Thursday, February 2, 2012

Just some words

In the wake of Mike Kelley’s death (my former employer and an important artist within Los Angeles and internationally), I feel compelled to write a brief reflection, not about the life of Mike Kelley, but about the importance of art, and if it has importance at all. Every artist, myself included, comes to a moment in our careers, or many moments, when we question the value of our own art, the art world, and/or art in general.

Backtracking to my life in LA...

I was so sick of the ‘art scene.’ I was bored with standing outside of galleries in Chinatown on a Saturday night and drinking Tecate in my skinny jeans. I was tired of making art in a vacuum, sitting alone, staring at the walls of my studio, finishing drawings only to roll them up and stick them in the closet. I wasn’t convinced that I was contributing to the world in a meaningful way, particularly since few people ever got to see my work publically. I felt like I had more to offer, more brain capacity to stimulate, and that I was at a career dead-end. But I had already come so far down that road and invested so much of my life into art, that I didn’t know how to reinvent myself. It's possible that among many other things, Mike Kelley was questioning the value of making art and the value of his own art, when he took his own life. For artists, the success of our art careers, the productivity in our studios or lack thereof, is so intertwined with our self-worth that we sometimes feel that we are suffocating from the pressure, we become disillusioned and cynical.

I made a choice. I took a tangent to find a way back to a life that had meaning for me…and I joined the Peace Corps and came to Ghana. I can tell you now, without any doubt, that if anything in this world has meaning, art making has meaning; it is important. My students here spend the majority of their days copying complex notes from the blackboard into their assignment books, without ever understanding what they are copying. They have gone the majority of their young lives not communicating with anyone in their families because they are deaf and cannot hear what is being said. They grow up resigned to days filled with manual labor, and when finally sent to school they are expected to fail academically.

When I open the door to my classroom, my students come running, joyfully screaming to make art. I pull out paper and pencils or fabric and scissors, and we make things, and they no longer have a disability, or at least not one that matters---in my classroom they find their confidence because anything visual and hands-on is a real strength of theirs. It is a thrill for me to use my visual skills in a way that my MFA degree perhaps never envisioned or intended.

When I used to walk into white-walled galleries in America and see the same neutered, over-cooked product hanging in a 24x36 inch frame, or an aluminum can on its side on top of several stacked pieces of plywood next to some blobs of expanding foam, I really wondered whether art had meaning, whether I gave a damn. But, ya know, it’s not about that gallery--well, it can be about the gallery, because art can be meaningful to those who view it and experience it…but most importantly, art has meaning for the maker, and it is in the making itself where value is found. In Ghana, it’s hard to compete with soccer (it’s big here), but I would argue that art class is the highlight of my students’ lives. It may seem an exaggeration, but they love it. Really. And I feel lucky, honored, to be able to open that classroom door everyday and give it to them.

Many of us lose touch with the value of making as we become adults and professionals because the pressure to sell, to support oneself and family financially, is unavoidable. But I have to thank my students who have reminded me of the power of…folded paper to make a bird. I spent an entire morning recently ‘helping’ make 50 origami birds---the kids crowded around me as I made each fold in the complicated process, and not one single student was going to let me leave until they had a finished “flapping bird” in their hands.

I am speculating (because I know it is true for me) that there was a time in Mike Kelley's life, in his youth and maybe later, when art-making made him feel good. Maybe it was the only thing that made him feel good. Art and music helped him cope with and perhaps articulate all the things he didn't like about his life and himself and the world. Sometimes I have trouble thinking back to a time when art helped to lessen life's anguish, and not add to it, but I see it in my student's eyes...and I remember.

In other news:

--I’ve started working one-on-one with some of the mentally disabled students because I can’t give them the in-class attention that they need when I have 24 other students who also need help. I had been planning to do this for a while, but I’m not currently an expert in how an autistic student might best learn, or what they need from me, but I had a ‘stars-aligning’ moment that pushed me into action. Usually, in class I have 4 students tugging on my arms at all times—I’m dripping sweat (literally) and walking from student to student helping each one. And it’s the students who really can’t do it on their own without me who get left behind, staring forlornly at their mangled yarn weaving. But for one glorious moment, no one was tugging at my arm and I was able to help Basheru, inch by inch. I lifted each strand of vertical yard and he fed the horizontal yarn underneath each one, becoming increasingly confident with how his hands held the yarn and pulled it through on the other side. I had chills during this experience. He turned to the other students and signed, “See, I understand, I understand!”, with a big smile on his face. He’s usually so beaten down by the other students and teachers that I only see him whining gloomily around campus, but on this particular day he was very proud of his weaving. That is the sort of attention that Basheru requires, and which is almost impossible here because every teacher has 20-25 students. So, I’m trying to meet with some of the autistic kids a couple nights a week and work with them on simple projects, like the alphabet or numbers or art.

--One of the teachers told me that his ‘professor’ in college told him that he should only work at the deaf schools for a few years because ‘the students can’t learn.’ He’s looking to move to the hearing schools.

--Evidently the attendance posters I made for each class (I give a star to each student for arriving on time) were a big hit at a Ghana-wide education conference. Representatives from the Ghana Education Service had come to my classroom a month ago and photographed themselves standing in front of the posters, and I guess those photos were presented at the conference. Now I’ve been asked to demonstrate to my fellow teachers how to make them. Maybe there’s hope for systemic change after all.

--On a particularly low note, my working relationship with the Japanese ICT volunteer at my school just completely deteriorated, plummeted, and sank. I will say that blame can be placed on both sides, and in the future when I mean ‘no,’ I will definitely say ‘no’ upfront. When Daigo arrived in November he asked me if he could do an ICT project in my ‘class,’ by which he meant that he wanted to use my classroom. Okay, no problem. Oh, you need cardboard? Here’s some. You need to store it in my storage room? Okay. Then I noticed that glue was missing and a pair of scissors was broken, and other supplies had been used. He hadn’t asked, and I can tell you that ALL of the supplies in the closet were either bought by me or donated by someone who I solicited. I kept quiet. Then this term rolls around, and he asks if he can do another project in my room, and if he can keep his paper in my storage room. Okay. He comes in (repeatedly) when I’m teaching and asks me when I will be leaving the room. He asks if he can use the room in between my two classes—I have to sit outside. Okay. Then I notice that he is using my precious few markers for his ICT project---without asking. I arrive to find half the caps off of the markers and at least a dozen brand-new markers totally used up. I tell him, “Please, don’t use those markers--I was saving them for a special project with the JHS students.” In fact, I have a big sign on the cabinet door that says, “Please don’t take supplies from this cabinet. They are for art class, and many of them have been sent from America by my friends and family.” I thought that was making it pretty clear, but evidently I needed to be explicit. I also noticed that students were allowed in and out of the storage room (which is off limits) while I wasn’t around. Then, Daigo also wanted to be using pencils, rulers, sharpeners, and erasers, and taking them to another classroom while I was trying to teach using the same supplies. I told him, ‘The headmistress has pencils and rulers. You really need to get your own supplies. This closet is not a store.” But evidently I should have just said “No.” “No,” on the very first day, unequivocally. But, instead, being the passive-aggressive sort of person, I finally just locked the cabinet with a big extendable combination lock I had brought from home. A few minutes later, Daigo came storming over to my house, guns blazing, and asked for the combo. “No,” I said, “I put that lock on it so that you wouldn’t continue to use the supplies.” That comment led to Daigo completely blowing up, screaming at me outside my house, saying that I was a liar and a bad person. Eventually, he calmed down, and I explained how hard I had worked to piece together an art program with supplies, and that I have meticulously planned projects for all of the supplies that I have gathered, and that all I ask is to be able to control and be accountable for what happens in the art classroom and storage room. I told him that the art room is my world and my passion. I told him that if he asks for something once, it’s okay, but if he asks 10 times or he doesn’t ask at all, it’s no longer alright. Subsequently, whether he thinks I’m a control freak nutcase or whatever, he has retreated and even apologized. I have to say this was the low-point of my PC experience thus far, and I’m just shocked it happened with another foreigner. I think I can confidently say I’ve reawakened dormant WWII tensions. I think I’m going to have to start complimenting Daigo on his country’s automobile engineering prowess if I want to prevent WWIII.

Me with the Zosali chief, a man who has led a fascinating life, speaks great english, and now sits in a comfortable chair underneath a big tree, surrounded by dozens of local children.


  1. So beautiful.

    I'm going to send this to a bunch of Teaching Artist friends.

    Was thinking of you when I heard the news yesterday. Still thinking of you today.

    Love from L.A.,

  2. Kate,
    That is really beautiful and touching.
    This has also made me think about success, and how on its own it doesn't lead to happiness or fulfillment; that it's so important to find that fulfillment in the making of art, and in people and things outside of art, because success is fickle.


  3. Thanks for writing, Kate. Some lovely reflections on things that all of us are wrestling with in one way or another. Good to hear a perspective from another side of the globe.

    And p.s. if you really want a $20 care package of art/craft supplies from Lakeshore learning materials, I'd be happy to ship one off. Does the above list still apply?

    1. Thanks Ben. You are welcome to send supplies, and, yes, the above list is still current, but only do it if you can afford it----mailing things to Ghana is expensive!
      Miss you all!


  4. Very compelling Kate.

    Rubén Ortiz Torres