The Implications of Standing…

THE UNITED STATES FLAG CODE. Title 4, Chapter 1. § 8(a)The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.

THE UNITED STATES FLAG CODE. Title 4, Chapter 1. § 8(a)The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.


I do not stand for the national anthem; I have not done so since I was a teenager.

It is easy for me to not stand; when I remain seated I am simply a man who is not standing, at least to those around me. If they secretly grumble I will never know about it. It is not so easy for Colin Kaepernick; he makes that stand, or not-stand, knowing full will that it is likely to have negative implications on his life, career, and future. Some of that is because he is so visible while I am not, but so much more than that it is because he is a black man.

The flag is not simply a symbol of a land-mass cobbled together through accident and theft. It is a symbol of the ideals of a nation, promises that remain as yet unfulfilled. It is a symbol of high ideals, the promise that, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It symbolizes a pledge that, “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

Those were problematic words when they were written, in the midst of state-sanctions slavery, and they remain problematic words in the face of institution and pervasive bigotry. I will stand for the national anthem when the promises of those words is fulfilled.

Furthermore, I find the response to the growing protest among prominent athletes to be deeply disturbing; the notion that protest is unpatriotic is absurd, especially when one remembers that this country was founded through protest and uprising. But the critique of Colin Kaepernick is not about protest; it is about race, and it is the absurd notion that patriotism can lead nowhere but to the words, “America, love it or leave it.”

I can think of very few words more disturbing than those; it contains deeply troubling implications. It equates dissent with attack, carries the implication that America need not reflect on its failings, that it must be accepted as it is. To those who would say those words, carry signs or shout the words “America, love it or leave it” I have two questions.

What side of history would you have been on in 1861? Would you have stood in the way of millions of enslaved men, women, and children? Would you have confronted abolitionists with threats and vitriol?

What side of history would you have been on in 1963? 1964? 1965? As the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were winding their way through Congress would you have stood in opposition? Would you have joined in with police forces, with your neighbors in suppressing the voices of demonstrators? Would you have joined in with baseball bats and fire hoses, released dogs to attack those marching? Would you have joined in the violence?

Barriers: Green Book (2016) This quilt was inspired by the "The Negro Travelers' Green Book" published by Victor Green (an African-American postal worker from New Jersey) from 1936 to 1966. Learn more about the Green Book at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the NYPL.

Barriers: Green Book (2016)
This quilt was inspired by the “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book” published by Victor Green (an African-American postal worker from New Jersey) from 1936 to 1966. Learn more about the Green Book at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the NYPL.


Because that is what it comes down to. If you believe America must be accepted just as it is, if patriotism demands blind faith, then you are aligning yourself with that legacy. You may not realize it, but that truth cannot be avoided. The good of this country has come from protest, through the refusal to accept the status quo, the rejecting the chants of “love it or leave it.” It is only through protest that slavery was ended, that Jim Crow laws were repealed, that women were allowed to vote, that Child Labor laws were passed.

Look at your life, at the things around you. Almost everything you interact with each day was made better through protest, through questioning rather than blindly accepting. Every woman in America owes a debt to those who have fought for the right to vote, for property and maternal rights. Every child in school instead of a factory owes a debt to those who have fought. Every single one of owes a debt to the legacy of those who have protested and demanded that we strive for a more perfect union.

And now ask yourself today, right now, which side of history do you want to be on…

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Original Sin…

I wish I could say this is not the America that I know, but that would be untrue, a whitewashing of the fact that the history of this country is written in the blood of people of color. The arrival of Europeans on this continent brought violence in its wake, forcing Native Americans off of the lands they had inhabited for centuries, killing those who resisted (and untold numbers who did not). And when the land had cleared they imprisoned millions of Africans, reducing them to chattel, inflicting endless violence on their bodies, stripping them of their dignity.

Your Heritage Is Written in Other People's Blood (in-progress, 2016)

Your Heritage Is Written in Other People’s Blood (in-progress, 2016)

The very inception of this nation was made possible by the blood of those who did not look like my ancestors. And our original sin was written into Article 1 of our constitution when the 3/5 Compromise was struck. Ours is a history of violence and bigotry, whether it be slavery, the evils of Manifest Destiny, Jim Crow laws, ghettoization, racial profiling, or the thousand other excuses we have used to justify the ongoing subjugation of the other. My ancestors succeeded through force and justified it through a litany of morally bankrupt philosophies. And here is the hard truth: that history is not only our past; it continues to be written today.

And I am angry. And I am sad. And I am ashamed of myself.

Nearly four years ago my social positions got me in trouble in the quilting industry; my writing in the days following the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary offended some major players and I was asked by one the companies I worked with to issue an apology. As you can imagine my response was not friendly; it was a compromise I could not make. But then I gave in; I began to play nice and carefully watched my words and skirted potentially sensitive topics. I comforted myself with the idea that I was still putting those concerns into the quilts, but art is easy, safe. It brings with it a certain protective cushion. And in my silence I became complicit, and my friends of color deserve my apology. I am sorry.

I am also done being silent. It is my responsibility to speak, not as a quilter, or as a public figure (of sorts), but as a human being. It is doubly my responsibility because I am a white man. It is my responsibility because as long as those who hold places of privilege remain silent this dreadful history will continue to be written. And I am very much privileged here in America simply by the chance truth of my birth-sex and the color of my skin. As a teenage punk in the suburbs of Detroit I was pulled over or questioned by police countless times because of the way I dressed, and I was nervous every time. I had reason to be nervous: I never could be sure if one of my friends might be carrying a joint or a couple of hits of acid. I was nervous because I did not want my slap on the wrist, but that was it. I was nervous, but never afraid. That is an important distinction. My friends of color, and millions of others I do not know personally, are afraid. And I am ashamed.

Tea and Skittles 40" x 48"(2016)

Tea and Skittles 40″ x 48″ (2016)

It has been more than four years since Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman. Stand Your Ground was invoked to justify the killing because of course a young black man is a threat, even when all he is carrying is a can of tea and a small bag of Skittles. Racist America found its cause, its opportunity to renew the justifications of its bigotry and violence. It was easy for tens of millions to accept a young black man as implicitly dangerous, to avoid confronting their essential bigotry. Why didn’t Stand Your Ground protect Trayvon Martin? Why did those millions not see a young man defending himself against an armed stranger who had been following him, stalking him (while ignoring the requests of the police on the phone)? This is not a rhetorical question; it is the essential question that we all must ask ourselves.

This is not a new story; it is only more present now because there is video evidence. Eric Garner, Jonathan Ferrell, Terrence Crutcher. These and so many other names ought to be seared into our consciousness. In another country we would be calling these extra-judicial killings, but we refuse to see that in ourselves. But America is special; our mythos tells us that such things cannot happen here. Thus we ignore the evidence, cannot even approach it because the justness of our country is taken as an a priori truth

Because we, white America, cannot bear the possibility that we are flawed, that we are the root of so many ills, we will continue to cling to any justification, any excuse. If we dare to accept the possibility of bigotry, whether explicit or implicit, we would be forced to confront ourselves, our own complicity. Perhaps Terrence Crutcher was walking back to his car (with his hands raised) to get a weapon. Just maybe Jonathan Ferrell was running with ill intent. It’s possible Eric Garner could be dangerous, because he was big. Hypothetically anything is possible, but we will never know. Assumption trumped evidence, and all three men were killed. But that lack of certain knowledge allows us to make excuses: we declare the use of deadly force to be a “judgment call,” no matter how many times a shooter’s judgment is shown to be wrong. The benefit of the doubt always falls in one direction.”

Clearly being a police officer is a difficult job. I would not want to do it, at least not in this country. But the badge carries responsibilities along with authority. In 1985 the Supreme Court ruled on the use of deadly force in Tennessee v. Garner, affirming the notion that deadly force was to be a last resort, requiring “probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious harm.” It is important to note that “probable cause” is a specific legal term that has widespread implications across the gamut of law enforcement; it is the cornerstone protection against random searches and invasions of privacy; it is the reason hunches are clearly differentiated from evidence. It is a high standard put in place precisely to counter the effects of bias, presumption, and bigotry. And it is what has been systematically denied to the African-American community. Potential is not actuality unless we accept the idea that black men are implicitly dangerous, and to accept that is fundamentally racist.

Emanuel: At the Intersection of Hate and Guns 86"x86" (2016)

Emanuel: At the Intersection of Hate and Guns 86″x86″ (2016)

The man who murdered nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina was arrested and given a meal from Burger King. The man who planted bombs in New York and New Jersey just days ago was taken into custody even after he shot a police officer. But somehow a black man with car troubles requires deadly force. Somehow the shooting of Trayvon Martin was justified.

Moments are complicated. Fear is real. But actions must be grounded in reality, not assumption. This is a truth that pertains to all of us. I am reticent to lay the blame on individual police officers or police departments; they are simply a reflection of society. We, white America, have created a world in which racist assumptions are accepted, permitted, and supported. By our choices, from the people we elect to the words we do not speak, we are to blame. As we cling to our privilege in the face of a world that sees our bigotry for what it is, each and every one of us makes this possible. This is not about individual blame, though there is plenty of that to go around; it is about collective responsibility, an admission of history and the long tail of its effects. It is about seeing the truths that surround us. This is white America’s problem that plays itself out on the lives and bodies of our neighbors and friends, in communities across the nation.

We, white Americans, are not the center of the universe, and our violence can no longer be hidden, swept under the carpet, and justified by our anxieties. Our actions and inactions have profound ramifications, and we will be judged by them. Silence is complicity; in permitting the justifications we confess our own bigotry. As we accept this litany of death we only reaffirm this country’s original sin: we reassert the constitutional dehumanization of the 3/5th Compromise. Art is not good enough. Quiet agreement is not enough. National conversations are not enough. Turning the page is not enough; we have tried that too many times, in 1863, in 1865, in 1964, and in 1965. We have tried to assuage our guilt a page at a time, but nothing short of a new book will do, and that is not our book to write; we are unfit to be our own judges, as we have all too clearly shown. I confess I have no idea how that books gets written; I only know it must.

Somehow.

Until then I shall remain angry. I shall remain sad. And more than anything I shall remain ashamed…

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Dear Drake…

I did not think that my return to Drake University last week would be such an emotional experience, but it was. I just assumed I’d go back for my show, do my stuff, spend a bit of time with my old colleagues, and jet back home, but no. Something very different happened.

First off, seeing my quilts hanging in the gallery really hit me. It’s not that it was the first time I’ve shown them publicly; heck, just last month they were hanging in the International Quilt Study Center and Museum, clearly a much bigger deal. But seeing them there in an art gallery, out of the context of the quilt world, something sunk in. They work just as well there, speak just as meaningfully, but that wasn’t the important thing. Eight years ago when I first fell catastrophically ill I largely assumed that my life in the art world was over, that I would have to move on to something new if my body ever recovered. Even as I developed I practice and reputation in the quilt world, it still felt somehow separate from my previous life in art; the move from experimental new media to quilts just seemed so complete that I could not really see how they might ever merge. But then, in just a moment, it became clear; not only did I believe in my quilts as quilts, but they were also the best work I have made in my art life. As I stood there during the opening with the assembled crowd awaiting my short gallery talk it struck me, that divide in my life (pre-illness/post-illness) had been crossed. I am pretty sure that the degree to which I was overwhelmed was obviously as I tried to makes sense of what I was experiencing in a matter of minutes for those standing around me. What I thought was going to be just another show, one among the many I have done over my career, was transformed into a gift.

drake-1

It may not seem important to others, but that moment, that gift is still resonating. For these past eight years I have been in one way or another grieving over all that had been stripped away by illness: my dignity (illness is unbelievably humbling), my aspirations, and my vocation (the dream of being a professor began early in my childhood). But in a matter of two days so much of that loss was wiped away, or at least assuaged, smoothed over. And for that I cannot thank you enough.

It is hard to believe that it was fourteen years ago that I first arrived on campus. I still remember moments of my on-campus interview. I remember the incredulous expressions as I started my job talk (a talk for students and faculty explaining my practice) with a solid fifteen minutes on professional wrestling, expressions that gradually shifted toward acceptance as I folded those issues into a larger discussion of the importance of design. I remember arguing with a senior faculty member during my interview as I asserted that the menus at Waffle House and those Odd Lots newspaper adverts were better examples of good design that the persistent use of Modernist design tropes, something I still stand by. As I look back I still find it remarkable that you hired me, especially as I had little to no experience with graphic design, let alone teaching it. But it was a fit, and you welcomed me with open arms, offered support and mentorship as I tried to figure out just what my practice as a design professor would be. You gave me space to experiment as both a teacher and an artist, even as both practices at times seems entirely incoherent. But you saw the bigger picture and trusted that I would somehow bring it all together, just as I had with that job talk. And for that I am eternally grateful.

drake-2

My few days back were as much a reminder of who I am as it was a validation of what I do. As I stood in the auditorium giving my public lecture I once again felt that natural joy of speaking for an academic audience, theorizing the implications of things. And yet again you all stuck with me as I started off with professional wrestling before bouncing around to Ikea bookshelves, the Sistine Chapel, and Marcel Duchamp. While I love speaking to quilters, you reminded me that the academic in me is still alive and well. As I performed a series of semiotic analyses you were right there with me, interrogating the world of things by my side as I wound my way to the subject of quilts. Again, you trusted me to reveal a bigger picture, reminding me just how much I love that space.

But perhaps the greatest gift was allowing me to once more invade your classroom. In returning to the design studio to conduct a critique I was immediately hit with a radical sense of déjà vu. The fact that the space has changed very little since I left nine years ago was certainly part of it; seeing the same old issues of ArtForum on the magazine rack and that sole, reluctant painting I made for a show at the Des Moines Art Center absolutely added to the effect. But more than anything it was the fluidity with which I dropped right back into professor mode that felt so extraordinary. With so many years gone by since I last ran a critique I could not know whether I still had it in me. Yes, critique has always been the strongest part of my teaching, but like any skill it can become rusty through disuse. But there it was, flowing through and around me, your students’ hesitancy turning into enthusiasm as all of the ideas and concerns fell right back into place.

drake-3

One might think that these experiences would just reignite my longing, that sense of loss that accompanies no longer practicing one’s vocation, but that is not the case here (which surprises me a bit). I have come to terms with the fact that I shan’t be returning to academia (at least mostly) due to both health and geographic realities. But just sliding back into it for that brief time truly has been an extraordinary gift. Even if I won’t be teaching full time again, it is deeply meaningful to know that I still can, that those dormant parts of me are still thriving beneath the surface, that I can still ignite the passions and minds of students with my words. Those moments of dawning recognition and insight spreading across the faces of the arrayed students was an experience I thought I would never again have. But there it was, and once more I saw myself, the person I remember, that totality of me.

In truth, that has been one of the greatest horrors of my continuing illness, the sense that part of me had been severed, my past hanging limp like a phantom limb. In just two days I saw that past returned to me; the knowledge that I am still me despite circumstances is a powerful experience. No, it is not the same as having all of that back, but sometimes the knowledge alone is enough. I will likely remain enormously frustrated as I deal with the business side of my practice, trying to explain those things that seem self-evident to my academic self to the assemblage of marketing and sales departments that consume so much of my reality. I will likely never quite settle into the reality that my practice is also a business with economic concerns, but seeing myself again, knowing that I still reflect my own self-image, means a lot. It is easy to no longer feel like oneself as the vicissitudes of change recast the realities of life. But in my visit you granted me a glimpse of who I still am, and for that more than anything else, I owe you a debt of gratitude.

The time there may have pushed my body to its breaking point (and even a bit beyond), but it remains a gift nonetheless. An old would has been soothed, a bit of the baggage has been sloughed off, a piece of the sorrow has been lifted away. So, thank you Drake for the chance to see myself in the mirror, even if just briefly.

More later,
-t

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A Treatise on Methodical Creativity…

Methodical (adjective)
• done according to a systematic or established form of procedure
• (of a person) orderly or systematic in thought or behavior.

The word methodical gets a bad rap. Somehow over the last half-century that glorious word has been placed in opposition to creativity, has come to connote restriction and limitation, an utter lack of individuality. It has become a pejorative, reserved for the bean-counters and buzzkills, scoffed at by the artistic, and those with such aspirations. Personally I blame Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg and their dangerously false narratives of Abstract Expressionism, but that’s another (very long) story…

Over the years we have been sold on a notion of creativity that is entirely intuitive, that leaps out from our minds and hearts and souls. Furthermore, only such leaps are thought to be authentic; all else is somehow shallow and calculated (another concept that has gotten a bad rap). Creativity has become the domain of those free-spirits, and that associated disinhibition has become synonymous with free-thinking, an equivalency that has had disastrous results, at least from my point of view (especially when I reflect on my years in art academia).

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Being free-spirited brings with it a willingness to take leaps, make jumps without surveying the landing; it seems more part of an emotional landscape rather than an intellectual imperative. Free-thinking, on the other hand, is different kind of openness, one that is willing to, almost required to, question assumptions, tinker with ideas no matter how entrenched. Free-spiritedness is an anti-method (no negative implication intended here), while free-thinking is fundamentally methodical and works within a continuum of rigor.

There are many paths to creativity, none of which are inherently superior to another. Creativity as about finding out what works for the individual, exploring processes and approaches that fit each persons needs. Those needs are about far more than aesthetic results; the desire for a creative practice touches on emotional, conceptual, experiential, and social goals. Creativity is enormously complex, not just in practice, but in how it is seen within the wider world. The waxing and waning of the creative impulse is intimately tied to larger socio-political dynamics; it is a reflection of cultural ideals, beliefs that are in constant flux. Society is a story written along a spectrum of conformity and individuality, and the import we place on creativity ebbs and flows along with those narratives.

Just look at the societal visions of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Whatever you may think of them, their world views are far more complicated than they may appear at first pass. Mr. Trump espouses a narrative of individualism, that by-the-boostraps story of American exceptionalism, but all of that is underwritten by a necessary conformity, is written on a background of an us/them duality that requires an adherence to the particular construct of what “us” mean. That surface of individuality is built on a foundation on restriction. Ms. Clinton’s worldview, on the other hand, stresses social cohesion (however loosely defined); it draws on the Utilitarian understanding of the common good. Policies focus on attempts at the greatest good, looking at society as a whole. But that picture is founded upon a foundational pluralism, one that believes that the notion of “us” is ephemeral, in perpetual transition and transformation. Here individuality is the foundation of a patchwork society. In effect these two worldviews are mirror inversions of each other and lead to profound differences in perspective, yet both essentially exist within that same ever-changing continuum upon which we write out conceptions of identity and society.

As I see it creativity is much the same; it comes with tendencies and affinities, inclinations and hidden assumptions. While that miraculous, bolt-from-the-blue type of creativity does occur every once in a while, more often than not those moments of inspiration have an underlying reason and reflect a set of established preferences. These preferences can be highly individual or a bi-product of current trends, but taste so often plays an outsized role in creative practice. When we search for new ideas there is an extraordinary tendency to revert to what we already know, to rely on paste experiences of success. There is nothing wrong with this (it makes perfect sense actually), but it inevitably puts a brake upon the search for new paths, reroutes us to safer paths. Intuition is inevitably built upon a foundation of taste, and that foundation is both muse and obstacle; it certainly provides guidance, but circumscribes that creativity within the bounds of established norms. In brief, our taste introduces an experimental bias, skews creativity in ways we may never be aware of. Divine inspiration favors repetition; our ideas about creative freedom are rarely free.

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This may seem counterintuitive, but methodical creativity is not the enemy of intuition; it is merely the application of method, a strategy, a means to finding unexpected solutions. When I design I work through untold variations, but not blindly. I establish a set of parameters, explore the possibilities therein, change the parameters, and then explore again, etc, etc. A quilt design may go through a hundred permutations in terms of both design and color; some of are disposed of, others are placed in reserve, opening up new possibilities and questions. The process may be systematic, but the end result remains unknown.

Methodical creativity has a lot in common with the concept of partitions in number theory. A partition is simply the way a positive number (technically this applies only to integers, whole numbers) can be written as the sum of positive numbers. For example, the number 4 has five partitions: 1+1+1+1, 2+1+1, 2+2, 3+1, 4+0. The larger the starting number, the more partitions there are. Even relatively small numbers generate a vast array of partitions, an overwhelming set of possibilities. The same usually holds true in design; when we first sit down to sketch that blank sheet of paper holds untold potential. Finding that “just right” design feels much like blindly grasping for a particular partition for an outrageously large number. In both cases we need a way to narrow the scope, and therein lies the value of method. Finding all of the partitions for the number 23 that include the numbers 7 and 11 is far easier than generating all of the possible partitions and then pulling out only those with the numbers 7 and 11. In design we might set certain formal/aesthetic rules in place and then allow our intuition to run free, but the thing about method is that when we explicitly set those parameters in place we open up a space where we can actively question and counteract the implicit effects of taste. By making our assumptions explicit, we are liberated to explore both within the bounds of our tendencies and beyond them.

For some of you this may sound extremely un-creative, methodical in the pejorative, but take a moment to look closer; there are still doors wide open to intuitive creativity. At the first there is an intuitive, even arbitrary element in the process of setting parameters. Why only explore partitions with the numbers 7 and 11? Why play with design variations that use no parallel or perpendicular lines? There may be some underlying reasons for starting out on a particular set of explorations, but those decisions may just as easily come from an inexplicable instinct, a spark of insight as to what may work. Methodical creativity, then, is a means to fanning that initial spark into a flame.

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But there is a more essential role for intuition in this process: creativity is expressed through the question of what indeed does “just right” mean. As with partitions, there is no singularly correct answer; what feels just right is more often than not a matter of, well, feeling. Creativity, for me, is as much as anything else an indefinable sensation that occurs when I stare “just right” in the proverbial eye. Though I start out not knowing what a specific quilt ought to look like, when I strike upon that one design I simply know; that originating spark erupts as a bonfire before my very eyes. As such methodical creativity does not simply produce solutions (it is not a simple matter of input/output, of sterile formulae); it a manner of exploring and working, a route toward differing ways of seeing the panoply of possibilities inherent within the infinite.

The writers I know spend more time editing than writing (indeed the two are intimately linked), the artists spend more time thinking about what to make than actually making, just as the scientists, historians, academics in every discipline spend more time in the methodically working through the details and implications than anything else. All of these people are extraordinarily creative thinkers and makers, yet their greatest work springs forth through carefully developed methods, weddings of standard practices and individual inspiration and application. Methodical creativity is about putting in the work, spending the time searching for and perfecting insight rather than awaiting for inspiration from above. Ultimately, methodical creativity is, oddly enough, a leap of faith, an extraordinary belief that each of us has access to meaningful insights if only we put in the effort to find them. Rather than being mechanical, even robotic, it is deeply human, a trusting in ourselves to see those unique possibilities, to make meaning, to be creative.

More later,
-t

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In the meantime…

So I’ve been writing a really thoughtful and detailed post on the misunderstanding of the word “methodical” when it comes to creativity for the past four days now, but as usual my body has not been on my side and the progress is slow.

So, in the meantime I’m just going to drop in this infographic on understanding invisible illness from the Burning Nights website. My experience has been on the outer fringe (the bad side) of all of these statistics.

(BTW: If I ever write a memoir, “In the Meantime…” would be the perfect title.)

More later,
-t

infographic

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