Art and Healing: Medicine

For 28 years, Tilda Shalof worked as a nurse in Toronto General Hospital’s ICU. During that time she collected tiny ‘souvenirs’ of the patients she treated, the stories of which she was a part: caps from medicine bottles, plastice syringe covers, equipment connectors… Shalof collected these for years, not knowing what to do with them but knowing they were important somehow, transitory reminders of something greater, disposable bits of trash that together served as a testimony to a career and memories of life and death.
Eventually all this waste was upcycled into a 9ft mural that now hangs in Toronto General Hospital. Created with artist Vanessa Herman-Landau, the mural is a vibrant, colourful piece that uses the detritus of a hospital to express something of the hope and healing that takes place there. Shalof can point to any of the 10,000 bits of plastic embedded in resin and explain what it was used for, how it helped her patents. Through that, she also remembers those she helped, those who recovered, those she lost.

I’ve written before about how healing and art are more closely linked than we imagine. This mural reminds us of the science that makes the work of hospitals and their staff possible: the medicine, the equipment, the fluids, the drips, the needles. Bezalel’s legacy stretches across disciplines, it informs science and engineering and with them creates something beautiful.

We may be thinking of the miraculous when we pray for healing, but we’re also praying for nurses and researchers, doctors and paramedics, cleaners and receptionists. Our prayers for healing are also a blessing of medicine and MRI scanners, blood pressure machines and prosthetics. These are creativity in action; the Spirit works through science as well. And we can be reminded of that by 10,000 bottle tops and all those that use them.

Advertisements

Dispatches From the Ploughshares Factory: The Tree of Life

Visions of the future feel bleak right now; men with missiles threaten fury and fire. All I can do now is hold on by my fingertips to a vision of life and hope.

‘The Tree of Life’

“The work is a sculpture of the tree of life: it stands nine or ten feet tall, with spreading branches a further nine or ten feet in all directions. In it, and under its shade, are birds and animals. And the whole thing, tree, creatures and all, is made entirely from decommissioned weapons: bits and pieces of old AK47s, bullets and machetes and all the horrible paraphernalia of war… But the point, of course – and it is a stunningly beautiful object at several levels at once – is that this Tree of Life reflects the Isaianic promise that swords will be beaten into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks. The Tree stands as a reminder both of the horror of the world, with all its multiple human follies and tragedies, and also of hope, the hope of new creation… But it is also a sign of what genuine art can be, taking a symbol from the world of the original creation, building into it the full recognition of the horrors of the present world which by themselves would lead us to despair, and celebrating the promise of the new world, a world full of God’s glory as the waters cover the sea. It offers celebration without naivety, sorrow without cynicism, and hope without sentimentality. Standing before it is like glimpsing an apocalyptic vision, a vision of the beauty of God… For the moment I invite you to contemplation, to gratitude, to the vision of God’s new heavens and new earth, and to the multiple vocations – prophetic, artistic, political, theological, whatever – by which God will call you to bring signs of that new world to birth within the old one, where vision is limited and widows still weep.”

Tom Wright, Apocalyptic and the Beauty of God

The Grace of Mobile Libraries

A few years ago I read The Library Book, edited by the Reading Agency; borrowed it from a library, funnily enough. This is an anthology of writing on libraries by a number of well-known authors, but the piece that got me thinking was the forward, in which a librarian tells of her mobile library’s encounters with the homeless.

It’s moving to read of how lending a book to someone on the streets is more than just a nice public service – it’s an act of trust. After all, when your clientele is itinerant, you’re not going to get all of your books back.

And yet books were returned – kept dry when their reader himself was soaking wet, and acting as a catalyst for conversations other than homeless shelters. One man, having got back on his feet, became a librarian himself. Lending books became a humanising event, an act of grace almost. It changed people’s lives.

The same thing is happening in Greece. Laura Naude and Esther ten Zijthoff have converted an old minibus into a mobile library for refugees. Born out of the realisation that people in refugee camps need more than simple food and shelter, the library has become a safe space for people wanting to learn other languages, for scholars who want to translate their work, for kids who just want to read.

A library in an old minibus can serve as an agent of grace, and this grace can lead to transformation, if we accept it. It’s given freely, a thing of beauty that can help transform someone’s surroundings, even if circumstances are difficult. We shouldn’t simply reduce people to consumers of food and electricity and a welfare bill – ultimately that’sort dehumanising. Working to nourish souls, communities and hope is just as important: it’seems mazing what can grow from books in a bus.

Representation is Important

_96965516_doctor_1

So Jodie Whittaker has been announced as the 13th Doctor. For those of you unfamiliar with the greatest TV show of all time, Whittaker will be the first woman to play what has traditionally been a male role and so, unsurprisingly, the bottom half of the internet has exploded with equal parts joy and vitriol.

This post isn’t altogether about Doctor Who (although for the record I’m all for a female Doctor and have nothing but good vibes towards Jodie Whittaker and the production team. Go for it!). However, reaction to the casting highlights something very important: representation is important. The last couple of years has seen a lot of controversies around representation: controversies over women-only showings of Wonder Woman, over a black Storm Trooper, over there not being enough white dudes in the trailer for a new Star Trek show. All of these stem from a status quo that’s overwhelmingly white, male and straight. While some of this is due to the age in which major entertainment franchises were born, the fact is pop culture has a representation problem.

Imagine what it’s like to never see yourself on the screen, or to always be the sidekick or the comic relief or the first person to be eaten by the zombie. Imagine all the leads being ripped white guys. Imagine being told that films starring heroes that look like you wouldn’t sell. Imagine characters that look like you always being sexualised. Imagine characters that look like you being killed just to drive forward the hero’s journey, imagine characters that look like you being omitted from playsets because someone somewhere figured that little boys wouldn’t play with a girl action figure.

Imagine being cast as the new Doctor and seeing someone comment that the show should be renamed Nurse Who.

Some are quick to write this stuff off as the stuff of ‘political correctness’, but it sends a message, a message that women aren’t important, that LGBTQ people aren’t important, that people with disabilities and people who aren’t white aren’t important, aren’t interesting enough, aren’t lucrative enough.

Imagine if Jesus kept getting portrayed with blond hair and blue eyes.

Imagine all that, and think about what’s being erased.

These are the messages that are filtering through to children, and that’s heart-breaking. You’ve only got to see the reaction of kids to meeting their heroes, or even just meeting cosplayers, to see what it means to have an awesome character that looks like you. This isn’t just disposable, meaningless entertainment, this is pop culture mythology, this is the building blocks of imagination, this is a reflection of our world, both in reality and in potentia. That’s why Leia kept showing up on placards at the Women’s March on Washington. That’s why people were crying as they got to see Wonder Woman. It’s why I want both kids and Jodie Whittaker to read this post by Susie Day.

It’s not just about representation either. It’s about seeing the heroic, the aspirational, the awesomeness of someone who doesn’t look like you. As a kid I always thought Han was the coolest; now I’m glad that Leia’s been established as a general and a leader. I’m glad that my kids can watch The Force Awakens and not comment on how none of the three new heroes are white men. I’m glad the Doctor is regenerating into a woman because the things that make the Doctor – intelligence, compassion, eccentricity and bravery – aren’t male qualities, they’re human qualities that can be embodied by anyone.

And this isn’t just about what’s on the page, on the screen. It’s about who gets to create. We need more diversity among writers and directors and actors and producers and artists. We need more perspectives to be turned into stories, we need more experiences to be documented, we need talent from all quarters to enrich the culture around us, and we need avenues to make that happen (check out Arts Emergency and We Need Diverse Books). We’re all in this together, so let’s see that echoed in our stories.

We’re the product of the stories we tell. And we need to see ourselves in those stories, and I hope a new Doctor can be another step in a journey that’s already been too hard and too long. But let’s keep working at making our stories bigger, more expansive, more diverse, more human.

Learn From The Stories Of Those Who Flee

storytelling

It’s July, and writers and storytellers walk across south-east England, telling the tales of those who fled to this country to escape war and persecution and tyranny. A journey about journeys, Refugee Tales is a pilgrimage of sorts, all about migration and detention, a welcome mat laid at every stop, a salt-circle safe-space established against tabloid hysteria in which people can sit and listen to the stories of refugees and those who work with them, can sit and think about movement.

Because we need to think about movement. As long as the bombs fall and the tyrants rage and the planet warms, we need to think about movement.

Storytelling is at once a spiritual and a tangible practice. How we use words and language and sentences and punctuation shapes our narratives and defines and moulds the stories we live by. There are ‘big’ stories that drive nations for good or ill, manifest destinies or cries of ‘two world wars and one world cup’; there are also smaller stories, quieter stories, stories that emerges from the margins to supplement our uber-narratives, or to challenge them, David standing before Goliath armed only with a sling and the hope of justice.

Sometimes those quieter, rarely heard stories are an inoculation against terrible things and furious words. That’s why we need to listen to them. That’s why we need organisations like Migrant Voice, an organisation that helps promote the voice of refugees and migrants, or the Museum of Immigration and Diversity at 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields.

Wait, an inoculation? Maybe, or a shield:

“At the core, what we’re involved in when we’re trying to make positive changes in our communities and in the world is a battle of narratives or a battle of stories, and that the corporations and different parts of the government tell us are stories that they use to cement their power and legitimise their power. Those of us who are angling for positive change need to tell another story rooted in our lives, and that’s the core of social change movements, it’s fighting between stories.”

So said organiser and writer David Solnit on the Iconoclast podcast in June, and he’s got a pretty good idea of what’s going on. That’s why it’s important to leverage whatever influence we’ve got to allow refugee tales to be heard, and to make the time to sit and listen to those tales.

But how we listen is important too; we should first listen not to fix but to understand. It’s through understanding that we will be formed by these stories, and recognise the humanity of those behind them; that’s not to be underestimated in a media landscape that routinely uses words like ‘swarm’ and ‘horde’ to describe refuges or migrants. Through listening we also learn, and one of the most important lessons we can learn is that we’re not so different.

A while back, the New Yorker published a piece entitled ‘The Refugee as Cassandra in the Shining City’, which highlighted the importance of hearing the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers because they can see and recognise things that the rest of us often can’t. We like to think that It Can’t Happen Here; refugees know that it can happen here, and by the way, here are all the warning signs you’re missing.

(So often Western countries see themselves as cities on a hill to which people flee to, but we can’t picture ourselves as places people could end up fleeing from. That’s a failure of imagination that leaves us vulnerable to authoritarianism.)

(Maybe this is also why people who leave, say, Pakistan or Mexico are called ‘immigrants’, while people who leave the UK are called ‘ex pats’.)

But perhaps most important, refugee stories are an assertion not just of humanity but of identity and individuality.

And amidst all these unique stories, there will be shared experiences and flashes of recognition, and through those moments of familiarity relationships can start to emerge, and with them community and appreciation; through moments like this, we make ourselves neighbours, find ourselves family.

Origami Can Save Your Life: The Work of Dr. Manu Prakash

170112172644-paperfuge-diagnostic-tool-exlarge-169

In my post yesterday, I referred to how there’s a strand of justice running through art and design. That’s demonstrated pretty effectively in the work of Dr. Manu Prakash. A Professor of Bioengineering at Stanford University, he has become well known as the inventor of the ‘foldscope’ and the ‘paperfuge’. These are ultra-low-cost microscopes and centrifuges, designed for use in tackling medical emergencies in poorer communities around the world.

They’re made out of paper.

Paper.

There’s something about this that inspires the young MacGyver fan in me. The idea that you can make a working, medical microscope out of paper, a microscope that effectively costs 50 cents to produce, is revolutionary. It’s taking an ancient art form, origami, wedding it to engineering, and getting it out into a world where almost half a million people die every year from malaria.

No – where half a million people die because they don’t have adequate medical facilities or a reliable electricity supply.

Then there’s the paperfuge. At 20 cents it’s a bit cheaper than the foldscope. This uses paper and other simple parts to create a working centrifuge that doesn’t require electricity. Centrifuges are expensive pieces of kit, but they’re essential in analysing blood and identifying pathogens. Again, the paperfuge is inspired by toys and origami, but is a working tool that can save lives in off-the-grid communities with no infrastructure. Prakash calls this “Frugal Science”. I call it “awesome”.

It’s not just about medicine though. It’s about accessibility. It’s about inspiration. It’s about art and science intersecting in such a way that provides more equitable access to resources and ideas and, as a result, allowing people from all backgrounds to interact with the issues facing their communities and identifying workable solutions. It’s about creating young scientists and supporting old doctors. It’s about origami. It’s about justice. It’s about hope.

Creativity as a Courier of Shalom

potter

Any project takes a while to coalesce; ideas weave together, webs of facts and stories and ideas. As they converse and embrace and debate, a voice emerges, sounding different to how you originally imagined. Still, this voice will be louder, and stronger, and more confident.

This blog was born out of one idea: that creativity, in all its forms, is a gift and a blessing from God. Because of that, we can see how art, and design, and crafts bless the world in turn, through beauty and challenge, imagination and justice, prophecy and protest, vision and healing and lament. Writing the last few formative posts, that’s becoming clearer to me: creativity can lead to an act of creation, and that can echo the Creator. In some small way we can recreate and remix and reimagine and re-enchant the world around us. The Spirit gifts us to do that.

“It is yours to create, it is God’s to sustain. Don’t stop creating, and building and making. Keep going. You’ve come too far.”

That’s a tweet from Pastor Jonathan Martin. It’s applicable to all sorts of callings and vocations, but our churches sometimes look askance at the arts – new songs are suspect, challenge is uncommercial and everyone knows that God speaks Latin or King James English. There are those in the pews who have art burning within them that can be used to beautify the Kingdom, and yet that art never gets created – the space isn’t made, permission isn’t given.

But it is yours to create.

If God’s put that gift within you, pray for his Spirit to release it into the world.

It is God’s to sustain.

God is a creator and a sustainer. And when art and songs and dance and sculpture, software and technology and architecture and food are out there, their impact expands and mutates and collides with other creations to make something new in their wake.

Don’t stop creating and building and making.

Don’t stop, because your gift is a blessing, and you’re blessed to be a blessing. And that blessing can help grow a different Kingdom, roses blooming through cracks in parking lots. Envision and embody and engineer and incarnate the better world whispered to you by the Spirit. Create out of your best dreams, create out of your most vivid scars. Create out of Bethlehem, create out of Calvary.

Because creativity isn’t just an act of imagination, it can be an act of worship, a source of healing, a courier of shalom. You can draw a link between creativity and justice, be that through a protest song or an origami microscope. Creativity can imagine a better world and tell its story and communicate its vision, but it can also help that vision to break through, be pulled through into reality in the wake of a Kingdom come.

Keep going. You’ve come too far.

Keep pushing forward, through the rejection, through the misunderstandings, through the writer’s block and the negative reviews and the troll’s lurking under Twitter’s bridges. Keep going. What you create can mean something, can change something, can make something more beautiful, can help the Spirit shine through.

Keep going.

Keep going.

Keep going.

Dispatches From The Ploughshares Factory

There are times when it feels that we’ve turned some of the most powerful, beautiful themes of Christianity into empty cliches, pious memes that are gutted of their ability to change the world just at the moment we need their power the most. So we talk about something as radical and transformative as beating swords into ploughshares and make it a nice, utopian promise for a future world rather than something that could upend the violence that underpins our society in the here and now.

raw-tools-106-300x200

So I wanted to recognise the times and places in which Isaiah’s great prophecy has been put into practice. Because these are places where the Kingdom breaks through. Sometimes that’s literal – the picture to the left is of workers at RAW Tools turning a rifle into a farm implement. RAW takes seriously the words of Isaiah and Micah, and sees them as a way in which a society scarred by gun violence and mass shootings can start to pursue a more peaceful path. That’s not just through engineering – it’s through giving people the metaphorical tools they need to reject violence. After all, if the only tool you have is a gun, the answer to everything starts to look like a target. We need better tools.

But this isn’t just about getting rid of our guns, not just about the repurposing of weapons. There are other kinds of violence, with the internet becoming a breeding ground for violent words, violent attitudes. Much of this is aimed at women, where what should be simple disagreements and debates end up being accompanied by misogynist language. To our shame, this is often the case among Christians; we fail to disagree well.

So when writer Rachel Held Evans found herself on the receiving end of some pretty unpleasant emails, she resolved to take this ugliness and turn it into something more beautiful. Using the art of origami, she turned hate mail into swans and cranes and ships, and in doing so it led to fellowship, freedom and forgiveness. Because when we reject the weapons and words of hate and replace them with creativity and imagination and peace, they can begin to heal.

rhe-origami

These examples are faith-based, but that’s not always the case. Germany, like many other European countries, has seen a resurgence in racism, tensions within communities metastasizing into far-right violence and racial abuse. Swastikas have started to reappear, spray-painted in urban spaces, old wounds reopening. Street artist Ibo Omari is fighting back, not by painting over the graffiti, but by transforming them into something more positive, something more beautiful. And so, thanks to the Paintback campaign, strangely angular plants and animals have started appearing where there were once ghosts of a dangerous past, because even when our swords are transformed, they can still help us reclaim ground that was once lost to those with darker agendas.

graffiti

Meanwhile, somewhere in Shropshire in the UK, there stands an angel born of knives, 100,000 surrendered weapons transformed into art and beauty and memory. The sculpture was made by artist Alfie Bradley, using knives confiscated by over forty police forces across the UK. Britain doesn’t have much of a gun culture, but knife crime remains a lethal problem. The angel stands as a monument to lives lost, a beautiful sculpture, yes, but also disturbing, reminiscent of something from Game of Thrones or Doctor Who. Somehow that’s appropriate; we can reject the tools of violence and war, turn them into things of beauty, but maybe the sharp edges that remain remind us where the art came from, reminds us that peace in a broken world is an ongoing process, an ongoing battle rather than something to take for granted.

knife angel

Because peace is something worth fighting for; after all, it’s so easily taken away. We saw this back in February, when a white supremacist gunman opened fire on worshipers at a mosque in Quebec. Six people were killed.

But following that, rings of peace surrounded Canada’s mosques as people stepped forward to defend the right to worship without fear. “Houses of worship are sacred and must be protected,” said the organiser, Rabbi Yael Splashy, but they’re sacred because they’re full of people made in the image of God. We need to protect that inherent dignity rather than allow us to be consumed by demonised language, dehumanising rhetoric.

ring of peace

Of course, dehumanisation is an attitude born out of seeing people as problems to be ‘fixed’ rather than individuals of intrinsic worth. Just look at how much money is spent on keeping the homeless at bay rather than helping them; defensive architecture is big business. In Manchester, spikes were placed in a doorway to deter rough sleepers. Humanity wins through, however and the spikes have now been removed because locals kept covering them with cushions. A similar thing happened in Liverpool, when an anti-homeless ramp was turned into a tea stall. I see that and I see hope, but I also remember the Homeless Jesus statue, and hope and apathy in an awkward dance.

homeless

There are other examples I’m sure; the world’s crying out for peace, and the Kingdom will break through like green shoots from pavement cracks. We need to look out for them, we need to encourage and build them and take them seriously, because these aren’t neutered cliches, they’re moments that point to a different, greater, better world. And those sounds you hear and the beauty you see are swords being turned into ploughshares; they’re signs that another world is possible, another world is breaking through.

Enchanting the World Through Cosplay

e284985f4d49497dea52c4578a56f0ce--the-flash-little-boys

I was eating lunch outside Derby Comic Con a couple of weeks ago, sun shining on a college car park as conventioneers and Stormtroopers. In a doorway stands a young woman dressed as Harley Quinn from DC Comics. Suddenly, an ecstatic squeal rings out; another, much shorter Harley, probably about seven years old looks at the young woman and shouts “YOU’RE SO COOL!”

“You’re so cool too!” replies older Harley, making the little girl’s day. And meanwhile, just around the corner, a toddler is giving the biggest hug ever to someone dressed as Olaf the Snowman from Disney’s Frozen.

Cosplay has seen a massive growth over the last couple of decades, expanding alongside geek culture from being a niche hobby to becoming, well, a niche hobby that’s a lot more recognised. On its surface we see people dressing as characters from movies and comics and anime, a Halloween fancy dress party that’s broken its boundaries, but dig deeper and cosplay reveals itself to be so much more.

In some ways cosplay is creativity in its purest form – no-one needs to dress up as Batman – but it fires the imagination, it encourages problem-solving, it promotes the development of skills – dressmaking and textiles and model making and make-up and prop design. Cosplay’s about learning through creativity – learning in community, or developing self-taught skills through trial and error. Say what you want about its immediate practical application but the world’s a little smarter because someone figured out how to make a replica Ghostbusters proton pack.

But it’s not just about the nuts and bolts, the needle and thread of it all. Adam Savage, in a TED Talk covering his love of cosplay, talks about clothing as a narrative, an expression of the story we want to tell about ourselves. Cosplay is a step beyond that – it’s a way of interacting with our wider narratives, the modern myths and stories we tell each other and watch on flickering screens, communicating our love for these characters and their adventures. And then those stories are brought to life, momentarily; the world is re-enchanted. Walk past a member of the 501st Legion in a car park outside a convention and, for a second, you’re transported to Tatooine or Coruscant; you laugh but you’re a bit intimidated, and then you laugh some more.

Some might deride this as escapism, but as Tolkien once said “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?” It’s easy to get imprisoned by the world – to watch dreams fade, to imperceptibly transition to being an anonymous work unit, to lock away the attic the stories you wrote and the doodles you drew.

Cosplay can be a momentary escape from that. It gives the shy the chance to be extrovert, it gives reserved the chance to pose, it makes fixed identities malleable, it embodies the fundamental transformation of comic books – the ordinary throwing on a costume and, for a while at least, being extraordinary. The picture above? It was taken when a little boy got lost at a comic convention. He knew he’d be okay though, because Wonder Woman and the Flash were there to keep an eye on him.

Meanwhile, outside Derby Comic Con, a toddler is leading a member of the 501st around by his hand. The grey of the car park seems a little lighter; the colours of cosplay brighten up the world.

Witness: Life Jackets

So many flee with so little; the clothes on their back, possibly their phone, totemic house keys dreaming of a return one day. Money exchanges hands, a deal of desperate hope, and, eventually, the escape route leads to a dangerous boat, a crowded raft. Maybe, or maybe not, the deal will include a life jacket.

Ai Weiwei’s installation in Berlin

The refugee crisis is a human disaster, a situation that no-one seems able to rectify but that leads to frightening, vicious levels of dehumanisation and rage. Open a newspaper and refugees have their humanity erased – words like ‘swarms’ and ‘hordes’ turn them into rapacious locusts, faceless invaders. Their stories are subsumed in the maelstrom of our own prejudices, reverberating around tabloid echo chambers.

Ai-Wei-Wei_FLotus_3
Ai Weiwei;s installation in Vienna

The Chinese artist in exile, Ai Weiwei, courted controversy in 2016 by installing art created from thousands of refugee life jackets in Vienna and Berlin. Each life jacket represents an individual – a life, a story, a human being – but the sheer number reminds us of the scale of the crisis and its human cost. A life jacket symbolizes safety, rescue, but it also represents the danger faced by refugees. So many don’t make it. So many don’t survive.

Some do, however; they find themselves in vast refugee camps awaiting resettlement. Some are housed in towns and cities, an alien environment, sometimes hostile, but nevertheless an environment in which they need to make a home, lay down roots. That requires a welcome. That requires a job.

170510142255-cnn-heroes-welcome-project-organization-exlarge-169

Thistle Farms, a US-based social enterprise of women who have survived prostitution, addiction and trafficking, are working with female refugees in Greece to turn life jackets into welcome mats.  The fabric from the jackets is woven into mats which are then sold to give the women and their families financial independence. A symbol of safety becomes a symbol of welcome; through the project, women connect with those around them and the generations that went before, learning skills that used to be practiced by their mothers and grandmothers.

The jackets are also a symbol of fear and trauma, a reminder of frightening and heartbreaking circumstances that provoke visceral reactions. But in order to create, the jackets must first be destroyed, and so the creation of the mats becomes healing, cathartic. This may not be the life that any of these women would choose, but maybe the mats become symbols of hope, symbols of the future.

There are so many stories out there – so many lives torn apart, so many lives lost. These life jackets become a witness to those lives. In the cacophony surrounding refugees, we need to heed that witness.