Sunday, November 3, 2013

You're So Thoughtful

A couple weeks back I got invited to give a talk to a group of social-work students at Indiana University/Purdue University in Indianapolis (IUPUI).  A friend of mine is in the MSW program there, and she asked her professor to invite me to speak about what I've done in my line of work as a sort of social-worker (I'm not a licensed anything, but I guess what I do both as a vocation and a practice beyond vocation could be characterized as "social-work.").  I also got my undergrad degree there in English back in 1991.  It was totally weird to walk the space-age hallways at IUPUI again.  The whole campus has the feel of a 1970s futuristic movie like Logan's Run.   I took along a Powerpoint Bill and I put together that commemorates the 10th anniversary of Visionaries + Voices (we started V+V in 2003), as well as the beginning of Thunder-Sky, Inc. in 2009.  The pictures are self-evident:  the reason I do what I do arts-wise is because of the people I met back in the late 90s and early 2000s, mainly artists like Raymond Thunder-Sky, Antonio Adams, Paul Rowland, and several others that were in photos from little gigs we did back in 2000, 2001, 2002, art-shows in public libraries and in coffee-shops and anywhere else that would have us, finally ending up with a studio in Essex Studios in Walnut Hills.  The V+V journey Bill and I took that started in 2003 and kind of ended in 2009 was totally a joy but also filled with little pockets of terror, frustration and shock.  I know that sounds melodramatic, but it's embarrassingly true.  We really dedicated our lives to it there for a while, to the point we couldn't pull who we were away from what it was, and more importantly what it was becoming.  I bet that happens to a lot with "founders" of anything.  We just kept at it so hard and so fervently that somehow it became a nightmare toward the end:  lots of creepy meetings and off-kilter emails and finally the feeling that everything we tried to do was kind of lost in the non-profit-professional shuffle. 
You can't really say that stuff to a roomful of MSW students, so of course I kept the whole thing inspirational (and truly many aspects of the V+V Experience were), but I kind of let them know that the main thing I learned from helping to start and sustain a non-profit organization for "artists with disabilities" was that you have to figure out the limits of believing in something before, during and after you start doing something about it.  If you don't understand those limits you start confusing yourself and others with your own heart-felt bullshit.  You can lose yourself in the "vision and mission" as it concretizes into something people can be paid for. 
You almost have to have a secret, strict resolve to remove yourself from "growth" and "outcomes" and "friend-raising."  I never went into the whole thing thinking it was about helping people with disabilities, to be honest.  I never considered the endeavor "social-work" or even charity.  I always saw all the people we were working with as peers and partners not in need of a lot of help outside of art supplies and opportunities to show and be seen.  I never thought the whole endeavor would morph into HR or Executive Committees or Elevator Speeches, even while I worked very hard to make those things happen.    
Anyway, during the little talk I gave, as I clicked from slide to slide, and year to year, I got a feeling that it was worth it in the end.  Because it has to be.  And Bill and I did Thunder-Sky, Inc. in 2009 to kind of recover what we felt we lost:  a simplicity of message, a graceful allegiance to one small idea.  I guess the main idea we're after is that art has a reason to exist in everybody's lives, and that the whole point for organizing around that idea is to have total equality from the get go.  Unfortunately when you organize things conventionally, order and control kind of take over (it's a people business after all), and you lose things, including your purpose.  And after awhile I didn't want to lose things anymore. 
Thunder-Sky, Inc. has always been about not losing things:  keeping Raymond's drawings safe, all the other stuff he left behind too, but also that initial idea of art helping us all transcend what we do to each other not getting coopted and redefined as a new tagline or mission statement.  I couldn't explain to the social-work students that I've always wanted Thunder-Sky, Inc. to be a DISorganization, a place without a lot of structure or meetings or committees.  A place where things don't get lost, but they don't get found either.
Four years into Thunder-Sky, Inc., it feels kind of like we're floating into and out of what it means to be established.  And I think that's the way Raymond would work it too.  Constantly out of the periphery, wryly smiling, walking through the world kind of bemused and kind of pissed, making art without much fuss, and finding a way to live without losing what it means to be alive.
Last night we hosted a poetry and fiction reading.  It was a packed house, and the two writers, Lisa Ampleman and Tessa Mellas, were great, reading Courtney Love poems and a short story about an alien from Jupiter taking advantage of Affirmative Action.  The words combined with the art on the walls, and it was a trippy little session.  It made me feel like we know what we're doing sometimes, and it doesn't have anything to do with anything, except that it's a moment in time when people get together and stop the crap long enough to appreciate each other.  I love this photo from last night.  It sums up a lot of things: