It is time for this to change. time to catch up, and so I charge into the void on the screen and try to cover the biggest highlights related to this whole art thang relative to my life and the work I share here.
Several weeks ago I went to an event that has done just what its organizers intended; I was lit up at Ignite Tucson. The first event of its kind here in Tucson, it was modeled after Ignite Portland, and its predecessor, Ignite Seattle. The theater it was held at, The Screening Room was packed to capacity with that quality I so love about Tucson-people who I feel a sense of community towards, friends I haven't met yet. And then, there was the free beer from Nimbus, a local brewer, asset, and community builder in their own way. I'm sure that didn't hurt.
Anybody with a bit of passion and a willingness to share can get up on stage, and with the assistance of 25 pictures, at 15 seconds each on a power point presentation, talk about anything that gets your motor going and pass it along. I was ignited about someone’s (I forget who. Sorry.) presentation about National Park(ing) Day, held this year on September 19th.
N.P.D. was started by Rebar, an arts activist collective in San Francisco in 2005, in an attempt at engaging people in a dialog about the commons, public space and urban design. They did so by taking over metered public parking spaces and converting them to-parks! Literally bringing in sod, fountains and lawn furniture etc and “parking” for the day. It was a huge success and the next year S.F. Mayor Gavin Newsom donated his parking space. The Trust for Public Land took over the organizational aspects of it and it has bloomed into – a lot of smiles, on a lot of people’s faces and has done what Rebar ultimately wanted – a dialog about the commons.
Of course I would do a sculpture garden; not “Why?”, but “Why not?” How fun!
After a couple of days it occurred to me that I could give away “Do It Yourself Parking Kits” that would consist of- 1 plant and an attitude change. Kinda. In exchange for the plant, the recipient would agree to plant it in a public place, or at least in a location where the public at large can appreciate it. Sing a few notes in the song that our town sings.
What wasn't included, what you had to bring to the table (or to the dirt as the case may be):
More awareness of our shared spaces and your capacity to shape them,
Your desire to make your world a better place,
Room to grow, the more public the better (both you and the plant),
A shovel (or some kind of tool to dig with),
Water (as needed),
Sweat (as needed).
I gave away plants that were desert-adapted/native, too big (when mature) to use in my work, tough, common, easy to grow, and, in my way. I wanted to include info about the plant, how to care for it, and some info about what I was doing this for- to help arrive at an understanding that we are all in this together. An act, however small, of participatory democracy, of enlightened self-interest. Because it is in my best interest that more people in my town state and nation wake up and understand that this is for real and to act like it makes a difference, to accept some responsibility/accountability for the circumstances that we all share in creating. For my money, one of the best things about democracy is knowing more or less just where to point the finger of blame; we all see it every time we look in the mirror. Enlightened self-interest is a phrase that I will come back to again and again because it is so very relevant to so much of my life. And everyone else here.
It was also a chance to clean out my nursery, which means that I get my yard at least a little bit cleared up. Yea!
I started to do some planning work around my park, and then, on my birthday, of all days, pulled my back. In practical terms I was out of work for three weeks, on my back for ten days, really hurting and hemorrhaging medical bills. I was not a happy parker.
After returning to fully functioning mode, I almost had time to get organized, get emails sent out to both inform people and request some help setting up and taking down. I didn't get any handout/plant care instructions printed, no signs or graphics made. Nor park features made. And yehaw, it was still a blast.
Thursday night, however, I started to get a bit unnerved.
I had been anticipating the possibility of a few cranky people but started to wonder if I was kicking a wasp's nest after reading the overwhelmingly negative comments on the Tucson Citizen's online article about N.P.D. and just couldn't let them be. And so I spent a couple of hours making a point by point reply to all the negative observations pouring out. Which I think is perhaps the most valuable and long lasting effect of this whole affair- engaging your critics. Unfortunately you have to have an online subscription to read the vitriol, childishness and stupidity on display in the readers’ comments (sigh).
A large part of the motivation to both do N.P.D. and reply to the naysayers was to walk the talk- democracy is not a spectator sport. This is my town, my state, my country and my world; this world is all of ours. And everyday is the time to act like it. Which is why I take criticism so personally, even when I am addressed in the abstract. It matters. Preaching to the choir is a helpful and sometimes necessary thing to do, but engaging your critics is where the greatest possibility for change will come. You're also much more likely to reach an understanding of your critics by addressing them directly. I know I don't have all the answers, nor are all the decisions mine to make. But if you're too apathetic or stupid to make intelligent or informed ones you and I both lose.
I didn't send in my reply to the paper that night/morning, done in the heat of astonishment, but did manage to not get much sleep before getting up at 5 A.M. to load my van with 70+ plants, furniture and sculpture. Nor did I finish the graphics I had so laboriously done because I didn't save them in a format that Kinkos computers' could read (I was too exhausted to think).
In the morning, I had one helper, my friend Barb, without whose help the whole would have been diminished considerably; she watched over the first load while I went back to my studio and got another. Thank you again Barb.
Throughout the day I had a steady stream of curious, smiling Tucsonans take me up on the offer to improve our town in this small way- one plant at a time.
One of the first people walking down the street, and a complete stranger, I verbally snagged also had one of the best responses of all. After I told her what I was doing, and before saying anything in reply, she gave me a big hug. I knew I was doing something good.
The next best reply came from a man in his thirties or so. As he approached I picked up a vibe that was a little off-putting but I gave him my spiel and he listened attentively. When I had finished he asked me-
"If I asked you to, would you do something for me?"
As I reflected on this for a moment he said
"You're thinking too much about this, it is a simple question."
"Well, I'm not sure. I might"
We went on like this for a bit, with him telling me after a moment "You would make a good lawyer. Just answer the question."
I gave in and said, "OK, I'll do it. What do you want?"
Reaching into his wallet, he pulled out a $5 and said "Here, you've learned how to give, now learn how to take."
I said a couple of times "No, I'm not doing this for money or to sell anything."
He didn't take a plant and he wouldn't let me not take the money. I guess I covered my meter fees for my van I had to move a couple of times that day.
In the afternoon my friends Stephen and Erica came down to help load things back up. Two loads of plants in the morning-one in the afternoon, a success. I had more fun that day than I have had in a long while.
Next year, bigger and better.