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Lucie in penbrush

August 18, 2012

Hot day

Lucie keeps me company up in the studio while I’m working. It is under the roof, and hot on days like today.

Recently I’ve been breaking my brain on an article I need to write, so in between drafts it is a relief to grab my fountain brush and sketch Lucie.
My oil painting has ground to a halt, and I’m generally not very productive right now, so it is a relief to see there’s at least something being produced around here!

Above, relaxed, and below one of Lucie’s’ difficult positions’

When Lucie has her head stretched out like the 2 sketches on the bottom of the page, she is expressing some sort of discontent. It is not a relaxed position like the one above it. Either she thinks I’m spending too much time on the stupid article instead of playing with her (she’s right). Or she wants to be somewhere else but is too polite to leave.

This is similar to when I want to take an afternoon nap and cuddle up with her on the studio bed. If she is not in the mood, she will grudgingly come up on the bed and extend her head in a similar way, with her chin pointedly grinding into my leg, something like the position below. This is a very clear message that she is not at all happy about keeping me company, but for me, she’ll stay – as long as I know it is against her (very  strong) will. Every muscle is tense and the minute I get up, she jumps like a shot and skids down the stairs to find her throwing ring to play.

How she breathes like this I haven’t a clue

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photo Hannah Hess

SZ  Milenko, I’ve done a lot of work in the community as a healthcare artist and workshop leader. I find that after these excursions out to the community I need to draw back into the private world of my studio and create art to refresh my inspiration so I can go out again.
Do you feel a similar need? If so what do you do to recharge your batteries?
Or is the work itself energizing enough for you?

MM  I could do better with refueling. Having a small nonprofit means hustling for grants, giving talks, doing business development, participating in the larger network of volunteers and non-profits, and, of course, doing projects.

In the last year alone we built six gathering places and, in addition, led community engagement processes in several more neighborhoods. Last year’s work created copious stress; now we are taking steps to slow down and pace ourselves a little better.

For me personally, that means spending time with family and friends. I also bicycle and walk, and I disengage my brain by playing and watching soccer. I also do watercolors and ink drawings—quick art making that can be squeezed into my tiny periods of free time.

SZ How do you see the relationship (if any) between ‘art as calling’- passionately devoted mature artists working to high standards, vs the democratization of art where everyone is an artist?

MM Both modalities are important; in my work I practice both. The goal of my community work is to create shared ownership and for that to happen I do not present myself as an artist. I do not want people to feel they are my assistants. Rather I treat them as colleagues whose artistry may be different from mine, but is equally important and valuable. I invite their input at every stage of the process and together we figure out things faster.

I define success by how much we can accomplish with the limitations of each project: budget, site, available time, volunteers, contributions, and talents. Within that larger process, my artistic skills are called forth and I engage with that process deeply and passionately just as any artist would. So I don’t see that ‘art as calling’ and ‘everybody getting to be creative’ are in conflict.
Although many artists work in solitude, I work with many people in situations that are often chaotic and require constant adjustments and flexibility. But in the end, we are all artists.

I strive for conditions where the best of each of us can coexist, where people are talented together. When I can, I gladly draw on the talents and expertise of others.

photo Hannah Hess

SZ The art academies I‘m familiar with are oriented to producing star artists, and the students have that goal too. They are learning about competing and entrepreneurship. What should art education look like in our changing times?

MM In the Seattle area, where I live and work, this isn’t the case. The design schools at which I give occasional talks are all about community and sustainability.

I think the age of egomaniac artists, just like the age of political tyrants, is winding to a close. Collaborative practices will gradually become the norm, and schools will teach collaboration.

Collaboration’s purpose is to relate to each other in such a way that typically irritating differences can be transformed into valuable gifts.

To turn differences into gifts requires strength and flexibility. It involves the confidence to express ideas and the humility to adjust them to those of others’. This requires us to stand in one’s center while falling into the unknown-a demanding circus act.

I feel the hands and bodies are getting neglected in art training. Kids in the United States spend eight or nine hours a day staring at screens – computer, phones, TV – that ultimately function as a buffer through which life is perceived. This creates a more virtual brain circuitry, and the delusion of the familiar, meaning that if I read about something I’ve done my part about the issue.

Art is not about information, it is about meaning, about taking intuitions and information and making internal sense of them.

This is hard and courageous work, and demands that our whole beings are involved. Artistic work should produce three results: a new artwork honoring a new insight, a new artist who uses the process of creation to ‘incarnate’ this new insight into her enriched being, and a community renewed by the artwork. This, in essence, is the purpose of any creative act and hands must be an integral part of the work – something different happens in the brain when the hands, heart, and brain work together.

I feel myself to be less the artist leading a project and more the chef at a community feast: the ingredients are brought to the table by many participants and someone needs to figure out the recipe, one that won’t poison people, one that will be tasty and nutritious. It comes down to synthesizing the gifts of a lot of people.

Continued in Interview part 2

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This is the fourth post in the series featuring Milenko Matanovic
Continued from Interview Part 1

SZ And finally, in your talk about art and community building at PopTech, you mentioned a ‘rumble’. It seemed to be in the context of the conference, but I was fascinated by the concept of something passing through one, and suddenly familiar things falling into a new pattern, which in turn changes the significance of those things.

MM When I stepped out of the narrow arts trajectory, there were so many events happening in the world–large social and cultural events like the collapse of communism, the growing awareness of a global society.

In addition, I realized that what we were doing to the natural environment, to our Earth, was effectively a nuclear explosion happening so slowly that we did not even see it – how we nonchalantly take nature as an industrial resources and nothing more.

I tried to understand why we humans are so habitually destructive and how art is implicated in that destruction. I talked with leaders in environmental, artistic, and social issues to try and understand these issues. Together, I call all these ideas the ‘rumble.’ And it was why I felt I could not continue to make art in the isolated context of the traditional art world.

SZ How did you get into this type of work, from which Pomegranate eventually grew?

I came to the USA in the 1970s and I made it a point to meet many interesting leaders and visit cutting-edge organizations dealing with spiritual, environmental, economic, and social issues, and try to learn how they go about their business. I discovered that most organizations which were ideologically based were organized around core belief systems. These they promoted to attract like-minded people. Many eventually turned into psychologically gated communities tolerating some and ignoring others.

Increasingly I started to see this proposition as problem rather than a solution. When starting Pomegranate Center, I wanted instead to explore the idea of community of differences. I wanted to explore if it is possible to create conditions where differences are not perceived as obstacles and irritations, but as assets.

In other words, I wanted to see if it was possible to work together in spite of ideological and cultural differences. Is it possible to create conditions where people are at their best together in spite of seeing their world differently? Is it possible to combine their insights into larger understanding rather than compete for the prevalence of their pre-existing views and beliefs.

In other words, is it possible that we together uncover something larger and more meaningful than we can alone?

When we work on our community-built gathering places, I can’t afford to take sides or have preferences for a certain type of person. We get all kinds of religious and political volunteers, but we simply focus on what needs to be done, ‘Here is a project we can do together, do you want to help?’ We found repeatedly that people are perfectly able to collaborate and create great, meaningful projects together. Like any artistic work, we begin with hearing ideas; we sketch out possible designs; we select the design that is most in tune with the site, local culture and local talents, that is doable on time and budget; we work with many volunteers to build it; and we help them organize programs there and encourage the people to take care of them. I think the power of our projects lies in working with people who are participants in the creation of a large artwork and they see their ideas taking shape quickly. In our times where most people are in jobs where they are in charge of tiny parts of large and complex operations, where their contributions are abstract, our artistic and collaborative projects give participants a sense of real accomplishment, of great satisfaction that results in pride, increased trust, and greater sense of safety. In one neighborhood where we did a project four years ago, crime rate fell by 40% and has stayed there for four years. This is good!

For the article introducing Milenko’s work, please scroll down.