In the sunshine state

I am in Los Angeles right now, I flew in yesterday. I am here to take in some sights, but I am mostly here to participate in the Manifest:Justice Pop-up exhibit. 

I have thus far been delighted by the beauty and hospitality I’ve encountered (I honestly wasn’t expecting that, Los Angeles,) and so I am at once filled with a quiet peace, yet also conscious of the gross injustice, the white hot rage, the turmoil that is still going on across the country. 

What will we call now, in years to come? Which name will we attach to this and make it synonymous with the moment? Stonewall. Watergate. Right now might be “Ferguson”, but it’s looking like Baltimore is shaping up even stranger, even bigger, even angrier. 

It seems out of touch and self-serving to remark too much on the quieter, nice things I am encountering right now in the face of this disaster. My social media lists right now jolt between the perilous, the awful, the tragic; then suddenly to someone’s curated artistic lifestyle feed. A meadow with a floral headdress in gauzy twilight.  

But it’s also easy to be crushed under the weight of all this, particularly when it is — after all — not your community and not your story. That’s the cruncher, I think. The sinking, ashamed feeling of: if I can take the time to see so much beauty, and appreciate it so intensely, doesn’t that out me as not truly, deeply, completely effected by the chaos? Am I in fact a privileged being experiencing such luxuries as travel and jaywalking without an arrest? 

Probably. So how to use that privilege for good, not self-serving things?

At no point am I trying to commandeer the story — it’s another reason I struggled so much with the open call as I mentioned before. I want to serve that story, help tell that story, because the more people we can get telling that story — and the different-er their backgrounds — the more people will hear that story. But I know it isn’t my story, and the best people to tell that story are the people who are experiencing it

But it also doesn’t get one off the hook. You still owe that story your attention. Perhaps all the more because it is NOT your story, and it is bigger than any story you’ve yet encountered, for it spans so many generations before your story began. You need to listen to it. You need to listen and listen and listen and learn all you can from it. 

Ron Finley: Eco-lutionary

First up, a little backstory: a couple months ago I was invited to participate in a show in LA called Manifest:JUSTICE. This will be the most recent in a series of Manifest:[x] shows, but arguably — given the upsetting racial climate the country is in — the most important. 

Some things never change
Some things never change

The latest…er, second-latest incident of a white police officer killing an unarmed black person just received a murder charge, which helps but does not begin to solve the problem. 

There’s no straight answer for how many, exactly, since even official counts can be marred by institutional bias. But I think we can all agree we exactness is really not the issue here. How many? Too many. That article was written in late 2014, and since then the twitter and tumblr murmurs have gone from angry to bitter, to downright heartbreaking.  

It leaves the illustrator feeling a different sort of helpless at the enormity of it all. Because really, how many times do you have to say it? It’s something felt to be so true by one audience, and so untrue by another. How do you cut through the politics and the bias and get right down to the heart of the matter? 

This character is white because s/he has the privilege of being handed something. Black children, it seems, are not handed things. They are mowed down by white authorities. 
This character is white because s/he has the privilege of being handed something. Black children, it seems, are not handed things. They are mowed down by white authorities. 

The best pictures about things like this achieve what an english professor of mine would describe as “doing something with the corpse.” Any old fool can ridicule, criticize, point fingers. That’s child’s play. The real trick is finding a solution within the muck and change minds, win hearts, make a person understand. Something

Having said that, it is foolish to try and solve racism for an art show. (I did try. For longer than I want to admit. It all makes me very, very angry, these injustices, and unfortunately as Chinua Achebe writes of Okonkwo in “Things Fall Apart”: Living fire begets cold, impotent ash.) 

Fortunately, ash can also be rich soil.

I started over, looking for people who are just rolling up their sleeves and DOING, rather than fretting. (Or, profiting from other people fretting.) One of the people I thought of immediately was Ron Finley, a man who lives in South Central Los Angeles. He got fed up with the lack of healthy food options in his neighborhood. So he planted a garden on the greenway in front of his house.

Very simple sounding — this interview does not mention the citations from the city, the going to court to protest the citations, the petitions that had to be signed in order to let them essentially beautify the bland and feed the hungry with dignified food.

So, not simple. But not COMPLICATED either. Very straight forward. There was a need, he sought to address it. And will it solve EVERYTHING? No. But will it help the people in his community? Yes. I think it will. I think it does. In more than just the obvious ways. 

The food is self-evident. What isn’t is the psychologic benefits of doing something like this. Gardening has very tangible before / after moments, and I can tell you that even an hour’s weeding can make you feel like a king. There’s the upping of one’s grit score. (You start a thing, you finish that thing.) And then there’s the morale that is boosted when you bother to but effort into making something just look nicer.

John o’Donahue, in his interview with Krista Tippett (and probably in his books, to be sure) mentions the often neglected but incredible psychologic importance of beauty, and in particular mentions the tragedy of people being doubly impoverished by the ugliness where they live.

I want to read a whole book on something like that, we get so many signals about who we are and what is expected of us from our surroundings. To be surrounded by beige and geometric neglect is detrimental for a person. Period. No matter their age, or background, or proclivities, or political leanings, or economic circumstance. 

I’m an artist, so I really go for ideas like this and I really feel them. But I think even people who don’t consciously know this might feel something there too. Would you rather walk down a street lined with giant trees, or squeezed next to a busy road between traffic and impervious sheer walls?

Anyway, that’s the direction I launched into for this show. 

Bird Nerd

The other night I was working late at the studio and during a cloud-gazing break I think I identified my first osprey of the season.

Really. I mean it.

You can’t tell from this picture — I couldn’t REALLY tell from that picture, and of course I can’t be sure because I had neither my good camera nor any binoculars to speak of. But I think I’m right. Here’s how I got there:

I first noticed the crows dive-bombing the top of that construction crane. There were about three of them and they were definitely picking on something. I noticed a bird up there, much bigger than the crows. Crows often pick on birds of prey like this, usually while they’re in flight (crows being more flappy and nimble than the birds that soar).

We’ve a pair of bald eagles that nested atop a radio tour in the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge last summer, and one of the adults is still hanging around with the yearling, much to my delight and astonishment. (I saw them arguing in trees the last time I was down there, and they were about fifty feet away.) So urban sightings of birds of prey are not unusual here. I’ve heard we have a pair of Peregrine falcons that nest under the Fremont bridge (oh, be still my heart) but I haven’t yet seen them, and anyway this bird was bigger than a falcon — the book says a Peregrine will be “near the size of a crow”. This wasn’t, this was bigger, and of the Known Resident Suspects that put it in the eagle / osprey category. But which was it?

We’ll have bald eagles year-round. Ospreys are seasonal and the local chapter of the Audubon society has been saying to keep a look out for them since a few weeks ago. I’ve never seen either species out my studio window, but I’m only nine blocks from the river, so it isn’t inconceivable, just weird. And the eagle in Sellwood has a Thing about construction equipment — I often see him perching on or around the machines when they aren’t rebuilding the bridge down there. So I’m rather suspecting this thing to be an eagle.

The crows move on and the bird remains, moving around a lot but it’s hard to see from my window. The rain is starting again but I run a few blocks over for a closer look.

This quick look isn’t much better, but it’s enough to confirm a few things.

No eagle I know of has markings like this.

So I defer to: osprey. The first one I’ve seen all season. I will check the rare bird sightings list from this week to make sure there isn’t something AMAZING and WEIRD and ACCIDENTAL hanging around the eastside industrial district, but barring that I feel fairly confident in my identification.

And that’s how you get the magic bird eye that I admired so much when I was five. Some of it is Actual Visual Knowledge, but a lot of it is just the application of educated guesses and somewhat-scientific narrowing-down. So often birds are darting past you, or shuffling around under a bush, or perched far out of sight in bad light like this one was. Knowing which birds are inclined to dart, shuffle, or perch in the first place is a great skill to have. It gets you closer to a positive identification.

Sometimes you can’t get much closer than I just did with this maybe/probably-osprey. But considering it was a dot being harassed by smaller dots, I’d say that’s pretty good.

A great way to procrastinate, at any rate. Back to work!