"Like any art form in the mainstream, comedy can be a great soother of our emotions." - Michael Newcomer
Last night, an answer at the Arts Forum in Portland struck a chord with me. Eileen Brady, candidate for Mayor, was asked, "What do the arts mean to you?" She replied with a story from her family of how her late grandfather's singing of Irish tunes at the piano became a connector for generations. She said, "Arts tell us who we are. They remind us who our family is. They tell us who our community is. And they're absolutely necessary." I'd like to share my personal story of the necessity of the arts.
Last fall, I lost my father to a long-time battle with alcoholism and I lost my mother (who would have been 58 at the end of this month) 12 years ago to her long-time battle with heroin. What do these two have in common beyond eventually succumbing to substance abuse addiction? They were both also known for their charisma, their artistic spark, their creativity -- it was no wonder they found each other for a short while.
I can't remember not having art in my life, but we didn't call it that. We called it life. Singing in the car to and from everywhere. Telling jokes about anything and everything (my father was a trained clown and standup comedian) even in the face of tragedy. Art was expressed through going to the movies at the beginning of the month when mom got paid even though we couldn't afford it; performing at home to the new music television station, MTV, with my sister; or taking Halloween very seriously -- my dad (long after he and my mom had separated) came over to supply the face makeup and my mom helped to create homemade or assembled costumes from what treasures we could find in the closet. My mom even was able to turn a routine confirmation stole into an artistic triumph -- a rare victory in a life lived in self-doubt and disappointment.
My mom never finished high school and fell into a debilitating drug habit that first took her children away and then took her life, when it was done ravaging everything else. When my older sister and I went to see a showing of Storm Large's Crazy Enough a few years ago, we both separately wondered. What if our mom had been able to channel her hurt, her pain in pursuit of creative expression, like this talented woman performing in front of us? Maybe she, too, could have beat back those demons. Never having purchased a headstone for her as we had already spread her ashes, we decided to gift a mirror for her in the actors' dressing room so that her light could be reflected in the eyes of those toiling for creative expression night in and night out at the theater.
When faced with the inevitable premature loss of my father this past September, I was again reminded of the importance of art and creative expression. Ever since I was little, my dad was this bigger than life person. Someone who taught clown school for students at Fernwood Middle School, who performed as a clown for my first grade class, who wrote me postcards from touring around the country meeting and working with eventual superstar comedians whom we all now know. And even in his death, in his studio apartment, his creativity loomed large -- a tiny space overwhelmed by scraps of paper (envelopes, cardboard, bills, receipts, notebooks) filled with his comedy writing. He had long since given up his pursuit of comedy and creative expression as a career, instead turning to full time work as a radiology coordinator in hospitals to support his growing family.
As part of appeals for funding for his arts program for students at Fernwood he wrote, "The main concept I want to convey is that comedy is a catharsis. Like any art form in the mainstream, comedy can be a great soother of our emotions." It's hard not to wish that my dad had continued teaching art to those students. Not just for THEM, but for HIM.
It's overly simplistic to say that staying with art would have changed the outcome for him. We know too many great artists who aren't able to escape their own tragedy. Art may not have saved my parents, but it did save me. Despite the emotional neglect that accompanies having parents with substance abuse problems, I was never devoid of a love of life. It may have been a complicated love, but it was deep and profound and it was underscored by all the joy that would fleet in and out of my troubled childhood through access to art, to life.
So when I think of what art means to me, to us, I think of all the young kids like my mom and my dad or like me who are out there -- brimming with self-doubt, anger, or hurt or in the case of some, even just a totally different view of how to approach the world. I think if we aren't dedicated to providing a public education that provides myriad ways for children to express themselves, to channel their creativity, yes to channel their emotions (positive or negative), we are bound to pay for it eventually. There are no savings to be had when it comes to building the human spirit.