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“We must first be well before we can begin to do the work of the people.”

Leslie Kimiko Ward, a social practice artist, movement specialist, writer, and shepherd (yes, of sheep), gave the closing plenary talk at the ArtPlace 2018 Annual Summit in Louisville, Kentucky this past May.

Leslie said she hadn’t known exactly what she would say during her 40-minute speech until she walked down to the Ohio River, not far from the Summit venue, just a few hours before she was scheduled to go on stage. There, she met a lone fish who embodied some of her feelings about being an artist—and a human being—when life is throwing lots of challenges up and expecting a lot of solutions back.

Through metaphor, humor, storytelling, and participatory movement, Leslie imparted some of the universal truths she’s learned in her own artistic and social practices. Central to them all was her refrain: “We must first be well before we can begin to do the work of the people.”

As one year comes to a close and another is about to begin, we wish all ArtPlace readers vibrant good health and inspiring new connections as you continue to forge the path of your good work in the New Year, and in every season to come. To send all of us sailing off into 2019, here are some of our favorite bits of wisdom from this one-of-a-kind Summit finale.

 

Tending to ourselves first

My wonderful friends at Returning to Harmony—cross-tribal healers and elders working up in Alaska doing big, important, long-range work—have a principle they use: ‘We must first be well before we can begin to do the work of the people.’

Now that doesn’t mean we must be without trauma, or hardship, or that we must be the privileged few who have had a wonderful life with nothing going on that’s terrible so that we can start to do the work of the people. It just means we have to tend to ourselves first.

 

Honoring both experience & healing

When I got the call to do this talk, I sought diverse council. I asked a lot of you the question: “What’s interesting to you about healing?” The results were not subtle. They were about the disconnect between self-care and care for others.

In Japanese culture, we have an aesthetic called kintsugi: the act of putting gold into the cracks of shards of pottery, to show that something is beautiful because it’s been weathered. But it’s not just a broken pot on display—it’s the tending to those cracks, those broken places.

 [If we don’t tend to our own broken places, and we ask people,] “What do you need?” Well, I have no idea what you need, because I haven’t been on my own journey yet, I haven’t tended to my own broken places.

 

Artists working with us—not for us

If you have a broken place and it’s this big and it’s in your way, guess what? That’s what you’re going to see. You’re going to see it in your communities and you’re going to work to fix it—out there. And I’m going to ask you, at some point, “How’s that working for you?”

If there’s something else you came here to share and you’re not tending to your broken place, I might not be able to hear you. I might not be able to reach you. I might not be able to connect with you because your broken place is so loud. So quiet this, and then do the work.

When I left [the suicide prevention community in] Alaska, I got an email that said, “You can’t go. If you leave, people will die.” That is sometimes what is being asked of artists. “Fix this for me. For us. Make something so great…”

But I won’t. Your broken place is yours. You know what it needs. I don’t.

I’ll do this work with you. I won’t do it for you.

when we’re ready…

and not a second before…

let’s do this…

together.

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A partial transcript of Leslie’s talk follows, including some words by Nick Billie, a member of the Alabama-based Maskoke collective Ekvn-Yefolecv, who joined Leslie on stage to deliver a song in the language of his people (the Maskoke once held ceremonies in the region of what is now Louisville). The entire plenary, including an introduction by Kate Wolford, president of the McKnight Foundation, and ArtPlace’s Jamie Bennett, is available on YouTube.

 

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Speaking from an individual artist’s perspective, y’all are asking a lot of artists. You are asking a lot of children, you are asking a lot of people around you.

When I got the call to do this talk, I sought diverse council, which meant I made phone calls, I sent emails, I did Facebook polls, I had meals with people, I’ve been asking a lot of you in the room and people who are working here and people on the street since I’ve been here the same question, which is, “Hey, riff on healing. What’s interesting to you about healing?” And/or, “If you had this opportunity, what would you want people to know?”

The results were not even subtle. The results were that the more responsibility you assumed in your life, whether that be subjective or objective, the more you thought you were in charge of more things, people, wealth, power, systems, whatever it was, the more likely your answer was to have something to do with the disconnect between self-care and care for others.

There was something about… some shame, or some wisdom you had gained from going out into private space and healing quietly from the things that you’re carrying around that you brought into this room, that you have with you all the time—and y’all have a lot of stuff! I have been doing lots of baths and smudging and sitting by the [Ohio] River and trying to not take it on. I love you all, but there’s a lot of stuff in this room! And for some people, those broken places were shameful secrets. I’ve learned the term ‘sunken places’ this time around. I learned the term ‘social practice artist.’ There’s all this language I’m starting to learn to figure out what this is that I’m feeling, to make sense of it. As an artist, I take it all in and I try to make sense of it, in some ‘artistic’ way.

There was an exception to this trend, and the exception came from my wonderful friends, and I know this is being Facebook Live-d, so a huge shout out to Liz Sunnyboy, elder, and Pat Frank, Laura Castaneda, the whole team of Returning to Harmony, a cross-tribal [group] of healers and elders working up in Alaska doing big, important, long-range work; digging in with communities in ways that felt so real. They had something to say that was counterpoint to this feeling of, ‘How can I take care of myself when I have all this ish to do?’ They have a principle that they use, and I’m using and I’m learning to use more and more, which is:

“We must first be well before we can begin to do the work of the people.”

Now that doesn’t mean we must be without trauma, that does not mean we must be without hardship, that does not mean we must be the privileged few who have had a wonderful life with nothing going on that’s terrible, so that we can start to do the work of the people. “What do you need?” No, I have no idea what you need because I have no idea, I haven’t been on my own journey, I haven’t dug into my own cracks.

I’m digging into my Japanese culture to find out more, to bring more to these conversations, because when I come to the conversations and the thoughts are big, I need to go back in and do the work so I can find out how I can relate. We have an aesthetic, and it’s called kintsugi. It’s the act of putting gold into the cracks of the shards of pottery, to show that something is… it’s beautiful because it’s been weathered. But not because it’s just been weathered and cracked. It’s not a broken pot on display, although that in itself, subjectively, objectively, could be considered beautiful, but there’s… tending to those cracks.

Getting ready for this speech today, I went down to the river and I brought my sage. And the river is muddy, and there are things floating in it, and I had to walk through exhaust from those two lovely steamboats, and there are signs everywhere that say, ‘Don’t Touch the Water’—because sewage and things. And I look in this cloudy water, and I think, ‘Gosh, what have we done? There can’t be anything living in this water.’

And then a fish came up to the surface and just hung out with me for a while. I cried and I cried and I cried, for this fish in this water. Does the fish know about the water that it’s in? Maybe, maybe not.

Sometimes in these spaces, I feel like that as an artist; as a human being. I feel like a fish swimming through shit. So what do we do?

I started asking: What does it mean to be well? What is wellness for you? Inside of each of you—and in some of you, it’s in full glory—there is this fish inside you that is swimming upstream like nobody’s business. You have a fish. What color is your river? What does your river look like? Are you tending to it? Are you tending to it first? Because:

“We must first be well before we can begin to do the work of the people.”

Think of a place where you have a crack. You don’t have to share it with anybody. This is for you. Think of one of your own broken places or sunken places. If you don’t have them, that’s interesting. Come see me after. [audience laughs] But think of where that is in you. I want you to use your hands, and make it. How big is it? How wide is it? What does it feel like? How heavy is it? I’m going to give you a second; I’m not going to look. I’m going to turn around. But when I turn back around, I want to see some. You’ve got 10 seconds.

Okay. Now I want you to take it, whatever it is. Hold it. Sit with it. Be with it. It’s still there. We’re not going to fix it! I’m not going to fix it today. That’s what you’re asking us to do, p.s., as artists, is to fix this for you and I won’t. It is yours. You can keep it.

But sit with it. You know what it needs. I don’t know what it needs. You know what it needs, and if you tend to it first, then I don’t have to do it.

You’re sharing this. Whatever this is that you just held, you are sharing it, with me, with the people around you. Why? Because you’re so incredibly generous. All of you have been so generous: with your time, with your attention, with your space… But you’re sharing that, too.

So if there’s something else you came here to share and you’re not tending to this, I might not be able to hear you. I might not be able to reach you, I might not be able to connect with you because your broken place is so loud. So quiet this, and then do the work.

“We must first be well before we can begin to do the work of the people.”

Tend to your rivers; find your little fish who are swimming inside. That fish sat with me for a while; I was so amazed. It left for a second, and I thought maybe it wasn’t a fish; maybe it was just a log. But then it came back up. And so I took it into my heart, and I’m sharing it with you, and now, I can see that fish reflected in all of you.

When you look at your communities, when you look at your organizations, when you look at your families, your friend groups, your pockets of the system that you are in charge of—or that you think you’re in charge of, ’cause you’re not—when you look at those pockets of the system, what you see is based on your ability to connect with what’s out there. Yeah?

Everybody has their own cracks. And if I have them, and I can relate to them in you, and I can connect with you, and I can ground myself in what I know, and I can trust the teachings that I have, and I can listen, to nature, and my ancestors, and the voices that are all around me, all the time, and I can reflect back and get quiet and shush for a minute, maybe I have a shot. It’s not a guarantee. It doesn’t work every time.

If you have a broken place and that broken place is this big and it’s in your way? Guess what? That’s what you’re going to see. You’re going to see it in your communities and you’re going to work to fix it—out here. And I’m going to ask you, at some point, how’s that working for you? How is that working for you?

 

...

 

When I left [the suicide prevention community in] Alaska, I got emails that said “You can’t go. If you leave, people will die.” That was an email that was sent to me. That is sometimes what is being asked of artists. ‘Fix this for me. For us. Make something so great…’

And we get the problem! And we want to help. And we will try, and we will try, and we will try. But it took me breaking, completely breaking, before I thought, ‘There has to be a better way.’

“We must first be well before we can begin to do the work of the people.”

There’s another crack that I’ve felt here. We’ve alluded to it. It’s not just the ones inside of ourselves, but it’s the willingness to see each other. There’s a disconnect… of not knowing how to work with Indigenous people, how to connect with Indigenous people. The people have been moved from here. And who are we to expect them to show up? Are they going to fix us? Are the artists going to fix us? Are the children going to fix us? Are the people who are struggling, are the people who aren’t struggling, and who are innocent, are they the ones who are supposed to fix us?

Tend to yourself first. So I’m tending. I lit some sage by the water. I thanked the fish for giving me this talk, ’cause I didn’t know what I was going to say when I came up here. But I have been doing the work. I have been getting quiet. I have been grounding. I have been finding my ancestors. I have been connecting to the water. I have been asking you and so many other people: What is it that you want everyone to know?

“We must first be well before we can begin to do the work of the people.”

So in a spirit of wellness, I’d like to invite my friend Nick [Billie] up here. Where’s my friend Nick? Nick’s not going to save you either.

[Nick delivers an opening statement in the language of his people]

My real name is [Nick says his Indigenous name], but I think everybody outside of my people know me as Nick. We have a joke going on between my family back home. We say that’s my government name. I’m the son of a Panther Clan. When I’m up here, in front of you, and the words that are coming out of my mouth, I’m just an extension of my people and where I’m coming from. I want to thank Leslie for using the position that she’s in to bring an Indigenous person up here, and using her consciousness to realize that that’s an important thing to do.

I heard that ArtPlace was looking for an Indigenous person to bring up here that’s from this area, but they weren’t able to find anybody, and that’s because they were all removed from here. And so, being a Maskoke person, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the people that were here. The Chickasaw, Ute, Cherokee people of this land. Actually, our people, this was a traveling grounds for the Maskoke people at one point; there were ceremonies held here, in this region.

Real quickly, I’ll sing a song. This song says: however, wherever you go, you pray for me and I’ll pray for you.

[Nick sings in his language, then thanks the audience]

[Leslie continues....]

We didn’t come up here to give you a show. Here’s what I’m going to ask you to do.

The stories are multitudinous. If you get caught in thinking we’re two-dimensional beings or we’re three-dimensional beings, you have missed the point. We are multidimensional, all the time.

I just want you to expand your awareness a little bit bigger than you have before.  So we’re going to do that physically, with the skill of proprioception.

With our eyes open, but no definitive leader, I’m just going to say “whenever you’re ready,” and I don’t want a wave. I want unison. I want everyone in this room to do this at the same time, and I’m holding you to this. We’re not leaving this room until this happens.

I’ll do it with you. I won’t do it for you.

Expand your awareness to include every person in this room.

Expand your awareness to include your ancestors.

Expand your awareness to include the land you’re standing on, the people who are coming after you, and everyone who got you here,

and when we’re ready…

and not a second before…

we are doing this…

together.