When searching for writers and thinkers who advocate for artists to act as catalysts for social change, I stumbled across Beverly Naidus’ most recent book “Arts for Change: Teaching Outside the Frame”. After just briefly skimming of the overview, I knew I just had to chat with Beverly about her experience and insights.
For almost three decades, Beverly Naidus’* art practice has intertwined the roles of activist, educator, writer and interdisciplinary artist. Her mediums have ranged from interactive, site-specific installations to digitally rendered artist’s books. Inspired by lived experience, she has made art about the ecological crisis, healing body hate, cancer and environmental illness, the alienation of consumer culture, the shame and pride of being “other,” the nightmare of nuclear war, the despair of unemployment, ways to breathe through and find hope in the midst of great suffering, and envisioning a sane, just and ecological future. She is the author of two artist’s books, One Size Does Not Fit All and What Kinda Name is That?.
Finally we were able to coordinate a date to Skype, and Beverly proved to be a fountain of succinctly insightful phrases about the importance of using art as a tool for activism rather than simply an exploration of beauty.
The anti-war , feminist art , civil rights, queer rights, social justice and environmental movements have had powerful art forms emerging from them for decades. Making art about beauty alone was and is a privilege, and most people on this planet don’t have the resources, time or space for that privilege. Since I’ve had that privilege, I’ve been using it to be an ally for others, to be of service and to find community. I’ve been exploring for decades now how to talk about problems in a compelling way so that people would look at them, break through their denial, get connected and act to heal themselves and the planet.
In my first semester of grad school in Nova Scotia, I made a work on paper called “The Wrong Day to Wear White Pants” – a little painting of white pants with a red dot in the crotch – and left it in a pile on my work table. My studio mate was going through my work one day and when he found that small work, he began laughing hysterically. When I began to get embarrassed, he said, “I am laughing because I identify with it!”
To which I responded, “How the hell do you identify with this image?”
“Men have things that happen to them that are embarassing and personal. Trust me, you are going to have so many people lined up to tell you their story. This is the kind of work you need to be doing.”
He was right. I had piles of people coming to my studio to share their stories and felt encouraged to make more work that provoked similar story sharing.
That incident became a seed, that has continued to sprout over the years. I make work that speaks to concerns I have had in my personal life, all of which have had political implications. My nuclear nightmares, environmental illness, unemployment, body hate, being treated like an “other” and my yearning for a healed planet, have been source material. I saw that revealing my own vulnerable places through my art brought allies into my life, as well as a sense of possibility to change things for the better.
In my last years before leaving New York City in 1984, I received a fair amount of recognition. My work was written about in the New York Times and art magazines. I was invited to be in many exhibitions and worked collaboratively with peers. Activist art was popular for that particular moment in time, and I was in the right place at the right time with the right thing. If I had stayed in New York, with all these articles coming out, I probably would have hooked up with an art dealer and joined the frenzy of that scene. But I chose to leave.
Several, more ambitious peers thought I was insane. And a part of me was full of self-doubt because I had been told that a mainstream career was the way to shift consciousness in a big way. But another part of me recognized that this was the wrong path. Somehow, despite its seductions, I knew there was something really screwed up about the mainstream art world. I saw how the art market was corrupting my peers. As they became more successful, they became less socially engaged and more caught up with securing their upward mobility. Some of them felt that they were frauds, or they became ego-monsters, both narcissistic and self-destructive. At the time, I felt that I wasn’t yet emotionally or spiritually strong enough to navigate the hurdles presented in that world. I didn’t want to be obsessing about seeing my name in print; I needed to be rooted in something deeper. At just the right moment, I was lucky enough to be offered a visiting artist teaching gig and was thrilled for the opportunity to work with students full-time and to experiment with new strategies for teaching art.
Since leaving the NYC art world, my passion to use art to find community has thrived. On Vashon Island in Washington, where I lived for eight years, much of the soil is contaminated by heavy metals released by a smelter plume decades ago. A few years ago, I was invited to create an eco-art project that uses permaculture design to demonstrate techniques to clean the soil and feeds visitors with a perennial food forest. In the center of the garden is a story hive.
The hive doesn’t collect bees. It collects the stories of the gardeners and farmers who continue to plant seeds in a time of ecological crisis. After gathering stories from these people, I wrote the text on pieces of cedar, dipped in bees’ wax. Those stories now form a library in the hive for visitors to read and they can add their own stories. There’s also a seed exchange in the hive. This is a practical and interactive archive; the community might not hear these stories otherwise. Creating more “story hives” can be an integral part of connecting with our neighbors again.
When artists, students or otherwise, make work that is located in lived or witnessed experience, and they use visual poetry, form that speaks intention and perhaps even some humor, it usually pulls us in like a magnet. If work is totally cerebral, based completely on research or is made to sell (in every sense of that word), it usually does little to serve us.
A “social practice” artist is who is coming from an altruistic place, who has not built bridges of trust and respect, can come across as patronizing. Some of these artists “parachute in” when they get grants to do this work, and thus, the impact is not deep or sustainable.
When you are doing work with a community, it is important to establish relationships and build bridges with that community with respect, love and a desire to learn. Be there in person — talk to people, build friendships, experience what affects them daily, offer up your skills with humility and walk with them as an ally. From that deeply grounded place, powerful work can emerge, from both the artist as facilitator and the community as a whole.
When working alone in the studio to anchor your practice in the world, meditate first. Then explore the issues and feelings that occupy space in your gut, and draw from them first. Energetic connection to your topics is crucial if you want anyone, including yourself, to listen.
Click below to read more of Beverly’s writing:
- breaking out of the box: the subversive potential of interdisciplinary arts : “Rather than squeezing our interest into boxes, interdisciplinary art allows us to make interconnections between seemingly disparate concerns, offering strategies for broadening and deepening our visions of the world.”
- Outside the Frame: teaching a socially engaged art practice : “What a benefit it would be to society as a whole to have more artists who feel a sense of social responsibility and who have the passion to continue making their work despite the obstacles.”
Beverly has taught and guest-lectured across North America and Europe, but she settled down in Washington to co-create the program Arts in Community, focused on art for social change, for the University of Washington, Tacoma. She lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband and son.
*Beverly asks that her website links be followed with the caveat that they have not been updated in several years. Contact her directly for more information about her current endeavors. She is a fabulous Skype conversationalist.
What do you think? Can artists create effective artwork about topics that they have not experienced firsthand?
Feature Image: “Floating Spirit” by Beverly Naidus from theHealing Deities Series (1998-2003)