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.

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?

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.

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. :)

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

love-affair-robes

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.

The myth of the starving artist–and what it can teach us about job security

"The Light Within Us We Do Not Use," 20 x 30 in drawing, by Jenie Gao

“What do you do?”

This is the number one small talk question we ask people, on par with discussing the weather. It’s a question we either don’t care about at all, because most people hate their jobs, or use to size up other people.

Are we on the same tier? Are you also in a dead end job? Can we commiserate? Are you a baller and crushing your career? Can I puff up my chest and impress you? Can I outweigh you? Can I leverage you? Are we in totally different ponds? All right, have a nice life, then.

“I’m an artist,” I tell people.

This generates a whole range of reactions.

“Oh.” Awkward pause. “Like, for a living?”

“Yep.” Full stop. No explanation. Sometimes, I’ll add, “I’m still figuring it out. I quit my corporate job a year ago.”

“It must be nice, getting to live your dream.” This is a good indication that the conversation won’t continue in a meaningful way.

Things can definitely go better than that, and can even go extraordinarily well.

But (yes, there’s a but) here’s the dish. I almost never leave the conversation without looking like a unicorn.

Amiable conversation, but not terribly productive

Asker: “So, how has that been working out?”

Me: “Well, it’s a work-in-progress. I’m still figuring it out, but it’s really no different than any other business or job.”

Less amiable, worth getting out of as quickly as possible

Asker: “So, is that all you do? Can you really make money?”

Me: “Well, I’m a consultant, too.”

Asker: “Ah, gotcha.” People usually don’t care what kind of consultant. But now I’m not a unicorn and can move on with my life.

Amiable, though misguided, but has potential

Asker: “So what were you doing before?”

Me: “I was working in lean manufacturing. I led projects improving efficiency and reducing waste in business operations.”

Asker: “Wow, that’s really different. It’s pretty rare/weird for someone to be creative and logical, right? To be both left and right brained? I mean, it’s cool if you can be both.”

Me (being cheeky): “Well, not really. I was born with two halves of my brain for a reason. Why would I have both if I were only supposed to use one side?”

Asker: “I guess that’s a good point.” It’s obvious that the person isn’t convinced, and here’s where it’d be really easy to let the idealist in me wither and die.

Luckily, I’m not so easy. ;)

And for every well-meaning person who doesn’t know how to react to an artist, this is the burning question that I have to ask.

How is it more logical for me to tell you…

“I make my living telling other people what to do.”

…than to tell you, “I make stuff. And then I sell it.”

Why is that so weird? How is that illogical?

More importantly, how is that not the most straightforward thing I could say in response to, “What do you do?”

How is it any different than any other job you would choose to do or pursue? Chances are, your job has something to do with making stuff or selling it or both. The only difference is layers.

I make my own stuff. I sell my own stuff.

That’s not to say what I do is easy. It’s not. It’s hard. It’s uncertain, and not even just when I’m busy. When you work for a company, you still make a bi-weekly paycheck on the slow days, whether or not you’re productive. On the days when I don’t make a sale or have a client, I’m worth $0 to society. I haven’t made it yet. I will, but I also have to be willing to show up everyday and work without a guarantee. That’s not any different than working for a company that could lay you off or fire you, but back to the layers. I have none, so reality is right in front of me.

That’s worth saying again. Reality is right in front of me. Mind you, I make up imaginary beings for a living. Even so, reality is right in front of every artist. Every maker.

It takes a lot of responsibility, to own up to and believe in your actions, to the marks you make and will on people.

So what does that tell us about the stigma, that making something with your own hands is unrealistic, irresponsible, or impractical?

What does that tell us about our culture, if we’ve branded art as something not all of us are meant to have or understand?

What does that tell us about the resulting, sick joke our economy and job culture have played on us, about what’s realistic and what’s not?

What does that tell us about how our confidence has been manipulated, to rely on things that can’t be shaped with our own hands? To not recognize these hands in all their capacity and capability, to touch and connect with other people?

What does it say about us, that we expect people who do make things with their own hands to fail and to starve?

mis_manos

A mural I saw in Valparaíso, Chile. It reads, "And my hands are the only thing I have, they are my love and my sustenance."
A mural I saw in Valparaíso, Chile. It reads, “And my hands are the only thing I have, they are my love and my sustenance.”

“But art isn’t necessary for survival!!!” Many will say, and you may say it, too.

Canned food wasn’t necessary until we invented it. Smart phones, credit cards, books, envelopes, cars, jewelry….none of these ever had to do with need. A college education isn’t about need, or even want for many people, as much as it is about obligation. Yet the average American student carries $29,000 in debt for that obligation, and this is what many people have collectively agreed is the responsible way to live. And what we collectively agree to believe in, rational or not, beneficial or not, becomes the truth.

Maybe that’s the part we fear the most, that what we do…nobody needs. As long as we don’t talk about it, maybe we can keep pretending and nobody will get hurt.

Is what I do necessary? Nope. It isn’t a question of need to do or even always want to do, and the work guarantees no rewards.

But that doesn’t stop me from knowing why I do it.

I’m willing to do really great work for no promise of success. Creative work. Beautiful work. Work that can light up people’s hearts as easily as it can make them cry. Work that moves people. Work that both exposes human nature and makes it safe to show our scars. Work that can also be play. Work that reminds us why we’re here, why we bother, and why we fall in love in the wake of heartbreak.

Why? Because this is the “impractical” part. I’m doing it for love, which has no guarantee. Getting paid is just a means to an end, and because I know that what I’ve made is worth something.

There’s something else that’s weird to me, though.

That my way is harder, when the model is so much simpler, so much leaner, than the vast majority of jobs and businesses we’re trying to create and protect. And that many of the people who hate their jobs want my job to be the harder one, to be the impossible, impractical one. That mindset is hurting all of us, in the short and long run.

I make stuff. I sell it.

It doesn’t get more “left-brained” than that.

So here’s the big secret.

I’m not living my “childhood dream.” I’m just doing what I innately understood, as a kid, to be common sense, before others convinced me otherwise. I’m doing something with my hands, with what I have. I’m making something to share what’s inside me with other people, which is as old as human existence and expression.

Here’s something else. I really don’t care if you “get” art or not. I just don’t agree that it’s so damn weird or out of line. And I’m sad about how many things it tells us, that the outliers in our culture are the ones who tap the deepest into their own souls.

To call this the road to starvation doesn’t just hurt and limit artists. It cripples anyone in any job who says, “I’m not an artist.” It cripples culture. It destroys connection. It kills change.

If you believe the myth that artists must starve, then of course you would never want to be an artist. Of course you don’t appreciate or value art, or see the artistry in what you do. And I don’t blame you.

But if you can’t see artistry, then you won’t value creativity. You will fear creators rather than strive to be one. You won’t believe you can add true beauty to this world, through whatever your skillset might be. You won’t see magic in the things that you do, or that other people do. You won’t understand value. You won’t understand your own voice. You’ll get played by other people and other companies and never know how to break the cycle. You might think you want security, when really you want security in your position, more so than security that comes from within yourself. If you have a little more confidence than that, then you might want status. You might want power. But you don’t actually want to make anything better, or if you do, you don’t truly believe that you can. And that sucks.

For that, as unapologetically honest as I can be, I am truly, deeply sorry.

But I only have to be sorry for as long as you, as any of us, continues to agree, that this current way must always be the only way.

I invite you to see the ordinariness in what I do, as a way to see how simple the special things we’re all after could really be.

I challenge you to let go of needing validation from the things that hold you back.

 

"The Light Within Us We Do Not Use," 20 x 30 in drawing, by Jenie Gao
“The Light Within Us We Do Not Use,” 20 x 30 in drawing, by Jenie Gao, from the series, Self Awareness.