by Laura E. Alvarez
I was checking out a Face Book post where my very inspiring friend, Marietta, had shared a story about a photo journalist who had just died very young and in the midst of her work in Africa. Marietta asked the question, “Was it worth her sharing these images with the world in hopes it would make a difference….”? This question really moved me. I answered, “YES.” I kept thinking about the work we do. We, humans.
Another friend with a beautiful heart expressed to me a few months ago that she believed every person deep down wants to make a positive difference in the world. I had never thought this before. Never. Do you think it’s true? I hope it is.
Marietta’s share also got me thinking about those experiences “that changed everything” for me. I could make a list of them, but because of that photo journalist, I want to focus right now on creations, something someone made, that, when I experienced it, was a defining moment for me.
1. A song. “Imagine” by John Lennon, 1971.
I sat on the floor of my bedroom in a small space between my bed and the radio under the window. I was 17 years old. This was it. I really had to focus. Would I go to fashion design school or would I accept UC Santa Cruz’ offer and study art? Art or fashion design. Fashion design or art. Little school in a mall of Orange County or little UC in a redwood forest. A promised VW vintage to commute in or a new mountain bike. I was stuck. My mind was blank with indecision. I never would have considered art if the fashion school hadn’t required me to take an art class my senior year in high school. Art was clearly my soul, but the design world had been my everything since I was twelve years old. “Imagine” suddenly came on the radio. My blank mind took in the lyrics. As always, I pictured everything a song had to offer me. The images in my head were like 70’s animation. I saw all of it. My synesthesia was in high gear. I saw my place in the world. I was an agent of change. I didn’t expect any of this. None of this had entered my mind before that moment. It was the song. My 17 year old self picked up the university letter and went to find my dad sitting with his newspaper to tell him my decision.
2. A painting. “White Center” by Mark Rothko, 1957
I hadn’t been exposed to a lot of art. It was 1988, visiting Los Angeles Museum of Art with my new boyfriend. First year of college on break from aforementioned little UC in the redwood forest. Everything was very impressive, and I liked to check it all out very thoroughly. Sculpture, prints, drawings, paintings. I couldn’t really close my mouth. It was the permanent collection so there weren’t a lot of people around. My memory tells me that it was very dark. That’s just how I remember it… maybe because my memory likes to put a spotlight on certain things. At the end of a room I saw it. A glowing red and white painting. I was drawn to it, so much so that I went and sat on the bench in front of it. My eyes waded into the layers of color. Deeper I went, deeper until I felt the artist’s soul. My tears started to fall. I didn’t know anything about the artist. I didn’t know his name yet. It was an unnamed emotion. It was beauty mixed with sadness mixed with joy mixed with revelation. I didn’t know a painting could make someone cry until that day.
3. A poem. “The Hundred Languages of Children” by Loris Malaguzzi.
I read it my first year of art grad school. I was interning with the great Chicana muralist Juana Alicia in San Francisco. I wanted to be Juana Alicia. She was everything I went to grad school for. She was an agent of change, a skilled artist and she had style for miles. The fact that interning with her wasn’t on some amazing Mission district two story mural didn’t matter. The fact that I was assisting her with a bunch of kindergartners in the studio of a new elementary school was… fine, I thought. I never wanted to make a career of working with children. My first two experiences teaching children had been kind of traumatizing. One was with serious special education students who would bite me and run away from school. The other was with 6th graders in East Los Angeles where I was in way over my head. This new experience was blowing my mind. I was facilitating conceptual explorations with six year olds in a lab/research center that was disguised as a school. This poem said it all. Everyone that was going to be inspired by the Reggio Emilia Approach to education had to read this poem. I learned from that poem more quickly than I did from any essay by a professor, teacher, or administrator had written about this approach. Now that I revisit it, I realize the profound effect that it has had on my life. It says it is about children, but it is about humans. It is about us. It helped me say “yes” to so many things and to so many things that I thought did not belong together… like painting and music, like joy and washing dishes, and like prayer and junkyards. One poem could do all that. One creation by one of us can move somebody. Searching, expressing, connecting… and bringing us all up together.