Pre-order my forthcoming book: In The Camp of Angels of Freedom: What Does It Mean to Be Educated?
NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 24th episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available starting 16 December 2022. You can find it and all episodes at Stitcher, iTunes, and wherever you get your podcasts, along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts.
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This time on “A Culture of Possibility,” I got to be the guest! My new book—In The Camp of Angels of Freedom: What Does It Mean to be Educated?—will be published on 24 January, so I’m starting to do interviews, podcasts, and workshops focusing on the book. If you’d like me to offer a Zoom-based workshop or talk, I’d be thrilled. Please drop me a note and we’ll talk.
Cohost François Matarasso had some very nice things to say about the book, but you know the thing about horns and tooting, so you’ll have to listen to hear them. To start off the podcast, he was interested in the book’s backstory: how and why did I come to write it, what are my hopes for its impact? The conversation was fun for us, and I hope it will be for you too.
You can find details about In The Camp of Angels of Freedom here. One main feature is 11 portraits of individuals whose work taught me a great deal about how to think, feel, and discover myself. “So Arlene,” said François, “why don’t you begin by telling us the origin of these paintings and how they came to you?”
I explained that I’d been working hard, writing, organizing, and otherwise helping two organizations that were important to me. “My work was appreciated, it felt effective, but I felt like I wasn’t growing or learning anything, and I didn’t know what to do about it. I went to see a psychic. The psychic asked ‘What gives you joy, what gives you pleasure?’ Not that long before my husband and I had been on vacation and got rained out. We did a bunch of little drawings and I really enjoyed that. This person said, ‘You need to go home and draw without any concrete intention, you’re not making a specific body of work or whatever, you’re just doing it.’
“One of the first things I did was draw a picture of James Baldwin as an angel, with some text on the image. Then I did a few more. When I’d stopped making visual art many years before I was making oil paintings of people. I thought I’d really love to do that, but I’d have to buy an easel, I’d have to get the panels, I’d have to get all the paints and brushes. It’s a lot of money, it’s a lot of effort. Then I realized I shouldn’t stop what was calling to me because of some stupid practical consideration. My husband Rick made panels for me, and the very first thing I did was paint his picture.”
After a year or two of getting people I knew to sit for me, the pandemic came along. “I could no longer be in a little room with people sitting three feet away from me breathing the same air and staring into each other’s eyes. In the whole scope of me as a visual artist, I’d never painted from anything but life. It came to me to do James Baldwin again, to make a painting like the drawing that I had done. That was the first angel portrait. I got the idea of doing portraits of all of these people whose whose work had been a huge source of inspiration, stimulus, rethinking, renewed understanding. I made my list and went on from from Baldwin to do 10 more.
“Once I had done them, I thought I had to write essays because my experience of them can’t be encompassed by a few words on the front of the panel. Once I wrote the essays, I realized what the book was about. Then I had to write the whole second part of it. What I keep saying is it’s the biggest silver lining in my life, the pandemic. We didn’t suffer, for which I’m grateful, but people we know have suffered greatly and people we don’t know even more so. So I don’t mean to say it was a silver lining for the world. But for me, it was a big reminder that when you’re forced off the path that you’re familiar and comfortable with, sometimes amazing things can happen.”
François asked me to talk about my relationship to education, noting that “The book is about your ideas about education, what it means to be educated, who controls education, how we as human beings—if we’re lucky—find our own path and our own selves through education, both formal and informal.”
“The other thing the book is about,” I told him, “is the path that I’ve made for myself as a person without educational credentials, someone who has been self-educated.” I explained that my family came to this country running from poverty and oppression, ultimately moving from New York to California. “That ensured I was going to grow up in alienated in every possible way from the surroundings in which I found myself. We were in this little GI Bill house—built quickly and cheaply after World War II to handle this big influx of families of servicemen who had mustered out of the war. At first, my maternal grandparents, my father and mother, my mother’s brother and his wife, and their oldest child all lived in one house. And then one more child came to each, and some of us moved next door. It was an emotionally boundary-less situation, complicated by the fact that the men were degenerate gamblers. No one had any education. They didn’t know the rules of how to live in America, and they were dislocated by moving to California from the milieu in which they would be more comfortable. So I grew up this little alien baby in this California suburban place.”
“There were two things that enabled me to survive. One was a brain, which was a big stroke of luck for me, because if I hadn’t had it, I think I would still be there. And the other one was a knack for making images from the earliest age. So all the teachers said, ‘Arlene can draw, Arlene can paint.’ It was very easy early on for me to ask, ‘Well, what is an artist? And how can I follow the path to become one of these super quirky, self-directed makers of beauty and meaning?'”
François said, “You write in the chapter on Nina Simone: ‘She knew her worth, I wanted to know mine, and I wanted it to be more than the paltry sum I’d been assigned,’ which is very telling. You write about seeing Nina Simone sitting at the piano, in complete command, not just of herself, but of the whole situation. It reminded me of a situation when I organized a visit by a Colombian dance company, very old friends. They were working in the north of England for a week and doing some workshops. Some of the members of the company were quite young. The youngest was about 15 at the time. She was supposed to be leading a workshop. And these kids who were two, three years older than her had come in swaggering about, not wanting to take it seriously. My friend who’d observed the workshop said it was extraordinary, because she saw this young woman from Colombia take control of that group of young British students, and get them to do a dance workshop. My friend said to me, ‘It’s because the Colombian dancer knew who she was, and the people she were working with, didn’t know who they were.’ They accepted her authority, even though she was younger, foreign, she didn’t speak English. Some of what I get from your description of Nina Simone is that that knowledge that you call embodied is very often undervalued in our educational system. We learn so much from the physical presence of other people and yet it’s as if all learning comes out of books and gets articulated in exam papers.”
Later in the podcast, you’ll hear brief readings from that and other chapters. François and I went on to talk about our shared admiration for Paulo Freire, the great Brazilian educator, and how central his idea of “internalization of the oppressor” had been to our understanding of power dynamics. “It’s amazing,” I said, “that the things that he writes about seem so self-evidently true. You don’t have to be argued into believing them. Yet as a thinker, he was completely original. I don’t even know how you get those two things together. How can you how can you be saying something in such a way that everyone says, ‘Aha, yes, of course, I know this already.’? And yet, you’re the first one who said it.”
When people come to my studio and see the angel paintings, it’s always interesting to learn which of the people I depicted are familiar. François and I decided to talk about Nina Simone, Paulo Freire, and Isaiah Berlin because both of us knew their work. Stay tuned and you’ll also hear a story about how Isaiah Berlin freed me from the grip of ideology, the imperative to accept the utterances of the ideologically approved as gospel, and reject the others without much consideration.
One thing that will emerge from the book is to offer workshops on identifying and honoring your own “angels,” the authors of the ideas that catalyzed your own awakenings or shaped your own character. (Again, if you’d like me to offer a Zoom-based workshop or talk, I’d be thrilled. Please drop me a note and we’ll talk.) In the podcast, François talks about his feelings about Albert Camus, the author and philosopher born in what was then French Algeria, who had a tremendous impact on thinking and action in France. I’d say Camus was one of François’ angels, and perhaps George Orwell too. Tune in to learn more.
Luther Allison tearing it up on that classic of empathy, “It Hurts Me Too.”