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NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 26th episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available starting 17 February 2023. 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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In Episode 26 of A Culture of Possibility, François Matarasso and I talk with Beverly Naidus. Beverly and I figured out we’d first met in 1994 at an Institute for Social Ecology gathering in Vermont. We’ve crossed paths many time since then, most often online in discussions intended for eco-artists. Several of the community-based artists François and I have interviewed previously touch on environmental themes and actions in their work. But in interviewing Beverly, we wanted to treat listeners to the experience and insight of a gifted artist and teacher who has made this the center of her work and life.
You can learn a great deal about her background from Beverly’s website, but here’s a taste from our interview. She spoke to us from Tacoma, Washington, where she’s been living for the last half-dozen years, recently retired from the University of Washington, where after a teaching career spanning Goddard College, California State University at Long Beach, and other institutions, she created and facilitated a program in art for social change and healing. François asked Beverly to “tell us a bit about how you became an artist and secondly, how you how your journey took you into into social and ecology and activist work.”
“I was a very expressive child,” Beverly told us. I’ve been writing about in the new book I’m writing which is called Rewilding Our Muses: Creative Strategies for Navigating the End of This World. I’m looking at when my muses were uninhibited. Before the age of seven, I was a singer, a dancer, I played improvisations on the piano, I made altars. I talked to trees I talked to bugs, I created rituals and ceremonies out in the backyard. I just recently watched some movies of myself eating flowers. That was one of my activities at age two. So I think of myself of being attracted to beauty as a healing tool very early on.
“It wasn’t until I was around seven, when my parents decided that I was a piano prodigy and I started singing solos in the school choir and I started getting praise from teachers about my drawings that I became focused on approval for my art, which was a very different and very inhibiting thing: to need that spike of dopamine that I’m doing a good job, it can sometimes block the creative flow. And so I’ve been spending most of my adult life trying to get back to that uninhibited creative flow. When it happens, it’s wonderful. My parents were very much against my becoming an artist. I am the granddaughter of very poor immigrants escaping pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia, so I was supposed to use my brain to make money, and it was a scandal when I just couldn’t stop making art. They were like, ‘You’re just supposed to enjoy art. We didn’t want you to think of it as a profession.’ But I got a full scholarship to graduate school in Canada at the Nova Scotia College of Art, and they couldn’t fight with me about a full scholarship. They did try to redirect me, but I kept getting recognition in the New York art world for what I was doing and so it was very hard to dissuade me.”
François asked “what drew you away from that seeking of approval, which is one of the things we don’t talk about enough in the art world. What drew you away from that towards activist art?”
Beverly described knowing that her family were activists—in fact, her father was blacklisted in the 1930s. But the particulars were a family secret she didn’t learn for many years. “When I got recognition in New York,” she explained, in the New York Times, for being an activist artist, I think both of my parents who suffered enormously from the blacklisting—they both had PTSD from it—my father felt at that point that I needed to know that there were risks to being exposed as an activist. My mother got on the phone and said, ‘You’ll never get hired. You’ll never get a job and the irony, of course, was the job at Cal State Long Beach was offered to me because I was a New York artist who had been written about in the New York Times. I called my mom and said, ‘Mom, I got the job because of that article that you were so nervous about.’ So it’s that history of being someone who is engaged in social issues, from a very early age discussions around the dinner table were about inequities and injustices and civil rights and feminism. That was just where I lived.”
Heritage had something to do with it too. “I remember sitting down with Meryl Ukeles and Martha Rosler after we had been in the show in London that Lucy Lippard curated called ‘Issue: Social Strategies by Women Artists,’ back in 1980. We talked about how being Jewish, even though I wasn’t raised in a religious home, can inform something called tikkun olam—to repair the world. Arlene knows this. I didn’t know that term, but Merle and Martha taught it to me. And then Merle was noticing that almost all the Jewish artists, women in New York that she knew, were doing projects that were about social service. And it was fascinating. Now I’m in this eco-art group that I’ve been part of since 1998, and it’s dominated by Jewish women. It’s like what is going on here? We all have been programmed to not make work just for ourselves. We have to make work for community. It’s not enough, it feels maybe selfish to just do it to heal your own trauma. You need to heal collective trauma at the same time.”
I offered a distinction I found relevant. “Some people are making work about issues for community. And some people are making work with community expressing the issues that are organic to that community. If I can put a bit of theory in, it’s the foundational idea that the people who are the closest to the lived experience of a challenge are also the people who are best equipped to respond to that challenge. One thing I admire about the work of yours that I’ve seen over the years is how you’ve both had a gallery presence in which issues have been in the forefront, but you’ve also had a community-based arts practice that’s very deeply collaborative with people who may or may not see themselves as artists per se….I’m kind of allergic to the rubric ‘social practice,’ although a lot of people use it. I would say that’s the knife that is used to pare these two different kinds of arts away from each other, right? The folks who are saying I’m a social practice artist usually live right on that fence. But I think you live on both sides. Tell us a little bit about the community-based work, whatever you want.”
Beverly offered a fascinating description of “Extreme Makeover,” a project focusing on the contaminated soil and water of the Port of Tacoma, which includes several Superfund sites—”super-polluted places that the Environmental Protection Agency has designated as in need of immediate cleanup.” The project included festivals, people reimagining the port, using art, as free of fossil fuel. Much more was hoped, but the project ran into the COVID lockdown. As Beverly said, “the project doesn’t have like the beautiful happy ending sewn into it. And some community art projects don’t. They are more about process rather than product.” But this one led to many collaborations with local people in tandem with her partner, Dr. Bob Spivey, including the Story Hive Project, documenting people’s experience of the pandemic.
From there, we got into some really meaty questions, such as the scale of environmental challenges and what it is possible to accomplish through community-based arts projects. That led to Beverly sharing her meditation practice, which came through her relationship with Dr. Bob, a lay ordained monk in the Vietnamese Zen lineage, starting with a retreat with Thich Naht Hanh for activist artists.
“One of the things that constantly plays out in my head when I get overwhelmed by the scale of change that needs to happen,” Beverly told us, “is that these small pods are where the scale needs to happen. I’ve learned this from emergent strategy, from the resistance of groups that have been oppressed forever, Black Lives Matter groups, Indigenous resistance groups, queer rights, women’s groups, they have all started in kitchens, having tea together. It’s a very slow process, but sometimes it happens and creates something that is so unexpected, like gay marriage. It’s like, ‘Whoa, what happened?’ Things where we never felt the momentum would get us there in this lifetime, and it did. So I have the point of view now that there’s magic that is occurring, lots of it, that we can’t see under the radar.”
We went on to talk about acceptance, grief, transformative justice, the need for rest, and much, much more. Tune in for a rich and free-flowing conversation that will fuel your sense of possibility.
Dione Taylor doing Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.“
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