Saturday, May 16, 2009

Beautiful Conflict

My friend Shane recently asked if my Jehovah's Witness upbringing has provided inspiration in doing art projects. It's a good question and I think it relates to this Maine House project. The short answer is "yes"; and although I am not altogether sure that I would use the word "inspiration", I cannot think of a word that seems any more appropriate. Inspiration is not necessarily some rapturous event. The creative process involves a lot of love but just as essential is conflict. It is conflict of the soul that drives people to create in the first place, to manage it. The craft of Art is really little more than the management of opposites. The greater the harmony of light and shadow, of cold and warmth, of great and small of all elements contained in the piece, the more pleasing it is to experience.
The people that we become as adults is largely influenced by our childhood experiences, especially as we relate to others. I think it is true to say that the way in which we relate to others determines how we live our lives and spend our time. All people need people. That is why solitary confinement tends to be a prisoner's most severe punishment. That is where the conflict comes in for me and the subsequent drive to make art.
My personal experience with organized religion maybe a little unusual but the end result for many who were raised in heavily religious households can be very much the same. The Jehovah's Witnesses is a cult that finds loyalty by coercion. The Governing Body which is at the heart of the organization, creates lessons and sermons which are passed down to the Elders of each congregation. The outlines that the Elders are given site many Bible verses (which usually consist of one to three sentences) from all over the new and old testaments, that back up the prevailing message of each sermon or "talk" as they call them. A new scripture would be sited every 60 seconds or so during the discourse and it was strongly encouraged that all members of the congregation look up each scripture and read along with the speaker. As soon as the verse was read, you could hear the crackle of a hundred Bible pages flipping simultaneously to the next verse sited. Of course each reading would backup whatever fear-based horse shit the speaker was rattling on about. Sometimes I would try to read the paragraphs surrounding the verse to figure out the context, but the rest of the congregation was always off to the next verse and if I wasn't turning pages my parents would notice and smack me. So it was in this way that from a so-called scriptural basis nearly every form of social interaction with the outside world was reduced to outright sin. I was to have no friends outside the congregation. (my parents did make an exception to that rule regarding a neighbor boy that I had made friends with. That however did not last as I was excluded from all extracurricular school activities. He found normal friends.) Other rules excluded me from any activities that had their basis in religious or national holidays. I was not to salute the flag. I was not allowed to play sports after school or attend any dances or other social functions. If a film or school project contained any depiction of religious holiday (i.e. Christmas, Halloween, Valentines Day etc.) I was excused to some other room to do worksheets or some other form of busy work. Sometimes I was allowed to draw.
My estrangement did not become obvious to me until around the 4th grade when I began to notice that the other kids were beginning to form groups or "clicks". In addition, I was becoming very interested in girls which were also forbidden. By Junior High, the horrible reality that I was a "weird" kid was painfully sinking in. It also became obvious to several other kids. Some of them would spit in my face or sucker punch me (among other things). My moral center was so askew that I felt I deserved it. It never even occurred to me to fight back. They were doing the same as I would do. I loathed what I was. In my opinion they were being easy on me. It was a bit of real interaction in what was otherwise a world of solitary confinement.
So I spent a lot of time alone. I experienced the harsh conflict between the need to be among my peers and lonely despair that was my reality. Conflict turned to rage. I discovered great depths of hatred for the unexpressed thing in me that was ceaselessly pushing, asserting it's humanity. Nature wanted to make me a man; a filthy disgusting sinful wretch. My body and mind conflicted terribly with what I was groomed to be. The Jehovah's Witnesses demanded absolute cleanliness of mind and body. To think a sin was the same as committing the sin. If a sin was found out, immediate expulsion from the congregation and from the offender's immediate family was the penalty. And there I was, committing countless forms of immorality in my mind upon most of the girls at my school and most especially upon myself where I had free reign. Next to nothing was not a sin and at age 12 I dreaded the very real possibility of disassociation. Even sitting quietly at the Kingdom Hall, flipping back and forth through my Bible, I was sinning up a storm. Some of my "sisters" were looking good, especially the way my extra-developed, badly disciplined imagination removed their proper dresses and altered points of their anatomy. It was around the age of 13, with the looming possibility of being expelled from my home, that I began to design my own private dwellings. They were always cleverly hidden so as to avoid the authorities and generally very small, like a clubhouse. Even at that age, building such a thing was not out of my realm of possibilities as I built several "practice" structures out of scrap. The problem was always feeding myself. We lived very far from any stores and I had no money. The possibility of stealing what I needed did not occur to me until later. In retrospect however, I think that the thing that held me at home was the emotional connection to my family. It took many years to mentally and emotionally "kill" my parents to sever that connection. Only after that could I endure disassociation from my family and attempt to cast off the built-in moral constraints that made it impossible to live with myself and others. I am now resigned to the possibility that I will never fully rid myself of this manufactured behavior. It's just too deep. I learned so well to be without people that I am now repulsed by most contact with them; and yet I love and need people around me to maintain my sanity. Most aspects of social life make me very uncomfortable. But art is a sort of sanctuary. Managing 55 acres in Maine, far away from everyone is blissful, but only for moderate amounts of time. I tend to become ungrounded and depressed within about two weeks.
Through my upbringing, I experienced great conflict which in turn gave me the power and the need to create art. Maybe the seed of inspiration lies somewhere within. For me there was no other form of expression. The punishment at the time for talking about my feelings was too great. I cannot resolve the conflict between my humanity and the artificial morality implanted by the JWs, so I try my best to control or harmonize the conflicting elements of my environment like color in my paintings or structure in the house sculpture. The house is very much the expression of my conflict, but with many more dimensions. I am realizing many of my old childhood fears and possibly putting some to rest through this process. Each dimension helps me understand myself a little better which in turn makes life in my body a little more bearable, sometimes a pleasure!
Sometimes I make conflict beautiful.

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