An eco-focused artist and educator answers questions
What work do you do?
I am an artist, art teacher, art therapist, and writer, all dealing with a concern for the fate of the earth. I am a contributing member of many national environmental organizations and an active and founding member of a local land-conservation organization. I’ve retired from a 40-year career as a professor of art and art education at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth; I am now Chancellor Professor Emeritus.
What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
The best possible world would be quite a simple, interwoven world in which worth, necessity, and inherent dignity were evenly distributed across all creation. With that one value in mind, a great deal of the inter- and intra-violence in relationships would be alleviated. Then, on to enjoying the view. Sounds simple? Sounds simplistic? It is, but let’s try it for 10 years or so and see what happens. We have been trying the opposing view for 10,000 years and see what that has awarded us?
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I do now what I always have done, only in different proportions: paint, draw, garden, fish, read, write, teach, lecture, make breakfast and lunch for my wife and myself, share dinner with friends, talk endlessly, nap in the afternoons, eat my kishkes while out reading The New York Times and listening to NPR.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
For the clearest view of that bumpy and utterly surprising (to me) road, one may read my current book: Drawing Closer to Nature. Mostly my life’s trajectory has been the result of an infinity of lucky and not-so-lucky happenstances. Fascinating to me, utterly uninstructive for anyone else. I have read and met remarkable people, each time shifting my course somewhat, sometimes only after years of synthesis, sometimes just like that.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in New York City — Brooklyn to be exact. I now live in several places, including a seaside village and a hillside country home in the center of Massachusetts.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
My book, Drawing Closer to Nature, describes several such incidents. But in brief, our family left Brooklyn in the summers for two weeks in the country, renting a bungalow in some form of colony of the same. As soon as we arrived: no more shoes, no more lessons, no more adults looking over your shoulder. School’s out forever! Or so it seemed. And off I went to pick blackberries, catch snakes, turn over stones, see what may be just beyond the bend. Fish, eat baloney sandwiches and cupcakes by the side of a brook. Returning only by late afternoon for a dunk in the pool or pond, cookies and milk, joke books, punch ball game, and off to bed.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
As a chairman of a department, having to answer to deans who were uninterested in my department, my requests, and me.
What’s been the best?
I have been fortunate to have been awarded many honors in my profession: Chancellor Professor, chairman, distinguished fellow of my national organization, keynote speaker, and such. Before being awarded these honors, I coveted them. Having been the recipient of them, comforting to my ego as they are, they are no better than my own opinion of the actual work I do — this painting, that book or lecture.
What’s on your desk right now?
Besides my computer and its paraphernalia, active file folders: upcoming Drawing Closer to Nature courses in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, Colorado, North Carolina, British Columbia, and Tennessee. Files on editing a national research journal on holistic perspectives on arts education, reviews I am writing for a number of artists, a Holocaust memorial committee, a tree conservation committee for my town, and notes for a book I am writing with a colleague on the Wonder Full Teacher. Plus, assorted crap.
What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?
This damn Bush and his entire administration, who are exemplars of the very worst plunderers of the earth Western civilizations have ever come up with. There is no more serious threat to the earth, to civilization itself, than this pugnacious, self-righteous punk and his appointed cronies. I hate myself for writing this so crudely but it drives me crazy and I am undone by this profound fault in the scheme of things.
Who is your environmental hero?
There are so many. Quickly: Lao Tse, St. Francis of Assisi, Thomas Merton, Walt Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, Melville, Wendell Berry, Thomas Berry, Barry Lopez, Louis Kahn, Anthony Storrs, Paul Shepard, Annie Dillard, Mathew Fox, and T. C. McLuhan, are a few that come quickly to mind.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
That SOB Bush.
What’s your environmental vice?
Cutting trees for firewood and improved views.
How do you get around?
Car, bike, and bus, plus lots of footwork.
What are you reading these days?
Parabola, Orion, Scientific American, The New Yorker, publications of the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, and such, the letters of Van Gogh, Life of Pi, the Talmud Bavli, Earth Prayers, and Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind.
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
The New York Times, The New Yorker, Scientific American, and NPR. Environmental publications for that dimension of the news.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
I have none — it’s all Eden to me.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Be nice to everything and everyone, all the time.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
I say I am an environmentalist in the same way as saying I am alive. How is it possible to say I am not an environmentalist, and then take a breath, take a sip of water, stay rooted to earth by gravity. There is nothing but environmentalism, at least not since the big bang.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
It’s doing everything well — all 10,000 ramifications of dependant arising are being addressed by one aspect of the environmental movement or another. How quickly they (we) shift the consciousness and congruent behaviors of the majority relative to the current thinking and behavior of the majority is the only horse race worth following.
What important environmental issue is frequently overlooked?
We never left Eden; it’s right here, right underfoot. Not noticing that, we treat this place as if it were not Eden, as though there is something better to come. This is it. Now we have to behave accordingly.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
The Beatles. The Beatles. The Beatles.
Mac or PC?
What are you happy about right now?
Really? Everything, except that goddamn Bush and his boys — and one girl.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Leave town; take a walk by yourself in nature just as it is. Ask yourself, “Isn’t this a swell place? Isn’t this unbelievable? Isn’t this beyond what I have earned?” Stay there a while. Then, when you have absorbed as much as your teeny, squishy body can absorb without leaking out from one port or another, go home and tell your friends to do the same thing.
What on earth is “art therapy,” and how does it help the environment? Just because people are “closer to the earth” doesn’t mean that they’re out organizing, or lobbying, or contributing money. — Sue Vamelen, San Francisco, Calif.
It is true that people who are closer to the earth may not be out organizing, lobbying, and contributing money to the degree that you would like us to, but we probably are more so than people who are not close to the earth. For if you are not close to the earth, and not desirous of drawing even closer, what would prompt you to lobby or organize and raise and spend your money so that others might draw closer to the earth?
As to what art therapy is: That question requires as broad and demanding a response as the question, “what on earth is therapy?” But if you have an understanding of what therapy is, and how it works, and you conceive of art — be it visual, or musical, or gestural, or dramatic — as another form of communication, just as verbal language is one form of communication, then art therapies become quite familiar and have really been around for a long time right here on earth. Every healer, every shaman, every medicine man/woman knew and knows this. Do you know of any celebration, supplication, and transformational (i.e. healing) ceremony that is carried through without music, dance, or decoration? I don’t.
Do you have any suggestions for someone studying to become an art therapist (me!) how to incorporate nature and help clients appreciate nature more in their daily lives? — Janet Carey, Wilmington, N.C.
I have given the last thirty years of my life to teaching and writing about exactly this. Please consult my website for references and read my current book, Drawing Closer to Nature. Where are you studying art therapy? Is the program dedicated to the same convictions that you hold? There are many art-therapy programs across the country; if your program does not coincide with your own convictions, you ought to explore others that do. Have you explored Lesley’s program in Cambridge, Mass., or John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley, Calif., for instance?
I am a recording artist whose vision is to share a concept similar to your “this is Eden here and now.” I want to bring a sense of the power, beauty, and reverence for natural spaces into people’s everyday lives through my music. As an artist, writer, and teacher, what have you found works best to connect people with the Eden we live in? — Kristine Robin, Ukiah, Calif.
Bring a sense of the power and beauty and reverence for the natural world into people’s everyday lives through your music. Didn’t you say something like that yourself? Sing for your friends, your family, your neighborhood, your schools, your temples, all the time, all over the place. If your gift of understanding and expression is music, then music it is — it is the only way people will believe what you say. Never stop.
What artists do you think make the most environmental impact with their work in a positive manner and in a negative manner? And, how can environmental causes use art to speak their message? — Emily Rose, Cleveland, Ohio
The first name to come to mind of contemporary and headline artists is Andy Goldsworthy. But many other artists who are not considered environmentalists are nonetheless deeply moving as well as profoundly instructive: Monet and Van Gogh, Courbet and John Winslow Homer, Stravinsky and Debussey, Emerson and Thoreau and Whitman and Mary Oliver and Annie Dillard.
As to your last question, it is something they are already doing; see Orion Magazine for one.
Why are there not more artists willing to be environmental activists (e.g., participate in the policy-making and political process)? — Clarke Kahlo, Indianapolis, Ind.
I share with you your dismay about the lack of significant numbers of headline artists in all art forms who are environmental activists. Knowing many artists, in many art forms, I believe this is not due to our lack of concern for the fate of the earth, but due to our deeply held belief that our service in the world is the fullest, clearest expression of our artistic gifts and convictions. Political activism is one form of activism, certainly the most conspicuous and often the one with the greatest political impact. But not all change, even political change, comes about within the political arena. Change in the way we think about ourselves and our world and consequential policies and behaviors also come about from every discipline of knowledge, bravely and honestly and clearly expressed. Tyrants know this all too well, for after the opposition politicians and generals have been done away with, aren’t the artists and intellectuals the very next to go? And aren’t there those who believe that political activism is only one more form of shilly-shallying, when their solution is the more efficient one of the bullet?
Do you have any ideas about how it might be possible for us to get [Bush] and his cronies out of Washington and their thrones of power? — Nancy S. Lovejoy, Wilbraham, Mass.
I am no pundit on this most vital question of this and perhaps any other time. We can only vote the bastard out. Every one, in their own terms, to whomever will listen, must speak, and do, and fund, and write, considered and impassioned expressions of their disgust for Bush and his entire entourage’s conception of government and its purposes at every opportunity, and lobby for your chosen alternative. What else is there to do? Hit someone? That’s Bush’s game.
Why don’t you make art that challenges instead of comforts? Something with real political content and not all these pseudo-philosophical vagaries? What are you really doing to change things? — Alan Berkowitz, New York City, N.Y.
You are so burning with anger, based no doubt upon your experiences with other artists and their art, that without the slightest idea about what I do, and the convictions I do hold, you have condemned me to your form of perdition. Nothing I can offer in response will assuage your cemented convictions. If your bellicose, self-righteous, and dismissive qualities present the alternative to Bush, then we are indeed in for a different, but equally long, bad time.
Which environmental groups do you feel are the most effective in making real changes? — Lois Hamilton, Santa Barbara, Calif.
I would rather spend my money on charitable contributions than on taxes, and for this reason and many others, I tithe myself. I give to activist groups like Greenpeace, sturdy lobbyists like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, United Farm Workers for labor-sensitive issues, environmental law groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, my local land-conservation commissions, everything. Like you, I get more requests than I have budgeted, and with a gulp, I let some appeals go. But I am not unhappy with the level and the focus of my giving. Every dollar I give to environmental causes — or any other charitable cause — provides me with the satisfaction of not only advancing the values I cherish, but depriving the Bush administration of that much more with which to destroy what I cherish.
Do you believe aesthetic literacy is tied to ecoliteracy? — Cate Jamison, Glacier, Mont.
I am not sure I understand ecoliteracy in the way you do, but in the fashion that I understand the term: I wish one did lead to the other, but in my experience they do not, not necessarily so in any case. Ecoliteracy requires an understanding of and appreciation for the liveliness and inherent worth/legitimacy of all creation, concepts and concerns that are not necessarily aesthetic. You could, after all, have dead and dumb things aesthetically composed, but their lifelessness and their non-continuity with our liveliness would fail the prime test of ecoliteracy. It is the rarest art school or art program that has deeply embedded in its courses and methods any ecological sensibilities at all. Too bad. Why not bring your perspectives to the attention of art schools? Perhaps you will find some sympathetic attention and just perhaps nudge the world a bit farther in the direction that you would have it.
What are your reflections on the relationship of vegetarianism to the fate of the earth? — Marylou Noble, Portland, Ore.
I am not a vegetarian simply by habit. I am not proud of this. I would prefer to be one, and we mostly do eat a vegetable-based diet. I also believe the fate of the earth would be enhanced if a majority of humans did likewise. However, not all people are in an economic or physical context that would allow for a vegetarian diet, so this cannot be a universal edict. There are many other diet-related ways to live — on this side of the earth — that also enhance the vitality of the biosphere: more modest diets in quantity; less exotic and more local, seasonal foods; more efficiency in cropping, gathering, food preparation, preservation, and so on. These also would contribute greatly to the overall health of the earth. Every wise and thoughtful thing helps. After all, what is the sense of eating a vegetarian meal in a twelve-room, five-bathroom, three-car garage McMansion surrounded by a bright green, closely cropped lawn? Wise, careful, moderate vegetarians help too.
Hate to sound like a Republican, but is recycling working? — Rick Dimont, Rockville, Md.
Can there be anything other than recycling in a closed system (that is, systems such as our planet, solar system, and galaxy)? There can only be more efficient systems of doing so, for one way or another, circuitous or otherwise, everything has its season and reemerges some time in the future in other combinations and forms. The only choice we have is to be a better, more-informed partner with the rest of the cosmos, and in the case of recycling, do it better and better and better. Just like evolution. Got a better place to get rid of your junk than somewhere on the planet?
Do you know details yet about when you’ll be teaching in New Jersey? — Florence Swanstrom, Watchung, N.J.
I will be teaching a day-long workshop at the Teaneck Creek Nature Conservancy on Saturday, Sept. 11, from 9:00 to 3:00. Contact them at: TeaneckCreek@mindspring.com.
Consult my website for more presentations and information on courses, workshops, and lectures.