Project: I Am

get ready for some reflection...
get ready for some reflection…

Sometimes you need a reminder about what matters. It’s pretty easy to get caught up in the day-to-day drudgery of work life and become convinced that some minute detail deserves front and center attention. I’ve written about social justice; I’d like to think that my work connect to social justice never falls victim to such distraction, but it does.

Let’s face it, in the work world people often become wedded to a point or idea or concept and adopt the stance that such point is the center of the universe. The sun revolves around the earth instead of the other way round. I’ve done it; the word on the page becomes the only word you can see and you forget about all the paragraphs that go around it. It also means you lose sight of your audience, and when myopia takes over, you even convince yourself that it doesn’t matter if your audience understands what you’ve written.

I’ve certainly watched others in my world of work get caught in this. I get distracted as well, arguing on principle and insisting that it must be a comma instead of a semi-colon. What I hate is how that small point suddenly takes over my life for a period of time. I become consumed by it, angered, saddened, frustrated…and the obstinate teen that still inhabits my headspace typically just wants to push the chair into a back corner, lean back with boots up and say, “whatever dude” to whomever is trying to push me into something.

Aside: that’s a funny point though isn’t it? That we find ourselves in those consuming spaces usually because there are others we are butting up against on those very detailed points. I suppose I should say that sometimes a detail does matter. But it still drives me nuts when I have to give attention to that.

Where does this ranting lead me…well as it happens too many of such points have dominated my life recently. So I am grateful for the wake-up call that was our gallery exhibit of Project: I Am. It shook me in just the right ways.

witnessMy lovely co-director and I decided to lead a workshop this spring that involved teaching counselors how to assist clients in a process of reclaiming identity from experiences of oppression. I won’t go into the theories and such here, but it boils down to 12 participants who met as a group on two separate occasions and also worked individually in between meetings. It was a learn-by-doing method; like so much of the work we do it helps to go through it yourself in order to really learn what is going on. The process results in each person creating a work of art that expresses an aspect of their preferred “self”, the self that Oppression may have tried to diminish, alter, restrict, dominate, etc.

It waI AM exhibits the first time my partner and I had attempted this workshop. While it is based on work that we’ve learned about done by many others, it is still a new thing to us – so this was one of our biggest experimental leaps yet (I say that even after attempting the film. Yikes). So we always had this background anxiety questioning if it was working, if we need to change anything, is it going to fail, etc.

As with the film experience, we found our little group starting to form their own community through the process. They talked to each other about difficult things but also about triumphs. They helped each other develop images and ideas to translate into their work. They gave encouragement and had a good laugh throughout. And that also means we got to know people in a way that, again, is a little different from a traditional classroom setting. You find out just how much talent people have through things like this; I don’t mean specific to artistic talent (although we did find many closeted artists!) but the many different talents that get revealed through the process. In short, you see just how amazing and interesting people can be.

The project culminates in a gallery exhibit of participant’s work. We managed to secure a gallery and hold a one-night show

we're making art here
we’re making art here

where participants could invite whomever they wanted to share in their exhibit. The night before we set up the space – and here is when we first started to see the “magic” that exists, that mysterious force in work like ours that definitely envelopes all that is done, but will disappear if you try to put your finger on it. You just have to let it “be.” As the works went up on the walls, you just felt it in the air, had that tingle in the spine that says, “something is happening here.” Even watching each person setting up, watching them work together, made me want to just stand back and take it in. Something had happened for these people and while I still don’t have a word for it, I can see its presence, particularly in ways different from before.

Resident Artist  - he's gonna go far
Resident Artist

The show itself was fabulous. It was also my first time seeing the completed works. I was taken aback by the commitment and passion in each piece. And the variety of media was a big surprise; everything from woodcut to painting, photograph to spoken word. Each person getting to share their work, talk about why they did what they did, and to do so in the ways they chose to, not in the ways they were required to. To have their work addressed and handled by a professional artist (our resident consultant), then displayed in a gallery, all adds a level of legitimization that I think even the participants didn’t quite realize until it was happening. It’s like the ultimate, “hey this matters; your story matters.”

And that brings me back to where I started this post. I had an emotional moment at the start of the show. Not because I was sad, but because all the shit from the past month finally started falling off my back. It didn’t happen because it was the end of the week, or because I’d checked off another “to do,” but because I was experiencing a space of camaraderie and validation, I was witnessing our group “arriving.” Something had been reclaimed and we were in the presence of it. So I shed a tear, not out of pain, but out of the relief of being reminded about what matters. I saw who our participants are, and it reminded me who I am as well. Why I do what I do and what I’ve gotten good at. And suddenly the bullshit details I’ve had to fight around became just that, small insignificant points that in some cases didn’t even add up to a whole. That inner teen finally got to fist-pump the air.

I left shouting to everyone just how beautiful they really are (no, it wasn’t just the wine talking). It’s funny, because one of the silent motivations for doing this project was the hope that it would be my parting gift. One last thing to give to them before I leave. And darn it, whether they know it or not, they ended up giving something to me too. Au revoir my friends; I’ll carry that one with me for a very long time.

until we meet again!
until we meet again!
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