsibility that goes with it) of being able to share the earth with it’s creatures, waters and peoples for a brief moment.

As the waxing crescent moon rose in the south, the northern sky started to flash silently at first and then with a low bass-drum rumble. Our Lawrence friends shared smores by the fire before a sideways rain forced us into our tents.  We awoke to a calm, cool and overcast morning. We got coffee and said goodbyes, packed our tents, and although part of each of our hearts would stay, we loaded our bodies into the car and headed south towards home with the Missouri as our guide.  

My thoughts and prayers are with all of the protectors and defenders who continue on.  

Many thanks to co-campers Connie, Nick and Amber for support, laughs and energy bars...

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Stop the Pipeline!

Here are two posters I made in solidarity with the many nations gathered to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens the public health and welfare of the Standing Rock Reservation.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Tree Ghosts

In East Lawrence where lawns are let to grow, the spirits of long lost trees arise.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The heartbreaking story of the Cowalligator

In the summer of 2001, there was a new fad making its way across the Atlantic. No, not Harry Potter or Emo, this craze was being driven from east to west, from cow town to cow town, bringing artists and pun makers together to populate our cities with a hot new brand of public art. What began in Zurich, Switzerland in 1998, arrived in Chicago and then New York, and finally our cow town was next – The CowParade was coming to Kansas City!

Artists of all stripes were roped in. I struggled to getaway, but it was no use. I was nearly broke. Selected artists would each get $1,000. My resistance weakened. Nevertheless, I felt if I was going to participate, I needed a way to approach decorating a fiberglass cow where I wasn’t completely being taken in like a lemming. So, when I applied, I submitted a design that gently satirized the whole enterprise. I was pretty sure it would be rejected.

My idea was a version of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, except in this case the wolf would be an alligator and the sheep’s clothing would be a cheaply made cow disguise. At the time I was just developing a habit of layering maybe one too many metaphors on top of each other, so with the cow I felt one level of symbolism was not enough. I added the Jonah and the whale story. Jonah was played by an artist (me) who had been lured in by the cowporate CowParade only to be consumed whole (by the alligator in cow disguise) and sentenced to live within the belly of the beast. I called it the Cowalligator.

I even came up with a definition for what I imagined could be a new word.
Cowalligator - noun: A person (animal or entity) who does a poor job of masking their bad intentions.

To my surprise, the design was accepted (along with a number of other Lawrence artists), which meant I actually had to paint the heifer. In a vast warehouse in the West Bottoms of KC, my friend Greg and I picked up the great white bubble wrapped whale-cow, and I imagined that all over the KC metro heads were turning to see stiff white utters and legs emerging from the backs of pick-up trucks and strapped to the tops of station wagons. 

Painting the bovine became a group effort. Lots of passersby stopped by to help, and I even began to enjoy it.  A photo at the time shows the wide range of projects I was working on including a mosaic for a restaurant in Iowa and stencil installation for a show at the Bourgeois Pig. I can't quite recall what the "Frogs for Dave" sign was about.

The freshly painted cows were installed throughout the KC metro in herds. The Cowalligator was part of small herd in Shawnee-Mission Park. Kansas Citians were mad about the CowParade, and it turned out, a few got really mad at the cow parade. Some artists protested that it wasn’t art. The Municipal Arts Commission of Kansas City even voted to kill the entire exhibition, but the city went forward with it.

It was fun to go cow exploring (maybe a little like the current Pokémon Go mania). I went with friends to the park, and to see other cows on the Plaza and downtown. One hot summer day, I took an old friend to check out the Cowalligator only to discover was gone. Lost. Vanished. The concrete base and small plaque were all that was left. We looked around. The rest of the herd was there. The Cowalligator was the only one missing.

Was it theft? A few had been stolen in other cities. Had it been vandalized? This was more common, and damaged cows were removed for repairs. I called the CowParade home office to report a runaway. “Mr. Loewenstein, we thought you knew. Your cow is fine. It’s at Sandstone tonight….for the Tom Petty concert.” They went on, “We’re getting the band to sign your cow. Other cows are being signed by pop stars, pro-athletes and celebrities, you know, to help increase their value for the upcoming auction. She’ll be returned to the park next week.”

I mean, I guess if the Cowalligator was going to be abducted for a celebrity, it couldn’t have been better one. But I wondered if there was a reason Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were signing mine and not someone else’s. Did they choose it? Was there something about the wolf in sheep’s clothing theme? Maybe it was the alligator, since Petty is from Florida. Those mysteries remain unsolved, but the most important question was answered – did they really autograph it?

A couple of weeks before the big auction, I went back to the park to investigate. As promised, there she was up on the hill, and as I got closer I could tell there were...signatures! Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell on the forehead, the other bandmates on the utters. 

That was the last I ever saw of her. Later that October, the Cowalligator was auctioned off, although to who I never discovered.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Construtores de Pontes dos Sonhos - Builders of Dream Bridges

Água Branca. It sounds like a New Mexico spa or a white water rafting outfitter along the Colorado River, but here in São Paulo it’s a comunidade hidden behind a trucking company and packed in between the Marginal Highway and the polluted Rio Teite. It’s a community of 3,000 people you wouldn’t run into unless you were looking for it. And, it was the site of my final project in Brazil this spring. I was invited by Parede Viva and the Revivarte project to add to the series of murals they had been making with local residents. On my first day, I was escorted in a U.S. Consulate SUV across a tiny portion of this city of nearly 20 million. The graffiti artist, and my counterpart/interpreter, Kaleb met me there. 

After brief introductions, a group of us, Fel, Kaleb, Joyce from the Consulate and Ana who runs a neighborhood salon, took a walk around. As we wove our way down narrow alleys and in between buildings in different states of construction, Ana told us about neighborhood struggles (gentrification, drugs, poverty) and triumphs (Revivarte, a new playground, improved housing). All around us there was wildly inventive painting on walls, vehicles, trashcans and light poles.

We walked along the edge of the comunidade, bordered by a narrow creek lined with banana trees and shacks perched perilously over the water. At one end there was a small bridge (ponte) over the creek.  It led to the heavily gated backside of a big box store like Home Depot, but clearly wasn’t accessible to Água Branca folks. 

The site for our mural was at the main intersection entering the comunidade on the brightly colored walls of their pre-school. Just inside, giant angry paper mache mosquitos hung from the rafters. They were warnings about Dengue, much more prevalent there than Zika. Next door was a scrap yard where catadores brought their carts (carocas) full of gleaned metal, plastic and wood to sell for a few reales.  Parede Viva artist Mundano has been leading a project called “Pimp my Caroca” that supports these and other São Paulo catadores by painting their carts and helping to share their stories.

Pontes (bridges)
The next day Kaleb picked me up. Negotiating morning traffic, he thought out loud saying that we (artists) act as a kind of bridge when we come to work with comunidades like Água Branca. I wondered, if we bridges flow in both directions or just one. And what do we span? From where to what? Is there a toll? And what’s underneath?

In a small casita at the back of the school we gathered for the first time. Our team was made up from local kids who joined us after school (they only go half-days), Kaleb, plus two teachers Ana Carla and Ana Karla. There was a good mix of girls and boys and a range of ages from about 7 to 17. We went around and introduced ourselves (with Kaleb’s animated translation) and said our favorite color. I wrote them down and asked which of these colors should we use in the mural? “All of them!” they demanded. I agreed.

I had planned on showing some images of my murals but we couldn’t get the projector to work, so instead I asked the team about that tiny bridge down the street. What does it connect to? Who uses it? What goes under? They wanted to show me, so we walked over, and immediately the kids started playing on under and atop the bridge. One pirouetted along its spine like a gymnast, others nestled inside its rounded openings becoming new pillars holding it up. We looked at the creek in both directions, first towards the comunidade (relatively clean and healthy) and then the opposite direction past the scrap yard toward the highway (trashed). I asked if there were animals or fish. “Sim, sim” even turtles they say. And looking up we saw in the distance a lone white egret perched motionless in the water awaiting a meal.

It was just a brief adventure, but it completely changed the vibe. By shifting our perspective, by asking a few basic questions, questions that because they were asked implied that they were worth answering, we started to see that bridge in a new way - from overlooked and common to a unique and identifying characteristic of the comunidade. Bridges (or the lack of them) both literal and symbolic were ever present. There are many essential places you simply cannot get to without a car. And the bridge out of poverty is still more of a dream than reality for many in Água Branca.

For a few years now, a quote from James Baldwin’s essay “The Creative Process,” has followed me around. “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” And it occurred to me again here in Água Branca, if the bridge was an answer, what were the questions?

Back in our casita studio I proposed, if you could build a bridge, what would it connect? Who would it be for? What would it look like? They charged ahead, drawing in teams of two, first pencil and then color. We took a break for almoco (lunch) of little empanadas and soda. After, we presented our bridge (ponte) designs to each other.

(In the news, a vote was imminent in the House on whether they would proceed with an impeachment trial of the President. My new friends were wary. They feared that many people did not understand the implications and motivations behind this push. Like in Kansas where so many vote against their own self-interest out of fear and ideological pressure.)

These short projects mean that we only have a day or so of drawing before a design needs to be composed – that was my homework for when I got back to the hotel.

Our mural design is of a vision in the making. We see the hands of artists creating it. In the center, the Água Branca bridge is reinforced by the kids who sit within it, while their aspirations occupy the space above. Flowing underneath is a mixed message – the creek is populated by turtles, fish and…trash. The adjoining wall is a blueprint for the future, composed of all of their bridges interconnected, allowing everyone access across the city.

The next day we made quick work of squaring –up the design with a chalk snapline (the simple builder’s tool was a revelation to many). And then it was time to paint, but we had to wait… for the Consul General, Ricardo Zuniga. Following protocol, he would be the first to paint. We had met earlier in the week when I was invited to join his family at a new exhibition of Tim Burton drawings.  At the show, me and the Consul General, who had a major hand in opening relations with Cuba recently, discussed our favorite Burton films and agreed Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice were the best, while the recent remakes of Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were overblown disappointments. 

Painting went quickly. The early fall weather cooperated, storming dramatically at night. People on the street parked their chairs on the sidewalk to watch the progress. My Portuguese was still terrible, but I knew the important colors – vermelho, laranja, azul and a few directional words like up, down, more and less. The rest was communicated by example and culturally appropriate hand gestures (I learned they weren’t all the same as in the U.S.)

The Consul General and mural team in action.

The day before we finished, the media giant Globo TV (the same Globo that had been fanning the flames of impeachment) came to do a feature about our project. We were prepared. We had talked about how to share our story. It aired the next day. We watched and cheered when the deep voiced news anchor intoned Água Branca with a gravitas rarely heard, and then, just like that, it was time to say goodbye.

"Construtores de Pontes dos Sonhos - Builders of Dream Bridges"
We finished the last details, and then I quickly washed the brushes before our dedication ceremony. To each of the painters, I handed one and said, “This is a symbol of our work, but it still has life in it. You can choose to use it by yourself and do a little, or you can work with your friends and do a lot.”

"Construtores de Pontes dos Sonhos - Builders of Dream Bridges"

After cake and sodas and many cheers of Parabens!, we jumped into a VW van and headed to the movies to see Superman vs. Batman. It was dubbed in Portuguese - probably all the better for me. During the movie, the design team was rambunctious and excited, waving their paint brushes in the air at the climax of each battle between superheroes.

A few weeks after getting back to Kansas, I received a fantastic surprise in my email. The crew from Água Branca, along with Kaleb, had muralized the bridge - a small but significant gesture, completing an idea and reinforcing the notion that art is not disconnected from life. 

(And since my return, President Rousseff has been relieved of her position while the congress proceeds with an impeachment trial. The interim president, Temer, quickly reformed his cabinet to include only white men and shut down the Ministry of Culture, which was only reinstated after massive protests.)

I am grateful to all of the folks from Água Branca who welcomed me and gave their time for our project. Also, muito obrigado to the Meridian International Center, the U.S. Consulate in São Paulo, Parede Viva, Revivarte, filmmaker Adriano Choque and my friend Kaleb.