Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Sheila's Talking Notes from 9/10/15

Anne Dalke's picture

[hoping to Skype, but mostly on speaker phone...]

Really looking forward to getting to know you this semester. Last night I read your responses to the questions I posed and was delighted at how knowledgeable and engaged you are with the subject of incarceration. The diversity of students in this class will greatly enrich the dialogue. I have written some brief responses to all of you.

Before I begin, I would really like to know you a little better before we begin. Could you go around the room and say your name, your major, your year and why you chose to take this course. And, are there other questions which you would like to see added to my list of questions?

 I suggest that each of you pick one or two of the questions I posed and try to focus on them in terms of your personal research during the semester. You might make a folder for this class having to do with your personal research and create a Word document of those questions I posed. As you continue through the semester and find answers to or ideas related to those questions, you can add that information under that question. In this way you can begin to build information that might be helpful in some way later in the semester. I this folder you can have other folders in which you collect images, relevant articles, a list of important websites, etc. Be sure to annotate where you find these resources so that you can include these sources in future work.

Google subjects of interest and start collecting articles and images. For instance, I just googled Prison Economics and found a lot of articles on the subject. We are very lucky because researching on-line today has made finding information so much easier. So begin to use this tool in behalf of your own curiosity.

Also start a word document, your own private quiet space, in which you note quotes by people, your own reflections and observations, word plays, dreams, etc. On this page I allow myself to be more intuitive and free associate ideas when I felt like it. Sometimes during the day I have an insight or a word play occurs to me. I always carry a little notebook and try to write my thoughts down on the spot (because I tended to forget them quickly) and later add them to this page on my computer. This became my own personal world of ideas, thoughts, feelings, recollections, poems, etc. I considered this the incubator page(s) in which I could free associate and return later for ideas. As an artist I treasure this unfettered space for my ideas and feelings. I hope this will be helpful to you during this class.

You need to know that I am also an activist in Los Angeles. I testify almost weekly before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors against the building of new prisons in California or jails in Los Angeles County. Some of you might want to research current legislation in Pennsylvania or Philadelphia that pertains in some way to incarceration. In Los Angeles there is a group called the Youth Justice Coalition comprised of young people in their teens who monitor legislation, both on the local and state level about bills pertaining to incarceration of youth. They travel to Sacramento to testify about incarceration issues and create writing campaigns urging legislators to do the right thing. Some of you may want to learn about current legislative issues and educate the class about them. Its important to learn that life is not a rehersal, that you can learn to speak truth to power. However, its important to learn how to be effective. Last year students at Columbia University got their school to divest from the private prison industry. They were effective.

As an artist I have come to believe that an expert is not someone who knows all the answers. Rather, an expert is someone who believes that he/she can figure them out when questions arise. So, I hope that you individually and as a group can work together this semester in the most generative way in order to maximize everyone’s experience. It will be important to allow the multiplicity of perspectives of people in the class to be heard and to realize that different ways of seeing or thinking enriches our understanding.

I think of this as a workshop. The mind set for this needs to be generosity and sharing. The sum total of expertise in this room is far greater than any one person’s, any one teacher, any one artist. So, from the beginning everyone needs to start sharing technical information, resources, opportunities. Throughout the semester we will discover that each person in this room has his/her own unique way to contribute to what we accomplished this semester.

Often in the middle of a project I am overwhelmed by having too much ‘stuff’ which I cannot imagine how I can use or fit in. That is the ‘I think I’m going to die’ phase where I’m sure I’m going to fail. In the forty plus years that I have been doing artworks I have found that this phase means that I am truly learning something. Eventually I simplify and prioritize the information as a begin to clarify what I want to say.

You have the unusual situation this semester of being with the same group of students for three classes. That means that you are all going to know each other very well by the end of the semester. I have found that the more deeply people come to understand themselves and others during such protracted time, the more powerful their final work becomes. The adage “The personal is the political” worked very well for my students at Pomona College. Another related adage is “The more personal a work, the more universal the work.” You will have an opportunity, especially during the second half of the semester, to work individually and collectively on artworks, theater, scripts, etc. that have suggested themselves to you during the class. However, you don’t have to wait until then to begin. You can start sketching ideas now, or not. We are all different in this regard. Honor your own process and discover what it is in this class.

I am an artist who since 1999 has been working on issues related to incarceration. I started because I had learned about the Mumia Abu Jamal case in Philadelphia. How many of you know about this case? Can someone tell us about it?  Mumia in the early 1980s was sentenced to death row for a crime which many people believe he did not commit. I did a twelve part art work in which each part clarified yet another aspect of what was wrong with his case. I also felt that what happened to him was not an anomaly but needed to be understood in terms of the history of black people in the United States. So, I juxtaposed each page of text with a photograph from the history of black people in the United States to remind the viewer of the larger social and political background for his case.

This is how I tend to frame all of my artworks, in historic and socio economic context.  As I continued to learn about the prison system in the US and California I found a graph showing the growth of incarceration in the US from 1930 – 2010. I used this graph as a basis for a large 8’ x’ 14’ mural about the history of treatment on non-white and poor people in the United States. The reason I am bringing up this mural is because I found that sometimes I would find a seemingly small thing, like a little graph in an economic report, and realize that I could blow it way up to form the basis of a huge artwork. So, I began collecting images, graphs, statistics, text as resources without knowing at all how I might use them but thought I should hand onto them on my desktop. I made sure to always source the things I collect so that I can properly annotate them when I finally use them.

The best artwork comes from passionate curiosity and a desire to effectively respond to the world. Your passionate curiosity is your best friend. Often one cannot explain why one is so curious about a subject. But, I have found that if I trust my curiosity, it reveals far more than I anticipated and ultimately gives me the basis for making my art. So, as you move through the semester, you will find that something, an idea, an image, legal principles, etc. catch your attention and that you are curious about them. Go for it. Research it as fully as possible. Follow the links that you are curious about as well. You may end up far from where you started, but the trip will be interesting and will broaden your understanding in unexpected ways.

This semester you will be going into a woman’s prison and doing writing classes with incarcerated women during the semester. It occurs to me that you might want to generate a book of their writings by the end of the semester which they can help to organize. In order for you to produce a quality book of their writings and possibly their artworks, you will need to know Photoshop and InDesign or a similar page layout program.

Because you are going to do creative projects by the end of the semester in this class, it occurs to me that you could use their writing as a basis for your own final creative project here. You could create a performance based on their writings which could include other elements as well, such as posters, artworks, projections, films, singing, dancing, costumes, etc.

I just saw a production on Broadway called “Fun Home” based on a very dark subject, the coming out of a man who owned a funeral home, its effect on him and his family and his eventual suicide. Even though this play had a heavy theme, it was laced with wonderful and very funny songs and asides which added an important other dimension to the experience of the heaviness of the larger idea. During the second half of the semester you can decide as a class what direction you want to go in, in terms of your final creative project. The suggestion of a group production I made above is only one way for you to go individually and as a class. You might want to end up doing something completely different.

I have some questions:

  1. I’m curious about your personal experiences with regards to incarceration. Have any of you been incarcerated or had friends or relatives who were incarcerated? Can you tell us about those experiences and their effect on you.

  2. I want to understand how much expertise is in this room. Could someone take some notes of the names of people who respond. Photoshop, InDesign, web pages, illustrator, theater productions, script writing, dance, costume design, poster design, painting, drawing, sculpture. Has anyone here ever made a book? It would be great if during this semester each of you challenges yourself to learn a program you don’t already know at the moment. Go to the others in the room who have indicated that they have experience in this area for help. And/or go to your IT department to broaden your abilities. This way, near the end of the semester there will be expertise here to do a final artwork, be it a wall work or a performance or …. That has wonderful visual and auditory dimensions. And, if possible the work that you do could be put on-line, if the class has the expertise to do it. So, right now, while you are sitting here think of at least one area you would like to get better at this semester and aim to do it.

Many of you wrote that you have no artistic skills. Please know that I believe that everyone in this room has something she can contribute. Your best friend is following your intuition and doing things you like to do, in this class, and in the rest of your life. By the end of the semester we will need all of the combined talent that is in this room to make a terrific final project. My way of knowing if someone is an artist or not is that I ask them “What are you doing?” If they say, “Wellllll, I don’t know,” then I know that I’m talking to an artist. Because usually artists are willing not to know what they are doing for a while. They aren’t afraid to get into a project without knowing where it is going. They trust their curiosity and passion to know and let the process unfold. If you are willing to take the adventure of your spirit and your curiosity, then you and we all will end up with a final project that is far beyond our grandest dreams.