What do Artists and Terrorists Have in Common?

That's the question I asked my students this past Wednesday on their first day of summer Art Lab at PlatteForum. Twice a week all summer I'll be working with fourteen high school students from various Denver Public schools, exploring subversive art through the lens of language. Using a combination of verbal and visual messaging, installation art, and improvisation, the students will experiment with creative ways to express ideas that are antiestablishment but prosocial.

So what do artists and terrorists have in common? Well, both groups are very emotional. They operate from the belief that their emotions are important enough to act on. They believe that their actions can impact others. Finally, they are willing to put it all on the line in order to execute their ideas. Artists and terrorists are the polarized ends of society -- the freaks and the geeks whose ideas are typically too radical for the mainstream.

The primary difference, of course, is that most artists choose to be prosocial in their approach instead of antisocial. As artists we believe we have a responsibility to manifest the world of our dreams, but most of us aren't willing to push our agendas at the expense of the wellbeing of others. My challenge to the students this summer as we explore subversive art forms is to find interesting and innovative ways to challenge the status quo while still being pro-people, pro-society, and proactive.

Every Thursday until August from 2pm - 3:30pm we'll be hosting an open studio, and the public is welcome to come check out our progress. You can usually find us in the Riverfront / Commons Park area, stirring up some kind of subversive trouble. 

OPEN STUDIO DAY ONE: One-Word Challenge

I divided the class into two groups. Each group was charged with choosing one word that represented an idea around which they wanted to raise awareness. The first group chose the word "Lies," and the second group chose the word "Manic." Using only found materials, the students had 30 minutes to create a temporary installation to raise awareness about their theme.

They nailed it. Riverfront community residents beware... we'll be here all summer.

Made of mulch and sticks, the word "LIES!" greets pedestrians as they cross the bridge over the Platte.

As the installation develops, the students add arrows. Around this time, some residents started getting a little hostile, asking if the students lived nearby and who would be "cleaning up the mess." Other pedestrians were more openminded, asking questions as they walked by or simply slowing down to take it all in. The postman and a delivery driver were both very conscientious, driving around the installation instead of over it.

This part of the installation was made out of dirt. It's actually much larger than the picture suggests. Very impactful!

The Manic group created a sculpture of a person suffering from a manic attack. Their installation was on a rock outcropping hidden by high willow bushes; an unsuspecting explorer would definitely be unnerved by this discovery!

The group reported no problems at all finding all these materials in the bushes near the river in their allotted time frame of 30 minutes. Socks, shoes, a backpack, a man's shirt, deodorant, an empty pill bottle, beer cans, cigarettes, a hat, and other refuse littered the banks.

Team Manic describes their work to Team Lies.

I am so proud of all the students for their hard work this week. I look forward to sharing more of our work here as the summer progresses!


Feature Poet at Gypsy House Cafe

Tonight I have the privilege to be the featured poet at Lenny's Place, a monthly poetry series hosted by my friend Lenny C. and based out of the Gypsy House Cafe in Denver. The event starts at 8pm with a short open mic, and then around 8:25 I will perform about thirty minutes of material. Come a little early so you have time to grab a drink at the cafe, and then head down to the basement for an 8pm start. No cover.

See you there!


Radical Empowerment in Uganda!

Shawn and Pavel are two very grateful and fulfilled twenty year-old men these days. They both recently returned from an extraordinary trip to Uganda, thanks in large part to the overwhelming support they received from my amazing community of donors. And so, my dearest family, friends, and clients, THANK YOU for facilitating mentorship and empowerment!

Pavel administers first aid in the slum (left) and feeds the children lunch at Patrick's orphanage (right). He also gives Patrick a physical lift in exchange for the spiritual lift he received (center)!

Sometimes it can be challenging to connect to the idea of investing in a person instead of a thing. Many people can understand giving money to an organization if that money buys food or medical supplies, but the idea of paying for a stranger's plane ticket to Africa can give us pause. As donors, we want our money to act as an arrow. We are taught to aim for the bullseye, as close to the heart of the need as we can.

That's exactly why I am passionate about investing in people instead of things. Things don't solve problems. People solve problems, and people use food, medicine, and other resources as their tools. By empowering Shawn and Pavel as emerging social entrepreneurs in Uganda this winter, you impacted far more than just one community of people on one volunteer mission. You have taken advantage of an opportunity to foster change in every community that Shawn and Pavel will touch for the rest of their lives.

Shawn was a child magnet everywhere we went. He never complained of having his hands full!

I am humbled by the generosity I experienced throughout the course of this adventure, and I am proud to report that the project was a resounding success for everyone involved. As members of the Uganda Project team, we built memories that we will carry forever. We enrolled our students in school, purchased mattresses and food for an orphanage, visited a safe house for children escaping the slums of Kampala, and got chased by a baboon while on safari. It should surprise no one that somewhere along the way, we made lifelong friends.

Pavel has no trouble making friends at the orphanage

Shawn helps Shariff, a former Uganda Project student, capture footage of Matt and Griffin's musical performance at the safe house.

Uganda Project staff and students on safari. Wild animals beware of wild humans!

Resurrect, people!


You Can't "Overcome" Autism

Dear Colorado State University Marketing Department:

Look. I like the university you work for. Go rams. But here's the thing: whoever is writing your advertisement copy is cutting some pretty stupid corners. On a recent flight to Los Angeles, I noticed your ad about Professor Temple Grandin, PhD in the Frontier Airlines magazine. In the copy, some jerk claims that Dr. Grandin "overcame" autism:

Now, I haven't seen the Claire Danes movie, so I guess there's always more to learn. But my understanding of Dr. Grandin's success is that it is precisely because she has autism that she has been such a gift to her field. She attributes her unique perspective, particularly when it comes to understanding animal behavior, to the fact that she can think in pictures... which she associates with her autism. As far as I can tell, the only thing she overcame is the huge heap of sickeningly-saccharine, condescending attitudes held by people eager to short sell anyone who is just a little bit different. Okay, I'll buy that Dr. Grandin overcame some of the challenges typically associated with autism, but that isn't what your ad says. Be specific. It would only cost you a few extra words, and that's a small price for clarity.

CSU is damn lucky to have Dr. Temple Grandin as a professor. Don't pin a badge on her and call her a Girl Scout and a good sport. She isn't Notre Dame's Rudy. She is wholly herself, and she seems to be doing a bang-up job of it... which is more than most of us can say.


The 33rd Hour

We are 33 hours into our trip home from Uganda. Pavel and I have touched down in Minneapolis for one last layover - our sixth city since we left Kampala yesterday. Shawn is somewhere in the sky en route to Los Angeles, and Denver still seems impossibly far away. The snow outside this plane window is fake, staged for dramatic impact. In a moment I'll wake up, and Kenny will be cutting a pineapple. Edith will be poaching eggs, and Joan and Esther will peel carrots and shred cabbage. We'll gather in the kitchen to pray, and Mary will say "Friends, humble yourselves...."