Alice, Alzheimer’s, and special powers

“Alice Anne”

I was named after my two grandmothers, Alice Ross Crawford and Anne Bosworth Focke. My parents liked the sound of Alice Anne much better than Anne Alice, but Alice lived with us for most of my life through high school and having two Alices in the house would be confusing. Whenever my parents felt I needed a strong talking-to, they called out both names. And these were almost the only times I heard them together. So, except as warning or reprimand, I was Anne.

I developed strong attachments to literary and historical figures with each of these names, girls who led colorful, exciting lives. I was called Annie as a kid, and two Annies especially fascinated and influenced me. One was Annie Oakley, a famous sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and featured in Irving Berlin’s musical Annie Get Your Gun, which I heard as a girl at San Diego’s Starlight Opera. (Recalling this, Annie’s song, “Anything you can do, I can do better,” is now stuck in my head.) A second seminal Annie was Little Orphan Annie of the long-standing comic strip, who in the background had a protector, Daddy Warbucks, and who foiled evildoers by herself with her dog Sandy.

The most influential of my heroines, though, was probably Alice from Alice in Wonderland. She never seemed afraid and instead was simply curious. She followed the White Rabbit in a hurry and fell down a rabbit hole. She landed in a strange and magical place where she got larger and smaller, swam in a pool of tears, shook hands with a dodo bird, watched Father William balance an eel on his nose, conversed with a hookah-smoking caterpillar on a large mushroom, watched the smiling Cheshire Cat in a tree disappear, had tea with the Mad Hatter and Hare, tried to play croquet with a flamingo and a hedgehog, and had to testify before the court of the fearsome Queen of Hearts.

I went on those adventures with her while my dad read the stories aloud. Her story and Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations provided beginning points for imaginations of my own Although Tenniel’s drawings are the source for my strongest visual memories of the story, I’m sure the characters in Walt Disney’s movie have a role in my memories as well.

Alice, Annie, and Annie taught me the special powers of imagination, believing in myself, and the thrill and adventure of catching evildoers.

My grandmother Alice died after I left for college. From my youngest brother Ross’s brief descriptions of her last years, I now assume she died with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Years later, my mother did also. Looking back on it all now, I’m saddened by how distant I was from gran’s death and in many respects from mom’s death as well. She died in 1997. My brothers Frank and Ross – especially Ross – were the true caretakers of my mom in her last years. They’ve become bright stars for me as I remember their caregiving role.

The few times I was with mom by myself toward the end of her life, I remember wondering how to enter her world of dementia. I felt I had to be carefully present-tense, consider things that were right in front of us, that we could see and touch, not things that happened yesterday or that might happen tomorrow. Being unable to remember yesterday or think about tomorrow made her feel bad or angry and just increased her confusion. I didn’t understand the disease well enough to know that if we’d jumped much further back in time, we might have opened up older, more enjoyable memories for her and for us both.

Perhaps influenced by my Alice-in-Wonderland past, I’ve always found it easy to jump beyond present circumstances, imagining ways of being that might be but aren’t yet. I wondered how I could see my mom’s and her mom’s dementia – perhaps my own in the future – as interesting or useful, or simply as another acceptable way of being. I thought about historical tales of the wise fool, the wisdom of the village idiot, the ancient oracles, or the mystic seer.

Today dementia is an evildoer. At a 2010 symposium of designers and developers of senior housing, a speaker referred to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as the biggest fear of aging boomers, a fear he urged his colleagues to acknowledge.1

What are we losing by not including in our lives – personally and societally – relationships with and insights from people who seem to exist in other realities? Are we losing their special powers in our super-rational world? How do we understand the edges dividing dementia and wisdom?

A year or two ago, I discovered a book by Dana Walrath, Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s through the Looking Glass.2

In Aliceheimer’s, Walrath, a medical anthropologist, graphic artist, and writer, tells the story of her mother Alice’s journey with Alzheimer’s, especially during the two years when Alice lived with Dana and her husband in their Vermont home. In the introduction, Walrath says that the biomedical story of dementia “is in desperate need of revision.”

The dominant narrative is a horror story. People with Alzheimer’s are perceived as zombies, bodies without minds, waiting for valiant researchers to find a cure. For Alice and me, the story was different. Alzheimer’s was a time of healing and magic. Of course, there is loss with dementia, but what matters is how we approach our losses and our gains. Reframing dementia as a different way of being, as a window into another reality, lets people living in that state be our teachers – useful, true humans who contribute to our collective good, instead of scary zombies.

Wow, I thought. I’ve been waiting for this. Perhaps this begins to show how to slay the evildoer.

Alice in Wonderland seems to be as important to Walrath as it was to me. She uses Lewis Carroll’s book as an emotional frame for her book. “I found the story’s voice the day I cut up a cheap paperback copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, using the page fragments to make her bathrobe, Alice’s favorite garment.” Alice falls slowly down the rabbit hole of her memory loss and disappears gradually like the Cheshire Cat.

Walrath’s book is part of the Graphic Medicine series.3 She chose the graphic narrative form in the belief that it could reach someone with dementia. She writes, “Graphic storytelling captures the complexity of life and death, of sickness and health. Going back and forth between the subconscious and conscious, between the visual and the verbal, lets us tap into our collective memory, an essential element of storytelling.” It allows us to “better understand those who are hurting, to feel their stories, and redraw and renegotiate social boundaries.” She made her Alice drawings in part “to process my own grief after placing my mother in an Alzheimer’s residence…. But I was also drawing to remember the magic and laughter of that time.”

With a community of help that included pirates, good neighbors, a cast of characters from space-time travel, and my dead father hovering in the branches of the maple trees that surround our Vermont farmhouse, Aliceheimer’s let us write our own story daily – a story that, in turn, helps rewrite the dominant narrative of aging.

Most of the book alternates between graphic and written pages, each two-page spread telling of a day in Alice and Dana’s world.

“Dana, am I going crazy? You would tell me if I had lost my marbles, wouldn’t you?”

I’ve heard these questions many times. Repetition. Anyone who lives with Alzheimer’s knows from repetition. As her rudder, I always supplied Alice with the same steady answers. “No, you’re not crazy. You have Alzheimer’s disease so you can’t remember what just happened.”

“Oh. I forgot. What a lousy thing to have.”

One story, early in the book, tells of Alice losing her home. The accompanying drawings count Dana’s days with Alice. “Alice is disappearing. Soon there will be none.”

Often the “internal governor” of people with Alzheimer’s also disappears; they say exactly what’s on their mind. This disappearance lets new things appear. Alice found parts of herself that she had kept hidden, from her children anyway. She wished out loud that she had gone to medical school instead of becoming a biology teacher. Her years of pushing me in this direction and away from creative work made sense at last.”

One of the reasons Walrath moved Alice into her home was “our unfinished business of finding a good close.” They had never been close. In gentle, surprisingly direct ways, they found resolution, “at last.”  After one quiet but deeply felt exchange of apology and forgiveness, Walrath writes, “I knew that if I wanted it, Alzheimer’s would let us have this conversation every single day.”

Alice remembers all the songs from The Music Man and countless others from her youth. The present is more elusive. These days she doesn’t remember that she has Alzheimer’s. But she used to. And she always sings.

One May morning, she stood by my dining room windows, looking out over the rolling field, and she sang this bit from Babes in Arms:

It seems we stood and talked like this before
We looked at each other in the same way then,
But I can’t remember where or when.
The clothes you’re wearing are the clothes you wore.
The smile you are smiling you were smiling then,
But I can’t remember where or when.

She stopped and she smiled and said, “That should be the Alzheimer’s theme song.”

Aliceheimer’s.

As a medical anthropologist, Walrath’s broad, cultural and historical understanding of sickness and health reaches beyond the medical system that so dominates the understanding of health in the U.S. today. She writes in her introduction:

Biomedicine locates sickness in a specific place in an individual body: a headache, a stomachache, a torn knee, lung cancer. Medical anthropologists instead locate sickness and health in three interconnected bodies: the political, the social, and the physical.4  The prevailing political economy impacts the distribution of sickness and health in a society and the means available to heal those who are sick. …The social body constructs the meanings and experiences surrounding certain physical states.

Some cultures locate sickness not in individuals but instead in families or communities. As any caregiver knows, we live the sickness too. And while biomedicine can cure diseases, it flounders with permanent hurts, troubles of the mind, states present from birth or that are incurable or progressive. In biomedicine, these states are stigmatized and feared. We medical anthropologists have a term for this: social death.

The role of “social bodies” – that is, communities – in the health of individuals is being discovered and described more and more often. Alzheimer’s is one kind of “social death,” and British writer George Monbiot identifies another. Loneliness and isolation constitute a “disease of epidemic scale today,” he writes in Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis.5 “Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous.” Monbiot is constantly on the lookout for ways to combat this disease. He begins a recent column for The Guardian, “The town that’s found a potent cure for illness – community,” this way: “It could, if the results stand up, be one of the most dramatic medical breakthroughs of recent decades. It could transform treatment regimes, save lives, and save health services a fortune. Is it a drug? A device? A surgical procedure? No, it’s a new-fangled intervention called community, as results from a trial in the Somerset town of Frome [England] show.6

Although Monbiot warned that the findings are based on what he termed “provisional data” – that is, not yet published by the academic press – he also wrote that “this shouldn’t stop us feeling a shiver of excitement about the implications.” Results of the Compassionate Frome project, begun five years ago, appears to show that when isolated people who have health problems are supported by community groups and volunteers, the number of emergency admissions to hospital falls dramatically. Sometimes the help took the form of handling debt or housing problems, sometimes joining choirs, lunch clubs, exercise groups, or writing workshops. The point was, he said, “to break a familiar cycle of misery: illness reduces people’s ability to socialize, which leads in turn to isolation and loneliness, which then exacerbates illness.”

When [Alice] was certain that her own mother, who died in 1954, had just been sitting on the sofa in the living room and talking with her, she would say, “You see her, don’t you?” I’d say, “I can’t see her, but I’m sure you can. You have special powers. You can see things that we can’t.” For her that was enough.

 

What Walrath offered her mother was a way to break the familiar cycle of Alzheimer’s misery. And it’s telling, I think, that Dana and Alice’s “wonderland” – the community they made together – offered gifts to them both.

Notes

1  Robert Kramer, founder and president, National Investment Center for the Senior Housing and Care Industry, speaking at the Senior Housing Design and Development Symposium at the University of Maryland, 2010.

2  Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s through the Looking Glass, Dana Walrath, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.

3  Graphic Medicine book series, from the Pennsylvania State University Press. “Books in the series are curated by an editorial collective with scholarly, creative, and clinical expertise, and attest to a growing awareness of the value of comics as an important resource for communicating about a range of issues broadly termed ‘medical’.”

4  From Walrath’s introduction: For more on this see Nancy Scheper-Hughes and M. Margaret Lock, “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Medical Anthropology,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1, no. 1 (March 1987): 6-41.

5  George Monbiot, Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis, Verso Books, 2017.

6  George Monbiot, “The town that’s found a potent cure for illness – community,” The Guardian, February 21, 2018.

 


Introducing . . . the wise-ager

How do we refer to ourselves, we who are beyond the traditional age of retirement?

For years now, I’ve puzzled and searched for a word or a phrase that seems right – one that’s true enough, easy to say, spirited and with a splash of irreverence. Most terms don’t fit my image of us. If the terms aren’t boring (senior citizen, mature), they’re generally male (codger, geezer) or derogatory (hag, battle-axe). Others feel pretentious if referring to oneself (sage, wisdom-keeper) or are just too sweet (golden-ager).

In a 2011 talk at Town Hall, Mary Catherine Bateson gave me some of my first solid insights into how to think about this phase of life. Almost everyone after age 50 has some condition, she said, that would have killed them in the past. I can name at least one in my life, more if I count near misses. On average we live 30 years longer today than people did just 100 years ago. The U.S. instituted its retirement plan in 1935 and set the age at 65 when average life expectancy in the United States was 61.7 years. Today, for a woman my age (I’m 72), life expectancy is 86.5 years – not quite 30 years more, but it hasn’t been 100 years yet either. In addition, many people more or less my age have unprecedented levels of health, energy, time, and resources. We don’t have to expect, Bateson stressed, that a long life means “perpetual decrepitude.”

If we do live into these extra years, the big question is, what are we going to do with the time? Society isn’t organized to know what to do with us. We hardly know how to refer to this phase or what it’s for. I’m eager to help figure out what this age means, but we need a new word. For now, I’m calling us “wise-agers,” accent on the first syllable.

I mused on the question of terminology in “Gee, you look great!” – a short piece that was prompted by memories of a friend, Helen Gurvich. There I made a short list of nouns, adjectives, and phrases that have been used to describe us, and I included a comment from a friend: “My mum ‘n dad, both 73, call themselves recycled teenagers.”

Exactly!

Wise-agers have many decades of experience to stand on. The time we have now gives us a chance to reflect on what we’ve learned, to share it, to mix it up with what we learn from younger people, and to act with the stamina and energy our relative health gives us. Especially given the times we live in, our world needs every source of human energy, knowledge, and action it can get.

Jini Dellaccio, Helen Gurvich, Anne Gerber (photo credits below)

Many remarkable people provide inspiration for how these wise-ager years can be lived. One is Jini Dellaccio, a remarkable woman and photographer whose life and work frame a project aimed to enhance the ability of wise-agers to continue as engaged, contributing members of the community – the Jini Dellaccio Project. There are others. One among them is Helen Gurvich, mentioned earlier. And another, Anne Gerber – a hero and close friend of mine until she died in 2005 – showed me how a wise-ager life could be lived. She was proof, for instance, that we don’t have to choose between art that matters and politics that matter or between a love of nature and a life of ideas. From her too I learned the simple joy of walking on the beach in the rain.

Thinking back to the wise-ager definition, my favorite root of the word may be wiseacre. I like the edge of sassiness or eccentricity it adds. Defined as “one who pretends to knowledge or cleverness, an “upstart,” or “smarty pants,” wiseacre was the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day on August 5, 2012.  Merriam-Webster says,

Given the spelling and definition of “wiseacre,” you might guess that the word derives from the sense of wise as in “insolent” or “fresh” – the sense that gives us “wisecrack” and “wisenheimer.” But, in fact, “wiseacre” came to English in the 16th century by a different route. It derived from the Middle Dutch “wijssegger,” meaning “soothsayer,” “prophet,” or “seer.”

And “wijssegger,” according to the Oxford Dictionaries, probably came from the Germanic base “wit,” that is, knowledge or to know.

Together, soothsayer, smarty-pants, wit, and knowledge – especially when combined with wisdom and wizard – capture something of the spirit that I admire in all three wise-agers I’ve named. If enough of us start using it, perhaps one day “wise-ager” will make a proper appearance in a legitimate dictionary. Perhaps it can at least sneak in as a footnote.

Photo credits
•  Jini Dellaccio, 2012 photo by ML Sutton, with a self-portrait of Jini from the 1960s.
•  A still from “Round Table with Helen Gurvich,” a video by 911 Media Arts Center, 2009.
•  Anne Gerber in a travel photo by an unnamed photographer.


The Jini Dellaccio Project – The story of a wise-ager

A fiscally-sponsored project of Artist Trust to honor photographer Jini Dellaccio

 

A wise-ager is like a teenager, just at the other end of life, apt to cause trouble and give hope. Etymologically, “wise-ager” is related to wiseacre, wisdom, and wizard.                                                                                                    

 

The Jini Dellaccio Project participates in redefining life after 70, the “wise-ager” years. Its aim is to call attention to the real potential of the wise-ager stage of life and to demonstrate the value of using and sharing experience gained over many decades. It believes wise-agers have the imagination and power to be part of making the world a better place while living fully and finding joy in it at the same time. It’s about investigating the potential of the years many of us are given after the traditional age of “retirement,” years many or most people in our parents’ generation didn’t have.

The project is named for photographer Jini Dellaccio who died at age 97 in 2014. She was an exemplary wise-ager. She set her own course and lived a spirited and meaningful life that spanned playing saxophone in a girl band in her 20s during the Great Depression to learning to use a digital camera in her late 80s. Her story grounds the project in the inspiring life of a real person. My peerless co-conspirator in the project’s creation is Sarah Cavanaugh, who knew Jini and stood by her through the final phase of her life.

Years before the Jini Dellaccio Project began, I could imagine the potential of the “wise-ager” life. As these years came closer, though, my high aspirations for how I’d spend them ran smack dab into a practical, financial wall. I couldn’t afford to give myself over to the work I wanted and felt I had the potential to do. Like many others my age, I needed to find a way to keep making a living at the same time. Until then, I’d managed to make up a life that allowed me to be paid for work that mattered to me. That work got harder and harder to find. I know that other wise-agers and I are not alone in this challenge, and I also know that there is a huge amount of work in the world that needs to be done but that isn’t attached to jobs that pay anyone to do it. So, rather than squeeze my “real” work around a patchwork of small jobs, I chose to make up another way to gain enough financial flexibility to do the work that matters to me now. Helping to create the Jini Dellaccio Project is a result.

The Jini Dellaccio Project is a three-year experiment funded by a gift exchange rather than a market exchange. It is fueled by gifts that individuals make to Artist Trust, the project’s fiscal sponsor. With the funds collected, Artist Trust pays me through a contract to help define and manage the project and to exemplify a wise-ager life. I treat this as a gift that carries a strong sense of obligation to give back to the community. This gift also offers me a sense of freedom from specific expectations for what the return will be, a flexibility to learn and adapt as I go, with the possibility of giving back something unexpected.

For years I’ve been musing on the history and meaning of gifts and their place in our lives and in our economy today. In the abstract, giving and receiving gifts seems as honorable an exchange as buying and selling a product or service. But in real life, gifts are emotionally charged.

From Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift,I came to understand that gift exchange establishes emotional bonds (it’s a relationship, it’s messy), while market exchange leaves no connections behind (it’s a transaction, it’s clean). One is associated with community and obligation, the other with freedom and alienation. From James Allen Smith, a historian of philanthropy, I learned that “the substantial power of a gift coexists with great potential for harm.” The old Germanic words gift and gif convey both gift and poison.

I believe in the power of gift exchange, in our societal need for gifts as a balance to the marketplace, and in gifts as characteristic of a commons and of civil society. As I took on this project I had to deal with the queasiness I felt being on the receiving end of gifts. But I want to use the language of gifts and not that of investments. With all its messiness, the language of gifts is closer to the values that Sarah and I want the project to stand for.

The whole story of the project and the way it came into the world is much larger and more complex than what’s here. My part of the story began in the middle of anxious nights of financial worry, of shame at not having put together a financial plan for my “retirement,” of losing my familiar cheery self, the one always able to see the sunny side of a setback. I began to get out of this hole when I found the courage to share my anxiety with Jini’s friend, Sarah, the other half of my writing group. In fact, none of this would have happened without her, the project’s co-creator. Her story is different from mine, but our two stories cross and intersect in ways that have changed us both. Another part of the story is the role played by Artist Trust and its director, Shannon Halberstadt. The role of fiscal sponsor isn’t one Artist Trust has played before: legal and fiscal responsibilities had to be clear, mechanics had to be developed, Shannon and the board had to believe in the value of the project. After deliberation and due diligence, though, they did what artists themselves often do, they took the risk.

So, here we are, with one year of the project behind us. When the year started, I wanted to tell people what would come of it. “I don’t know yet” never felt sufficient, even though I knew it was the right answer at the time. So, it feels good now to look back and see what actually happened. A summary of some of the activities in the first year and a few thoughts about what’s next is available online here.

The Jini Dellaccio Project is a grand experiment, an exercise in imagination, collaboration, and many tiny details. I’m eager to see what the next two years bring.

September 1, 2017

Note
Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property, 1983. Re-published as The Gift: Creativity and the artist in the modern world , 2007.

 


What can happen in a year?

The Jini Dellaccio Project’s first year

The Jini Dellaccio Project encourages a redefinition of life after 70, the “wise-ager” years. It calls attention to the potential of this phase of life and to the value of using and sharing experience gained by wise-agers over many decades. The Jini Dellaccio Project is a three-year experiment funded by a gift exchange. I have a contract with Artist Trust to help define and manage the project and to provide an example of a wise-ager life. We are in the midst of the project’s second year. What follows is a report on some of what happened during the first year.

September 1, 2017

 

July 2016 to June 2017

A year of living with this gift had a big impact on the way I used my time. I loved having the open-ended flexibility to learn and adapt as I went without needing to be sure I was paid for what I did. It opened up the possibility that what happened might surprise me, and others too. It freed me up to do much of the work I’m doing now.

Office Hours  Last fall I began offering a twice-monthly schedule of “office hours.” This started as a way to try out my new role, and it continues as an open invitation to anyone who wants to talk with me about anything. Both Artist Trust and I periodically announce the program, and the slots fill up. Anyone interested contacts me or makes a date using an online scheduling app that Artist Trust set up. I wanted the lightest structure possible; the schedule and the name “office hours” are as formal as it gets. Better terms for these conversations might be coffee breaks, happy hours, tea time, or chit chat for trying out someone’s own new ideas or discussing whatever’s on their mind. The stories, ideas, and sometimes dilemmas that people bring range widely. I feel privileged to be brought into their lives this way and never know at the outset what I might have to contribute. I’m often surprised to discover what it is that turns out to be useful. What started as an experiment has settled down to be something I love having in my life.

Like the other activities that have come from the Jini Dellaccio Project, the office hours are not designed to make money. In fact, part of what makes them work is that they aren’t part of a market exchange. No one who schedules an office-hours slot has to start by figuring out if they can afford to pay me, and I can show up with an open mind and no pre-planned materials, ready to discover what’s on their mind and to share whatever seems valuable from my own experience. And the learning is always two-way. We both take a risk and then trust that it will be a good conversation. This allows us a freedom to respond in the moment and take our talk wherever it leads. The spontaneity and our ability to change course would not come as naturally if a meter were ticking.

Alum in Residence  Last summer (2016), Jamie Walker (director, UW School of Art + Art History + Design) and I created a new, year-long Alum in Residence position at the school. I was given an office (a major gift since “real estate” in the art building is dear) and many other privileges of being an official part of the school’s program. Through the academic year, I kept fairly regular hours, visited classes when invited by a faculty member, and organized a conversation with David Mendoza about his life since graduating with a UW art history degree 50 years ago. The largest project I undertook involved working with a small team of interns who sorted through the records of Arts Wire, an early online network I started in 1989. Not only did we inventory the contents of many banker boxes, but the intern team helped bring the material to life and relate it to our world today through two exhibitions – one in the coffee shop, one in the gallery – an Instagram account, essays posted on the web, and a podcast series about what they learned, for which they interviewed people around the country who had been involved.

Jamie went through all the institutional hoops necessary to establish the position, but, given the constraints of the school’s budget, one hoop he couldn’t leap through was finding money for it. The Jini Dellaccio Project gave me the flexibility not to require it. Being unpaid is its own kind of benefit: the position is an experiment, and I was given a lot of latitude to figure out what it could be. I’m also happy that plans are underway to continue the experiment with another graduate. I’m sure the next Alum in Residence will bring to the role their own ingenuity, life circumstances, and past experience.

“Carrying on”  Writing is a thread that winds through all the messiness and many directions of my past and present life and work. As part of the Jini Dellaccio Project, I made a commitment to write – specifically, to regularly add pieces to this website, Carrying on. I consider it to be “writing in public,” meant to be read by others. Like many people, a long string of half- and almost-completed pieces fill paper and digital folders, and I have many little books and odd pieces of paper full of ideas I want to explore in writing. I finally decided that, if not now, when? This project and the challenge to figure out how best to use this phase of life gave me the shove I needed to keep it going. And writing is real work. The truth of Thomas Mann’s words becomes clearer every day: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

Grandma Anne  Recently I realized that the Jini Dellaccio Project also made it easier for me to step in and spend time with my grandkids Livia and Henry, relieving pressure on their parents while giving me the chance to be “Grandma Anne.” I’ve often made the case, on behalf of other parents, grandparents, and friends with aging parents, that, paid or not, caretaking is real work. I’ve never believed that work has to be onerous to qualify as real. My time with Livia and Henry is most often full of joy, it’s sometimes invisible, sometimes demanding, but always essential. Having time this last year was especially meaningful because in late August they moved from Seattle to Kansas City.

What’s next?

The coming year’s work is beginning to take tangible shape, but it’s still very much in motion and alive. Among other things, it will play out against the backdrop of the times we’re living in. Our political, economic, and social systems are racked, and I still struggle to find my role in it. I’ll keep writing, I’ll maintain my office hours, I’ll continue hosting and participating in conversations both with others and on my own. I also want to explore whether and how this project might continue after me to benefit others. I plan to keep living as one example of the difference the role and support of a project like this can make, and I’ll approach its next phase with an open-ended attitude similar to the one I started with . . . making it up, alone and with others, as I go.

 

The Jini Dellaccio Project is fiscally-sponsored by Artist Trust in honor of photographer Jini Dellaccio.


“This is history…and you’re still alive!” – Student reflections on an internship year

An introduction

In which I provide context and describe how the internship came to be.

Wade through history with me.

Since leaving the University of Washington in 1967 as one of its first art history undergraduates, I’ve lived through a lot of history. During this time, I’ve accumulated many boxes of files and ephemera, some of it already in the UW Libraries Special Collections, much of it in my own storage. And all of it in need of culling, sorting, and indexing. You will help me make sense of it. Not only will we learn about archival procedures and working with primary source materials, but we’ll pause as we go through the material to consider what it means, whether it matters, and how it connects with the world we know today. We may also write and host conversations about what we find.

Excerpts from my description of an internship position offered to students at the UW School of Art + Art History + Design for the academic year, 2016-2017

Clearing out my storage unit was part of my plan to make the most of my year as Alum in Residence at the School. The opportunity to work with a student intern would make it possible, and the student would receive course credit for the work. When I began to work through the details with Liz Copeland in the School’s advising office, she asked me, “Well, how many interns would you like?” Whoa! I thought. I’d imagined just one, so I cautiously said, “OK, how about two.”

I interviewed five remarkable applicants that first quarter, and with difficulty selected two … Karen Beech, an art history student, and Jessica Capó, an art student. They continued with me through the entire year and helped me decide that we could handle two more. After another difficult selection process, Zach Heinemeyer (art) and Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon (art history) joined our team in January. Zach graduated at the end of winter quarter, but Lizzie stayed with us. And at the start of spring quarter, Abigail Cloutier (art history) signed on. What a grand gift I’d received with such a team!

The family at Arts Wire, by Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon

Rather than tackle my entire storage unit, I chose one project and carted 9 or 10 of the 16 banker boxes of Arts Wire material to my office at the School. Arts Wire, which I founded in 1989, was an early online network for the arts community nationwide – artists, arts organizations, arts funders, state arts agencies, and more. It introduced many arts folks to this “new” communications technology and provided an essential national connection for us on the often tumultuous issues in the arts community during those years – the culture wars around censorship, the rise of the AIDS crisis, congressional debates about arts funding, and the increasing role of “multiculturalism” (the term of the day). Though Arts Wire continued after I left, my involvement, and hence the materials I have, continued until about 1995.

The intern team took up the challenge of inventorying the contents of the boxes with a ferocious enthusiasm and commitment. Although we didn’t even get through  half the boxes that year, both they and I learned a lot about archives. I now have a better foundation for future work on both Arts Wire’s files and all the other boxes still in storage. We also engaged in many conversations about the material. Among the things we discussed were: How does something like Arts Wire get started? What is an artist? What was life like in the early days of the internet? How has it changed our lives? What is archiving, what’s permanent and what deteriorates? How are our times different from and the same as times 25 years ago, especially for the arts and artists? What is history, when does it start? “This is history, and yet you’re still alive!” Indeed, for this archive project, most of the primary participants are still living and available to answer questions and tell stories that weren’t captured in the files.

The team came to believe that what they were learning is important beyond just the development of an inventory for archives that would go back into storage. As a result, they created ways to share what they’ve learned:

  • They took over the School’s Instagram account and shared their Arts Wire work.
  • They organized an exhibition about the material at Parnassus (the coffee shop in the basement of the UW Art Building).
  • They produced a podcast with 14 episodes consisting of conversations among themselves and interviews with people from around the country (and Bali) who were involved with Arts Wire.
  • They organized, with me, an event in late June at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery in the Art Building. It included an exhibition of papers and other artifacts found in the files, accompanied by a well-attended conversation about Arts Wire.
  • And, they wrote the papers that are posted here.

AND_NOW?

All of these Arts Wire programs were presented under the name, “AND_NOW?” The intern team had clear reasons for choosing this rubric for their projects. They discovered the phrase first when they saw it being used as the opening prompt on Arts Wire’s main screen, the Hub. But it came to mean more than that. In a podcast interview with David Mendoza, Karen explained:

We’ve titled our podcast AND_NOW?

“What comes next?” is essentially the question we’re asking ourselves now. We’re trying to draw that link, from Arts Wire and the culture wars and all the things you’re talking about, to the present moment. And you’ve made that really, really clear in this conversation, of how these things do relate to one another and that we are seeing history repeat itself and that we need to be doing something. Right!  Things were done before that had really positive impacts. They helped to waylay some of the damage that might have been done by the political climate of the time, and we’re needing to take some of those same steps now.

Four of the people who worked with me over the past year wrote essays based on some aspect of their experience as interns. They’ve all agreed to be guest authors and to let me post their pieces on this site:

They follow as separate “guest author” posts, and they all demonstrate the value of mixing history and the present.

Other posts about Arts Wire and the Alum in Residence program include:


 

“Time in a Carpet Bag,” Karen Beech

Arts Wire:  Time in a Carpet Bag

Karen Beech

 

 

 

 

Let’s suppose that the universe is a carpet bag. If you’re not already thinking Mary Poppins, it might help. Our carpet bag technically is a limited space but it possesses unlimited potential. Now let’s suppose that Mary has become an avid knitter and has, at some point, started work on a sweater. A rather frumpy sweater that doesn’t have any shape and whose neck hole is a little too small after the first time you washed it (in warm water because you didn’t know any better) and it doesn’t have any pockets. Not that any of these things matter. It’s just to give a sense of the general sweater-ness of the situation being created here.

We’re talking about the universe, in a carpet bag, in order to talk about time (which is our ultimate goal), since the two inevitably go together in our contemporary concept of reality. The pertinent point is that there is a decent amount of yarn in this bag, enough for several attempted knitting projects that never made it to the second line of the instructions because the project just seemed too daunting. The yarn is a crucial component of this discussion; the string is serving as our physical construction of time.

This is less unusual than it may first appear, for we, as a modern society (and indeed for quite some time), have defined time as linear, progressing one minute after another like little soldiers, marching one behind another towards the future, the moving line an arrow through space. Forward the minutes march, onward, onward, onward.

Our string is exactly that—directional, singular—and yet gives us something to hold on to.

The yarn meanders its way around the carpet bag, twisting over itself, looping back, knotting, tangling, and, on rare occasion, existing in untouched skeins. This string, filling the carpet bag of space, is our perception of time (or real time, depending on how you think of these things). The entire purpose of this trip down the Mary-Poppins’-handbag-hole (deeply related to the rabbit hole of Alice in Wonderland) is to have a sense of time overlapping. We are hypothetically folding time, something that we do relatively frequently. We can, in fact, draw our present moment towards a past moment and touch the points together; one point on the string of time crossing another somewhere in the carpet bag. In order to fold time, one must adhere to a linear progression of time—one must be able to pull two points on a line together, leaving a loop of unwanted (or rather unexperienced) time that hangs useless in between like a bit of unwanted string.

We can, in fact, draw our present moment towards a past moment and touch the points together.

So let’s review our rather unconventional and impractical concept of time, one that has more in common with a toaster oven than a scientific theory. In summary, we have ourselves a carpet bag that represents the universe and a massive quantity of string that represents time. Now, because there are multiple knitting projects that have been riding around in the carpet bag for several skeins of yarn (sticking with the constructed metaphor here), the string has become a bit of a mess. A rather large, colorful, disorganized, tangled mess. For the most part this isn’t a problem (those knitting projects were not being worked on anyway) until we decide that we are going to work on making a sweater.

It is important to note that I am not the one who started knitting the sweater in question. I just happened to rummage around in the carpet bag and get my hand stuck in a project that was already well underway; Anne Focke, and many others, had already been knitting away. Anne & Friends had been knitting a string of time into an Arts Wire sweater long before I arrived. For the fun of it, let’s go ahead and say they were using red string (Anne loves red), and that the present moment is a white string, able to be dyed any color when we have a better sense of what in the world we’re doing.

Anne & Friends had been knitting a string of time into an Arts Wire sweater long before I arrived.

The Arts Wire sweater had continued to ride around in the carpet bag, becoming wrapped up and looped through other strings and other projects, until it found itself subjected to the present moment. Organic confusion and linear folding become one in this conception. Two strings have overlapped, two points in time have come together and, to my great pleasure, since I rather like the Arts Wire sweater, the red and white yarn have been tied together through the Arts Wire files.

What’s the point, you may ask? It’s this: two different points of time, one being our present lived experience (Miss White String), and one somewhere between 1989 and 1995 (Miss Red String, aka Arts Wire), have been stitched together in the interest of a useful object (a sweater, podcast, conversation, personal exploration…).

What is being done now can be understood perhaps as a continuation of the original sweater but is not necessarily in keeping with the original pattern; it is a variation, a shift in the fabric of the sweater itself. The change in temporal moments is clear, with red giving way to white, and yet there is a sense of continuity. A deliberate seeking out of the stitches and an adding on that is intended to highlight, draw-out, and utilize the work that has come before.

The Arts Wire of the past is being knit into the present moment.

Karen Beech received her undergraduate degree in Art History in June 2017 and was a speaker at the graduation celebration for the School of Art + Art History + Design.  With Jessica Capó she worked with me for the entire 2016-2017 academic year. Among other things, she assumed the role of our “on-air” host for the AND_NOW? podcast series.


“A Secret Symphony?” Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon

Arts Wire: A Secret Symphony?

Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon

 

 

 

 


“A Secret Symphony.”
It certainly has a ring to it. Yet, let us step back from the poetry of the statement and ask ourselves a few questions. What did Barbara Earl Thomas, artist/writer/thinker, mean by this, and was Arts Wire really like this at all?

Her vision of the internet and its possibilities is romantic. Her metaphor of music and poetry appears appropriate for an organization such as Arts Wire. The notion of many people chiming together as a united force fits well. Yet, the symphony is secret, perhaps because it is behind closed doors. Barbara implies you might not even know that someone was playing on the instruments next door – after all, the computer was silent.

Nevertheless, her vision for Arts Wire is somewhat contradictory. It proposes a world that is very connected, with “people coming together.” Yet at the same time, they are in “solitary rooms filled with god knows who.” What kind of world is this? Is a secret symphony some sort of anti-social social network?

There was certainly a kind of symphony within Arts Wire. Being “online” meant conversations could happen instantaneously across international and national borders, whatever the distance. Suddenly the world could spin faster; it could actually get on with things quicker. Response time dropped, and people could chime in time, creating a symphony of text voices. In the files we go through as interns, we commonly come across an outburst from an excited user that they “just got online!” – a crash of cymbals, perhaps, in our orchestra theme. Moreover, the connections that Arts Wire managed to create continually added people to the orchestra. For once, everyone was in the same hall, albeit a virtual hall, and could post, edit, and comment to make themselves heard within the orchestra.

There was a conductor at the front, Anne, with her first violins, the Technical Working Group, along with the core staff and a mass of artists, organizations, and other folks taking up the other instruments. As with any orchestra, the instruments varied a lot. In Judy Malloy’s chapter on Arts Wire in Social Media Archaeology and Poetics, she tells how Arts Wire held the “vitality, diversity, and cultural significance” of its individual artists and nonprofit organization members at the core of its collective vision1 (p. 333). There were artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and theater artists chiming in together. Alongside these were the drum beats of critics, arts administrators, and arts funders, such as the NEA.

Arts Wire aimed to “reinforce democratic values and encourage interaction among its users”

Arts Wire, according to its mission statement, would “reinforce democratic values and encourage interaction among its users” in order, Arts Wire hoped, to “develop for artists a more integral place in society as a whole” (p. 335). At its height, Arts Wire hosted more than 100 websites for artists and arts organizations with links to more than 400 more (p.334). The mission of this collective body was to stand against the tides of the era’s culture wars that were pulling arts communities apart through censorship and restricted funding. The need for arts advocacy, as the founder Anne Focke explains, was great at the time. From our podcast interviews with various members of Arts Wire’s team and through examining the files, it seems that the relationships established through Arts Wire were not always harmonious.

Each person had their own personal interests. One big collision we came across was between artists and funders. We found posts that worried about what material was appropriate for Arts Wire with a concern that funders might see what they were doing and restrict their funding. Put into the context of the culture wars at the time, censorship was a fraught issue. In a discussion of privacy during a recent podcast interview, we interns had to question whether it is even right for us to examine all the Arts Wire material when it was never intended for our audience at the time it was created. So, if we’re part of a symphony, who are we performing for?

Furthermore, being online was a complex process that affected people’s ability to read and participate in the collective effort. Today it is simple to log on and have access, but in Arts Wire days, one first needed equipment: a computer, a connection (such as Sprintnet), then a modem, which was not always standard with computers then. You needed to pay to be online. You had to able to navigate the system using text-based commands, such as AND_NOW? And you had to have enormous patience for “the *very* slow connection” that Judy Malloy recalls. It was enormously confusing, the equivalent of a cellist picking up a tuba.

When I asked Anne what she found most challenging about it, she told me that, “It was really just getting my head around where I was, what was I actually doing, what’s happening, how was it all working, where is my message going? At the time there was no concept of the virtual world, and that’s really hard to explain to people today when internet use is so second-nature.” Not to mention, there was the difficulty of typing and navigating on a black-and-yellow or black-and-white screen. Clearly, you needed specific skills and imagination to operate in this virtual world.

Being online was a complex process that affected people’s ability to read and participate in the collective effort.

Immediately one must then think, who had these skills, and how did that affect their presence on Arts Wire? In the files, Arts Wire users complained of “not being able to type fast enough,” or feeling they needed to “read through everything before they even knew where they were or could even contribute to the conversation.” On top of that, people were concerned about their “persona” online: How formal should they be? Who was listening in? Was it even safe? It was at this time that “spam” came into being. (Spam was also present on fax machines, another new technology at the time. On one of our podcasts, former Arts Wire staff member Barry Lasky reported that spam could literally print itself out of your fax machine.)

For all the good the internet does, it’s important to recall that its history, and Arts Wire’s history along with it, is represented by those willing to take the risk and able to invest the time and money to master the tools and the material. Who could play these instruments and meet together in these rooms? And was everyone following the conductor?

Arts Wire was not-for-profit, but one had to pay to be online. For Barbara Earl Thomas to have sent the message above, she first needed a computer. In 1991, a midrange computer with 4MB of RAM, a 200MB hard disk, and 14″ display would cost about $4,300. Cheaper computers were available but none less than $2,000. A considerable expense, would it be worth the money and effort just for a volunteer effort? Then, it cost money to be online. In 1991, a subscription to HandsNet (another early public interest online network) cost $270 annually, not including other connection costs. The costs of using Arts Wire included “choose-your-own” subscription fees of $5-15 dollars a month for an individual or $2,500 annually for partner organizations, plus a monthly fee from MetaNet, whose platform Arts Wire used, and whatever your own local internet service charged, which was usually a charge by the minute. Did the users have to pay these fees? Well, for the majority of users, the answer was yes. This all meant an individual would need to be fairly well off to afford to be online, and it would be more expensive if you were not a fast reader or typist. In fact, we know from Anne’s boxes, that her tactic was to print out posts from online, sign off, draft a reply, and then cut-and-paste it as quickly as possible when back online.

It’s important to recall that the internet’s history is represented by those willing to take the risk and able to invest the time and money.

The fact was that Arts Wire’s user and partnership fees were an important part of its budget, even though it also received foundation support and both in-kind and financial support from its home base, the New York Foundation for the Arts. All of which meant, though, that our Arts Wire community was narrowed to something that, in another context, was dubbed an “elite-internet-culture.” The mission of Arts Wire may have been for artists to have “a more integral place in society as a whole,” but to be an “integral person” on Arts Wire you needed the necessary money and knowledge. Arts Wire’s conversation, its “orchestra,” seems not only to be made up of a special few with access to funds and online knowledge, but each participant could only chime sporadically, not together. They were not in sync, they didn’t keep time. The notion of the instantaneous ‘”chat,” like the emoji we discovered in the files, was truly in its infancy.

Another problem this orchestra faced, as it headed boldly into the computer world, was focus and cohesion. With much enthusiasm, many groups created their own spaces for conversations about their specific interests and to find audiences. Over 80 interest groups were created, according to Judy Malloy. (p. 339). As she notes, this weakened the central place of Arts Wire. The burning fire at the heart of the house was no longer so easy to find. Conversation threads also died out, and their occupants moved away to websites of their own. It was therefore hard to keep up with Arts Wire itself.

This sense of losing track is related to an issue that we interns and Anne spoke about, together and in our podcasts. Today, we face threads from twitter, facebook, tumblr and reddit. It is easy to loose track, to not feel integrated. At the same time, we do not want to feel told that we must live in the virtual world – the anti-social social network.

We do not want to feel we must live in the virtual world
– the anti-social social network.

Sometimes this sense of losing control is not felt just in conversations online but also in the technology itself. Just as today an iPhone 6 is replaced the next year with the iPhone 7, in Arts Wire’s day the technology was also rapidly adapting, and by 1994 the World Wide Web changed Arts Wire’s audience, interface, and outlook. The development of technology, one could argue, even controlled the character, motivation, and drive of Arts Wire. By extension, helping its users continue adapting to the changes would be its greatest challenge. Making sure that if the violin went out of tune, the problem could be fixed without the utter breakdown of the song.

So why did they do it? Why did they bother to exhaust their emotional and intellectual energy learning to use these computers? And what were they getting from it?

Let us set the context. The culture wars under the Reagan administration threatened the funding for the NEA, and the national government did not recognize the full value of artists. The role of the artist in society seemed to be changing, becoming more activist. While Barbara wrote of “solitary rooms,” I think what the artists involved in Arts Wire got was a sense of the wider community and kinship with each other. From our podcast interviews I have picked up on the fact there was a real “family” behind Arts Wire. The reviewer Kenny Greenberg in Internet World observed that, “It is the human spirit that makes Arts Wire special.” For Judy, it was this budding community that made Arts Wire “a lively place” (Judy Malloy, p. 337).

Furthermore, they had to use computers. The pioneers on Arts Wire knew that their world was changing. They were ambitious, and they took the gamble with the technology. They did the heavy lifting for us today and indeed continue to. Ted Berger, Joe Matuzak, Tommer Peterson, Judy Malloy, Anna Couey, Sarah Lutman, Barry Lasky, David Mendoza, and many others we weren’t able to interview have not lost contact with each other, and many are still invested in the art and computer world. By 1991, when Barbara was writing, Anne had already established a national steering committee and linked prospective artists and funders together from all over the country. After Anne left, during Joe Matuzak’s time as director, Arts Wire’s reach became international. Overseas communication was now a reality. These connections really were the crux.

So why did they do it? They were ambitious, and they took the gamble with the technology. They did the heavy lifting for us today.

In comparison to what had come before, this was astonishing. Here was an online group where people from all over the country and all walks of life were commenting in one place, at a time “when the national arts support was in crisis.” (Judy Malloy, p. 336) In theory, the kinship Anne orchestrated was remarkable. As the conductor, Anne recruited a wonderful team of musicians, even if they did sometimes have trouble with the instruments and keeping time.

What about in my own experience as an intern? I believe that this “symphony” metaphor has played out in our lifetimes. As Arts Wire wrote the manual, reached out to non-users, and helped artists on the way, they were “tuning” the instruments that my generation plays today without thinking about it. Despite its virtual presence, what I have been struck by is the memory of Arts Wire among people today. As an intern, it has been my role with my team to do the work of Arts Wire again, bringing its artists and organizers together, in a kind of reunion (albeit easier to do now) to ask them what happened and how they felt. In doing so, I have made my own connections, with Anne, Zach, Karen, Abby, Jessica, and everyone we interviewed.

In a funny way, we have come full circle, with a desire to create an artistic community all over again. We have joined Anne in conducting the symphony.

Today, kinship in the art world will be more important than ever.

The people we have interviewed have such a strong willingness and enthusiasm that they’ve taught me an important lesson. The art world and the UW art department in particular have a vibe of kinship. I do not believe there is anything “secret” about it. From the start, there was nothing “solitary” about the artists or Arts Wire as an organization. Today with the recent threat to the NEA under the Trump administration, kinship in the art world will be more important than ever. If the NEA were to end, it would not be the end of arts. Creativity is grass-roots and it will find a way. Continuing with the orchestra metaphor, I do believe that the show will go on…instruments in tune, or not.

Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon is an undergraduate Art History student who spent a year-abroad program with us this past year and is now traveling the western U.S. on her way home to the University of Edinburgh.

Notes

  1. Social Media Archeology and Poetics, edited by Judy Malloy, MIT Press 2016.

“Arts Wire in the Age of Twitter,” Abigail Cloutier

Understanding Arts Wire in the Age of Twitter

Abigail Cloutier

 

 

 

 

If Arts Wire was ahead of its time, nevertheless participation on Arts Wire provided confidence and experience in working online that greatly contributed to the rich and diverse presence of the arts in contemporary Internet.

– Judy Malloy

 

I received an email from the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design describing an opening intern position with pioneering alum, Anne Focke. The main purpose of the internship was to create an archive for Arts Wire, a national computer-based bulletin system formed in 1989 for artists, arts groups, funders, and many more to connect online prior to public awareness of the Internet. Meeting with Anne, I was eager to inquire about specifics and learn what it was all about. However, I discovered that my questions could not be fully answered quickly as it would take multiple sit downs with Anne and fellow interns to really begin to digest the work that has been done and, conversely, the work we are doing (or attempting to do) now.

Disclosure: I am still not exactly certain of what it all means. As a technologically “savvy” millennial, I’ve found it hard to wrap my head around Arts Wire: what it was, what it is, who used it, and what we should do with its findings today. But by doing some research, I gain more clarity bit by bit. Judy Malloy, an early and consistent member of the Arts Wire team, described the platform in her book Social Media Archeology and Poetics: “Before Internet usage was ubiquitous, in an era when every time the technology was mastered, it changed, Arts Wire’s strong presence on the Internet, its emphasis on bringing the nonprofit arts community online, greatly contributed to the early presence of the arts on the Internet.” 1

As a technologically “savvy” millennial, I’ve found it hard to wrap my head around Arts Wire.

Arts Wire came into being following the 1988 Orcas Conference: Creative Support for the Creative Artist, a gathering of 200 artists, artists’ organizations, and private and public funders all aiming to find fresh ways of supporting artists both locally and nationally. At the time, “logging on” involved a computer, which not everyone had, a modem, and patience with the technological limitations of the time. Arts Wire created a user manual and found itself at the center of the online arts community, connecting artists, funders, and arts groups from very distant points, geographically and culturally.

While I am beginning to grasp what Arts Wire is, I am just beginning the journey of what it means for us today. Joe Matuzak is quoted in Malloy’s book as saying, “In many ways Arts Wire led the way. That meant we made the mistakes, but it also meant there were a lot of times we mapped out new terrain.” The material we twenty-somethings are reading for the first time is history, but it is still alive and kicking. Seasoned artists like Anne, Judy, and countless others lived through this time of exploration. They cultivated a new field and were determined to find solutions to connect and empower artists and nonprofit communities.

The material we twenty-somethings are reading for the first time is history, but it is still alive and kicking.

Contemplating these accomplishments, I cannot help but consider the ease of our own interactions on the Internet today. In some ways, it is a fulfillment of Arts Wire’s vision to bring about instant communication for varying artistic communities. However, if it weren’t for my seeing the internship advertised by UW, I would never have known of the pivotal influence of Arts Wire and other early online networks on websites like Tumblr, or even Facebook. It may take some time to understand all of it, but exploring what Arts Wire was created to be and what it accomplished has given me a broader appreciation for what it means to work for your right to express your opinions, to share critical information, and to remain engaged in a community you care deeply about.

Arts Wire is living history and this is a lesson that we in the age of instant WIFI, simple URLs, and access at the click of a cursor or touch of a screen would do well to read, study, and acknowledge.

Abby Cloutier is a undergraduate student in Art History who will be returning to the UW School of Art + Art History + Design in fall 2017. She was with us just for spring quarter and wrote this piece after being part of the team for only a few weeks. For the rest of us, it was both interesting and useful to remember what it was like to confront this material for the first time.

Notes

  1. Social Media Archeology and Poetics, edited by Judy Malloy, the MIT Press, 2016.

“Interning with Anne,” Jessica Capó

Interning with Anne

Jessica Capó

 

 

 

 

This internship started with a conversation with Anne where she asked me what it is that I study. When I told her that I studied art, she asked if I was an artist. I replied that I study and practice art, but I do not consider myself an artist. She mentioned that she felt the same way about her writing. This was my first time interacting with Anne, but I already understood so much about the way that she thought.

When I asked what her medium is, she told me this was it. Creating organizations, projects, etc. This was her medium. At first, this was hard to wrap my head around. I am so used to studying artists whose media are plaster, clay, metal, and oil on canvas, but not organizations. How many organizations and projects could she really have created? It turns out, there have been several, and getting to know Anne is the only way to find this out because of how humble she is about her creations.

Anne’s attitude toward creating new projects and tackling anything head on is inspiring to say the least, and I feel it is a reason why this internship has been able to go so far. It has given me, for instance, several opportunities, such as being able to curate my own show, learning how to run a podcast, and even writing and editing a piece like this one to be posted online. She has taught us interns so much about being an artist that we would not otherwise have gained from our classes at the University of Washington.

I have gotten a look into a history where, luckily, my subjects are still around.

This internship turned out to be much more than simple archiving, which the initial description of the position implied. I have had the opportunity to learn skills, such as podcasting, that I have been curious about for quite some time. I have gotten a look into a history where, luckily, my subjects are still around. I have been able to talk to them about the files I have been going through for months on end. Because of our podcasts, I have talked to them about the problems that were occurring at the time and what they felt about it. This is probably one of the most important pieces of the internship to me, because we’re able to create a verbal history of the era.

For many people, the 1980s and 1990s might seem as though they just lived them, but we’re getting to a point where there will be no recollection of the technology they had in those days, like big breathing boxes of computers, dial-up connections, and floppy disks. Being able to talk to individuals who were online so early on and were a part of systems like MetaNet where Arts Wire began is incredibly important. These were some of the pioneers of what arts organizations could have done and built for the community.

It is important to create an oral history, or spoken archive, of such moments in time, especially because of the way this history was built. Almost everything was online or by telephone, and the internet was not yet easily available. It only makes sense to have these memories and moments uploaded for the current internet community to enjoy. It’s hard to imagine a world without these online systems, but that’s just what our interviewees helped us to imagine. What was it like before we were able to type in a simple Google search?

It’s hard to imagine this life, where thinking about typing online just seemed stressful and responses took days rather than minutes or seconds.

Going through the archives, it’s hard to imagine this life, where thinking about typing online just seemed stressful and responses took days rather than minutes or seconds. However, that’s why it’s so important to talk to the people who were there at the time and can recall what was happening then. What was it like to live in these moments where the technology was changing so drastically?

This internship may have turned out to be a lifelong project, since I haven’t had enough time to realize just how I have benefitted from it and what exactly I have learned. The exploration with my fellow interns is still occurring, and I don’t know that there is an ending to it quite yet.

Jessica Capó received an undergraduate degree in Interdisciplinary Visual Arts from the UW School of Art + Art History + Design in June 2017. She was one of two interns who spent the entire year with me. Among other things, she became our “techie,” taking responsibility, for instance, for figuring out how to set up a podcast and then being in charge of setting up the equipment each time and hosting us around her dining table because my office at the School was too echoey.


David Mendoza – The past half-century

This story starts at the University of Washington, heads off to Europe, comes  back to the Seattle art world, then moves on to New York City, the fierce battles of the Culture Wars, and his life in Bali today, while reminding us of our continuing need for vigilance, activism, and courage.


Fifty years ago, David Mendoza and I graduated in the same year from the same university with undergraduate degrees in the same subject, art history.1 As the official “Alum in Residence” at the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design for the 2016-2017 academic year, I invited David, who has remained a friend, to come back to the school and join me in a conversation about what he’s done with the years since we graduated.

So, on November 21, 2016, he and I sat in the school’s Jacob Lawrence Gallery with an assembled group of students, faculty, staff, and community members. My opening question to David was, “So, what have you done with your art history degree?” As he told us the story that follows, it was clear that he’d given the question a lot of thought in advance. And no one wanted him to stop once he got started.

 A resume can tell you that David has been director of the Foster/White Gallery, executive assistant to the chair of the New York State Council on the Arts, the first director of Artist Trust, the first executive director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, and a long-time board member of Art Matters foundation. He has lived on Bali since 1998, where he produces a line of clothing and home goods with a focus on natural dyes, handmade batik, and preserving traditional craft techniques of Southeast Asia.

But the real story can’t be captured in a resume. It’s full of twists and turns that affect a life forever, of people and events encountered unexpectedly, and of the power of following both your dreams and your intuition and fighting for what you believe in.

You can read his story below or download it here.

Anne Focke


 

David Mendoza in conversation with Anne Focke at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery, November 21, 2016. Photo by Nadia Ahmed.

What did you do with your art history degree? a memoir

David Mendoza 
November 21, 2016

 

Fifty-three years ago today, November 21, was a Wednesday. The next day about noon, and late as usual, I was running across the Quad to a class in Parrington Hall when I ran into one of my pals running in the opposite direction. He said, “JFK has been shot,” and kept running. That was 1963.

DEGREE

I graduated in 1967 during a tumultuous time in our nation and on campus. I started at the UW as a Business major, switched to Architecture, then to Interior Design, and, after being called to a meeting with Professor Warren Hill, switched one more time to Art History. Warren – we became friends later – was a professor in Interior Design, and he, shall we say, urged me to switch majors. I couldn’t draft – same problem in architecture. So I surveyed my accumulated credits. Not only did I have quite a few credits in Art History – including architecture and design history – but I’d earned good grades and loved the subject. So, here I am, all these years later, talking to you as an ancient alum.

I was trying to finish my art history thesis for our brilliant professor, Lawrence D. Steefel, while experimenting with pot and listening to Sgt. Pepper. The topic of my paper was Dada, and in retrospect it was a very Dada time with the Vietnam War (or American War as the Vietnamese call it) and the cultural revolution (the eve of the “Summer of Love”). Studying the Dada artists, their performances, and their anti-war positions all tossed together with the world around me meant that, in early May 1967, I found myself unable to fashion a coherent thesis paper. As the month rolled by and the deadline for turning it in approached, I had pretty much decided that after five years of university and lots of credits, I was not going to graduate and get a degree. My focus turned to how I would explain all this to my parents who had struggled to help pay college costs for me – the first in our family to attend.

The topic of my paper was Dada, and in retrospect
it was a very Dada time.

Probably through a combination of wine, pot, angst, and itchiness to get out of school and into the “real world,” I decided to make an appointment with Professor Steefel. I still can remember clearly that day – nervous, resigned to reality, and eager to get it over with. I actually prepared some notes to try to explain what had happened to me. These included references to lyrics on Sgt. Pepper as well as Dada history. It was a long meeting, maybe two hours. He asked me questions, and we had a very expanded discussion. I thanked him and left, feeling relieved that the meeting and my college career and degree were over.

About a week later, grades were distributed. When I opened mine, I found that Professor Steefel had given me an A and the five credits I needed for my degree. I was in shock. In just a moment, my whole life turned a new corner.

EUROPE

After working as a waiter to make money, I left for my grand tour of Europe in the fall of 1967. It was time to see all the paintings, sculpture, and cathedrals I had only seen projected from slides on a screen. Being the romantic that I realized much later I was, I decided to go to Europe by ship. So I took a train across the U.S. to New York City and Grand Central Station, never having been before. Once there, I immediately got off the train and into a taxi that took me to the 40th Street piers to board the S.S. France. Nowadays, the only place you see the scene I encountered is in old movies – crowds of people, some boarding and some saying good bye to departing loved ones. Like in the movies, the France departed in the late afternoon and, as we passed the Statue of Liberty, we were all standing at the railing admiring New York City.

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My eight months in Europe started in London visiting museums and castles and seeing some theater, and then continued on to Amsterdam and Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh. My plans to take a train from there to Paris changed at a party hosted by someone I met in Amsterdam where I met a good friend of the host. An American woman, older than me, she had just arrived from Stuttgart where she had bought a new Porsche. Apparently, she did this every year. I told her my plans, and she said, “Why don’t you ride with me instead to the south of France?” I hesitated, but my host said, “Don’t be crazy. Marilyn knows France very well. You would be lucky to have her as a guide, and you’d get a free ride as well!” So I did.

This is just what the doctor ordered for my romantic
“tour de France.”

Marilyn had rented an apartment in a small village near Nice named Haut-de-Cagnes. She had visited several times before and had fallen in love with a woman who lived there. I stayed with her until she helped – pushed – me to find a room. The village was magical, one of the so-called villages perchés, or “perched villages,” high above the Mediterranean. There were no cars, only steep and winding walkways, and a gathering of expats and French, Bohemian and worldly. This is just what the doctor ordered for my romantic tour de France.

One rainy day about a month after I arrived, I was walking across the plaza in front of the Chateau. I saw a black man with a suitcase and typewriter case talking to one of the old French women in black who lived there. As I approached I heard he was American and did not speak French so I approached to ask if I could help. He said, “Oh, are you American? Do you speak French?” I said yes and helped him find the apartment he had rented in the village. He had just arrived via Marseilles from Africa and had come to write a book. His name was Alex Haley, and he was grateful for my help.

Being an “old timer” in the village by then, I helped Alex get settled and, over the next few days, showed him around and introduced him to Marilyn. We three had dinners and wine and chats. Alex told us he was writing a book that traced his African-American ancestors back to Africa before they were brought as slaves to the U.S. Marilyn and I looked at each other skeptically, but Alex was a great storyteller and he proceeded over these meals to tell us bits and pieces of what he had found. His stories were filled with people who had names like Chicken George, Kunta Kinte, and Izzie. While in Africa, he told us, he had recorded griots, storytellers who were the keepers of family and tribal history.

Sometimes, when I visited him for a meal and wine, he would tell me more of these stories sitting in front of the big stone fireplace, and I still found his tales far-fetched and unbelievable. I began to think of him as “Uncle Remus.” At that time, Alex had a reputation as a celebrity interviewer for Playboy magazine and also as the author of The Autobiography of Malcom X. This meant that, from time to time, he had to return to the U.S. to interview someone for Playboy – and to make some money. When he left he offered me his apartment to save money from my travel budget. In exchange I helped transcribe some of his audio tapes on his old typewriter.

One time, when Alex was away the phone rang and a hoarse voice asked, “Alex?” I replied that he was in the U.S. The caller was James Baldwin, on his way to the south of France. He wanted to meet up with Alex who had discussed doing an interview with him. James had a bad cold and was in a bad mood. His French then-boyfriend had left him in London. James was looking for the boyfriend, whom he suspected was somewhere down here near Nice. After that trip, James fell in love with the area and rented a villa in Saint Paul du Vence, a village higher in the hills than Haut de Cagnes and famous for a Matisse Chapel. Baldwin lived there until he died.

 “Thank you for your help and friendship here in Haut de Cagnes
while I am writing
Before this Anger.” – Alex Haley

Although I was very happy in that village and didn’t want to leave, Alex encouraged me to continue my journey and my adventure. He was right. On departing he gave me a paperback copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and signed it, “Thank you for your help and friendship here in Haut de Cagnes while I am writing Before this Anger.” That was his original title for the book that later became famous as Roots: The Saga of an American Family.

At Museé Picasso, Antibes, France, 1967

SEATTLE AGAIN

When I returned to Seattle in April 1968, the “anger” that Alex referred to was in full force. Continue reading →