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Foundation of the Sacred Stream
A Quarterly Newsletter from the Foundation of the Sacred Stream ISSUE 17 | JANUARY 2010
Creating Pathways to wholeness
Art as a Transformative Dialogue

By Evan Bissell

Evan BissellCalifornia is 46th in the country on spending on schools and first on prisons, which in money means we are spending $115,000 per year per juvenile inmate and $8,000 for a student in a public school. But funding is only one part of the issue, a symptom rather than the root. There is an uncomfortably close relationship between the schools that are failing young poor people of color and the rapidly expanding prison system. If you look just a bit deeper you would see that in this country, 11% of black men ages 25-34 are incarcerated, you would see more than 7 million children who have a parent under the supervision of the criminal justice system, you would see the clause in the constitution that outlines prison as a legal form of slavery.

And because of the hand in glove relationship of schools and prisons, I began to think more deeply about the culture of authority, of punishment, of the absence of healing in education.  I began to question why I was not equipped, as a teacher, to begin where my students were, to begin from their places of imperfection, while also being able to share my own. I began to question why I, as the teacher, must project an air of perfection in order for someone to listen to me, or trust me, or learn with me. Because we have all wronged people or made mistakes. Most of us have cut class at least once, but the question is this: what then? There are no blank slates to begin from.

I am currently managing a project, a dialogue that is taking place across the walls of the San Francisco Jail. Six people, ages 15-18 have been paired with six adults. The younger group all have or have had a parent incarcerated. The adults all are part of the restorative justice program, RSVP, at the San Francisco Jail. I am meeting with each group once a week in art workshops. The dialogue occurs as I bring the pieces made with one group to the next workshop with the second group, so that a picture started by one person could be finished by another, a question posed could be answered and spur a new direction in the dialogue, though the entire time, the groups will never physically be together. The creative space of the workshops is to share perspective and stories, to ask questions that otherwise would go unasked, to celebrate oneself through expression. As a collaborator, I bring to the dialogue the teaching of technical skills, prompts when needed and acting as the physical link between each group. We are working with drawing, writing, painting, printmaking, and some audio. In the last month of the workshops we will begin constructing and composing the final public pieces. These pieces will be large collages of the many works made during the four months of workshops combined with life size painted portraits of each pair. The final pieces will also include audio reflections, accessible for free by calling on cellphone. These six large pieces, made up of hundreds of smaller pieces and twelve life size portraits, will first be installed together as an exhibition in the spring of 2010 that will give the opportunity to host more workshops for teachers, service providers, youth, and the general public.  Finally, the pieces will be installed in public, throughout the Bay Area as murals.

In its essence, this project is about the power of art to transform our lives, and through that, our society. It is about the power of art, the power of making things with other people as an opening of imagination, a laying down of new paths, of working with other people in order to better understand oneself.

At a different point in my life, if I had wanted to make a piece to "change" the world as it related to prison, family, and education, I would have made it by myself, alone in a room somewhere. As "the artist," I thought my power to participate in change was in what I could tell people, and they would change based on what I said or created. With so much focus on convincing other people and without tangible changes, either in others or my own sense of self, I began to question the way I was making work. 

At the same time I was teaching. It is through teaching that I really began to think about and get context for how change occurs, and what exactly I meant by ‘change’ anyway. Where did this urge, in my own life come from to "change" others? And why did this so often leave me out of the picture?

When I am teaching I deal very much with the question of how to respond to and work with the students who don’t conform, who are disruptive. In those difficult moments of the classroom, my first impulse often comes from that place of wanting to change the person who is making things run off course, my thoughts being: you need to get with the program or you need to get out. But usually, this is also something that is not hard to understand, I can see the shrapnel of their lives in the classroom, but I couldn’t really talk about it. The container isn’t right for that. The environment isn’t set up to deal with the totality of the lives, the experiences of the young folks I have the privilege of working with. It isn’t set up to create relationships with teachers and students that allow honesty and support that are about dialogue. There are teachers who do this, and there are teachers who do, work very hard to make this happen, and often most of this work takes place outside of the classroom. In effect, the school system isn’t set up to ask the question, how are we, as a diverse and varied society, going to get through this together? Instead it comes from that place of exclusion, from that place of: you, the student, will change and get with it or you’re going to get thrown to the side. 

And what is more, this mindset, this way of doing things is very closely aligned to more obvious forms of violence, and has a history within the breakdown of community and family. For people of color, poor people, and immigrants in this country there is a history of pulling and plucking individuals who are either "disruptive" or don’t conform or needed for a certain reason, with the ripples spreading out from there.  From the practices of slavery, to immigration laws allowing only Chinese, Mexican, and Filipino men to come and work here, to the Indian boarding schools, to prison today. 

So while sincerely intending to "change" the world for the better, I began and am beginning to see, how the concept of change that does not include dialogue, or collaboration, that comes from isolation, from only one perspective and which is often the one with more power, is not about freedom or love. And when I reflect on what has caused change in my own life, this is what I am really trying to get at.

This realization, or rather, this vulnerability, has been the first step in defining a creative practice and an idea of education that is transformative for me. It means that I began to search out different models, teachers and artists who were working through dialogue, through collaboration, through a risk-taking love. It meant taking that “emotional bosh” idea of love, as Dr. King said, and turning it into a strong and demanding love that you could talk about everywhere you go. Personally, it means facing anger and guilt with the history of my family; through abuse that wasn’t named, through profit from the suffering of others, through hate learned in the folds of love. It means being able to have the energy and the love to confront those things within myself, to be able to stand close enough to my parents, my community, my so-called enemies in order to really listen. This is something that I am practicing through creativity, and it is the basis of all of my creative work, of wanting to put love at the center. And it is through creativity, through collaboration that the honesty and the risk taking can occur. It is through sharing perspectives, that I am better able to see myself. 

And to me, this is the strength of working with people through creative dialogue. This is the strength of us being here together in a world that passes off a lack of imagination as practicality. What we are doing here is practical because we are working with what we have. We are pushing imagination.  And it is through doing this together now, that we change together.