Our Stories Share the Same Roots: A Community Mural Project

It’s been a really good summer, in many ways. Full of laughter and play. Weekend trips. Camping. Outdoor excursions and inside jokes. Crackling fires. Summer pies.

The Fool's Flotilla in Madison. Madison, you're a goofy city, and I love it.
The Fool’s Flotilla in Madison. Madison, you’re a goofy city, and I love it.

At the same time, it has been an emotionally tumultuous year–for lots of us, I imagine. Maybe election years are always this way, and there’s a lot at stake with this one. There’s a saying, that there are decades where weeks happen, and weeks where decades happen, which seems appropriate for this event-heavy, tragedy-aware year. As an artist, I feel grateful to have a skill and medium through which I can contend with and give a voice to heavy issues–personal, social, political. I’m also admittedly anxious about the responsibility of doing hard topics justice.

It’s been a busy summer, work-wise. I’m excited to share one of the projects I’ve completed in the last couple months, my first mural, a collaborative, public project with the students of Escuela Verde, Artists Working in Education, and fellow artist Gabriela Riveros.

Students priming mural panels.
Students priming mural panels.

To give some background on how this all got started, Escuela Verde is a public charter school in Milwaukee’s neighborhood of Silver City that uses a project-based learning model to emphasize sustainability, student-led learning, and restorative justice. They partnered with the nonprofit, Artists Working in Education, to use public art as a way to activate and enhance a public space and to discuss community concerns.

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Students’ brainstorm of the issues affecting our communities.

The students chose to focus on the topic of immigration. This is a salient topic, for the neighborhood, the students, and our political climate. Silver City is home to multiple immigrant populations, and many of the students also come from immigrant families that are affected by our current policies.

It was at this point that A.W.E. put out a call for artists. I got the chance to interview with the organizers, then with the students, and was selected as the lead artist for this project. (Those of you who attended my talk at DreamBank in the spring may remember this small moment of foreshadowing.)

A.W.E. connected me with the very talented illustrator, Gabriela Riveros, and I couldn’t have asked for somebody better to team up with (seriously, check out her site; she’s got major skill and major drive). We started working together in April, the outset of two months of workshops with the students and staff. At this point, we had a topic, and were ready to visit the space available to us.

mural-site-01
The Superior Salt Building, at 35th and Pierce Street in Milwaukee.

We didn’t have any imagery in mind yet, but we had a vision of what we needed to accomplish, and some of the problems we needed to address. The building owner, Gil, told us about the tagging problems. This part of the block is isolated and doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic or use. The back of the building is isolated, faces the bike path and railroad, and is easy to get to, so the building gets tagged, and the city requires Gil to clean the graffiti up. Community members shared that people often speed through this part of the neighborhood, which is dangerous, since it’s very close to homes and to a school. So how could we use public art to reactivate a neglected space, to deter tagging, to get people to slow down, to engage an important community conversation?

Tagging on the north side of the building.
Tagging on the north side of the building.

In our workshops, we researched and discussed the role and effects of immigration, collected classmates’ and neighbors’ immigration stories, and identified patterns in the migration stories we shared. Because many of our students are Latinx and Hispanic, many of our earlier dialogues focused on the Mexican-US border. But the “aha” moments in the classroom came as we collected and shared one another’s stories. Our students of Irish descent talked about their families being denied at Ellis Island and going instead to Canada, to cross the border into Montana. Some of our students got to attend meetings with the neighborhood association. Neighbors loved our idea for the mural, and also said they hoped to see something that was inclusive of all the different groups that live, work, and run businesses in the area.

Drawing by our student, Marisol, in our study of crops grown in Wisconsin.
Drawing by our student, Marisol, in our study of crops grown in Wisconsin.

The short of it: immigration/migration isn’t new, not for human beings, not for any species. It has played an instrumental role in how we’ve developed, advanced, and exchanged/expanded ideas. In our conversations of local vs global, it’s easy to take for granted how the two are interdependent, how technology has advanced along our trading lines, how language has evolved and literacy has spread, how on one dinner plate we may have chicken that was first domesticated in China, potatoes that were first farmed in Peru, and corn in Mexico.

Different crops and migratory species of butterflies in Wisconsin.
Different crops and migratory species of butterflies in Wisconsin.

So where does the art come in? It was important for us to emphasize a couple things here. First, that art has always been a mirror for the current times, and a leader/indicator for where society will go next. Second, that the imagery needed to come from the students, facilitated by the instructors. The purpose of Escuela Verde’s project-based learning structure is to empower youth in the decision-making process and to build applicable skills. A project of this size would require lots of organization, clear direction, and strong problem-solving.

Doodle wars. We did improv exercises to start off this workshop, ending with a doodle war, where students had to think quickly on their feet and create one-minute drawings in response to others' drawings already on the page.
Doodle wars. We did improv exercises to start off this workshop, ending with a doodle war, where students had to think quickly on their feet and create one-minute drawings in response to others’ drawings already on the page.
Painting day.
Painting day.

Our art workshops included the following: the history of arts and activism, image composition and drawing from observation, typography, games designed to make us think creatively and quickly on our feet, and communicating the ideas and metaphors of a story in images. It was a lot to pack into two months (and we needed the last two weeks for preparing materials and painting), and if there’s anything I could change, it’d be to have more time to explore each of these subjects more in-depth. But in this line of work, we work with what we’ve got, and we do our damnedest with it.

Butterfly by one of our students. All of the buttery and crop imagery for the mural came from the students. Gabi and I collaged them together, for the final composition.
Butterfly by one of our students. All of the butterfly and crop imagery for the mural was drawn by the students. Gabi and I collaged them together, for the final composition.

The butterfly became an important symbol for us, in a number of ways. Socially speaking, the monarch butterfly has already come to be a symbol of many social movements, representing migration and solidarity. Their migration patterns are known to play a role in many earthly phenomenons. The time at which a butterfly flaps its wings can determine whether or not a hurricane happens on the other side of the world, which ties us to our other important symbolism, and the purpose of the arts. One problem we are fighting in our communities is that of compartmentalism. Think about companies whose departments are siloed–unaware and therefore indifferent to how they affect one another. The result is low accountability and high blame in our organizations, and a toxic culture where people feel disconnected and purposeless in their work and livelihoods. Our siloed workplaces reflect our segregated neighborhoods. The health of our ecosystems reflects the health of our economies.

Community painting day. A big thank you to the volunteers from Urban Ecology Center and Young Scientists Club and our friends and neighbors who came and helped!
Community painting day. A big thank you to the volunteers from Urban Ecology Center and Young Scientists Club and our friends and neighbors who came and helped!

And us? We are artists working for and with a cause, who believe that creativity and logic are partners, that our ideals can be used to map our pragmatism and our realities. Our art is not just pretty–it’s smart. Our workshops went beyond aesthetics and embodied an understanding of math, science, and economics. Just as we found patterns in our shared migration stories, we studied fractals and tessellations, to identify the visual patterns in plant roots, butterfly wings, and the circulatory systems of our bodies.

Community painting day.
Community painting day.

So when you visit our mural in Milwaukee, I ask you to do so with an open hand. Look at your palm and the pattern of your veins. Look at how your fingers branch out from your hand and your limbs from your body. Think about the veins of a plant leaf, on a branch, on a tree. Learn to see this pattern, this shared, repeated pattern, that creates all the diversity we see.

I’ve reflected quite a bit in the aftermath of this project. As the second generation in an immigrant family myself, I feel lucky to have a dual perspective, of history, tradition, and my roots, and of the future and hopes for opportunity that drive all of us to move and embrace change. And whether we are the first in our families to grow up in this country or four generations in Wisconsin, all of us share this desire to trace back to where we come from, to understand where we belong, to feel at home where we are, and to find out where we are going.

Want to know more about our mural? You’re in luck. I’m a borderline insane documenter, and you can visit MigrationStory.US to learn about our full backstories, our workshops, the logistics of the painting/installation days, and the costs/pros/cons of the materials we used.

Cutting the ribbon at the opening celebration of our community mural on August 8, 2016.
Cutting the ribbon at the opening celebration of our community mural on August 8, 2016.

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.”

How do we define true human progress?

August 29th was the one-year anniversary of me leaving my corporate job.

I left to pursue my artwork. On a deeper level, I left to make myself better and more purposeful in any of the work that I do, philosophically and values-wise. I didn’t believe that a traditional job could teach me these things as effectively as I was seeking. I left to pursue opportunities that would help me better understand and define value, the purpose of work, the measures of progress, and the resulting merits of ambition.

It’s been, at times, an unnerving year. A hard, uncertain, and thrilling year, but in other ways an easy, freeing, and powerfully happy one. A year heavy with the enlightenment of learning and play. A year of trial, and ultimately a pursuit of answers that has culminated in harder questions than I started out with.

I’m doing a self-evaluation and goal setting, which I’ll publish soon. And in the process, I’m taking the time to think about my actions following up on what I’ve done and transitioning to what I want to do next.

Today, I’m writing about three events I’m involved with this month, how I decided to participate in them, and the harder questions that my involvement opens up.

depART: Laika Boss, Saturday, September 5, 6 pm-midnight

Laika Boss is a space-themed costume party/experience/group art show/fundraiser for Dane County Humane Society and art projects in Madison put on by the coworking/community space, 100state.

This one’s a no-brainer for why I’m participating. I’ve worked with stray animals and rescue cases my whole life. I’m an artist. I have a special place in my heart for shared spaces, and a coworking/startup hub like 100state resonates with me. The organizers of 100arts have been doing an amazing job and I can tell that participating in this event puts me in a league of smart and passionate people.

art by Jenie Gao
“Our Little Freedom,” ink and water color drawing by Jenie Gao, currently on display at 100state

Tough Mudder, Saturday, September 12, 11 am

The Tough Mudder is not a race against others, but a personal and team challenge. What an awesome ideal. The obstacle course is as mental as it is physical. It’s a competition wholly against yourself and a challenge that requires you to help and be helped by others in order to complete the course. I basically signed up to spend my day getting muddy with an added adrenaline kick with a great group of friends.

In addition to the camaraderie, the Tough Mudder has been awesome for setting long-term, physical goals. Seriously, what a great way to combat my inner wuss. I’ve hated running most of my life and am now running a minimum of 20 miles a week. I’ve plateaued at three chin-ups (and occasionally squeak out a pathetic fourth that I only mention in hopes of sounding cool), but hey, I could still be doing between 0 and 1 like I was a year ago. Mostly, though, I love having a goal that sets a bar towards which my abilities–and more importantly habits–must rise to meet.

Finally, since its founding five years ago, Tough Mudder has raised $8.5 million for The Wounded Warrior Project, which you can learn about in the video below. Welcome to the power of the collective.

Maker Faire Milwaukee, Saturday, September 26 – Sunday, September 27

“The Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth.” This is a place where makers of all kinds share what they create and how.

I’ll be helping the UW Milwaukee and MIAD Print Clubs in the Printmaking area. Rumor has it there might be a steamroller for woodblock printing.

You can read a goofy interview of yours truly on the Maker Faire blog series, Meet the Makers, and check out the other features as well. Maker Faire doesn’t fool around when it comes to the people and organizations they bring in. This will be my third year participating in Maker Faire; I love being surrounded by the energy of fellow learners and doers and getting to see the projects borne out of people’s curiosity and passion.

Jenie Gao doing her printmaking thing
Jenie Gao doing her printmaking thing, photo courtesy of Proyecto’Ace in Buenos Aires

Teaching, creating, community, helping out good causes while bonding with conscientious, ambitious people. What’s not to love?

Band-aids vs Solutions

I can cross-check these activities against my values and all of them will pass. I can ask myself if what I’m doing gives me the kind of worthwhile challenge that I will learn and grow from, and the answer will be yes. I can ask if what I’m doing helps somebody else, and the answer will still be yes. But I am far from earning a gold star (and it has nothing to do with being my own worst critic).

Even though these three events do good for our world, to celebrate our good intentions prematurely comes with a heavy cost. Equal to the danger of analysis paralysis is the kind of under-thinking that results in the over-doing that currently permeates our culture. We tend to lose sight of the underlying causes that create the need for these grassroots efforts and therefore the opportunity to ask a causational question that digs deeper to the pains we truly seek to relieve. There’s a lot of pain here, an infectious disease, and instead of a proper diagnosis and treatment, we’re fighting it with band-aids.

The Underbelly of the Pet Industry and Animal Advocacy

Laika was the first living creature to be launched into outer space, an event that transformed her into a celebrated, national icon. But the story of Laika is dark and illustrates the dilemma of human progress well.  She was a stray dog in Soviet Russia, chosen for the mission for her hardiness and even temperament, to prove that we could sustain life in space. In that regard, the mission was a success; but in the “race” to be first, the Soviets cut a lot of corners, and the scientists knew Laika would die on this mission. We also know, now, that the plan to euthanize her peacefully failed, and that she died horribly from extreme overheating. One of the scientists on the project, Oleg Gazenko, later lamented, “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.”

When the real story of Laika’s far from painless death was exposed, it unleashed an outcry from animal rights advocates. This is a dog, not a human; a dog can’t consent to dying on a rocket, and commemorating her with a statue and lots of fan art is a weak consolation prize. Laika is today, at best, an icon of the space race, and at worst, a heavy emblem of our moral failure.

Beyond the emotional weight of the story, let’s look at what pets mean to us in the US in terms of dollars (I want to get into what animals mean to us with the debates surrounding the ethics vs economics of animal testing and the meat industry, but that gets pretty harrowing, so for the sake of focus, we’ll keep to the puppies and kitties).

Americans spend $61 billion annually on the pet industry (only $2.2 billion of that is buying the pet). There are 164 million pets in 62% of American households, and it’s estimated that about 30% are adopted from shelters. About 7.6 million pets enter shelters every year. Meanwhile, the Humane Society of the United States has total expenses of $128 million in an effort to promote animal advocacy, but only 1% of it goes to local shelters, which the HSUS doesn’t dispute. Local shelters rely on–you got it–local donors.

The infinitesimally small amount of national funding for shelters makes me wonder where the rest of the $128 million goes, but that’s small fries compared to the billions spent elsewhere. There are lots of conflicting numbers about pet ownership, but it’s curious that pet ownership has doubled in two decades while spending on them has quadrupled. It’s also curious that various sources report that only 30% of pets in homes are from shelters…but of the 164 million pets, that’s 49.2 million animals, which is waaay more than the 6-8 million that enter shelters each year and the 2.7 million that are supposedly healthy and ready for adoption.

The harder question: Why are our communities pushed to continue holding local fundraisers when the money (and industry) to help these animals is so obviously there?

War and Supporting Our Veterans in the Aftermath of Damage

We live in a world where war is considered a necessary evil, and it is an evil. Remember how our friends at the Tough Mudder have raised $8.5 million to help wounded warriors? Collectively as a nation we have spent $818 billion on the Iraq War alone.

By the way, there are currently about 1.4 million active US soldiers and another 850,000 in reserve. According to Tough Mudder’s website, there will be over 2 million participants in its obstacle courses worldwide just for this year.

The harder question: How have we justified pooling the efforts of more people than we have soldiers to raise 0.00001039% of the funds spent on the Iraq War to help wounded veterans recover, after the damage has been done?

A Culture of Makers and the Miracle & Curse of Manufacturing

This one’s a toughie and I’m not entirely certain at which angle I should approach this. It’s no secret that there’s a lot of strife about jobs getting sent overseas and like any industry, manufacturing is sure to argue its worthiness. The National Association of Manufacturers tells us that manufacturing contributed $2.9 trillion to the US economy. 12 million people in the US are directly employed in manufacturing and collectively earn $930 billion (based on an average employees’ salary/benefits earnings of $77,506), or about 32% of that contribution.

Just talking about manufacturing as one, lump thing is amorphous as fuck. $2.9 trillion is a great number, if all you care about is numbers, but how much of what we make is actually necessary is an ongoing battle between the consumerist and minimalist philosophies. Though I’m partial to this sector because of my work history there, I’m far from the biggest fan of what manufacturing has enabled culturally as exemplified on Black Friday. For those who argue that manufacturing is about job creation, well, then I suppose it depends on the problem you’re trying to solve…

Space Needed to Transport 60 People
A portrayal of the space needed to transport 60 people, courtesy of the Cycling Promotion Fund. We could argue that we traded space to save time, but time to get where, to earn what, to get us where else?

What does this all mean??

The harder question for now: isn’t really a question. I’m just noticing that the $930 billion of wages and benefits for the manufacturing sector is only 1.14 times of the $818 billion spent on the Iraq War. For better or worse, we could go on fighting all other wars and still double manufacturing overhead power and while we’re at it maybe save shit tons of puppies.

The Value of Staying in the Conversation

I wrote about the feral dogs of South America during my recent travels, and how we humans are not so different from them. It says something, that scientists chose Laika for her good demeanor, and that her praise could become her exploitation, no less, in the name of progress.

The Catch-22 is, I wouldn’t be able to distribute any of these thoughts online if we didn’t know it was possible to jettison anything into outer space. Then again, maybe I wouldn’t have anything to contest about human progress if we didn’t kill a dog on a rocket.

As I move forward in my pursuits, I’m thinking about my values and the dialogues I want to be a part of. There is the “good” that I do in the world, and the “evil” that is inseparable from it. As this Vice article elegantly puts it, “Everything you do is unethical, so shut the fuck up…in spite of your best efforts, you’re still ruining the world.”

While I get this article’s point, I disagree with its approach or the idea that in order to live ethically, we either have “to go off the grid” or kill ourselves. We are social creatures, and so our ethics are rooted in the contexts of our communities. They do not grow in temples of isolation or in labs.

I hate war, but I don’t hate that we have people that will not only run through mud pits and electrical wire but actually pay for the privilege to do so–to pool funds for the sake of empowering those that our warring countries have let down.

I hate that we live in a world where our governments pressure us to advance ever faster and kill dogs in the name of conquering “the unknown” and that nowhere along the way, did one voice among all the brilliant minds, stop to contest it. I’m sorry that we have to promote animal rights only because we wronged them in the first place.

I’m sorry about the state of manufacturing and what it has ridden upon our workforce, our education system, and our values. The irony of becoming creators on a mass scale is that our ultimate production has been a society defined by its consumption. I’m sorry that we rely on grassroots efforts to promote creativity, efforts that become platforms for big name sponsors only once what they’re doing is seen as useful. But I’m not sorry for the underlying philosophies that manufacturing proves, if we are willing to look deeper, and understand our incredible human desires both to create and to congregate.

I’m not sorry to be among people who give their time willingly towards a cause, even though they did not create the problem and are far from being the most financially capable of fixing it. Something in our human nature compels us to empower others, though we ourselves may also be broke, broken, and let down.

There is evidence of something really special here.

It says something, that whether people make $10, $20, or $100 an hour they will use their money to make a statement in a currency and social war they will never win. Our community efforts demonstrate that we are not so afraid of loss as we think we are.

The question is, can we separate sentiment from achievement, and recognize that the work towards the first is the obvious, while the work towards the second is not only harder but a battle we’ve barely begun?

It both amazes and troubles me what we are capable of doing and unwilling to do, with our wealth of resources and poverty of distribution. If we are truly becoming a sharing economy, then I’m curious to what extent we are willing to live up to that. I have a lot of questions and few answers, and I think the only thing I have resolved is that this is a dialogue worth being a part of. Perhaps the worst thing that any of us can do is leave the conversation.

To be rid of the abuse of animal and human, to be rid of war, to be rid of the hunger that drives our consumption. These are not overnight fixes, to put it lightly. But I choose, as I believe my community members do, to be an active person, so that I have the opportunity to be among those who are not only capable of speaking up but also keen on asking the hard questions. I hope that those of us who identify as peacemakers today do so with the vision of becoming peacekeepers tomorrow.

Trigger Finger, Ink Drawing by Jenie Gao
Trigger Finger, Ink Drawing by Jenie Gao

There is a quote I like from Rumi, “Yesterday, I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today, I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

I can’t pretend that anything I do is more than a drop in a bucket in the face of a wildfire. I can’t pretend that my running benefits anybody other than myself or that my money, my art, and my community involvement is anything more than an expression of my values and personal tastes.

But I can be a one-person paradigm. I can prove that with limited resources and a simple structure of habits, I have not only enough to improve my personal wellbeing, but also enough to share.

I can afford to live in a developed, American city and go out for drinks with friends, so of course, I have the equal time and power to run in 5k charities and volunteer for the community. My question now is if, ideologically, I can make the next step, from the 5k charity mindset to the world that doesn’t need charity. I ask also, if I find myself in the company of others equally willing to step up, to do with less as individuals and to sway the power that the established world holds on us.

We are not so afraid of loss as we think we are, and we all have voices and the time and ability to use them. So long as we act and interact within the everyday world, we can make the choice to see and speak to it more clearly.

Learning to See: Reception

Art is nothing without dialogue. At the end of the day, I am little more than the applicator of colors on paper. So it is both humbling and special to see that something as basic as a set of pictures on a wall is enough to draw people together. We humans are peculiar and endearing like that. For all our cynicism about humanity, time and again we prove that the simplicity of a flat piece of paper is enough to make us stop and look, a song or some spoken words enough to make us gather in a crowded room and resonate with other people.

To the people who attended my reception at Ploch Art Gallery, thank you for being there not just for the show, but for the experience. Anything can look good on paper. It takes people to make that paper mean something.

On that note, thank you to my friends who came to support me. Many of you drove an hour or more to be there. Thank you to Barita Vincenti, Adriana Moracci, Alicia Candiani, and Daniela Ruiz Moreno at Proyecto’ace for inviting me to do a residency and helping me produce my book, The Golden Cage, which has turned out to be a critical point in the development of my newest work. You are truly masters of your craft. Thank you to Latasia Lowery for offering feedback on the final text and design of my book, The Golden Cage. Thank you to Latasia and Jer Yang for your feedback on my talk, and always being willing to listen and discuss ideas. Thank you to the people at Museo de Arte Moderno for inviting me to do a residency in Chiloé, where I was able to reach another turning point in the goals of my work, and to Jose Salas and Javiera Castilla for being such great hosts during my stay there. Thanks for taking me bird watching on the island. Thank you to Adam Cohen and Mandy Tsai for being incredibly reliable friends and helping to install the art at Ploch. You saved me much time and sanity and probably treated the work better than I do. Thank you to Pedro Castro for taking the beautiful photos featured in this post so I can share these moments with those who could not attend the show. Thank you to Robin Luther for all your coordination, marketing, promotion, and general time and hard work to make this such a seamless event. Thank you to photographer Bill Zuback for writing one of the kindest responses to the work following the reception. I’m honored by your words and can’t express my respect for your character and perspective enough. I’m forgetting a gazillion people, but thank you to everyone for listening to my story and sharing yours as well.

The show is still on display through May 18th. If you are so compelled to visit the Wilson Center (and I encourage it, they have great performances there), I invite you not to see art not as a static portrait, but as a mirror that changes depending upon who views it. In that exchange, I hope you may see something the rest of us did not, and thereby start a new conversation.

Preview of Solo Show at Ploch Art Gallery

I have been back in the States now for two weeks, and my first bit of business has been preparing for a solo show at Ploch Art Gallery at Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Here is a preview of the show and a few of the new pieces, many from my art residencies at Proyecto’Ace in Buenos Aires and Museo de Arte Moderno in Chiloé.

The show will be up through May 9th. The opening reception is Saturday, April 18th, from 6 to 7:30 pm. I would love to see you there!

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View of a new series, “A Test of Vision,” and to the right, page spreads from my new artist’s book, “The Golden Cage”
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View of a new series, “A Test of Vision”
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(farthest left) “Remember, You Are Human”
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“Angelica” (left) and “We Write Our Autobiographies on the Shoulders of Giants” (right)
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“We Write Our Autobiographies on the Shoulders of Giants,” ink on paper
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“There is No Such Thing As Me,” ink on paper
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Second hall of the gallery space

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Page spreads from “The Golden Cage”
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Close-up/sneak peek of a new ink drawing, “Counter Intuition”
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Second close-up of “Counter Intuition”
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Close-up of “Our Little Freedom”
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“The Light Within Us We Do Not Use,” ink on paper