Billy here. The theme of the week has been getting out into the city and exploring the art that is out there – the art that exists intrinsically everywhere, the art that has been made by humans, and the art that is waiting to be made. In my twenties I absolutely demonized humanity. I thought that no good came out of industrialized life (still wavering on that one) and that most of what humans have done on the planet is destroy its integrity and biodiversity. I was a rebellious (and mostly self-destructive) misanthrope. But the older I get the more I am aware of how ignorant I am!
Over the last week I devoured a collection of essays by Gary Snyder, a poet and ecologist, published in a book called A Place in Space. This reading has revitalized and given words to my childhood heartfelt conviction of a dire need to reconnect with our place within nature without doing away with our cultural evolution. The confines of a rigid patriarchal traditional society can be questioned in today’s world. We can mostly now, depending on the region, look at what worked and what did not, being relatively free to live outside of traditional or religious imperatives. But some of what we have lost is a sense of place and our connection to the food web.
The world has changed drastically since the 1950’s. In social avenues, this has been largely positive. The civil rights movements have shaken up white male privilege, though not nearly enough. Change is generational, they say. In technological ways, the computer, the internet and space exploration have completely remapped our world with mixed results. However, in economics, military and subsistence, the world has changed in ways that are primarily not positive: massive deforestation and pollution in the name of progress and development, species extinction and invasion of habitats, and the deepening of a physical and cultural genocide that started with the dawn of imperial industrialism, to name a few. Capitalism has become dominant and modes of thought that are not geared toward “progress” are highly discouraged. Progress in capitalistic terms seems to be expansion, and expansion was gained historically first by outright slavery and then by fossil fuels and wage slavery. Unlimited expansion in a finite world is literally impossible and a sure recipe for population overshoot and die off. There is no such thing as sustainable development. Development, in principle, is not sustainable.
This is such a quick turn for the species Homo sapiens. In a mere sixty years, the planet has changed more rapidly than in the entire history of humanity – another mere blip on the timescale of the Earth. The entire closed system of the water cycle – recycling the same water repeatedly – turns water around from the bottom of the ocean, back up into rain and snow, down into the aquifers, then back up again takes an estimated total two million years. Homo sapiens evolved out of Homo erectus roughly 1.8 to 0.2 million years ago. Our entire existence on the planet does not span one cycle of water, a cycle that has happened roughly 2,300 times already on Earth.
And what does this have to do with art, you ask? Art, as well as story, music, and dance, is a thing that has evolved with us out of the incredible being that is Earth. It is, like the birth of rational thought, something that emerged out of nature. We are intelligent because nature is intelligent. We are creative because nature is creative. So why isn’t expansive growth a part of nature? Well, it is, just like invasive species and cancer! But it isn’t sustainable, and this is a word that has been diluted in the last ten years…this calls for the work of trickster, of art…to remind us that dominance is ephemeral, and the only thing that lasts is water.
Humanity, like any other species on Earth, is capable of creating beauty and terror both. The two are braided together. On hot drought days like these, a feeling near panic starts to build, but I try remember the songs, the ones I learned on the wind and from the owls as a kid. That’s what keeps me going. It’s not hope, because hope is a kind of waiting, but something more active than that, something we have to do everyday. Something like determination. Or love.
Spence here: Summer is here in full bloom. I am shocked to learn that Multnomah County (the county encompassing Portland) is currently under a fire ban. I am aware it gets dry here in the summer–this is not a mystery–but I have never heard of a ban here in 15 years. Our summer started early–in April, and we were at 15% of snow pack–so I get it, but that doesn’t make it any less unbelievable for such a lush, vibrant, and (seemingly) wet forested area.
In any event, Billy and I braved the heat for a few days and hit the pavement, scouring for “art”. It seems there is an “Art Walk” almost every week of the month–First Thursdays, First Fridays, Second Tuesdays, Last Thursdays–we are lucky to have an abundance of favorable supportive venues. Many of my favorite pieces however, were found on the abandoned blocks of town! I love to turn the corner of a building and find a painting, intentional or not, on the side of something dilapidated, that takes my breath away, with intricate colors, complicated shapes and enough juxtaposition to fill 100 fancy magazines! There were a few formal galleries downtown, showing some really amazing work–Blue Sky Gallery (I got lost in their photography), P:ear Gallery (for homeless youth) and The Everett Street Lofts were among some of my favorite spots.
Something downtown, however, turned my heart and my stomach into depressed, confusing knots: the contingent of homeless and mentally ill folks. This has always been a part of any city-scape, and especially Portland, maybe because of the mild winter weather, I’m not sure. But as the city grows exponentially, it seems the homeless and mentally ill populations are growing right along-side. Everywhere we turned, so many suffering people, many ironically acting like zombies with physical ailments, schizophrenia, most malnourished, drugged up or just plain broke. I never felt particularly in danger, but just filled with an overwhelming sense of loss, anger, sadness and powerlessness to do anything about it. Only a couple people asked us for money and no one was really bothering anyone, but just the sheer numbers of people suffering was enough to make me want to get the hell out of downtown.
This city is only working for some people. The unemployment rate of People of Color between the ages of 16 and 19 in Portland is 55%! Compared to the national percentage of homeless People of Color (7%), Portland came in at a whopping 24%. There isn’t a single neighborhood left in Portland where Black or Native American people can afford a 2 bedroom apartment. (All statistics came from the City of Portland 2015 Housing Report and the Urban League’s latest report, State of Black Oregon).
I appreciate the efforts people are making towards connecting the dots, but it seems they are few and far between. Some individual artists have paired up with good organizations, such as the Oregon Conservancy Foundation, and Willamette Riverkeepers, as well as a gallery holding space for homeless youth (P:ear Gallery, some of my favorite pieces were there!) There is the amazing Sitka Center on the Oregon Coast, blending art and ecology, and Caldera Arts, and some public water reclamation sculptures. Sadly, a gallery I was looking forward to was closed for the holiday, Quintana Galleries, housing Indigenous Art. Nike, Adidas, Intel, Wieden-Kennedy–these are the corporations making big money off artists in the form of advertising. But how does this affect the actual health of our communities? Sure some of the stuff is super slick and cool, but how is funding a $50,000 party downtown helping anyone with real world problems? When art is soul-less, who is it really for? Maybe I am struggling to connect the dots myself.
It was good to get out there and see what people are doing and talk to people trying to get by–it was good to listen. It is inspiring to see people continue to smile and be friendly who have nothing but a raggity backpack. It is easy to get disheartened. But we can’t afford to. We have to keep doing things we love–putting art out there which heeds a call of responsibility and love. We have to embrace creativity and intelligence of all species in order to change this shit around. Today I spent most of the day painting. This week I sent off several poems to different magazines, in hopes that someone will read my work and feel something of an inspiration, regardless if it gets published. I wrote a new song and wept when I sang it to Billy. I went out this week to try to find genuineness and heart and it was successful in that we found some–even if it was unintentional or difficult.