The other day I was organizing my latest mosaics, framing ones that needed framing, and deciding which ones for which show, and saw a mosaic for which I had no frame. Almost everyone has a drawer or a box or a sack somewhere containing a stash of miscellaneous stuff, and I have several. I opened one of these drawers and found the mother-lode of small picture frames. Here was a frame I had bought years ago on a trip to Colorado, commercially made, molded to strongly resemble a piece of bark. A wonderful little piece of nature, or seemingly of nature, so I bought it. The picture opening is only one inch square and I never found a photo that told its story in such a small area and yet was graphic enough to hold its own in such a rugged setting. I let the drawer swallow it.
Looking at it again brought to mind a woodpecker and the rapid staccato pecking required to puncture such bark to find a meal. I thought perhaps I could make a tiny mosaic to represent a woodpecker making its living. Looking at the bark frame also reminded me of the valuable oak wood we’d just had cleaned out of our yard trees. I had asked that the branches be stacked so that I could take them to a young friend who camps out a lot and who loves to build fires. This friend has been homeless in the past, yet has a roof over his head now. He gets around by bike, so I knew that I would be taking the wood someplace convenient for him. It was not a volume he could carry in his bike trailer. Making connections with him has been challenging, so the wood is still sitting in my yard, awaiting its fate.
This same friend was one of many people I know who played themselves in a 2004 documentary called “Art from the Streets”. This film is still making the round of film festivals world-wide. The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless has art classes twice a week, attended by 120 or 130 people on an annual basis. In November, this weekend in fact, there is a huge public sale of all the art that clients of the center have created in the past year. We have learned to go early on the first day, stand in line waiting for the opening hour, and rush in to view floors and floors of art in order to see all the jewels hanging there. I have traveled and have seen lots of art museums, and I know that, if the circumstances were right and the artist had acquired a “name”, some of these pieces would be featured in the most prestigious museums. But, here they are in parking garage and homeless center, begging to be purchased by the connoisseurs of the street. I guess many people feel that they need to be told what art is and what is its worth before they feel confident enough to buy it, but for those of us who work on instinct, trotting around among the massed displays and choosing the pieces we want to live with is exhilarating.
As was pointed out in the documentary film, most people who are chronically homeless, or who vacillate between being able to provide themselves personal shelter and no shelter at all, are affected by mental illness. In my experience, it does not take much mental illness to make one non-functional in today’s urban/suburban life. I don’t see that a person has to have the mental equivalent of a broken back or cancer to render her vulnerable; just a badly sprained mental ankle can make it impossible for a person to keep up with life’s race run on society’s terms. Yet, when given space and materials to create art, these same people use what is available to pour out their hearts and their lives for the public to purchase. It is an amazing transformation from victim/survivor to interpreter of life / entrepreneur.
So, looking at my little bark frame is like looking at an elemental building block of human activity. Instead of making a little mosaic only about a woodpecker, I chose to incorporate the whole frame and make a mosaic about the human activity of choosing from what is available- the stones, the wood, and the surprise and delight of having the shiny and distinctive pieces to complete the arrangement. People always need to create meaning and arrange their universe- it might be our strongest mental urge. People who live in a car or live under a collection of tarps, scavenging the streets for useful cast-offs, find life meaning in creating and interpreting the universe as they see it. That which we start as a child can be a life-long quest, to take what is here, nurture and arrange it, and create in the tracks of the Creator.