The Brightness of Compassion

It was a late winter day, dreary. I couldn’t take it anymore, the meanness and stupidity, the incompetence and corruption revealed daily in the news, in Twitter storms, out of the mouths of two old men talking tabloid in the supermarket check-out line. Back home I looked for something to brighten my day – and found it in a Rio de Janeiro favela.

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What I saw was the stunning photo above, a panoramic view of 34 brightly striped houses in Rio’s Santa Marta favela, the result of a project called Praça Cantão” (2010). I wanted to know more, so I dug in.

It all began in 2005 when Dutch artists Dre Urhahn and Jeroen Koolhaas, who call themselves Haas&Hahn, came to Rio to make an MTV documentary on hip-hop music in the favelas. Non-favela Brazilians avoided the areas, viewing them (often rightly) as dangerous and lawless; tourists were warned not to enter one.

Haas&Hahn, however, witnessed the depth of creativity and optimism that ran through the favela and were dismayed by outsiders’ unfavorable opinions. So an idea came to them: What if the favelados painted their own neighborhoods in ways that portrayed them in a positive light? Could it change the negative stereotypes held by outsiders – and, in the process, change the conditions of the favelados themselves? (See “8 Years of Haas&Hahn,” 2013 video.)

Mural in VIla Cruzeiro

Their first two projects were in the Vila Cruzeiro neighborhood: “Boy with Kite” (2007) and “Rio Cruzeiro (2008-09, above). For both they partnered with local youths, who were trained and paid. Given the success of these two projects, they decided to go bigger and bolder, creating Santa Marta’s “Praça Cantão.”

The Santa Marta project continues to draw international attention. Recently CNN and Australia’s Herald Sun placed it among the world’s most colorful places. Academics in a variety of disciplines – including sociology, anthropology, and architecture – have utilized aspects of Haas&Hahn projects in their urban studies research. And Haas&Hahn have received requests from other places in the Americas, as well as abroad, to bring the power of color to distressed neighborhoods.  

Philly Painting Haas& Hahn

In 2012, for example, they brought their art to one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States, North Philadelphia (photo above). There, as reported on NPR’s TED Radio Hour, local store and building owners and a team of about a dozen youths worked together for two years to paint 50 storefronts, transforming “their own neighborhood – the whole street – in a giant patchwork of color.”

On their Favela Painting Foundation website, Haas&Hahn explain why they create artworks with community involvement in “places where people are being socially excluded”:

“By collaborating with locals, art is used as a weapon to combat prejudice, create sustainability solutions and attract positive attention. By ensuring that each step of the creative process is open, collaborative, and community driven, Favela Painting can effectively contribute to the education and empowerment of the community, particularly local youth, installing a sense of pride and community ownership.”

Favela Painting Academy, founded in 2016

In other words, the transformations that distressed neighborhoods experience aren’t just  aesthetic; they’re also personal, social, and economic. Haas&Hahn claim that the “projects bring hope, positivity, beauty, job opportunities and stability” (The Telegraph). 

Supporting their claim, research at the Yale School of Medicine and other places indicates that public art “can lead to increased levels of community engagement and social cohesion,” serve “as a powerful catalyst for improved mental and physical health,” and improve “perceptions of both the pedestrian environment and neighborhood safety” (Center for Active Design) – especially when artists are teamed with  neighborhood residents. Mural Arts Philadelphia’s  Porch Light Program is a prime example.

Santa Catarina Palopó newpaper

Another glowing example of community improvement through community-created public art is the ongoing project in Santa Catarina Palopó, Guatemala, on the shores of  Lake Atitlán (example above). The goal is ambitious: to paint 960 buildings in the vibrant colors and designs of women’s traditional blouses. Over 35 buildings have been completed so far. And, according to Architectural Digest, the project “has already sparked development, job opportunities, pride, and empowerment in its 5,000 locals, plus increased cultural tourism awareness.”

Haas&Hahn’s Rio favela paintings inspired this project. In fact, they led an initial workshop in Santa Catarina, after which locals took over. Crucial to this entire project, say the promoters, is community involvement. For instance, community leaders approved the final color palette and design templates, and families of each home get to choose how their house will look from these options.

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Other places where Haas&Hahn projects have brightened distressed communities include Miami’s Wynwood district (2014), Caribbean island Curaçao (2014, 2016), Port-au-Prince, Haiti (2015, above); and an Amsterdam prison converted into a hub for refugees (2016).

I don’t know what Haas&Hahn have lined up for 2018, but I did discover on Dre Urhahn’s Instagram page that this past December they finished another favela painting project in Rio. He wrote:

So hard to say goodbye to our second home, rua Santa Helena in Vila Cruzeiro. An amazing place, the coolest people and the best crew ever working on the latest #favelapainting project, colored walls, tiles, mosaic, turning the street into a place of magic. Hope to be back soon!!! Valeu 

Haas&Hahn

Photo Credits in order of presentation: “Praça Cantão” in Santa Marta favela; “Rio Cruzeiro” in Vila Cruzeiro favela; Philly Painting in North Philadelphia; Favela Painting Academy members at work on the island of Curaçao; Santa Catarina Palopó buildings with traditional Guatemalan designs; Haitian Painting in Port-au-Prince; Dre Urhahn and Jeroen Koolhaas in Rio’s Santa Marta.

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Engaged Motion: One Key (of many) to Creativity and even Genius

treadmillFor Christmas I gave myself a manual treadmill. I try to use it daily for a strenuous, indoor workout I much need during northern Wisconsin’s long icy winters. But it’s noisy. I knew it would be, so I ordered a stand for my laptop and a headset to go with it. Now while treading I listen to archived radio programs that I probably wouldn’t have listened to otherwise.

A few days ago, for example, I listened to “Seeking Sites of Global Genius” on NPR’s On Point (1/22/16), which featured Eric Weiner talking about his recent book The Geography of Genius (book’s animated trailer here). Weiner argues that much more than natural talent and hard work go into the making of a genius like Plato, Michelangelo, or Steve Jobs. Geniuses, he says, are grown and appear in “genius clusters,” like in ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, and today’s Silicon Valley. But why? geography-of-genius-eric-weiner-263x409

During his NPR talk, Weiner discusses a number of factors that nurture genius, especially mentors, social mingling, and diversity, as well as hardship, immigration, or even a traumatic event early in life (for Plato, think the execution of his mentor Socrates and Athens’ agora). So it seems that having a perspective different from one’s peers, along with sharing ideas with others, contributes to the flourishing of creativity. Consider Apple’s slogan: “Think different.”

About halfway through the program, Weiner briefly mentioned that walking is also associated with creative genius (research backs this up). By then treading had exhausted me, and I took a break at my desktop. Scrolling through the NPR homepage, I found and read a heartwarming article, “Young Artists Find Home and Healing at Pittsburgh Art House” (1/24/15). It then occurred to me that not just walking but many kinds of engaged physical activities are likely to prompt creative thinking. 

Vanessa-German

Arriving at the notion of engaged motion pleased me, as did connecting the NPR article to the Weiner talk. But more than that, I became intrigued by the Art House founder, Vanessa German, an amazing visual and performance artist who, in my view, is a genius of engaged motion. (See an example of her performance poetry here).

Art House began on German’s front porch, which is next to a bus stop in Pittsburgh’s impoverished, frequently violent Homewood, a neighborhood where kids play “gang” in the alleys. When her sculptures grew too large for the basement studio, she worked on her porch. People would stop to watch. Adults commented on how weird or even scary the fetish-like objects seemed to them (examples of her sculptures here). But kids, she tells us in this 2015 TEDxPittsburghStatePrison talk, “weren’t looking at what I was making; they were watching me do the making.”

SEAsia carved birds
A gift to me from friends

Kids were engaged in the process, the doing, and wanted to help. German told them, “You cannot help me, but you can do your own thing.” She gathered old brushes, paint, cardboard, and materials from a demolished house up the street and set the kids to doing their own art. Soon her porch and front yard were filled with kids. And eventually the young artists got their own place (photos of Art House in the NPR article).           

At the Art House housewarming, German said, “I experience such joy and a sense of deep rightness and completeness when I’m making things…. Like when I’m deciding how I’m going to engineer some sculpture to stand so it looks like it’s defying gravity, and I’m using my brain, and I’m moving around, and I feel like giving myself a high-five – why wouldn’t kids feel that too!?” (NPR).

CandleCurl sculpture Jan15
My candle curl “sculpture”

In my view, German is a genius of engaged motion. But clearly Homewood is not, in Weiner’s terms, a “genius cluster.” Nevertheless, German has found just the right place to grow and nurture her own genius – and to help others grow theirs. On her Love Front Porch website, she says, “I know that art makes a difference, that it can heal, inspire, change anger into love. Art is love. Love is power.”

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“Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”                                                                                                      ~Musical genius Amadeus Wolfgang Mozart

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Image Credits

The Geography of Genius cover comes from Eric Weiner’s homepage and Vanessa German’s publicity photo from a TEDxCambridge site. I took the other three photos with my iPhone: the treadmill setup in my loft; the wood-carved birds, a gift from close friends who traveled to Bali and parts of Southeast Asia; and my candle curl “sculpture,” which continues to grow atop one of my book cases.   

Janis Joplin and Me

Lazarus and I rolled into San Francisco squeezed in the backseat of an Alfa Romeo convertible. It was the last leg of our week-long adventure hitchhiking across the country. The driver and his girlfriend offered us a place to crash, a townhouse in the Haight-Ashbury district that served as both a small commune and a psychedelic poster company. And – talk about luck! – they gave us tickets to Winterland’s Halloween BallTrip or Freak

The ball, called “Trip or Freak,” was that night, Halloween 1967. The performers were the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin. It’s Joplin’s performance that remains the most vivid memory of my hippy sojourn in SF.

What struck me at first was her outfit – especially the bikini-like top with two halves of a coconut shell covering her breasts, which seemed rather risqué to my college-girl eyes. And she was in constant motion. As she dove deeper into the first song, her sexually-charged energy increased. I stopped dancing and, mesmerized, just watched – and listened hard. The soulful way she belted out a song blew me away. I’d never seen or heard anything like that.Janis Joplin at Monterey Pop Festival

I completely agree with David Walsh, who wrote in his review of the 2015 Toronto Film Festival, “anyone who saw Janis Joplin in person, especially in a more intimate space, is not likely to forget it…. I have never from that time to this seen a performer as generous and as giving—and as vulnerable. One almost inevitably fell in love with her.”

Although offering a feminist analysis would not have occurred to me at the time, in retrospect I also agree with Lorraine Ali, who wrote in her Los Angeles Times film review, “The reaction of audiences, who were floored and almost blindsided by the sheer passion of Joplin, illustrates what a true anomaly she was in a rock world populated almost entirely of men. Joplin didn’t wave the flag of feminism, she embodied it.”janis film poster

Walsh and Ali were writing about Amy Berg’s Janis: Little Girl Blue (trailer). This film, the first full-length documentary about Joplin, was released Friday (12/4/15) in major metropolitan areas nationwide. None of the listed theater locations are near me; so I may have to wait until PBS’ American Masters airs it, which, according to the film’s official site, will be in early 2016.

After that amazing first night in SF, I continued to live and work at the psychedelic poster commune. My hitchhiking buddy, a chemistry graduate student named Steve who changed his name to Lazarus after his first LSD trip, soon journeyed on; I never saw him again. Eventually I grew disillusioned with the scene, flew home, and in January resumed my role as a college sophomore – forever changed: more self-assured and with a greater appreciation for the kindness of strangers. All round, it was an excellent adventure.

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Image Credits:

“Trip or Freak” poster designed by Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse and Rick Griffin. For details about the poster’s creation, see this discussion by PosterCentral’s Pete Howard. 

Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the 1997 Monterey Pop Festival (found on Pinterest without attribution).

Janis: Little Girl Blue poster (Jigsaw Productions). 

Recommended Youtube videos:

Amazing Joplin performance of “Ball and Chain’’ at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival (Youtube) 

Another amazing Joplin performance, “Piece of My Heart” live in Germany 1968, with audience participation

Joplin’s Greatest Hits, all audio exceptwith a photo and table of contents

Documentarian Ondi Timoner interviews director Amy Berg about her new film Janis: Little Girl Blue

UFO Artist Ionel Talpazan & Spiritual Technology

It’s almost as if it happened last week – that’s how vivid the memory is. I was seven or eight and wanted to be an astronomer. One night shortly after my grandfather died, I went outside alone to look at the stars. Back then the stars over rural Florida were grand to behold, especially on a crisp, fall, moonless night.

It happened on such a night. I noticed a star overhead getting brighter and bigger and closer. I grew frightened and ran back inside. I listened by the screen door. Then, nothing, not even a bang. I don’t think it was a UFO, never did, not even at the time – probably a meteor. In any case, the memory remains distinct and somehow glorious.alien on trike1.1

UFO artist Ionel Talpazan (1955-2015) had a similar experience as a child – but with a significant difference. Rather than a fiery ball of light, he saw “a ‘blue energy’ radiating from a mysterious source.” This sighting “became the source of his art,” William Grimes says in his New York Times article celebrating Talpazan’s life and work (several examples of his paintings are included). For another thing, he went outside not to grieve alone but to escape a beating.

Talpazan grew up in a Romanian commune and escaped Nicolae Ceaușescu’s brutally repressive regime by swimming across the Danube in 1987. He was granted political asylum in the United States and spent the rest of his life living in New York City, first on the streets then moving to an apartment in Harlem.

In The Telegraph obituary I learned that Talpazan began drawing UFO images four years after his encounter and over time amassed more than 1000 artworks. The Telegraph obituary adds several interesting details not mentioned in Grimes’ piece, and both tell you more about his works and how he came to be recognized by the art world.alien stickman1.2

Contrary to what my whimsical photos suggest, Talpazan was more interested in extraterrestrial technology and space travel than in extraterrestrial beings, especially in how “flying saucers” could “bring about a better world by introducing a benevolent technology” (folklorist Daniel Wozcik, quoted by Grimes). 

In fact, Talpazan once told the journal Western Folklore that his art “shows spiritual technology, something beautiful and beyond human imagination, that comes from another galaxy … Something superior in intelligence and technology. So, in [a] relative way, this is like the God. It is perfect” (quoted by Grimes).

The notion of a “spiritual technology” is what really grabbed my attention. Do we currently have any technology that we might describe as “spiritual,” something that is remotely “like the God” here on earth?

The computer comes to mind with its amazing capability to crunch numbers, find information, render 3-D virtual worlds, and so much more. (Oddly, Talpazan was a low-tech guy who didn’t own a computer, not even a telephone.)  For me, however, the technologies of aviation and recorded music have produced more transcendent moments than any other technologies in my experience. What about for you?

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Note on photos:

Young Alien Showing Off on a Trike: the alien is a key chain ornament, and the trike is part of a Christmas ornament. Alien Stickman: something I found on the golf course. The black background in both is my Razer laptop box.

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Update to previous post on Steve Jobs: Here’s the recent NPR review of Danny Boyle’s just-released movie Steve Jobs. I haven’t seen it yet but found it interesting that the movie stops chronicling Jobs’ life before he oversees the creation of the iPod. I agree  with the reviewer that a sequel must be planned because the movie ends about halfway through Walter Isaacson’s biography, on which Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is based.