Andree Singer Thompson

Mayfield Induction Talk

  Thank you Ellen, for your kind introduction and good morning.    I came all the way from California to have this opportunity to address you, a group of emerging citizens, young adults and the hope of our future. And because of the work I do, I have come to feel an urgency about today’s global environmental and social justice issues. 

   I know I am supposed to talk a little about myself and my relation to this school, and I will;  but I would rather spend most of the time talking about the work I do with my students and to talk about you and your place in this complicated universe.

     I came to Mayfield at a very tumultuous time in my life, at age 15, after I ran away from a rather dysfunctional home, with my little brother in tow. We were taken in by an aunt and uncle here in Mayfield Heights, and were fortunate to have a very loving sister.  My parents had been a mixed marriage of a Jewish Hungarian father and a Catholic raised mother who converted to Judaism for the marriage, but as the family knows, really converted to Jack Daniels.  In any case, we were raised as Jews until my father’s death when I was 12. Coming to Mayfield was a dramatic change, culturally and psychologically.  There were 72 in our graduation class, quite different from today.  And although there was an emotional adjustment period, there were comforting souls at school who were kind and understanding who were instrumental in helping with this transition..notably Dean Hummel,my counselor,  the art teacher Helen Biehle and English teacher Ed Siebenhauer.  They helped me get a scholarship to Flora Stone Mather and the Cleveland Art Institute where I spent the next 4 years getting my BS before galavanting off to hitchhike around Europe for 3 years.  Upon my return, I went to California to study with Peter Voulkos, a well-known ceramic artist at UCBerkeley, and have been there ever since. For most of those next years, I worked as an artist and taught ceramics, sculpture and eco art to adults and for 33 years as an Artist in Residence in the public schools and at a camp in upper state NY teaching children at risk in the other America…where the daily gun battles and war scenes are not part of our media vocabulary; Our “third world” America.  Remember the pictures of Katrina??

Most of my art, teaching, performance work and writing are based on my interest in the process of survival, from personal to global survival ..why and how some individuals and communities survive traumatic events with love and compassion in tact, while others do not. Raised as a Hungarian Jew, the holocaust was always a part of my psyche and those few in my father’s family that did not perish were symbols of that resiliency to survive.  I have come to believe we have an inherent desire to heal, an instinctual resiliancy to live in spite of dark circumstances, to reach for life and health.  Upon entering the twilight time of my life, I have chosen to teach only eco art, about environmental and social justice issues and the nature of survival. 

     The noted philosopher/environmentalist writer Paul Hawken warned that the environmental movement cannot succeed until we embrace the social justice movement; so in my class we study and make art about both, especially since many of my students are from poor neighborhoods that are often victims of environmental degradation.   Just as Vaclav Havel brought creative minds..artists, poets, writers, to the political table, I believe we need to bring the artists’ creative thinking, those who have been trained to think sideways, to help solve the most challenging issues of our environment and society.

Now what I really want to do is talk about you, make an apology and make a plea.  I have a favorite Hillel quote that hangs in my office and studio:  If I am not for myself, who will be?  But then, if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when??   The first challenge of your youth is to explore and discover who you are, to acknowledge your deepest feelings and develop your own personal ideas; to have the courage to be true to yourself, even though you are surrounded by those who think differently.  The courage to be your own advocate and to learn how to love yourself as your own best beloved child.  That is not always easy.  It entails finding a safe place to do the demon dance.  It takes courage to confront your own self hatred, your own demons of shame and guilt, of anger and sorrow; to hear openly those voices that say you are not good enough and feelings of failure.  You need an arena to confront these demons, identify and befriend them, to do that dance, to forgive yourself and heal back to a loving place.  I was fortunate to be an artist, which provided a safe haven to do this difficult and often unconscious work.  I suggest any creative endeavor works. Even the best of parents cannot always give you what you need and deserve to survive with self love and compassion, so you need to grow your own loving parents.  
 And when you have had your battles and built your armour back to a healthy ego, and you really do know how to love yourself as your own best beloved child, then you can turn, and in fact, I would suggest are obliged to then turn outward and give back, teach others in the world what you have learned and know.

     Now, I want to apologize to you for my generation. We are leaving you with enormous challenges.  No, we are leaving you a lot of really big messes.  We have, albeit in our uninformed innocence, succeeded in recklessly squandering our most precious natural resources until we are now on the brink of disaster, as the world population continues to grow out of control, an issue we somehow forget to talk about in campaign speeches.  We have lost the ancient, indigenous wisdom that told us to take care of Gaia, mother earth.   Chief Seattle taught: The Earth does not belong to Man, but man belongs to the earth as an interconnected part of the web of life.  We have not yet learned that every endangered species that becomes extinct damages our own life support system. 

     I recently heard an interview with an 11-year old American Indian boy who was asked: What is the difference between the education you are getting in the white school, and your education on the reservation.  He thought for a bit and replied, “Silence.  On the reservation we are taught to listen to the wind, to wildlife and to understand our place in the natural world.  In the white school, it is never quiet enough to do that.” As the Eskimo lady in Northern Exposure used to say, You Americans: you don’t know how to be still.  We have forgotten how to connect with the profound truth of the night sky and our little place in the universe.

       The challenges of today’s issues can be overwhelming.  When my students begin to learn the extent of information, they can get very depressed by the enormity of it.  It makes them feel helpless.  That is when I tell them about all the incredible individuals that are working on positive solutions, like those we meet at the Bioneers Conference, the biggest national conference on environmental and environmental justice issues.  By the way, if you want to learn about global warming and global dimming, do not ask a politician.  Ask a geologist, a climatologist, a scientist.  Ask Rich..or just google it.

The first person of hope I want to tell you about is a sea captain Charles Moore.  When he was returning from a race in Australia, he decided to take a circuitous route and found himself surrounded in a sea of floating plastic debris for miles, for as far as he could see.  He was in the middle of one of the six gyres on the face of the earth, where warm and cool waters converge into a spiral.  When I first learned of this Pacific gyre garbage patch 4 years ago, it was as big as the state of Texas.  Now it is the size of two continental  United States and growing.  Charles Moore came back to the states wanting to do something. He got the US Navy to measure the amount of plastic floating beneath the surface.  Six times the amount was beneath the miles above, and there are now 6 times more plastic in the ocean than there is plankton, the bottom of our food chain! This plastic is well made.  It never goes away.  But it does break down into smaller colorful bits, that are mistaken for food by the fish.  The floating plastic bags are mistaken for jelly fish and eaten by now endangered turtles.

Birds, like the mother of this baby albatross, catch the fish and feed it to their babies.  This photograph from National Geographic Magazine is a dead baby albatross, who starved to death because there was no room in its belly for digestible food.   This is the plastic and metal debris that was taken from its belly.  Last year there were 200,000 baby albatross found dead from plastic, and that is only the albatross family.   Charles Moore has changed his life to fight plastic, and started an organization trying to get this information out so that we stop using plastic bags and plastic bottles.  There is not much to do about the garbage patch as yet, but we can try to stop the proliferation, production and use of plastic.  This is just one of the challenges you face:  so .if you have any good Charles Moore. 
The class I teach uses such information to make creative statements, from sculpture to poetry to dance and performance to raise awareness and educate.
But another exciting branch of the ecoart movement, is making art that works together with scientists to repair broken systems. Betsy Damon is a good artist with a lot of chutzpah.  You don’t have to be Jewish to have chutzpah.  Her son married a Chinese woman and they moved to Chengdu where the only drinking water was from a polluted river.  Betsy got the Chinese government to help her raise a million dollars and she built this island in the middle of the river, in the shape of a fish because she is an artist.  The island is a park and the scales of the fish are all planted with bioremedial plants that suck the poisons up from the water.  The water flows from one end through 7 stages of flow fountains that aerate and cleanse the flow, so that the water comes out a spigot at the end as potable, drinkable water. She now runs an organization called Keepers of the Water which teaches people around the world to transform polluted water into potable drinking water.  She is in fact, there now, since Chengdu was the site of the recent devastating earthquake and drinking water is still in great need.  You probably already know that fresh drinking water is the new gold, the new oil, and the most precious resource we have.  While the earth’s surface is 2/3 water, less than 1% of it is drinkable.  Another arena for some of you to research new and creative solutions.

     There are many other innovative artists and scientists, like Paul Stamets, who believes he can save the world with mushrooms.  He has developed spores that eat oil to help clean up oil spills , that  grow into enormous edible oyster mushrooms.  Such is the power of nature to repair itself.  Janine Benyus who wrote the book Biomimicry, explores how natural plants and animals work, and replicates them to improve mankind.  Bumps on a whales back, when replicated on planes, save fuel and energy.  Diane Wilson, an uneducated shrimper from Texas sued big corporations that were responsible for polluting the local fishing waters; it took 4 years of the company’s harassment until she won and wrote an inspirational book An Unreasonable Woman. Amory Lovins, from the Earth Island Institute where they have for decades now, developed working machines and engines that use NO OIL.  William McDonough the author of Cradle to Cradle, a must read for every student, who has built self sustaining campuses with self cleaning sewer systems, and who is now in China building a sustainable city with farms, complete with animals on the rooves of the houses. Solar experts tell us that if we built solar panels on the desert in 80 square miles, we would  have enough energy to supply the United States.  And it would cost less than a month of the Iraq war.

And then there are my students, and the incredible works they have done;   I would like to tell you about Nzinga, a student for 4 years, a studio assistant and good friend.  Nzinga has not yet finished college, as you see, is a beautiful African American woman who looks 25, but is 55 with 6 children and several grandchildren.  She lives in the “other” America, where her children have to take care to go to the store to get milk for fear of getting a stray bullet.  Nzinga takes in all the children of the neighborhood, teaches after school programs where they learn to make clothes without a pattern, to make their own shoes for their own fashion shows.  One day in my studio as I was demonstrating a teapot on my wheel, the foot pedal broke.  She said let me take a look at it and proceeded to take it apart.  I said what are you doing.  She said she used to be an airplane mechanic.  She joined the Airforce at age 18.  They wouldn’t let her become a pilot, but she fixed my pedal.  These are  Nzinga’s pieces, a tryptich depicting her neighborhood, tracing the route of diesel trucks to their port destinations, and a piece about pesticides in mother’s milk.  Her children suffer from asthma as her neighborhood has an epidemic of asthma traced to diesel fuel.  When I ask her why she doesn’t move to a safer neighborhood, she answers “who will take care of and inspire the children here to go to school. ?” Environmental/social justice issues.
If you want to see more, please check out my website. 

   Finally, I would like to ask all the young people here to hear my plea for your generation. 
    I was raised to have old fashioned beliefs about American Democracy, which I personally think, like Madeleine Allbright, is presently broken.  Old fashioned beliefs based on the people who came to the states in search of freedoms from the tyrannies and prejudices from which they were fleeing:  Freedom from prejudice for your religious or political beliefs; freedom of speech, including freedom of the press to tell the truth; an investigative free press is our only source of information about government, national and international activities.  Old fashioned beliefs like the separation of religion and state.  I work every day with a most diverse population, which for me is democracy in action: I work with Asians, Muslims, Africans, Indians, Indigenous Americans, Mexican, Brazilian  all have been my students, colleagues, friends,  even lovers.  I work with people of all genders and sexual orientation.   I would like to assure you that not all Muslims are terrorists or anti Israel.  I would like to assure you that a person’s sexual orientation does not make them any less of a good teacher or good parent. Not all American Indians are alcoholics.   The human beings I teach, work with, know and love are Americans of many different cultural and religious backgrounds and are still as American as the most white Christian. I seek and ask you to help keep all of our rights protected for all of us.

  I am asking you as young people to take responsibility for your actions, to become educated and informed, so that when it comes time to vote, you will be well informed to make intelligent, honest decisions based on your own feelings.  Read. I know it is old fashioned.  But read; listen to and watch a variety of news media, not just one slanted voice.  Talk to each other, to informed adults.  You have all sorts of new digital devices to get information.  Challenge your own beliefs by listening to the other side.  That is the essence of living democracy.  Use your skills, talents, brains and heart to seek truth, not only for yourselves but for my grandchildren and for the next generation…to give them hope for a healthy democracy and a healthy environment.  I still believe that we all have the innate desire to heal that which is sick and broken; that we all have the creative intelligence, compassion for each other, and the power to reverse negative impacts with positive solutions for hope and a healthy survival.  Thank you.

You can find out more about the 50 years of art and teaching work I have done on my website, and I also invite you to email me if you are interested in discussing anything from this talk.     

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