Creative Careers

Leadership Without Ego - Part 5: Everyone Everywhere Deserves to Make Art

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the fifth in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. In Section 5, Steve described how he kept working to reinstate art programs for prisoners even while he was working as assistant canteen manager at San Quentin.

Sarah: So how did it come about that arts funding was finally reinstated?

Steve: Laurie and I started getting access to politicians—Senator Leno and others. But Leno told us, Look, there’s no one with the political will to support arts in prisons right now—how can I ask for money for prison art programs when we’re cutting Medicare and Medicaid to people who desperately need it? But Laurie hung in there. A couple important developments really helped our cause. For one thing, we got California Lawyers for the Arts on board. Their political clout and connections gave us more access to the legislature. Then when Jerry Brown was reelected governor in 2007, that also created a shift, an opportunity. And keep in mind the economy was improving. Long story short, in 2014, the California Arts in Corrections funding was finally reinstated—at six million dollars a year. The highest it had ever been before that was three million. But keep in mind, six million is still only half of one percent of the Department of Corrections budget.

Sarah: That raises a question that was bound to come up in this conversation: What do you say to people who see you as greasing the wheels of a fundamentally unjust system?

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Steve: Progressives have realized over time that if you keep standing outside the system throwing stones, you may not get as big a change as if you go inside. By going into the prisons, I’m changing culture. Laurie and I, by working hard for a decade, were able to bring back funding for Arts in Corrections. If we hadn’t somehow kept the San Quentin program going, as a demonstration program, with guys who could talk about how much it had helped turn their lives around, I don’t know if that would have happened. Instead, at this point the Department of Corrections and the public at large have made a 180-degree shift in their thinking. Before, the thinking was: Lock away the troublemakers. But now people realize, there’s no room in the prisons for all these people and it’s not good for the economy anyway. That’s what working within the system can do. 

By working inside, I influence the prison staff. I’m able to help them realize that they have an opportunity to change inmates by working with them. And in my position now as the coordinator of all the volunteer programs, I’m even able to work with Laurie to help influence legislators and politicians.

This same dialogue goes on with the public school system. It’s easy to criticize the schools from the outside. But my partner Dana’s a poet who teaches in the school system and she gets so many comments from parents of students she teaches: “My son would never write and now he can’t wait to get to your class and he writes poetry and he’s completely engaged in school.” These things are small but they’re also huge. By working within the system, Dana has helped those parents learn to appreciate the arts. And she’s nudged those kids toward a different approach to academia and even to life. Administrators take note of things like that. That has more impact than if Dana were just to say, “The system sucks and I’m not going to be part of it.” 

Sarah: I’m also curious how you answer the opposite challenge: that prisoners don’t deserve fun, meaningful, rewarding activities like art classes.

Steve: Yes, there are people who say, My kid doesn’t get art at her school but you’re giving these prisoners art classes. My response is: Everyone everywhere deserves to make art. And these guys’ experience with art is helping them develop into better citizens. The classes help them develop communication skills, and to create good art they have to get in touch with their humanity. They come out safer for your community and for themselves. Their recidivism rate is lower. So art in the prisons saves money for you, the taxpayer.

Sarah: I want to loop back and ask about your transition from assistant canteen manager into your current position as director of all of San Quentin’s volunteer programs. That’s a giant leap! How did that happen and when?

Steve: While I was the assistant canteen manager I returned to school to get a high school teaching certification because I knew I needed a more stimulating job. In 2012, right after I completed the coursework, the person in the position I have now, Laura Bowman, decided to move out of state. She approached me and urged me to apply for that job. She then approached the warden and recommended me for it. Because of my years of working with volunteers at San Quentin, I was given the position. So ironically, I wouldn’t have needed to do all that coursework.

Next: Mayberry with an Edge

Leadership Without Ego - Part 4: I'm About Ready to Swear

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the fourth in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. Section 3 ended with Steve explaining that right after receiving a “Heroes of Compassion” Award by the Dalai Lama, he was handed a pink slip.

Sarah: What did you do when you got the pink slip from the Department of Corrections?

Steve: To remain at San Quentin, I took a job as the assistant canteen manager. In my position I was mainly responsible for receiving large shipments of ramen soup packages and cereal and shaving cream. The shipments were offloaded in the warehouse. I received them and broke them into smaller deliveries to be taken to the canteen. I also supervised the canteen workers.

It was quite a step down in salary and stature. I went from running my own arts program to running a forklift. I’d grown up as a laborer in a farming area and I’d worked construction, so in some ways the transition wasn’t that difficult for me. But it was quite a blow to my ego. And the staff resented me because they viewed me as this guy who doesn’t know how to do all these things. Plus they were angry because I’d been given the job over one of their peers who wanted it. But eventually I was able to turn it around and get on good terms with the staff.

Sarah: How did you do that?

Steve: I just acknowledged, Hey, I’m here because I lost my position. I talked to the person who had been hoping to get the job and I said, I didn’t try to take your job. In the end we all got along well. I work hard and I have a fairly cheery demeanor. And the staff are really good at what they do. They have high school educations and I have two masters degrees, but they can run the till and balance the register faster than I can.

But it’s not the most fun work. You’re working at the windows where the inmates line up to buy stuff, and you have to tell some guy he doesn’t have enough money to buy something he wants, and now you have an upset customer who happens to be in for murdering someone. Sure, you have a little window between you and him, but on your work break you’re going to have to walk by this guy.

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There’s a funny story from that time. To appreciate it you have to know that I try never to swear. So this inmate was at the window trying to get us to exchange something he had bought. I said, Look, you ran out of money and you know the prison policy—you can’t exchange goods. He kept arguing with me. Finally I said, Goddammit, I already told you, no! Then I said, And now you’ve made me swear! All the other guys in the line started saying, Look, man, come on, you’re making him swear, that’s not cool!

After that, the workers would say, How’s your day going, Steve? And if I was feeling stressed I’d say, I’m about ready to swear. They’d say, Oh boy, Steve’s having a bad day!

During that period of 2010–2012 when I was working in the canteen, I continued working to keep the arts program alive as best I could, including serving as a liaison between the prisoners and the prison staff. Laurie Brooks, who was working for no money, had to step up and take more responsibility for the functioning of the studio. An artist named Carol Newborg was also volunteering to do program management.

Sarah: What kinds of things were you doing as a liaison?

Steve: For example, there would be a conflict over the tool inventory. Not all the tools could be accounted for, which as you can imagine is a big deal in a prison. In situations like these, the studio would go into lockdown. I’d go in and meet with the artists and the inmates and figured out how to remedy it. Then I’d meet with the prison administration and said, Here’s what we’ve done, we’ve fixed it, please allow us to open back up. And they’d say, OK, but moving forward you need to do X or Y.

So I was mostly working in the background but when big things came up like that, I’d step in. That’s still the case now. Something will happen that locks down the art studio and I can negotiate to get it opened up. I try not to misuse my position. But I do mediate when there are conflicts with officers. And not just for the art program, but for all the volunteer programs.

Next: Everyone Everywhere Deserves to Make Art

Leadership Without Ego - Part 2: The Kids Melted Under That Praise

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the second in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. In Section 1, we left off with Steve explaining that after running the Tehachapi Prison arts program, he transitioned to a position at Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy, CA.

Steve: When I went to DVI I got involved with the William James Association.

 Steve with DVI arts program alumni Dennis Cookes and Robert Vincent at a conference on arts in the prisons.

Steve with DVI arts program alumni Dennis Cookes and Robert Vincent at a conference on arts in the prisons.

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Sarah: Tell me about William James.

Steve: It’s a nonprofit that contracts with the Department of Corrections to place artist teachers in prisons in Northern California. William James screens and places the artists and ensures that they get paid in timely way. I’d let the William James staff know what kinds of artists I needed, and they’d do the matchmaking. I developed a close working relationship with the executive director, Laurie Brooks—which proved important strategically later on. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I ran DVI’s art program through most of 90s. The program was already in place when I got there, in a very nice studio space set up by artist Bobby Altman. We offered woodworking (I taught that class), guitar making, ceramics, painting and drawing, and music. The program was hugely successful. We had a core group of inmates who were dedicated artists, and because of that we were able to raise ten grand a year through art sales, and give visibility to the artwork. We contributed all the proceeds to the Child Abuse Prevention Council of San Juaquin Valley.

I still have a close connection with a lot of those guys, many of whom are out now. They’re off parole, citizens with good jobs who are still making art. One big success story is Vincent, who learned to make guitars at DVI. He’s been out 15 or 20 years now, and he makes high-end classical guitars for a living. His son is also an artist and has become a prison arts teacher.

 DVI arts program alumnus Robert Vincent with a guitar he made.

DVI arts program alumnus Robert Vincent with a guitar he made.

Around 1998, I was feeling burnt out at DVI and wanted to try something different. I took a position at the Youth Authority in Stockton. I coordinated programs in six juvenile facilities for young people aged 14–26. I found that work a lot more heart wrenching than working with adults. At that young age, you really can’t argue that these kids are locked up through any fault of their own. The staff were more encouraging than at the adult prisons but the environment was still draconian. Officers, barbed wire fences. And kids are harder to deal with in those environments. Fistfights would erupt.

 Wards and painting instructor working on a mural at Youth Authority.

Wards and painting instructor working on a mural at Youth Authority.

The worst moment for me was one time in a paper marbling workshop. One kid was trying to become a big shot in one of the gangs. I saw him order two other kids to clean up his area. I said, No, everyone cleans up his own area. He started to walk away from me. I grabbed his shoulder. He whipped around and said, Don’t ever touch me again—you don’t know what might happen. He was the kind of kid who could have played that up, because there’s a rule against touching the kids. The art teacher called in officers and they dealt with him. At that moment I realized, OK, I don’t have the patience that’s required to work in this environment.

Working with juveniles wasn’t the only aspect of that job I didn’t click with. I’d gone from managing my own program to managing programs in six different places. There are always problems that crop up when you’re bringing people inside—for example, the artist doesn’t have the proper paperwork or messes up a protocol. Previously, when I was running my own program, I had credibility among the staff, so I knew who to call to resolve an issue. But in this situation a lot of my work was by phone. So I couldn’t be as effective.

 Wards making books.

Wards making books.

Sarah: Were there any heartening moments there?

 Steve, book artist Beth Thielen, and wards in bookbinding workshop.

Steve, book artist Beth Thielen, and wards in bookbinding workshop.

Definitely. I remember a bookbinding workshop where the instructor had the kids making these very complicated books. They were really into it. We had photos posted of them holding their completed books—they were so proud. Others would see the pictures and say, Hey, that looks really cool! The kids melted under that praise. They were so starved for positive attention and feedback.

We had a unit for kids with mental dysfunction. I wanted to place this older woman artist in there as a grandmother figure. At first the administration resisted because they thought the kids would act out. But eventually we were able to get her in there. This one kid was especially dysfunctional—he’d refuse to bathe, spread feces all over his cell. We got him into this class. The staff would tell him, You really need to watch it this week because she’s coming on Saturday and you want to get out to go to your class! He totally improved his behavior.

 Steve and Beth admiring a ward's work on a book project as another ward looks on.

Steve and Beth admiring a ward's work on a book project as another ward looks on.

 Wards proudly displaying elaborate handmade journals.

Wards proudly displaying elaborate handmade journals.

The Youth Authority staff started realizing that instead of this program being an impediment, it could really help them. They started picking out the kids with the worst problems to send to art class. And other juvenile facilities started requesting art programs.

 Youth Authority artist teachers with Laurie Brooks (third from left).

Youth Authority artist teachers with Laurie Brooks (third from left).

But even though I saw lots of positive things happen there, I still wanted to go back to working with adults. And my family wanted to move closer to the hub of the Bay Area. So in 2003, I took a job running the arts program at San Quentin. The person who’d been running that program had moved into an education position at the prison.

That program was very successful as well. But right when I got there, the Department of Corrections eliminated their contracts with William James and another nonprofit that provided the same service for Southern California prisons. Soon after that, my own position was moved under the prison education department. I lost a lot of independence. I was assigned to a program called Bridging, which serves inmates in the reception center. The reception center holds guys in the process of transitioning from county jail to prisons all over the state. Until this point the Department of Corrections had not provided programs for that population. So the Bridging program was an attempt to remedy that. I set up drawing, poetry, origami, and collage classes. These were short-term classes because the guys were shipped off to other prisons after six weeks or so. One of the challenges of that job was that the inmates were assigned to these classes, whereas in the past, I’d only worked with guys who volunteered to take art classes. So it meant I was working with students who didn’t necessarily want to be in class.

William James executive director Laurie Brooks and I started strategizing about how to keep prison arts programming alive. Laurie and Jack Bowers, a retired artist facilitator, testified before the state legislature. But that work didn’t bear fruit right away. We survived in those years on small grants from nonprofits.

 Laurie Brooks, Alma Robinson, and Jack Bowers presenting at a conference on arts in the prisons.

Laurie Brooks, Alma Robinson, and Jack Bowers presenting at a conference on arts in the prisons.

Next installment: The Dalai Lama Breaks All the Rules

Leadership Without Ego - Part 1: The Workshop Was Neutral Territory

Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the first in a six-part series of posts featuring an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system.

Sarah: Tell me about your work.

Steve: Currently I oversee all the volunteer programs at San Quentin Prison. My office is in charge of reviewing background checks on volunteers. I also manage the program schedule, coordinate with inmate groups’ schedules, review proposals for new programs, and recommend proposals to the warden for approval. Inmates can pitch proposals, but most pitches come from outside groups.

Now, thanks to the passage of Prop 57 last fall, the Department of Corrections gives rehabilitation achievement credits. Prisoners who participate in volunteer programs that pass approval by Corrections are eligible to get time off their sentences. That’s added a whole level of data entry to track attendance and calculate time spent in those programs. I’m the final reviewer, so each time an inmate earns enough hours to have a week off, I’m the final button.

I’m also responsible for big events, such as performances by outside groups, or events organized by inmates like the Breast Cancer Walk or the annual Day of Peace.

 Inmates and supporters on the 2017 Breast Cancer Walk at San Quentin.

Inmates and supporters on the 2017 Breast Cancer Walk at San Quentin.

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 Steve with Associate Warden Steve Allbritton at the Breast Cancer Walk.

Steve with Associate Warden Steve Allbritton at the Breast Cancer Walk.

Sarah: What does that entail?

Steve: A group submits a proposal, which at San Quentin is called a narrative. For example, the narrative submitted by an inmate group called "San Quentin Cares" said something like, We all have mothers, relatives, and friends with breast cancer and we want to support the cause by doing a walkathon; inmates can contribute money to participate, and people on the outside can contribute via a designated link on the official Breast Cancer Walk website. Or another example of a narrative is the one inmates submitted for the Day of Peace. That one said something like, We want to have a day on the yard that encourages everyone to get along across gang affiliations, religious faiths, and so forth; we want outside people to perform music; we want a treat provided for every inmate.

 2018 Day of Peace banner painted by participants in the Arts in Corrections program

2018 Day of Peace banner painted by participants in the Arts in Corrections program

 Day of Peace committee members and set-up crew.

Day of Peace committee members and set-up crew.

 
 Day of Peace performance by members of Bread and Roses. Guitarist Kurt Huget teaches guitar playing at San Quentin.

Day of Peace performance by members of Bread and Roses. Guitarist Kurt Huget teaches guitar playing at San Quentin.

I review the narrative to make sure it’s realistic based on any number of factors, for example when the prison opens and closes. It all has to jibe. I clean it up and then it goes up several levels of the administrative hierarchy till it reaches the warden. I work in a system that’s paramilitary.

Sarah: Does the prison system consciously emulate the military?

Steve: Yes. The correctional officer, who’s in there with the inmates, is like a soldier. Next comes the sergeant, who oversees a team of correctional officers in a given location in the prison. The lieutenant oversees a whole cellblock, and the captain manages several cellblocks. Above the captains are the associate warden, the chief deputy warden, and the warden.

 Steve at his MFA solo show in 1986.

Steve at his MFA solo show in 1986.

Sarah: How long have you been in this current position?

Steve: Five years.

Sarah: How long have you worked in the prison system?

Steve: This is my twenty-eighth year.

Sarah: How did you get into this work?

Steve: After getting my MFA in fine woodworking in 1986, I got a yearlong teaching position in a community college in Ridgecrest, in the desert, off Highway 395. The college serves military personnel and their families from the nearby army base. When my contract was about to run out, the local Kern County arts council contacted me about setting up an arts program in a nearby prison. Prison arts programs were on the rise, thanks to the visionary work of Eloise Smith, the first executive director of the California Arts Council, which was started during Jerry Brown’s first governorship. She responded to requests from inmates to set up an arts program and then she helped it expand throughout the state. It became a full-fledged program called Arts in Corrections, funded by the California Department of Corrections.

 Steve's MFA solo show.

Steve's MFA solo show.

When I was first approached to work for Arts in Corrections, I said no. My view at that time was that inmates were in prison because they had done terrible things, and they belonged in there. I wanted to stay on the college-teaching track. But like so many MFA grads, I had a whole file of rejection letters. So when I got another call from the council, I went to the interview—and was hired a week later.

That first prison job was at Tehachapi, not far from Bakersfield. I was given a room in the prison. I started teaching drawing, and I brought in other artists to teach other media.

Sarah: What was it like to segue from teaching college students to teaching inmates?

Steve: I found that the inmates were much more dedicated and interesting to work with than the college students I’d been teaching. In prison, you’re working with people who have bottomed out. They latch onto art as avenue of expression and a way to have a different, more positive identity—the Artist.

Eloise had felt from the beginning that inmates would be more receptive to learning from high-level artists than from art therapists who come in with the agenda of getting the inmates to talk about their feelings. A lot of inmates resist the touchy-feely approach—“Oh, I was terrible, I robbed this bank.” The Department of Corrections didn’t want outside artists coming in—they didn’t think artists would be able to handle all the security procedures. But Eloise said it would work. She argued that if inmates were taught art by gifted artists, their engagement with the artistic process would lead them to investigate their own character and be able to contribute better to the community. That’s what finally sold it with the department. And as soon as I started working at Tehachapi, I saw the wisdom of Eloise’s approach.

Sarah: Can you give me an example of the positive impact of this approach on inmates?

Steve: I had a ceramics instructor teaching a group of guys how to throw on the pottery wheel. This inmate, a very awkward, nerdy guy, tall and lanky with thick, scraggly hair, would stand in front during the instructor’s demonstrations, blocking the other inmates’ view. He couldn’t grasp the technique and he was getting really frustrated. The instructor said, “Sit down, breathe, feel your body. We’re each going to make a bowl. Now you’re going to follow exactly what I do. Pull up the clay as slowly as an ant crawling up the side of the bowl.” And so on. Well that day that inmate finally was able to make a hollow form. It was thick and ugly, but it was a hollow form. And the next week, he showed up with a haircut and stood in back of the group so everyone could see. Later I followed up by reinforcing what he was already figuring out—“Yeah, you have to be aware of how you’re impacting the people around you.”

 Inmate throwing a pot.

Inmate throwing a pot.

Not that that always happens. But experiences like that hooked me. I felt like I could really help make a difference. Guys would be worried if I didn’t show up. They’d say, “If something happens to you, we’ll never have this class again.” “You can’t just take a week off—we need this class.” I’d never had that experience at the college. There, the students were taking five classes, participating in various clubs—they were spread so thin. But inmates are in a monastic situation. In a cell, there’s time to reflect and think about what they’re going to make. If they get this opportunity to make art, they can focus on it. If they’re into writing, then they’re writing all the time. The guys in the Shakespeare class are walking around the yard practicing their lines in British accents.

Sarah: Were you welcomed by the prison staff?

Steve: Hardly! At the time I was hired at Tehachapi, the mission for corrections was only to keep inmates housed safely. There was no mission to teach them, beyond helping them get a high school diploma. My first day on the job, the warden called me in and said, “I didn’t want this program. Keep your house in order. If I see anything out of line, you’re out of here.” They thought a teacher who was already working in the prison would have been a better bet security-wise. But just a week later, my direct supervisor told me, “I didn’t want to hire you. But I’ve been watching you—you’re all right.” He told me, “That lady [Eloise Smith] wouldn’t stop pushing her agenda for us to hire an artist for this job. She waited us out.”

Bit by bit, the prison staff came around. The warden and officers would walk by the art workshop and see rival gang members communicating, black and white guys sitting next to each other. The workshop was neutral territory.

Sarah: When I first met you, you were working at Deuel Vocational Institute (DVI), a medium-security prison in Tracy.

Steve: That was my second prison job. I left Tehachapi and went to DVI in 1989. I wanted to get closer to San Francisco and Northern California. Tehachapi in an arid and politically conservative region. I prefer Northern California’s landscape and culture.

Next installment: The Kids Melted Under That Praise

The Alchemy of Service - Part 5: Watch Out, Someone's Behind You

By creatively expanding the concept of the family unit to include the larger world, Joann Wong fueled a lifelong passion for public service. This is the final part in a five-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with her. In Part 4, Joann described her transition from health care to program evaluation and how her path led her back to her alma mater.

Sarah: Tell me about your current job—it has a long, fancy title.

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Joann: Yeah, it’s a mouthful: Program and Organizational Effectiveness Director at the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford. My role involves assessing the impact of Stanford’s public service and civic engagement programs for students. The work involves data analysis, identifying what’s working well and what can be improved.

S: How do you go about doing that?

J: We collect data through different surveys that ask questions like, “How satisfied were you with this experience? What skills or insights did you gain? How has this impacted your career or academic trajectory?” In addition, we may conduct focus groups, immediately after the students’ engagements end or a number of years later. We have also started looking at trend data.

Stanford has gone through a major shift in how we contextualize service programs. Thirty-plus years ago, Stanford’s President Don Kennedy recognized the value of a life in public service and initiated efforts to better understand the different ways students engage in service at Stanford.  This process revealed the need for greater institutional support. Without that intention, university administrations and students can lose sight of the value of service. Ultimately, the university established Stanford’s Public Service Center in 1985. Since then, we’ve always offered service opportunities at varying levels including fellowships for domestic and international placements where students work with community organizations or engage in public service that links theories learned in class with practical application in the community.

Two years ago, just after I came on board, the university launched an initiative that ramps up its already strong commitment to infusing service into all aspects of an undergraduate education.

The Cardinal Service Initiative has four components. Cardinal Quarter is an immersive, nine-week public service experience at an organization for at least 35 hours a week. There are funds available to support students to participate regardless of their financial situation. I collaborated with colleagues to develop a survey to identify areas of the program that work well and areas that need improvement, in order to understand which aspects provide a really meaningful experience for the students and the community partners.

Cardinal Courses integrates service learning into an academic setting and links students with hands-on service opportunities with community organizations. Also, students who meet certain criteria can apply for a Cardinal Service notation on their transcript. The university’s support and approval to incorporate this notation on students’ transcripts is a major milestone in acknowledging the importance and value of students engaging in public service.

Cardinal Careers provides advising and other programmatic elements that strive to link students with opportunities to explore work in the public interest either as a primary job or in a volunteer capacity. And Cardinal Commitment, the newest component, addresses the fact that many students are already doing service in a regular way, for example tutoring youth on a weekly basis or working on an advocacy or social issue, like the environment and climate change. Through Cardinal Commitment, we’re recognizing that contribution.

We hope incoming students will choose Stanford because service is an integral part of the University’s culture and Cardinal Service has been infused in our admissions and outreach materials.

 Jo and colleagues

Jo and colleagues

 The Haas Center for Public Service

The Haas Center for Public Service

S: How’s it been being back at your alma mater in this new capacity?

J: As an undergrad, my home at Stanford was the Haas Center. So it’s amazing to be working there now.

But as much as I love Stanford and the Haas Center, it’s not always easy being in a bastion of privilege. There are times I wonder if I might have a greater impact in helping others by returning to work with a community organization. The past two years since Trump was elected, I’ve been heartbroken and shocked to see that privilege and entitlement runs deeper than most well-intentioned white people are even aware of. The racism my parents had to endure is stronger than ever. Sometimes I tell colleagues I’m scared I’m going to become this angry person of color who shuts down and can’t listen. Yesterday I was at Whole Foods, buying a honeydew melon. Good Chinese shopper that I am, I was searching for the best fruit. I spotted one at the bottom of the pile so I was carefully stacking all the other melons to one side. Someone behind me said, Watch out, someone’s behind you. This woman was hovering. As soon as I uncovered the melon I wanted, she reached and took it. I said, Oh, I was going to take that one. She looked at me and turned and walked away with the fruit. I wanted to say something nasty to her about being an entitled white being. I’ve never wanted to say something like that in the past. Then I reminded myself, Jo, it’s a melon!

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By the way, if my dad had been in my situation, he would have cussed her out! Butchers swear a lot. My brother points out that my father always spoke English with a Chinese accent—except when he swore.

S: How’s it going with work-life balance?

J: I’m back to full-time work. But I’ve gotten better at setting clear boundaries. I’ve learned to say no when I feel I need to and am more direct with requests regarding my needs as they’re aligned with my principles and values. Faith now plays a significant part in the way I view my work. I see what I do as ultimately God’s plan, so I’m not as invested in trying to control things as I was in the past.

S: When you say faith, do you mean Christian faith? Do you consider yourself a Christian?

J: Over time, I’ve done a lot of soul-searching and reconnecting with my spirituality. I identify as Christian; I believe in Christ. This is a whole other conversation, but I have issues with Christians who use their faith to push their agenda, particularly political agendas. That’s not what it’s about for me. My perspectives are influenced by how my piano teacher carried herself as a Christian and how she treated others. I’m aware that my time here is temporary, and I view the gifts, opportunities and challenges in my life as part of a plan I can’t even understand. I go to church, and Fred and I are united in wanting to have a home that’s based in faith.

S: You mentioned to me in a recent email that you’re mentoring a group of Stanford students. What’s one thing you want them to know?

J: Embrace change—recognize the importance of flexibility and fluidity, even if it makes you uncomfortable. And know that things really do work out. If someone had asked me 20 years ago whether I’d be working at Stanford now, I would have said, No way! I live by the mantra, Follow your passion. Hone in on what sparks joy and excitement—what you feel a connection to. Don’t be afraid to explore it; develop experiences that honor it. Whenever I’ve tried to work just for money, I didn’t enjoy it. Work has always been far more fulfilling to me if it brought me joy and provided me with a meaningful way to contribute and support others. That’s when I’ve thrived and done my best.

The Alchemy of Service - Part 4: Fireworks and Tears

By creatively expanding the concept of the family unit to include the larger world, Joann Wong fueled a lifelong passion for public service. This is the fourth in a five-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with her. Part 3 ended with Joann describing her focus in grad school on the relationship between HIV infection and domestic violence.

S: What drew you to work on domestic violence?

I knew of cases of domestic violence in my own community growing up. In one case I even knew of a death that resulted from domestic violence. Over time I recognized that this was a real issue in the Asian American community—as in so many other communities. I felt called to address it.

S: Tell me what happened after grad school.

J: I’d been planning on working on the international stage but my thinking was shifting. I saw a lot of Asian Americans going into medicine, engineering, law—not so much public health. Yet there was a huge need, domestically. I witnessed this close to home—my dad’s sister was a garment worker who never learned English; access to health care was an issue for her family. So when I finished grad school I got a job working as a development director at a San Jose organization that serves Asian Americans. I later became director of their programs that oversaw a range of services including programs for seniors, youth, and survivors of domestic violence. It was great way to apply my public health background, but there was a disconnect between what I wanted to do and some of organizational dynamics of the agency. I ended up leaving, without another position lined up.

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Amazingly, right after that happened, a job opened up at Asian Health Services. It was the same position I’d applied for earlier, and they asked me to come in for an interview but by that time I had already accepted a position at the San Jose organization. This second time around, though, the timing was perfect! I was hired to work for Asian Health Services and stayed there 13 years.

S: Why did you leave?

It was a very tough decision. I had thought I’d continue working there till retirement and really loved the people I worked with. But there was a transition in leadership and I wasn’t totally aligned with the values of the new team. As I mentioned earlier, I’d always been raised by my parents to stick to my values and principles—especially living with integrity. So I felt I had to leave.

I knew my mom would be ecstatic at the news, because she always felt I worked too hard and wasn’t treated very well. My long hours had taken a toll on her, too, because I depended on her a lot for child care. On Mother’s Day we took her out for dim sum and I gave her a box with the question, “Guess what?” on the outside.  When she opened the box, an image of balloons, stars, and a party hat greeted her along with the messages, “I quit my job!!!” and “Happy Mother’s Day!”  She looked at me, her eyes brightened, the tears fell. She thought I’d finally made the decision to put family first.

 

 Goofing around post-quitting.

Goofing around post-quitting.

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But as it turned out, I didn’t even stop working! Someone from another health care organization immediately asked me to work with them as a consultant. I realized I wanted to remain connected to community and service; I couldn’t just stay at home. So I consulted for this organization for the next year and a half.

S: That was your last job before you went to work at Stanford, is that right?

 Doing consulting is way less stress ... time for a sewing class! Cozy PJ pants for the kids.

Doing consulting is way less stress ... time for a sewing class! Cozy PJ pants for the kids.

J: Almost. I had one more job at another health center in the Bay Area before returning to Stanford.  But I felt an increasing desire to leave health care and work on program evaluation again. I had coffee with someone I knew at the Haas Center and I asked, do you have any needs that I can help out with? She tried to connect me with folks she knew in the health care field and I told her I was actually interested in doing more work with data analysis and program evaluation. She said, Funny you say you’re interested in this area because we may have a position opening up for evaluation in the future. I started volunteering there, and in that same period I interviewed for a curriculum development job at a health center in the Bay Area. The health center offered me the job. I told them, I’ll need to work part-time so I can attend to my kids and to my mom, who has health issues. I’d always put the job first and I was clear that that needed to change. I also told them, Being honest is important to me so I want to let you know that there may be a job opportunity that comes up at Stanford that I am interested in; if this job comes through at Stanford, I will apply for it. They hired me anyway, at a high salary.

That experience showed me the importance of going into a job interview with clarity and resolve. You need to able to say, “This is what’s important to me and if that doesn’t fit with your needs, so be it." Be willing to walk away.

And then six months later, the job came up at Stanford. I applied and was hired in October 2014.

Next Installment: Watch Out, Someone’s Behind You

The Alchemy of Service - Part 3: Joann Wong! You Are Chinese!

By creatively expanding the concept of the family unit to include the larger world, Joann Wong fueled a lifelong passion for public service. This is the third in a five-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with her. At the end of Part 2, Jo described a six-week trip to China shortly after graduation that changed her relationship to her roots.

S: What had been your relationship to being Chinese American up to that point?

 The Beijing YWCA.

The Beijing YWCA.

J: As an adolescent, I fought it. My mom would speak to me in Chinese and I’d say, I’m an American, we should speak English. My mom would lay into me: “Joann Wong! You are Chinese! You look Chinese! When people look at you they see Chinese!” I’d look at her like, OK, whatever, I just don’t want you to yell at me any more. I didn’t get it—what can I say, I was a stupid teenager.

S: What effect did this awakening during the China trip have on you?

J: It was pivotal. When I returned to the States, I was determined to work in the Asian community.

At the YWCA I’d had a chance to work on program evaluation and I’d really liked it. Putting that together with my experience in China, I was inspired by the idea of going back to school to study public health, in particular international health, with a view toward doing program evaluation.

I got into Boston University’s public health school and deferred so I could spend a year in Asia. My idea was to find an NGO where I could work on HIV issues while studying Chinese. A program called Volunteers in Asia placed me in Taipei because China wasn’t open about HIV issues—this was 1993.

I had an uncle who lived just outside Taipei, a half brother of my dad’s from his father’s earlier marriage. I didn’t know him; I’d only learned as an adult that he even existed. The idea of developing our relationship was an added draw.

 Receiving a training certificate from Living With Hope

Receiving a training certificate from Living With Hope

 Attending a conference in Taipei

Attending a conference in Taipei

In Taipei, I spent mornings studying Chinese and evenings teaching English. In my free time I volunteered at an NGO called Living with Hope, which supported families living with HIV/AIDS. Taiwan was a decade or so behind San Francisco in terms of the fear and misinformation flying around. One of my best friends at the NGO was an activist/organizer named Zhang Wei. Inspired by him and other staff there, I went to my first gay rights protest. I’d been such a goody-goody growing up; I’d never protested before. But somehow in Taipei it made sense to me. Zhang Wei said, You’re weird—you support these things that in our culture are so taboo and stigmatized.

When I came back to the US to attend grad school I experienced an intense case of reverse culture shock. I realized how big and loud Americans are compared to life in Taipei. And Boston was another new environment. But I embraced it. When I’d gotten into school in Boston, I thought, I wonder why God is sending me to Boston. And you know how that turned out—I met Fred there!

 Volunteering for the Names Project in Washington, D.C. with partner Fred (left), Fred's brother-in-law (my brother) David, and David's daughter Arielle.

Volunteering for the Names Project in Washington, D.C. with partner Fred (left), Fred's brother-in-law (my brother) David, and David's daughter Arielle.

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Much  of my grad school work focused on the connection between HIV infection and domestic violence. In 1996 I volunteered as a Logistics Chair with the Names Project to help with their display of the entire AIDS memorial quilt in Washington, D.C. I was on my feet twelve to fourteen hours a day for the duration of the display. I’ve never been as exhausted as I was then. I remember being in tears by the end of one day because my feet hurt so much; as a grad student living on the cheap, I didn’t buy more comfortable shoes! But somehow the incredible love, compassion and support from thousands of people who came to see the panels carried me through. I also volunteered with the Multicultural AIDS Coalition in Boston and with a shelter for survivors of domestic violence—one of the first in the country tailored to Asian women’s issues.

 

 

Next installment: Fireworks and Tears

The Alchemy of Service - Part 1: Mouse Soup

I’ve always known that my brother’s wife brother’s wife, Joann Wong, had a cool career. But when we’re in the same room, it’s usually for a family gathering—we’re too busy dishing up food to have a real conversation. Recently I invited her to talk with me about her work. Her vivid storytelling riveted me. And I learned how, by expanding the concept of the family unit to include the larger world, she fueled a lifelong passion for public service. This is the first of five installments of that conversation.

Sarah: How did you first get enamored of service?

Joann: I always wanted to serve others. I’m a first-generation Chinese-American, the product of immigrants who lived through food-shortages and war, and sought something better for their children. I learned from my culture and my family how important it was to support the family unit. But somehow in my mind, “family” expanded to “world.”

S: Tell me about your parents’ experience.

 Joann's mother, grandmother, and maternal uncle in Macau.

Joann's mother, grandmother, and maternal uncle in Macau.

J: My mom was born in Macau, a small Portuguese territory. During World War II, Macau was initially a neutral area. Refugees from China flooded the tiny island, leading to food shortages and appalling living conditions. Then the Japanese took power. My mom tells stories of how people lined up for rice rations every day. After they left the line, they’d discover that under a top layer of rice the servers had filled the bowls with sand. Early in her life, my mom became sick and lacked proper nutrition. She was so malnourished she lost all her hair. Her grandmother cooked a soup made of mice—so my mother would get the nourishment she needed to grow her hair back. Her grandmother insisted on using field mice, because they’re cleaner than street mice.

My dad was born in Hawaii when it was a US territory. My grandfather had come from China to California where he found work building railroads. Later he went to Kauai, where he worked for the Wilcox family at what is now called the Grove Farm Homestead, as kitchen staff, and he and my grandmother started a family. One day, when my dad was around four years old, my grandfather had his palm read and was told, “You’re going to die in the next five years.” When he heard this, he told his family that he wanted to die in his homeland. So my grandfather packed up the family and moved everyone back to China. My grandfather lived another ten years. My dad emphatically advised us, “Don’t ever believe palm readers!”

Once back in China, my father and his parents lived in a village area called Hoi Ping, outside of Guangzhou. My dad told me less about their living conditions and more about what his father was like. My grandfather was extremely strict, and corporal punishment was typically the discipline of choice. When my grandfather got home from work, if his slippers were not properly set out, someone got hit. If family members talked during dinner, someone got hit.

When my father was 14, my grandfather died from what my dad thinks may have been a heart attack. This was during World War II, when the Japanese attacked China. My father remembers being chased through the fields by a Japanese soldier as a teen. My grandmother was a tough, sturdy woman. She’d walk for miles carrying two buckets of salt slung on each end of a stick that she balanced across her shoulders. She’d walk to the edge of the main road where she could sell the salt, and then walk back home at the end of the day. That’s how she sustained her four children.

S: As immigrants to the US after the war, what work did your parents find here?

 Photo from a Kauai newspaper article describing the return of Joann's father, 黃均 森 (Kwan Sun Wong, aka Sam) and other Americans who were repatriated to the US from China after World War II. Joann's father is on the right.

Photo from a Kauai newspaper article describing the return of Joann's father, 黃均 森 (Kwan Sun Wong, aka Sam) and other Americans who were repatriated to the US from China after World War II. Joann's father is on the right.

J: While living in China, my dad’s family stayed in contact with the Wilcox family in Hawaii. When the war ended, one of the Wilcox family members wrote to my Uncle George and advised him and my dad to go to the US Embassy in Guangzhou to try to return to the US since both my uncle and father are American citizens. Ultimately, my dad and his brother returned to Hawaii on a US military ship that was coming back from Guangzhou. They worked for the Wilcox family on Kauai. My dad was a gardener for Sam Wilcox. Sensing more employment opportunities might exist on the mainland, my dad moved to San Francisco. In the Bay Area, he ultimately became a butcher. He dealt with a lot of racism on the job; he was called “Chinaman” and “Chink.” He had to put up a front, act like it was all fine. Ironically, my father’s youngest brother died serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War—we’re a Gold Star family!

 Joann's mother 陳玉簫 (Yook Siu, aka Marion) at California Beauty School on Market Street in San Francisco.

Joann's mother 陳玉簫 (Yook Siu, aka Marion) at California Beauty School on Market Street in San Francisco.

My mom came to the US at the age of 16 and did well in school, particularly in math. She enjoyed tinkering with mechanisms and figuring out how things work. She wanted to study to be an engineer but didn’t have enough money to pay for a college education. Instead she took classes at a trade school and became a beautician. She worked in a beauty shop at JCPenney for a little over a year, then opened a salon with two other business partners. My mom also experienced her share of discrimination, including a time when one of her clients exclaimed how hearing my mom speak in Cantonese to another customer at the salon gave the client a headache. She asked my mom to stop speaking Cantonese.

 Joann's mother (second from right) during her stint at JCPenney in San Francisco.

Joann's mother (second from right) during her stint at JCPenney in San Francisco.

 Joann in her paternal grandmother's lap.

Joann in her paternal grandmother's lap.

Anyway, as a result of my parents' struggles, they encouraged us to work hard, always do our best, stay committed to our family, and get a good education. My father would say, "Don't end up in a situation where others can boss you around. Be your own boss." As a kid, I didn't have many chores; I was expected to focus on my education. When I would offer to help, my mom would say, "No, you go and study."

Next Installment:                             Mom, It's Only a Nickel

Back to the Garden - Part 4: Mountain Lion Footprints on the Deck

This is the last in a four-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with the poet Hazel White, about the twenty-year process of writing her book Vigilance Is No Orchard, forthcoming from Nightboat Books. Scroll down for Parts 1–3.

Eighteen Years of Defeat Is a Strange Space

[When we left off with Hazel's story in Part 3 below, she had revised her manuscript yet again and sent it—yet again—to Stephen Motika at Nightboat.] He wrote back after some time. He didn’t like the changes. But he didn’t out-and-out reject the work.

Six months went by. One day I pulled out the manuscript again. I cut a third of the quotes and embedded the remainder more carefully in the manuscript. I sent it back to Stephen and wrote something like, “I’m not certain that I’ve fixed anything. If you could let me know your decision by Sunday I’d appreciate it. If the answer is no, I completely understand.” I almost wanted a rejection. There were many times during the whole process when I wondered if I were mentally ill.  Eighteen years of defeat is a strange space.

Stephen wrote back and said he loved the rewrite. He had a lot of praise for it. But he also didn’t come right out and say he’d publish it.

I went to Brooklyn in the fall of 2016 and met him for breakfast. I was grateful that he had spent so much time on my manuscript and I was also nervous he might still be thinking it wasn’t done yet. I said hesitantly, Stephen, is it yes or no? He said, Yes. He said, Sorry, in my feedback I’ve been harsh on you. I said, That’s true. We laughed. He knows a lot about landscape architecture and admires Isabelle’s work, so he cared about this book. I’m of course very grateful now.

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Mountain Lion Footprints on the Deck

I’ve thought a lot about why this project took twenty years. I’ve come to understand that as an English person, I wasn’t writing about a Southern California landscape from the perspective of someone raised here. I had to take up habitation in a foreign aesthetic. It’s very hard to have lost one’s original place. It’s even harder to write about that. Yet I felt I might never encounter a more mysterious or necessary subject. So what choice did I have? I had to address that desperate resettling.

I also think I was jealous of Isabelle’s power as an exquisitely intuitive maker. I wanted to write as powerfully as she created gardens. The project became finish-able when I realized I would always fail to fully get the experience on the page; that instead, I needed to allow the failure to enter the work, become part of it.

A third challenge to completing the work was my guilt that I was making an experimental poetry book, not the gloriously successful coffee table book Isabelle and I had originally envisioned.

But about six years ago I realized Isabelle wasn’t holding a grudge. Around that time she arranged for me to stay in the guest house at the garden she had created for Lillian Lovelace. The Lovelace garden features a pool with boulders in it, set under oaks, with a teahouse at its edge. It’s that placement of the human-made lines and the wild lines I described earlier, that reduces me to a noodle. I stayed in the teahouse for three days and nights. I swam in the ocean and in mountain creeks. I slept with the door open and in the mornings there were mountain-lion footprints on the deck. I wrote several poems.

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Isabelle always knew I was more of a writer than I knew. She told me early on to stop calling myself a garden writer. She said I was an artist and a real thinker. By the time the book was finished, she had come to see me as being more true to myself as an artist than perhaps she’d been to her artist self during that time. So in the end, she’s glad it ended up how it did.

And so am I.

Back to the Garden - Part 3: "You're a Good Egg—Happy Easter"

This is the third in a four-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with the poet Hazel White, about the twenty-year process of writing her book Vigilance Is No Orchard, forthcoming from Nightboat Books. Scroll down for Parts 1 and 2.

Put the Relationship on the Page

In 2005, at California College of the Arts, the main feedback on my attempts to write about Isabelle and the garden was that my text lacked any sense of our relationship. I showed ten pages to the poet Leslie Scalapino. She hated it and spent an hour telling me in detail what was wrong with it. I agreed.

I joined a writing group and everyone said, We think you should put your relationship with Isabelle on the page.

Years later, when I had 60 pages written, I worked with the poet Rusty Morrison privately for a few sessions. She had a lot of critique. The title had the word shelter in it, but she wasn’t buying that the book was really about shelter. She thought that that word, that concept, was a safe placeholder. She said something about how the image of the garden “owned me and disowned me.” She encouraged me to take more risks with the whole manuscript.

I had thought it was almost done, so I was a bit shocked. And scared about taking those risks. I went to England. After a few months I gathered up the courage to read through all of Rusty’s written comments. Her observations felt completely right. But what she was suggesting—writing about what wasn’t sheltering me, of being lost over and over again in that image—seemed impossible. I realized that right from the beginning I’d clung to the topic of shelter because it was something I felt confident about and comfortable with. Rusty said, Take it out.

I needed to let everything go and write the messiness, make myself more lost!

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I produced another version. I put everything I had into it. I met with Rusty again and this time she seemed to think I’d succeeded, or done well enough.

So I sent it out to poetry competitions. It was a finalist for both the Fence Books Ottoline Prize, chosen by Brenda Hillman, and the National Poetry Series. It seemed only a matter of time, I prayed, before it would be picked up by a publisher. I hoped I was done.

You’re a Good Egg—Happy Easter

Feeling more confident than I had in years, I sent the manuscript to Nightboat Books. The publisher, Stephen Motika, read it and said, I’m interested in your relationship with Isabelle and I don’t see it on the page.

I honestly didn’t think I could do anything more about it. I came to a grinding halt.

One day several months into my despair, I felt a different kind of energy—a little cocky, a little devil-may-care. I walked to the filing cabinet and took out a file overflowing with correspondence from Isabelle to me. Birthday cards, holiday cards, notes I had saved. With a kind of weird, wild boldness I thought, I’ll give them this relationship. Flipping through the file I started writing things like, “You’re a Good Egg—Happy Easter.”

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I should mention that during these years I’d become a close friend of Isabelle’s, in spite of the fact that I’d failed to publish a book about her and the garden I was so obsessed with. She’d gotten married—in that same garden. I’d attended the wedding, even helped her dress for the ceremony. In my maniacal writing fit, I included details about how I helped her that day with her corset and shoes. I produced about eight pages of quotes and inserted them into the manuscript.

I sent it off to Stephen. I was just waiting for him to reject it.

Next Installment: Mountain Lion Footprints on the Deck

 

 

Back to the Garden - Part 1: "Aesthetic Shock"

This is the first in a four-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with the poet Hazel White, about the twenty-year process of writing her book Vigilance Is No Orchard, forthcoming from Nightboat Books. It’s a story of intense commitment to carrying out a creative vision no matter how challenging the process.

Aesthetic Shock

I started out as a freelance writer, writing primarily about landscape architecture and gardening. I have loved poetry since childhood, but I always had this thought running through my head: “Poetry is the hardest thing in the world; I’m going nowhere near it.”

One day twenty years ago, I turned a page in a magazine and saw a photograph of an amazing garden. It was an aesthetic shock. I felt physically jolted. I knew instantaneously that I would do whatever was required to stand in that garden.

I had long believed that our most essential experience of place or space is about shelter and view. Now I think the maker of the garden, landscape architect Isabelle Greene, had triggered my almost paranormal experience through an exquisite manipulation of those two elements. The garden sits in a tight canyon; a series of freeform terraces step down the hill.

I thought that if I could just stand in that garden, I would understand it.

 The Valentine Garden, designed by landscape architect Isabelle Greene

The Valentine Garden, designed by landscape architect Isabelle Greene

Within 24 hours I’d called Isabelle Greene at her Santa Barbara office. Too shy to say, “I’ve had an aesthetic shock,” I presented myself as a garden writer and explained that I was writing books for Chronicle Books on garden design and used that as an excuse to ask if I could come see her work.

She asked why I was writing gardening books. I said I wanted to teach ordinary gardeners what professional landscape architects know about space. I’d taken a lot of landscape architecture classes at UC Berkeley Extension and had read a lot about  the philosophy of space. She said she didn’t think this was something that could be taught. And she wasn’t compelled enough by my story to meet me or let me see the famous garden she had made for Carol Valentine, in Montecito.

Years later, when I told her the truth, she said, My god, if you’d just said so, I would have gotten you into that garden immediately. So I had shot myself in the foot by not being honest.

Access to the Garden

Each year for the next four years, while I was writing other books in the Chronicle garden design series, I called her assistant and asked if I could come down and see some gardens and maybe meet with Isabelle. I was always told, “She’s busy, but you’re welcome to come see some of her work.”

In Year Four, I called the assistant as usual. This time I suggested that if Isabelle had a favorite restaurant, I’d be happy to take her to dinner. That approach broke through! I went down there and we met for dinner. Within five minutes we were talking about line and form and whose work we loved. It was immediately obvious that we were both crazy about landscape.

 Hazel White

Hazel White

She explained to me that the inspiration for the Valentine garden—her most famous creation—came from aerial views of the California landscape. She was particularly interested in the straight lines of fields and how they get interrupted by a creek or a river or foothills. She was interested in that meeting of a strong, human-made line against a natural line. The garden photograph I’d seen had the most extraordinary resonance with aerial photos of landscapes. But in the view in the photograph, you’re actually only looking down thirty feet. Isabelle had manipulated the scale such that the viewer sees terraces that are large in themselves, but are a miniaturization of the much larger landscape you’d see from a plane.

She finally arranged for me to see the garden.

All those years, I had been confident that once I was standing there I would know the particular power of that garden. I thought back then that I could pretty much understand and write about any landscape architecture using a set of concepts I’d become familiar with. I had been quite successful doing so, getting my work published in the London Telegraph Sunday magazine and so on.

Standing in the garden, I felt a strange alertness, a fizziness in my nervous system—yet I couldn’t figure out what was producing the effect. It would be a long time before I was capable of writing anything sufficient about this garden.

Next installment: "A Pretty Big Failure"

 

Agnes Martin: A Singular Career

After years of noticing references to the painter Agnes Martin in the work of other poets, I finally encountered her work in spades at the Guggenheim retrospective on view through January 11, 2017.

I knew little about Martin—partly my own failing and partly, I’m guessing, due to the short shrift she got for a long time. Why was she overlooked? Probably a combo of several factors including her gender, her resistance to the “star-making machinery” many artists embrace, and the fact that her work hasn’t translated very well online (that’s changing, though, thanks to improved video tech).

So I didn’t know that most of her works are paintings of lines and grids. Nor that she strove to provide viewers with states of happiness and joy, a sense of expansive, ego-emptied beauty such as we experience in nature. She gave some of her paintings names like “I Love the Whole World” and “Lovely Life.”

Cheesy titles, right? And how do they go with her restrained, abstract works? And while we’re questioning, how can she think grids are like nature?

These dilemmas slowly dissolve as you stare at painting after painting, experiencing the marked similarities and subtle differences between them. Sometimes you select one work for deeper communion, moving close up to see the meticulously drawn pencil lines and precisely applied paint, then further away till the lines fade like details disappearing out a window as a plane ascends. Through patient engagement (a mere smidge of the patience Martin demonstrated in creating this body of work) you start to experience a sense of meditative peace.

You begin to reflect (or I did) that ocean waves are so similar, arriving one after another, yet no two are the same. That an orchid or an oak has many systematic, predictable features, yet each can pull you into its particular universe. That there’s something about the necessarily imperfect striving for perfect form that feeds the human soul. You start to feel gratitude for this break from the daily grind of trying to be an important somebody, for the careful, deliberate markings made by this earnest, hardworking human, Agnes Martin.

There are so many facts about Martin and her creative process that inspire me as a poet and that I will no doubt draw on over time to support my clients in my work as a Life & Professional Coach. For example:

She suffered enormously (an emotionally abusive mother; paranoid schizophrenia replete with auditory hallucinations, spells of depression, and catatonic trances; shock treatment). But she found ways to cope. And to create.

She didn’t let others define her (the Minimalists wanted to claim her; she resisted).

She abjured fame.

As a queer woman in a male-dominated art world she overcame incredible odds to develop a successful career. (And she did that while abjuring fame!)

She was quirky as hell. (She claimed to remember the exact moment of her birth. She saw visions. She abruptly stopped painting for several years in the middle of her career; then resumed and proceeded at full tilt.)

She was a late bloomer (started painting at age 30) and a cool elder (painted her last work at age 92).

But the main thing is the work, and what it transmits, moving from deep inside Martin’s sensitive, introverted practice all the way over to now, to us.