Monday, December 20, 2010

Turn To Your Art

When I was pregnant, I gave up my daily practice of formal meditation because I had morning sickness so bad and for so long, that I could barely make it off of the couch to use the bathroom, let alone sit before my altar. My husband reassured me that my spirituality would adapt and evolve along with me as I grew into my new role as a mother, and he suggested I try giving up my fantasy of flying off on the wings of a Goddess for a more Zen-like form of spirituality, finding moments of connection “on the fly” from then on. He was right. I haven’t managed to make it back to the meditation altar. My meditation at this point in my life is getting up at 5 a.m. to watch the news and drink two cups of coffee before everybody else wakes up and grabs on to me before I can.

My relationship to my art (which is also part of my spiritual practice, as it is with most artists), has had to adapt to my changing identity, too. I may not always paint, draw, or write on a daily basis, but I do create lots and lots of things (all the time), some of them obvious and tangible, some not. All mothers and teachers do this.

As a child, my art saved me. I escaped the pain and uncertainty of my home life by recreating my own happy world, one that I could escape to, to avoid the real life I had been born in to. When I drew, painted, crafted, or wrote, I was the master of my own universe, and I was in control. I credit my talent and the ways that I expressed myself for getting me through my very difficult childhood. I came out of it with only a few scars, not nearly as many, I believe, as I would have, had it not been for my art and a safe place to go. Creating a safe and healthy place to express one’s self is another important reason why I advocate for the arts in schools, but I don’t talk too much about that publicly because it isn’t appropriate. The adults in charge are preoccupied with money, time, and their own careers. To talk about a child’s soul is pointless because the Status Quo knows nothing about such things, for it has no soul. Even though I don’t talk about children’s souls when I argue for the arts publicly, they are in my heart and mind. Protecting them is what gives me the will to keep up the good fight, even now, in the face of soullessness in Los Angeles. I rely on my creativity to lead effectively, and I rely on my creativity to keep me happy and sane while leading, raising my kids, and trying to survive in L.A.

I have always made money on the side by doing all sorts of freelance work. When I was younger, I was a sign painter, illustrator, a draftsperson, a cartoonist, calligrapher, and painter. When desk top publishing came along, I created a small, monthly magazine which helped me develop new skills; publishing, marketing and selling advertising. At the age of 25, during a deep, meditative moment, I realized that it was time for me to leave my home in Colorado, to see if I could make it as an artist in Los Angeles. I knew that if I didn’t go then, I might never go, for the timing was right - I was young, single, and fearless. I packed my clothes, dog, and art supplies and headed off to California. I had about $400 in my pocket, and no job, but I didn’t care. I was determined to give it my best shot. If I failed, I could always go back to Colorado, satisfied in the knowing that I had tried, when some exceptionally talented, funny and smart people in my family never did. Close members in my family were just as talented as I was, but they withered up and collapsed in on themselves, which scared me to death. I didn’t want to end up like any of them.

Soon after I got to L.A., I got a job as marketing manager for Denecke, Inc. Mike Denecke, owner, had invented the TS-1 Time Code Slate (the electronic clapper board that is regularly used and shown in videos, commercials, etc.), amongst other post production products used in film, video and recording studios. I created a comic strip called, “Father Time” (a caricature of Mike and an entourage of behind-the-scene characters who don’t get enough credit for being part of the team that produces successful shows and helps make stars). The strip was used to market Denecke products. Mike had a huge impact on me. He was raised by professional, classical musicians (his mother was a flautist in a symphony in Minnesota, and his father, the conductor). He would speak highly of his parents, especially his mom, who encouraged him as a child to go for his dreams, and reminded him that everybody is born with a gift, he just needed to find out what that was. He did. He became a classically trained guitarist (having studied with Andres Segovia), a sound engineer and an inventor. Mike believed in me and encouraged my talent. As an artist himself, he knew how important it was to give me, and his other employees, space. He trusted us. He was a great “boss”. I strive to show the same sort of confidence and appreciation for the talented people I have chosen to hire over the years. I worked for Mike for seven years, developing a line of comic books, calendars, ads, t-shirts, mugs, etc. I only left so I could care for my newborn son. A few years later, Mike died of a heart attack. I like to think I’m having one of those Zen-like, “fly by” moments whenever “Dancing in the Moonlight” by King Harvest comes on the radio. Mike recorded that song in a hotel room in Paris in the early seventies. I get to say “Hi Mike!” whenever I hear that song.

As I look back at my creative career over the past 30 years, I see that the most prolific times in my life have always been when I was the most stressed, or was at some sort of impasse. Becoming a mother was a life changing experience for me, as it is for all women, and I was fearful that I would abandon my own dreams and goals for a life lived in service to others. I chose to be a wife and mother, and I wanted to stay home with my son, but I didn’t want to lose myself in that. So I threw myself into my cartooning. Painting would have to wait because having toxic, messy, permanent paints around with a baby in the house was not something I wanted to deal with. So I chose to put all of my energy into my cartooning because it was clean, easy, and I could be interrupted, a lot. Anyone who has stayed home with babies and toddlers knows what that means. You can’t complete a thought, let alone finish an involved creative project. While my baby slept, I cranked out a couple of new strips and went about the business of self syndication. I created a line of greeting cards and calendars. I was determined to keep my own art alive, and thus keep my own self alive, in my new role as wife and mother. As my son grew, I became more and more interested in teaching art to young children, so I started doing that. I really, really loved it, because I love preschool aged children. They’re a kick and I get to be a big goof when I’m with them. At the same time, my father in law had come to live with us because his health was failing. The added stress of caring for an aging, depressed family member put a lot of extra pressure on me. To get through it, and to mitigate the guilt I suffered due to the resentment I had towards an innocent loved one who needed my help, I turned to my art. I had the old shed in our backyard converted into a studio for myself and proceeded to throw myself into painting landscapes of the San Fernando Valley. By this time, my son didn’t need my constant supervision, which meant I could break out those messy, toxic paints. My studio, and my art, gave me a place of my own. I painted over 40 canvases. It made me feel better. I also opened my studio up to teach more art classes. Teaching art turned into full blown activism after my son entered public school at the age of five. I was outraged by the lack of arts education in schools, so I channeled all of my creative energies into starting and running a nonprofit organization that gets the arts back into schools. Another crisis! I took it on, head on, and have managed to lead it over the past eleven years in the most creative fashion I know how, even now, during one of the most devastating financial periods in our nation’s history.

The economic crisis has put us all into crisis, and I have once again turned to my art. I have had my heart broken by what has happened to my country, my state, my city, and the school system that I have worked so hard to improve. The greed, lack of heart and conscience, and hypocrisy that surrounds me just seems to be getting worse. The wide spread anger, disgust, and apathy is really getting to me. I am pissed. I feel so defeated by forces outside of my control.

So, just like when I was a kid, I am once again an innocent victim of circumstance, and have turned to my art to get through it. I distract myself by being constructive. I have thrown myself into my own work, painting, cartooning, and writing like never before. Through painting, I can really be alone with myself – getting away from “them”, so I can release my anger, frustration, and fear through the process of creating. Through my cartooning and writing, I can say things that I haven’t been able to say as a nonprofit leader, PTA president, or woman with kids in tow. My art is freeing me. I love it. I’m excited. I’m as happy as I would ever hope to be, all things considered, and I have a lot to show for myself.

Trying to save the arts for others has turned me to my own art, so I can save myself. Fellow artists: Turn to your art.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

To Sirs, With Love

It’s been over thirty years since I last played my alto saxophone. That was when I was a teenager, playing in the school band. I had played consistently for eight years throughout my public schooling in Colorado. I was pretty good, and I will always be grateful for the many opportunities that playing music afforded me, even though I didn’t pursue a career in music. I grew up to be a visual artist and an arts education activist. I started a nonprofit organization in southern California to give kids the same arts education experiences that I had growing up.

We raise money and donate music programs to low income elementary schools. We buy the instruments and pay for the weekly instruction during the school day. Our graduating fifth graders move on to middle school with the ability to read and play music (unheard of in the Los Angeles Unified School District today). For existing middle and high school music departments, we raise the funds necessary to purchase much needed materials as well as offer assistance towards the costs of competitions and other expenses. We also produce a number of different arts festivals.

A couple of years ago we created a Battle of the Bands for middle schools as a fun competition to win cash prizes. It also gave teen rock bands the opportunity to get more public exposure, as well as give parents a chance to meet different music suppliers and program providers in an exhibition area. As the RSVPs started to come in from different band directors, and as we got to know more and more teachers through the production process, my own memories of playing in such festivals and competitions started to come back to me. I realized, on a much deeper level, just how lucky I was to not only have had such music programs offered to me in the schools I attended, but that I had the best music teachers around. I appreciated them as much as any kid could at the time, but now, as an adult with over eleven years experience of running an arts education nonprofit against all odds (dealing with the bureaucracy of the LAUSD and steering a public charity through the high seas of the recession), and getting to know more art and music teachers who are dealing with the same challenges, I have grown to appreciate my former band teachers all the more.

We invited every single public middle school teacher to participate in our Battle of the Bands. About half of them declined, not wanting to give up a day on a weekend to do it. The rest of the teachers accepted our offer happily, which insured that our festival would be a rewarding and successful event. The school bands that won reminded me of my former school bands. We seemed to win everything. We won because we were good, but how good could we have been were it not for great teachers?. After the festival, I reflected more on how fortunate I was to have had such incredible support and guidance. I wanted to find my old band teachers and thank them.

I will never forget C.J. Shibly from Isaac Newton Junior High School, or Ross McClure from Evergreen Junior High School. Because of them, I got to be in a marching band, a concert band, and a jazz band in junior high school. We played in parades and performed at school sporting events. For three years at Evergreen High School, I had the good fortune of having Jim Stranahan as my teacher. He was straight out of college - young, energetic, and very, very optimistic. He was cool. He was also an incredibly talented musician in his own right. In the three years that I played in his bands, we cut two albums (one in a studio and the other live at a national competition in Miami, Florida). We played every competition he could get us in to. He even got us gigs playing private parties (one was a gig at McNichols Sports arena for a pro basketball game). All of those weekends and evenings…..he gave up a lot of his own time (and money, I’m sure) for us.

I started searching for my old band teachers so I could let them know how much I appreciated what they had done for me as a teen. I decided to look my former band mates up, too, to see if any of them had pursued careers in music. I found some: Doug Jackson went on to play guitar for well known rock bands like Iron Butterfly, Kenny Loggins, and Ambrosia. Our pianist, Willie Hammond, is a working musician in Boulder, Colorado, and Nate Birkey is a successful trumpet player with his own jazz quartet in New York City. We were just ordinary kids, going to public school. We took the music classes that were offered to us. What would have become of Doug, Willie, Nate and me if we hadn’t had those music classes and those incredible music teachers?

As a parent myself, I argue that music education is vital and necessary, not just because it improves academic scores and keeps kids in school, but because no education is complete without it. Every kid should know how to read and play music, whether they grow up to be musicians or not. The experiences and rewards derived from playing in school orchestras and bands last a lifetime. If I hadn’t taken band for eight years, I may never have met my best friend, Greg Ruland, or traveled to Florida, or set foot in a recording studio, or had a chance to really listen to others, or take so many risks by working through stage fright, putting myself out there so I could bust through my own teen fears when it was my turn to play a solo. I would have been denied the opportunity to honor my deceased father by playing on his silver plated sax, or to give my grandfather (a retired jazz musician) a reason to be proud of me. On top of all that, I would have missed out on the rare opportunity of having an adult outsider validate and show concern for the problems I was having at home. My family had been torn apart by divorce, death and alcoholism. Very few adults dared get involved, even my own family members. Most of them looked the other way. Jim Stranahan did not. He couldn’t fix anything for me, but he could let me know that he could see me, and that he cared. I’ll never forget the day he took me aside to ask me if anything was wrong. I told him. My secret was out. Nobody else had ever done that for me before. He was a true artist, connecting to me and all of his students, not just through music and his training as a teacher, but through his own heart.

I never did find C.J., Ross or Jim. I presume they are all retired from teaching now. I hope they’re all happy, healthy, and playing music. Wherever you are: Thank You.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

In Honor of Pay it Forward Day, I took a new mom out for coffee and filled her in on how to play the Magnet Game

As is the tradition with all reluctant public school moms in Los Angeles, we share information with each other about schools – turning each other on to great schools with open enrollment, charter schools, private schools, home school programs, work permits, how to sneak in to public schools in the better zip codes of the San Fernando Valley, and how to navigate the magnet school point system.

Magnet schools started over 30 years ago in response to the mandatory busing that was imposed on students to integrate racial populations and give kids from lower performing public schools a chance to get a better education by busing them to better schools. The magnets were created as an alternative to mandatory busing, as a voluntary integration program to promote desegregation.

The magnet school student bodies are based on racial quotas. The schools have to maintain a certain ratio of all races. The students are selected through a lottery system. Some magnets specialize in a specific academic area or are arts based. They tend to attract students who perform well in school (scoring better in English and Math), and have higher attendance and graduation rates, with very low drop out rates. This is due, in great part, to their parents placing a high value on education and seeking out these magnet schools. They are persistent and savvy enough to work through the complicated system. Generally, magnet schools have a great deal of parental support. They also attract new teaching methods, exceptional teachers (gifted schools offer extra training for their teachers), and special curriculums. They have safer campuses and are more racially diverse. There are 169 magnet schools and centers in Los Angeles. If you live outside of a two mile radius of a magnet elementary school, the school district will provide free transportation (three miles for middle and high schools).

The LAUSD established magnet schools in 1976 to help prevent racial isolation in the school system in order to comply with the California Supreme Court's order to voluntarily integrate. Some magnets are school wide, and some are a schools within existing schools, led by a magnet coordinator. Originally, magnets were designed to combat low academic achievement, low self-esteem, lack of access to college opportunities, interracial hostility and intolerance, and overcrowded schools.

Thirty years ago, the racial demographics of LAUSD were quite different, and the courts intervened to make education fairer for minority groups. Today, the demographics have changed dramatically. Only 9% of the student population in LAUSD is white. The demographics have changed, but the model has not. Names are still drawn in a lottery based on race. Parents still seek this alternative out, but not because they want to avoid forced busing, but because they want to escape their low performing neighborhood schools. Magnets have been the most attractive alternative to the average LAUSD school (charter schools are gaining in popularity now, too). The magnet system has gone from being a system that once promoted fairness amongst the races, to being an unfair public school alternative, privy to the savviest of parents. The racial demographics may be even and balanced, but the system is anything but fair. The only kids who attend magnet schools are kids who come from households that place a very high value on education. Parents who are unaware or uninvolved prevent hundreds of thousands of children from being able to take advantage of the magnet system.

Now, thirty years later, the United States Supreme Court has pondered whether magnets in other states are violating the Constitution by making enrollment decisions based on skin color. This could mean that LAUSD’s magnet program could be at risk. Those who don’t get in may one day fight the system as not being constitutional. Until then, it’s every Angeleno for himself. After spending two hours with my new mom friend, going over the Magnet Game, I set her loose with a checklist for the day (she took the day off from work to deal with this BS): first she was go to the highly gifted magnet middle school to inquire on their admission policies, then she was to walk in to a certain, really great elementary school in a very desirable part of the Valley to find out if she can enroll her two children on a work permit (she works two blocks from the school). After that, she walked in to another school near her work, just to make sure she covered all her bases, and then, based upon the plan that emerged from talking to these three schools directly, she bubbled in the proper magnet selections in her Choices brochure, slipped them in the mailbox, crossed her fingers, and said a prayer.