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 to Catch a Counterfeit (or how to focus on what matters)

Back when I started working in manufacturing, I had a boss who would ask our team:

“How do you catch a counterfeit?”

The answer?

“Study the real.”

There are infinite variables, infinite ways for a person to create a counterfeit. If you try to become an “expert” of the counterfeits, you’re wasting your time. You could know thousands of variations, and all it takes is one person making one exception that you’ve never seen, and you’ll miss it.

But if you study the real, you can focus your expertise on what’s important. Then the one time that something looks different, you’ll notice immediately.

The concept of opposites

On the surface, this story seems to be about how to tell apart the real from the fake, which it is.

But go one level deeper, and it’s a lesson on how to change focus.

It’s being both aware of yourself and of your context.

How can we do the same things differently? How can focusing on the opposite of what we’re after get us to what we want?

Diversity vs Similarity

The motive of our social campaigns for diversity is inherently good. But we have so many campaigns, and people’s attention is already split across a world checkered with ads, categories, and options.

What would happen if in our conversations about diversity, we focused on what makes us all the same?

We already know we’re different. That’s why it’s hard to find common ground.

But if we focus on the common ground, could we indirectly teach people to notice and appreciate the differences in people on their own, by making them stand out on a canvas of shared human qualities? Could we change our words first to unite people, then to think for themselves?

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t talk about diversity. But maybe part of changing the game is knowing when to talk about same versus different. Both are important. Both play a role. And as the saying goes, while knowledge is knowing what to say, wisdom is knowing when to say it.

I vs We

There is no “I” in team…but guess what? There isn’t a “we” either.

The other problem with word plays is it only takes a little cleverness to get another player back.

Case and point: there is no “I” in team, but there is an “I” in leadership, ownership, and three of them in responsibility.

So there.

Moving on, should we focus on the individual or the team?

Self awareness or situational awareness?

Hint: It depends, and it’s not an either-or answer.

To stop or to continue…

Where else does the metaphor of the “counterfeit” apply?

How else can a focus on the opposite lead us to what we’re truly after?

What does it tell us about how to solve the problems and pursue the opportunities in front of us?

It isn’t about knowing the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. It’s about knowing which one is important and when. It’s about knowing how to pay attention.

It is helpful to remind ourselves that in a world where we’re taught that growth means good, full means satisfied, and 100% means perfection, life is forever an act of counterbalance.

It is helpful to know our own tendencies, and understand when to go with and counteract them.

"A Circulatory System," Ink and Watercolor Drawing, 10 x 14 inches, by Jenie Gao
“A Circulatory System,” ink and watercolor on paper, 10 x 14 inches, by Jenie Gao. It is a part of the series, “A Test of Vision.”

The competition for our attention. The fight for our love.

Comparison is a blessing and a curse, depending on how we use it.

Comparisons help us understand context. They give us familiarity, which is vital for connection. The same things can be used to drive disconnection.

But if we are rational beings, then tell me.

Why do we believe that businesses can be scalable, but compassion cannot?

Many have died in massacres. Does the death of many diminish the death of one? How do you have many without the existence of one?

Does the value of one social cause automatically cancel out another? If that is so, then by that same logic, does a woman who becomes a wife cease to be a sister and a daughter, and a husband cease to be a brother and a son? Can you love one family member wholeheartedly, and still love all the others?

It is not because we care too much about small problems that we cannot address the big problems.

It is exactly because we have not practiced care and attention on an intimate level that we then become cynical, abusive, and brutal in much bigger ways.

"The Golden Cage," woodcut on paper, 18 x 24 inches, by Jenie Gao
“The Golden Cage,” woodcut on paper, 18 x 24 inches, by Jenie Gao
Parents, do not shame your children or your neighbors’ children when their needs don’t make sense to you. You do not teach them to be better or more mature than you by judging or trivializing them. You help no one by making him or her feel stupid. Do not try to be right. Try to make things right.

Do not stop at the face value of what others tell you. Don’t condemn ignorance. Show the way out of ignorance.

Children, do not criticize your parents for not understanding or agreeing with your needs. Do not criticize their relationships or their methods. They are showing you a way, not the way. Be grateful that you are different from them. It means that you are learning. It means that life is changing.

Communities, neighbors, do not judge others for what they have or do not have. Do not judge those who are more or less free-spirited, more or less rigid, more or less superficial, more or less sensitive than you are. Your neighbors are either pursuing happiness or escaping pain. Exercise your judgment only as far as you need to know how to use your time. Anything beyond that is fertile ground for hypocrisy.

Offer to teach by example, rather than condemn. And accept that not everyone will choose to learn from you.

Companies, start-ups, for-profits, non-profits, do not focus solely on growth of numbers and members. He who has captured the eyes of many may be watched more broadly, but that is not the same as being loved more deeply. No, you do not need love to have popularity or power. But all of your relationships will be transactions. Those who do not love you will not be loyal. They will invest out of self interest, not in your growth. Nurture those who give you the honor of leading them, rather than trying to leverage or maximize on them.

Employers, employees, coworkers, bosses, teammates, do not envy your competitors. They do not steal your time or profit. If they are exploring things that you cannot, let them. They are using their time in one way, so that yours may be free to focus on another. Don’t chase what others have before asking what you actually want.

You do not need to have it all to have enough.

To all my loved ones, if other people disagree with you, it is not because they don’t care, but because they have not lost hope. They have not left the conversation yet. To speak up without the promise of acceptance is not threatening or rebellious. It is brave.

To the people who have lost loved ones, who are crying and suffering, the game of life goes on. Other people are having parties, pursuing sex, searching for love, competing for promotions, showing off success, hiding duress, seeking personal security, shopping, playing, accessorizing, and chasing the next shiny thing.

The world does not stop moving for grief. This is not because the world is cold or petty, but because it is not over yet. Not for us. Not for you.

Cover image: “Attention,” woodcut on canvas, 40 x 60 inches, by Jenie Gao.

"Redamancy," woodcut on paper, 38 x 48 inches, by Jenie Gao
“Redamancy,” woodcut on paper, 38 x 48 inches, by Jenie Gao

A Response to the Rape on the Madison Bike Path

This is in response to the rape that happened on the Madison bike path, which is now one of four attempted attacks since July.

To my friends in Madison–and those who do not live here but have friends here–SHARE this. Share this. Share this. A smart and informed community has the opportunity to be a proactive, preventative, and restorative one.

WHAT WE KNOW

Monday, August 10, 2015. A man attacked me from behind on Paterson near Willy Street, just as a I passed the bike path. He grabbed the back of my shirt, came in front of me and held a knife to my stomach, and when I screamed, he hit me in the stomach and we broke apart and ran in opposite directions.

Saturday, September 12, 2015. A man attacked a woman on South Livingston by the bike path. He grabbed her from behind, hit her on the back of the head, dragged her off the bike path, brutally raped her, and nearly murdered her.

I have spoken with the detectives at MPD, and yes, there is a high correlation between my attack and the one on Saturday, which can’t be ignored. This is, of course, *only* a correlation until the attacker(s) is/are found. But if it IS the same attacker, then he should be considered highly dangerous. When he attacked me, he came in front of me so I could see his face, and he seemed startled when I screamed. In this second attack, the man was wearing a hoodie, came at her from behind, and hit her in the back of the head before dragging her off. So if it is the same person, then he learned from the previous attack. We can also presume that with all the attention now that he will probably not attack in the same spot.

WHAT WE NEED TO DO

1) Catch this criminal. We need to be vigilantly on the lookout for someone who fits this description.

2) Understand the nature of the crime to get to the root of the problem, so that we can have a long-term solution rather than a band-aid.

I am thankful to live in a community that organizes so readily around a tragedy like this. I want to ask this SAME community to be proactive rather than reactive in how we resolve this. We need to be good communicators. We need to be informed. We need to be purposeful and organized in our actions. Remember that good intentions can be as harmful as bad ones. Remember that our goal is not merely to organize, but to deliver justice and make sure this NEVER happens again.

Share this. Share this. Share this.

WE NEED TO DO OUR RESEARCH

Thursday, July 9, 2015. Cristian Sanchez Vargas attacked a woman on the bike path from behind, hit her in the head, and tried to drag her off the path into the woods. She screamed, alerting passersby. Police caught and detained Vargas, who remains in prison today with a $25,000 bail.

Monday, July 13, 2015. Donovan Stone assaulted a woman on the bike path. He placed her in a “bear hug” and tackled her to the ground. The woman screamed and was able to hit the man with her right elbow before Stone got up and ran from the scene, pulling up his shorts.

It is abnormal to have four attacks, all carried out by strangers, in a span of a few months. If this is a more prevalent problem in our community, then placing a $25,000 bail on one man’s head does not call into question a larger systemic problem that underlies these types of attacks. We can’t be afraid to talk about race and socioeconomic status as a part of this. We do have poverty and racial divides in our culture, and it’s a problem we need to get to the root of and not ignore as a factor in these kinds of events.

WE NEED TO CONSIDER THE ACTIONS TO TAKE NEXT

How do we as a city function, from the effectiveness of our justice system to our media to our community efforts? Many events go unreported if they are “close calls,” where the criminal doesn’t succeed in robbing or hurting someone. Even when people do report these incidents, they do not receive the same media response, same resources, or same sense of urgency as an actual attack. That’s gravely unfortunate. It’s unfortunate because what happens is we only are able to deliver justice AFTER the damage has been done. It’s unfortunate that we do not treat these events with urgency until they are catastrophic. Following my own attack, I realized just how slow and ineffective the process really is, and how unlikely it is to catch a person who runs from the scene, and how the only way we as a city *would* dedicate resources to this would be if this man attacked again. Whether it’s the same attacker or not, it makes me sick to my stomach that it happened this way.

Consider the amount of media coverage this rape is getting, as it rightly should. And be willing to ask, what it will take to be AS adamant about communicating before the stakes are this high.

Consider how the law enforcement is pouring resources into this pursuit, as it rightly should. And be willing to ask, what are the roadblocks that our justice system as facing, and what needs to change?

Consider how passionately our community is responding to this, as it rightly should. And be willing to ask, how do we channel the anger we feel about this, how do we use our organizational power, so that following this symbolic act of our charity, we can have the discourse and actions for solidarity?

There are soooo many things I wish had taken place following the earlier incidents this summer on the bike path. There are so many things I wish, that we had a proactive, preventative, and restorative approach to crime rather than reactive. For now as a community, we need to be proactive in catching the criminal, and then equilibrate and fact-driven in our solutions, so that this NEVER happens again.

Additional relevant information:

I have also shared this write-up as a public Facebook post and as a comment on the recent Take Back the Bike Path event in Madison.

Since writing this, many people have messaged me–either in Facebook comments or personal messages–asking for my description of the attacker and whether it bears resemblance to the recent case, which you can read in the news release. Yes, the man who attacked me was similar to what’s been released to the media. The description I gave to the police working on my case is as follows: a man in his 20s to 30s of Hispanic descent who yelled something in Spanish when he grabbed me, close to my height (5’5″ to 5’7″), medium/compact build, a buzz cut, sharp-looking almond-shaped eyes with angled eyebrows (this is the biggest difference for me compared to the sketch the PD released), high cheekbones, and that night he was wearing a black t-shirt with a white graphic and khaki-colored short pants.

Online Resources Worth Looking At

City Data

Madison Crime Rates & Statistics

Crime Data Map

Rule of Law Index, courtesy of the World Justice Project

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.

To my friend who lost her daughter and what you taught me about love

Sunday, July 12th, was a picturesque, idyllic day.

It started with a promising fourth (?) date. We made breakfast in the morning, then walked around Madison’s Art Fair on the Square.

Then I spent the afternoon with friends, picking raspberries, playing with fat farm cats, joking, drinking beer, having dinner, trying not to lose focus on the road in Poynette, Wisconsin, with a passenger whose attention span is as competitively short as my own, and returning home with not only raspberries for myself but enough catnip to keep Charlemagne high for a week.

Sunday was a normal and happy day for me, as it was for you, too.

But while I was driving home that night with a friend who had just discovered a CD of angsty music from my high school days, you were checking on your daughter in the bath, to discover that she must have had a seizure and drowned.

—–

I have to confess, I didn’t cry right away when I learned about Nicole. I know my concept of loss has changed a lot in the last several years, but I think this event was the first event where I felt the difference in my response to the news of a death so close to my circle. I can’t separate the loss from what Nicole has given you. I can’t see the waste of life by death, because this girl, with her severe autism, was never supposed to speak and yet became the greatest voice for you to be here; she gave you the patience and compassion that you serve so many others with. She did exactly what she needed to do with her life. A lot of other people with a “much higher capacity” never get there in three times the amount of years.

So I couldn’t be sad, not until I saw you at the church, this church that was built specifically to serve families with disabilities, a group of people whose faith is in service of something and not just to honor the faith itself.

I saw you, and then I cried. I saw Nancy, Nicole’s caretaker, place her hat that Nicole always asked if she could have on the altar, and that made me cry, too. I cried because I understood, this was not the life she lost, but the life all of you felt the void of.

I talked with former coworkers, some of whom had been grieving with you all week, and I both empathized and felt the difference and distance that this past year has made between my world and all of yours.

I have never been a religious person, but the priest shared a passage that resonated this day:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.

Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.

If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you–you of little faith?

I know, and yet I do worry, and I listen and wonder if anyone else is really listening. Maybe, but then it doesn’t take an hour before people are talking about the troubles of life, the long work hours, the failed diets, if it’s not one thing, then it’s another.

I want to believe that I’m not limited by societal expectations, but I am. I haven’t been back in the US for very long, but I feel the pressure to be busy. I don’t want all the same life milestones as other people, or do I? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. I don’t want the same things, but maybe the ideas those things symbolize. I don’t want a safe career, but I do want a meaningful one. I don’t want a big house, but I love shared spaces, and I love having a space to create. I don’t want a fancy car, but I love where modern transportation can take me. I don’t want to belong to a church, but I cherish the meals I share with people–this experience of “breaking bread”–more than anything. I don’t want a wedding, but I do want love.

And I understand that at least for most of us, these things do not come without any sowing or reaping. To discover one’s life’s purpose is a challenging journey. To appreciate the simple pleasures in life usually comes with understanding the difficulty of it. To be in love–to sustain love–requires not only the risk of heartbreak, but the inevitable event of it.

Love takes a shitload of bravery and resilience, a type of bravery I’m not sure I’ve fully developed. It’s easier to dump someone than to be dumped, easier to move on than to let someone else care less than you do. This seems to be the curse of my generation, at least; we have lots of priorities, that give us every excuse and opportunity to treat love (or the attention we associate with it) like an option.

But if we drop it so easily, then it isn’t love.

I came across a quote recently: When there is love, there is no question.

And I thought, “Yeah, okay,” and then, “Fuck….I have so many questions. I always have so many questions.”

It’s always been unquestionable, Dawn, what you would do for your family, and therefore, for love. It had nothing to do with getting enough attention or something in return. It had nothing to do with not having options, either. But there is a dedication in you that many lack. There is an intrinsic happiness in you that many will labor never to find. There is a belief that love begets love, and so for you, it does. And not an ounce of highly sophisticated logic will ever replicate that or be able to overcome the shadow of doubt that always follows reason.

I look at the track I’m on now, and oftentimes think that I can never be heartbroken again. I’ve wisened up too much for that. But damn, that’s cold, if it’s true. I hope it means I’m growing up a little to be able to say, I hope I can be heartbroken again, not devastated again, but open and wholehearted enough to deeply know my loved ones and miss them. And in this age of convenience and objectivity, where the good dates are as easily forgettable as the mediocre ones; where things and people are easily let go, exchanged, and replaced; where understanding that life can and will go on is easier than ever, maybe (the willingness to face) heartbreak is exactly the elixir we need.

False starts

Yesterday evening, towards the end of my run, a homeless woman stopped me to help jumpstart her car. My jumper cables were bad, so I went and got new ones.

She needed gas, so I went and got gas. And when we had done all we could and her car still wouldn’t start, she told me I would have to leave her. I apologized for not being able to do more and she (Deborah) was surprised.

“You’ve done everything you can do! Ain’t no one else who could have done something that would have made this different.”

She then asked if I lived in the neighborhood, said we’d probably see each other around, and said maybe some day she would return the favor and help me with something, but hopefully I would never be in her situation that I would even need the help. I said hopefully when we cross paths again we’d both be in better situations.

I wanted to give back the $4 she had given me for gas, but she didn’t want it back. I understood why. No matter your situation, you don’t want to be low, and you don’t want to be powerless. Giving her money would have been the same as giving her pity, and I was positioned to steal more from her by implicating that she could not take care of herself.

I felt kind of bad, not in a sympathetic way, but actually almost the opposite, like I was somehow unsympathetic and shallow. I had been on a five-mile evening run. I was steps away from home, sweaty, in need of a shower, hungry, and anticipating an evening with friends. I was in a hurry initially, before I met her, and in that moment when I agreed to help, I certainly wasn’t thinking about how much time this was actually going to take. But in the hour or so I spent with Deborah, I couldn’t be concerned about any of those things I was going to do with my evening and have peace of conscience.

By the end of it, I didn’t feel like going out anymore. Though I recognize, at the same time, that I can’t feel bad or undervalue that I have nice things when others don’t. After all, the purpose of another human’s suffering is not to make others suffer with them.

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.