Three artists: A personal essay

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Last week marked the day, 56 years ago, when a president was slain in Dallas, Tex.

First, reports of shots. Then, grainy photos. Later, frantic chronologies, timestamps and conspiracy.

Millions of Americans listened live from radios and televisions.

On CBS News, Walter Cronkite’s voice, usually clear in crisis, nearly broke. On the streets, friends and neighbors wept openly. In schools, children were sent home. It was a day seared into the memories of the living. Everyone remembers where they were the day Kennedy died.

With the president’s death came the end of a rare politics of hope: a hope that made choosing the moon feel not only possible, but the prospect of failure seem just the opposite. It was the kind of hope that let “Camelot” — aspirational and idyllic — live on in popular imagination despite the more dismal realities that shaped the early ‘60s: near-nuclear war, trouble brewing in Vietnam, a president in ailing health.

In the days after Kennedy’s death, Leonard Bernstein — the great 20th-century American conductor and composer, most famous for his score of “West Side Story” — prepared for an upcoming performance with the New York Philharmonic. The performance was organized to honor Kennedy, whom Bernstein had come to know and admire on a personal level. Bernstein and his team selected Gustav Mahler’s second symphony, “Resurrection Symphony,” for the orchestra to play under Bernstein’s direction. The tribute aired in full to the nation.

At a benefit in New York City the evening after, Bernstein shared his rationale for musical expression in a time of such tragedy and confusion. “There were those who asked: Why the Resurrection Symphony, with its visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain?” he recounted. “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly, than ever before. And with each note we will honor the spirit of (Kennedy), commemorate his courage and reaffirm his faith in the triumph of the mind.”

To heal

I think about Bernstein’s words often.

I think about how they apply to violence today: not the death of a president, of course, but other forms of pain in this country. Crippling inequality, division, mistrust. Vicious, growing hate.

When Bernstein describes the role of music as a source of strength in distress and a means toward recovery from collective pain, his notion underpins what I see as a broader observation about the role of artistic expression in society. Art, I feel, is among the most powerful tools we have to help us cope and try to make sense of the absurdity of life: that rollercoaster of joy and hardship, the mundane and the magnificent, the dark and light and shades of gray.

There are countless cases of how the arts, in whatever bounds one chooses to define them, show restorative qualities. In trauma of the human body, such as severe brain damage or dementia, music can invigorate long-term memory and motor skills. In trauma of experience, art can serve as a purveyor of hope, as seen through the spiritual songs and oral stories of the unjustly enslaved. The World Health Organization issued a wide-spanning report in 2019 about the “robust” positive role that arts, predominantly music and visual arts, can play in “both mental and physical health.”

There are countless cases of how the arts, in whatever bounds one chooses to define them, show restorative qualities.

Even in the everyday, art lifts me. I can’t explain why playing cadenzas on my clarinet or painting with watercolors makes me feel so free. I can’t convey why listening to Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” or the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” makes me feel a little less alone. I can’t fully describe why it is that the flecks of gold in Gustav Klimt’s paintings, Johannes Vermeer’s use of light or Claude Monet’s ripples of water fill me with such humility and ambition all at the same time. Why is Maurice Ravel’s “Une barque sur l’océan” of “Miroirs” so transportive that stress falls away?

Over the last few years, as I’ve traveled to a handful of cities both near and far, I’ve looked for answers to those questions about how art heals.

Three artists in particular, I found, offer clues: Cubs the Poet in New Orleans, Adrian Boswell in London and David Everitt-Carlson in New York City.

Cubs the Poet

I met Cubs the Poet a few years ago in St. Roch Market. It was a drizzly Monday in New Orleans.

Danielle Miller/Staff

Cubs started writing poetry by traveling around city streets and tourist junctions such as the French Quarter, where he set up simple shop: a black typewriter, some shreds of paper and a makeshift sign. The sign, with text drawn in ruby red ink on the back of his typewriter’s case, read “Poetry Still Matters.”

His mission? Create custom poetry. Make people think. Keep poetry alive.

“Tell me one or two words — any words,” he requested. “Tell me about your time here in New Orleans and what mattered most to you.”

The word I told him was “time,” a concept I think about excessively to my own detriment. The poem he wrote for me was called “It’s always about Time.” It was beautiful.

What I love about Cubs is that he cares deeply about the impact of his words. He makes an effort to understand where the person he is writing for comes from, and what that person would value and connect to in written work. I learned from him the power that listening — truly, deeply listening — to other people share their experiences, and then thoughtfully incorporating those experiences into his own work, can hold for effective communication. It’s a pathway toward developing greater empathy and emotional intelligence: the kind this world needs much more of.

“Tell me one or two words — any words,” he requested. “Tell me about your time here in New Orleans and what mattered most to you.”

Today, Cubs shares his artwork on his Instagram, where his portfolio and business have expanded beyond typed poems to paintings and doodles. He explores timely themes such as race, identity politics, consumerism and class. He challenges the status quo with plays on words that give common phrases new direction.

While Cubs stood out to me the most during my time in New Orleans, he’s one of an exuberant cast of other artistic spirits in the city. NOLA is a place of such resilience and one that I felt honored to be guest of, even if just for a short slice of summer.

Adrian Boswell

Across the Atlantic Ocean, there’s another artist: Adrian Boswell, whom I met while roaming around Brick Lane in East London during my time studying abroad as a UC Berkeley student.

It’s incredible to walk into his artistic space. On the outside, his 91 Brick Lane studio appears to be the dull, brown exterior of a typical English building. On the inside, through a brick arch, it’s an explosion of color, not unlike falling down the rabbit hole into a surrealist wonderland. His artistic medium is collage: soupy canvas concoctions of planets and butterflies, rockets and clocks, vintage cars and swans. His inspirations are Salvador Dalí in craft and Monty Python in humor and spirit.

When I asked him about some of his collages, one featuring Margaret Thatcher with chicken legs atop a backdrop of flowers and another with Vladimir Putin flipping off a violin, I expected a political explanation. Instead, he told me there was simply no intention behind his arrangement of clips — there is no objective behind any of his work. The point of it all was for me to decide.

Danielle Miller/Staff

Perhaps most iconically, Boswell is known as “broccoli man” for his colorful castings of broccoli that he paints and installs in the trees and on the walls around Brick Lane. He started doing this work when U.K. supermarkets were forced to ration broccoli in 2017. The scavenger hunt for broccoli leads observers through other forms of art in the Shoreditch area. Graffiti fills the walls and offers further opportunity for viewers to discern meaning from symbols, calls to action and political posters. My favorite work was a monstrous portrait of the now-Leader of the House of Commons and ardent Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg, titled “Volde-Mogg.”

From Boswell, the great lesson I learned was imagination. Boswell brings splashes of paint and paper images together on a canvas but leaves it entirely to viewers to bring purpose to his chaos. Some may see Boswell’s work to the extent that he presents it: randomness, nothingness, subconsciousness. Others, as I do, build stories from his work, connecting images like connect-the-dots, writing a story by imagining how each of the collage pieces interacts with one another.

There is no right way to interpret his art. There is no wrong way, either. There are many ways. What matters is that Boswell gets viewers to reconsider common objects in entirely new contexts, and in doing so, gain more insight into their interpretative inclinations and biases.

David Everitt-Carlson

The third creative I met was David Everitt-Carlson. A curious figure with roots in activism, I encountered him while walking across the High Line last summer in New York City. Through his public art initiative called iThinkOutsideMyBox, he has become somewhat of an art facilitator and curator.

On the High Line, his project comes in the form of a standing structure adorned with dozens of tiny, 3×3 square cardboard paintings of scenes ranging from the Manhattan skyline to eyes and flowers. It sits propped next to a mat with paintbrushes and paint. On the mat, several people — two young children and a family of three — sat painting, each with their own cardboard canvases. They were the latest group of participants after a busy day’s line up.

Everitt-Carlson provides people with an outlet to take a breath. To talk. To share. His little corner of the High Line feels like a refuge from the big, wide world.

Upon completion of their paintings, participants can leave their canvas to Everitt-Carlson. He hangs them on rotation across his installation, creating a small art gallery for onlookers to enjoy.

I was struck by the mission behind iThinkOutsideMyBox. Its purpose is to provide members of the public — those able and willing to take time away from the rush of New York City life to paint — the opportunity to engage in creative collaboration.

The project survives not because it celebrates any one painter or technical and artistic brilliance above others. It survives because it celebrates the process of creating art itself and the sense of community that is built along the way, even if just for 20 minutes.

Everitt-Carlson provides people with an outlet to take a breath. To talk. To share.

His little corner of the High Line feels like a refuge from the big, wide world.

Look for the artists

If there’s anything I hope to relay from waxing poetic about the value of art or recounting the stories of artists who’ve shaped my life, it’s for you to look for the artists too.

As a student of politics — a person who spends her days studying policy papers and political movements in an effort to use law to right wrongs — I live under no illusion that art will do that work for me. Art won’t solve every bit of tragedy. Surely Leonard Bernstein knew that too.

And yet, art offers guidance on how to live where ballot boxes and medical books fall short.

So look for the artists who make music out of pain, who refuse to let violence have the final say. Look for the people whose ears are open and whose minds seek collaboration, not constant domination. Look for the people with a capacity to dream up the whimsical or repurpose the banal where status quo pervades. Look for the people who build community where it may be missing.

If you can find those people, learn from them.

If you can’t, be one.

Contact Danielle Miller at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dmillercal.