Keynote address delivered at Chatham University
May 22, 2011
Thank you President Barazzone, Louise Brown, Laura Armesto –and all at Chatham University for this honor.
A small story…
When I was in 8th grade, Mr. Johnston, my earth science teacher took our class on a field trip to a nearby park. He asked each student had to stake out a 1 square foot section of the grassy, weedy earth –and gave us the assignment of sitting for thirty minutes observing at that square foot of earth and writing down everything we saw.
I thought it would be the most unbearable 30 minutes of my life. After all –it was just grass and weeds.
Then I started looking and noticed the all the different shapes of the leaves of the grass and weeds, the shades of green, the grass not reaching the light that was brown, patterns made by shadows, the tiny insects moving through, interacting with each other and with all of the obstacles in their path. I noticed the small stones, the colors and textures of the earth.
I filled several pages and was still writing when the thirty minutes were finished.
But just before the end of the thirty minutes, I violated Mr. Johnston's rules and took a pebble from outside of the borders of my square foot of earth and placed it in the center. That foreign pebble had an impact –the plant leaves were repositioned, the cast shadows shifted and the insects altered their paths.
In the almost 50 years since Mr. Johnston's earth science class, that assignment has continued to resonate for me in my approach to life, in my artwork, has been essential in the forming and building of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh.
Among other things –I learned that I don't always need a plane ticket to discover a situation that is rich in possibilities.
Henry and I live on Sampsonia Way on the North Side of Pittsburgh. Our block is an 828–foot long by 21–foot wide alley. It is the block where the Mattress Factory Museum resides, as well as all of the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh writers.
It is an alley, with no sidewalk, but with a cracked pot-holed roadbed that the city rarely repairs. But to me –––the roadbed looks like a gigantic beautiful scroll, an exquisite, delicate line drawing.
Henry and I had lived on the alley for 24 years before we began City of Asylum Pittsburgh in 2004.
We were inspired by our neighbor Barbara Luderowski who began the Mattress Factory with a truckload of chutzpah, almost zero capital and built, along with Michael Olijnyk, a cutting–edge internationally acclaimed art museum.
But Henry and I had no idea what to expect when we began this asylum program for writers.
Huang Xiang, the first City of Asylum Pittsburgh writer, arrived in the fall of 2004 with his wife Zhang Ling.
Within a few days of their arrival Huang Xiang was painting his poetry in Chinese characters on the face of his house on Sampsonia Way –he had wanted to carve it into the face of Mt. Washington as a thank you to the city for welcoming him.
We loved the idea, but suggested it might be more expeditious to start on a smaller scale –with the facade of his new home.
This was the first chance for him to present his work publically without being repressed by the Chinese government.
Huang Xiang spoke no English, but at the slightest provocation –like people stopping to look at his poetry–covered home, he would open his front door, jump to his front stoop, shout his only English word, "OKAY," and then read his house in Chinese.
People were mesmerized.
Within weeks of their arrival, Zhang Ling and Huang Xiang knew more of our neighbors than we did. They were invited to dinners and parties, readings, concerts, picnics. Neighbors were slipping poems through their door.
People wanted to help the exiled writers and participate in the project. The hospitality, generosity and kindness expanded past our immediate community –
Without being asked Dr. Owen Cantor offered his dental services. Sheryl St. Germain has invited the City of Asylum writers to read at Chatham University. Marc Nieson takes visiting writers on fabulous tours of Pittsburgh. It goes on and on.
I often work outside, on Sampsonia Way drawing, photographing and casting the street cracks. People walk by and we have conversations. They ask questions ––what I'm doing, why I'm doing it. They ask about the City of Asylum writers, their lives before coming here and the houses where they live –the house with Chinese writing –the one with Burmese.
It has been good for me to learn to talk about exile, art, poetry, and politics to people walking by. But, far and away, the most interesting part is how people respond.
One little girl, on hearing that a writer could not speak freely in his native country, put her hand on her hip and said, "I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't speak my mind."
A little boy couldn't imagine why someone could be put in jail for writing poetry.
And when I told a man that I thought the cracks on Sampsonia Way were beautiful –he told me that once he took a picture of rough bark on a tree one street over from Sampsonia. And when his friend saw the print, she thought it was an aerial photo of the Andes.
My advice to you:
Look closely at what's right in front of you.
Don't underestimate the existing conditions.
Consider adding a new pebble to your square foot of earth.
And enjoy your life.
Thank you all for this very great honor. I wish you the very best.