Homeboy Industries and Otis
Hello my friends,
Thursday was an interesting day for me. In addition to spending time with Marie Jager at Pepin Moore and previewing the LACE auction at a new downtown space I spent my afternoon at Homeboy Industries attending a class presentation by Otis students teamed with Homeboy mentors.
Dr. Ysamur Flores-Pena, under the aegis of Otis College of Art and Design, has for three years been organizing teams of Otis students from various fields of study and Homeboys who are taking art and culture classes at the Industries headquarters into classes that consider identity, gender, politics, transitions and histories and apply these as tools for research and ultimately for the creation of socially significant and meaningful works of art and applied craft. It happened that the class I attended, which was the final class of this term before graduation, began the semester with the death of one of the Homeboys. The students in Dr. Flores-Pena’s class chose to use their time together to find a way to honor the passing of their friend.
At the beginning of Thursday’s class several people spoke of the importance of any object or space they designed to be available for the use of the entire Homeboys group, and to be used to honor not only passings of friends but also personal transitions, marriages, births, graduations, etc. Celebration and grief often go together, and to be reminded of one while in the midst of living with the other might be a good way to honor the whole of life.
There were two teams of students – one had the task of researching the memorialization of space. As people we need a special place to invest with the power of memory and to decorate it with or bestow upon it evidence of our grieving, anger, sadness, re-birth and commitment to life. The second team chose to focus on objects of this devotion, on a votive that might be passed from one to another in a healing circle and then to be displayed for the community to live with for a time.
These are big ideas and since the students were not familiar with each other or with the cultures they each brought with them I imagine it was difficult to get beyond that awkward feeling we all have when we are faced with completing a shared and potentially emotionally charged task with someone we assume to be a stranger.
After the usual technical difficulties (in this case the building’s Internet connection did not extend to the classroom and so each portion of the powerpoint needed to be accessed in the hallway outside the classroom and the laptop then brought in for scrolling and showing – not unlike problems I sometimes had when I was working for the architects) the “object” students showed their research images and talked about the investigations they did into various cultures and how each culture made objects that gained significance through repeated memorial use.
There was talk of water – for reflection, as a representation of cleansing and of birth and baptism; of sage, for its power to purge bad thoughts and evil from a space and to feed the spirit; and of fire and light in the form of a candle – the light that shines from the sky, the fire that nourishes us and that also saves us from the dark. They showed us images of circles and spheres and bowls that throughout history and around the world have been used as sacred representations.
A bowl is the form they chose, one without decoration so to leave each individual free to invest the bowl with their own symbols. This simplicity seemed to all the best way to respect the varied cultures that might be using the bowl. One of the Otis students – a young tattoo artist – spoke of this as a tabernacle, which I found particularly moving.
This bowl would be shaped something like a bundt pan, the central space would hold a candle and contain the dripping wax so each memorial remains present forever; then a curved outer ring and finally a circular chamber of plexiglass that could be filled with water and have a portion open only from the top where pictures and mementos may be placed. This bowl may be passed around the circle of friends, then rest for a time in the main lobby and then perhaps be wrapped in fabric and stored in a safe place until the need arises again. The main material will be galvanized steel, for durability, simplicity and also to ensure the bowls make-ability by the Homeboys themselves. This making part seems very important – making a thing oneself gives pride and brings love of the object and respect for those who help you achieve it.
The “place” team showed slides of memorial spaces in neighborhood around Los Angeles, from Ramona Gardens and from other countries and cultures. The representations of memorial spaces are not that different from sacred objects: needed is a consideration of transformation, of rights of passage, of transition and of closure. Symbols used include the spiral, the eye of god, candle light, water, fabric that might separate the living from the dead or to indicate holiness, Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Virgin’s likeness appearing on the Bishop’s cloak, the tree of life which allows the spirit to enter at the roots and then to climb up and eventually out of the branches and leaves up to heaven.
They settled on recommending to the Homeboys a tree, which would have four trunks twining up the main support column in the Homeboys Industries lobby. The trunks might represent different cultures. As the tree grows and branches out pictures and notes from the memorial bowl can be hung from these branches, among the leaves. Lights might be braided up the trunks and fabric placed around the base.
These two proposals from the combined teams of Otis students and Homeboy mentors are on the table as just that: proposals. The Homeboys will decide what they want to and can do. I hasten to point out that while each of these projects is attainable by the homeys themselves with tools and materials that are easily found, there is a cost for everything we do. More to the point – the cost to bring these projects to fruition is outside any budget or fund-raising effort currently in place. If you have a thought to offer help, contact info for Homeboy Industries is below.
I talked briefly with Dr. Flores-Pena after the class, he stressed to me that “the homeys didn’t go to college and have never thought of creativity as a way out, as a way to succeed – and the Otis students didn’t grow up in the hood and probably never had the opportunity to learn how different from their own a person’s life could be.”
Posted on the blackboard were several hand written signs.
“Did I start any abuse today?”
“Did I witness any abuse today?”
“Have I participated in violence today?”
“Did I miss an opportunity today?”
As we broke up to leave I was lucky to meet Fabian Debora, one of the Homeboy mentors and a three year participant in Dr. Flores-Pena’s classes.
Debora met Father Greg (Father Gregory Boyle, the founder and leader of Homeboy Industries) when he was ten and he joined the Homeboys four years ago. When he discovered art he discovered a new power.
“When I first showed a painting in a gallery, when I hung it on the wall for anyone to see I felt love, respect and admiration that I never felt in the past.”
Love, respect and admiration are pretty simple things but are so often unattainable.
“I did not feel outside anymore and I did not need membership in a gang to feel strong.”
To be able to stand for oneself, to be empowered to respect yourself – what strength, what a gift.
Fabian looked me in the eyes and stated flatly, “We came from broken homes, there was violence all around us.” Just then Fabian subtly withdrew into a crouching position, his head was drawn in and his shoulders close around his torso. His hands were raised and his fists closed in a motion of protection. This was all quite unselfconscious. Fabian Debora was not acting, his body was remembering. I recognized his stance, I know it well.
Broken homes and violence come in many different shapes and forms.Their content may vary but the effects are similar. The constant conflict between fight and flight keeps one trapped. This tension might cause one to seek acceptance from a gang, to seek additional violence – and it might cause one to withdraw inside and to hide there as the abuse happens. Neither strategy works – the abuse is present forever and the loss of control over one’s life remains. There are no choices anymore, there are only reactions.
If you’re lucky, if you have help from somebody – a Father Boyle, a loved one, a therapist – you can recognize this constant presence of abuse in your life, and then you can begin to stop reacting to that abuse with every thing you do. You finally are able to choose for yourself, rather than give your decisions over to the abusers. This is all a lot of work and a scary amount of responsibility. This is freedom.
I applaud the efforts of these homeboys and these Otis students. None of what they are doing is easy. “Only connect,” someone in early Twentieth Century British Literature wrote – apropos something else entirely. Connecting is a hard thing to do, and often we allow the differences between us to become guards rather than doorways. Otis and Homeboy Industries are creating a place and a project that is opening doors.
I will gather images and names for you and upload them as I get them.
(Wikipedia page for “only connect” reference – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howards_End)