Politics and the Environment: The Good, Bad, Complicated, and Promising

The Good

Fact #1: The Clean Air Act was passed in 1970 with a unanimous vote from the Senate and only one nay vote from the House. This is just one example of successful environmental efforts that crossed party lines.

Fact #2: The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) was established during Richard Nixon’s (R) presidency.

Fact #3: George H.W. Bush (R) called himself the “environmental president,” and attacked his opponent as an example of someone who would be detrimental to our environmental conservation, and therefore our country. Bush expanded upon the Clean Air Act by “instituting a cap-and-trade system to cut power plant pollution and reduce acid rain.”

Photo of three of the passenger pigeons from my public installation, “In Unison.” From closest to farthest: Gaylord (after Governor Nelson), Gloria (after Gloria E. Anzaldúa and Gloria Steinem), and Carver (after George Washington Carver). All birds made from reclaimed clothing donated by the community.

The Bad

Fact #1: The US is the most wasteful country in the world, producing 695 metric tons of waste per day. China is second and produces 520 metric tons of waste per day.

Fact #2: While China is on track to outproduce and double the amount of waste the US produces by 2030, that would still make them less wasteful than we are per person. Consider this. The US has a population of 320 million people. China has a population of 1.4 billion. And yet we still currently outproduce them in garbage by 1.33 times.

Fact #3: Japan and Germany are also among the top 5 most wasteful nations. Both countries are lauded for their efficient processes and streamlined businesses. Lean six sigma and other streamlining/waste elimination methodologies give praise to Japanese companies like Toyota for helping to establish these practices. But “efficient” is not the same as “waste free.” It also matters what you call waste. A company that manufactures disposable plastic bags and bottles may do so without wasting any plastic in their processes, but they are still producing plastic bags and bottles that go into our landfills. A car company may waste no time in getting cars out on the market and on the roads, but they are still producing fossil fuel burning cars that require metals mined from the earth.

Fact #4: At least 83 animal extinctions have been documented in North America alone since the 1900s. Many more animals have lost about 75% of their populations since as recently as the 1960s.

For anyone who wants to call any of the above information the stuff of alarmists, cut any of these numbers in half and it’s still ridiculous.

The complicated, and sometimes overwhelming

Perhaps one of the most dangerous things is when both conservative and liberal politicians continue to treat the future of the economy and the future of the environment like opponents rather than interdependents, like an agenda to be beat or won instead of a problem to solve and a purpose to share and lead and collaborate on.

We can’t ignore the huge pollution problem surrounding us and ahead of us. So whose responsibility is this? Is it the big companies? Is it individuals? As both an individual and small business owner, I feel the pains and contradictions in multiple ways. As an individual, I feel defeated every time I go to the grocery store and buy fruits and vegetables that come pre-wrapped in plastic or covered in stickers that are non-biodegradable. As a business owner, I struggle with the fact that the cheaper options for materials are the less environmentally friendly ones, or that there may just not even be any truly environmental options out there. I struggle with the fact that until our bigger systems change, the current system endorses the monetary success of business models that are linear instead of cyclical, with no sustainable future for the materials we create with and consume. The current system endorses a culture of high, frequent, and repeated consumption instead of the slow consumption of products that last and are meant to be taken care of.

So again. Whose responsibility is this? Is it businesses? Is it individuals? In spite of the above, it’s still not an either-or.

The Promising

Here are some things you should know about the legacies of people who advocated for the environment.

Figure #1: Gaylord Nelson (D), a former Senator and the 35th Governor of Wisconsin, founded Earth Day in 1970. He was responsible for motivating President Kennedy to participate in discussions about environmental conservation and policy across the nation. He helped to establish the federal legislation that protects the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. And he, like many, understood that environmentalism was not a partisan issue.

Figure #2: The 37th Governor of Wisconsin, Warren Knowles (R), set yet another example of collaborating across party lines. Knowles is also remembered for his pro-conservation and pro-environment policies and legacy, and for his collaborations with his predecessor, Gaylord Nelson.

Figure #3: Aldo Leopold was a Wisconsin environmentalist whose ethics of nature, biodiversity, and wildlife preservation continue to guide the conservation of our state and national parks, trails, and nature centers nationwide. He helped to change previous wildlife management mindsets as one that inevitably has human beings at the top of the food chain, which led to the re-introduction of predators like wolves to Yellowstone National Park to restore balance to the natural ecosystems.

Figure(s) #4: Activists in Wisconsin played a huge role in banning DDT nationwide, from the nature-loving citizens who raised public awareness to Professor Joseph Hickey at UW who connected the death of birds to the earthworms they were eating from the DDT-infested soil.

Fact: $647 billion was invested in drilling oil last year alone, and we need $1 trillion to be invested in clean energy solutions between now and 2030. That’s $1 trillion over 13 years, and we’ve spent over 2/3 that amount on drilling alone in just one year, not counting all the other investments in the oil industry. And as it’s been shown, their assets’ worth won’t last and are not sustainable, so that’s either $1 trillion for renewable resources over the next 13 years, or $1 trillion to keep investing in something with a hard deadline–no pun intended–with no future returns. Alternative energy sources get a lot of smack for being too expensive for the general populace, and while it’s true that $1 trillion is a big and even unfathomable number, we’re already spending that  and then some to maintain our current fossil fuel addiction. So what does that tell us?

In conclusion

It’s important to recognize the environmental efforts that have taken precedence over individual motives. It’s important to recognize that these efforts required collaboration across across party lines and the boundaries of states and nations for our long-term success and wellbeing. It’s important to recognize the role of individuals in pushing legislators and of legislators who listened and collaborated–with the people they represented and with each other.

What impacts us globally always starts locally. The environments we shape will inevitably shape us.

A quote from Governor Nelson’s speech from the first Earth Day in 1970:

“Earth Day is dramatic evidence of a broad new national concern that cuts across generations and ideologies. It may be symbolic of a new communication between young and old about our values and priorities.”

We can fight all day over the terminology–climate change, global warming, pollution, conservation. We can fight each other about our political beliefs.

But through all of that, we must educate ourselves, not solely to be better at arguing with others, but to be capable of informing others and improving ourselves. We must learn from the sobering truth of history while not letting history make us cynical. History gives us roots that connect us to other people. Knowing the flaws of our past gives us compassion and a compass to do better in the future.

Further Reading:

Read the full Earth Day speech from 1970

Learn about when Environmentalism became a partisan issue

The story of my project, In Unison, which addressed social movements, environmental conservation, and the fast fashion industry

Photography credit for In Unison: Jennifer Bastian Photography

Two worlds in tandem: moving from the past to the present

February 8, 2017, would have been my dad’s 66th birthday. He has been gone for nearly 8 years.

I have been thinking a lot lately about things that come in twos.

Things set in opposition that are necessary parts of a whole. Left versus right, male versus female, north versus south, conservative versus liberal.

Things that intersect or prove simultaneous truths. The intersection of two roads. A house on a row, adjacent to two other houses, that is simultaneously both their neighbors. The invention of printing, which is both an art form and a technology. Multiple identities, which we associate with people being multiracial, inter-religious, gender-fluid, bisexual. Or the running joke among people who hate identity politics is “I don’t care if you want to be a purple alien unicorn.” But multiple identities could just mean that being a mother and a wife doesn’t mean you cease to be a daughter. Identities don’t exist in silos.

Things that do not intersect, but inform or create each other. The past and the present. Parallels between different times in history. Correlations in data. Your reflection in a mirror. The reversed image of a stamp, pressed on paper.

A couple students from my woodcut workshop at @madisonbubbler. These guys were awesome. :)

A photo posted by Jenie (@jeniegao) on

Earlier this year, I turned 29, the same age my dad was when he immigrated to the United States. My 29th birthday took place a few days after Martin Luther King Day, the same day as Inauguration Day (1/20), and the day before the historic Women’s March.

As my father’s birthday passes once again, just one day after the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as our Secretary of Education, I can’t help but think about the significance of my role as an educator amidst political turmoil.

I am thinking about his old stories. He was born shortly after Mao Zedong’s rise to power in China. He was the first generation to be raised by state educators instead of by his parents, so the adults could be dedicated to serving the Communist Party and military. He was of the generation that lost its education to the Cultural Revolution, when the schools shut down and the leaders accused the teachers of instilling radical, elitist ideas upon the youth. My dad had always been a terrible student, had failed grades, and been held back multiple times. The teacher who had succeeded in reaching him and led him to becoming a top-performing student had done so by encouraging his love of literature.

The leaders of the country had incited the youth to turn against their teachers. The schools closed. My dad was among his fellow students the day his former teacher and mentor was condemned as an “educator who was corrupting the youth.” He was among them as they gathered around her, to beat her. And he pretended to beat her, too, though did his best to stay in the middle of that crowd, to stand between her and the blows of his peers.

That was just one of the events that took place the year my dad’s education ended. He was in the seventh grade, and only by a fortuitous and unlikely series of events was he able to study English in his late twenties and come to the United States.

I can’t help but think about what it means for me to be a teacher now, all these years later, at the same age as he was when he finally got to be a student again.

And that continues to be the main difference between the past and the present, that one generation of students will become another generation of studies. History will be the student of what it later needs to teach.

It is bittersweet for me, now, to look at my dad’s manuscript about his life in China, and read the paragraph about him receiving his passport, which read, “To All Countries in the World.” It is bittersweet to imagine how it must have felt for him to read those words as China re-opened to the West. To imagine how it must have felt for him to write that, decades later, knowing that for over two decades, he never did make it to Europe, and never got to live outside of Kansas again.

Drawings of eagles and Canada geese, just some of the many migratory birds I have been studying.

My dad would spend half his life in this country. He would spend many of those years dreaming of becoming a writer, trying to recapture the history and the lessons of his youth, the lessons he learned growing up in a country full of contradictions, the lessons he learned from a Cultural Revolution that built up and destroyed the hopes of his generation within the same uplifted blow. He would spend many of those years frustrated by the limits of a man who was robbed of his early school education and basic foundations of mathematics and science, and yet extremely educated in his mindset and well versed in US and global history, dreaming and wondering what the worth of his story might some day be.

And he, along with my mom, would tell me how lucky I was to be born here. How lucky I was not to speak English with an accent. How much easier I would have it than they did. Especially as a girl. Especially as a girl after China’s one child policy, which was implemented in 1979, the same year my dad moved abroad.

When the world tells you you’re lucky, you can’t help but agree. You also can’t help but overcompensate for that luck, to really want to prove that you deserve to be here.

You have to be better to be equal, the saying goes.

I think, sometimes, when you know you have it easier in some ways, you force yourself to have it harder in other ways. Sometimes, when you’re told you have it easy, you disregard the ways in which you still have it hard. Sometimes, when you see the dreams your parents either did not achieve or did not even begin to dream up, you grow up with a sense of urgency to do what they did not get the chance to do. That applies to both the things they wanted and the things they dreaded.

Because my dad always felt that he had lost so much time, I wanted to be good with mine, and ironically, I always feel like I’m behind. Plus he was always telling me not to let the years get away from me. So I have always wanted to do the things that he could not do and not to waste the opportunities that come my way. But I believe that many of us can agree that it’s hard to reconcile the timelines for what we want with the milestones that others expect of us.

What you do for a living when you get to live out your childhood dream.

At the same time, I wrestle with the discomfort of knowing that while my intention is to be someone my dad would be proud of, my reality might be that I am someone who always aggravated his insecurities. If he were still alive today, would he be proud of me? Would he disapprove of my life choices, to choose the harder but (for me) the more rewarding path of becoming an artist and entrepreneur? Would he be insecure and even passive aggressive about the things that he could or would never do, that I can? Would we still be warring with each other’s contradictions, with both of us being stubborn, and with him still angry that his authoritarian views didn’t work on the daughter he pushed to be independent, observant, and strong?

Would I have made the same life choices if he were still alive? What if certain decisions, realities, and hard-but-very-real-life-and-death-questions hadn’t been pushed upon me at an early age? Would he, as a man who wanted his daughter to be strong, secretly resent all the ways in which his baby girl does not, and maybe never did, need him?

It’s also possible that none of these questions are worth asking, and some may even be draining or damaging. I have a good enough memory to draw connections and correlations between what is happening in our current social and political climate and what was happening when my dad was my age. But it would be a disservice to myself and the potential of the future, to compare my timeline too much with his, with my mother’s, or with anyone else’s, especially if we have each sought different fulfillments and life milestones.

Not to mention, things are already different. At 29, he was pursuing a new education. At 29, I am getting to share mine.

Photo from the Madison Central Library’s Bubbler studio, during one of my public printing workshops.

If I could let my dad know anything, it is that I do all the things I do out of love and respect and a desire to make things better, and that I am trying to do the best I can with what life has given me. History, with all its beauty, pain, trauma, and flaws, has given me only gifts. The qualities he thought were the worst about him have become the best about me. I believe it is our job, as people, to treasure what our parents gave us, and to equally treasure the need and the drive we have to fulfill what they did not give us.

When I look at what I have done thus far, I do not believe that I have done better than what others are capable of. If anything, I might have an above average awareness of the long-term game we each need to play. I know that I have roots and that roots require watering to keep their strength. I know that this is especially a challenge for anyone whose roots have needed to travel far for them to be here.

Each of us is still taking care of the seeds that were planted before us. Each of us must plant, share, and identify new seeds in our communities, to have gratitude for the gifts of history and to cultivate those gifts. Each of us must develop the insight to know the difference between growing a tulip and growing a tree, and the patience needed to address that difference fairly.

Each of us must know to study the past–not always to understand it–but to know that if we don’t understand, it’s because things are already different from the times when people thought “their present”/”our past” made sense. But things have changed. And things will continue to change. That, we must believe.

I hope, that if we are to do that, the trees of the future will bear fruit long after any of us here today are gone.

February Updates

  1. Thank you to the Capital Times in Madison for interviewing me about my artistic practice and project at the Central Library. It’s great to have a chance to share a bit of my creative story. The full Q&A is transcribed here.
  2. I have entered Phase Two of my project, In Unison, for the Bubbler art residency at Madison Central Library, and am asking people to come join us for community sewing days, to help cut and sew patterns and bring these fabric birds to life. Sign up with a friend for one of the group sewing days online!
  3. I have started teaching two classes in Milwaukee, as part of two public art projects to be completed by May and June. I’m going to take this moment to say, I really enjoy teaching. :)
  4. I’ve started an activist book club with a group of people in Madison. Our first book will be The Lifelong Activist, by Hillary Rettig, available for free online or purchasable as a hard copy. Send me a message if you’re interested in joining up with us! We’ll be meeting biweekly.

Thoughts following the Women’s March

Our future generations will remember that on January 21st, 2017, 2.9 million people joined the Women’s March for peace and equal rights in an environment where we have been incited to take up the tools of war. This is the largest march in US history and regardless of outside efforts to disrupt the movement, the marches stayed peaceful.

We had 100,000 in Madison alone. It was powerful and unsettling to participate in a march of this size that aligned our local vision with a global one.

This isn’t going to be the last time people march in unison to make themselves heard. People get louder when they feel the threat of being silenced. And so, we have entered an era where it is no longer enough to live peacefully, but where those who want peace, who want fairness with their government and among people, must organize and fight for it.

The question is, who are you, as one out of many, and what will you offer of your strengths and your values? What do you understand about your role as a citizen? What do you still need to learn? With whom do you need to organize? When you fight to make sure that people won’t be silenced, how can you make sure that your own noise doesn’t drown out another’s individual voice? How will you take time to listen? How will you keep alive your vision of peace, at a time when all of us are mobilized by the wars waged against us? We didn’t ask to play games. We didn’t ask for a battle. And yet here we are. Our society is restless, and we have been called upon to rise to an occasion.

Tell me what democracy looks like?

My thoughts as I journaled this morning:

Who I am will always be in opposition to whom you want me to be. Nor will it matter how close to your ideal I may actually be.

The question is, can you still accept me? Are you willing to reconcile how you feel about who I am with your world views? Because only in that willingness can you truly begin to listen and to see.

Also want to pass this along: 10 Actions for the first 100 Days

What does it mean to be In Unison?

It is two days after Martin Luther King Day and two days before the 45th Presidential Inauguration.

We began the week by honoring the memory of a man who emerged from and spoke for the crowd, and who fell, though he spoke of hope. We will end the week by officiating a man chosen by the crowd, and who rises to power, in spite of or maybe because of a toxic campaign that we all fed into, regardless of which side we claim to represent.

What is the responsibility of the everyday person, to rise as an individual, who then represents many?

What is the role of the leader we elect, and the manner in which that leader exercises power and influence over us?

What is the role of the crowd?

The saying goes that united we stand, divided we fall.

And yet unity is not always what it seems. Unity can be used against us.

Lemmings will run off a cliff to their death together. And buffalo. And wildebeest. And the same act of flocking together makes sheep and cattle easy to control and turns birds into marks for hunters and their guns. Wolf packs run together so they can be better killers. United, wolves can kill, and someone from some herd will definitely fall.

Divided, we are guaranteed to fall.

But let’s not kid ourselves. United, we may still fall. For the truth about our unions is that they often inherently require exclusion to make them work, or at least to make them easy for people to understand and latch onto.

Researching different birds’ flight formations.

So the question is, are your words, principles, and beliefs worth the risk of falling? Are the people you stand with worth falling for? Are you truly in control of your actions and reactions, regardless of how well intended your beliefs may be?

Can you be effective? Do you want to be effective? Or are you just running with the crowd?

How can you be sure that when you rally with others, that you will rise with your fellow people? How can you be sure that the cause you stand for should be uplifted at all? Whether you stand with a Pro-Life or Pro-Choice campaign, whether you spread the word of your God, whether you fight for the credibility of science, whether you fight for a free market, whether you fight for the underserved, whether you stand in formation with fellow troops on a battlefield, whether you carry signs alongside fellow protestors, your unity for any cause decidedly makes you somebody else’s opposition. The fact that you have to rally–have to protest–have to march–means that you are standing for one thing and against something else. Even if you stand for peace, you have already been indoctrinated as a soldier. You are playing by the laws of war. The feeling that your presence is needed here is a sign that your battle is not yet won.

So what do you stand for? And is it as simple as you think it is, or feel it ought to be?

Art Residency at the Madison Bubbler

When I first learned that Wisconsinites called water fountains “bubblers” I laughed and thought it was ridiculous.

Now, after more than six years of living in Wisconsin, I’ll be the artist-in-residence in the Bubbler program at Madison’s Central Public Library, and that whimsical, little word will be on my C.V. until the end of time, because the Internet forgets nothing. This is why you shouldn’t make fun of people’s colloquialisms.

In all seriousness, though, I’m super excited for this! I just finished moving into my new studio at the library. For the next two months, this glorious workspace will be mine to imagine and create in.

Installing some of my former projects. You can find woodblock displays and fabric fishes throughout the library these next couple months.

So what will I be making?

I’ll be creating an installation of larger-than-life migratory birds made of reclaimed fabric, that will be taking flight from the ceiling of the children’s library. The title of the project is In Unison, a tribute to how birds fly in flocks so that they might take turns leading and riding one another’s air currents, and also the necessary role that settling and migrating both play in our lives.

The reclaimed clothing is important, too. The textile and fast fashion industry have created  more clothing than our culture can possibly consume, and with that a negative, self-feeding cycle of waste, shopping addiction and misplaced “goodwill” when we donate our old clothes to countries that don’t want them either. Much of this clothing is poorly made and consists of polyester, which can’t be broken down or recycled. So part of the function of this project is to take back some of this clothing into a new “ecosystem,” one that binds diverse, discarded fabrics together into new beings that beckon us not to vilify the flaws of our past design but to instead look up in wonder. And when we dream better, we can then do better.

So how can you help?

I need clothing and fabric!! We have collection bins throughout the library for you to drop off your wares. If you’re not in Madison but want to contribute, I’m happy to take a shipment. In February, I’ll also be asking people to come help with sewing, so if you or someone you know might be interested, come/send them my way.

Want to learn more?

You can read more about my project on the Bubbler’s website and also listen to my interview with WORT 89.9 FM below.

**I’m currently accepting clothing/fabric donations at the library (as well as by mail if anyone lives far away but still wants to contribute).

The benefits of keeping a journal: paper time machines and thoughts from the soul

I keep a hand-written journal, to log the often boring, redundant, silly, serious, terrible, hopeful, vulnerable thoughts that I have. My current journal is handmade and has a sister that I gave to one of my best friends back in 2009. Since she and I have never gotten to see each other much, I decided to make us these “sister” journals to exchange every time we met up. The journals have sections divided by envelopes to hold whatever each of us found that we wanted to share with the other.

The first three sections of this journal are her entries, interleaved with some of my own. But it’s been a long time since we’ve even been in the same country. When I filled up my last journal in 2015, I finally turned to this one to complete the last seven sections as mine.

There are still a few pages left in it for 2017, and typed below is my first entry over breakfast this morning. I felt it was worth sharing.

Important Lessons / Thoughts from the Soul

  • People are their most attractive, most magnetic, most impressive selves when they are doing what they love.
  • The idealistic man is rarely also the ideal man himself.
  • What we hate in others is often what we hate in ourselves.
  • What we fear in others is often what we fear in ourselves.
  • What we hope for in others is often what we hope for in ourselves.
  • Opposites are not the same as differences.
  • Interesting interests do not make an interesting person.
  • It is good to believe in your ideals if you can also learn to use them to guide your pragmatism. Professing your love for an ideal and then flagellating yourself and others with it is destructive to yourself and a destruction of/disservice to that ideal.
  • Judgment can be good. Judgmentalness is never good.
  • Announce your values. Be your brand. Campaign. Market. Protest. Or call whatever it is you do how you need to call it. Just be mindful that you don’t become the caricature in place of your complexities.
  • (And this one’s not mine, but) living well is the best revenge. (Thanks, George Herbert.)
  • People can be so certain about their uncertainties of others, and yet be so ambivalent about the things which could otherwise be guaranteed.
  • This society disadvantages and advantages extroverts and introverts in different ways. Society celebrates the extroverts and binds them up in social nets disguised as social networks. Society ignores the introverts, perceives them as boring or not leader-like, and they then get to quietly produce results in the background (of a world full of increasingly hotter air) while living out a peaceful life. I envy introverts, but man, do I (usually) love being an extrovert.
2010 entry.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma and Love: A Theory & Meditation on Love

Is the trouble with love anything like the prisoner’s dilemma? There is (ideally) no middleman in the game of love to corrupt us or pit us against each other. There’s only us.

And yet…

Because you know how easily I could leave or change my heart, you withhold the part of you I need to feel confident that you love me.

Because I know how easily you could leave or change your heart, I withhold the part of me you need to fall in love with me.

Love takes a certain amount of compromise, a willingness to stop looking for something else, an agreement to stop questioning what we could have with someone else, to work through our imperfections together. Each of us has the option to walk away, and the “prize” of walking away first is a preservation of ego and the cold comfort of not having to deal with the pain of finding out, “Who loved whom more? Who didn’t want the other one enough?” We could also both walk away and both lose. The individual fear that we could both have more than this keeps us from cooperating. The collective fear is that cooperation, while mutually beneficial, doesn’t get us “high” and is potentially not very romantic.

But it’s worth repeating: being idealistic is not the same as living the ideal. So don’t let your ideals and your pragmatism become a false dichotomy. Don’t let your fears make you doubt or sabotage your emotional bravery.

My Paper Time Machine

A few pages I flipped back to that seemed interesting.

2010. Me: some strange rambling. Her: “Hope. You can’t stop.”
2009. Her: “Lonely! 31 July, I have no idea when I wrote this or why I was so lonely. I puzzle myself.”
Me (in response): “Even angry fish has friends. Don’t be lonely.”
My entries on the two days before the presidential election. If I only knew then…

I have three pages left to fill before starting a new journal for 2017. At the end of the journal I found this entry from my friend. What a nice surprise. Where in the world are you, hon? Regardless, thanks for the note.

A love letter from 2010. It’s taken over six years to “find” it again. It was a nice thing to read at the start of 2017.

“Only a fool trips on what’s behind him”

“Only a fool trips on what’s behind him.”

I had a thrilling, amazing, tumultuous, nerve-wracking, at times unpredictable, unforgettable, educational, creative, and fulfilling 2016. Full of growing pains and gains, a few ugly cries, a lot of swearing, and a lot of laughter.

I celebrated two years outside of the “corporate world” and of working independently, and I couldn’t be more grateful. I’ve gotten to work as a creative in so many different capacities for the causes I care about. About halfway through the year, I wondered if I should quit. I had turned down contracts for projects that might have paid well but that I didn’t believe in, and this made me anxious. I wondered if I could handle the unpredictability of a creative entrepreneurship, and even if I could handle it, if it were worth pursuing. I found myself feeling lonely working as a freelancer. I found myself wondering if I were still on track to hit “life milestones.”

The main thing that made me stick to this path was the terrible gut feeling that if I quit, I’d always wonder if I threw in the towel too soon. Sure enough, through the loneliness, I found other freelancers, independents, and remote workers who felt the same way, and so we became “coworkers.” Sure enough, any time I wasn’t sure what the next contract would be, an opportunity would appear. As of July, I’ve even turned a small profit in my art business. I’ve built momentum and am now gearing up for some new, exciting creative projects in 2017. The hard work is paying off.

It’s been an intense and saturated year, nationally and globally, but perhaps because of that it’s all the more so a chance for each of us to grow personally. To question deeply. To act wholeheartedly. There’s a lot to think about and a lot to do. I hope that goes for many of you, too.

Here’s a recap of my 2016. And here’s to kickin’ ass in 2017, y’all.

7 art shows, including my solo show, “Our Relationship with Power,” at Arts + Literature Laboratory.
4 talks/presentations at ALL, DreamBank, Ignite Madison, and TEDx Madison, among several other cool guest demonstrations/workshops/events I got to contribute towards.
First big mural project: Migration Story, with Artists Working in Education, artist Gabriela Riveros, and the students of Escuela Verde. Goal to do my first mural is complete, now for the next ones in 2017. ;)
Helped Thomas Ferrella harvest and install the willow for this incredible project, ECO EPHEMERAL, on UW-Milwaukee’s campus.
Thomas Ferrella’s project at night. Read a review of his project in the Journal Sentinel.
Another successful Maker Faire / Steamroller block printing event, September 2016.
Another successful Maker Faire / Steamroller block printing event, September 2016.
Our trusty steamroller for September 2016.
Standing with Veronica Lazo, the director of UNIDOS Against Domestic Abuse in Madison, WI, at the 80th Anniversary Planned Parenthood Fundraising Event. I got to be a project manager on the amazing team that made this event happen. October 14, 2016.
Giving my talk at TEDx Madison, October 29, 2016. The theme of the event was Think Deeper, and my talk was called, “The Power and Purpose of Creativity.” The video will be released in early 2017.
With fellow TEDx speakers and organizers. Amazing, impressive, inspirational group of people to get to work alongside.
Finished my new series, Las Pioneras (The Pioneers), after I collected stories on immigration from survivors of domestic abuse at UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence. Read a review of the work in Madison365.
Served on two nonprofit boards and joined the From Here to Her Collective to put on the show, Mothers of Our Nations. The show honored women who have been the leaders of our most critical social movements in the past year, from #NoDaPL to our local/regional movements in Wisconsin.
With my three pieces for the Mothers of Our Nations show. These three will be donated to UNIDOS, for their office and organization that have become the home and support system for so many community members.
“In Security,” ink on paper. The piece calls into question what it means when our security depends on the destruction of others. It’s one of my new drawings in the series, Las Pioneras (The Pioneers).

Further Personal Growth

Persepolis - by Marjane Satrapi
I read 18 books, for a total of 5884 pages. Including this gem, Persepolis. by Marjane Satrapi. Sadly, my reading habit faltered midway through the year, and I fell short of my 10,000 page goal as I immersed in political articles/research and became oversaturated with information. I went from reading 3 books a month down to 2 and 1 towards the end of the year.
I track what I read in a Google spreadsheet, and number of words aside, I decided to add a couple other things about the books I was reading towards the end of the year. I was alarmed to learn that my reading queue at the start of 2016 had a near 50/50 split of male and female authors. By the end of the year, 80% of the books I read were by men. So what the hell happened?!? I realized that I joined a couple book clubs earlier in the year, which were reading books by men, that pushed out my original queue. I’m also always taking book recommendations from friends, and turns out….people usually recommend books by men. I read some “top-reviewed” business and historical books this year, which were, surprise, surprise, by men.
So this is how things work out so far on my book list for 2017. I’m going to have to be a lot more diligent about which books stay and which ones go as the reading list changes over the year. I plan on writing a more comprehensive post on what I’m reading soon (and why).
Camping and canoeing with these goofballs at Apostle Islands. Because summer people, and some are not.
In Door County, WI, just one of many weekend escapades of 2016. I baked a lot of pies and other goodies.
*Finally* had the patience to grow out my hair and chop it off for Locks of Love. 13 inches gone.
Speaking of hair, I participated in Movember for the first time. Here’s how I did.
Celebrated two years of being out of “corporate life” by treating myself to a vacation. I visited Washington, DC, for the first time.
The Gettysburg Address. Still relevant today. Though I don’t think any city in the US has as many quotes all over its walls as Washington, DC.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial, by Maya Lin, in the sunset with Lincoln Memorial in the backdrop. I’ve always loved the backstory of this memorial and am so glad to have finally gotten to see it in person.
Holidays with friends and ZooLights twice, from Washington, DC, to Madison, WI.
This is both a throwback and a projection. Several years ago, I made these crazy, fabric fish with removable organs and gill pockets. From January-February 2017, I’ll be the Artist-in-Residence at the Bubbler in Madison Central Library, making larger-than-life migratory birds. And I need fabric donations, y’all. Read more about the residency here. This is just one of three, exciting projects I’ll be starting in 2017. More news to come. :)

And some things will likely stay the same

Charlemagne and me. We’re growing older together, it seems.

**The cover photo for this post is from fall 2015, but let’s be real. It’s still the best photo of me taken to date, of when I went through the exposed electrical wire to cross the finish line at the Tough Mudder. It’s a good reminder that it’s better to trip on what’s in front of you than what’s behind. ;P

Today, we wear white

When I was a kid, my parents pounded into my head how lucky I am to have been born in the US. My mom, especially, emphasized how lucky as a girl I am to be here.

But this luck was never separate from the acknowledgment that good fortune can go to waste, and living in the US by itself does not make you equal. It does not free you from stereotypes, judgment, or ill will.

So what good, then, is our democracy?

We think that getting to vote means getting what we want, and we feel vigilantly offended when our choices don’t match our beliefs. But democracy is not about getting what we always want. Democracy inherently needs to protect the minority voice from being swallowed by majority rule. That’s what keeps us from becoming a dictatorship. Democracy inherently requires disagreement, and consensus even and especially when we disagree. And it requires us to be okay with not always getting what we want or believe. That’s how we ensure all voices are heard.

I admire people with strong beliefs. I have strong beliefs myself, and our beliefs solidify our identities. And what I admire even more than having a strong will, is being able to challenge and have others challenge your views. It’s being willing to know that you may be wrong. It is not overvaluing your opinion and ego over our collective wellbeing. It is being willing to challenge and let go of your own perfectionism, of your own wish for all other ideas to align with your own.

Studio progress shot from my new series, “Las Navigantes (The Navigators).”

I voted early, as soon as I knew I could. And my choice was easy, because I believe in a democracy that is not perfect, but that is ours to continually critique, challenge, and shape. I believe in a democracy in which women have only been able to vote since 1920, less than  100 years, but where women and men fought to make that happen. I believe in a democracy that passed the Voting Acts Right of 1965, to fight voter discrimination, even though voting had supposedly been open to all races since 1870. I believe in a democracy where interracial marriage has only been legal for 49 years, but where 49 years ago, people said, “We’re wrong. Let’s fix this.” I believe in a democracy that only one year ago made marriage equal regardless of sexual orientation, but where people again said, “We’re wrong,” and collectively made it happen, regardless of whether the fight was personal. I believe in a democracy where men identify as feminists even when many strong women do not. I believe in a democracy that has made so many of us entitled, because it’s culturally ingrained in us that we can fight for the changes we want, because we’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.

I believe in a democracy that can say it’s wrong, not because it lacks confidence, but because it continues to believe it can be better.

I’ll swallow my own ego and say my parents were right about a lot of things. That this is not a place where I am always equal, that this is a place where it is often easier to leverage gender and race for tokenism than to genuinely appeal to people because you are strong, smart, and good in your own right. That this is a place that still measures diversity one dimensionally.

And, though I don’t have to swallow my pride on this one, I’m extraordinarily lucky to be here, so that I can be a part of this country’s growing pains and maturing process, which is often rife with conflict, but which has thus far continued to challenge itself to become more fair and collectively powerful.

And today, to honor all that we have fought for and won, I will wear white.

jenie_gao_election_day

(And a little bit of gold and purple.)

In Pursuit of Purpose

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes for meaningful work. People often think that finding meaning is the same as finding happiness. More accurately, it’s about being willing to face the hardship and sadness. To do something meaningful is often doing whatever you can to set others free of what troubles them, to find connection through what we share, and to light a way for one another.

In these last couple months, I’ve been interviewing survivors of domestic abuse for an upcoming project. I’ve also had the chance to work with Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin on their 80th anniversary event, a phenomenal show of solidarity that took place last Friday.

Our featured speaker was Gloria Steinem, who spoke powerfully about the proven links between racism and domestic violence. She spoke about how police officers who are prejudiced and use brutal force in their arrests also have four times the rate of other households for abusing their spouses and families. She spoke about how we cannot expect to have a just government, equal businesses, and fair law enforcement without giving women both fair access to reproductive healthcare and the freedom to direct their life choices. Abuse and violence manifest themselves across platforms. We cannot have democracy without making it possible to have democratic families and democratic couples.

These are just a couple of the things that have kept my hands, mind, and heart busy.

Gloria Steinem Q&A at the 80th Anniversary event. She's a visionary.
Gloria Steinem Q&A at the 80th Anniversary event. She’s a visionary.

Meanwhile, in this election season, I’ve been paying attention. I’ve kept up with my reading on the issues and candidates. I’ve watched the blow-up around Trump’s “locker room talk” and the following outpour from friends and strangers alike, women coming forward with their stories of harassment, abuse, and assault, calling Trump out on his misogyny. Experiences that all women know too well.

Muriel Rukeyser once said, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” And split open it has.

I’ve been doing a lot of listening, and I’m humbled when I think about just how many stories I carry. My own stories, the stories of friends and loved ones and strangers. And I think, damn, we carry heavy burdens, but also, damn, our hearts are strong. They must be heavy lifters.

I’m humbled also when I realize that since I started this freelance journey, I’ve gotten to work on so many projects and causes alike that are important to me. Some days, my heart feels really heavy, and I wish we didn’t have stories like these to have to stand up for. I wish we didn’t still have to fight for things like fair access for women to reproductive healthcare. I wish domestic violence weren’t a thing. I wish #YesAllWomen weren’t a thing. I wish #RepealThe19th weren’t a thing. But they are.

Standing with a couple of the wonderful women I know in Wisconsin and artist Niki Johnson's sculpture, Hills and Valleys, which is made of deconstructed signs from the defunded Planned Parenthood locations in Wisconsin.
Standing with a couple of the wonderful women I know in Wisconsin and artist Niki Johnson’s sculpture, Hills and Valleys, which is made of deconstructed signs from the defunded Planned Parenthood locations in Wisconsin.

And here we are. We do our damnedest, and I feel lucky to have so many examples of people fighting for fairness, of people helping.

Thank you, Linda Neff of Planned Parenthood and Katie Mullen and Jordan Pintar of BlackPaint Studios for being great to work with on the 80th Anniversary. It was an event I won’t soon forget. Congratulations, Niki Johnson, on your well deserved Voices Award at the 80th event, and thank you for your amazing work. Thank you, Veronica Lazo, for introducing me to your UNIDOS Family, for contributing to my upcoming project, for all the service you do.

With Veronica Lazo, the director of UNIDOS Against Domestic Abuse in Madison, WI. She's a force to be reckoned with.
With Veronica Lazo, the director of UNIDOS Against Domestic Abuse in Madison, WI. She’s a force to be reckoned with. Thank you for coming and volunteering at the 80th anniversary event!

I hope the work I have to share in the coming months is worthy of their inspiration. I hope that I am using my creative talents to do justice to the stories I carry.

Planned Parenthood’s call to action on Friday was not only to stand up, but to Be Visible. Be visible for what you care about. Be visible, speak up, educate, and be educated. Don’t worry about the “controversy.” The most controversial thing is not to communicate, in a world that needs us to be willing to share. The joy we seek depends on our willingness to face our fears of adversity, rejection, and pain.

Most of all, listen not to only to reply, but to understand as you wish to be understood. That alone can change everything.

planned-parenthood-80th-03

Cover photo is of one of the buttons designed by BlackPaint Studios for the 80th anniversary event.

What God Looks Like

My mother once told me the story of a cartoon she saw in a newspaper some years ago, which explained God.

In the cartoon, God is a faceless, featureless oval on a table. People come to see and give thanks for all that God has done. They see that God has nothing, no way to see or feel or hear or think. So out of gratitude, the first person gives God a mouth, the next a nose, the next ears, and finally, when God has all the qualities that people have, God dies.

Every once in a while, my mind drifts back to that cartoon whose message I learned secondhand, and the ways one can interpret it.

It implies the same things as the sayings, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” or “No good deed goes unpunished.” It bears the ideas of how we, as people, can often try to fulfill needs that don’t exist, offer unsolicited advice, promote solutions that worked for us but may not work for others, or in general do things that evidence how we need so badly to be needed. All of which I think reveals our generosity more so than our selfishness, is more exemplary of our desire to be valuable and useful than of our ignorance. We want to relate and we want to be relatable. We want to find ourselves in others. And so it is that we may also want to design God–or whatever our beliefs may be–in our own image, not purely out of egotism, but out of some sort of self-validation or even vindication.

Of course, other times, my thinking is a little less…philosophical. Like on this warm, summery day, while I was out for a run, I thought about romance, gender wars, and whether God is more manly or womanly. And I concluded that God must be a woman, because Moses found his faith and calling by tending to the wishes of a flaming bush.

It figures that one of the most powerful women in history who got shit done was a fiery, hot bitch. Chill girls and accommodating women seldom get what they want, or make history, for that matter.

To believe and not believe

I grew up in a non-religious family, though many of my extended family members and hometown community (Kansas, for the record, heart of the Midwest) were very religious. And for that reason, I grew up with both the chance and the motivation to choose, a la carte, the things that made sense for me. I grew up with more questions than set-in-stone facts, because anything and everything that a friend, neighbor, or relative might believe in could be challenged by what another friend, neighbor, or relative valued. I grew up without celebrating holidays, which pushed me to ask myself what I would want out of the kind of gatherings that others felt so obligated to be a part of.

We did not celebrate birthdays in my family, or pray, or “break bread” together, and so I think I came to hunger for the rituals and acts of gathering that happen around those things, but not for the fluff or the stuff. As a result, there are few things I cherish more in my adult life than a meal with friends. And few things sadden me so much as any kind of meet-up, where despite everyone being bright and interesting in their own right, the social energy is somehow amiss or misdirected, and the loneliness/guardedness in our advanced and blessed society is so obvious.

Anyhow, as someone who grew up surrounded by a lot of religion despite not having one, I was asked and therefore made to reflect on whether I believe in God. It’s safe to say that I am in many ways a ritualistic person, and that I’ve pursued a lot of unlikely dreams, which requires faith against the skepticism of the “known” world. My answer to believing in God has changed over the years, and for the majority of the time I’ve probably been agnostic. But I have since concluded that yes, I do believe in God. I believe in the way that I believe in money.

What I understand is this: money exists because people agree that it exists, and what we collectively believe in becomes the truth. Money–like so many of our creations–could be the great equalizer. It gives us an objective measure so we don’t have to question what part of our lives is worth four cattle or ten kilos of tomatoes. It’s part of the agreement of living in a collective, a society with rules and infrastructure. Enough of it buys us freedom and teaches us responsibility. Too much or too little both destroys freedom and incites blame. But when we add distance between ourselves and the true value of the things we exchange and consume–while developing an overly-emotional attachment to this thing called money that by itself means nothing–money becomes evil and we become lost.

Like money and all the things we try to organize ourselves around, I think God has the chance to be a great equalizer. I don’t believe God is capable of existing without people or the living. Even if God were an old, white man in the heavens in the most traditional, Western sense, there wouldn’t be much to lord over without us. Regardless of what or who God is, it’s important for us as people to have something to believe in, some purpose to serve and strive for. “I am who I am,” said God to Moses, because God is not a name but a representation of what we care about, a term around which we can organize our understanding of this connection whose feeling we know but cannot easily explain. “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”

“And did you have a better plan for freeing the Hebrews?” said God.
And so it is that we design God in our image. He is a man for all the men who have for generations carried the social pressures of wealth, war, and status, for the men who have not had the public’s permission to be weak. She is a woman for all the women who have been vessels for somebody else’s dreams, who still bears fruit, though we abuse Mother Nature and make a whore out of her for giving us the resources to fuel our vices. They is/are whomever we need to encourage us, to convince us that our aspirations are worthy of admiration that supersedes godly, and therefore humanly, judgment. God is our image of ideal leadership, a leader that does not exist without people to lead, a leader who looks like us, who is us. God is evidence that humankind does not want to be evil; just as people smile when their children take after them and hope they’ll become better versions of themselves, so, too, do people look to their origins, and hope to have inherited the best of their ancestors.

And so it is that we are responsible for creating God in the image of whom we would like to become. We are responsible for being just if we expect justice. We are responsible for choosing the qualities that we value in our leadership. We are responsible for our individual thinking, that fractals out into the design of our collective imagination. We are responsible for a creative and smart God who takes after us, because we take after Them. And we are responsible, too, for a God who embodies that which we lack, for the people we are not, but coexist with. For the people we are not, but wish to be. For the people we are not, but that our children may become.

An unexpected gift from my last visit to Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison! This bonsai is my loveliest new studiomate. :)

Our Relationship with Power: Why It Matters & What We Can Learn

Did you miss my show at Arts + Literature Laboratory? Here’s a recap of why I chose to focus on power and a video of the story I told at the reception.

Jenie Gao | Our Relationship with Power, video by Midwest Story Lab

One of the long-term themes in my artwork is relationships, between people, between nature and the man-made. My drawings capture moments when we connect, collide, and grow with others.

The purpose of this show is to explore how power works. It is to challenge the notion of power as a great force and reveal instead how it builds in small ways, and how our understanding of power will determine whether we will have a healthy relationship with it. It is to show that power must move in cycles, and be fluid and interchangeable in order to have balance. Each artwork illustrates a different relationship between subjects and the sum that their parts create.

Arts + Literature Laboratory is a collaborative space that hosts writing workshops, concerts, and poetry readings. The people who come here believe in speaking for something bigger than themselves, from working for environmental and social causes to leading community classes. When Jolynne Roorda, co-founder of ALL, invited me to show there, I felt it would be right to focus on this understanding of power, as something integral to the collective mindset and creative spirit.

My hope through any of my work is that it gives people a chance to reflect differently on themselves and how the world works, and with that, help each of us rise to the challenges that we all must face. So you can imagine what a gift it was when I learned that the people attending the write-ins were creating poetry in response to the art. ALL hosted a poetry reading with three of Madison’s acclaimed poets, including Oscar Mireles, our city’s poet laureate, alongside Cherene Sherrard and Matthew Guennette, who reflected on the theme of power in choosing what to read. I had the chance to speak with Matthew when he came into the gallery beforehand, to see the art and ask me about the underlying concepts. He said he wanted to read poetry that responded well to the imagery. It was humbling and profound, to feel what it meant to focus collectively on this theme.

On that note, major thanks to Jolynne, as well as everyone else who works hard to run this place (Rita Mae Reese, Simone and Max, I’m looking at you). Head’s up to my artist friends who are looking for a gallery venue. ALL is accepting exhibition proposals. ;)

Thanks also go out to all the wonderful people who came to the reception and those who organized events during the show, and to Midwest Story Lab for recording my talk.

Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao’s artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao’s artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao’s artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Gallery shot of Jenie’s show at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Gallery shot of Jenie’s show at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
"Beast of Prey," by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
“Beast of Prey,” by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
"Beast of Prey" and "The Substance of Your Beauty," on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
“Beast of Prey” and “The Substance of Your Beauty,” on view at ALL.
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Closeup of “The Substance of Your Beauty,” ink and watercolor drawing
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Gallery shot of Jenie’s show at ALL.
Pamphlets on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie’s artist’s pamphlets on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory.
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Gallery shot of Jenie’s show at Arts + Literatury Laboratory.
"Attention," woodcut by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
“Attention,” woodcut by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory.
"The Golden Cage," by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
“The Golden Cage,” by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory.
"The Golden Cage," by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
“The Golden Cage,” by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory.
View of the show from the smALL press library at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
View of the show from ALL’s conference room / smALL press library
"There Is No Such Thing As Me" (left) and "What We Repeatedly Say" (right)
“There Is No Such Thing As Me” (left) and “What We Repeatedly Say” (right)
"There Is No Such Thing As Me," ink drawing by Jenie Gao
“There Is No Such Thing As Me,” ink drawing by Jenie Gao
"What We Repeatedly Say," ink drawing by Jenie Gao
“What We Repeatedly Say,” ink drawing by Jenie Gao
"We Write Our Autobiographies on the Shoulders of Giants," ink and watercolor
“We Write Our Autobiographies on the Shoulders of Giants,” ink and watercolor
"Counter Intuition," ink and watercolor"
“Counter Intuition,” ink and watercolor
Opening page of "The Golden Cage," artist's book by Jenie Gao
Opening page of “The Golden Cage,” artist’s book by Jenie Gao
"The Golden Cage," artist's book by Jenie Gao
“The Golden Cage,” artist’s book by Jenie Gao
"The Golden Cage," artist's book by Jenie Gao
“The Golden Cage,” artist’s book by Jenie Gao

Lessons of departure: the heart and mind of a rural town in a tourists’ economy

Lanesboro Arts Center is beautiful. The space is bright, open, welcoming, and full of activity. They regularly host artists and writers to use the space as a getaway to focus on projects, as well as workshops and seminars for the community. When the directors offered to show my work there, they also kindly took the time to make sure I would have a place to stay.

Jenie Gao at Lanesboro Arts
Jenie Gao at Lanesboro Arts

Having said that, as nice as the reception was, getting to spend time in Lanesboro itself was the real reward. Lanesboro is small, with a population of under 750 people. I stayed with a couple and their two Labrador retrievers in an old Victorian House, who spoiled me rotten, from the food to the stories to the history of their art collection to their library, which could keep me busy for eons.

The couple bought the house to renovate a year ago. They are among several people I met who are newcomers to the town, who all moved there for similar motivations. These are people who either changed jobs or shifted priorities after the economic crash in 2008, when they got laid off, when they realized that their jobs were not so secure, or when city life lost the glamor and glitz that initially drew them there. So they’re moving (back) to towns like Lanesboro, and inevitably invite the locals’ skepticism. It’s just like immigration/migration anywhere…zoom in on the tiniest communities, and it’s the same game as everywhere else, where the only thing that’s different is the scale. The long-term locals are hesitant of the rise of tourism and resulting, changing legislation needed to accommodate it. Lanesboro teems with tens of thousands of tourists in the summer who come for the trails, the river tubing, the respite. While some residents are at odds with this, the reality is that without tourism, small towns like this one are dying. It’s undeniable that those motivated to move to these towns are the ones who can…the ones who have jobs in Rochester or the twin cities, or the ones who can telecommute for their professions.

So these are the questions they face. What does it mean to fund things like education and the arts in rural towns? What responsibility do the new residents have, now that many of them head the committees that will guide the city’s economic growth? What does it mean to justify sustainability with economic needs?

It should come as no surprise that I believe access to the arts and humanities is vital, especially in either secluded or impoverished areas. In a society that measures success by the dollar, short-term thinking will tell us that these kids are better off learning a vocational trade, or focusing on math and science if they are to have any chance of pursuing higher learning. But in the long run, this is exactly what keeps society stratified and makes it harder and harder to achieve a balance in power. This is what makes it hard to have conversations on a local level about the social and political topics that affect us as a nation. Creativity and the humanities become the territory of the privileged class. Even then, in a world that is increasingly commercialized, the worth of creativity depends upon what it is useful for or how sellable it is. We risk losing out on how creativity can challenge us, and on its role in making us capable of being equal partners in a society that we’re all responsible for shaping. We risk losing out on how the arts can not only superficially entertain us, but give depth and richness to our lives.

Someone recently said to me, “I like reading because it helps me empathize with other people.” A mentor of mine recently also said, “I don’t make art because I need to prove anything. I make art because I’m alive.”

adventures-in-science-lanesboro
At a re-sale shop in Lanesboro

In perhaps a perfect parallel with my trip to Lanesboro for the art show, I just recently got accepted to do a public art project with a charter school in Milwaukee. I may have been the interviewee, but the moment that sold me happened while I was waiting for the interviewers. I struck up a conversation with the science teacher who said, “We take the class down by the river to learn about its role in the ecosystem as well as what it means economically for the city. But above that, we emphasize how the river is not only useful, but enjoyable, and that’s not something we should ever overlook.”

In another appropriate parallel, I was listening to an audiobook during my drive between Madison and Lanesboro. The book is called Excellent Sheep, which thankfully isn’t as campaign-y as the title seemed to be. I appreciated how comprehensive the book is. The author addresses the history of how our academic system evolved to reward success over learning, and how this affects people on every social tier. He addresses the social pressure for children with privilege to maintain status or jump through even tougher hoops. He addresses the pressures on underprivileged children who successfully break through their constraints to then maintain the same things that keep the class system alive. He addresses how often in our conversations about increasing diversity in academia and business, we over-focus on race and under-focus on socioeconomic status. If we truly believe in diversity and equal opportunity, then we need to be as diligent about what we do for poor, rural white areas as what we do to address urban areas, immigration, and affirmative action. That is how we begin to reach inclusiveness, rather than perpetuating a mutual ignorance that allows all of us to be leveraged across party lines.

The trouble I noticed in these rural areas is that even when the new residents who don’t have kids still want to fund public education and understand the necessity of it, there just aren’t enough kids or young people moving in who are starting families. It’s hard to bring challenging material to a small community when as few as four families per class have power over what they want the schools to teach. It’s also hard to bring challenging material to a town that depends on tourism to reinvigorate the economy.

Just walking through the house where I stayed sent a chill through me. It was beautiful and I felt spoiled and pampered by my hosts. I also felt sad at moments as I looked around at the space, understanding its history in the passive details. The house has two front entrances that lead to separate rooms, one for distinguished guests and one for…the not so genuinely welcome. The quality of the wood for the doors and trim changes when you move from the family’s to servants’ quarters. It’s uncomfortable to think of design as a thing that segregates rather than integrates. I find myself wondering what it means to preserve and restore history so that we might always learn from it, and yet at the same time not allow ourselves ever to forget it.

A sign in a re-sale shop in Lanesboro
A sign in a re-sale shop in Lanesboro. So what does it mean to lead a beautiful life?

To my surprise, a couple I met in Madison now live in Lanesboro, to be close to family again and help with their family’s farm. They got burned out working at Epic Systems (a software company for healthcare in Madison) and moved back when the “grass on the other side” no longer seemed greener, thanks to windowless offices and high work pressures.

It could be the groups I end up hanging out with, but I almost feel like a stereotype now. I know more and more people who in spite of a bad job market are leaving their jobs. I know more and more people who quit their jobs when they get burnt out, some to travel, others to start their own businesses or to consult. I wonder what it means when at the same time, many people are unemployed, underemployed, in debt, and often extremely critical of those of us who have “taken a leap” from security and what, in many ways, reeks of privilege. I wonder what it means that the “winners” and “losers” in our society are so dissatisfied, and for the shared reason that our success has such a narrow definition. We live in a culture of veiled bribery with the way education is structured, and even those of us who seem to have gotten out become players in a very similar game. I listened to a consultant recently, who flies every week from Miami to Madison, talk about how happy he is to have the flexibility and freedom that consulting gives him…though he usually ends up in Wisconsin, and the work, at least to me, sounded like a drag. I listened to him and thought, “People have such different definitions of what freedom really is. And your ‘freedom’ doesn’t sound like the kind I’m looking for.”

I reflect on this “hunt” that I seem to be on, this unnamed hunger I can never be free of, this “a la carte” lifestyle and education that increasingly defines me or maybe has always defined me. I think about the artwork I’ll get to create outside soon and the students I’ll get to work with; that makes me happy. I think about the answers that don’t come quickly enough and the questions I can never ask enough of.

The students in my interview asked, “Why do you draw so many trees?” I’ve gotten asked that question a lot over the years, so I think by now I’ve got a decent answer.

“Because they’re always growing, even though we can’t perceive it, and they remind me to be patient about the changes I cannot see. Because they don’t need to move or be fast to make a difference. Because even though they can’t move themselves, they give me books and an education, which can take me anywhere. Because they give us air.”

A welcome interruption: a letter for busy people

We are a culture in transit, both for the joy and the agony of it. Our long work commutes depress us, while ideas of travel and escape excite us. In one of the great contradictions of the human condition, we talk about the journey being more important than the destination, despite what we might think of that inspirational cliché when we’re stuck in traffic.

But maybe it’s not an either-or question; we can’t have a destination without a way to get there, or vice-versa. And maybe what matters isn’t the destination but that we will encounter other places, people, and experiences along the way. We will choose to stop not only for food and fuel, but also for rest, play, and affection. We will stop at the quiet places that ask nothing of us and sell nothing to us. We will stop for someone who interrupts us, to share the moment together. We will stop for a pair of pigeons who, like us, are homeward bound, and who are also willing to pause the journey to enjoy each other’s company.

A Welcome Interruption - two pigeons - ink drawing
A Welcome Interruption, 5 x 7 inch ink drawing by Jenie Gao

We are a culture in transaction. It is well to remember the things we readily stopped for, while we were searching for something else. It is well to notice that life happens in the small moments, and not to miss them while we use our busyness to earn the chance of someday going slow.

This is a letter for friends, family, loved ones, and anyone looking for a reason to pause, reflect, and find center again.

My past week in artwork:

Ink drawings of trees, a study for Jenie Gao's Illuminate Madison project
Ink drawings of trees, studies for Jenie Gao’s Illuminate Madison public project.
Ink drawings of Trees by Jenie Gao
More ink drawings of trees, part of a series for Jenie Gao’s Illuminate Madison public project. Exploring themes of power/disempowerment, future states, and education.
A Welcome Interruption - Pigeons Kissing
A Welcome Interruption, 5 x 7 inch ink drawing by Jenie Gao
Giclee print on canvas of "Redamancy," by Jenie Gao
Picked up a giclee print of my woodcut, Redamancy, from a local printer in Madison. As someone who’s worked in commercial printing, I’m in love with their quality. And man…this itty-bitty canvas is almost too cute for me…
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But this guy never gets too cute for me.

My past week in writing:

Art and Leadership: The Power and Purpose of Creativity, re-published on The Abundant Artist

Who Controls the Content? Our Role in Creating What We Want to Consume, published on Madison365

Rules are made to be…

I’m a lover of paradox, for those who didn’t know, especially the man-made ones.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, you need a parking permit to keep your car on the street at night. You can only park on one side of the street at night and you have to switch sides each day. During the day you can park on both sides for free.

In Madison, Wisconsin, you need a parking permit to keep your car on the street during the day, but it’s free to park overnight. It doesn’t matter which side you choose to park on, as long as you don’t stay in the same spot for over 48 hours.

Oh, and night parking in Milwaukee is defined as 2:00 am to 6:00 am. The permit to park at night is $55 a year.

Night parking in Madison is defined as 6:00 pm to 8:00 am, which is free. A day permit is $21 a year. $21 a year for 10 hours of free daytime parking seems like a good deal unless you compare it to 20 hours of free daytime parking in Milwaukee.

Of course, this is a generalization of the rules. I don’t even get into the quirks of different neighborhoods and zip codes or all the ways you can get ticketed even if you do have permission to park.

So what do you think the law-makers were trying to do when they wrote these policies?

Do you think Madison wants all of its workforce to have day jobs, so they can keep the streets clear during the day while people park at the office? Or to only work night shift if they work downtown? Do you think Milwaukee wants everyone to work the night shift?

What I can conclude from this is that there’s no way to write laws to be beneficial to every type of citizen. A thing that imposes limits cannot be universally applied without consequences.

Also, laws are either terribly written or terribly manipulative, if not both. They’re some of the best examples of humanity trying to be serious and in the process playing a big joke on itself. And anyone who thinks that laws are absolute is kidding himself…if the rules weren’t made to be broken, then we wouldn’t need to create permits to counteract the law that limits parking in the first place, we wouldn’t need fines and tickets as a counter-response to the permit, and we wouldn’t need a judicial system in case anyone wanted to contest the ticket or the original law.

I’ve heard that for anything that’s true, the same on the opposite side of the world is also true.

But you don’t even need to go that far. Two cities less than a 1.5 hour drive apart, with vastly different approaches to parking laws, but I bet you they think they’re working on the same problem. I also bet you that policymakers in both cities don’t think these rules can change, at least not easily.

We people are funny in that way. We think that people are set in their ways, that the hearts and minds of those who differ from us won’t sway, even though it’s people who write the rules that shape our behaviors and beliefs.

We think our man-made rules are as set in stone as the laws that Mother Nature has written. But if she’s taught us anything, it’s that even the stones can change.

Flat Pictures of High Places - ink and watercolor drawing by Jenie Gao
Flat Pictures of High Places – acrylic and watercolor painting by Jenie Gao, from the series, Vision Test.

Art and Leadership: the power and purpose of creativity

I recently wrote an article called “The Myth of the Starving Artist—and what it can teach us about job security.” In it, I discuss how society’s attitude towards art parallels how people feel across industries about their jobs and companies. We’re in a culture that devalues creativity and values pursuing a paycheck over the purpose of what we do to earn that money.

The topic blew up on my social media accounts and I received responses from artists and non-artists alike. The most common feedback was on how the article challenged people’s existing assumptions on what is considered responsible or valuable to do for pay and with our lives.

Of course, recognizing the problem is only the first step. The responses made me start thinking about how to overcome this crippling mindset and stereotype, and how until we change it, we’ll continue to be at the mercy of what we’re given.

I won’t deny that we face a lot of obstacles. We can’t change the situation we’re dealt. But remember, we’re artists. We’re creative and resourceful, and so I’m writing today to figure out how we can collectively begin to shift the dialogue and culture we’re working in through the actions and decisions we make.

Paradigm Shift #1: Confidence is not a game. It’s a practice.

Your biases will determine not only how you think but also how you act and make decisions. A starving artist is not a confident person. The success of great work depends as much on confidence as talent, and that doesn’t just mean you need a better sales pitch.

Are you the most open-minded to new experiences when you are confident or insecure? If you expect to learn and further your skills as an artist, then you need to have confidence.

I often feel conflicted about campaigns like “support local artists.” I understand the intent, but I also think it perpetuates this idea that small is weak and that people are a charity case. But to create is to believe that you have something inside of you worth sharing. More than support, you need challenge, opportunity, and cultivation to hone your craft and deliver your message in a meaningful way.

So don’t shoot yourself in the foot early on by believing the end game is the empty plate of self-sacrifice. You’ll start to live the image instead of making great art.

Paradigm Shift #2: It doesn’t matter what you do for a living. It does matter how you define yourself. You’re an artist, and creativity is your strength, not a weakness. Use it to your advantage.

Even when I was working a 9 to 5 desk job, I saw myself as an artist. Even when I was working long hours and returning home too tired to think creatively anymore, let alone make art, I viewed what I was doing as a stepping stone to where I wanted to be. First, I was saving money. Second, I treated my job and workplace like art, like things I wanted to change and improve. Creativity, strong observational skills, and the readiness to do hands-on work are all advantages in today’s job market.

My approach as an artist made me unique, so I stood out. My willingness to work hard, try different things, and question the way we did things opened up new opportunities for me, even (or maybe especially) because I worked at a 100-year-old company that was set in its ways. As a result, I gained valuable skills and mentorship that challenged my own assumptions about what work can be. I eliminated the original position I was hired for, which freed me up to take on new roles. I learned about business operations and how to streamline and reduce waste. I learned how to both make and break the rules of a business model that I could later compare to what I now see in the arts industry. Perhaps most importantly, I worked with a lot of people who think very differently than I do, and this taught me to balance being a challenger of the status quo with the goal of finding common ground. Few things are quite as valuable to cultivate in yourself (or as difficult to live up to or as uncommon to find in others) as knowing how to disrupt and also make peace.

In short, doing something other than art changed my thinking, and in the long run made me better as an overall person, and therefore better at art.

I see a lot of artists take jobs that they’re complacent with. They see what they do as just a way to scrape by so they can make their art in the after hours. They don’t question or care about their jobs. You don’t have to do what I did. You do need to find what works for you. Complacency is the enemy of creativity. The moment any of us ceases to question is also the moment we cease to be artists. Art challenges perceptions. When we cease to question, culture stagnates and becomes toxic.

Remember who you are. You’re an artist, in anything you’re doing. It’ll both change the way you look at your day job and make you better as an artist outside of that job.

Paradigm Shift #3: Recognize that you are a leader. Remember, also, that leadership is a practiced skill, and that there are both good and bad leaders.

In anything you do, you’re setting an example. When you lack confidence in your artwork and let others dictate how it is used, you’re not just sabotaging yourself. You’re sabotaging the way others around you think about themselves and about artists. You’re teaching clients that it’s okay to exploit you and other artists that it’s normal to be exploited.

Here’s an illustration of what I mean. Think about all the time we spend preparing our resumes and CVs for job interviews. Competing in any job market is difficult. With all of this running around, it’s no wonder the job search is so discouraging and administrative costs for businesses are so high. But applying to most jobs, at least, is free. Now let’s look at the barrier of entry for an art opportunity, either for a show, a residency, or a grant. Many of these have application fees. On top of needing a resume, a CV, and a letter of intent, you also need to supply a portfolio (which is proof of all the work you’ve already done, not just what you say you’re capable of like on a resume) and pay a fee for the privilege of getting somebody to judge you, never mind compensate you should they deem your work worthy of being seen.

When I think about the amount of legwork other artists and I have done, it’s insane. Besides making the art itself, we’ve all built our own websites, professionally framed and photographed our artwork, highly researched the topics we’re interested in, tested out all types of materials and mediums, juggled multiple demanding projects, etc. We’re web developers, archivists, academic researchers, philosophers, project managers, and more all wrapped into one being.

And yet the process of getting our artwork in front of the right audiences is extremely difficult and designed at the disadvantage of the artist. In an amazing amount of irony, no other industry requires you to waste quite as much time pitching what you do as the arts. Is it unfair and are there people in the system who are abusing their power? Yes, totally. But the starving artist mindset allows this to perpetuate. Remember what I wrote earlier about confidence? Until artists build confidence and learn to stand up for the value of their work, this isn’t going to change. True, there are lots of things you should say, “Yes,” to, especially considering how much creativity benefits from the collaborative spirit. But artists also need to know when to say, “No,” to exploitations disguised as opportunities.

Which brings me to my final point…

Paradigm Shift #4: To create well, you need to know when to stop creating.

One of the reasons the art world is so upside down is there’s just so much choice. We’re in a culture that pressures us to be busy, to produce more not out of need but rather to validate what we’re doing. Yes, it’s important to create for the sake of exploration and learning, but I shouldn’t need to explain to you the difference in how you feel when you’re creative versus staying busy, and truth be told, there’s a lot of crap out there as a result of the latter. The busier you are, the less time you have to think, and the end of thought is the end of artistry. The thought you put into your work is what makes it more than a pretty shell and gives it substance and power.

Going back to how art impacts your career, the strength of my identity as an artist is both what made me good at my former job and recognize when it was time to leave. It would have been really easy to stay either at that job or on the same career track. But I didn’t forget the big picture of who I am and what made me great at questioning things in the first place.

If I could boil all my reasoning for leaving my former job down to one thing, it’s that I recognized a mismatch between my own values and that of the leadership and work culture. I worked at a printing company, but we had no art on the walls. Our offices and machines were painted brown and grey. I would bring in my favorite books on the history of print to show the artistry of what we were doing, but neither my peers nor managers saw what I see in those books. The company has three work shifts to make the most of our manufacturing productivity. My coworkers were “always busy,” but very few were truly ever curious about the how’s and the why’s of what we were making. The leadership’s strategic goals included reducing lead times and growing the business by 30%. Yes, the leadership was pushing us to be more efficient with our resources, which I approved of, but the purpose wasn’t to open our time up for more curiosity and exploration or to go home and spend time with our families. It was to be able to do more work in less time, and therefore take on more work (anyone ever heard of Jevons paradox?). The company is sales-driven, and while the bottom line is important for all businesses, a business driven by sales is led by the dollar, not by the craft.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with those goals and desires. But I realized that it would be a long time, if it even happens in the span of my career, that the leadership and culture of that company would become one that values art and its role in changing the way we see and live. It wasn’t a place where I could grow anymore, not in the way I needed or would have made the best of what my creativity could do for my colleagues and mentors. In the long run, I would have been doing them and myself a disservice by staying to do work that I didn’t believe in.

If you’ve noticed something throughout this article, at a certain point, it’s not so much about the art as the people we become because of it. The ability to create great art comes from both a great awareness of yourself and what surrounds you.

That awareness is also what gives you the strength of voice to be able to say this is–and this is not the work for me–for the right motivations. That’s not something a lot of people ever learn how to do, but I bet you the world would look quite different if more of us did.

What you create has power. How you see yourself will determine the way that power gets used. So I leave you with this. Will you continue to see yourself as the starving and the disempowered, and let others use your talent to build a world that you can neither believe nor survive in? Or will you choose to believe that you, as an artist, are powerful, with the skills, the mind, and the message for producing great work, the kind of work that makes you a leader of the creative culture we can become?

**The cover image is “The Substance of Your Beauty” (formerly entitled “For Your Charming Lack of Content”), 20 x 30 inch ink & watercolor drawing by Jenie Gao.

**This post has also since been republished on The Abundant Artist.

The love affair of art & politics-and the culture they create

The chase. The game. Love it or hate it, love it and hate it. Choose to play, choose not to play. There’s no getting away from it. Our existence depends on relationships and our fulfillment on how well we play with others.

Today, I’d like to invite you to play a game of make believe.

Let’s imagine that the artist and the politician are the Mom and Dad of society, two idealists with (big egos and) the dream of creating a life together. The communication and balance of power between them can teach us a lot about what kind of culture they’ll create, either together or in spite of each other.

There’s the charitable relationship of art and politics. Mom throws the best dinner parties and Dad always supports what she’s doing. The family does a lot of charity runs and bake sales. The house is always warm and well decorated and the gratitude aplenty. The Jones are jealous of how good we have it. There are still homeless people outside, but that justifies our charity even more. Dad feels important and Mom feels needed. It’s how things have always been, and as long as things are stable, we have no need to question, critique, or innovate upon a working system, so we go with it.

Of course, eventually the problems are more than the feel good stories can mask. Why? Well, it’s funny. Turns out, it has nothing to do with this Mom and Dad (at first), but with what others either don’t have or maybe don’t even want. People start asking questions. Ahhh, gossip and comparison, the beginning of the death of happiness. It’s funny how you don’t worry about problems until people start pointing them out. Mom begins to ask if she should have done something different with her life. Both parents worry about how to preserve their image. Society at large starts pondering different ways of being.

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This leads to a transactional partnership of art and politics that talks a lot about equality and fairness. It’s a practical marriage, but it always feels a little tense and manipulative. It probably didn’t help that we had to sign and agree to a lot of Terms & Conditions, a liability waiver, and a prenuptial beforehand (but, you know, just in case). It also probably didn’t help that we exchanged “keeping up with the Jones” with tit-for-tat-measure-for-measure. Anyway, we probably didn’t agree to enough policies, because it’s obvious that the politician still wears the pants, even if the artist does the talking. But it’s the best picture of equality we’ve got so far, and who’s going to tell Mom she’s getting used for her ideals when she finally has an identity built on her ambition rather than on raising the kids? Who’s going to tell Dad that he’s not the man he says he is?

The arts become a part of our economic infrastructure via propaganda, advertising, and mass media. Despite what the campaigns say, we know where the walls of this box are and whose sandbox we can’t make comments about, even if our company is new and doesn’t have cubicles or a verbalized hierarchy. We either become brainwashed and complacent with how we’re told to behave or disgustingly adolescent and contradictory to resist control. Your choices as a kid growing up in this generation are between being a sheep and a black sheep.

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Now we’ve got a bigger problem. Things weren’t always easy, but at least they were clear when Mom and Dad had set roles. We knew it would get harder when we challenged the status quo, but it would be more gratifying…right? But now we’ve got unclear roles and ideals that we’ve failed to live up to thus far. We’ve maybe even become a part of the problem. It would be a really good idea to talk things through at this point, but now we’re ___ years in. There are kids and money in the mix and a reputation to maintain. The smallest disruption could send us tailspinning into a catastrophe.

Sure enough, the marriage of art and politics falls apart in a dazzlingly dramatic spectacle. The couple fights openly and shamelessly in front of the kids and tries to get them to pick sides. The respect in this relationship is dead. Neither party was actually ever fit or ready to be a parent or a leader, but the position at least looked good on paper.

Mom turns to any avenue to protest and blast her voice and cutting criticisms: graffiti, caricatures, satirical papers, poetry slams, the classic breakup song. Her story will not be silenced. Her ex-husband politician used to love her wit. Now, the jokes are a little too close to much more painful truths. He writes policies and launches campaigns trying to censor or shame her. He didn’t used to be a bad guy. His intentions were good and once upon a time, he, too, was living up to someone else’s expectations before trying to set his own on others. But we’ve forgotten that as this affair became a quarrel. Now, both parties waste their time telling the other to change or to justify his or her value. Anxiety runs high. Blame is rampant. Issues become very black and white. One parent fights for anarchy while the other fights for militance. One fights for expressionism while the other for utilitarianism. Side with one, and you’ll automatically reject the other, without considering whether this is truly an either-or situation. Are we striving for peace or staying at war? And are we talking about war or just how to win the next battle? Are we creating something new or just destroying what someone else has made?

If you can’t relate to either parent, you’ll repress or hate where you come from. The irony of harboring hate, of course, is that you’ll for damned sure remember the impression it made on you. And some day, just like how you lacked respect for all the dogmas and actions of your parents, you’ll grow up to face those same ticks and tendencies in yourself that undoubtedly came from your upbringing. You might then become a pessimist or at best finally grow a sense of empathy.

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But before you let your ideals give into harsh reality, there’s a shift that makes it possible for art and politics to work together.

There comes a point when we learn both to acknowledge and accept the baggage and damage done. We need to make peace with the fact that yes, it should be easier than this, but it isn’t, and since we can’t take back the sins of yesterday, we have to start focusing on today.

It doesn’t matter whether we are the powerful or the powerless. We need to understand how empathy works without falling into the trappings of pity. We need to recognize when staying in a bad relationship becomes as much our own choice as someone else’s. We need to let go of pride and shame alike, to know what we can and cannot do on our own, but also what we are willing to learn to do, so that others can truly help us. We need to understand how to be honest and critical without being disrespectful, of ourselves or other people.

We have to stop comparing this relationship with the good and bad of others’ and our own experiences. We have to learn to build for the new, and to know that letting go of the old does not have to be the same as exploiting, disrespecting, or being ignorant of it. And for us to truly live up to the morals we recognize internally, we have to know what our goals are.

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From here, the artist and politician can become equal partners and leaders, and we see the greater effect of the example they set for anyone willing to pay attention. It is about the example we choose to set, in whatever roles we play. Positivity and negativity are equally contagious, though neither are overnight phenomenons.

We see change begin in our willingness to forgive others’ flaws as we address our own. We see it when we can each let go of control of the outcome of things, not because we don’t care, but because we have the building blocks of trust. We see it when we can set standards–without matching them with judgments.

We see change when we stop creating and abusing loopholes in a system of messy policies that were designed to protect us but in the process failed to educate us. We see it when instead we create policies that foster collective responsibility rather than drive oppression and stalemates. We see it when honesty is a gift and a given from the individual instead of the demand of surveillance, of fear in the name of safety.

We see change in how people care for public and private spaces. We see it in when cities that shut us up and shut us down with noise, ads, and sales pitches give way to ones designed with artistry, when our surroundings beckon us to look and listen, to flow and rest in rhythm rather than stop and go in discord. We see it in our culture’s readiness to appreciate beauty, and integrate it into daily life rather than categorize, monetize, and institutionalize it.

We see change in the style of our learning, in how interdisciplinary we are. We see it in how well we understand the relationship (rather than the conflict) of creativity and logic and of intellect and emotion. We see it in our language, in how comfortably and expressively we communicate when we trust one another. We see it in how we playful we are, in how confidence grows when people don’t take themselves so seriously.

We come to understand how passion can be quiet and peace can be vibrant. The crazy thing is, when we look back, we don’t remember the pledges, the campaigns, or even the courtship dance. We just remember having a life.

**I spend a lot of my personal time writing and playing with different ideas and storytelling structures. It’s not hard for me to write a few thousand words and I usually make time to write on most days. Having said that, while it’s a fantastic exercise for me, it’s hard for me to know whether what I write is always productive or worth sharing. This blog post is a byproduct of these writing explorations. Feel free to let me know what works and what doesn’t work. There’s a reason I’ve called this place “Learning to See.” It’s as much a reminder for me to keep learning as it is a way to share what I’ve learned with others.

How to comfort your mother and still be true to yourself

My mom, like most parents, worries about my happiness and wellbeing, which means she spends a lot of time thinking about me being unhappy and unwell. Funny how that works, right?

She worries about me being alone and unfulfilled. It’s one of her favorite topics to analyze and rehash. I appreciate the intent, and when we don’t agree, I can usually find a nugget of either philosophic or comedic gold in what we talk about. My mom is serious as hell, but that’s also what can make some of the stuff she says really funny.

For one thing, my mom thinks that artists are a different species, which as far as I’ve been able to tell, is incorrect. But then it’s pretty common for generations to misunderstand one another (e.g. Google “Millennials” right now), and if you’re not justifying why your job should exist then you’re justifying why you’re the person for the job. People love to have something to prove or disprove.

Jenie Gao portrait
Professional headshot.
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Not professional headshot.

I went to Mexico over New Year’s, and in my attempts to be a good daughter, I made sure to call before leaving and after returning.

Her (before the trip): “So I’ve been thinking about why you’re still single, and I’ve come up with some ideas….”

Me: “Umm…can this wait?”

Her (after the trip): “I’ve figured it out! You just haven’t met the right person yet! You know, I’ve been thinking about whether you’re even ready for a relationship and what the purpose of a relationship would be at this time in your life and why you’ve ended things in the past….”

Me: “Jesus Christ!! I was just on an airplane and then a bus. Can I get a ‘How are you? How was Mexico?’ We haven’t talked in over a week. Can’t you start with something lighter or more positive?” I experience a deep moment of self-awareness and embarrassment as I say this. I’ve been known to start discussions on the human condition over Saturday brunch and a hangover. I think I know where I get it from.

trueselfie
Nature and nurture win this round. #selfawareness

My mom keeps going, “Do you think that anyone knows how to love an artist?”

I’m tired, but I give in to the fact that we’re having this conversation and that it might be overdue karma. I say, “No, but I don’t think anyone knows how to love a manager or an accountant, either.”

She asks, “Do you think your ambitions will get in the way of falling in love with someone?”

I say, “Well, I didn’t used to be worried about it…but you and society at large stress like crazy about this stuff, so, yeah, now I do worry about it.”

“Don’t blame other people for your problems.”

“…I wasn’t, but well, okay, then no, I don’t think ambitions should get in the way of love. Sometimes I worry about how my life decisions might have to change for someone else, or how scary it is to ask someone to change his life for me, but then what I’m asking for in life doesn’t seem all that complicated, either. So theoretically, as a competent human being who likes other competent human beings, I should be able to figure this out with someone.”

She asks, “Do you even think you know what you want to do with your life?”

trueselfie
That’s a big question.

I say, “Usually. I have my doubts, but I think I’m pretty good at working through them. I want to do challenging, creative work that I’m proud of with people I respect, in a place I enjoy living. I want to make art. I want to write books worth publishing, and then actually publish them. I want a cat, a dog, and eventually a husband and maybe a goat. I want to spend a lot of time outside and traveling. These all seem like reasonable desires that aren’t terribly restrictive in terms of location or my skill sets. They don’t seem at all like mutually exclusive possibilities.”

She says, “That’s your problem. You don’t worry enough.”

trueselfie
The face of genuine concern.

I respond, “Maybe so, but I think a lot, which surely has the same benefits minus at least a little of the emotional turmoil.”

She says, “I’ve figured out your other problem. You’re cold. Just because you’re not anxious about things doesn’t mean someone else isn’t. Aren’t you worried that you should worry about what other people worry about?”

“No…I mean, I worry about stuff, but then I realize that most of it is unimportant, and I think people in general worry about a lot of unimportant things.”

“I think that’s why you’re still single. You know, men are babies. It’s fine if you don’t care about answering to someone else right now, but you’ve got to learn to be a bit gentler and agreeable one of these days.”

This is my gentle face.
This is my gentle face.

I say, “I disagree. I don’t think I’m cold and I don’t want to date a baby.”

She says, “I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is. Men are a lot more delicate than you realize. Anyway, it’ll prepare you for motherhood. What about kids? Don’t you feel like having kids will give your life meaning?”

want to say, “Not really. I have a hard enough time figuring out whether I’m making good art or just doing a lot of stuff that society didn’t ask me to do. I have friends who get excited about having kids and that’s great. I like kids. I think I’d make a good aunt. But I’m nowhere near interested enough in parenthood to be able to explain to someone someday, ‘Sorry, kid, I was horny one night and I really didn’t think this one through. So now you get to deal with this ‘meaning of life’ question that after tens of thousands of years of human civilization we’re still agonizing and warring over. I know you didn’t ask for it, but me and this dude decided that the best solution to the world peace problems we couldn’t solve was to delegate, to create someone new to deal with them once we’re gone. In other words, you’re a deadline extension. No pun or dark humor intended. Good luck.'”

But I already know she won’t find that very funny, so instead I say, “Not really. I don’t think having children will resolve any of my current questions.”

Stephen Hawking gets where I’m coming from:

“I think computer viruses should count as life. I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We’ve created life in our own image.” – Stephen Hawking

75% of me thinks if I created life, it would be in that image. The most convincing argument for having kids that I’ve received so far has been the movie, Idiocracy, like okay, maybe I should consider adding my two cents to the population pool to avoid dystopia. But I might actually lose motherly points for admitting that.

trueselfie
My dad used to tell me, “Quite frankly, you’re lucky to be alive because I’m lucky to be alive.” And now I exist to make my mother suffer. :)

My mom says, “I’m not saying you need to have kids right now. I know you have a lot of other ambitions. I know you can do a lot of good. You have options that I didn’t have when I was your age. I’m happy for you, that you can be so independent. I started working in a factory when I was 14. My whole life has been supporting other people. Before I met your dad, I never thought I would get married or have kids. But even though he was a pain and you’re a pain, I think it would be a valuable experience for you. Just don’t be so quick to think you won’t change your mind.”

“Okay, fine, I won’t.”

“Do you ever wonder if you should have been a man instead?”

“No. Society doesn’t require me to wear pants in public and that’s fucking awesome.”

My mom asks, “Well, you know that I love you even if I don’t understand you and even if I think you’re a jerk.”

“Thanks…I appreciate that.”

“I know I’m not good at giving compliments.” As she says this, I make a mental note to work on that myself. “But anyway, I’m not worried about whether you can take care of yourself. I do worry about how much you’re like your dad. He had a lot of big dreams, too, and they hurt him. When he failed, it just crushed him. He worried a lot about other people’s opinion, which came from growing up during a difficult time and having a lot of bad people in his past. People who didn’t want him to succeed. I don’t know why people are so nasty.”

I think and say, “Yeah, it’s true, he had a lot of the wrong people around him. I wish that weren’t the case. I’m never surprised but always amazed and grateful at what a difference that makes.”

She goes, “I just don’t want the world to crush you or for you to lose hope, and I especially don’t want it to happen if you stay alone. If you fail at your dreams and stay single, what will you have?”

I try not to notice how unbelievably depressing that question is and say, “Well, but, Ma, I have a lot. I have great friends. I love where I live. I’ve worked hard and been responsible. I know what I have. I also know what I don’t have that I would like, but I don’t think having limits or conflicting desires should get in the way of being happy.”

She continues, “Your dad got scared of looking stupid as he got older. I do think one reason you do better is you’re not afraid to look foolish…though sometimes I think you would benefit from being a little more worried about that.”

trueselfie
Not worried enough. This is how to look fat.
trueselfie
And how to look skinny moments later.

“He could be so depressed sometimes. But then I also always knew when he was in a good mood. He would come inside the house and say, ‘Yuan-yuan, do you know what the most beautiful sound is? The sound of a horse chewing grass. I could spend hours listening to that sound.'”

When she says stuff like that, I miss him. I find myself wishing things could have been different or better for him. So then I think the next best thing is to do what he couldn’t or wouldn’t do. I wish more people loved him, though he grew up in a difficult time period and was pretty out of place in the politeness of the Midwest. He had rough edges and could be cutting and unsympathetic as hell, but to his credit, he never treated me (or anyone) like I couldn’t handle it. And he was hilarious, which made him easy to forgive.

I wish more people loved my mom as well, that she didn’t have to start working at 14. I wish she told her own story as much as she tells his. My dad lucked out to find a heart as good as hers. In the telling of his story, sometimes we both forget to mention that.

Sometimes I think about how moms worry and nag and dads also worry and nag but then tell jokes, and I wonder if the world needs more feminists or funny women. (If anyone tries to argue that we need more feminists for women to feel comfortable being funny, sod off. We’re not root causing this shit right now and you–man or woman–shouldn’t wait for permission or a 501(c)3 to be funny, especially in a developed country.) My mom still wishes I were her little girl, even though I never lived up to her expectations of little girls. As far as my dad was concerned, I was a fighter and a jester made in his image.

trueselfie
I look just like him in this picture!
trueselfie
You would have made such a pretty lady, Dad.
Jenie Gao artist portrait
No, seriously. Those are totally your dimples.
But I straight up look exactly like my mom in this one it's not even funny. Maybe it's true all Asian people look alike. (I'm just kidding.)
But I straight up look exactly like my mom in this one it scares me a little. Maybe it’s true all Asian people look alike. (I’m just kidding. Don’t take me too seriously.) But in truth, what I’m saying is my mom makes a pretty lady, too.

She continues, “Do you think you’re hard for someone else to love?”

I think for a moment and say, “I don’t think I’m hard to love, but I can be a lot to take on. I won’t deny that.”

“Are you afraid that you’re too honest?”

“No, I worry about not being honest enough. I’m too much of a ‘silver lining’ person sometimes. I think if anything, more people should worry about how to be more honest. The world can be a bitter pill, and people give it a lot of sugarcoating. But maybe we as people need more practice in tasting and taking our medicine.”

“Are you afraid that the more you put yourself out there, the more you set yourself up to get hurt or judged?”

“No. If people don’t connect with this story, then it wasn’t for them. If they do, then maybe it’s helped them stop hiding or holding onto something. As for judgment, people are always judging others, no matter what you say or don’t say, so you may as well say and do what suits you. If someone can love me as much as you do without understanding me, I’ll consider myself lucky and think they’re a decent person. And if someone can love me as much as you do and also understand me, I’ll consider myself really lucky and hope they’re only half as fucked up as I am. Not for my sake, of course, but for theirs. Hell, for my sake, I’d love for them to be even more batshit ridiculous than I can even dream of being.”

“Do you ever worry that you’re too transparent?”

“Not at all. Transparency is my favorite color.”

#trueselfie
#trueselfie

**Special note: Yes, my mom reads this blog, and yes, we talk about the posts. After my dad passed away, she asked that we always be honest with each other, because if we can’t be honest with our closest relative, then we can’t be honest with anyone. It sucks sometimes and I struggle with it, but in the long run, I’m glad that she asks this of me and think it makes me more fair with other people, too. Also, I’m pretty sure I have my mom to thank for some serious stamina in interviews and meaning-of-life discussions.

What a year of “underemployment” looks like

It’s taken me waaaay too long to finally put this information together, but since a lot of people have asked, here’s what one year of “underemployment” looks like since I quit my corporate job, the good, bad, and ugly, followed by what’s happened since.

For those of you who don’t want the details, there’s a section at the end called “Ten Important Lessons” for you.

August 29, 2014-August 29, 2015, roughly in chronological order

  • had an existential crisis
  • felt guilty
  • realized that I’d worked 10 jobs since my teens with very few work days under 10 hours in the past several years (the worst was probably working multiple jobs both day and night shifts), that I’d been a diligent saver despite major, unexpected setbacks early on, and that I needed to be less of an asshole to myself
  • also realized that I wrote a 65-page succession plan complete with visuals and hyperlinks to supporting documentation to my projects, as well as a tiered training curriculum that could easily be used to eliminate my job by teaching everyone else what I know about Lean methods and setting them up for better career advancement. Seriously. Who does that? I know how to quit in style.
  • took two months off
  • went to Iceland, went inside a volcano, hiked on glaciers and volcanic ground, picnicked on a fjord, saw the northern lights, nearly got lost in the mountains, skinny dipped in geothermal pools, began to restore as a human being
  • took a road trip to Cincinnati to see old college roommates and a new baby in the group, visited my Milwaukee peeps a lot, and reflected on family and community vs my own life choices
  • enjoyed fall to the fullest, corn mazes, pumpkin carving, pie baking, and fall hikes galore
  • participated in Maker Faire, got slaughtered on day 1 by way too many children who wanted to learn to print; charged on day 2, dealt with fewer and better children, and made $150
  • rebuilt my website
  • started making art again :)
  • after two months off, consulted in manufacturing and helped a $20 million printing company reduce paper waste alone by $50,000 in the first few weeks and devised a plan with their Senior Process Manager to cut down on $350,000 waste in the upcoming three months; tried all the things I couldn’t with a boss or larger team, including creating my own educational workshops to help people fight their own battles in the workplace; realized I’d make a killer consultant
  • finally told my mom I quit my job and was relieved she wasn’t angry; began investing in and improving our relationship
  • ran a 10k with my former coworkers and boss, because that’s the kind of ex-employee I am; tried to beat my old boss, lost by a minute
  • practiced what I preached; reduced my cost of living, such as switching to a $10/month phone plan, getting rid of my gym membership, and renting my extra space on Airbnb
  • started this blog
  • “started” learning Spanish
  • flew to Buenos Aires and landed on my birthday; experienced having a summer birthday for the first time
  • lived in Buenos Aires for four weeks, largely as a listener and a mute (would you believe it?)
  • actually started learning Spanish
  • absolutely fell in love with Buenos Aires (did you know it’s the world capital of books?), ate a lot of gelato, dulce de leche, and medialunas and started my Spanish book collection
  • spent three of those weeks in Buenos Aires doing my art residency at Proyecto’Ace; was seriously in the zone; conceptualized, storyboarded, carved, and printed an edition of 18 books, all in woodcut, which you can read about here
  • serendipitously reunited with a friend from Milwaukee in Buenos Aires
  • bought a plane ticket and flew to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world and the beginning of my Patagonia journey
  • airport lost my baggage; had first encounter trying to explain my problem in Spanish; luckily, most things work out
  • did my annual polar plunge in Ushuaia immediately after a 36km hike since I missed it in Wisconsin, which drew more attention than I was expecting; got hollered at by various Argentines and tourists
  • realized I didn’t miss the U.S. and debated never coming home
  • learned how to ride a motorcycle on a windy day, on a gravel road, on a hill; got really good at picking the motorcycle up
  • hiked through Patagonia for three weeks, met some of the most amazing people (two of whom I’ve since gotten to see again in Madison!)
  • seriously, though, check out The Pack Track’s Facebook page: they are the best Aussie motorcyclists travelling with dogs that I’ve met, possibly the only Aussie motorcyclists travelling with dogs that I’ve met. I got to see them again in Madison and they’ll be touring the US through Christmas.
  • committed to thinking, reading, and speaking almost entirely in Spanish; came out the other side of Patagonia conversational and with a distinct Argentinian flair to my accent, and slightly worse at English
  • really missed fresh vegetables
  • almost got stranded in the mountains again
  • hiked up to see a receding glacier with a group of Argentinian men who didn’t speak English, found a baby bird who died shortly after; wrestled with my exhausted, English deprived brain; thought about my parents, the mountain I was on, life, and death
  • arrived in Bariloche, Argentina, and knew immediately that I would love living there; mountains, lakes, chocolate, beer; $10 a night at a hostel with a lake view; done
  • went hiking with an Israeli woman who had just finished medical school; she asked to see the book I made in Buenos Aires, so I brought the draft copy I had been carrying to dinner at the hostel that night. As soon as I started telling the story, I realized that half the people listening only spoke Spanish, so I had to tell the story in two languages, back and forth, page by page. I nearly gave myself a migraine, but it was a moment that taught me the power of language both to include and exclude, and I must not have done too poorly translating because one of the Argentines in the group later messaged me saying that story was one of the most profound moments of his trip. Anyway, it was at that table of travelers, surrounded by warmth, good people, and good food, that I knew I needed to go home and not cancel or delay my return flight.
  • arrived in Chile, lost all confidence in my Spanish skills
  • took the ferry to the island of Chiloé, started my second art residency at Museo de Arte Moderno
  • found the best produce ever on that island
  • learned pretty quickly that I don’t like living in isolation on a hill
  • tried to make sense of it all, ended up just writing a lot and producing a bunch of shitty to semi-decent drawings
  • loved my host couple, who took me bird watching; thought about all the strange recurring bird themes on my trip and worried about reading too much into things
  • thought about gentrification and tourism over a cup of Yogi tea
  • thought about money and value
  • left Chiloé by yet another 20 hour bus ride
  • arrived in Santiago, hated it immediately; felt super glad I didn’t move there three years beforehand to follow love; took the next bus to Valparaíso
  • loved Valparaíso for its poetic beauty, hated the pollution and consumerist development; agreed to let a local man take me sightseeing on the basis of his Spanish being clearer than any other Chilean I had met (sorry, Chile). He was super sweet and we had a good day, so I only felt slightly bad.
  • thought about how people use people
  • returned to Buenos Aires, totally missed my flight
  • learned how hard it is to argue/reason in a foreign language with airline employees to help you catch a flight before last departure for the night, especially when they don’t give a shit
  • stayed awake for over 36 hours thinking mean things about American Airlines while waiting for the next afternoon flights
  • debated once again about not going back to the U.S.
  • returned to the U.S. and tasted good cheese again
  • drew a lot
  • finished, finessed, and framed all my new work for a solo show
  • exhibited and sold work
  • started selling and commissioning art pieces on my own
  • studied my art sales history and realized I’m a better salesperson than I’ve given myself credit for
  • also realized I’m underselling myself, spending more than I want to spend, making less than I ought to make, and a terrible negotiator
  • realized I had unresolved feelings for a crush that didn’t want me back and took it more poorly than I’d like to admit
  • decided that after a year of not trying for anything serious, I should force myself to start dating again
  • signed up for online dating with some success; began analyzing these online social experiments of human interactions and realizing I’m mainly on OKCupid for the questionnaire and that little personality chart they generate for you
  • faced my hatred of the dating game and went on a lot of dates, both good and shitty ones; didn’t worry about the end game
  • met someone I liked a lot, deflected my feelings like a cop-out
  • started training for the Tough Mudder
  • began forgetting my Spanish
  • went camping and enjoyed the Wisconsin summer to the fullest
  • went to business workshops, some really good, some genuinely worthless
  • started exploring the startup realm; to those of you who’ve drunken the Kool-Aid, I’m here to say, same shit, different place. It’s all the same highs and lows and problems and opportunities as any other type of work setting. That’s not to discourage anyone, but really, don’t buy the hype wherever you choose to go to make a difference. Just do good things, where you are, with what you have. And find people who are better than you, in different ways.
  • questioned human progress
  • met someone else I liked and dated him for two months; came to the mutual conclusion that we were good on paper, but not really right for each other
  • was happy to have learned more about myself in the dating process, but wondered if I would feel that spark again
  • reassured myself that I would feel that spark again and to be patient
  • got asked to consult for a chemical company, a salon, an artist, other consultants, said no
  • got asked to consult for a health clinic, said maybe
  • got asked to consult for a software company, said yes
  • learned that even though I chose that software company based on its values and vision, it still wasn’t the right fit; changed my yes to a no
  • realized there are shit tons of consultants
  • in general, got a lot better at saying no
  • but also got worse at saying no; accidentally triple-booked myself on one occasion, was reminded of the saying, “If you try to please everyone, you’ll end up pleasing no one.”
  • wondered if I might be unemployable
  • got in a better habit of calling my mom; realized that she, too, was finally healing after my dad’s passing; saw her true personality come out, the one my dad must have fallen in love with; got to know her better and love her more deeply; began wondering why I have so many more dad stories than mom stories to share and how to change that
  • read a shit ton of books, even for me (one of these days I’ll put together a favorites library)
  • met one of my former bosses for lunch, told him I would have been a better employee had I known what I know now; made him laugh
  • became super skeptical of coworking spaces after being invited to try one out. A phrase I’ve thought of often since quitting my job, per George Orwell, “Freedom is slavery.” Are we free, or are we just entering a different cage? Per Bob Dylan, “Everybody has to serve somebody.”
  • was attacked at knifepoint near the Madison bike path; fortunately got away, but realized pretty quickly that, like most major things, it would go unresolved until something more serious happened

Tough Mudder

Steamroller Printing at Maker Faire
Steamroller Printing at Maker Faire
Jenie Gao Steamroller Printing at Maker Faire
Steamroller Printing at Maker Faire

August 30th-present

  • completed the Tough Mudder, which wasn’t that tough except for maybe a couple obstacles, but still a lot of fun. Do it with an awesome group of friends, don’t hesitate on the high jumps or the big moves, and remember to smile because they are taking your picture, or don’t smile if you know how to make fun of yourself.
  • coming down from my endorphin high from the Tough Mudder, I checked my phone that night and saw an article about a woman who had just been raped on the bike path, a block from my own close call
  • got super disillusioned, by survivor’s guilt, by people only rising to action after a catastrophe, by the media sensationalizing more than informing; decided if I didn’t want to become a part of the problem, I should speak up about it
  • also felt encouraged by how good and responsive the Madison community is; seriously, we have some solid people here
  • got interviewed by Wisconsin State Journal when they caught wind of my blog and Facebook post; thought they did a better job than WKOW
  • still worried (and worry) about becoming part of the problem
  • started trying to figure out how I can use my skill set to drive sustainable social change
  • meanwhile, participated in Maker Faire Milwaukee and drove a steamroller to make giant woodblock prints
  • applied for a grant to do a public art project for City of Madison; got the grant, now I need to figure out how to build two light sculptures as prototypes for something bigger :|
  • also got interviewed by Channel 3000, who did a good job addressing community safety and asking what community members can do about it; also, for pointing out, hey, this guy still hasn’t been caught yet, this isn’t over just ’cause we’ve had some fundraisers
  • since the summertime, went to four weddings and two funerals; thought about love and loss and what I might regret not pursuing; felt happy, felt sad, felt grateful for how many examples of strong relationships I now have in my adult life
  • trying to figure out how to resolve my desire for a relationship with my disinterest in the dating scene
  • rewrote my business plan and goals for the next year
  • strategizing
  • combatting imposter syndrome
  • meeting and getting advice from people who are better at business than I am
  • embracing what Nassim Nicholas Taleb said about a monthly salary being one of the most dangerous addictions
  • wondering if we as a culture can surpass the charity mindset
  • working on becoming a better teacher and making sure that education is always a part of what I do for and through work
  • thinking and writing about paradigm shifts
  • scared like you wouldn’t believe
no time
“No Time,” part of an art installation in Chile

Ten Important Lessons, of Many

  1. It’s hard not to feel pressured to live up to certain expectations. It’s hard not taking your ceiling with you. It’s hard saying no to things you don’t want. It’s hard saying yes to things you do want.
  2. When business is slow, it’s a good thing. Use that time to reflect and improve.
  3. While I’m a great go-getter, I’m a lousy get-it-doner. I make it to 90%, and then my perfectionism kicks in. I worked like mad to get my artist’s book, The Golden Cage, finished in three weeks. But even though it’s a childhood dream of mine to publish, I haven’t done it yet. Why? I’m not happy with the cover. I’m not happy with the text. People I show it to love the story, but I don’t think it’s good enough yet. I need to get over this, or else it’ll never happen.
  4. It’s okay to need other people. It’s okay to ask for help. To love others and let them love you, that’s the bravest you’ll ever be.
  5. It can be a very tit for tat world. Be mindful, not all reciprocity is good or for the right reasons. And sometimes, people reject each other, not because they don’t care, but are scared of what they have to lose, of being the one who cares more. Don’t be scared to be the one who cares more.
  6. The things you care about will hurt you. If you didn’t care, it wouldn’t hurt.
  7. You never know what the “by-products” of your actions might be. I quit my job because I knew in my heart, it wasn’t it. Suddenly, I had all this time. So what was a “by-product” I didn’t expect? A better relationship with my mom. I didn’t quit so that I would have time to get to know her, but because I quit, I finally did. If I got nothing else out of this past year, a closer and healthier relationship with my mom would have been enough.
  8. Embrace, acknowledge, and hone your strengths. That’s the only way you can use them for good and prevent them from being used for evil.
  9. Waiting isn’t always a waste. Just like the apple trees need winter to grow apples, learning when and how and on what to wait is important.
  10. Even though I’m a cat person, I have a dog personality. But I love people with cat personalities. Remember to surround yourself with people who are better than you, in different ways.
slow down
Hocking Hills, Ohio

Three words that people keep calling me, and even more so in this past year than previous ones

  • brave, which makes me wonder how people define bravery
  • ballsy, which I hope you find as much humor in as I do
  • unpredictable, despite being reliable

Three critiques I keep getting

  • uncompromising for both better and worse
  • independent to my own demise
  • too nice, too forgiving

Whether you agree or not, it’s important to pay attention to the feedback people give you.

Iceland, Landmannalaugar
Iceland, Landmannalaugar

I wrote the following passage last year and feel it still holds true; it’s a worthy reminder I’ll need to come back to as I pursue my next set of goals.

“Some people have called me brave for being willing to quit without knowing what’s next, and others most definitely think I’m a reckless idiot. But if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s to trust as much in the counterintuitive as we normally would the obvious or the sensible. To be in control requires a willingness to let go of control. To have stability and security requires that we not need either. To grow, we must always be questioning, always be listening, without needing to find the answers we are searching for.”

Perito Moreno, Glacier Hike
Perito Moreno, Glacier Hike

The challenge of staying bold without being ignorant

It was 1991. I was three years old. My dad was in Seattle and my mom would be alone with me that winter.

The road was covered with ice on her morning drive, and when she parked her car to drop me off at preschool, she was scared to get out and walk with me across the pavement.

When she opened the car door for me, I jumped out immediately, and in alarm, she yelled, “Be careful! Don’t fall!”

To which I responded, “Don’t worry, Mommy! You can hold onto my shoulders. I’ll help you walk across the ice.”


I don’t remember this event, but my mom does, and she remembers the comfort she took in seeing how brave (read: foolhardy) I was, at a time when she felt low, powerless, and lost. All I remember, of course, is how annoyed I was in my early teens, that my mom needed to take my arm in a death grip every winter, whenever there was ice. I complained that she was going to take me down with her. I didn’t know that she was seeking comfort and security in me.

She didn’t tell me this story until yesterday, and who knows, maybe it wouldn’t have had the same gravity (ha) before I reached the age that she was in this story. Whether she intends it or not, through all of her stories, she impresses upon me the understanding that she (and potentially anyone) is paying attention. She’s learning from what I do, and in the process of changing myself, I change her as well. Our unconscious actions are teaching moments, in partnership with the things we say.

When we’re children, we don’t know what our parents don’t know. We don’t know about the size of their fears or failures. We don’t know how much they both cherish and judge us for our ignorance that convention has named innocence. We don’t know that our ignorance is teaching them how to be parents, that we are their test. We don’t know whether they’ll pass this test, whether they’ll choose to protect our “innocence” or feed our curiosity. We don’t know that their compulsion is to keep us safe, but that their job is to teach us how to overcome our ignorance, to be cognizant of our impact, good and bad. We don’t know how difficult of a job that actually is, both to carry out well and then let go of.

And once we do know all of this, we still aren’t necessarily prepared to face the next challenge of growing up, which is to get over the fact that for all our experience we still don’t know, and yet we have to keep going. We have to fight the urge to hide our weaknesses or let them be our limit. We have to fight the urge to be lazy and use arbitrary qualifiers like age to measure our growth.


There is the child who says, “Don’t worry, Mommy! You can hold onto my shoulders. I’ll help you walk across the ice.”

There is the teenager who says, “Don’t hold me. You’re going to take me down with you.”

There is the adult who knows what the teenager knows, the risks and the consequences of being wrong that the child has yet to learn, who then must choose to step up and say, “Don’t worry, you can hold onto me,” and then step down and say, “No, I haven’t been here before. No, I don’t know if we’ll be successful. Yes, I am scared of letting you down. Yes, I’m scared of you letting me down. But yes, I will still help you.”

And be willing to ask, “Will you also help me, and us, cross the ice?”

**Featured image is “Counter Intuition,” part of my series of ink drawings, “A Test of Vision.”

True leaders are teachers

We need to be teachers. Whenever we learn something new, we should immediately ask, “How can we share this?” Our greatest asset as human beings is our ability to actively, purposefully teach one another.  While our chimpanzee friends are wasting time waiting for a chance encounter and observation between one chimp fishing for termites and another chimp that also wants termites, we’re building rocket ships, connecting the knowledge of the past with the innovations of the future.

We need to recognize teaching as the greatest example of leadership. Too often we wait for one exceptionally powerful person to make the decisions that supposedly everyone else is incapable of making. Too often we let an initiative die because we can’t organize without “the power of the throne.” Many pursue a role in leadership to push their own agenda. Even those with the best intentions may fall guilty to “superhero syndrome,” saving the day at the cost of others’ chance to speak up or exercise their own influence. True leadership is not about the person who leads, nor is it about one person getting credit for having good ideas. The fruits of teaching come not from the teacher but from the students’ successes. Anyone who actively teaches another is a leader, for leading enables others to lead themselves.

The best teachers understand what many “leaders” don’t, that real power comes from teaching those you lead to be more powerful than you are.

The best teachers understand that they are also, always, students, and that the strength of their leadership depends on their continual education and self evaluation.

The best teachers know when to set an expectation, and when also, to step back and let someone else take the lead.

The best leaders recognize and respect how difficult and vital teaching is.

**I found this passage in one of my old journals. It’s from 2013, and I wrote it shortly after starting my new position at Western States, and I was asking all sorts of questions of what I wanted out of a career and how to match my work with my values. There was a lot I didn’t know then, and as the saying goes, the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. But as frustrated as I was once upon a time when my parents would sound like broken records, I’m glad to see the consistency of principles that has guided my career thus far, both in whom I choose to surround myself with and strive to be for others.

Recent best business advice: Be firm on your principles, flexible in your approach.

***I took the cover photo in Sauk City, Wisconsin, on a day trip with friends to see pop-up art installations in the fields during their Farm/Art DTour. This piece is by Thomas Ferrella, from his series, A Mutual Curiosity. Art has many powers, not least of all, the ability to surprise and to set new visions.