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.

A Black Star Points the Way

My mother recently uncovered a composition I wrote at age 8 about my family. Among other observations, I made note of the fact that “my mom likes meetings, my dad likes to study,” and “whenever I want to play with my brother Joe’s Legos he says I have to buy him something.” My mother circulated this essay via e-mail, and we all laughed about the fact that some things never change. Yes, my brother is quite something. He is blessed with the Hostetler sense of humor and charisma, and though he’s often too smart for his own good, his easygoing personality often belies the depth of feeling he carries for the people in his life and the level of dedication he has for his work.

Then on Sunday, while having lunch with my parents, uncle and aunts, my dad pulled out a laser-printed copy of a drawing that, though originally created many years ago, I instantly recognized. I’m a bit embarrassed to confess that I started to get teary-eyed as I immediately identified it as “Joe’s.”

My brother probably wouldn’t consider himself an artist—although, to be fair, I don’t actually know that for a fact since I haven’t asked him. Regardless, his childhood drawing is quite remarkable. I’m biased, of course; compared to illustrations made by other 7-8 year olds, it might not stand out. Still, the symbolism present in this particular composition is notable for the way it challenges mainstream notions about what is “normal” or perhaps even beautiful.

Joes’ drawing, titled “Christmas Star,” is an intriguing example of his world perspective at a fairly young age. How many children, let alone adults, would have a mind to draw a black star with the implied belief that it is beautiful, appropriate and powerful? Not a gold star. Not a white star. Not a yellow star. Not a silver star. It is a black star, shooting out of the dark night with rays of red light and accented with flecks of green.

Considering that I was only 3 years old when he created this masterpiece, I wasn’t able to pick my brother’s brain and ask him questions about what the colors meant to him, or what he was trying to convey. (Even if I had, I’m sure I wouldn’t remember the conversation.) And yet, there are reasons why my parents have held onto it for all these years. There are reasons why seeing it again caused an unexpected reaction in me.

We still live in an age where the editor of a science website feels free to call a fellow scientist—a black female biologist in this case—a “whore,” where there is apparently interest in conducting studies to prove that black women are less physically attractive than white or Asian women, and where black men are perceived as dangeroustrouble-makers. Defining positive standards in the midst of the negative, consequently, becomes a lifelong endeavor. Goodness is still implied in words like “pure” and “white,” just as evil is frequently implied with words like “dark” or “black.” The associations are there whether we choose to acknowledge them or not.

So, while I can’t speak to the conscious or subconscious decisions Joe made about what looked “right” at the time, the point is that my brother drew a big black star and saw that it was good. And beyond his penchant for making wisecracks, this image is evidence of his sense of pride and self worth, the creation of what was simultaneously normal and awesome in the eyes of a black child. And that black child went on to become a physicist. What magnificent symmetry.

Professor Revisits Her Own Path to Art

As part of my academic research, I’ve been spending more time reading and thinking about how to make design education more accessible to more people. I’ve been forced to consider, consequently, how the curricula I’ve either inherited or adopted—curricula that is regarded as foundational in the design world—might actually be outdated when it comes to preparing students to meet the needs of the 21st century. Self-critique is never easy but there are times when confronting difficult questions is the only way forward. There is little comfort to be had when you begin questioning many of your own assumptions. In my case, I’ve come to realize that while my career path wasn’t clear or easy, I’ve failed to appreciate the extent to which middle-class privilege helped open doors. I’ve also failed to consider how my background compares (or contrasts) with others who have found their way to art and design, and the impact this could have on how I approach design education.

By the time I got to college, I was interested in genetic engineering, psychology and English. I also briefly flirted with the idea of architecture. One by one, however, I ruled out a variety of options. Architecture required transferring to another school, I didn’t want to deal with the ethical dimensions of genetic engineering, and given my personal experiences with mental health, I questioned whether or not I had the ability to approach the work with an appropriate level of emotional detachment.

But neither was I completely comfortable with the idea of an art major. I was intimidated by the upper-class students who were super cool without even trying. Exuding the confidence of an artist seemed to be a requirement, and though I knew that I had some creative ability, I wasn’t convinced I fit the mold. I was also surprised at how challenging my first college-level art class was. I didn’t expect it to be particularly easy, but putting work up for critique and learning how to utilize the language of design elements and principles to talk about compositions pushed me out of my comfort zone in ways I didn’t expect. Line, shape, form, texture, value; unity, balance, scale—these were foreign concepts to me. Moreover, I’d never had much of a thick skin and was sensitive about what other people had to say about my work.

Eventually, I declared a major in art. And I came to understand that being an artist is more of an internal thing than external one. Graduate school, too, was helpful in cementing design as a discipline where my job was to work my tail off while my instructors did their best to help me improve. There was a clinical aspect to what was expected from me that took away the fear of falling short. Education, in this case, did not reflect the classic success-versus-failure binary--it was about ensuring that I was prepared, that I learned how to think about design in professional and practical ways, and that I find employment.

I have no idea if my experience is typical or not. But I’m now increasingly curious to find out more about the backgrounds and experiences of current and former students. Of all of the options available to them, why did they choose art/design? In declaring a design major, is the education they’re getting adequately preparing them for the job market? Have they considered where they hope to be five or 10+ years after graduation? What new careers will a design education potentially prepare them for? And, perhaps most importantly, how do I bridge the gap between the experiences of my students and the young people who don’t even get close enough to design to see what kinds of opportunities it can provide long-term?

I have no hope of improving the design education I’m capable of imparting if I limit myself to what I already know. So, I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone yet again with the expectation that I will emerge wiser yet more humble, with a better perspective on how to make contributions that are truly meaningful in my own work and in the classroom.