Artist as Public Servant

In the face of climate change and energy challenges, what creative ways are you finding to forge healthy and durable lives and communities? Send submissions — five hundred words or fewer — to Orion, 187 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or via {encode=”” title=”e-mail”}. Submissions become property of Orion.

As a working artist and craftsperson faced with the realities of the current socio- and ecosystemic breakdown, I struggled to come to terms with the idea of producing objects for an elite audience — objects that had no useful function in the lives of ordinary people. As a jeweler, potter, and glassblower, I was also concerned with the environmental impacts caused by the high-energy needs and the procurement of materials that are inherent to these disciplines. And, to top it all off, the marketing of my work aided and abetted the consumerist lifestyle that is so much the cause of our current troubles. In light of these concerns, I began to rethink my connection to both my work and my audience.

Though there are endless definitions of art and artists, my current working definition is that an artist is someone who observes the world around her and, through her work, reflects those observations to a specific audience. A successful artwork is one that somehow causes that audience to experience a shift in perception. With this understanding, I was able to modify my orientation from that of an artist creating objects for consumption to that of an artist working as a public servant to create experiences that change people’s ideas of what it means to be a community.

This redefinition allowed me to start doing work that bears little resemblance to the art-as-commodity-objects that I produced in my former life and is, in fact, not even recognizable as art in the traditional sense of the word. My two current projects are the development of a K–12 charter school that features a place-based curriculum, and something called the B Street Permaculture Project, a collaboration between Pacific University and multiple community partners that is centered around developing a strong local economy, improving community food security, and restoring ecosystems in the Forest Grove, Oregon, area. Both of these community-building entities act to connect elements that already existed separately so that they start to form a systemic, symbiotic, and synergistic whole.

In my role as an artist, I am the generator of these projects; I can visualize the thing in my mind before it exists in the real world and, through my words and energy, help others to understand and get excited about the potential in what I see. If I am successful, my work will precipitate a decision on the part of my audience to lend their own skills and energy to the effort. Each of us brings our own contribution that, in combination with the others, causes something to happen that would have been impossible if we had all worked at it separately. To me, this is exactly like what happens in a painting where blue is blue and red is red but, when placed in a certain relationship to each other, they can form a meaning different from blue and red. This transformation of understanding has given my work a greater relevance to myself, my family, and my community than I ever thought possible.