Letting Your Art Lead The Way
“The universe reveals its secrets to those that dare to follow their hearts.” —Adriene Mishler
by Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
A monumental thing happened the day sculptor Olena Ellis defended her thesis for her BFA at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
But the monumental thing happened before a single professor’s toe crossed the threshold into that gallery.
Ellis designed the show layout of “Do You Count?” so that the first piece viewers encountered was a six-foot interactive abacus with neolithic goddesses sculptures for beads.
Ellis made the work in an effort to humanize individual women battling against domestic violence and sexual exploitation in her community and the world.
“The exhibit was intense,” said Ellis, “especially because it was being shown in a state that has some of the highest domestic violence rates in the country.”
Before The Defense
As Ellis was setting up for her thesis defense, understandably a bit nervous, a class of sixth graders came in to view the show.
The group’s teacher gathered the kids around Ellis’s table of handheld goddesses you see below.
“The goddesses were not priced,” said Ellis.
“In the description near the table I had challenged the gallery visitors to place a value on the lives of people who have experienced violence.”
Audience members could place money into the jar for a goddess, and the funds would be donated by Ellis to a specific, nearby, domestic violence shelter.
After the teacher explained this to the students a young boy spoke up and said that he and his Mom had stayed at that very shelter Ellis named in the description.
The boy beside him turned to him and quietly said, ‘I did not know that about you.’
Then one of the girls across the table from him said, ‘We love you.’
The girl next to her echoed her classmate’s words, ‘Yes, we love you.'”
The energy of care and acceptance that welled up in the gallery was palpable and there was not a dry adult eye in the room.
“The teacher thanked me for my exhibit,” Ellis said. “Then she explained that they cannot talk about topics like this in the classroom but my show gave them the opportunity to discuss it.”
(Ellis, her community, and those pocket-sized goddesses ended up raising over $1700 for the shelter the boy had stayed at.)
The Honor of Being an Artist (That We Occasionally Forget)
“That day I got to feel what a profound honor it is to be an artist,” Ellis said. “My defense became minor compared to the moment I was able to witness with that circle of sixth graders. As artists we are given this platform to talk about subjects that may be difficult for others to voice, subjects that need more light shed on them.”
Ellis’s story reminded me of something I’d forgotten. All creatives deal with this tension between longing for approval from outside authority figures and honoring the internal voice of our creative spirit; a creative spirit which insists on having its own, sometimes outrageous, true north (for good reason.)
But if we negotiate the bridge of that tension, and stay upright long enough to make the art that our spirit insists on producing, despite our fear of disapproval, we are often richly rewarded.
Rewarded with the knowledge we’ve given voice to those who are having a hard time speaking.
Rewarded that we may have made it easier for even one little person, to deal with what has happened to them.
What a boon.
(BTW, the professors approved Ellis’s thesis that day and she went on to graduate university Magna Cum Laude.)
A Question For The Road
Olena’s brave topic choice for her thesis show compelled me to ask myself:
What would I create if I bypassed my fear of ridicule and followed my own heart without reservation?
What would I be happy to hear a little boy or girl muster up the courage to voice when standing before my work?
What would you?