Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Road Not Taken

This is a reprint of a letter I wrote to friends at the end of my first semester of teaching in India in spring 2008. 

I lived in South East Asia for four years in the 60's. I returned to the States in 1979 with the intention of clearing up college debts before becoming a permanent expatriate in Asia. I liked Asia. I was a guest professor of art in Thailand and The Philippines. I was a student at Benaras Hindu University in Varanasi.  For a girl from Iowa that life was exotic.  I felt liberated to live outside the limitations of my culture.

But when I returned to the States, I met Bill and Sally Thonson who helped me get a house and a teaching position at HSU. Instead of going back to India, I settled into life in Humboldt County.  That life gradually filled up with friends, children, and a design practice.  Still I wondered sometimes if I made the best choice.  Asia, especially India, continued to tug at my spirit.

Last December I accepted a teaching position at Aayojan College of Architecture in Jaipur, India.  This was my opportunity to walk along the road I didn't take in the 60's.  In the past six months the
colors, tastes, smells, and festivals of India have taken me back forty years.  I would find myself with sensations so similar to my life in India as a young woman that I would be surprised that the person in the mirror was no longer a sweet girl..

Life at Aayojan School of Architecture turned out to be much more challenging than I had  anticipated. My fantasy life of a vibrant architecture community that discussed interesting concepts over afternoon tea did not materialize. Instead I found myself isolated in a light deprived, noisy room in the girls dormitory, a forty five minute auto rickshaw ride to almost anywhere.

I got to know some of my students and a few faculty members. The Hindi I learned forty years earlier began to reappear.  Names like Kaushal, Shalini, Swastika, and Ravinder became familiar.  With some of my students we explored hill forts, bird sanctuaries, and villages specializing in beautiful block printing, but I came to understand that studying architecture was far from the first choice  for many of these young people.

Sadly, India's education system sorts out students according to marks on national exams.  A love of learning ,creativity, intellectual curiosity, and an interest in making a difference in the world were
largely lacking.  The road I took in the early seventies in Arcata led to deep involvement in alternative education and an appreciation of student activism.  CCAT at HSU is in my mind the best kind of education.  The students who have kept it alive for thirty years have been consistently  energetic in their ongoing effort to make the world a better place.

My ecology course at Aayojan did not spark campaigns to get organic food in the mess or encourage recycling  at the college like similar courses have at HSU.  Several students did tell me as I was getting ready to leave that they do now turn off lights and were careful to not waste water. These are small steps but they are heading in a more positive direction

About half way through the semester the paperwork, lack of enthusiasm, hierarchical social structure and patriarchy led me to write a letter saying I had decided to leave after only one semester.  Then almost immediately life began to get better.  Students started stopping by my room to chat and urge me to return. Fellow art faculty looked at the paintings I had been doing and suggested arranging a show for next spring.  An expedition proposal  to the Thar Desert to study architectural embellishment met with a lot of enthusiasm among faculty and administration.  India has a way of being miserable one moment and fantastic the next. All this made returning next year a good choice for me.

My friend Peggy Dickinson  has a message mounted in her studio that says "you never know what is happening till later".  As I reflect back over the experiences of the past six months, I feel fortunate to have Arcata as a home base. From Humboldt County  I can venture out to the rest of the world and walk along many roads I didn't take in the past. It feels good to have resolved an old conflict about roads not takes and be pleased with the life I did choose.

My present opportunity to spend the next six months in Humboldt County then return to do research documenting desert artwork that is so beautiful it makes my heart jump. It seems to me that the road not taken forty years ago has merged with the one I did take. Now, I get the best of both worlds.

I look forward to having really good coffee at Brio, checking out the farmers market, reconnecting with friends and doing some design work as well. I have missed the challenge of designing buildings and look forward to getting back to work.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Barefoot College, women's empowerment

Below is an article I  off to the Arcata Eye while I was teaching at Aayojan School of Architecture in Jaipur.I am including you in this blog because I found Barefoot College a powerful lesson in bottom up education and social justice... thought you might enjoy reading it. 
  This past weekend I took twenty of my ecology students to visit the Barefoot College in the village of Tilonia, about three hours by bus from Jaipur. When I was investigating the possibilities of teaching in India for a year I contacted Barefoot College and offered to volunteer there but was politely informed that they preferred to learn from the bottom up and discouraged the participation of those with advanced degrees.  At the time I did not quite get it but now after a visit I have come away with a deep respect for their various programs.
I took my students to visit Tilonia because it is self sufficient in both power and water.  After we visited their PV and solar hot water installations, various solar cookers, and their simple but effective rainwater collection system we went on to learn about programs they have been developing over the past twenty years that trains women without formal education to install and maintain small PV collectors that provide energy for individual homes, schools and medical facilities. We visited the training shop and saw individually charged fluorescent lanterns that are providing light for Barefoot's evening schools.  These serve both children and adults who must work during the day but can with the help of solar light study for three hours in the evening.  Teachers for these schools are villagers who have be trained at Tilonia.  The program for teaching adults reminds me of the adult literacy programs developed at Highlander Institute to respectfully teach literacy to African Americans in the South during the civil rights struggle.
The school also has a cooking and dining facility, library, medical facility providing free care, a crafts store selling locally made block print items, a silk screening production producing simply decorated cloth bags urging the elimination of plastic, and very impressive puppet and mask making area with theatre.  One of the most successful methods of communicating to villagers has proved to be theatre and puppetry in native to this area.  I was entertained impressed and well entertained by the quality of the performance we saw.  I think a   collaboration between Barefoot College and Del Arte would be enriching to both.
As part of a video we were shown on the various activities of the school, it became clear why my particular skills were declined.  Many of the programs that have been most successful here have come from the village people themselves.  The college took a look at the costs of foreign volunteers and concluded that they could train eight local teachers who already spoke the language for every one Peace Corps type volunteer.  They have presented this finding to the UN.  It is funding from the UN and other agencies that is funding the training of villagers from as far away as West Africa as well as remote areas of the Himalaya.
This new understanding is leading me to consider my longstanding passion for  living and working in the third world.  For now at least, I am contenting myself with teaching ecological principles to largely privileged architecture students.  Interestingly some of them are pointing out that the Vedas told them long ago that the world would be destroyed at the end of the Kali cycle (that would be the age in which we are now living) so they are not surprised to learn about global warming.  Several of us on the faculty are  encouraging them to think ecologically just on principle. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Home and Back Again

Some time in the early spring my mom wrote to me while I was living on a beach in Goa to suggest that it was time for me to come back to the States and take care of my student loans. At that time the amount of my debt was far less that today's college graduates but duty called.
My first try at reentry into my birth culture was in Berkeley and Oakland,CA.  It was 1970.  I was 27 years old.  After a year on just getting by I moved to Arcata in Humboldt County, close to the Oregon border. Luck was with me there.  I got a part time job teaching in the art department at Humboldt State University and a rental house with an outrageous view of the Pacific.  At the time I thought I might return to Asia in a year or two.
Instead I got involved in the art community, the women's movement, and the University where I got full time employment.  I built small house with the help of a man who eventually became my husband.  George had studied architecture with the Chicago Bauhaus and was a knowledgeable builder.  His contribution was critical in making that little building significant enough, along with my paintings,  to get me accepted into the graduate program in architecture at Berkeley.
Life just kept moving along.  There were two wonderful sons, a design business, ventures into development, friends, schools to help start for my boys, and suddenly twenty years had passed.
By 1991 I was a single mother determined to share the adventure of travel and cultural exploration with my boys.  I  spent that year reading Lonely Planet books and saving money.  In January of 1992, with my nine and fifteen year old kids, I took off for Calcutta.  We traveled over much of India and went on to trek over two hundred miles in the Himalayas.  For me the experience integrated for the first time, my life in Humboldt County with the life I had lived in my twenties in Asia.  India changes slowly.  The world my boys saw was essentially the same as the one I had lived in twenty years earlier.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Teaching and traveling in SE Asia

 In the mid sixties I completed a masters program in art and art history at the University of Colorado.  After a few months of drifting about I found a book listing universities with art departments all over the world.  I began writing to schools in Asia explaining that I had studied in India and would like to return to that part of the world as an art professor.  By offering to provide my own transportation and work as local wages I made my proposal appealing to several universities.   I  chose Philippine Women's University in Manila.  It was a great decision for me.  Classes were in English, the students talented, and the faculty friendly.  I was given a studio as well.  It was a fabulous place to be a young artist. Most of my evenings were spent in a coffee house that attracted both Filipino and expat artists, writers, anthropologists and other interesting types. There were art openings with Imelda Marcos in attendance, parties that ended with the sunrise over Manila Bay, and trips to visit ingeniousness people who still lived much as they had for thousands of years.  Alas the Univeristy had a strong Catholic affiliation and I think the amount of partying i did was frowned upon.  I was not invited to stay a second year.I had an exhibition of paintings in a lovely gallery in Manila, making enough money to either return to the US or move on.
 I choose to move to Thailand.  Luckily I met some artists hanging a show in Bangkok. After showing them slides of my work one of them explained that he was leaving on a study grant to the US and needed someone to take over his classes in NE Thailand.  Off we went to meet the dean of NE Technical Institute in Korat.  I taught there for almost two years.  That time focused on learning about Thai art and architecture, visiting the night markets, and getting more deeply involved in making art.  When it was time to move on I had another exhibition, this time at the American Embasy in Bangkok.  With the proceeds I took off to explore.  The time was 1969, just at the very height of a massive international traveler scene.  What a fabulous time to be in my twenties and on the road.
I rode a bicycle around Ankor Wat, a motor cycle around Bali, and assorted boats, trains, and trucks in India, Nepal, and Burma.   Kathmandu and Goa were at the places to be.  In many ways these months of traveling were a reintroduction to the West. I was getting to know my own generation after three years spent in very different cultures.  This was a time before travel guide books.  Most young people on the road had traveled overland from Europe through the Middle East and Afghanistan, up over the Kyber Pass.  In order to proceed we  shared remarkably specific information on cheap hotels, travel arrangements, and places to experience.  If I had to pick a time in my life when I truly had an extended and adventurous good time, this would have to be at the top of the list. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

A year as a student in India

That year in Varanasi, one of the oldest extant cities in the world, was a game changer for me.  The food, sounds, smells, and just about everything else was so so not Iowa.  After a few months though I was comfortable enough to travel on third class trains by myself, explore ancient ruins, and manage to communicate in basic Hindustani.  I spent two weeks climbing around Khajaraho, Ajanta, and Ellora, some of the most spectacular religious monuments in all the world.  On another occasion I got taken to a secret  Indian Army encampment (this was during the time of the Chinese invasion in the Humalayas)  to meet the Indian general who led the first all Indian ascent of Everest.  We were served tea by a distinguished gentleman who had server Queen Elizabeth and her father when they visited India.
 My notions of  love, self determination, family loyalty, and social mobility were all challenged and eventually expanded to include very different expectations.  While studying in Varanasi we heard that Alan Ginsberg and his partner Peter Olorsky were living down by the ghats along the Ganges River.  When we located them a forth floor walk up, they were friendly, introducing my friend Jane and I to a very different side of life. 
Like most young people living in another culture for the first time, I learned to see so much of my own culture as simply a variation on the possible.  I had the opportunity to see concepts like romantic love, independence, community, and tradition through a very different lens.  Hindu mythology gave me a view of powerful female deities that were inspiring after a life of the tepid Virgin Mary I had grown up with.   I went on a few years later to write my masters thesis in fine art on the development of these deities.
The photo included here is of me working on my miniature painting course.  My son Evan came across it while randomly searching through Flicker photos a couple of years ago.  I still paint but no longer find it so comfortable to sit on the floor.