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Saturday, August 28, 2004


It's Saturday again, ...

as the hours and the days and the months and years pile on mercilously.

The meeting with the 27 young teachers went beautifully. I thoroughly enjoyed their visit, and felt a deep sense of pleasure that I'd been invited into their lives for those two hours.

They'd decided to break up their visit to the park into two parts; they would meet with me on Monday for a Q&A, and then return on Tuesday to explore the collections in the (temporary) museum.

In preparation for the visit, I dug out my own artifacts from home to share with them; photographs of Leontine Allen Breaux, my slave ancestor; pictures of relatives and events from earlier times; the marriage license of my great-great-grandmother, Celestine ("of no last name"), and Leontine's mother -- and the Cajun plantation owner, Eduoard Breaux who was her legal husband. Framed it some years ago to remind me that I'm the product of a long line of brave souls who crossed a lot of unimportant lines for the sake of love. Brought the thick sheaf of papers received from the Army that made up the service record of my great-grandfather, George Allen, Sergeant in the Civil War, having served in the Louisiana Colored Volunteers. There was a newspaper clipping of 17 year-old Betty Charbonnet (moi) that announced the winners of a beauty contest held at the World's Fair on Treasure Island in 1938. No, I didn't win, but finished as one of the top three. It was fun to share these treasures.

Tried to give them some context in which to ask their questions. It worked well. Through those two hours I hoped to convey that this living breathing elder was imprinted by slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Revolution -- that it's embedded in my DNA. That there are no abstractions here. I could see by their faces that they got it.

Was unable to meet with them on their return tip on Tuesday since I was scheduled to attend the board meeting of the Proposition 40 Arts & Historic Preservation Board at the capitol in Sacramento, all day. Since outreach and public relations are my primary areas of responsibility, we didn't meet to follow up on Monday's work. I'd like to have done that, but will visit their charter school later this fall. They plan to create a product of some sort from their field trips, and that will fit nicely into my work. Their work will be around the topic of "what is missing in history as taught? What is not represented, and how do we retrieve those stories?"


More on Dorian's art:

Dorrie stayed home from NIAD most of this week due to the onset of some minor stomach upset that failed to fully bloom, so the promised visit from her brother, David, was postponed. Yesterday she returned to class. In the early afternoon she called on her cellphone, to say that David and a lady friend had visited the studio to see her work, that they'd brought her a bouquet of flowers. Her voice held all of the excitement that was expressed when Bob had come last week.

When I picked her up at the usual 2:30 end-of-day, I didn't just wait at the curb, but went inside to take another look at her huge "quilt day-flo piece" that I spoke of in my last NIAD report. I'm so glad that I did, because viewing it alone, without the distraction of a buzzing reception going on in the background and the need to chat politely with other guests, I saw much more:

This time Dorian explained the picture to me. "There's the two kittens (couldn't make these out but clearly she saw them), and over on this side are Speedy and Gracey (her two adult cats, recognizable from ears, whiskers, and tails, and color). And there YOU are." I looked more closely and saw beyond the blue shape that she pointed out before. My mother's eye and artist's soul had too quickly "interpreted" the blue blob as what I wanted to see as "mom." Not that is wasn't there. But there was so much more. The brilliance of the cobalt blue in the sea of scarlets and oranges and phosphorescence had masked another layer that lay just beneath. There was, indeed, a woman with hair, facial features, arms and legs, but all subdued, almost shadowed in browns, and blended in a way that obscured the woman there. The predominant feature was still that blue "core" that was located in her mid-section. It was so much richer to share her work without the distraction of others.

There remains some element of mystery for me since I know that her impairment lies in the destroyed brain cells that control visual perception. It's difficult to know how she sees, or, how her art reflects what and how she sees. What is plainly obvious, though, is that there are no limitations on her ability to express feelings in color and line (or lack thereof), and to communicate that to anyone who views her work. Everything is unstudied and free and guileless.

It dawned on me that there might be something to be gained by mainstreaming some "normal" people into the world of NIAD for the sake of freeing the muse that is so often restricted by the expectations of "the world." Looking around the studio yesterday -- after having a personal interpretation of her work by Dorrie -- I wondered if this might be an adventure in art that might be offered to others. I'd enroll myself, except that it would be an invasion into a world that is clearly Dorrie's. Might suggest such an experiment to the staff, for potential artists needing to be freed from themselves and their perceived limitations. I've always objected to mainstreaming for Dorian, but this would be in reverse, and the disabled would be in the majority and not the "different" ones.

Crazy? Maybe, but then maybe not.

Photo: A mosaic created by Dorian -- made of Mardi Gras beads, bits of glass, marbles, and whatever else she could find that met the pattern in her mind ... and quite beautiful.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Oh! I must tell ...

say something about Thursday evening's reception at NIAD, (National Institute for Artists with Disabilities). Dorian's work is just phenomenal! She's working on interesting surfaces; huge 4'x8' canvasses and old discarded quilts that she gives new life to. This is such a wonderful program that should be emulated everywhere. But having had Dr. Ellis Katz and his wife create this wonderland of possibilities for people like Dorian is enough to be ever grateful for. Richmond is so much the richer for its existence, and for the exceptional group of artists who've devoted their lives to freeing the souls of those whose bodies and minds have so limited their capacity to live as fully as the rest of us. Under their patience guidance, this is changing dramatically for those fortunate enough to spend the hours and the days as "artists" in every medium possible (ceramics, painting, textiles, jewelry-making, block-printing, etc.). It's such a magical place to "BE!"

Loveliest part was that Dorrie's much-adored brother, Bob, came up from San Juan Bautista where he's lived for many years, just for the occasion. She was ecstatic! He was beaming with pride at her accomplishments, and she knew it. He was surprised and delighted and Dorian and I were equally so in response to his obvious joy. She had one piece in the exhibition, "My Flower Garden," that was a lovely pastel made from a block print. But the dramatic almost Day-Glo-colored quilt piece that hung prominently on the spacious studio's wall was the breath-stopper. It was oranges and pinks in many shapes of many sizes, but in the middle was a blue "blob" that she described as "mom." Amazing! There was nothing but the color to represent me, no faint image of a feature or suggestion of an action. Only the blue in a sea of brilliant reds and oranges. In one corner there was a vague representation of her two cats -- ears, whiskers, etc., but in rusts and browns and recognizable. Only "Mom" was a deep blue shape with well-defined edges. Nice?

It was so wonderful to have Bob with us even for that brief visit. The character of the visit, the honest pride he showed in his sister and her work caused me to escape to a corner of the gallery for a quiet moment alone and a search for a napkin from the buffet table with which to dab the accumulated pride from the corners of my eyes ...

Her brother, David, called to offer his apologies to Dorrie -- couldn't find a replacement so had to work that evening. He's arranged to visit the gallery tomorrow for a private tour with her tomorrow or Tuesday.

Maybe I'll photograph some of her work and post it at some point.

She is bursting with expression and color and light and pure unadulterated joy!

Returning to live at home has been a good thing. One look at her unrestrained freedom -- daubed and painted and glued and sewn into these magical pieces is so affirming of our lives together.

And, she's now sold two paintings. Okay, so one was sold to her mother earlier in the summer, but it counts, right?

The art world is the richer for a new talent. NIAD's staff has accomplished wondrous things with her and with the others under their artistic wings -- others who are doing such remarkable work in an atmosphere of such caring... .

Life is good.

Learned mid-week from my supervisor ...

that a young principal from a Bay Area charter school has requested a guided tour for her staff of 30 teachers. It would be an in-service training requirement in preparation for the fall semester. I took the little slip of paper and gave her a call. She sounded bright (white), cheery in that kind of "up-talking" way of her generation. She told me that hers was a school with a student body of around 280 young students, 60% Latino, and characteristically "Inner City." Only a few minutes of conversation told me that this was not a dilletante, but someone clearly interested in churning up some of the untold stories of World War II, and using the park's resources to create ways to cast light upon the unrepresented. I liked what I heard. That sixth sense thing that operates somewhere behind my eyes clicked in and I knew that this was an important assignment -- and that the "why" would come later.

We agreed that she and one of her staff would visit the very next day, and that we'd begin plans for her workshop. After about 45 minutes together, before the two of them set out to visit the old Richmond Museum in the Iron Triangle (more about that later), we agreed that on Monday (tomorrow!) they would come. Upon making a decision that this could be an important event, I sent an email to my supervisor of my intentions, walked into the City Clerk's office (we're located in City Hall), and requested permission to use the council chambers from one to two-thirty tomorrow afternoon. Fait accompli! Done deal. Age grants one the right to assign "importance" to things in life, and I'm finding that principle seems to work pretty well. I will do a Q&A with them. They'll also meet with our park interns and explore some of the Rosie collections of stories and artifacts that have started to accumulate, the assigning of accession numbers, cataloging, and storing now fully underway. We're fast-becoming a museum. My role in all that is beginning to come alive. Having this experience will start the process. Another re-definition of "Betty" is underway, and my excitement is growing.

For instance, in our relatively brief conversation on Friday, and some reading of documents now in my files relative to the African American experience of the time, I learned that black women were the last to enter the home front work force. First, as white males were entering the armed forces in great numbers, women began to take their places in the war industries. That would have been in early 1942. Later that year black men started to move into the "hot, hard, and heavy" parts of the war plants (at lower wages than either white men or women). It wasn't until 1944 that black women started taking their places on the assembly lines in the shipyards. Some of the plants in the airplane industry never integrated. These were largely eastern war plants. Some of the parts manufacturers began to hire black women.

It's fascinating to now read (here at my desk) documentation contained in theses and studies done over the years that confirm much of what I've felt in isolation for all these years. To be in a position where I, and others like me, can validate those studies is of real value. Through our personal experiences we become a part of the measureable "outcomes" that give life to words that otherwise convey little more than ghosts of the past.

The obvious and most ironic part of this story is that black women -- for the most part -- took the place of white women in the kitchens and laundry rooms of the country, doing the cooking and taking care of the kids and enabling white women to become the "Rosies' of the time. In one study that I read an African American woman was quoted as saying, "..it took Hitler to get us out of white folks' kitchens!"

The Rosies whose stories I'm now reading are the women of my generation. That is, then, the source of the frustration and delayed anger and resentment that bubbles up in my throat like a bad case of heartburn day after day in recent weeks! I'm only now beginning to be able to give it a name.

I'm also just now realizing why I've been so unenthusiastic about participating in any of the womens' movements over the years, why women of color have been so reluctant to align with the National Organization for Women, and the National Womens' Political Caucus, until fairly recently. There is still an echo of that time when -- in the early days of the Feminist Movement, white women were enabled by black womens' continuing lack of opportunity to enter the work force or halls of higher education. When WE were the keepers of the children, and housekeepers that allowed THEM to declare independence. I simply never believed that our problems were the same. My native intelligence had led me to the truth buried somewhere deep in the abortion movement -- the original intent to control the black population through Eugenics and the terrifying concept of the creation of a Master Race.

Yet, the wisdom of a woman's right to the control of her own body and the right to determine when to bring life into the world are non-negotiable for me. Nothing could convince me otherwise. But the echoes of those earlier fears of a higher and more terrifying level of control over my body still linger to damper my ardor around the issue.

Confusion? Yes. And it's stultifying!

Where I've marched with Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers, celebrated with others the gains made in racial harmony through the work of Walter Reuther, and hailed A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Pullman Porters union as ground-breaking, my attitude about unions in general has been highly colored by my WWII experience as a member of the staff of a Jim Crow auxiliary that held absolutely no power and was not honored by the national body in any way. That carries over to today. I'm schizophrenic about unions and it sometimes gets in my way, politically. Theoretically, I know that they must be supported as the singlemost powerful antidote to excessive corporate power. Emotionally, I'm cynical about how their power is used at the local level and for the benefit of whom?

To be an African American is to be powerfully impacted by the residue of rage borne by centuries of deprivation and inequality. To be an American is to share the guilt of the unrealized dream of democracy and the shame left in the wake of that history. That history and the uncorrected course left in its wake continues to cost the lives and souls of so many. Being both an African American and as an American by birth and over 300 years of history in this country is to live on the edge of sanity much of the time.

Compartmentalizing is an art perfected of necessity in the ghettos and prisons of this nation, and may be the only possible response to that which can never be addressed in the whole without risk to mental stability... .

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