Tell Me What You See

A Word of Thanks for Art and Design in a World Still Burdened by Racism

I suppose it’s fitting that within the same week that I caught up with the Cliven Bundy story, I also got around to watching "12 Years a Slave." I can’t say that I was particularly interested in seeing the film even if it did win three Academy awards. Given that my ancestors—my own flesh and blood—experienced the kind of torture and degradation that have been brought to the big screen in such painful detail, I knew it was going to be a challenge to sit through. The idea that I am genealogically connected to people who were kidnapped and forced into servitude for centuries isn’t difficult to understand in an abstract sense. But trying to fully comprehend their lives and existence as real people who suffered is another matter. Yet somehow, as evidenced by virtue of my presence in this world, they managed to survive in body if not fully in spirit.

That anyone anywhere in the world could ever romanticize slavery, consequently, should give us all pause. However innocuous “picking cotton” might sound to some, the words belie the laundry list of horrors slaves endured at the hands of their fellow human beings, to say nothing of the parade of injustices and atrocities—including Jim Crow laws and community-sanctioned lynching—that have followed.

When the Donald Sterling / L.A. Clippers scandal hit the 24-hour news cycle right on the heels of the Bundy story, I could only roll my eyes and be reminded of Don Imus’ infamous “nappy-headed hos” comment several years ago in reference to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. But whether we’re talking about athletes or the First Family, whether we are referencing overt acts of racism or systemic forms of discrimination that are embedded in our culture and institutions, the sickness is the same. We cannot seem to free ourselves of our attachment to the value we place on skin color. We cannot seem to grasp the damage that is done when we perpetuate the idea that pigmentation is some sort of defect to be overcome, or a peculiarity to be exoticized. We can’t seem to grasp the reality that outside appearance is no reflection of intelligence or ability, and that those who look a certain way are not inherently better members of society than others.

Thank God, then, for art and design. Without them, we would be utterly lost. No, art is not rocket science. Design is not brain surgery. Our ability to create, however, is part of what makes us human. As easy as it is to dismiss the arts when it comes to practical matters, they teach us to appreciate what is in front of us, even if we have cause to question our understanding. As I’ve argued numerous times prior, art and design connect us in ways that help us overcome our limitations and remember our common humanity. The spectrum of what is beautiful and worthy is infinite, and looking to find fault or criticizing what we don’t “get” shows a supreme lack of imagination.

To quote Macy Gray:

So baby, in between
Notice the blue skies
Notice the butterflies
Notice me
Stop and smell the flowers
And lose it In sweet music
And dance with me
'Cause there is beauty in the world
So much beauty in the world
Always beauty in the world
There is beauty in the world

Over the course of the last two years, I’ve had the privilege of writing about this topic as well as all of the others that collide with the kind of work I do for a living. Much of what I have put in my posts has, selfishly, been for me, but I can't even say how much I’ve appreciated the number of people who have either commented on my posts or expressed their support in person. (It’s been humbling to say the least.) So, as I sit here writing my last blog entry, I’m extremely grateful to have had the opportunity. Many thanks to Duane, Liz, Tim and the Goshen Commons staff for all of the hard work they’ve put into creating this kind of community forum. And, lastly, a special shout-out goes to my former student and design baby Emma Brooks for the wonderful graphics she created for this site!

It’s been a pleasure.

Friends Circle Round, With Eggs as Canvases

About once a month, I get together with five other women to talk about and share examples of creative work we’re currently involved in—from writing and designing to painting, drawing and enameling, we represent a range of abilities and interests. But sometimes, rather than checking in on projects we’ve started or completed, we just make art. And we're fortunate enough to have the kind of rapport with one another that makes trying new things easy. So this past Saturday, in time for Easter, we gathered around a table to decorate eggs in the Ukrainian Pysanka tradition. I’m usually focused on achieving a certain level of perfection when it comes to my design work; it can be difficult, consequently, to embrace the improvisational and imperfect nature of relying on my own two hands without the aid of technology. All the more reason to do it, of course, but it’s a humbling experience knowing that the process is often more important than whatever the final piece looks like.

As I sat and worked with the others, enjoying the easy flow of conversation while studiously focused on my egg, I appreciated having to step outside of my comfort zone and accept my lack of experience (and control) using a kistka stylus to draw wax designs on an egg. I can't claim that I'm particularly good at it—I'm not—but the challenge is what makes it fun. And not having the benefit of undo/copy/paste options is a valuable lesson in turning the inevitability of human error into “happy accidents.” This Easter, I'm particularly thankful for the preservation of rich cultural traditions that make holidays such as this one truly meaningful.

(Special thanks to Sarah Kingsley-Metzler for organizing this particular get-together, and walking us through the process step-by-step.)

A Graphic Campaign That Uses 'Superpowers for Good'

One week ago Saturday, I was fortunate enough to catch a presentation by a group known as the Beehive Design Collective. Their brief stop in Elkhart was one of many throughout the country to talk about “Mesoamérica Resiste,” a large-scale graphic campaign that addresses “globalization in the Americas, focusing on resistance to mega-infrastructure projects that are literally paving the way for free trade agreements that devastate local economies and communities.”

Meaningfully summarizing what the "Bees" do is difficult given the breadth and number of projects they take on. In a nutshell, however, they are collaborative storytellers, generating copyright-free graphics—drawn in black and white and devoid of human representation—that serve as rich, visual narratives and educational resources. The graphics, printed on fabric for display, are impressive in terms of their scale. However, the dimensions are nothing compared with the sheer complexity and detail of the imagery. Several days after seeing it up close, I’m still trying to get my brain wrapped around the stylistic and compositional nuances embedded in “Mesoamérica Resiste," though I can certainly appreciate the 10 years that went into completing the work. (With layer upon layer of symbolism, the end result is the kind of illustration that you could probably spend another 10 years deciphering.) Pretty amazing stuff.

As mesmerized as I am about the work of the Beehive Design Collective and all of the great things they are doing, I keep coming back to the question of what impact (if any) the experience of hearing about this project will have on the way others and I think and act. While the activist part of me wants to use this inspiration as motivation to pursue new and wonderful artistic endeavors, the reality of teaching, writing, working and the deluge of never-ending deadlines tempers my enthusiasm. Yet, I keep asking myself, “What is stopping me? What is preventing me from practicing what I preach and finding ways to use my superpowers for good?”

I can certainly argue that teaching exempts me from any additional obligations related to helping humankind; I’m already doing my small part to try and make the world a better place, right? Unfortunately, rationalizing the merits of non-participation does nothing to stop the flow of nagging questions and counterarguments.

And so, for the last week, I’ve been fantasizing about temporarily moving to Machias, Maine, where the collective is based, to spend some quality time absorbed in pen-and-ink drawings. I can’t realistically swing that kind of trip, at least not within the next few months. But if Machias is off the table for the time being, what options are still within reach? Well, if the goal is to help bring stories to the surface in the form of a collaborative, highly stylized, culturally appropriate, location specific visuals, which would serve as both a historical record and a challenge to future residents, the Maple City might provide plenty of material to work with. From its history as a link to the Underground Railroad up to the current revitalization efforts taking place in Goshen, the potential for narrative development connecting us with our environment is limitless. I’m imagining local residents and business owners, artists, historians, biologists, musicians, farmers, politicians, city planners, teachers, lawyers, students, healthcare providers—everyone, basically—united by a visual story that speaks beautifully, but also truthfully, about the complex ecosystems and relationships that make us who we are as a community.

Imagine, too, if the aforementioned composition that resulted from a cross-disciplinary collaboration was copyright free? Perhaps, then, this grand visual narrative would genuinely belong to all of us. The imagery would be ours to re-envision, remake, reinterpret, share, and could, most importantly, take on a life of its own. We don’t often talk about art or design in such a way -- that is, as something that should be passed on to others so that they can do whatever they want with it. (How many of us are willing to surrender control over what we create?) Yes, I’m appealing yet again to the better angels of our collective nature by suggesting such a thing. Still, the thought is a refreshing one.

Acknowledging a Debt to Mrs. Sanders, Decades Later

My creative writing books, 1983-84

Mrs. Sanders, my second-grade teacher at University Elementary School in Bloomington, Ind., was one of my all-time favorites. Memories of being in her class have faded, of course, but I still have the creative writing books from that year in school, which now serve as physical and symbolic reminders of what I learned as a 7-year-old. Mrs. Sanders gave specific assignments but I remember how enthusiastic I was about having a notebook dedicated to writing. Before long, I had run out of pages in the first book and had moved on to a second one.

Mrs. Sanders gave me an invaluable gift by teaching me to enjoy writing before I had the chance to dislike it once and for all. There’s no doubt that I frequently find it to be a grueling mental exercise, but my belief in my ability to write has rarely, if ever, wavered. There aren’t many other areas in my life that I am similarly confident about. Nor do I consider myself to be a great writer; not having pursued it as a career, I lack the education, frame of reference, repertoire and discipline that professional writers possess. My point is simply that I was encouraged to write, discovered as a second-grader that it could be “fun” and, consequently, saw it as part and parcel of all creative endeavors. The positive associations I have with writing were instilled in me early on by a beloved teacher.

If I Became President

Many essays, reports, press releases, research papers, journals, artist statements, contracts, written evaluations, abstracts, recommendation letters—and yes, blog posts—later, I’m thankful that my introduction to writing was a positive one, that it was presented as not only something useful but as a creative and expressive form of communication.

Though it can be difficult to categorize, design is also an expressive form of communication. In this day and age, technology provides access to the tools necessary for executing ideas, making the very title “designer” pretty loosely defined. As a result, establishing and demonstrating the true value of design becomes an uphill battle. The democratization of design is generally a positive development, however, elevating the work of creatives as prestigious and deserving of respect becomes simultaneously harder.

It has become clearer to me over the years that in thinking critically, working collaboratively, and engaging the creative process, a true designer must be able to talk as well as—you guessed it—write. Perhaps I’m coming to the realization later than some of my cohorts, and perhaps it sounds counterintuitive, but writing is as much a part of being a good designer as the designing part is. And while writing likely doesn’t draw creative individuals to the design profession, the design profession demands that creative individuals know how to write.

Too often design is perceived as being separate from the content -- that is, the window-dressing that makes information pretty. But for us, the significance of words and the choices we make when it comes to presenting them cannot be separated out from the meaning derived from them, or from the context they provide. Even if we aren’t the primary authors of whatever written content we happen to be working with, it is incumbent upon us to actually read it and ask questions in order to understand how to visually interpret and convey the information.

Writers are still writers and designers are still designers, yet there exists a meeting place between the two. Both professions are attuned to language, after all. And though the long-term significance of a creative writing notebook was obviously lost on me 30 years ago, I will always be grateful for the interest it sparked in me, and the foundation it set for helping me get through school and smoothing the transition from being a student to a working professional. Thank you, Mrs. Sanders, wherever you are.

Connections, Agency for Designers of Color

This winter has been, at least for some of us, exasperating and seemingly interminable, the extreme cold and lack of sunlight making it difficult to want to venture outdoors, let alone be productive indoors. And though my energy level has nearly bottomed out at times over the course of the past few weeks, there have also been wonderfully bright moments to distract from the monotony of overcast skies, frigid temperatures and winter weather advisories. A few weeks ago, for example, I had the opportunity to talk to a group of regional high school students about design. These kinds of informal presentations are actually pretty fun since I’m able to interact with a range of people beyond the college-aged students I typically work with. I like the challenge of figuring out how to present design in a way that makes it relevant to anyone and everyone, regardless of their backgrounds.

And as I think about how to tailor my words, I am inevitably reminded of why I chose a design profession over some of the others I considered like architecture, psychology and even genetic engineering. But I’m also uncomfortably aware of the fact that I work and teach in a predominantly white sphere.

The students at this most recent talk represented an ethnically and economically diverse crowd of would-be designers and their parents. Though at least a few individuals appeared vaguely dubious about what I had to say at the outset, the participants were respectful, energetic and engaged, willing to hear me make my case. I doubt that my 45-minute talk will ultimately influence the decisions these students make with regard to their career decisions moving forward.

However, I would like to think that I was successful in conveying the breadth of design’s power and presence, locally, nationally and internationally. I would like to think that by the end of the session, students could envision design as a vehicle for shaping their world for the better. Mostly, I appreciated how rare it was for me to be in a room with prospective design students and their families, most of whom were people of color.

In a 2005 essay titled "Searching for a Black Aesthetic in American Graphic Design Education," the late Sylvia Harris penned the following: “What influence have African Americans had on contemporary graphic design? Is there such a thing as an African-American design aesthetic? These are questions that I have been asking designers and art historians for the last 10 years. The answer I am usually given is, 'I don’t know.' The relationship of ethnic minorities to the development of American graphic design is rarely discussed or documented by our profession because of the historic lack of racial diversity in the field.”

Harris goes on to mention the growing interest in reexamining the history of graphic design as a way to include traditions that have previously been overlooked, and addressing the limitations black designers run into when they adopt “mainstream aesthetic traditions in order to feel accepted and be successful.”

Though my contributions to the design world are nothing compared with Harris’, her perspectives—and apparent frustrations—mirror my own. The issue is not about training an army of black designers to make the design world more racially mixed numbers-wise. The issue is about ensuring that a range of experiences and viewpoints are represented within society and, moreover, that budding designers of color feel connected to design from a cultural and historical context.

Why does this even matter? Well, for starters, many of the images we have come to associate with African-Americans and black culture, at least in the mainstream, are harmful distortions, caricatured depictions that call the humanity of black people into question. Helping designers of color exert greater agency when it comes to visual representation and contributing fresh ideas, consequently, is a step toward eradicating the harm that has been done as a result of neglecting the significance of black aesthetics.

I should state unequivocally that I have a deep appreciation for design traditions rooted in European influence. The program at Kent State where I studied for my MFA, known for emphasizing the International Typographic Style, was instrumental in making me a better designer. Without the discipline of that training, I would never have learned how to balance unrestrained, expressive visuals with the beauty of simple, structured typography.

My point is simply that as with most things in life, there should be a balance; just as there is still room for the European-inspired design influences, there is room to expand, creating new traditions that include the voices that continue to be overlooked.