fig. 2: To Cause to Remember
Homeless Shelter, 40'x80'
© Johanna Poethig, 1992

Nature, Culture, Public Space


We are in the midst of a time of great change on the planet, and the transforming roles of art in contemporary life have consistently anticipated and reflected this ever-metamorphosing zeitgeist. The escalating impact of technology and mass media has profoundly impaired our global sense of connectedness to each other and the earth, as well as our spirituality and general sense of well-being. With the growing pervasiveness of environmental, economic and human destruction on multiple planes, the course of world events at this juncture in history has reinforced a mounting sense of futility. As natural counterbalance to this existential nihilism, a quest for greater meaning - for essences - has become paramount for many. As at other times in the past, art has functioned as an integral part of this process.

The profound change in attitudes toward organized religion in the modern world has prompted many in Western society to turn to Eastern ideologies and indigenous cultures for spiritual models that have remained more closely tied to the forces and cycles of nature and the earth. As creative entities in the world, artists have worked with their own intuitive visions as a means of achieving physical and emotional healing on tangible and more ethereal planes, serving alternately as social commentators, historians, architects, teachers and shamans.

There are huge bodies of critical and philosophical thought that surround and underscore these reformations, ranging from Ecofeminism to Cultural Transformation theory, which have examined the historic conditions that led cultural evolution to this current state of entropy. Among the myriad books on these topics, many have documented the remarkable amount of work - largely by women artists - directed at healing the various plights and afflictions of our time. The dozens of projects and programs started and run by artists have demonstrated a desire to examine facts and explore practical and creative solutions on very grass roots levels. While the details and parameters of each undertaking are shaped to fit the particular constituency or issue, the process employed is almost always based around involving an at-risk population or place and related community; creating a forum for dialogue around issues and emotions, an art-based project, and follow-up/support to insure that participants have a chance to internalize and process the work they have created. Whether they are concerned with such activist issues as homelessness, HIV, AIDS, breast cancers, race, age and gender relations or environmental demise, the programs based on this model are generally successful as long as their mission and internal politics remain solid. Their essential significance is in enabling those involved to connect to their core strength and spirituality, which in turn has a holistic, reverberatory effect, encouraging personal healing and nurturing the health of the planet.

Because the San Francisco Bay Area is comprised of a diverse and multifarious population, it is logical that many of these projects and programs have been conceived and implemented in this environment. For the purposes of this discussion, I am especially interested in the whys and ways in which women have worked within the public sector with environmental issues and with at-risk populations. Not surprisingly, most artists who work with socially significant concerns tend to operate in more than one of these arenas, as they tend to be concerned with a holistic integration of the roles art can play in the world at large. It follows that a symbiotic relationship often exists between a desire to heal the planet and to help those in crisis. The numerous remarkable projects related to this topic in the San Francisco Bay Area suggest a high level of creative achievement, coupled with a profound level of need.

Central to the vision of most of the twelve women artists selected for this discussion is their work in the public sector. Aside from the reality that public projects that address current social concerns are imminently fundable, realizing this work in civic space has significant visibility and impact. The undertakings are diverse in intent and scale, ranging from such grassroots vision as Jo Hanson's more than two decades of ongoing sidewalk and street cleaning in front of her house, and Caryl Henry's community gardens and murals created with Oakland youth; to monumental public collaborations involving hundreds of participants, like Ann Chamberlain's San Francisco Public Library project and Suzanne Lacy's work with at-risk adolescents in her TEAM (Teens + Educators + Artists + Media Makers) ventures.


All text © Terri Cohn.