Cultivating Place: An Interview with Jennifer Jewell

I had the immense privilege of being interviewed on Cultivating Place, a podcast by Jennifer Jewell that centers conversations on natural history and the human impulse to garden. We spoke about the practice of making art from the garden, emphasizing handmade inks and watercolor paints. You can have a listen and read some of Jennifer’s stunning reflections here:

ART IN THE GARDEN: LAND-BASED INKS AND PAINTS with IRANIAN-AMERICAN ARTIST MELODY OVERSTREET

"And for me to have an experience with a plant (a rose) that has such a significant role in my family and in my culture, really awakened my senses and gave me a deep appreciation for plants. As food and as medicine, plants have played a very important role in my life helping me to heal my body and mind, helping to connect and re-orient me as a human being. Helping me to really find my place on this earth,

in this place - as though I belong here."” 

Melody Overstreet

Interwoven Voices: Conversations on Change

Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to work in a dynamic community of artists, activists, youth, educators, and visionaries to put together an art exhibition that brings awareness to the ongoing experience of youth in the Foster Care system. Below is a blog post that I wrote in reflection of the process. 

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One question that I have sat with throughout this exhibition, and that I continue to carry with me is, how do we inspire a shift from care and good intention to a place of deliberate action?What do we do in the face of a challenge that is so massive in scale? One approach is to take actionable steps, one at a time.

As an artist and educator, I have learned a lot from the Creative Community Committee meetings, the art-making process, and the presentations by youth and youth advocates. Throughout this experience, youth identified and directed the elements most essential to communicate through this exhibition. I am grateful for the opportunity I had to hold space and listen. There are basic physical needs to survival and well being. In my conversations with youth, the importance of psychological perspectives surfaced. It is paramount that we support the physical well-being of youth, while also meeting emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs through the ways in which we approach our relations, and hold space for their unfolding as whole human beings.

During some of our C3 meetings, several youth inquired about weaving. Creating a collaborative weaving made itself steadily more evident as a fitting medium and process to amplify the self-identified needs of transition-aged youth. This collection of interwoven voices highlights youth-identified needs and perspectives, offering a list articulated and hand-written by youth that provides opportunities for meaningful action.

Weaving

 

Weaving lends itself as a powerful metaphorical act. I think about individuals as part of a larger society— like single threads woven as part of a larger tapestry. I see that as people we have more in common than apart, and that our various lives inevitably intersect. I am inspired in a life-long call to action to meet the needs of youth, to support their individual and collective resiliency, for a society that is rooted in an ethos of care and responsibility for one another. I see clearly that we cannot have a healthy society unless we care for all children. When a vision is shared, the actions of individuals accumulate and have the collective power to shift the tides.

What is our responsibility to future generations? How can we meet the needs of our current generation, and work to change ourselves and the system to deeply address the personal and cultural shifts necessary to provide for future generations?

This work communicates about the “little things” that we can do to support youth aging out of the foster care system. The idea to focus on the “little things” was inspired by MAH intern Karen’s personal insight. Karen shared the idea that as a youth, when experiencing hardships, that the “little things” made a huge difference in her daily life— this included when someone baked her a cake for her birthday, which is a reminder of the soft power of thoughtful gestures.

Action Cards

Alongside the installation, Interwoven Voices, is an installation of Take Action cards. These take-away action cards include the “little things” articulated by youth and youth advocates that have the power to make a meaningful difference in a youth’s current transition and life. The MAH has made these suggestions accessible by printing them on a corresponding card with details of how to achieve that specific action. We are being called to action in a number of ways— through the “little things” first and foremost to support youth in transition, as this is a current and pressing need. We also need to take a deep critical look at the root causes of disruption in family life.

Certainly, these youth carry much wisdom, perspective, and insight, and I am honored to have had the opportunity to hear their ideas and work alongside them. Many youth are demonstrating courage and thoughtful leadership by using their voices to advocate for themselves and for future generations.

In conversation with community member Devin Gonzales, I had an opportunity to broadly discuss the systemic issues and challenges that children and some parents face, challenges that can disrupt family life, and ongoing issues of oppression that variably impact lives. It is not surprising that youth of color are disproportionately represented in the foster care system, as this is an extension of racism. While we take much needed action on the “little things,” it is equally essential that we dismantle the complex and interworking systems of oppression.

Collaborating with Youth and Youth Advocates, partaking in C3, learning from the thoughtful Foster Youth Museum, and working alongside the Museum of Art & History has been a profound opportunity for me, for which I am humbled. This work is ongoing, and I am grateful that the space is being held to bring focused attention and growing awareness to the experiences of youth, as this is one way to heal our current and future generations.

I have been reflecting a lot on a poem by Lu Hsun, that reminds me that Hope requires that we move our feet:

“Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. Rather, it is like a dirt road across the Earth. For originally, there were no dirt roads. When many people walk one way, a path is formed.”

To read the full blog post, and to learn more about the exhibition, which runs from July 7, 2017 to December 31, 2017, visit the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History.  

 

Tend

 
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Each morning I rise to ask, “What does it mean to live well in a place?” Daily, I notice the many ways in which our culture reinforces the ways in which we are separate and independent peoples. In what ways are we connected to one another? What splendor are we composed of, and where do we collectively go from here?

I see a long lineage of peoples. Warp thread moves as a long river and spills into a greater sea. This warp thread is our ancestors as they arrive to connect with us in the present breath of our time. This thread will continue beyond that of our own. What is the purpose of a single thread-- if not woven as part of a larger cloth? I think a line that is centered on itself is lost. When lines join with others, an image/ a grid/ a structure is formed.

I came across an old friend who shared his grief at transitioning out of a career. He shared that he did not know what to do as he would now become irrelevant in his field. Another man stood beside him, laughing, and said, “you don’t get it do you-- we’re all irrelevant!,” and together they laughed. I watched the two men and cried a soft quiet cry, and replied, “you don’t get it, do you-- we are all relevant, and we have a responsibility to tend.” This body is my home, and this land is the mother that nourishes me. I see that we are embedded within a reciprocal landscape. We are a vessel here to care for place. We are carriers of life, and a presence that can work to increase the fertility and renewal of the Earth. We are here to remember, to re-embrace our sacred duties.

And what of our ancestral memory? What have we forgotten in our minds, but remember in the cells, sinew and marrow of our bodies? Do we remember that we are water, stardust, our ancestors, and that we have survived hearty laughter and grief? When a culture is deprived of stillness, we cannot remember our whole selves. We forget where this sacred body came from, what animates us, with whom we are related, and where we will return. Without stillness, we cannot imagine a time beyond our own, or to rectify our behaviors for the healing work that is being called for at this time. I hear the static fibers laugh and sing, asking with joy-- How do we restore integrity to this large tapestry of life? What beings, seen and unseen, sustain our tenuous, fine thread lives? How do we reweave ourselves back into right relationship with each other and place?