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Alumni, Ishtar Lakhani, profiled in Maverick Citizen

Center for Artistic Activism alumni and workshop instructor, Ishtar Lakhani, was profiled in the Maverick Citizen. Ishtar is based in South Africa and after participating in our 2015 training, has worked alongside the Center for Artistic Activism on several actions and trainings in the country. We love working together and are happy to see her recognized for her remarkable work.

Ishtar Lakhani: An activist working to create the world of our dreams

by Biénne Huisman in the Maverick Citizen

As a ‘card-carrying feminist’, Ishtar Lakhani knows that women have shown for generations that there is a better way of existing – and it’s her aim to help make a kinder, more compassionate world.

“I’m a human rights defender,” says Ishtar Lakhani. “What’s your superpower?” For the past year, Lakhani, 35, has worked as a “freelance troublemaker” associated with social justice projects around the world. 

“It’s about approaching very serious human rights problems, and brainstorming unusual ways to get at them,” she says. “For example, we’re working with an organisation in Australia to create a real lifetime machine, so that people can go in and experience what it was like in Australia in the 1920s. What does that mean for women’s rights, and where are we now? And where do we need to go? In Venezuela we’re working with a bunch of lawyers who want to create a food truck, in order to go out into communities and give legal advice.” 

In pursuit of insignificance

Matt and Will at Tinker Nature Park a few miles from us.

About a year and a half ago, I set a goal to finish eighteen salt water taffy paintings as the core of a solo show in a year or two. I’m working on the eighth—I sold the first one and have stopped posting pictures of the successive paintings partly as a way to prevent the temptation of selling more. My painting plan has been deferred again and again because of my recurring role as a care provider. Last summer I spent three months mostly taking care of my parents and this summer and fall I will put in about the same period of time helping care for my son, daughter-in-law and grandson. Matthew has migrated here back to Pittsford, NY during the pandemic, after having lived and worked for more than a decade in Los Angeles. He lost his job cutting movie trailers—not lost just yet, but he will be furloughed at least into next year. So he’s unemployed with no assurances about the future and saving money by bringing his family to live with us temporarily in the comparative safety of Western New York, where everything costs less at least for now. What they do when the pandemic recedes depends on his wife’s job as a producer for Ellen Degeneres. Until then, she and Matt will stay with us through her long, arduous recovery from a car accident several weeks ago, during which she will resume working remotely for Ellen via Zoom. Their stay here isn’t all-consuming for us, but has become the center of our activities, putting my work nearly on hold again, as it was last summer and then off and on for months after my father’s death a year ago. I began to regain a regular daily painting schedule over the past week, but have had to put it aside again, I hope briefly, until we settle into a more predictable routine. Our lives have become like a Frank Capra movie where family, friends and neighbors are constantly traversing the interior of our house, bringing food and gifts, standing vigil through some small crisis, and using our grill to prepare a meal.

Again, my painting has been put on hold for the past month until a few days ago when I was able to resume work. By the fall, I should be able to settle back into a productive rhythm on the taffy paintings—one of which has already been exhibited in Ohio at The Butler Institute of American Art and at Manifest Creative Research Gallery. It’s a series of paintings that has required me to develop a diligently repetitive work process—Chuck Close would nod with approval at the monotony of my daily life when I’m at full tilt. My methods are getting more reliable than in the past, my technique is becoming more stringently observant of how areas of tone flow into one another and how the paint sits on the canvas, while I’ve reduced my subject to the simplest and least overtly meaningful objects imaginable. In other words I’ve embarked on a group of paintings that will be my attempt to do what I have been saying for years that painting is uniquely suited to do: convey a glimpse of living wholeness, the entirety of a world, through purely formal means, and doing this with an image devoid of signifiers. Or at least an image in which any signifiers one might deconstruct are entirely beside the point when it comes to the essential work the painting is actually doing. I want paintings entirely devoid of intellectual content. I’m tempted to title at least one painting of taffy in this series: This Is Not Salt-Water Taffy.

I had hoped to complete maybe eighteen of these paintings by next spring and offer them as a solo show and present them as a body of work for consideration at galleries in larger metro areas, eventually. But the world seems to be fast-forwarding through an economic transformation as a result of the corona virus—something that otherwise would have happened over many more years that it may take now. What will be left of the gallery scene after the suspended animation of so much activity in Manhattan and Los Angeles? How have gallery owners survived this devastation? Have they? I got an email maybe two months ago announcing that Danese Corey was ending its exhibition program, without being able to discern whether this means the gallery was ceasing to operate or simply was going to close its brick-and-mortar space on East 22nd St. The announcement shocked me and made me heartsick: I loved or at least respected the work of nearly everyone who exhibited there and considered that shop one of the most intelligent and discerning of any gallery I’d ever visited. It feels like the loss of a good friend. So who else will succumb to the loss of revenue in a sector already beset by the inflation in real estate and the decline of galleries in general as a result of the dominance of art fairs. And aside from that, I doubt I will have quite as many finished paintings as I’d hoped by next spring, now that life keeps recruiting me for other tours of duty. I will likely present whatever I have completed and see what response I get, but I could also postpone all of this another year—yet that would feel like a surrender, backing off from the massive disruptions the world has been undergoing, not only my world’s, but everyone’s. As a result of all this, being on near-hiatus from Instagram and this blog feels oppressive and dispiriting. Yet I want to build this new body of work before I post anything from it, and I’ve been producing little else. I’m also continuing to write, when I can, about art—without yet posting it. A post about my visit to the exhibit of J.D. Salinger relics, as it were, at the New York Public Library, will be forthcoming shortly—it has taken me half a year to catch up and draw together all the notes I took away from it in January.

And, along with my projected solo show, I’m trying to assemble a sequence of essays that could serve as commentary for the show of taffy paintings. Let’s call it, for now, The Salt-Water Taffy Manifesto. If I were to complete writing it by the time I have a full complement of paintings for an exhibit, I will see if I can affordably print and present it as a companion catalog, a little illustrated feuilleton on behalf of purposely insignificant painting. That’s the plan anyway. So I may seem to have disappeared on this blog, but only because life has become more intensely interesting (and demanding) than the act of writing about it. And even so, I intend to pick up a paint brush every day from this morning until next April. That’s a promise to myself. Even if only for the current hour.

We’re Funding Creative U.S. Election Projects

We are excited to announce the Center for Artistic Activism is supporting projects that uniquely address urgent and specific voter suppression problems in the United States. Creative, ambitious, strategic, risk-taking projects will be funded up to $10,000 each. Initial short proposals are due Sept 2nd at 11:59pm EDT.

The Unstoppable Voters Project

The Center for Artistic Activism’s Unstoppable Voters Project will fund campaigns addressing major voter suppression problems such as:

  1. Lack of poll workers. Historically, poll workers are retirees, a population now at higher risk for COVID infection. Lack of workers results in long lines.
  2. Barriers to voting by mail. Lack of education on the logistics of voting during COVID as well as misinformation, disinformation that can depress voting. 
  3. Outright voter suppression tactics, especially targeting communities of color and other underrepresented groups. Removing populations from voter rolls, rejected absentee applications, and closing polling locations.
  4. Preparing people for what happens after voting. Polling indicates half the country may not trust the election outcome for various reasons. Lawsuits, challenges, contested elections, and lots of tension are expected.

Of course, those who benefit from voter suppression want to keep these challenges in place. To combat them, The Unstoppable Voters Project will support artistic and creative projects that aim to:

  1. Keep polling places staffed and open.
  2. Ensure that people understand how to effectively vote by mail, drop-off, or in person.
  3. Empower people to confidently vote down-ballot in local elections
  4. Ensure that people know that voting is relevant to the issues that motivated so many people on the streets in the past months (and years)
  5. Monitor election boards and hold them accountable, so they can’t, for example, quietly close polls in communities of color.
  6. Cultivate engagement, fun, humor, joy, and community around voting and elections.
  7. Prepare people for the unknowns that will come after November.

The focus of proposals should be on states with a history of voter suppression and which are of special interest in this election, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin.

Amazing and accomplished groups are working in these areas. We invite you to utilize, build upon, and support their efforts within your proposal.

866-Our-Vote is a coalition providing solid voter education in the face of mis- and disinformation. This resource could use amplification.

Black Voices Change Lives, the NAACP organized effort to help get black people to the polls

VoteSave America has some good resources, especially about poll workers.

Fair Fight tracks voter intimidation, ensures ballot access, voter counting, and registration.

The ACLU’s Voter Suppression infographics summarize the complexity of these issues.

Alliance for Youth Action is engaging the (all important) youth vote in key states.

Power to the Polls focuses on pollworker recruitment and amplification of the recruiting effort.

These groups could use help getting their critical messages to people in creative ways.

For example, Power to the Polls is going to start online briefings for people who want to become poll workers, and are interested in ways to make those briefings more entertaining.

Dedicated voter rights organizations have experience and expertise in the field. Your proposal should not duplicate their efforts. Instead aim to support or augment their strategies using artistic activism methods that may be outside their scope or seem to risky given where these established organizations have committed their resources.

The Center for Artistic Activism has connections to some of these groups. If your project intersects with their goals, we may be able to connect you with them. However, as these groups are working close to capacity plan your project to be successful independently.

Timeline

We’re accepting initial letters of interest until Sept 2nd at 11:59pm EDT. These are brief sketches of your idea – so don’t worry if you haven’t worked out all the details yet – we know this is a quick turnaround!

By around Sept 6th, we’ll let you know if you’re a finalist, and we’ll ask some more specific questions and help to flesh some things out with you.

Final decisions on the The Unstoppable Voters Project should be made by Sept 10th, and projects should be starting by Sept 12th.

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: By what criteria will you be judging Unstoppable Voters Project proposals?
  • Are you building upon the existing work of voter rights groups, adding something creative, innovative, and useful?
  • Is it risk-taking, innovative, and creative?
  • Is it likely to have an impact on voter suppression?
  • Does it do more than “raise awareness,” meaning, the project has strong potential to change people’s behavior?
  • Does it align with real needs in communities most impacted by voter suppression?
  • Does it empower and create community? Does it welcome people to participate?
  • Can it be repeated and amplified by other grass-roots groups?
  • Is it risk-taking, ambitious, innovative, creative? Is it funny, weird or borderline impossible?
  • AND, is it actually possible, in the timeframe and budget?
Question: My project is about increasing voter turnout but not specifically combating voter suppression. Does it qualify?

There’s definitely some overlap between those things, but this support is focused on combating voter suppression especially where marginalized people are presented with barriers to voting. The goal is to increase voter turnout overall, but the focus is on places where voter suppression is a problem. For more on this, see ACLU or FairFight.

Question: Will Center for Artistic Activism staff be helping me manage and realize this proposal?

No, design a project you will manage. Center for Artistic Activism will distribute grants and coordinate some of the communications between grantees and organizations, but this will be your project which you are responsible for. We’re happy to consult and advise when and where we can.

Question: What if I don’t live in a swing state or a state with critical voter suppression problems?

If you don’t live in a key state, you can still come up with a project idea. In your proposal consider partnering with other artists and activists living in those states, or include budget in your project for local organizers, or connect with voting groups working in those states, or find a way your project can operate remotely in some way. 

Can my project advocate for a particular candidate or party?

No. That is not the focus of this project. Also, we are a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, and any grants we distribute absolutely may not advocate for a candidate or a bill.

Application Details

Please be brief. Around 1.5 to 2 pages please. You can alternatively submit your answers with a video, no longer than 4 minutes. Answer all these prompts if you can. (We understand this is a tight timeline and we’re just looking for the most promising ideas. Not having an answer to all of these will NOT disqualify you).

  • Describe the project and give it a name.
  • Which of the above listed objectives are you aiming for, and how does this project move closer to them?
  • Where will it take place?
  • How can you connect with local community groups working on voting issues? How can you align with or have connection to a local or national voting rights organization or other group that is advocating for the same things?
  • How is the project open and participatory?
  • Can it be repeated and amplified by other grassroots groups?
  • How is it risk-taking, ambitious, innovative, creative?
  • What help or input do you need before you get started?
  • Describe what would happen if the project is wildy successful. What will come next?
  • Would you be willing to merge with or collaborate with another project or group working on similar aims or methods?
  • Roughly how much money will you need to pull it off? Average support will be between $3,000 and $10,000. What kinds of things will you need to spend on? (We believe strongly in compensating people’s time). You can break it down into $500 and $1000 chunks.
  • Your name and email.

Send your answers in a text document (PDF is great) or a video to [email protected] before Sept 2nd at 11:59pm EDT. You can include sketches or a mockup of your project if you’d like.

If you have questions, let us know.

We’re hiring a Campaign Manager

Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 is hiring a Campaign Manager for Fall/Winter 2020 . A detailed description and application are on the freethevaccine.org site.

We’re looking for the right candidate and you can help. If you know someone who would be a good match, please pass the application along!

The Campaign Manager will work closely with the Center for Artistic Activism directors as well as international leadership from Universities Allied for Essential Medicines on fighting to ensure safe, effective COVID treatments, testing, and vaccines are affordable and accessible around the world.

Apply for Free the Vaccine for COVID-19: Season 2

We’re back for another round! Join us in fighting pharmaceutical monopolies to make publicly-funded COVID treatment and testing affordably priced, free at the point-of-delivery and accessible around the world!

Applications closed

Apply by filling out this form by Sept 1st 11:59pm EDT.

Returning collective members, please fill out the above form also!

More details on below.

First, What is Free the Vaccine for COVID-19?

Our campaign aims to ensure that publicly-funded diagnostic tools, treatment, and the COVID-19 vaccine will be sustainably priced, available to all and free at the point-of-delivery. We are finding new ways to achieve this through leveraging creativity, culture, as well as tried and tested organizing and activism in our Advocacy Innovation Lab. 

We are a global collective with hundreds of members from dozens of countries. We meet regularly and plan and execute creative campaigns. We have already completed one 16 week round of organizing and actions with our focus on the over $11 billion of public funds already invested in pharmaceutical R&D at universities for COVID-19. Changing the way these universities patent and license their research is a critical lever that can prevent pharmaceutical monopolies and increase access to life-saving medicines across the globe.

Find more information, past projects, and more at freethevaccine.org/about

Jonas Salk
We take our inspiration from virologist Jonas Salk, the creator of the polio vaccine. Salk refused to patent or profit off his work.

What’s involved?

Think of a book club – small groups of smart people sharing a common interest. In this case, our focus is changing the way the biomedical research and development (R&D) system and the we research and deliver medicines. And we don’t just talk about it over tea, we are taking action. As a member of the collective, you’ll be in a small “Salk Squad,” named after virologist, Jonas Salk, who refused to patent or profit off his polio vaccine. Squads are supported throughout the process with training and structures to learn artistic activism, and the history and theory behind the access to medicines movement.

What’s it like?

You will meet people all over the world who are working so COVID tests, treatments and vaccines are affordable and accessible to everyone, everywhere. A lofty goal we know but an important one. You’ll meet online to hatch plans, access videos and other training materials, and put together your own plan based on the skills and interests of your team. The whole experience is about learning new skills, getting things done, and having fun with an amazing community of people.

Who are we looking for?

We come from all sorts of backgrounds – some with no experience with these issues, some with lots. There are creative people, and people who don’t think of themselves as creative when they start. We’ve had pharmacists, dancers, front-line  workers, graphic designers, hollywood hairstylists, and students. There are adults of all ages, and from all over the world. All of them did great work.

We’re especially focusing recruitment for Season 2 on these universities and regions:

  • In the U.S.: DC, NYC, Pittsburgh, southern California (Universities of California), Georgia, Tennessee (Vanderbilt), Seattle, University of Indiana.
  • In Canada:Montreal (McGill), and British Colombia.
  • Also, South Africa, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, UK, Australia, the Netherlands and Germany.

But if you don’t see your location or university listed, please do apply anyway. We need passionate people from everywhere.

What will you get out of it?

  1. Training and skills from the Center for Artistic Activism in using culture and creativity to create real change. These methods you’ll use for the rest of your life when you want to make things happen.
  2. Play a role in ensuring that publicly-funded medicines are accessible and affordable, with a focus on the most vulnerable.
  3. Learning about how the current system we use to research, develop and deliver our medicines works – from the economics, to the science, to day to day issues around caregiving – and how we can change it to center people and health-needs first
  4. A creative way to spend your time that makes a real difference
  5. New connections with people around the world who are as passionate and interesting as you.

How much time does it involve?

Around 4 hours a week. Like a book club, those hours are mostly flexible and on your timeline, in addition to one or two short, entertaining (we’ve been told) group meetings a week where we learn, plan, and get things done.

“Free the vaccine has given me the hope, structure, and accountability I need to put my skills to use.”

“While we’re results driven, I also feel a genuine sense of team love and pride – something very hard to do virtually. (Kudos!)” 

“There was a real feeling of being connected to a large, engaged, creative, active network!”

“The meetings were the highlight of my week.”


What if I’m not sure I have that much time?

There are two ways to take part and join in this fun, important work.

  1. Join the campaign as a Lab Participant and be part of a team that creates and implements actions.
    OR
  2. Be a Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 Supporter

Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 Supporter

☟ THIS IS NEW ☟

Lend a hand to the campaign a few hours a month. In order for us to be able to plan and accomplish our objectives, we ask our regular participants to commit to regular meetings and at least 4 hours per week. However, for those who can’t manage that but still want to contribute, the Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 newsletter provides weekly updates on the campaign, including weekly actions. The actions of the week could be:

  • calling your representative
  • constructing a DIY audio card and sending it to a university lab
  • posting to social media
  • giving graphic design feedback to a campaign visual
  • lending expertise on costume design.
  • wearing a costume in a (socially distanced) public performance
  • and more 

Supporters commit to around four hours a month lending a hand to the campaign and reporting back on the results on the freethevaccine.org site. 

London Carnival to Free the Vaccine For COVID-19

Free the Vaccine participants and others staged a carnival in London to bring attention to the need for an affordable “People’s Vaccine” for COVID-19. Pink-headed coronavirus figures were protected by patents from the syringe-wielding vaccinators. The fantastic costumes and storytelling shone bright against a dreary London day, and news outlets from the Telegraph to the BBC picked up the story.

To learn more our Free the Vaccine campaign, check out freethevaccine.org.

We’re looking for an in-house Printmaker

We are issuing an open call for an In-House Printer for a limited time in Fall 2020. The In-House Printer will be invited to be in residence at the Eureka! House in Kingston NY, to help produce materials for the Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 campaign, and support get-out-the-vote efforts, with time to create their own work as well.

We need an In-House Printer for health equity and election advocacy.

We’re pleased to offer this opportunity to a print-maker who is talented and passionate about their craft, and wants to use it to help promote health equity and voting rights.

We’re looking for a specific combination of skills, so please read through and make sure you are a good match. If you have questions, get in touch.

The In-House Printer will be sponsored by Eureka! House, an artist residency, and Free the Vaccine for COVID-19, an advocacy campaign.

To apply, please send a cover letter. In it, please talk about your relevant experience and why you’re interested in this opportunity. Send to: [email protected] before August 24th 2020.

About Eureka! House

Eureka! House is a new artist residency and community space in a beautiful 18th century mansion in Kingston, NY. The residency supplies artists with welcoming spaces, studios, equipment, materials, food, and the opportunity to meet and share with other artists and activists (safely, in this time of physical distancing).

About Free the Vaccine

Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 is a campaign to ensure publicly-funded diagnostic tools, treatment, and the COVID-19 vaccine will be sustainably priced, available to all and free at the point-of-delivery. It is organized by two, collaborating nonprofits; the Center for Artistic Activism and Universities Allied for Essential Medicines and is made up of dozens of volunteers around the world who are learning and experimenting with creative advocacy techniques: freethevaccine.org

Our volunteers begin with varying experience levels with art and activism. The In-House Printer will join the campaign, helping participants finalize designs for print materials that help further the advocacy goals of the campaign. The Printer will attend weekly online Free the Vaccine meetings, have weekly “office hours” with participants, work with participants to refine and print designs, and pack and ship prints to participants.

As the In-House Printer for this campaign we require someone who can remotely assist participants in executing their designs; pointing out possibilities they hadn’t considered and/or potential technical pitfalls before printing begins. Teaching experience is helpful. They will

  • execute print runs on the Eureka! House riso machine
  • ship prints for exhibitions as well as for wheat-pasting, street actions, and other interventions around the world
  • prepare/check prints before they’re submitted to other printers

The In-House Printer will also be invited to produce designs and prints to support get-out-the-vote efforts in the time leading up to November elections. Eureka! House staff will connect the printer with local voting rights advocacy groups that need printing assistance.

Logistics

The In-House Printer opportunity is from Mid-September to mid-November, with at least one month physically at Eureka! House – timing is flexible within that 2-month period.

The In-House Printer will receive a stipend of $300 per week, a private room, and a shared kitchen stocked with food from local organic producers.

The In-House Printer will work with the Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 campaign to prepare and print materials for 40% – 50% of their time, and will be invited to spend their other time on their own work and on election-related work as needed.

Safety and health are a top priority during COVID-19, and the spaces and experiences at Eureka! House are designed with this in mind. The Eureka! House is a very large building with many spaces inside and out, and there will be no more than a few artist residents at one time. All spaces are large, and can be arranged so that physically-distanced interactions only occur outdoors. Please get in touch with us if you’re concerned about this and would like to talk about the safety procedures.

Equipment

At the Eureka! House, the Fellow will have full and almost exclusive access to the following printing equipment:

  • iMac Pro
  • Wacom Tablet
  • Epson Pro Photo Scanner
  • Riso SF9450
  • Toshiba Copier
  • Sterling DigiBinder
  • Triumph 4810-95 Electric Paper Cutter
  • RotoTrimmer
  • Large worktable
  • 3’x4’ Self-Healing Mat

There are also ceramics, woodworking, darkroom, painting and other equipment and tools that may be available. Access to other materials and equipment is entirely possible – let us know what you need.

Additionally, the participant will have access to the Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 campaign including Center for Artistic Activism and Universities Allied for Essential Medicines workshop materials.

Who We’re Looking For

Ideal fellows will:

  • Have at least 3 years of printmaking experience, including on riso printers
  • Have experience setting up and maintaining printmaking spaces
  • Be interested in advocating for equal access to medicines and get-out-the-vote efforts
  • Excited about collaborating with advocacy organizations and having access to their expertise
  • Able to advise on others projects while balancing and respecting their creative independence and learning process
  • Have teaching and/or mentorship experience
  • Be able to work independently
  • Be interested in an artist residency live-in situation

We’re also open to multiple people working as a print collective.

To apply, please send a cover letter. In it, please talk about your relevant experience and why you’re interested in this opportunity.

Send to: [email protected] before August 24th 2020.

If you have questions or need more info, please ask!

The toll of the shut-down in the Dorsey clan

Will Dorsey, with his new broom, taking a walk near our neighborhood in Pittsford. He and his family are now living with us as a result of the shut down.

After a freak accident on Friday, my daughter-in-law ended up in the Intensive Care Unit at Strong Memorial Hospital here. It was an unreal series of events in a day that was quietly uneventful up until that point. Our lives began that morning, not as usual, but at least unremarkably, if you discount the fact my son and his wife were back living under our roof with their two-year-old son as a result of the Covid-19 shut down in California and the nation. I began that morning two days ago around 6 a.m. by ordering groceries for my 95-year-old mother, still living independently, but unable to drive. It’s been a year since my father died, and she has adapted bravely to his loss. The help my brother and I offered my parents while he was dying occupied our entire summer last year, when we set up a hospice in his living room to deliver palliative care for weeks as he succumbed to sepsis from an inoperable pressure wound. Our new summer emergency wasn’t yet upon us at this hour. The Instacart order from Wegmans arrived here at my house, as I was mowing the lawn, even though the notes for where to deliver the food outside my mother’s door were visible on the payment page during checkout. So I finished the front yard and loaded the groceries into my Kia and drove twenty minutes to her place with them. We spoke briefly about the state of affairs in my household—for the time being, my son and daughter and their two-year-old son have migrating back to Pittsford, NY from Encino, CA, thanks to the economic shut-down. Our country’s state of suspended animation has interrupted, if not ended, Matthew’s ten-year career as a successful editor/creator of movie trailers for Seismic Productions. Movie production has been completely dead since March. Laura continues to work remotely for Ellen Degeneres. producing Ellen’s website videos with Kristin Bell and others. Her ability to do her job at home, with conference video calls, has enabled them to sell their home in Encino and flee the highly inflated cost of living in Southern California (as in most of the large metropolitan areas in the U.S.).

They arrived here with a carload of household items three weeks ago when they moved into our two spare bedrooms. We rearranged the house to give them space to live and work: the two spare bedrooms upstairs are now theirs, one for Will and the larger one for them. Laura works at a desk in our living room while Matthew takes care of their son, Will, who is possibly the most energized two-year-old on the planet. Matt talks about how, the day he was born, Will was wide-eyed and studying the features of his room, when he should have been sleeping or eating, and unable to see much of anything around him. When he goes for what might euphemistically be called “a walk” he sprints on his tip toes down the street, using the grate in a storm sewer as a razor thin balance beam for the balls of his feet if he isn’t wearing shoes. (Last year, along this same path during his visit, not even two years old at that point, he recited the numbers on the mailboxes as they passed.)

Neither Matt nor Laura know what the future holds for them as a family. She arrived here in the middle of this economic depression—if the unemployment rate, rather than the financial sector, represents the true measure of the economy—and not long after publication of a Buzzfeed article about the “toxic” work culture at the Ellen show. It was followed by revelations in which employees talked about harassment from several executive producers. Each of these stories sparked separate investigations within the company, still ongoing. The day after they arrived, Laura got a call from Warner Brothers and was interviewed by one of their attorneys asking about the allegations. She told the attorney that she was treated with respect and kindness, but that she was aware this might not be the case for others. My impression from everything I’ve heard is that Ellen is a creative spirit who, like many others in many fields, is being required to run an organization rather than focus on her strengths as a comedian and a personality. Once a creatively productive individual rises into management, it can often create problems. This happens everywhere: reporters become editors, detectives become desk sergeants, art directors run art departments, James Patterson becomes the head of a fiction factory. OK, maybe that last one worked out, for better or worse. Ellen seems like someone more at home in a green room than a C-suite conference room. It seems Ellen delegated the actual leadership of the company to her executive producers and they may not have been entirely suited to the power. But all of this is gossip at this point, gossip that has imperiled an entire company.

We all spent several weeks wondering if the show would return in the fall. Each day, Laura started her day at noon, EST, and finished up around 9 p.m., running meetings. Meanwhile, Matthew continued to play the John Lennon house-husband role, becoming Will’s closest and most available companion. On top of all this upheaval, Laura is pregnant and due to deliver her second child in December. So there was a faintly Joad-like quality to their journey, if the Joads had been traveling east rather than west, in an air-conditioned VW, staying at boutique Airbnbs, and funded by a modest nest-egg of equity from a highly inflated real estate market in California (where realtors set dates to take bids and houses nearly all sell for more than asking.) Their nest-egg was no larger than the down payment they made on the house two years ago: closing costs consumed the slight mark-up in the price. The 2,000 square foot “starter” home cost just under $1 million, with a back yard directly adjacent to a busy cut-through street at rush hour, with no side yard on either side, only a pair of catwalk-wide alleys, and no garage.

During my grocery delivery to my mother’s place, we talked about all this, speculating on where my son and his family will end up, how Matt might be able to resume employment, and how much stress this has put on their little family. Laura has become the bread-winner, Matt the homebound parent, and this creates tensions symmetrical to the ones in my own home, where I continue to work for a living though my wife is retired. Being an earner gives you some illusory leverage, but mostly it’s just a foundation for resentment rather than actual power. Living here, they could easily afford to continue in these roles—in L.A., never. When people talk about the urge to preserve the economy, it may in part be an expression of the desire to preserve the animal spirits of Wall Street, but mostly it’s about avoiding this kind of disruption through unemployment—the need for the middle class and working class to pay their bills and remain solvent. The continuing response in states like California, where the lock-down has been fairly stringent and lengthy, is only worsening what has been a growing trend around the country for years: the unaffordability of life in cities like L.A. and New York City. Tents for the homeless are going up everywhere as a result of this inflation. There was an encampment of the homeless only a quarter mile from Matt and Laura’s home in the San Fernando Valley. Inflation is invading smaller U.S. cities as a result of an ongoing wave of migration out of the big metro areas into these more affordable towns. It’s all the outcome of a temporary largesse thanks to the arbitrage of two currencies, the big city dollar vis a vis the much stronger small-town dollar. You bring that weak L.A. dollar into Western New York’s stable economy, and it buys a house more than twice as large, with outstanding public schools supported by taxes, not tuition, not a feature of parenthood in L.A.

We witnessed this last year in Boise when my wife and I looked at housing there, as a possible move to get us within a two-hour flight of Los Angeles, where both of our children and all of our grandkids were located at the time. I remarked to a Circle K cashier working in one of Boise’s more prestigious eastside neighborhoods how robust the housing market was in that beautiful city—the prices were already slightly higher than here in Rochester. She said, “Yeah, it’s great for the new arrivals, but terrible for the rest of us.” Those words will be the motto for countless cities across the country as people migrate steadily out of the big cities over the coming years. She said that if you’d grown up and taken a job in Boise, housing was essentially already unaffordable even in that idyllic, smaller city. Inflation, as a result of a decade of Fed policies to prop up an unsustainable economy, is the big story no one is reporting.

To have lived in Encino and continued to work in their industries wouldn’t have been utterly impossible for Matt and Laura. Matthew’s hours probably would have returned to something like a normal level by next spring, though the money in making trailers has never recovered to its pre-2008 levels. Laura’s job has somehow never seemed in danger, until the news stories shook the program and put everyone at the company on a resume-update footing in anticipation of the potential decision from Ellen Degeneres to simply give up on her position as one of the most successful talk-show hosts in the country. Yet in the tentative words of resolve issued at first to the media and then to employees, it appeared that the show would go on. I told Laura, I didn’t get the impression that someone as courageous as Ellen—one of the first gay entertainers to come out and work openly in the context of her gender identity—would give up and slink away into some kind of semi-retirement. As the days passed, Laura has become more confident and took heart from the love shared by her team and among her co-workers. Ellen and the executive producers who report directly to her may have been either remote and emotionally difficult, defaulting to anxiety-fueled management seeded with encouragement for motivation, but drop a couple tiers down into the show and the bond among workers is fierce. One of Laura’s closest friends and former co-workers, Lena Waithe, has risen into the ranks of elite Hollywood royalty—something that was beginning to happen when Lena attended Matt and Laura’s wedding in 2014. She remains in close contact with Laura even now, through texts and personal visits to their former Encino home.

As I was driving home from my mother’s, Matt called, and I answered in hands-free mode.

“Laura was hit by a car. I don’t know many of the details. She’s at Strong. When are you getting home?”

“In about fifteen minutes, probably. You mean your mom’s CRV was hit? Wasn’t she driving the CRV?” I asked.

“She wasn’t in the car.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“She was waiting to go in for her blood test, sitting outside, and a car ran over her.”

“I don’t understand.”

“That’s what the guy said. The car rolled over her.”

He decided to head to Strong Memorial Hospital himself, not knowing any further details. When I got home, with further texting from Matt, I pieced together what had happened. Laura arrived at the University of Rochester testing clinic, where you can show up without an appointment and get blood drawn. It was crowded inside so, wearing her mask and conscious of the need for social distancing, she went outside, where people were already overflowing from inside. She looked for a place to sit away from the throng. There were no chairs or benches or anywhere to wait comfortably. She found a spot on the grass strip alongside the parking lot and sat on it to text with co-workers. As she put it to Matt, “I was texting and then I was under a car.” The older woman driving the vehicle had gotten confused and saw herself heading toward Laura, kicked the throttle instead of the brake and jumped the curb, the tire climbing over Laura’s back, pinning her to the ground, crushing one side of her pelvis, which probably saved the baby’s life, cracking the opposite hipbone as well, breaking a rib, her shoulder blade and her forearm. The tire left a track of bruises across her back. It also dislocated her hip, which caused her great pain at the time. A bus driver saw the entire accident and jumped out of the bus to help her. Another bystander waiting outside the clinic—there were many who had to find a place to wait outside—called Matthew and also called the ambulance.

When the paramedics got her to Strong (also owned by the University of Rochester, the city’s largest employer, the new Eastman Kodak Co. in terms of its role at the apex of the local economy)  they determined her vital signs were good and got her into the ICU as quickly as possible to make sure the baby survives. Its heartbeat was untroubled, and continues to be strong. Through she arrived at the emergency room on Thursday, surgery to repair the hip couldn’t be scheduled until tomorrow, Monday. So she is in traction, virtually immobile, unable to move enough to text, yet able to make a phone call or dictate into the phone. Yesterday, she was in some degree of pain until later in the afternoon when the attendants found the right cocktail of pain analgesics for her drip.

My wife, Nancy, and I have been caring for Will as Matt spends much of his time at her side in the ICU. Almost immediately after the accident, I called a personal injury attorney to find out what we needed to manage the costs of her medical care. I also wrote to one of her closest co-workers at the Ellen Show with a quick summary of what had happened, after which word spread throughout the company and resulted in a flood of texts and phone calls of concern and support. The attorney said few people understand that despite the prevalence of no-fault car insurance, the car insurance policy of the driver at fault, the one who ran over Laura, will pay for medical care—not Laura’s health plan from the show. Car insurance is entirely responsible for the payment of injury claims, he said. We haven’t yet checked with another attorney on this, though Matt has a name from a high school friend here. Once the driver’s liability coverage is exhausted, Laura’s own car insurance will pick up additional costs. After that, the source of the money needs to be determined. The question is simply how long she will be in the hospital, and the cost of the care she will receive. At this point, everyone expects her to fully recover, but it will take months of rehabilitation before she delivers the baby in December. Costs were an immediate concern because one of Laura’s best friends had a highly premature child not long ago and those six weeks of neonatal care, and treatment for her own complications, ran up a bill for $1 million, with a co-pay of $25,000 for the couple. The last thing Matt and Laura need is to see their nestegg erased along with one of their jobs.

Yesterday, Matt was at her side in the ICU when his phone rang from an unidentified caller. One of Laura’s producer friends at the company said she could expect a mystery call and to answer it. Laura was anticipating a call from an executive producer. Matt answered.

“Is this Matthew?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Hi Matt, this is Ellen Degeneres,” she said.

“Oh, hi Ellen! Let me put you on speaker.”

As he did this, Matt was startled by an alarm in the room. Laura’s heartbeat had spiked so much, it set off an alert from the monitor.

“Hi Laura. How are you honey?” she asked.

Laura told her.

“Do you remember the accident?” Ellen asked.

“Yes, every second,” she said, and proceeded to recount what happened.

Ellen spoke with her for a while and said the company was very concerned about her and would be there for her if she needed anything. She signed off after a short while, saying, “Believe it or not, I have another person to call in Chicago who was in a car accident.”

The call reassured all of us that the show will go on, that Laura will have a secure job, and that her team cares deeply about her. When Matt got home, he was telling us the story of their day together in the hospital and a text came in.

“It’s Kristin Bell,” he told us, sitting on the couch in our family room.. Bell offered her concern and sympathy and any help Laura needs. Matt said, “She says to tell her we love her.”

An hour later, he got another text. He said, “A car full of food is arriving.” He went out into the driveway and carried in a dozen packages, full of chicken parmesan, pizza, cheeseburgers, chicken wings, garlic bread, salad, a feast of fast food ordered for delivery by Laura’s team at the show.

Every night since they’ve gotten here, Will has woken up crying at some point between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. Last night, after Laura’s mother arrived from Philadelphia and slept in the room where Matt and Laura had been sleeping, Matt slept on the floor beside Will—without any discomfort, he said, which is more a reflection of Matt’s tolerant, flexible character than the ergonomics of a hardwood floor. Will slept soundly through the night for the first time since their arrival. With a few prayers for Laura’s complete recovery and a successful surgery, we all did.

Imagining America

The folks at Imagining America are putting out a call for submissions from artists and scholars around collective creative engagements in the U.S, in response to the COVID crisis.

They’re asking for people to suggest ideas around community meals and discussions, poems, stories, visual reflections for a quilt, and dialogues with people in other parts of the country.

Some of the questions they ask people to organize their responses around include:

What is the role of art, design, and creative culture in reimagining and rebuilding our world in ways that create antiracist institutions, structures, practices and ways of thinking?

How might we re-imagine our educational systems, and particularly our colleges and universities, in ways that divest from forms of violence and inequality and invest in cultures and communities of care within institutions and as stakeholders in regions?

What are local communities doing to move towards a more caring, just, and liberatory ‘America’ and world? What are the new and remembered ideas, images, symbols, forms of knowledge, and ways of being that will lead the way?

John Lewis Statement Released Posthumously

John Lewis posthumous statement

The Honorable John Lewis wrote his last remarks to the nation to be published posthumously upon the day of his funeral in Atlanta, Georgia on July 30, 2020.  We honor him in publishing these inspiring words from one of the greatest men to walk the Earth, a civil rights giant who fought for Voter’s Rights, and a passionate arts advocate, who famously stated “Without the arts, without music, without dance, without drama, without photography, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.”

Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation

By John Lewis

July 30, 2020

Mural of John Lewis in Atlanta, GA

While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.

That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.

Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.

Though I was surrounded by two loving parents, plenty of brothers, sisters and cousins, their love could not protect me from the unholy oppression waiting just outside that family circle. Unchecked, unrestrained violence and government-sanctioned terror had the power to turn a simple stroll to the store for some Skittles or an innocent morning jog down a lonesome country road into a nightmare. If we are to survive as one unified nation, we must discover what so readily takes root in our hearts that could rob Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina of her brightest and best, shoot unwitting concertgoers in Las Vegas and choke to death the hopes and dreams of a gifted violinist like Elijah McClain.

Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.

Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.

When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.

Americans for the Arts