Saturday, July 18, 2015

Raiders of the Lost Art

Kevin White

It was one of those "now and then" kinds of things.  Odd enough to inspire a blog-post I guess, even though the older I get the more I try not to pay attention to the "now and then" and just keep in the now.  Things feel saner that way, less philosophical, less like you are imposing "sense" on something that just doesn't make it.  But this one hit me right in the face. 

In 2001 or so, right when Bill and I were feeling the first excitement of helping a few really great artists with developmental disabilities get some supplies and attention.  Right when we were in the thick of inspiration, we helped 3 of those artists (Kevin White, Mary Flinker and Antonio Adams) do an installed mural consisting of paintings and assemblages at Bobbie Fairfax School (a school for kids with developmental disabilities) in Cincinnati.  So last Friday I had to go to Bobbie Fairfax School because Star 64, a local TV station, had donated some air-time to my "now" obsession:  employing people with developmental disabilities.  For segments during a movie marathon, Star 64 emcee Storm (I guess it's his real name) interviewed Chase Montgomery, a guy who works full-time in a dining hall at Miami University.  He doesn't communicate verbally that well, but he and his mom and dad programmed his communication device with some great answers to questions about what it means to make a living on his own.  I was there to give Chase a little support:

So anyway after the interview (which Chase totally rocked) I was walking out to my car when I stumbled onto all those paintings and assemblages we did in the Bobbie Fairfax School cafeteria in 2001 with Kevin, Mary and Antonio, and it was just one of those weird feelings that happen when you aren't really ready for it.  I wasn't moved to tears or anything, but I was a little stunned because it brought 2 issues together in a sloppy but somehow meaningful way. 
Back then, I was majorly focused on ensuring that Kevin and Mary and Antonio (the list grew to over 100 through the 2000s) had access to cultural/artistic possibilities, with the hope that someday they would be seen as contemporaries of other contemporary working artists.  And even though we were able to establish a non-profit arts organization (Visionaries + Voices) and a small, no-nonsense art gallery (Thunder-Sky, Inc.) on that quest for equality, I'm truly not sure if this ever happened.  It sure was fun and exhausting trying to make it happen though. 
And then that idea of doing a lot of work but not getting it all the way right, not reaching that sense of Utopia or true equality, spills over into trying to help people with developmental disabilities access good-paying jobs, which is now my total focus, my new attempt at, for lack of a better word, Utopia.  It takes even more tenacity to do this because it's not just about culture, it's also about economics, a real-world self-sufficiency, and a dialog with HR managers and business owners that isn't about charity or good feeling, as much as trying to make sure the people I'm championing this time can actually do the job, side by side, with some help, but also with the expectation that they can succeed eventually on their own.  I know deep down they can.  It's just finding that right combination of circumstance, personalities, and wills.
Chase can.  He's proven that.  And many, many others a lot of people (including me) are supporting to get and keep meaningful work in the community are too.  But it's a never-ending endeavor, full of complications, failures, successes, and so on. 
What is "true equality" anyway?  All the way through the 2000s, and even into the 2010s, I guess I thought I knew, but the older I get the more I know I don't and possibly never will.  "Knowing" is a luxury, I've discovered.  "Knowing" anything.  So now I try to figure out things, instead of knowing them.  And I wish I would have "known" this differentiation back in the day when we were figuring out how to do V + V.  Because back then I thought a program could create "true equality."  That sounds really na├»ve.  Possibly stupid, but all through those years of setting up shows and writing grant proposals and worrying and being stressed and inspired interchangeably, the through-line for me was that narrative of "once we get this up and running, these artists will be taken seriously." 
So I put everything I had into establishing a program and all that entails, when maybe I should have been paying attention to what programs actually do and mean.  I'm still figuring that one out.  Because what happened is that by helping to build a thriving program for artists with developmental disabilities I helped establish an institution that needs to be ran and financed, and that means the most important administrative aspect of it all was (and still is) making sure you have enough staff and enough money to pay staff, and in that struggle to sustain it all you kind of lose perspective, even though you gain programmatic accomplishments.  
Conversely, now, as I work toward figuring this stuff out, I'm not as invested in creating programs as much as job opportunities, and in that process of course I have to assist people to access employment-support programs that supply job coaches etc., but I don't have to feed those programs anything other than job seekers and possible job leads, incentivizing (one of those wonky words every system likes to use) actual accomplishments specific to a person's life (working and getting paid is central to a majority of people's lives, no matter who you are), as opposed to a program's life.
I hope all that makes sense.  Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't, but it keeps reeling through my mind.
And so that day as I walked out after the Star 64 interview with Chase and Storm, and I see those paintings and assemblages in the Bobbie Fairfax School cafeteria, it all kind of came together in a crystallized way that made me feel exhausted but also kind of okay.  Look at that stuff we all did, I thought.  Look at those good intentions.  Look at that art, still there, in that empty cafeteria.      

Antonio Adams

Kevin White and Antonio Adams

Kevin White

Mary Flinker and Bill Ross
A castle with flowers flowing out of it.  Talk about Utopia, right?  Everything is about belief, I'm finding out, so you better be conscious of what you believe in no matter what quest you are on.  And the quest I'm on at least right now is trying to figure out how to support people normally shut out of "the world" gain access to it in a way that's not about programmatic concerns.  Using good programs to make authentic relationships and real-world results happen.  What "real-world" means to any specific situation, I guess, is completely organic, but I'm thinking "real-world" in most cases is making a living wage.  Which is a pretty unnerving, lofty and necessary goal for people.

Antonio Adams and Kevin White

Antonio Adams and Kevin White

Antonio Adams
Or maybe it's just about being a "regular person," a trope Antonio Adams uses regularly in his works.  He's a great case in point:  he's still plugging away, making all kinds of great art.  Here's a picture of him today at Thunder-Sky, Inc., in the basement, working on some sculptures for an upcoming show:

He's basically a workaholic, a great example of a "working artist."  And like the majority of his contemporaries, he has a day job at Frisch's.  He's kept that gig, as a busboy, for over 13 years, and when I asked him yesterday why, he said because he likes it and he needs to keep it because of the people there, plus he has to pay his bills.  
There you go.