Wednesday, September 25, 2019

9 Ways to Be a Uniter in Divisive Times

Divisiveness destroys friendships, families, communities, and nations. There may be that coworker who constantly gossips, or relative who insists on bringing up the most controversial topics at Thanksgiving, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stop using divisive language yourself and do your part to build bridges.

The “Why?” of Division-Making

There are several things that motivate people to use divisive language, such as power, money, and pride.  Hitler’s tactic of creating “otherness” was to use of the ugliest of all tricks: dehumanize humans. He classified Jews, Blacks, Slavs, gays, and Modern artists as subhuman. Once you close the doors to humanity and brotherhood, you open the doors to discrimination and violence. Unfortunately this type of propaganda is still proving to be effective, as huge groups of people are demeaned and because of their race, religion, status, or ideologies.

Money can be another major motivator to divide. There are people who make a living inciting anger and closing minds. Producers and hosts of certain reality TV shows and talk shows are selling contention and we are buying it! Name calling and chair throwing can boost ratings. Political analysts that treat people with different opinions as stupid, out of touch, or down right evil “enemies” are stirring the pot. There are trolling factories in Russia, in which bots and full time employees write contentious posts on controversial topics. Senator Lankford on the House Intelligence Committee has said, “What Russia seems to want is divisiveness everywhere else, and they try to get a competitive advantage by destabilizing every country around them.” * 

Why do we buy into the discord? Does it make us any happier? Does it bring us peace? No, we, who aren’t gaining prestige and monetary gain, like the idea of being right. Too often, we’d rather be right than be good. We take pride in thinking we know better and see clearly, while those in the other group, are confused. We want to think they are the problem and we are the solution, whether it is true or not. 

How to Combat Divisiveness:

Culture humility in yourself
Ego can be our downfall. The idea that you can only be right if someone else is wrong is prideful. There’s a chance that you are wrong. You can’t believe everything you think. In fact, half of intense memories of 9/11 turned out to be false memories just one year after the event.  You can choose not to be offended when someone bashes one of your beliefs, or even when they bash you and your people. 

Make friends 
You don’t know what you don’t know. Try to find someone who is very different from you: a different race, a different religion, a different political party, maybe someone with a disability, and learn something from them. Befriend them. Invite them to lunch. Be polite and open minded. My son has befriended a homeless man. He takes him out to dinner and they talk about the man’s previous career in I.T. Empathy is one of the noblest and underrated virtues. You can’t obtain this virtue without exposing yourself to ideas and situations that are outside your normal experience.

Find sources that are as unbiased as possible
Too many of us are living in an echo chamber and unaware that our algorithms are keeping us from seeing the whole picture. Look for the least biased sources you can find and be completely honest with yourself. A source that shares your bias doesn’t mean it is impartial. Also, when trying to learn about an organization, go directly to that organization. Don’t believe articles about what NASA says; go to NASA’s website. Differentiate between fact and opinion, between informative and persuasive writings on current events. 

Look for common ground
My immediate family is very politically diverse. There were six of us growing up together and during the last presidential election each of my three closest siblings (by age), voted for a different candidate. If you were to see my siblings and I at the last family reunion, you would have seen us visiting from early morning until late at night, without a shadow of contention. Interesting people have varied interests and there are an infinite number of topics to discuss besides the hot button topics. There is so much all of us, as humans, have in common and not just on a superficial level. Actively seek to find ways to connect. 

Don’t feel pressure to form an opinion
Being comfortable with ambiguity is an important skill in these days of knee-jerk reactions, when people feel they are supposed to have a strong opinion on a subject the moment they finish reading a headline.  Wise is the man or woman who hears a statement and says, “I will need to learn a lot more about that before I have anything to say about it.” There would be less division if there were more tolerance for unknowns.

Keep your mouth closed
Granted, not everything needs a lot of research for you to have an opinion about it. It is OK for you to think tattoos are ugly, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to go around telling people you think their tattoos are ugly. Divisiveness often comes from self-righteousness and feeling the need to go around forcing your opinion on others. Lao Tzu said, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”

There are rare exceptions to this rule, however, such as when someone is being bullied or slandered. In these moments, when you must  speak in order to maintain your integrity, use a tone of civility and let your comment reveal a truth. Recently, I told an acquaintance, “Just so you know, every time you make blanket insults of members of a political party, any major party, you are insulting someone I love.” She seemed to understand.

Stop reading the comments
There will always be those who can’t keep their mouths closed for even a moment, but you don’t have to expose yourself to their toxic spew. Don’t waste your time and ruin your day by reading the comments under an article or posted on a friend’s Facebook page by their friends. Haters are gonna hate and you don’t have to get sucked into convincing strangers or even friends that they’re wrong. Research says they’ll dig their heels in and become even more convinced that their position is right.

Put others first
As popular as it may seem to put yourself before your spouse, party before country, and country before world, I believe that the happiest life is a selfless life. Self-centeredness causes you to isolate yourself from people who could make your life better. Systemic nationalism, sexism, and racism separates groups that could be serving each other. By reaching out, even to help someone who seems like an opponent is not self defeating. The connections you make will likely turn out to be mutually beneficial.

Safeguard yourself against hypocrisy:
My mom told me that whenever she sees a person doing something that really annoys her, she asks herself, “Do I ever do that?” and the answer is “yes” 100% of the time. The same can be done with groups of people. Does my party ever engage in corruption? Yes, yes they do. My dad, who is extremely tolerant and a friend to all, has said to me, “A racist is the last one to know. Am I racist? You tell me.” That courage to self-reflect is the only way to grow as a human being and a human race.

The world is a big place. Big enough for lots of types of people and lots of kinds of ideas. The world is also a small space, and we need to learn to get along, not only to survive, but to thrive. A little kindness can go a long way to bridge differences and unite us as a people.

* “Russian Trolls are flooding Social Media with Messages, Meant to Increase Tensions in the U.S.” is the title of a February 21, 2018 NPR all things considered interview with 

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Worry Dolls Craft

The legend behind Guatemalan worry dolls is one of a princess who was magically endowed with great wisdom to solve problems. Tradition says that if you carry a worry doll, or put one under your pillow, you can give your worries and troubles to the princess and things will work out. Too many children have stress that can sometimes feel daunting given their limited resources and abilities. I like the idea of my students being able to make their own tiny doll to tell their troubles to, not as a magical device or idol, but as a reminder that they don't have to carry their problems alone.

You can make a worry doll by bending a pipe cleaner in half, wrapping it around a finger and twisting a time or two for the neck. Hold the two ends out to the side and fold them back on themselves to make arms. Make another twist for the waist, and bend up the ends to make feet. The little wire body can then be wrapped in fabric scraps, embroidery floss or yarn with the ends glued to hold them down.  Children can enjoy the process of creating, and then use the dolls for play, or tie them to a backpack for decoration. Stop worrying! Things will work out.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Paul Klee Way

Student painting of moon sitting atop of Klee-style sky-line
wonky towers of color
Paul Klee was a Swiss-German artist, who created 10,000 paintings, drawings, and etchings during his life. He was a member of the Blue Rider group of artists then became a Bauhaus teacher and his notes on color are still relevant. Klee fled Germany for Switzerland when Nazi pressure in the 1930's caused the Bauhaus to close. Germany had been a world hot spot for Modern Art, until Hitler, who hated it, caused thousands of of innovative paintings and drawings to be burned. Other pieces (including those by Paul Klee) were labeled and exhibited as "degenerate art." 

shaded colors frame tinted colors
Klee began life as a musician. As a child, he was able to play the violin at symphony level. His love for color caused him to become a painter, but I can see musicality in his visual art. The tones and rhythm, give a pleasurable experience to the viewer.  My respect for Klee grew when one of my favorite art professors showed us a Klee watercolor and called it "perfect," making the impossible, possible in my mind. His transfer drawings inspired much of my graduate school artwork, and it turns out, I wasn't the only one in my family with an appreciation for the artist. My sister gave her first son "Klee" as a middle name.

Bold lines created by student with visual impairment
My students were given the task of choosing one of several styles that Klee used. He made some paintings just of boxes of color. Others, were geometric shapes to create buildings and cities. He used subtle color shifts and bold lines for later work. And he did some figurative work with large, stylized features.  Some students had enough time to try out a couple styles and all the students seemed to enjoy channeling his ideas. Paul Klee may have died in 1940, but his art lives on!

The windows and doors in this building remind me of a pallet of make up or paint. The fact that the roof looks more like a spire is part of the charm.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Color Field Painting Lesson

Happiness happens when, during a monthly Skype with your sister, who is an Art History professor, you tell her that you "taught Helen Frankenthaler last week" and she says, "I did too!"  Frankenthaler was a second generation color field painter and abstract expressionist, who exhibited her art for the six decades before her death in 2011. She was inspired by Jackson Pollock's drip paintings in that she moved her canvases to the floor, but rather than dribble and throw paint from a brush, she poured diluted paint onto linen canvases, creating a stain soak technique.  She would manipulate the puddles of paint by lifting the corners of the canvas, or pushing it gently with sponges and squeegees attached to long sticks.  I think I remember hearing that Robert Motherwell (who was her husband for thirteen years) also created mop-like brushes for his large paintings. Morris Lewis followed Frankenthaler's lead in creating images from overlapping areas of soaked color.

My students took this inspiration and ran with it to make their own, large and small color field paintings.  We used watercolor rather than thinned oil or acrylic, but there's still a similarity in terms of aesthetics and a new appreciation for color just for the sake of color.

For a fascinating look at the science behind color, take a listen at one of the most popular Radio Lab episodes ever:

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Planes in Portrait Paintings Lesson

It isn't always easy to understand how value (light and dark) works on a 3D surface, especially if that surface is a person. For our plane portrait project, I tried to help students learn how to use ratios to draw the basic features of a face before breaking it down into smaller, flat surfaces.  Basically, students were creating their own  paint by number type of drawing and value shifts would come with shape shifts.  It was met with various degrees of success, which isn't surprising considering the enormous range of visual and cognitive abilities of my students.
student divides pencil drawings into planes
student paints individual shapes on face

Some of my students needed to work in Wiki Stix, which I then hot glued their lines for them, while removing the waxy wicks. That way they could paint in the tactile borders. I would mix values of paint if they didn't have any vision.  One student had enough vision to draw and mix independently. He didn't get the planes as sharp or "robotic" as I'd hoped, but it was the best thing he'd ever painted, and it's of Stan Lee, so that's a good thing.