Death and Life

Through September and into November, in between marathon Art Bag Lady writing sessions at the Berea College library, I have been engaged in a number of art experiences with at-risk and artistic youth via the after school program with William Wells Brown/LEXengaged @UK, and the Day of the Dead festival at the Living Art and Science Center.  I’ve also been stalking (well, walking!) the historic Richmond KY cemetery — thus the title of this post, Death and Life.

Last year, just 8-10 weeks after Owen’s death, was very difficult. Halloween was a nightmare, November, except for a day or two, a blur. I am so grateful, therefore, to have this year’s celebratory life and death holidays and my involvement in them for comparison.

As part of LEXengaged I helped facilitate a field trip and scavenger hunt at African Cemetery #2 with dozens of little and big students taking photographs of headstone symbols and writing about the unique markers they found. It was a beautiful day, and beautiful to watch the kids interacting with the space and one another.

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I am most grateful to have been involved in the upbeat and positive Day of the Dead Festival hosted by the Living Art and Science Center on November 1. The nearby Episcopal Cemetery was open and embellished with candles and decorated altars; there were colorful dances in the street, food vendors well worth the wait, and art activities inside that I helped facilitate.  It was a joyous, wondrous evening despite the rain showers.

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In looking for a place to get my daily walk in Richmond, KY, I decided to check out the old, historic cemetery,  have been entranced with new memorial art every time I visit.  Some of the stones are quite old, and many so personalized it is heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. It is a bummer that picnics are not allowed!

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Photography with LEXengaged & at-risk youth in Lexington

Here is the first installment of a photography project I am facilitating with college students and at-risk youth in Lexington.The focus is on symbolism and metaphor as portrait.

 

ArtVention Installation, September-November 2017

I’m Still Here banner, collaborative art from ArtVention September 2017

Gallery on Main, a community gallery in downtown Richmond, KY, invited SAFE project coordinators/facilitators to install ArtVention artworks for viewing from September to November.

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ArtVention is an art empowerment and healing project focused on suicide education, prevention and awareness, funded through the EKU SAFE program within the Psychology Department at Eastern Kentucky University. I coordinated and supervised the ArtVention event on 9/13/17, in which suicide bereaved and survivors engaged in three visual art projects, one of them collaborative, creating a sense of community and healing from suicide experiences.

ArtVention at EKU, September 13, 2017

On 9/13/17 I had the pleasure (and awe) of helping to create an art-based, post-suicide prevention experience at Eastern Kentucky University’s Noel Studio For Academic Creativity. Held in honor of World Suicide Prevention Day (a concept I am only beginning to tolerate and consider, since my own loved one’s suicide), ArtVention is a unique art experience for all who have been impacted by suicide. Participants are encouraged to identify and visually express feelings about suicide via guided visual art activities. It’s not art therapy — it’s art empowerment led by a working artist who uses art to help herself and other vulnerable  people survive and thrive.

We began with a hand “sign in” with medium on a blank sheet of muslin, which disappears when it dries — like the loved one we lost. Halfway through ArtVention we hit it with paint to make our marks reappear, a metaphor for the love we will never lose.

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Participants also created  a “before/after” collage guided by words and materials chosen for their positive/negative impact.

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Lastly, ArtVention participants made Tribute Flags for themselves or the person they lost.

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The best part of all, as usual, were the revealing and healing conversations that struck up while I interacted with participants, and they interacted with each other.  Both the flags and the collages will be part of suicide awareness exhibits coming up in 2018.

Thanks to the EKU Suicide Awareness and Focus on Education (SAFE) grant, the volunteers who helped with ArtVention, including recent EKU graduate Abigail Emerson who came up with the idea, Crystal West who found and transported the cardboard and fabric (cut out lots of collage material!) and Dr. Melinda Moore who invited me as a teaching artist to make it happen.

 

Upward Bound at EKU

Reminder on stairs in art building, EKU campus, Richmond KY

I had the pleasure of connecting with Eastern Kentucky University’s Upward Bound program in June and July 2017, and worked with many amazing, promising young people as a result and on several innovative art projects!

Our first project: Create a sign like those that the homeless carry, but put on it something about oneself that viewers couldn’t possibly know by simply seeing you. This yielded many touching and surprising confessions.

What You Don’t Know Is…signs by Upward Bound EKU students, summer 2017

Project 2: Create an artist book out of paper bags, and begin cover art on it. During this project I discovered how many creative types I had!

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Project 3: Thanks to a PFE sponsored artist workshop I attended as a VISTA Leader, I shared with enthusiastic Upward Bound kidz the construction of miniature “crankies” — storytelling devices used during music and vocal performances to better engage audiences.

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Project 4: Tagging, stencil cutting and spraying! Upward Bound @EKU students learned about the style of graffiti alphabets, how to brainstorm and create their own tag, the fundamentals of stencil cutting (which is more complicated that one might guess!), then sprayed their creations. A lot of these kidz already had impressive spraying skillz!

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Summer 2017 work with Living Art and Science Center, Lexington

Sprayed banner, detail, Street Smart Art

I recently joined a group of amazing teaching artists at the Living Art and Science Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Their mission is in perfect alignment with mine: “engaging the community through education, discovery, exploration and creativity….collaborative experiences for the community, and educational programs in schools, community centers, and other venues to reach special needs, at risk and underserved children and adults”.
I am so excited to be part of this artistic community!

My first arts experience for 3rd-5th graders was Street Smart Art, introducing them to graffiti styles, vocabulary and (sanctioned!) activities.  We explored designing our initials, and transforming them into tags, we practiced tagging until we got it down to three seconds, we designed words expressive of ourselves in graffiti style, and we learned to cut stencils and spray them successfully. Some of the kidz had real skillz, apparent on the day we went outside and sprayed a panel and canvas banner.

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ID ART

My second art experience with LASC kidz was ID Art — art about ourselves, from a fine art and design perspective. We explored our wishes and dreams with word and image collages, created logos, created designs for business cards, used the LASC gallery and the high school art exhibit for inspiration about the many ways to illustrate ourselves. Some kidz made free art at the end of each class period.  Coming up next: Crazy Creative Quilting!

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My work with LexEngage

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Through a fortuitous meeting with staff at the Lexington Living Art and Science Center, I am now connected to University of Kentucky’s unique LexEngage program.

LEXengaged is a first-year residential program on UK’s north campus, close to downtown Lexington, in which civic engagement is applied to students’ day-to-day life. Through course readings, discussions, guest speakers, and off-campus tours, participants gain a greater understanding of the larger community, focusing on engagement, service learning and social justice.

My job as a teaching artist is to help UK students interact with students at William Wells Brown via unique visual art experiences that focus on the topic of homelessness — something near and dear to my heart.  Our first project was “Who I Am” in which students built trust and understanding via tracing each others’ bodies and filing them in with name designs that expressed who they are using color, line, shape, placement and size — basic design concepts.

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Our second project on February 15, 2017, was based on the Cardboard Stories collected by Orlando Florida’s ReThinking Homelessness project.  UK and William Wells Brown students made a list of words associated with the homeless, then discussed how those things — dirtiness, torn old clothing, etc. — are just superficial signs and are, in many ways, the way we look at times and for reasons other than homelessness. This pressed home the fact that the homeless are indeed “just like us”.

Then students brainstormed a list of things about themselves that no one would know by just looking at them.  They picked a few and transferred them to cardboard, and we hung them up and talked about the funny ones, the sad ones, and especially the unexpected ones.

The Lone Tree Planting, 11/12/16

The Owen quote

The Owen quote

On November 12, 2016, friends and loved ones had a small memorial ceremony for Owen Chaney in downtown Evansville, Indiana.  This world lost Owen on August 22, 2016, when he chose to take his life in Berea, Kentucky after a long battle with addiction, mental illness, and three years of chronic homelessness.

Everyone who knows me knows I loved Owen, and I join many who knew Owen to be a loving, kind, generous, talented person even while plagued by the stresses and illnesses of his adult life. Or maybe in spite of them.

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In memory of Owen we planted a sycamore tree on the lawn of the Zion Church opposite the homeless shelter where Owen and I met and made art between 2013 and just a few short months prior to his untimely death. Owen loved nature and he loved sycamores, which he called “ghost trees” in keeping with Native American lore, and in reference to the color of their trunks and limbs. They literally glow in the dark on moonlit winter nights. Sycamores are also called “trees of life” because they have tremendous longevity, up to 600 years, and symbolize intuition, shelter, nurturing…among other things.  They also grow very fast and, to me, symbolize the surviving and thriving that Owen was never able to accomplish in this life.

A pack of Marlboros, the smokes Owen preferred, will show up at the base of The Lone Tree now and then, so those of you who are desperate for one can help yourself. I often witnessed Owen giving away his last cigarette to someone he thought needed it more than he. You are also welcome to stop by and put a memento on the sycamore, which will be nurtured by members of the Zion congregation. Many thanks to them, Pastor Kim, and the generous donations of Owen’s friends in attendance for making the tree planting possible.

AmeriCorps VISTA Training at Pine Mountain Settlement School 11/10/16

The VISTAs I support, along with another VISTA Leader and several Partners For Education staff, organized and led several workshops (trainings) at Pine Mountain Settlement School in Bledsoe, KY on November 11.  Couldn’t have picked a more beautiful place — or more passionate and dedicated VISTAs and supervisor to host our event. I also designed our new t-shirt!

Of course, we had to begin with art — a sign in sheet the length of several tables — and I had to work art into my presentation on end of service Reflection and Sustainability Plan!

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As part of our day the PMSS VISTAs led us on a hike of the beautiful, historic, extensive grounds. They also taught us two contra/folk dances — and I remembered how much I once loved dancing!

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Becoming Aware…

I attended my first suicide awareness event on 10/26/2016, at Eastern Kentucky University: Walk For Hope sponsored by the Richmond/EKU National Alliance for Mental Illness. I became aware of this event through a support group I joined after losing my beloved friend, close companion and artistic collaborator to suicide on August 22, 2016.  As anyone who has suffered such a shocking loss can tell you — Owen’s death has changed my life.

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I believe this was the first event of its kind at EKU, and it was very well organized. The speakers, one who lost a son to suicide, were wonderful, and passionate as they told stories and explained their mission to help those affected by suicide — including the bereaved. Here is a link to a unique organization represented at the Walk For Hope, Shelby’s Way. The music was moving too.

I wish I could include more photographs of the crowds that attended — but I can’t. They weren’t there.  In fact — and maybe because I am one of the bereaved — I felt the curious and anxious eyes of pedestrians that passed us upon us as small, tight groups of supporters and sufferers sat and listened to wistful tunes and powerful stories of love and loss.  I could actually feel the stigma associated with the taboo subject of suicide as if it was catching, like an easily communicable disease.

With numbers of suicides in the area rising, this has to change. I hope I can be part of initiating that awareness-building and empathy encouraging change.  I think the very first thing I will voluntarily do is facilitate the creation of a beautiful, eye catching banner to hang at next year’s event.