Saturday, March 26, 2011

Censorship in Maine

"Lost Childhood"
The second panel of Taylor's MDOL mural

Follow this link for press-conference statements and updates on the mural situation at the official "Saving the History of Maine Mural" blog site.

Bangor Daily News Poll found that 4 out of 5 Mainers do NOT want the mural removed from its intended home!

Maine is in the news, and it is, once again, an embarrassment to the majority of people who reside here. The recently elected governor has decided that a mural which is displayed at the Maine Department of Labor is to be removed becasue it is, he says, "one-sided" and "pro-union".

Yesterday, 250-300 people gathered at the Dept. of Labor for a press-conference and rally in support of keeping the mural at its current location, where it was originally intended when commissioned by the state in 2007. For an explanation of the mural, please visit the artist's website. The painting is steeped in Maine's labor history, and all images were created only after intense and thoughtful research alongside seasoned labor union historian, Charles Scontras.

The press-conference yesterday was especially powerful as it fell on the 100 year anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (March 25, 2011). In a room of hundreds, there was silence, except for the sound of a bell as over 120 names were spoken of the young female workers who died in the fire. In total, 146 people died and it is considered the deadliest industrial disaster in New York. The Triangle fire was a catalyst for modern day saftey regualations that keep our workers safe.

Below are the statements that Chris and I made at the gathering yesterday. I wish I had transcripts of the other speaker's statements as they were incredibly powerful and excellent reminders of of how fortunate we are to live in a democratic society with the benefits that ALL people reap, not just members of unions, because of the battles that labor unions have fought.

Thank you Natasha and Robert for your passion, insight and dedication!!!!

Shanna's statement at the MDOL Mural press-conference:

When I first heard that Taylor’s Department of Labor mural would be dismantled, I was, like many, angered. The impending action brought up images of censorship and fear of a dangerous slippery slope where voices are quelled to the point of living in a society where humans are expected to go about their day as emotionless as robots.

What makes this mural so powerful, and so relevant, is that not only does it tell a history of the working people of Maine, but that it has provoked a conversation; one that is quite poignant in today’s society.

The Governor ordered removal of this mural because of complaints about its pro-union theme. Where better to house a mural depicting the struggle of the working class and the rise above adversity than in a complex where the welfare of its state’s workers is the number one priority?

I ask myself, is the subject of this mural offensive?

The answer is: YES!

Child labor is offensive. The fact that people have to fight for safe and fair work conditions is offensive. Treating humans in less than a dignified manner is offensive.

We should ALL be offended that not everyone finds these things offensive.

Then I ask myself: Is this artwork powerful and inspiring?

And that answer is YES!

I see a story unfolding from the first panel where an apprentice passes down his skills to another, preserving a trade. I see a panel of child laborers and am filled with such relief that our children are able to receive an education rather than toil the days away in a factory. I see women who model strength and perseverance, and I see people uniting for a cause worth fighting.

As we reflect today on the 100 year anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, let us remember that a movement was sparked that made way for safer and more fair work conditions for all. One hundred forty six workers died in that fire. Imagine where we would be today if that part of history was erased from the books, never to teach us, or remind us, the role that the working class has played in our society.

Artists use a visual language to document the stories of our lives. We must always remember the struggles, why we were there, and how we progressed, so that we do not repeat these atrocities again, and that we keep moving forward, toward positive change.

Chris Crittenden's statement at the MDOL Mural press-conference

In a travesty of governance, Paul LePage has belittled and dismissed some of the brightest aspects of Maine's history. In deference to a "handful" of unnamed detractors, who object to some few elements of a visually eloquent compendium, the Governor has opted to dismantle the entire magnum opus, a mural in homage to labor on display at the Dept. of Labor. The artistic excellence of this masterpiece is not in dispute.

As a metaphor, we can imagine a handful of privileged men, who walk into a garden, proclaiming that they do not like several of the flowers. In response, over the shock of the gardner and the general populus, every single flower in the garden is plucked up. The garden itself is carved and removed.

The few flowers that are offensive to this small group, in reality represent some of the brightest victories for dignity in human history.

For most of civilization, slavery reigned. After slavery came Dickensian work conditions. We can thank the Labor Movement for uplifting the American people out of horrific industrial sweatshops, what William Blake referred to as "dark Satanic mills."

LePage and a blinkered few to whom he caters, are attempting to obscure the heroes who ended the practice of children having to toil in crowded, unsafe rooms.

LePage and an influential cadre, are attempting to efface those brave and unquenchable souls who brought us the 40-hour work week and the weekend. The word "efface" means to rub out or erase. Etymologically, it literally means to remove the face from. To deprive of a face.

This is crass censorship at its worst. An attack on a history rich with moral pearls. LePage would crush those pearls and replace them with a brine of obeisance to the lowest considerations, the sad and unsupportable principle of "Money Makes Right."

Sunday, March 20, 2011


It's been a tough week in the news. I'm experiencing a bit of emotional overload, between the developing nuclear crisis and devastation in Japan to the situation in Libya. It was only a few short weeks ago that we celebrated a major success in Egypt. The world is moving and changing at a rapid rate. I don't remember a time in my life when everything felt so critical on our planet all at once, but Chris points out to me that the 1980's were equally unsettled. I was a young teen then, and though I was becoming aware of the world around me, I was still engrossed in my own life and the joys and tragedies that accompanied young love and trying to make the grade in school. But a seed was planted that has been growing for two and half decades.

I was a kid who questioned everything. I wasn't the type of rebel who could be found in detention every day afterschool. I was more of a philosophical rebel. From a young age I questioned the church, denied the safety of nuclear energy, and was the only teen amongst of a group of seasoned activists in "Beyond War" meetings.

Does anyone remember the video by Genesis, Land of Confusion?

Even though I didn't quite understand all that was happening around me, the video definitely struck a chord. On one level, I found it humorous. On another level I thought "what a sad world we live in". I was a senior in high school when it first aired on MTV. The images and lyrics from that video has stuck with me for all these years. It is a testament to how powerful the arts are (music in this case) and how what we put out there for the public to view, read, or hear has perhaps a much greater impact than most realize.

Little by little, I was receiving an "education" that coupled knowledge with my instinctual self. Four years after the video, while I was in college, a marine friend sent me letters from the front lines of "Operation Desert Storm". I didn't understand fully why the U.S. military was over there. I just knew that anything that put my friend's life in danger didn't seem right. Some of my artwork in college began to illustrate my thoughts around war and peace.

After college, my work took another turn. I began to focus on matters of spirit and myth. The work was more gentle in nature and fed my soul at a deep level. I retreated from reading the newspaper or listening to too much news. I focused solely on empowerment through spiritual enlightenment. Those few years felt blissful in many ways. There was a price in that I adopted an intentional ignorance to avoid that which was painful. These years were crucial, though, in helping me to develop a strong sense of self. Maybe it was kind of like creating a spiritual armor that in later years would protect me from the ugliness and pain that surrounds us, much of it brought on by fellow humans.

My work the past four years has come full circle. I started questioning at an early age, and now my art is once again focused on social/political matters. This time though, I feel that the spiritual component is always underneath the surface, urging me to create with empathy and hope, from a kind and understanding space. I recognize that not all issues, or answers, are as simple as we might first think. I realize that the world has an energy crisis and that less than safe measures may seem the only feasible choice. I realize that even though sweatshop conditions are inhumane, that for some it is a price perceived as worthy because the money feeds a family. I realize that war is horrible and disgusting but at times has been fought to genuinely save a people from concentration camps, or in the case with Lybia, to save people from being murdered by their own government.

The bigger issues we face are seldom black and white. There are always shades of grey, and through my art, I am able to explore the varied sides.

When it comes down to it, when a situation is not easily rectified, or if the answers seem unclear, I have chosen to side with what I consider to be the humane choices. So while the thought process may be long and drawn out, and there are shades of grey, I (as most people) eventually come up with a simplified "this way or that way." But, I always recognize that there are other viewpoints. The key is learning how express a viewpoint that opens a productive dialogue rather than one that is done to deafly incite anger with no intention of trying to understand another's viewpoint.

The path I am taking with my art, at this point in my life, is one that I hope does send a message. I hope to teach people about a viewpoint that they may not have previously considered. It doesn't mean that a viewer has to agree with me. I only ask that people that instead of coming to an immediate conclusion about what is "right" that they stop a moment to consider all sides of a situation. This sort of thought process is essential to developing empathy. And empathy for our fellow human being, the earth, the what I sincerely feel can turn this world around.

We are powerful. There is a conscious choice that we make collectively between living in a world of fear and hatred or a world of love and safety.

Which do you choose?

These lyrics filter through my head often, stirring my emotions as I struggle to find a balance between awareness of what is going on in our world with genuine hope for a better life for all. I choose to visualize that love and beauty prevail, even when life seems so defeating.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

In Time We Forget

A clear, easy to understand video about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the long term effects it has had on the region and its people.

Today I count my blessings, more so than others. I am home, I am safe, and I know that, at this moment, the ones I love most dearly are healthy and safe as well. I have clean water to drink, warm shelter, and air that I can breathe without worry of radiation poisoning. My home is not crumbled to the ground or floated out to sea. I know where my relatives are and they are easily reachable by phone if I desire peace-of-mind to know that they are okay.

I imagine that the people who live in Japan affected by Friday's Earthquake and Tsunami felt the same way as I do, only seconds before tragedy struck. In a matter of moments, as we all know, life can change.

To survive Friday's record-breaking earthquake was the first feat. As if that wasn't already devastating enough, a Tsunami soon hit that wiped away homes, businesses, airports, roads, and people. The death toll grows each hour, some estimates now at 10,000. The ballooning number of dead is reminiscent of other recent natural disasters that kept us glued to the television set or live newspaper feeds: New Orleans, Haiti, Indonesia. We watch in horror as stories unfold, our hearts sinking while we empathize with those faces who are injured, grieving, and walking around with a sense of deep loss and fear of an unknown future.

Those who survived the earthquake and the tsunami have yet a third possible disaster knocking at their door: Nuclear Meltdown.

A major nuclear power plant in Fukushima has been overheating and leaking radiation for three days and recent news reports say that a meltdown is likely in progress. It's hard to exactly define what a meltdown is, other than an extreme overheating that causes, as far as I can tell, the unit that houses nuclear materials to begin melting thus releasing the inside deadly poisons.

Already, citizens within a 12 mile radius of the power plant have been evacuated. But, if a true meltdown occurs, the consequences will be far reaching beyond a 25 mile wide stretch.

Recently, under the Obama administration, billions of dollars have been allocated for research into growing our nuclear power power facilities in the United States.

Billions of dollars.

Cost alone, and the fact that we could actually be investing that money into SAFE renewable energy research and resources, has me reeling. Add the disregard for human safety, and it is downright heinous.

As people of Japan face the terror of a possible meltdown, maybe we should ask them if they think that nuclear energy is the way to go.

Or, ask someone who survived the Chernobyl disaster, someone who watched loved ones die or whose children and grandchildren have suffered unimaginable illnesses and birth defects.

It's amazing how we have so conveniently chosen to forget the tragedies associated with nuclear power. Three Mile Island was a scare in the late 70's, and Chernobyl was the mother of all Nuclear disasters. (Could this soon change?) We are told that a Chernobyl-like incident won't occur because of new fail-safe precautions. I bet the residents of Japan were told this same thing, with an impressive 6" inch steel encasement "preventing any possibility of a meltdown."

Well, those who were on board the Titanic were told it would never sink.....

I became passionate about nuclear power during my 7th grade history class with Mr. Hutchinson. Nuclear power was a hot topic with the then-operating Maine Yankee. I chose to do a research paper on the subject and remember interviewing a Central Maine Power employee. He was absolutely insistent that our nuclear power plant provide cost-effective safe energy to the people of Maine. Despite his best arguments, at twelve years old I didn't buy it, and I still don't at forty-one.

The Chernobyl disaster occurred April 26, 1986. Pripyat, a city once inhabited by approximately 50,000 people, is today, in 2011, a ghost town with radiation levels far exceeding any level of normalcy by thirty-fold. The original radioactive plume drifted over large parts of the Soviet Union as well as parts of Eastern, Western, and Northern Europe. Over 1,000 humans died in the incident , over 336,000 survivors were resettled, and cancer and birth defects continued to rise dramatically with biological changes occurring at a chromosonal level. Soon after, 45 kilometers of forest turned red and died, and is today known as the "Red Forest". Animals died and suffered, became infertile, or if survived, produced offspring with numerous defects.

The last reactor at Chernobyl was shut down in 2000. Ultimately, 4,000 people are estimated to have died as a direct result of the incident due to cancer deaths.

Maine Yankee in Wiscasset demolished its reactor in 2004. It was a day to be celebrated. Still, though, years later, nucelar waste exists and the question remains; what do we do with it?

Two things for my readers to take from this post today:

1) Count your blessings.

2) Is nuclear power the best long-term energy solution if it means sacrificing peace-of-mind and wellbeing for ourselves and generations of loved ones?

Article about possible meltdown and current radiation exposure status (as of 1:14 p.m. EST 3/13/11)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Heartwood College of Art and Colored Porcelain

Colored Porcelain, fired pieces
by artist Karen Orsillo

Karen Orsillo demonstrates the "scallop pattern" technique

My first colored porcelain piece in greenware form
Colors will intensify when fired (see Karen's examples at top of page)

Colored porcelain slab vessel in greenware stage
by Shanna Wheelock

I've been a student in the MFA program at Heartwood College of Art for almost a year and a half. The low-residency, part-time masters program is a unique educational opportunity in Maine. I had been searching for such a program for several years, one that would feed my soul as an artist and a teacher while allowing me to continue to live and work in my own little nook downeast. The program is perfect for educators and I feel fortunate to be in a pod with my art-teaching colleagues, though the program is equally satisfying for those who are not teachers. It is not an online program, rather "low-residency" which means that the time we spend on campus is consolidated into short but intensive weekends. I carry a two-class load and am generally on campus two weekends a semester: one three-day "weekend seminar" and an end-of-semester one-day presentation. In between weekend meetings, I keep in constant contact with my mentors and advisers. This allows students to work toward their degree while keeping up with their normal workplace responsibilities in their hometowns. At Heartwood, MFA candidates hail from all over the country. Some fly-in for their weekend intensives, others endure the lengthy hours-long drive like me. But it's all worth it.

I had looked into the popular MFA programs at Portland School of Art and Vermont College of Fine Arts. These programs both proved to be prohibitive for me for two reasons: cost and time required on campus. Even though they are both low-residency models, and excellent programs, they moved along at a full-time rate and required more than I could offer while working full-time. At my first art teaching job in central Maine, teachers were required by contract to have their Masters degree within five years. At that time I worried because no program existed that fit my specialty area and needs. Those programs would have required me to miss several weeks of work each year. Heartwood College of Art really did tap into the the needs of the working artist, creating a program that filled a niche for art teachers, at a reasonable per-credit hour cost. If this program had existed when I was first teaching, I would have hopped on board immediately.

Heartwood College of Art is a small school in comparison to the bigger city art colleges, but that has proved perfect for me. Set in beautiful Kennebunk, Heartwood plays host to a myriad of professional art studio spaces: ceramics, painting, drawing, fiber arts, sculpture, metals, printmaking, photography, etc. The staff is incredibly personable and working closely with professors and advisers, I feel validated in who I am as an artist. With pods, I have had the opportunity to build close relationships with my peers, mentors, and advisers, and that understanding of one another allows for open dialogues that nurture each student along his or her personal learning path. The way we learn and are treated is an excellent model for how I, as a teacher, choose to work with my own students.

I read an article earlier today in an online science digest about happiness and success. It stated that spirituality is more important than religion in the development of these two things in a child. It did not specify specific spiritual paths, but rather the qualities that accompany a spiritual path - specifically the building of self-esteem through self-awareness. I have always stated that the most important work that I do as a teacher, the greatest gift I try to bestow upon my students, is a sense of self-esteem through the success and enjoyment that they encounter while creating works of art.

It is so refreshing to be part of a masters program where this is happening to me as well. Being a student again gives me new perspective, puts me in my students' shoes per say. I am reminded to always keep in mind the importance of what I am doing, both as an artist, and as a student. I am reminded that it is not always about creating a perfect finished piece, but about the journey we take while creating. In the process we filter through our own life experiences. Who we are is illustrated in our artwork. We may not recognize ourselves immediately in the work that we create, but eventually we start to read the images the way we do a written biography. We decipher the symbols and clues and begin to have those ah-ha moments where the pieces of the puzzle fit together. I had this experience with the current sculpture that I am working on. At first, I didn't understand where the vision came from, but now, two months into the working phase, I am finding all kinds of correlations to my family's and my own life experiences. It really is an amazing feeling to begin to make sense of things in one's own life. Art is the perfect vehicle for this.

Recently I attended the spring semester weekend intensive at Heartwood. The weekends are broken down into different activities including critiques, discussion groups, lectures, and an all-day workshop where we learn new skills that can be applied in our work as artists and teachers. I love all parts of the seminar and though the weekend leaves one exhausted from the packed-pace, it is also highly inspiring. This spring, we had the honor to learn colored porcelain techniques from master artist Karen Orsillo.

Colored porcelain technique involves wedging stain powders into the clay. Once thoroughly mixed, clay is stacked in varied patterns and sliced. Then, the process is repeated until desired patterns are accomplished. The finished pattern blocks are then sliced into thinner panels which can be used for handbuilding. Sometimes the patterned slabs are inlaid into other clays, sometimes they are simply formed as-is. The process requires a delicate hand to attain a certain level of precision. But as Karen said, almost anything you do looks awesome! It is a bit tricky deciding on color combinations as the stains in powder form translate differently when fired. Such is the case with most ceramic glazes, too. For example, the dark blue stain is pink in its raw powder form. The slab platter that I made, as well as the taller vessel, (see photos above) will not be pastel after a cone 8 oxidation firing. Rather, they will be a bold combination of black, rutile, dark blue, and green. What's extra nifty about this high fire process is that the clay is vitrified when fired to temp, meaning that it is water-tight. No glaze is required unless one desires a glossy surface for aesthetics.

I poked around on the web for colored clay sites and found some interesting work by an artist named Vince Pitelka. His architectural sculptures resonated with me, and he explains the process and materials well. It's worth a look!

It's good to be back to blogosphere. The last few weeks I have been preoccupied with other life happenings and look forward to soon jumping back into my artwork. I have been working on a couple new sculptures and plan to have them complete by May. Spring in hectic as my teaching responsibilities kick into high gear (more so than usual believe it or not!). If you are in Lubec, check out the mask show at Lubec Memorial Library, on display March and April. Folks have lent masks from their personal collections, as well as their own handmade pieces. Three of my felted masks are included as well as masks made by some of my 6th, 1st, and 2nd grade students. Grades 3 and 4 are making awesome paper mache masks right now. Unfortunately, they weren't finished for the exhibit deadline. I love masks!!!!