Saturday, March 24, 2012

Garbage as Art

“The moment when one thing turns into another is the most beautiful moment.”

Thus superstar Brazilian artist Vik Muniz expresses something of his motivation in using unconventional, found materials to create surprising photographic portraits of marginalized people. He once used the sugar from their crops to portray the deprived children of Caribbean plantation workers.

As he was working to create a project using garbage, searching for the subject of the portraits, filmmaker Lucy Walker chronicled the discussions and the process. The journey led Muniz to the catadores who pick through Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. The resulting film, Waste Land, (I watched it on Netflix) shows that after meeting the catadores, Muniz decided to turn the project into a collaboration with them. (Read and see more here.)

Essentially self-designated pickers of recyclable materials, it is difficult to imagine a more marginalized population than the catadores. They pick through the garbage discarded by other Brazilians to find valuable recyclables.

Waste Land
portrays the dignity and suffering of these workers. Muniz decides to give the proceeds from the photographs he creates of the finished pieces to the catadores. The funds, which were significant, were used to improve their lives: the building of a community center, a library, an education center, and to maintain trucks for the pickers union that one of the catadores founded.

Jardim Gramacho is scheduled to be closed this year, and the association of pickers is joining efforts to provide job training so that the catadores can find other employment and betters lives.

The Sundance Film Festival said that Walker’s film offers “stirring evidence of the transformative power of art and the dignity that can be found in personal determination.” But it is Muniz himself who shows us how art can elevate materials and how it can elevate humanity. This is art, and artistic process which produces real change in the world. Transformative. Generative.

There is something amazing about the miracle of one thing becoming another. It is the creative moment. The pickers look at garbage and see things of value. Muniz takes recyclables and makes art.

What are you transforming? What are you generating?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Art as voice

In the rear-view mirror my youngest son’s face was only an outline. But I could make out the shape of his cool new glasses, and see that he was looking out the window as we drove through a Tennessee thunderstorm last night. I wondered what he was thinking about.

I have been reading and thinking about disability a good bit in the last several months, and I ask your indulgence as this entry may veer off the road of art, theology, and culture. Or maybe not.

About two and half years ago, my son, then fifteen years old, was transitioning off of the serotonin reuptake inhibitor that helped him sit in his schoolroom and control his impulses (which others, including me, found disruptive), in preparation for a change of prescription.

It was as if he came briefly out of a fog. The evidence of this was a week during which he began to draw colorful images. They were clearly inspired by a trip to the grocery store and a close encounter with an aquarium of live lobsters and crabs.

Amazing. Detailed. Dynamic. Colorful. No staying inside the lines, because there were no lines. These were original and creative.

Then, as the new medicines had their effect, that creative expression disappeared again.

We have struggled to help him find his voice, and release his expression. His thoughts. His needs. His questions. His opinions. His way of seeing the world.

What he finds happy or sad, beautiful or terrible, just or unjust, tasty or awful. What he imagines and dreams.

Then, yesterday, neither coached nor encouraged to do so, he picked up his colored markers and drew.

An artistic impulse. A creative initiative.

This little drawing is a reminder that he is there.

Perhaps waiting for us to help him out of his box, filled with fog.

Riding in the car, maybe he was thinking about bugs and other crawling creatures. Or about drawing something. Or maybe he was finding the power of the thunderstorm amazing. Or wondering if the wind was cold.

Or maybe he was imagining what it would like to dance with a beautiful girl in the rain.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Gabon, Water, and Choices

Today I went to the public library and checked out the three books they had about Haiti. We are planning a trip there this summer to staff a medical clinic, and serve in whatever way we can. Over the years I have led many short-term teams, and met wonderful people in desperately impoverished places.

On a reconnaissance trip to Gabon years ago, I arrived into Port Gentil. We were warmly received by a pastor, and then driven inland to the small city where the church and the guesthouse were located. We had traveled from the capital by arranging passage on an over-night freighter full of bananas and furniture, and I was covered with black soot. We had packed lightly, so the women who would be cooking for us also offered to wash my clothes. It was a relief to know that I would have something clean to wear.

The next morning the pastor took me out on the lake and away from the main fishing port, back into the smaller coves and inlets, to the neighborhoods where many of the people he served lived.

These were groups of homes built with scavenged wood, all about ten feet above the water, with ladders down to the boats that they used for fishing and transportation. There were footpaths into the city, but no roads. The isolated area was surrounded by marshes and swamps.

It is difficult to describe what the houses looked like, but the tree-house that I once built for my kids was a palace in comparison. Kids were everywhere, playing on the wooden planks and a network of bridges that connected the houses. Some were jumping into the water and swimming, some sitting and playing.

The lake was used for everything: catching fish and cleaning them, transportation, sewer, recreation, cooking and drinking. And laundry.

I saw the ladies from the church, washing my clothes on some boards.

There is something in us that likes to think that most of what happens in life can be controlled. That we can make choices.

There are about a billion people in the world that don’t have clean, safe water available to them. And this is something they cannot control. They either have access to clean water or they don’t.

That trip was in 1986, a distant memory. But I remember thinking that there were probably three or four generations of people living in those shacks, perched over the water which was at once a source of food and of illness. I thought about it as I ate the fish and rice the family had prepared especially for me. And again about six months later when I was under treatment for some kind of parasite that I was hosting.

Today I remember the kids jumping off the docks. I guess they didn’t read Rick Steve’s guidebook, which clearly warns about swimming in fresh water lakes.
The illusion wanes, and in time we return
to our noisy cities where the blue
appears only in fragments
high up among the towering shapes.
Then rain leaching the earth.
Tedious, winter burdens the roofs,
and light is a miser, the soul bitter.
Yet, one day through an open gate,
among the green luxuriance of a yard,
the yellow lemons fire
and the heart melts,
and golden songs pour
into the breast
from the raised cornets of the sun.

from "The Lemon Trees"
by Eugenio Montale
(Translated by Lee Gerlach)