Category Archives: Uncategorized

Emily Mendelsohn, Fulbright Fellow, to direct Asiimwe’s play in Uganda

Emily Mendelsohn Photo Credit: Cal Arts' 24700

A Fulbright Fellowship will take director Emily Mendelsohn (MFA, CalArts ’09) to Uganda where she will study how artists use traditional performance to tackle pressing problems in society. While there, she will direct  Cooking Oil, by Ugandan playwright Deborah Asiimwe about the impact of international aid in developing countries.   In previous years Mendelsohn studied  genocide and conflict resolution during study tours offered by Cal Arts and the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Program in Rwanda. (See my post, “Making Art In Troubled Times”) .

While in Uganda Mendelsohn will also  audit courses in peace and conflict resolution at Makerere University in Kampala.

For more on the Fulbright and the production of Cooking Oil see this article in 24700. and check out  this video  featuring interviews with Emily Mendelsohn, Deborah Asiimwe and filmmaker Qadriyyah Shamsid-Deen, another Fulbright Fellow.   All three women are graduates of California Institute of the Arts.

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Coming To A Community Near You? Arizona’s Volatile Immigration Battle

 

"Is this the change you promised us? Barack Obama Where are you? What's next?" Banner at May 1st rally in Los Angeles. More than 50,000 people attended. Photo Credit: Lydia Breen

 If you think  SB1070 has little to do with you or minorities in your community, think again. At least ten states are considering legislation similar to Arizona’s law.  Democratic lawmakers in Washington are  also studying aspects of  to see if it can be used as a template for tough measure on comprehensive immigration reform.   During May 1st demonstrations across the country,    tens of thousands of people called for a boycott of  Arizona , demanding comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level. Will Latinos  get President Obama  to make good on his promise of meaningful, just immigration reform? Or will the “Big O” equivocate while nativists  score political points by spreading fear in local communities?  The following article takes a closer look at SB 1070.  ( The bill has not yet gone into effect. Legal challenges could block it all together. 

Maricopa County's Sheriff Joe Arpaio seems as happy as a pig in mud with SB 1070. The bill has emboldened his nativist supporters. Now Arpaio says he may run for governor. Credit: change.org

In Arizona, it seems like the “birthers” are running the ranch,  where folks like  Sheriff Joe Arpaio bask in the glow of the SB 1070.  Even Republicans are split on the bill.  Business and civic leaders in the state are upset  that the backlash from a boycott could have a troubling economic fallout.    The right-of-center  Arizona Republic went on the war path in a front page editorial last Sunday, saying  the bill panders to people’s worst fears about immigrants while doing little to bring about badly needed reform   [Click here to watch a great interview with David Zirin talking about  how pro atheltes are speaking out in favor of a Arizona boycott.]

Congress is responsible for passing laws that will secure our borders and regulate immigration in a just manner.  But, for years,   Congress has lacked the courage to act. Not ones to miss an opportunity, the birthers  (who don’t even believe the President of the United States is legally in the country) are ready to take up the slack. 

Ten states are now considering immigration laws similar to Arizona’s SB1070, including Missouri, Maryland and Nebraska – none of which have high numbers of undocumented people. In Ohio,  sheriff Richard K. Jones is backing a state-wide initiative to get an Arizona-style  bill on the ballot. (This in spite of the fact that Ohio’s Hispanics, most residing legally in the state ,  constitute  2.5% of the state’s population.) 

For some insight on how this plays out in local communities, a new documentary shows how immigration was used to divide a community in Prince William County Virginia, an area far from the nation’s southern border.  Watch “95000 Immigration”.  Click here for  THE TRAILER then check the schedule on the web site to see if it may be playing in a theater near you. 

The voice of tomorrow: "Legalization or No Re-election"

SB1070 – low hanging fruit 

A central measure of the bill would make  it a crime for undocumented people to seek work as day laborers. This targets the poorest of the poor immigrants while doing little to crack down on drug traffickers and terrorists. Nor does it g after sweatshops owners, agribusiness and others  who exploit undocumented workers. 

May 1st rally in Los Angeles protests Arizona SB 1079. Photo Credit: Lydia Breen

 Instruction manual not included 

Under SB 1070, if  a police officer stops someone for any reason, the officer  must inquire about  their immigration status,  provided  the officer has “reasonable suspicion” that  the person stopped is in the country illegally.  (Previously, Arizona law required an officer to ask about immigration status only if a serious crime had been committed or if a serious crime was being investigated. ) 

A few days after it was passed, the bill was amended to say that an officer may not use race as sole grounds for reasonable suspicion.  But it does not specify what criteria  (accent, clothing, demeanor??) should be used.  Further, if a citizen who has reason to believe that someone is in the country illegally, the citizen can require the police to investigate. 

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik didn’t mince words, calling the bill “disgusting,” “racist” and “stupid.”  In an interview on Democracy Now he said: 

“This law will have no impact whatsoever on illegal immigration. None at all. We already have the authority. We didn’t need it…When the law was first passed… every Hispanic in this country, especially in Arizona, must have [felt] like they’d been kicked in the teeth, like they’re now second-class citizens.  They have a target on their back because when they leave the house they’re going to have to take papers with them and prepare to be stopped and questioned. That, overnight, has made Hispanics second-class citizens.  ” – Clarence Dupnik, Pima County Sheriff  

 Officer Martin Escobar, a naturalized U.S. citizen with the Tucson Police Department went further  by saying he would not comply with the bill if it gets passed into law.  Escobar has filed suit against the state saying it is impossible for police to enforce the law in a non-discriminatory 

"Life, Love, Family" a band from the Baldwin Park neighborhood of L.A. participated in the May 1st rally

May 1st Rally focused on Arizona's immigration inequities

manner.  He claims the bill will sour police relations with immigrant communities and hinder investigations of serious crimes.    Not all law enforcement officials agree. Some, like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, is delighted with SB 1070, as he continues his raids and rampages in the immigrant neighbors in Maricopa County (which includes Phoenix and Scottsdale.)   But a recent L.A. Times article state that  70% of the people arrested by Sherriff Arpaio and his boys in the  Sherriff’s Department had Spanish surnames. This,  in spite of the fact Maricopa County  is only 31% Latino, most of whom are legal residing in the or U.S. citizens. 

Arpaio, who made his name by profiling Latinos (he says “illegals” are his top priority, more so than drug addicts) and forcing prisoners to endure disgusting conditions,  has  molded his own profile on along the lines of a stereotypical redneck cop.   No matter  Thanks to SB 1070,  the guy liberals love to hate is drooling in the limelight, claiming he may even run for Governor. 

“Help Wanted” , “No Trespassing” 

Faith leaders are taking up the call. Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles spoke out eloquently against the bill,  calling it “unconstitutional ” and racist.  While Mahoney has lost much moral high ground by equivocating over  protecting children who were abused by priests operating under his authority,   he has long been a strong advocate for immigrants’ rights. 

photo credit: Lydia Breen

The cardinal criticized Governor Jan Brewer and Arizona lawmakers for failing to provide a definition of  reasonable suspicion when writing up the bill.  ( “They can’t,” he said in a L.A. Times article.”Because you’d come up with ‘brown skin, black hair and ‘listens to ranchera music.’ “) 

In his recent blog post, “Arizona’s dreadful anti-immigrant law”,   Mahoney writes: “the tragedy of the law is it’ s totally flawed reasoning: that immigrants come to our country to rob, plunder and consume public resources. That is not only false, the premise is nonsense.” 

Mahoney goes on to describe the inherent contradictions of the bill: “What led the Arizona Legislature to pass such a law is so obvious to all of us who have been working for federal comprehensive immigration reform:  The present immigration system is completely incapable of balancing our nation’s need for labor and the supply of that labor. 

“We have built a huge wall along our southern border, and have posted in effect two signs next to each other. One reads, ‘No Trespassing,’ and the other reads, ‘Help Wanted.’ The ill-conceived Arizona law does nothing to balance our labor needs,” he wrote.– Cardinal Roger Mahoney, Archdiocese of Los Angeles  

A day laborer waits for work where he can get find some support at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, 2008. Credit: NY Times Institute

Church members will not comply 

Other faith leaders are also speaking out. The Reverend Alison Harrington, pastor at Southside Presbyterian Church recently told a large crowd of the faithful: 

It is immoral, unethical and unjust; and as faith leaders we are called to struggle against sin, to call our leaders into repentance and to call our community into action. 

The new bill forbids citizens to hire and/or transport undocumented people.  But members o faith communities around Tucson Arizona say they drive  undocumented people to Sunday church services.  Calling the bill a “sin,”  Harrington and others say they will not comply with the law. 

Big Brother:  binoculars and a database 

It’s hard to see where all this is going without a national biometric identification card, to be required by all working citizens.  The current draft of the Democrats bill in Congress proposes as much, preferring the more palatable term “biometric employment verification.” But groups like the ACLU have strong concerns about the proposal.’s impact on our privacy – a on-going battle during the Bush Administration. 

Concern that fear mongering on immigrant issues will lead to an erosion of our privacy were underscored by an article published Sunday in the Arizona Republic.  The article describe an increased use of surveillance cameras throughout Phoenix,  which Arizona ACLU’s Executive Director Alessandra Soler Meetze said may lead to a “surveillance society”  without a  transparent reporting process in place. 

Adding weight to the argument, Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein wondered  if Republicans wondered where Republicans will stand on the issue of identity cards.  Will they try to sink the idea as another attempt by  Big Brother Obama  to stick his nose in our business? Or will they let the idea fly, as they did by giving  Bush got a green light to fight terrorists by accessing citizens private telephone numbers. 

 A country forged by dreams 

The dreams, talents and hard work of our immigrant ancestors shaped this country.  While it is true that we now live in different time, with different pressures on our resources,  the values that guide us are the same as they were when our country was founded. 

The dream goes on

Current day immigrants continue to help keep our country strong.  At a time when we are face with so many complex, difficult questions, we need all the help we can get.   SB 1070 could set a tone that codifies a system of second class citizenship.   It is a concern that compelled Archbishop Desmond Tutu – a man all too familiar with pass laws – to write: 

I am saddened today at the prospect of a young Hispanic immigrant in Arizona going to the grocery store and forgetting to bring her passport and immigration documents with her. I cannot be dispassionate about the fact that the very act of her being in the grocery store will soon be a crime in the state she lives in. Or that, should a policeman hear her accent and form a “reasonable suspicion” that she is an illegal immigrant, she can — and will — be taken into custody until someone sorts it out, while her children are at home waiting for their dinner. – Archbishop Desmond Tutu  

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In 1985, two years after the birth of her son in Tucson, Lydia Breen produced and directed the  documentary, “The Lord Is Blessing Me…”about Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson and the decision  members made to declare their church a sanctuary for Central American refugees fleeing the fighting in their region. Reverend John Fife, then Southside’s  minister along with several church members were arrested and convicted of harboring  illegal immigrants. Now retired, John Fife and current pastor, Rev. Alison Harrington, and others at  Southside  say they will refuse to comply with SB1070. 

 

Leucadia: The Sunday Farmers Market With Rosie Daley

Rosie Daley goes green at the Sunday Farmer's Market in Leucadia.Credit: Bob Bretell

Shopping with Rosie Daley is like boarding a roller coaster –you just hold on and go along for the ride.  A dedicated  locovore,  this vivacious chef believes that  good food shared with friends and family  is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Perhaps it was her enthusiasm for fresh food and healthy living  that motivated Oprah Winfrey to hire Rosie in the 1990s as her personal chef.  The two collaborated on a book, “In the Kitchen with Rosie: Oprah’s Favorite Recipes.”  Rosie co-authored another book,  “The Healthy Kitchen: Recipes for a Better Body, Life and Spirit” (Knopf, 2002), with integrative medicine expert, Dr. Andrew Weil.

Apples for apple date bars. Photo Credit: Bob Bretell

 Most Sundays you can find her at the Farmers Market in Leucadia (Sundays 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. /185Union Street (at Vulcan) Encinitas, CA. / Map /  on the school playground of the Paul Ecke Elementary School)   where she shops and chats with neighborhs like fire fighter Steve Meichet who plays with “TheLeucadia Locals.” (See related story, below.) 

Rosie, who calls herself a culinary artist,  takes a spontaneous approach to cooking, planning her meals according to the food available at the market,  in her own garden, and the staples on hand in her kitchen.   “There’s nothing pre-meditated about coming here,” she says. “That’s the fun of it.”

Because it’s at the school yard, it’s more like a family outing.  The kids get to meet the farmers and see where fruits and vegetables  come from.   It’s a chance to talk with your neighbors,  get some fresh air and exercise.  There is also music, and smiles.  It’s a social occasion.  Rosie Daley 

Richard Frost and Rosie Daley at Farmer's Market in Leucadia Photo Credit:  Bob Bretell

Richard Frost and Rosie Daley at Farmer's Market in Leucadia Photo Credit: Bob Bretell

 Cruising along the rows of more than 65 vendors, she stops at a stall to get  composting tips from  Richard Frost, a geologist and passionate gardener who sells seeds, starter plants and mulch.

 At another stall, she inquires about a farmer’s health.  “He’s been sick and we haven’t seen him for a while,” she explains. “Whenever anyone is not here, we miss them.” 

Tasting a gigantic plump date, she pronounces  it “delicious”  and considers how she can used dates in the meal she will cook later on for guests.  

  “I can serve them in a salad with greens and feta cheese,  or stuff  them and bake them for an appetizer.  Apple date bars for desert is also good.”

Bakery goods and prepared foods also on offer. Credit: Lydia Breen

Get live reports from the farm. Photo Credit: Lydia Breen

 Guavas are in season, so she scoops some up to decorate her kitchen counter. Moving on, Rosie buys feta cheese and greeens, and some locally-grown blood red oranges; she will freeze the juice in ice cube trays and add them to hibiscus flower tea.

 Making the case for locovores, Rosie Daley says locally-grown food stays fresh longer and requires little preparation.  “When you have fresh ingredients you don’t have to do that much to them.”  She  says she likes to shop regularly at the  market because the items on offer change frequently.  “If you don’t come for a week or two, you can miss out on something.”

 

The market has seven certified organic growers. Photo credit: Bob Bretell

 A few more  items go into Rosie  basket and her shopping is complete.  At the shaded picnic area, she joins Donna Butnik, a fellow members of the 101 Artist Colony.  Both women painted banners for the Arts Alive Banner Contest and volunteer to work with kids to make art from recycled materials.

 The market has seven certified organic growers, a drawing card for the many health-conscious surfers, runners, bikers and practitioners of yoga who live in the area.  Locovores say they make the Sunday Farmers Market in Leucadia  part of their weekly routine. Many like to walk or ride their bikes there, whiling  away part of the day shopping, listening to music, visiting with friends and eating – Jamaican, Indian, French, Mexican, etc.  Parents love the market because the fenced-in schoolyard is free of traffic  and it  has a play ground.

 

Green Power

In cooking demonstrations she occasionally hold around the country, Rosie talks about how  people can incorporate healthy foods and healthy living into their lives.  “I try to show them how to make food fun.  And I tell them to make sure that they don’t miss out on what’s important in life.” 

Rosie Daley’s trip to the Sunday Farmers Market in Leucadia shows she likes to practice what she preaches.

Photo: Lydia Breen

Leucadia Farmers Market – Sundays 10 a.m. p.m. /185Union Street (at Vulcan) Encinitas, CA. /Manager: Ron La Chance / (858) 272 7054/ Map /   On offer:  65-70 vendors (7 certified organic vendors).  You’ll find produce, prepared food, plants, jewelery etc.   Covered picnic tables, fenced-in playground and music most Sundays http://www.sdfarmbureau.org/BuyLocal/Farmers-Markets.php 

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  Loco and Laid Back:  The Leucadia Locals Garage Band

The Leucadia Locals will play at the Farmers Market in Leucadia on the last Sunday of the month throughout the summer. Pictured: Steve Meiche, guitar; Harley Feinstein, drums; Kirk Cumming, guitar and Oliver Kolpin, guitar.

 The Leucadia Locals are a garage band without delusions of grandeur.  “We like playing  for our neighbors,” says guitarist Steve Meiche, who claims the Sunday Farmers Market in Leucadia  is a perfect venue for them.  “When  you play in a club, the audience can be very critical.  The vibe here  is so accepting.” 

 These guys are in it for the fun, playing a mix of Honky tonk, country and rock, a style that Meiche calls “a funky blend, much like Leucadia itself.”  In May, the Leucadia Locals  will be play at another hyer-local venue,  The Encinitas Sports Festival on Moonlight Beach (May 15-16th).  You can also hear them throughout the summer on the last Sunday of the month at the Farmers Market in Leucadia.

Most of the musicians have other gigs:  guitarist Steve Meiche (fire fighter), drummer Harley Feinstein (attorney),  guitarist

Tile artist Roz Light. Public installations featuring her work can be see around Encinitas.

  Oliver Kolpin (C.P.A),  Tony Horner (pediatrician)  steel pedal guitarist Bob Siggins (neuroscientist)  and saxophonist Baird Whatley (architect).  Guitarists Kirk Cumming and trumpet/guitar player Tim Winter are  full-time musicians who  play occasionally with the band. 

The group’s size changes from five to seven members – or more, depending on who is around at the time.  It’s an easy-going approach to playing together that is reminiscent of  the neighborhood brass bands in New Orleans.

The group  came together when  Meiche was practicing in his garage and his neighbor came over and asked  if he could join in.  In time,  other neighbors and friends came on board.  (It’s how things seem to work around Leucadia, an informal place full of creative people.)     

 “When you walk through the streets of  Encinitas, you can always her music, “ says Meiche who who books gigs for the band.    “From professional musicians to amateurs… jazz musician Peter Sprague lives around here, so does  guitarist Nina Anderson and Ben Redmond of Super Wave.”

In April, they  played at the Encinitas Garden Festival and Tour, where plenty of  local art –  including art by of his wife, tile artist Roz Light,  was on display in backyard gardens, fences and walls.   “There  are a lot of artists here,” explains Meiche  “ It’s all about art and music.”

For more info on the Leucadia Locals,  email Steve Meiche:  stevemeiche@gmail.com 


 

  

 

Shaun White Finds Inspiration at YMCA Skatepark

Shaun White at the YMCA Skatepark in Encinitas, CA credit: ESPN Magazine

“I’ve been coming here since I was six.  I’d beg my parents to take me and they’d eventually drop me off for a couple of hours. I skated every day at this park. I learned all my tricks here. It’s my inspiration.” Shaun White on YMCA Skatepark in Encinitas, CA as quoted in ESPN Magazine, 2008

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See Related Post: Homeboy Shaun White Wins Gold!

by Lydia Breen

ENCINITAS, CA. Shaun White isn’t the only pro to skate at the Ecke YMCA Skatepark,  but he and Tony Hawk are surely the most  famous.  Many of the world’s best skaters have honed their skills here, skating side-by-side with kids as young as five, some even younger.      The entire sport has been enriched by the interaction in Encinitas between skaters of varying abilities.   In 1995 Tony Hawk took a talented nine year-old Shaun White under his wing.  Other local skaters surely helped White advance, including Mike McGill who invented the McTwist. in 1986.  Twenty-four years later at Vancouver, White seconded McGill’s act with a Double McTwist 1260, nailing his reputation for skating the half-pipe heads over, under, around and through the competition.   (For the science of Shaun, see this clip on:  “The Double Cork.” another of new trick White had up his sleeves at the Olympics.  For great videos of snowboarding tricks see this link. )

Shaun at 18 Credit: Shaunwhiteonline.org

How does White manage to get so much air out of the pipe? Mike Wilson, co-manager at the Ecke YMCA Skatepark, ventures a guess: “I think his pumping technique helps him reach those heights. The way he bends down and positions his legs. When he’s pumping, he’s putting a lot more effort into it…He lands tricks like they’re nothing.”

White goes heads above the competition Credit: wiwi.tv

To see how Shaun gets so much air, see: 60 Minutes segment about Shaun White and Tony Hawk doing tricks at the YMCA Skatepark.  (See also cool photos from that shoot)

Mike Wilson was a 15-year-old street course skater, entering competitions around Encinitas, when Shaun White was just coming up in the sport. “At first he couldn’t do an Ollie or a kickflip,” explains Wilson.  “But he got good real fast. His progression was so good – faster than anybody else.”

Mike Wilson, co-manager, Encinitas YMCA Skatepark (foreground) as a young skater, Caleb Van Neil, watches Paul-Luc Ronchetti, a skater to keep your eyes on in up-coming competitions.

Could White’s skateboarding skills have helped him win the Gold in snowboarding at Vancouver?   Wilson thinks it’s likely:  “You learn to be more technical when you have to land on wheels…”

(For Shaun White’s own comments on his altitude see this link. )

Homeboy Shaun White talks to kids at YMCA Skatepark in Encinitas, CA Photo credit: Lydia Breen, Cafe Libre

During the summer White takes a break from snowboarding.  That’s when you might find him at the Encinitas YMCA, where he is able to shed his superstar status, relax and be treated pretty much like everyone else.    “He’s a really nice guy,” says Wilson, who explains that the young skaters think it’s normal to share the park with so many well-known pros.

YMCA skatepark instructor, Sammy Lee, shows how it's done.

“I think Shaun has good memories here. He grew up skating here.  When he comes, it probably makes him feel like he’s a kid again.” – Mike Wilson, co-manager Ecke YMCA Skatepark, Encinitas, CA.

Mike Wilson eyes new crop of talent a day after homeboy Shaun White won the gold at Vancouver Credit: Lydia Breen, Cafe Libre

Wilson’s first job at the Y came in 2002 when he got a summer job at the skatekpark.  By 2008, he was co-manager, along with Heather Randant.  The job fits him like a glove: “I really can’t imagine doing anything else.  What job could possibly be better than this?”

San Diego County is said to be the skateboarding capital of the universe and the Encinitas YMCA Skatepark sits at the center of this world.  Skaters have moved here from afar – Brazil, England, the east coast – just to hone their skills at this park.

Annika Vriklan is a dedicated skater at YMCA in Encinitas Credit: Lydia Breen, Cafe Libre

Mike Wilson is a gifted, generous teacher who is glad to share what he has learned from years of street course skating:  “I feel like I get the sport. I’m happy to spread that knowledge with the kids here.”

Caleb Van Neil gets pointers from a pro Photo credit: Lydia Breen

Caleb Van Neil gets pointers from former pro Neal Mims Photo credit: Lydia Breen

Lesson accomplished Photo credit: Lydia Breen

Making Art in Troubled Times

“Untitled #10” Adam Wolpert, 2009

“Our lives are attended by a remarkable beauty, a beauty that extends to the dark things.  I have come to see that light and darkness are dependent on each other.  There is a tenderness that emerges when you come to love both. ” – Adam Wolpert, environmental artist

Survivors of  genocide suffer traumatic experiences unknown to most of us.  Art may help us understand.  But making art from other people’s trauma can be both ethically challenging and emotionally draining.  On study tours to Rwanda and Uganda artists learn to bear witnesses to the stories they hear from survivors.   The first step is to master the art of  silent, compassionate listening.

A TENDER EMBRACE OF THE DARK  SIDE

by Lydia Breen

On a summer evening in 2008, four young Ugandan women sit outside their classroom under the glow of a single battery-powered light bulk, talking to a small group of visiting playwrights about the 20-year reign of terror they experienced under the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Child from Northern Uganda Photo credit: Joseph Michael

“It was a theatrical setting,” said dramatist and teacher Erik Ehn who organizes study tours to promote conversations between artists and survivors of mass violence. The trips are a collaborative project between California Institute of the Arts and the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Center in Rwanda (IGSC). 

The four Ugandan students belonged to a group of of war orphans and former child soldiers who had been traumatized  by Uganda’s brutal war waged by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Anea Grace (who is not connected to this story) was abducted and forced to have a child with an LRA commander. She was shot in the leg while escaping. Credit: V.Vick, NYTimes

“They were members of a community of people who had experienced trauma at a level unknown to the rest of us,” said Ehn, explaining that the headmaster at the school encouraged his Ugandan students to testify as part of their healing process.  Still, Ehn remembers feeling uncomfortable with the encounter:

“We heard these very harrowing stories. It was not the first time the students had told them.  But there was something about me that felt like a butcher.  It was abrupt, brutal and incomplete but not entirely inappropriate.”

Conversations begun on the tours continue at the Arts in the One World Conference held at the California Institute of the Arts in the United States  to help artists, students, teachers and scholars discuss how to make art in times of extremity. At this year’s conference ( January 21-24, 2010) the group explored the challenges artists face writing about the traumatic testimonies of survivors.

Ehn says that survivors’ testimonies can help the outside world understand what people have been through.  But artists would do well to receive these testimonies  with humility and respect.   The first step is to act in a way that  invites a person to talk.  The process of silent, compassionate listening can help survivors believe in themselves and be themselves.

Director and writer Emily Mendelsohn was a Cal Arts student when she visited the Ugandan school with Ehn and others. Now an alum, she co-teaches a class to prepare students for future trips. She says one of the main goals of the tours is create opportunities for artists to hear survivors’ stories first-hand.  “There is directness in sitting down to say: ‘I want to hear your story and you want to tell it. Our role is to listen to what happened to people and learn where they are now. We aren’t there to solve problems.”

What are her own recollections of the meeting with the four Ugandan women?

“I have a memory of images, faces and bodies. It’s a feeling that is very heavy,” she says. “It was an intimate encounter, but it didn’t lead me to feel that I knew these girls, that I could appreciate the fullness of their experience.”

"Christopher Oyet, 18, was kidnapped at age 9 and forced to help with rebel killings. 'Now, I am scard of myself, ' he said." Photo credit: Vanessa Vick for the NYTimes

"Christopher Oyet (who is not connectedto this article) was kidnapped at age 9 and forced to help with the killings. 'Now, I am scared of myself,' he said." credit: Vanessa Vick. NY Times

 How can an artist bear witness to a testimony when he or she can not fully understand what the survivor went through?

Mendelsohn says it is this kind of question that keeps her returning to the region. (This summer will be her fourth trip.)

Ehn, who was dean of the School of Theatre at Cal Arts and now heads the playwriting  program at Brown University,  says the  process of using art to document trauma  can be a difficult undertaking. It may yield imperfect results,  but  it is important to try.

“We can’t accept that atrocity is unspeakable,” Ehn says.  To do nothing is “to allow tyrants to triumph.

Although the tours can provide only a partial glimpse into the human toll of extreme violence,  they allow participants to stand face-to-face with survivors and try to understand what they have been through.

Ehn drew on his memories from the Ugandan school to write  Dogsbody, his new work about force and trauma, told from the point of view of child soldiers.  The play takes a  journey to a world of unending violence and war, where two child soldiers hack their father to death and another child uses a human head as a soccer ball.

A dog in a genocidal circumstance is grotesque. I know that dogs are to be deeply feared. – Erik Ehn

Erik Ehn's "Dogsbody" at the Theatre of Yugen, 2009 Credit: Mark McBeth, SF Chronicle

Drawing on themes from The Iliad, Ehn says his playdoesn’t take on the cause of violence.  It is about violence itself, violence that is unredeemed and unexamined.  It’s about the damage. “

Mendelsohn directed a partial reading of  Dogsbody at the 2010 Arts in the Once World Conference.  In the first act of the play (“Trauma Ward”) she says Ehn draws on the stories from Uganda to take a journey of the mind, to create an emotional landscape where the normal markers, including one’s sense of time and one’s trust in other people, have been removed.

Deborah Asiimwe's "Forgotten World' at Cal Arts, 2009

Playwright and Cal Arts alum Deborah Asiimwe was also on the Ugandan trip.  Her new work, Forgotten World, was informed by the testimonies she heard there.  Asiimwe, who is from Uganda, says the play looks at a variety of conflict situations where children forced to become soldiers and sex slaves.

Pictured: Playwright Deborah Asiimwe. A reading of her play "Forgotten World" will take place on May 21st at 7:00PM in N.Y.C. at The Public Theater during the NEW WORK NOW reading series.

“It’s not just about Uganda,” she said. “It could also be about southern Sudan or Darfur or the streets of L.A. – any place where children are forgotten.”   Ethical concerns were very much on her mind at the time she was writing the piece.  She remembers hearing about a  conceptual artist who paid people in a poor village in Central Uganda to legally change their last names to that of the artist in exchange for a goat or a pig.   The artist then exhibited the pictures he took of the villagers holding up their new identity cards, all with his last name.

“I remembered thinking this is not right,” she said.  “I started questioning my own art, questioning how art has turned these stories into a commodity.  I asked myself:  ‘How can I as an artist tell these stories without taking center stage?’  I don’t have the answer yet.  But I know there has to be a responsible way to tell someone’s story.”

Child soldier, Burma

Tens of thousands of child soldiers have been recruited to fight in all regions of the world. Most are under the control of non-state armies.

Forgotten World was produced at Cal Arts in 2009 and directed by Obie award-winning actress and director Laurie Carlos.  The final scripting and staging involved an unusual degree of collaboration between the writer, director, cast and crew, a multi-ethnic group who brought their own experiences with  to the production. Asiimwe says she felt extremely supported as an artist.  “It was the best gift that Cal Arts gave me,” she said.

A few month later,  when Asiimwe started working on a re-write of the play, she reported feeling like she did when she was struggling with the first drafts:  “I’m back to having strange nightmares…dreaming of guns…getting into my own world again. Emotionally and physically, I find myself being a witness alone, as opposed to witnessing collectively.”

Genocide separate peoples from the things they hold dear - family, home, culture, community. Testimonies of their experiences can help the outside world understand what they have been through and, in some cases, how the world has failed them. Credit: V. Vick, NYTimes

Artist who tackle war and extreme violence in their art may find the task daunting.  But Erik Ehn says they should try.  If  words seem inadequate to describe the experience,  he suggests discarding language and trying something else – or experimenting with different points of view:

“If you are writing about rape, you can describe it or you represent it, ” he says. “You can replace the rape with something else.  If you are doing that, you might as well make it as creative – like ripping a paper in half.”

Erik Ehn was dean of the School of Theatre at Cal Arts until 2009. He now heads the playwriting program at Brown University and continues to collaborate with Cal Arts and the IGSC in Rwanda. Credit: Kagami

Television images can sometimes be emotionally overwhelming.  He says,  “You can’t compete with the event itself or with the news reports. You can write about your own sense of helplessness. Or see..what your helplessness looks like… Beckett never writes: ‘I don’t know why I am alive.’  He shows how that thought affects his mind.”

The wages of genocide are manifest in the stories of survivors.  Their testimonies shine a light on our collective conscience.  Artists who allow themselves to be transformed by these stories may find themselves on a difficult creative path. But  Ehn believes it is worth the effort.  He says life (like art) “is at essence a dialogue.”  The place to begin is to embrace survivors with tender silence.

“Silence is the most perfect gesture of inclusion.  It is like the darkness of the theatre.” -Erik Ehn

 

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 Lydia Breen is a freelance writer and filmmaker who worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Switzerland for more than ten years.   In 1991 she made the first  film for an international audience about the effects of war on children.  The film drew heavily on the testimonies of child soldiers from Mozambique.  She went on to interview, write and make films about child soldiers and other children living under armed conflict in Sri Lanka, Somalia, South Africa, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan.

With the exception of Somalia, which is a failed state, the United States is the only member of the U.N. that has  not ratified the 1989 Convention on the Right of the Child.  In 2002, the U.S. did sign certain Optional Protocols which obliges it to afford certain protections to child soldiers.

To date, children in Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to be held in detention by the U.S. military.

Omar Khadr, the youngest detainee at Guantanamo Bay has been held there for seven years

Children should not be prosecuted for war crimes: Omar Khadr was ten years old when his family moved from Canada to Afghanistan where they lived in Osama Bin Laden’s inner circle.  When he was 15, he allegedly threw a genade that killed a medic with the U.S. Special Forces.  The U.N. and human rights organizations believe that Omar was essentially brainwashed.  They say child soldiers should be rehabilittated not incarcerated. (See Washington Post article, Feb. 10, 2010)

Links:

ACLU’s  “Soldiers of Misfortune”

Coaltion to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. and the

Enough Project

Nicholas Kristoff’s colum and excellent video on rape used as a weapon of war against women in the Congo and one courageous doctors’ efforts to help.

 


An Artist Pays Tribute to 1,000 Slain Soldiers (Marilyn Mitchell)

Artist Marilyn Mitchell in her Encinitas, CA. studio


 

As the death toll for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan nears the 1,000 mark, an Encinitas artist explains how she honored another 1,000  soldiers felled three years ago during  the  war in Iraq. 

Over the next few months up to  4,000  Marines at Southern California’s Camp Pendleton will be deployed to Afghanistan. Some will leave before Christmas.

In the nearby town of Oceanside, a strange calm prevails.   A uniformed soldier walks somberly into a law office.   Another, the sole customer  in an old-style barber shop, gets his already-short hair trimmed.  Across the street,  another young serviceman picks up his dry cleaning.  Signs in motorcycle shops offer deep military discounts. Old Glory flaps listlessly over a the entrance of a pool hall.

What lies ahead for the Marines?  Will friends or foes be waiting for them  behind the sun-baked walls of Afghanistan villages?

(DAVID FURST/AFP/***** Images)

U.S soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division on the outskirts of an Afghan mountain village. Photo credit: David Furst, AFPage

As more soldiers head off to this eight year-long conflict,  a gruesome statistic looms on the horizon: the 1,000th  U.S. soldier  will soon die fighting in Afghanistan.   When that death comes, how will we will honor those who have already lost their lives?  Three years ago, an Encinitas artist asked herself this question under similar circumstances.  Her response was to draw their portraits.    Little did she know that her tribute  would consume her for the next seven months.

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On New Year’s Day, 2007, artist Marilyn Mitchell was leafing through the New York Times when she stumbled across a photo montage that hit her like a brick:   three and a half full pages of photographs of 1,000  service men and women who died  in Iraq. The photographs represented the third set of 1,000 photos that the Times had published since the Iraq war began – the highest U.S. military death toll  since the Viet Nam War.

The visual impact of so many lost lives overwhelmed  her.  “Many of them were so young -the age of my 22-year-old son, some even younger,” she said.   “I just  had to draw them. I wanted to honor them and remind people that these were once-vibrant human beings.”

She set out drawing the miniature portraits with care.  Working in India ink required a delicate but sure touch; one blotch and a portrait would be ruined.  Scouring the photos, she searched for something unique in each  soldier’s character.

Detail from

 

 

“Many of the photos were lent to the New York Times by family members. My piece was a gift to the soldiers as well as their families,” Mitchell said. “ I wanted to try to breathe life into each portrait.” 
The effort left her emotionally drained.  “I must admit that towards the end I was ready to finish. It was a painful process, staring at those faces every day.   I was more successful with some portraits than others.  But I cared deeply about each one.”  Mitchell says she likes to see the artists’ hand, their personality, in their work.

The finished pages were  hand-stitched together with thread. Perhaps the stitches were a tribute to her mother who could work magic with a needle.  Perhaps it was a nod to her training as a nurse:  the sutures on the page may have been a symbolic effort to try to stitch the fallen soldiers back to life. 

To finish the piece, she  surrounded the pages with a halo of bridal netting, pearls and silver wire.   “It was another way to pay tribute,” she said.  “My inspiration came from the Romans who put a gold crown of laurels around a person’s head to honor them.” 
Her piece, entitled “Prayer for 1,000 Dead Soldiers”, was shown at a juried exhibit at the Oceanside Museum of Art.  Later it was shown at the J.C. Gallery in downtown Oceanside, in an exhibit entitled, “God and Country”.

At the bottom of Prayer for 1,000 Dead Soldiers,  Mitchell, an anti-war activist,  added a poem she wrote about the photos of soldiers she had studied so carefully for seven long months.  Was it the nurse, mother or the artist in Mitchell which caused her to write:

“I imagine being their mother…Each one is beautiful to me.  I am sorry that I am not better.  That I can not draw them back to life.”

The following is an excerpt from Marilyn Mitchell’s Web site  on her “Prayer for 1,000 Dead Soldiers”

“An essential part of my process is to take a date that is personally important to me and find a publication from that date to make an artwork. This piece was created to mark the birthday of my dearest friend in San Diego, Barb Goldsand. By coincidence the New York Times published the photos of the last 1000 soldiers killed in Iraq on that day, January 1, 2007. I decided to draw each one in order to honor them and to give my attention and my prayers to each soldier that had died.”

“Prayer”
I draw these soldiers,
so many men gone.
I imagine being their love,
now alone,
remembering their
breath,
remembering their gaze.
I imagine being their mother,
losing her very heart
and going on with a fathomless
hole.
I imagine being their father
whose loss is unspeakable.
Each one is beautiful to me.
I am sorry I am not better.
That I cannot draw them
back to life.
 

  

-Marilyn Mitchell 


 


 

 

  

Kent Twitchell Installation – The Wall Project

Los Angeles:   Saturday, November 8, 2009

Kent Twitchell prepared his installation for theWall Project while bystanders looked on and gave their opinions about the kinds of walls we have in our lives.

Watch this space tomorrow for more on the November 9, 2009 event.

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