Art and being heard
by Douglas Eby
"You need to create your own projects and let your voice be heard."
Many artists use their creativity to articulate and support social issues, or deal with personal concerns.
As an actress, Valerie Red-Horse had been offered variations of "Indian Maiden" roles that did not realistically portray her life or that of other Native Americans. So she chose to heed her own advice, to let her voice be heard, by writing a screenplay that became the film "Naturally Native," a story of three sisters, representing herself at various stages of her life.
"The youngest sister typifies how I was in high school," said Red-Horse (on the film's website). "I was more interested in boys, clothes and the shallower aspects of life than with my Indian heritage. The middle sister represents my college years, when I was trying to forge an identity through academic achievement. The oldest sister, whom I play in the film is who I am now, knowledgeable, but secure in who I am and where I come from."
Red-Horse hired as co-director another woman, Jennifer Wynne Farmer, a fellow student in a UCLA film class, and they collaborated on further developing the screenplay with both Native and non-Indian perspectives. Their film became the first to be entirely financed by an Indian Tribe, the Pequot Nation.
The story includes issues such as the controversies of casino gambling, and the portrayal of Native Americans in the media and as sports mascots. "Of course, our main purpose is to entertain and create a good story," Red-Horse says, "but if we can also educate and enlighten simultaneously, then we've achieved my ultimate goal as a filmmaker."
Archna Jaideep Singh has found painting to be a very powerful means of both expression and healing. With Masters degrees in political science and philosophy, she writes (in Moondance magazine) that she never thought she'd be a full time artist, though she admits, "painting came naturally to me and was a major passion." Born in a "princely state in India," she recalls creating "beautiful designs to adorn the walls, floors and ceilings of our homes... It was the most exciting part of my childhood and adolescent years."
As an adult, she was struck with a serious illness for about seven years: "It made me physically very weak and fragile to the degree that my existence was in question," she says. "This phase made me redefine my life's priorities and direction. ... painting became first a source of therapy and then a full time pursuit.
"In my experience, when someone goes through so much suffering the desire to live is sustained by creating a beautiful inner landscape where exploration knows no boundaries. Art became my identity and a means for the celebration of life in spite of suffering. Since then my central purpose is to create beauty in our times when ugliness and crassness have almost become a cult."
Another way of using creativity as a tool is in helping teens express difficult aspects of their lives. Jill Gurr founded the Hollywood-based writing program Create Now that connects entertainment professionals with institutionalized at-risk kids, encouraging them to put their feelings on paper through rap, poetry, short stories and screenplays.
While teaching creative writing at Aviva, a residential treatment center for girls, Hillary Carlip got the idea for her book "Girl Power: Young Women Speak Out," which also "gives voice" to many young women. Carlip is also one of the founders of Voxxy, a new online network with programming for teen girls.
Creative expression has often been used as a means to illuminate a part of history. Writing partners Sheri Moses and Danette Lindeman had often been drawn to railroad sites while researching projects, and became interested in the role of women in railroading.
After finding a great deal of material at Travel Town Railroad Museum in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, and through contacting other historical societies and museums, they were inspired to write a play that is now part of the annual Women's History Month celebration at the museum.The partners have also founded the International Society for the Preservation of Women in Railroading.
Photography can be another form of service to important issues. Joan Lauren (interviewed in an earlier column) created her non-profit book "Portraits of Life, With Love" (celebrities, usually photographed with an afflicted child) as a fundraiser for AIDS research.
Photographer Mary Ellen Mark's subjects have included such varied subjects as homeless children and their families; Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity, and teenagers surviving on the streets as pimps, prostitutes, and small-time drug dealers. Her book "Ward 81" was about a locked women's ward at the Oregon State Mental Institution.
Author C Diane Ealy ("The Woman's Book of Creativity") reminds us that it is "a remarkable gift" and "can exist unused for many years and then, with the right encouragement, creativity can be expressed, improving our lives and the lives of everyone around us.
"Creative women are strong women who empower others through their creativity."
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C Diane Ealy. TheWoman's Book of Creativity
Joan Lauren. Portraits of Life, With Love
Mary Ellen Mark. The Photo Essay
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