To say James Turrell is an artist would be accurate, but he is not an artist in the conventional sense of the word. He hangs nothing on the wall. For the past half-century he has been bending light, creating visions and perceptions that confuse the mind and manipulate the senses. At 70 years old, he is a tireless worker who puts on major shows in museums around the world. In addition, since the 1970’s, he has been slowly excavating a series of shafts, tunnels and underground rooms in an Arizona crater. The light will shine in and produce an experience unique to the world. This project, his life’s work, includes terraforming the lip of the crater to create an image against the horizon. Even his famous contemporaries look at his work with a measure of envy. Said Chuck Close, “He is an orchestrator of experience, not a creator of cheap effects. And every artist knows how cheap an effect is, and how revolutionary an experience.” This quote came after the wheelchair-bound artist lay on his back in the crater, gazing at the shaped rim of the caldera and how it distorted the sky.
Turrell has been able to create his wonders through a series of grants and fellowships, including one from the Guggenheim, and this has allowed him to explore his unique vision. When at first he could not secure financing for his volcano, he purchased the surrounding land, turned it into a cattle ranch, and now manages a 2,500 head herd of grade-A organic beef.
His time to finish the crater, perfect and incomplete, is drawing short. “You know,” he said, “I’d like to see it myself.”
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Life in the all-boys Catholic school in Ohio focuses on academics, sports, and faith. It is odd, then, to see a circle of boys, some nerds, some jocks, some hipsters, sitting on plastic chairs, eating pizza, and talking about death. All of the boys have lost someone. A parents, sibling, best friend, someone that causes them to grieve. After the school lost a beloved teacher in 2000, they brought in two women from a group called “Companions on a Journey”, which provides grief support for children, teens, and adults.
The boys learn that their grief is not something they can sweep away, and not something that will disappear, but it is something they can manage. They learn this by talking, writing, supporting, and even hearing from their own teachers that come by to share their own stories. Weeks after their first school football title in 27 years, four members of the team listened to their coach talk in short, clipped sentences about the death of his own father in the 8th grade.
In the past three decades, the understanding about grieving for children has changed dramatically. No longer are children shielded from grief, only to have it emerge later, and sometimes more dramatically, in life. The prevailing theory is that children need to confront their grief, share their experiences, and learn to manage it. Teen grief counseling has become an established discipline. The Fernside Center for Grieving Children helped 16 children 29 years ago, and last year served 1,600. In fact, 3.5% of children will experience a significant loss, a number that will rise as the average age of parents increases.
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The worst thing in the world is how stark it seems. The pace of life has become a frantic whirlwind of news, numbers, economics, and utilitarianism. If you aren’t part of a system generating tangible wealth and economic growth, then get out of the way. Recent news out of Kansas: they are abolishing 100% of state funding for the arts!
When I read stories such as the two highlighted above, it illustrates just how important depth in our society is. There are millions of us on the planet, and not all of us need be a cog in the production machine. It is important for our health as a species to support people like James Turrell. People with unique skills and visions deserve to have the chance to explore them with our support. By enriching them, they in turn enrich us, giving us gifts we could never experience on our own.
Programs such as the grieving program at Archbishop Moeller High School seem to be the “extra” ones, along with music and drama, the first to be cut down in defense of science and math. Yet it is these programs that help boys become men unburdened from their loss. It allows them to be contributors to society, and adds an invaluable dose to the meagre amount of empathy in the world today.
Not everything has to be quantified. There is room enough for people’s passions. The corporate psychopath streamlining of society leaves no power for a ray of light bending to an artists vision, and has no time on the agenda for chocolate chip cookies and a linebacker’s tears. I hope that as we people struggle with a world of our own creation, we can see the value and importance of a society with depth, joy, loss, and wonder. There is so much good to be had.