Art & the Protection of Democracy

Ward show w Fran

Schumaker with the writer

Ward Schumaker and Vivienne Flesher, two San Francisco-based, nationally recognized artists whom this writer is proud to call friends, have been fighting depression – to put it mildly – since last November. It is of course political – everything’s political these days – but for Schumaker and Flesher (who are in fact married to each other,) it’s about much more than politics. It’s about  human rights, the future of the planet their 9-year-old grandson will inherit, and protection of our democracy.

I met Schumaker shortly before the closing of his latest show at San Francisco’s Jack Fischer Gallery, for a brief talk about art and activism. (Sorry if you missed the show. You can still see his work at Fischer’s Potrero Street Gallery.) Does creating art help them deal with depression, I wondered?

Ward show 1“No. It’s just hard. But it’s what we do: get up in the morning, every day, and go to work at 8 AM.” Some extraordinary examples of Schumaker’s work were assembled for the latest show – creating them took about a year and a half, not all of which time was clouded in depression. My personal favorite is a piece titled “The cloud of unknowing.” Schumaker conceived the piece as a meditation, referencing the ancient (late 14th century) work of mysticism which suggests that contemplative prayer might lead to an understanding of the nature of God.

To mitigate their depression, however, Schumaker and Flesher are doing a little more than painting. They have created an assortment of postcards, some with messages on the front and some just featuring their original artwork. After printing out a stack of cards, they also printed out the names and addresses of every member of Congress, both Senate and House. (You can do the same, by following the links.) They keep these, along with a supply of 34-cent stamps, on their breakfast table, where every morning they enjoy coffee and The New York Times. When they find someone in Congress has done something positive, they send a thank-you postcard. Others get a card expressing disapproval.

Ward show 2Postcards take a little more time than a phone call or email, but are a powerful way to make one’s voice heard. Especially if one is worried about human rights, the future of the planet one’s grandchildren will inherit, and the protection of our democracy.

Plus: this is how democracy is protected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

God, Thanksgiving & Mother Theresa

Former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos spoke briefly, and with holiday hilarity, this morning to several hundred Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and assorted other believers at the annual San Francisco Interfaith Thanksgiving Breakfast — “the biggest crowd I ever addressed at seven in the morning.” The event highlighted some of the work the SFIC does in the city: an annual winter shelter for homeless men, a citywide disaster preparedness program, a variety of ongoing efforts to promote understanding, cooperation and general interfaith goodwill. Agnos told a tale of encountering Mother Theresa which is condensed and paraphrased below as a Thanksgiving present from this space.

Coming home one Sunday night during his tenure, the mayor got a message (this was in the late 1980s, pre-cellphones) from his wife saying Mother Theresa was at their door. (“What should I do?” “Let her in.”)  When he walked into the living room, sure enough, there was the diminutive nun in her blue and white habit, seated on the Agnos’ sofa with another nun on each side. She wanted the mayor, she explained, to secure a particular piece of property for her good works. It was after 9 PM.

“I’ll get right on it, first thing in the morning,” Mayor Agnos said.

“No,” said the tiny nun in her quiet voice. “God’s work does not wait until morning.”

The property in question was in an area of town into which few ventured after dark. When that factor was mentioned as cause for caution, however, Mother Theresa would have none of it. “God,” she said in her still-quiet voice, “will protect us.”

So the mayor, the three nuns, the mayor’s wife (who wasn’t about to miss this experience) and a police bodyguard Mayor Agnos invited along just in case God wasn’t paying attention, climbed into a police car and drove to the building in question. Working their way through a fence which had long before been erected around the property, they walked around the back to find a small group of homeless men gathered around a fire. It was not only getting later all the time, it was mid-winter.

“Oh,” the men said in unison, “it’s Mother Theresa.” She blessed them. Then the mayor asked if the building did indeed belong to the city. “Well, yes,” they said, “but we’ve been living here for several years and nobody’s bothered us.” So the mayor assured the nun that he would get to work on her request first thing in the morning.

She was not finished. Next, she wanted to see about another piece of property, this one necessitating a trip to San Francisco General, the City/County hospital of last resort for citizens in need. By now it was getting on towards midnight.

At that hour at San Francisco General, Mayor Agnos explained, most of the people on site are the cleaning crews and base-level helpers — all of whom immediately recognized Mother Theresa. “When we got ready to leave,” said Agnos, “it was like a football huddle. Everybody in the area gathered around this tiny nun you couldn’t even see in the middle of the crowd.”

“When you die and go to heaven,” said Mother Theresa to her fellow laborers, “you will meet God. And God will bless you for your good work.”

“So,” concluded the Mayor as he opened his arms to indicate those around the room, “when you die and go to heaven, you will meet God. And he or she, whomever, will bless you for your good work.”

Makes you thankful to be in the presence of so many people doing good work.