Sunday, March 27, 2011


I apologize in advance if this becomes a bit scattered in focus, but I am a bit scattered in my own focus as I write it.  I am filled with two, seemingly separate trains of thought that were both inspired by the same thing. Now you get to be the rider of those trains.  Straddle them carefully. I don't want anyone to get hurt.

As an artist  (in one form or another depending on the time of year, time of day, what I was doing just prior and the ease of expressing myself at that moment), I have often doubted the value of what we do. I forget that even though we do not actually cure cancer, to use the commonly accepted metaphor, we do help people deal with it. We have the opportunity to make people happier, if only for a moment. We have the responsibility to make people think of things other than themselves. We have the freedom to do those things in whatever voice we see fit.

Art can be a tool to express yourself. It can be a tool to release burdens.  It can be a tool of distraction. A tool of focus. And it can be a tool of social change.

Words and music have been the mode of creation that I've been consistently drawn to (pun sort of intended).  For as long as I can remember, I've been a "carrier" of words. The words in songs in particular. I've always been an avid radio listener, which resulted in my knowing the words to pretty much every song played up until 1995.  I have one really fond memory of spending a weekend at camp with my friend Michelle and her family. One night, she and I took a walk around the campsite, passing dozens of others. Everyone had a radio tuned to a different station. I knew, and of course sang every song that was on each and every one of those stations.  That night, as we were going to sleep, Michelle, always a great fan of mine, asked me to sing her to sleep. I have no idea how many songs I sang to her by heart that night.

It wasn't just songs that I would remember, either. To this day, more than 20 years later, I still have the entire commercial for Lee Press-On Nails memorized. You'd be surprised at how often something like that pops up in conversation. (Now, I'm not saying I bring it up or anything, but somehow it just seems to pop up. Odd.)  Mostly, with my friend Melissa (we've been friends since second grade).  She and I never miss an opportunity to tease me over the fact that I still have that damn commercial implanted in my brain. I imagine, if she has the distinct displeasure of saying something at my funeral service, it will probably involve Lee Press-On Nails. In natural and glamour lengths and a variety of sizes for a quick, easy fit. Press on.

In a glorious combination of music AND words, rap music came along. I know many people do not understand or like rap music. Many of them even detest it and consider it to be the lowest form of art, or don't even consider it art at all. Not me. I love it. I don't love all of it.  I am a connoisseur, after all. There is some crappy rap that saps the happy from my savvy (case in point). But there is a lot out there that is true, honest-to-goodness poetry, written by geniuses of word craft that are able to assemble thoughts, ideas and emotions in ways that not only vividly portray a way of life, but that can also cause shifts in societal thinking. Now, if that's not art I don't know what is.  So what if it also has a great beat that you can dance to? Two thumbs up!

As time went by and life got more distracting, I've reduced and evolved the words I memorize. Shifting the focus to memorizing scripts.  Or trying to write them.  I've always tried my hand at writing.  I find it so much easier to write than talk. With writing, you can stop and think and rewrite and edit and print or not print and share or not share.  With talking, that's it. You said it. You can not now "un-say" it.  I've written songs, poems, short stories, scripts, letters to no one, clever Facebook statuses.  Oh, and the occasional blog. :-)

I've tried my hand at painting. Although I'm not as bad at it as I once thought I was, I don't think it's the medium for me. Too much prep and clean up work. I prefer my mode of expression to be clean and simple.  I enjoy taking pictures but only with my digital camera.  I think I'm OK at that as well, but I don't really have a story to tell. So it's just something I do for myself.

I actually earn my living with graphic arts. In addition to being a graphic designer myself, I help manage a team of about 40 artists.  I've been doing that job for over 14 years now. 

Oh yeah… and I also went to college for music and theater, earning a degree in each. 

The point of all that?  I am surrounded by art and artists and people who appreciate art and artists pretty much all the time.

Yet, even with all of that creativity going on in my head and all around me, I still somehow have managed to downplay the impact art can have on a person individually and the importance art can have on society as a whole.  Even with the personal experiences I've had; even with the memories that are so ingrained in my psyche they will stay with me through the next life; even through being touched by and inspired by and moved by art in all its various forms; even being surrounded by art constantly,  it is still hard for me to push past the notion that art is fluff. Crazy, huh?

So, let me get to the second inspiration for writing this.

I just watched Waste Land. One of the 2010 Oscar nominated documentaries. It follows artist/photographer Vik Muniz as he creates portraits of "pickers" in Rio Di Janeiro.  These pickers sift through garbage in the biggest landfill in the world for recyclable materials.  It is not easy work they do and is incredibly important. I highly recommend this movie and others like it.

{SIDE NOTE - The world of documentary film making has not exactly hit the main stream circuit, with rare exception, but it is so important.  These people are documenting and reporting on things that, quite frankly, should be reported on by the 24 hour news networks, but apparently there isn't enough money in it, so they feed us stuff like which celebrity went to prison or which one went to rehab. I know I'm not alone in saying, I don't care.  Try giving me something I can sink my teeth into.  Thank you Netflix for the world of film and ideas that is now available to me.}

Vik Muniz composes images out of objects. Here's a link to his website so you can get an idea for yourself -   I had no idea who he was before this documentary, but the work that he has done, especially as part of this project is really quite important.  He composed portraits of several pickers working in the landfill, laying them out, "drawing" them on a huge warehouse floor using nothing but the same recycled materials they extract from the landfill every day. The entire process was incredibly moving. Through the documentary, we learned about these people, about their lives, about how they came to work as pickers. Every story was both tragic and inspiring.  That is, after all, what makes for a good movie. What Vik Muniz was able to do for, and more importantly WITH these people goes to show how INvaluable art is.  By working with them, he was able to show them different sides of themselves and different sides of life. Through the proceeds from selling the images they created they were able to develop programs, build community development centers, including a library, and begin to really fight for the rights of all pickers.  They are actively developing recycling programs all across Rio and Brazil.

That is how important art is.

The next question I ask is - Are we doing enough here in the US? You know there are still some areas that do not have recycling programs at all?  I'm always a little taken aback when I visit my mother in Troy, NY. Her townhouse development does not recycle.  There is no incentive for people to do it on their own.  Of course, in an ideal world people wouldn't need incentive. They would do it because it's the right thing to do. But, we don't live in an ideal world. We live here. In America where we are free to do or not to do pretty much whatever we want. Inevitably, we will choose the easier option. To my mother's credit, she does her own sort of recycling by reusing things she can, and she does return bottles with deposits. So there's that.

There are also places that go to the opposite extreme. I was pleasantly surprised on a recent trip to visit my brother in Indiana, when I saw no less than 5 various recycling bins. They sort everything - paper, plastic, cans, composting materials, and glass. Residents are charged for special orange trash bags that are used for actual curbside trash. The less trash you have + the less bags you need + the less money you spend = Incentive.  There is also a recycling plant that is quite local and easy to get to. Residents bring their recyclables directly to the plant.  I think this is great. Where I live on Long Island, NY, and probably most of the US, does the standard set - glass & cans in one group and cardboard in another. We don't have to take it anywhere except the curb.  It's all handled for us.  Which I also think is great because I tend to be a bit on the lazy side when it comes to these kinds of things. If I'm being perfectly honest, I don't know how likely I would be to make a trip to the recycling plant. So, yes, I am part of the problem.

Watching Waste Land made me realize that we take many of those services for granted these days. In Rio, all of the sorting is done at the land fill, by hand.  At least they are doing something.   Now, don't get me wrong, I watch enough Dirty Jobs (Discovery channel, Tuesday @ 9) to know that the US also has it's fair share of garbage-related jobs to process what the rest of us are too lazy or complacent to do ourselves, but it isn't systematic across the entire US. Or I hope not at least.

Now, about my art, or lack thereof.  I have not known how to create art and have it make a difference. I'm starting to see that the power of words may be the most immediate and possibly the most effective tool I have in my arsenal.  This is now the second blog I've written with an actual purpose other than just telling a little story.  After my last blog, I learned that people from all over the world were reading my words. That's amazing to know. It was very eye-opening. (better get the grammar, punctuation and spelling right on this one!)

Maybe this writing thing might turn out to be my true medium after all. The one that enables me to not only express myself, but to help others be inspired to express themselves or to try and make a difference.  I have always believed in the power of singular actions creating greater outcomes. Maybe this is how it's done.


At 27 March, 2011 21:07 , Blogger Paul G. said...

Nicely said! You do have a natural way with words.... enough to guilt me into recycling my cans... =)

At 27 March, 2011 23:20 , Anonymous Bette M said...

Michelle, art is not fluff, but rather a "fluffer " of the human spirit. Art , be it film, photos, music, encompasses all human emotions. We have music we listen to when we are sad, music we work out to. In a world where the media jams images down our throats of what is cool, or the "in thing". Art allows us an opinion. We can derive as little or as much from what ever medium we find enjoyable.

I also feel each and every person should be required to watch one documentary every week. Instead of having a population that worships Jersey Shore, we could maybe shift the focus to relevant issues. Get people to see what really goes on in the world, Not just stupidity and outrageous behavior of a sub-human class of morons only out to be known for being a waste of the air that they breathe. I sat around for years then finally got up off my ass and started doing some volunteer work. It may only be 4 hours a week, but I know it makes a difference. And you know what? I feel great when I do it.

As for recycling, I was at Eisenhower Park yesterday dropping off, pool chemicals, paint and an old propane tank. I was amazed at how many cars were lined up for the Town Of Hempstead's S.T.O.P program. I did spend 35 minutes waiting, but once again, I feel like I made a contribution. Baby steps are better than nothing. But you are right we can do more.

And as far as those people who are calling art fluff, what are they doing thats so much better, or that anyone wants to see? Keep doing what makes you happy girl.....

At 28 March, 2011 23:06 , Blogger Michelle Lee said...

Yes, Paul - Take care of those cans tout suite!!

Bette - I need to start volunteering again. I used to do it quite often but haven't in a few years. It is very soul-satisfying.

At 31 March, 2011 19:52 , Anonymous Michelle B. said...

What a great blog! As a mom, I'd like to add that art is a great window for children to learn and socialize too. (Dancing and listening to music with a new friend, playing a dancing game, creating homemade jewerly etc).

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