Monday, October 10, 2016

At the Bottom of the Food Chain

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is a rare neuromuscular disease hereditary in my family. While there is currently no cure or treatment, the pathology of the disease was recently revealed creating great optimism. Unfortunately, the insidious politics of the research community can stymie new treatments. “In the world of medical research, patients are at the bottom of the food chain” is a quote from an article I read about the scientist Stephen Friend. Friend, who worked for eight years in academia, eight years in biotech and eight in Big Pharma, is quoted saying, “If patients knew the secrecy in academia, they would throw up.”  After several years of gathering similar articles, I decided to create something that would illustrate the problems with medical research for the benefit of myself and others.  I had no idea how big it would get when I started; it ended up being 10 feet high and 4 feet in circumference.

 Patients Are at the Bottom of the Food Chain, Nancy Worden 2016

 Academic secrecy is not the only source of corrosion in the food chain. Congress can prohibit the collection of stem cells and the FDA can stall approval of a treatment.  The ALS food chain is a complex web of prey and predators all mixed up, feeding on and dependent upon each other. What the FDA, academia, politicians and drug companies all have in common are that they are comprised of humans. Whenever humans are present, egos, turf wars, competition, greed and secrecy are too.

Top section of Patients Are at the Bottom of the Food Chain

 The symbolism in my food chain has many layers. The archaeologist, Marija Gimbutas, tells us that early containers with mouth-like spouts were symbols of the goddess, the source of life, water or in this situation, money. Money is the source of life for medical research. From the three pitchers that represent special interests, drug companies, and the investment community, the money tubes flow through the vessel of politicians. The money from the sources buys politicians by funding their campaigns. Then the political party in control of Congress determines how much and where the research money is spent. Buzzing around all the large vessels are legal liability attorneys who work for who ever pays them.

 Center section of Patients Are at the Bottom of the Food Chain 
showing glass test tubes and vinyl tubing filled with shredded currency.

A lot of the money from politicians goes out to the National Institutes of Health or NIH, the Food and Drug Administration or FDA and nonprofits or NGOs. From these three well-intentioned entities, the money is fed into the central form representing the Great Goddess Artemis, the goddess of life and death and in this situation, the symbol for medical research. Once the money enters medical research some of the money dead ends and goes nowhere as dead data. Successful data from successful research can also end up unaccounted for; data often becomes available to the public depending upon the ethics and whims of the scientists doing the research. 

Moving fan at the top symbolizing the 8 karmic winds.

Some scientists think and act in terms of what is best for their careers and not necessarily what is best for patients. This is why there is a fan at the very top. The fan represents the eight karmic winds of ego; desire for pleasure and fear of pain, the desire for wealth and fear of loss, the desire for praise and fear of blame, and the desire for fame and fear of disgrace. The moving fan reminds us that research projects by governments, organizations, companies and universities are run by humans and
are therefore vulnerable to fear and desire.

A representation of the Great Goddess Artemis found in Italy.

Academia and Medical Research depicted as Artemis.

The Great Goddess, Artemis, is depicted with multiple breasts that have the capacity to sustain life. What nourishment manages to make it through her continues through the agencies and entities that have the power to serve up care and assistance to patients via Medicare, private insurance providers, doctors and clinics. Ultimately these are the brokers of assistance to patients.

Pills filled with shredded currency.

 By the time the money from special interests, drug companies and investors makes it through politics, the government and medical research, a very small percentage of money is left to be distributed to help patients, shown here as tiny capsules trickling out of the healthcare vessel.

 Photos of several generations of women in my family.

The final vessel represents the patients and in this case, eight women in my family who died of Lou Gehrig's disease.  Each woman represents a family who experienced the loss of a loved one as well as enormous financial loss while caring for the patient. As the diagram shows, the patients really are at the bottom of the food chain. 

My big, gold, spinning food chain sculpture is currently on display at the Bellevue Arts Museum Biennial Exhibition, Metamorphosis, through February 5. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

An American Genius

Sometime in the 1990's, I bought an extremely politically incorrect lamp at Ruby Montana's Pinto Pony store in Seattle. It had a crazy lampshade and I didn't know anything about it other than I thought it was hilarious. It never occurred to me that it was a famous design.

Detail of pole lamp by Viktor Shreckengost.

In 2014, I was having a conversation with a museum director and he mentioned Viktor Schreckengost and his famous Jazz Bowl. I didn't know this work so I went to the Internet and there it was along with a lot of other information about this amazing artist and industrial designer as well as an image of my lamp!

 The Jazz Bowl was created at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt who at the time was first lady of the state of New York.

Viktor Schreckengost

The Viktor Schreckengost Foundation homepage indicates:

"Every adult in America has ridden in, ridden on, drunk out of, stored their things in, eaten off of, been costumed in, mowed their lawn with, played on, lit the night with, viewed in a museum, cooled their room with, read about, printed with, sat on, placed a call with, enjoyed in a theater, hid their hooch in, collected, been awarded with, seen at a zoo, put their flowers in, hung on their wall, served punch from, delivered milk in, read something printed on, seen at the World's Fair, detected enemy combatants with, written about, had an arm or leg replaced with, graduated from, protected by, or seen at the White House something created by Viktor Schreckengost."

 Dinnerware designed by Victor Schreckengost.

 Recently I was asked to choose a work of art currently on display at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and make a video about how it related to my necklace, The Family Reunion, which is also on display there. I was drawn to Viktor Shreckengost’s ceramic sculpture, Apocalypse ’42, because, like my necklace, it addresses conflict. Shreckengost made this piece in early 1942 shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed. A few months after he finished the sculpture he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 37.

Apocalypse '42 by Viktor Shreckengost

As commentary on the events of WWII, Shreckengost created a frightened horse riding over the globe carrying caricatures of Death and the leaders of the Axis Powers. He combined recognizable symbols with cartoonish portraits of Adolf Hitler, Death, the Emperor Hirohito, and Benito Mussolini and set them in a story from the Bible about the coming of the Apocalypse or the end of the world.

Viktor Shreckengost used his art to address a unique conflict in the family of man. His goal was to use a story about the end of the world to scare people into awareness and action.

 In 2006 at the age of 100, Viktor Schreckengost was awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President George W. Bush. After a life spent creating, designing and teaching, he died in 2008 at the age of 101. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Whirligig Man

A long time ago I spent many hours driving around photographing folk environments. 
A folk environment is an art installation usually in the yard of someone's home created by an untrained, but passionate artist. Sometimes these artists are called outsider artists.

 In 1978, my friend Ken Cory and I drove to Coulee City to photograph the whirligigs of Emil Gherke. Emil had worked on the building of Grand Coulee Dam and he was a creative type. It can get pretty windy in that part of Washington, so he made whirligigs out of washing machine parts, old toys, vintage coffee pots and a lot of other things he picked up at rummage sales and thrift stores. He was amazing at coming up with combinations that would spin in the wind and were delightful to the eye. 

 At that time Mr. Gericke still lived in his little house, surrounded by his wonderful creations and a fence made of washing machine basins painted the colors of the rainbow. 

 Fortunately it was a gray day when we were there, so we weren't fighting dark shadows.
These images were shot with my favorite film, Kodachrome 64.

 11 years later I returned to the dam area but Mr. Gherke had passed away. They built a park near Lake Roosevelt with some of his whirligigs and I know that a few of them came to an electrical substation in Seattle. The whirligigs were still incredible even though they were surrounded by a cyclone fence instead of the  original washing machine fence.

There aren't as many folk environments around now because the people who built them aren't around. Most of the folk environments that I photographed were built by people of my grandparents generation.  These were people who grew up on farms and knew how to build things. They enjoyed creating a roadside attraction to attract tourists on road trips. Nowadays people travel to foreign countries in airplanes and they don't know how to make anything.  Has anyone seen the whirligigs at Lake Roosevelt recently? I would really like to know if they are still there.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Celebration of Color

It may be wet and gray outside but inside at the Seattle Art Museum there is a big celebration of color going on. The current exhibition, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, is one of the most inspiring painting shows I've seen at SAM in a long time.  Wiley creates enormous portraits of people he finds on the street, a process he calls street casting. Once he finds an interesting person, all people of color, he invites them to come to his studio for a photo session. The male subjects choose what they want to wear and a professional photographer captures them in poses related to famous portraits the artist finds in his large art history book collection.

Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, 2005

 The history of painting by and large has pictured very few black and brown people, and in particular very few black men. My interest is in countering that absence.--Kehinde Wiley

The artist with his painting, Morpheus, from 2008

To quote the exhibition guide, "Kehinde Wiley lives and works in New York and Beijing. His work posits street culture, black masculinity, and the aesthetics of hip hop as constructs that obscure the complexity and subjectivity of human identity. Wiley exposes the familiar realm of portraiture to a host of questions. He asks us to notice how a subject's gestures, pose, dress and gaze communicate identity, class, power and authority. Folded within each portrait are more complex questions about European history and ideals of beauty as well as the history and legacy of colonialism. By inverting the blackbody into the classic poses of aristocratic individuals, religious fixed figures, and men of influence from the 15th to the early 20th centuries, Wiley's works appropriate and redefine a paradigm that has historically excluded young men of color. Originally focusing on male subjects the artist recently embarked on a series of striking images of women. All of Wiley's portraits celebrate his sitters. He challenges long-held assumptions by opening new doors of perception, offering unprecedented interpretations and reimagining the black figure is subject, object, and agent."

Randerson Romualdo Cordeiro 2008

While it is obvious Wiley is trying to change our perceptions, this work can also be enjoyed on a purely aesthetic level.  I can't remember the last time I saw such beautiful, rich figure painting and then to have it superimposed on backgrounds drenched in color and alive with decorative detail is an extra treat. The sheer size of these paintings is celebratory and it puts the predictable Photoshopped images that we see on the Internet and in magazines to shame.

Saint Gregory Palamas 2014

  This work glows, especially one whole room containing small portraits in gold leafed frames and painted stained-glass works lit from behind.  You don't have to know anything about art history or painting to appreciate this work, it is just downright gorgeous.

The Two Sisters, 2012, 96 x 72inches

An added feature in the exhibition is the film documentary, An Economy of Grace, which follows the process from the initial street encounters to the sitters reactions at first viewing the finished paintings.  The women subjects, most of whom work menial jobs, are transformed in contemporary couture gowns and wigs prepared by one of the top hairdressers in New York.  The film also includes shots of studio assistants at his Beijing studio painting in the elaborate backgrounds.  Wiley paints the figures and sets the stage and the assistants fill in the details.  How else could he be so prolific?
                                                                 I say more power to him.