Visual Expressions of a Community

My internship through the Project on Lived Theology at the Catholic Worker Farm has provided a unique opportunity to combine academic and personal interests through study, writing, and daily experience.  I have an interest in social justice due to personal religious convictions, and I study religion in an academic setting, but this summer’s opportunity is the first time these two spheres of my life have overlapped with one another.  I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to approach my interest in social justice with an academic lens by using theological writings to reflect upon my personal experience within the Catholic Worker movement.  Furthermore, in my initial proposal for the summer, amongst reading about Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and interning at the house of hospitality outside of London I also included a desire to produce artwork based on my experience.  Studio Art is my other area of academic study in addition to religion, and during the previous academic year much of the artwork I produced was as a result of reading theological works.

At the Catholic Worker Farm we provide accommodation for and live with homeless women, and I find living together with volunteers and the women in our community to be one of the most interesting and influential though often ambivalent, aspects of the summer, as well as a topic I would like to address in my artwork.  However, how does one create art about experiences with the homeless?  It seems to me to be a tricky territory, as I do not wish to stigmatize the women as homeless more so than they already feel.  My initial desire was to begin with an informal interview with women who were willing, and also ask if I could draw a portrait of them.  However, another long-term volunteer informed me that many volunteers, interns, and friends have wanted to create artwork about the homeless guests at the Catholic Worker Farm over the years, and he thinks the women might be tired of it, as often they feel as though they are being used simply as material for artwork.  Working in this way would be contrary to Catholic Worker theology.  Emmanuel Mounier, a 20th century French philosopher who greatly influenced Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, writes that if another person is treated merely as “an instrument at my disposal,” one is “behaving towards him as though he were an object, which means in effect, despairing of him.”1

Furthermore, while I understand that the distinction of “homeless” is one that can’t be ignored, I would rather focus on the women as people; as women who are homeless amongst other things.  Recently I have viewed the work of some artists who have photographed homeless people in order emphasize their poverty and the terrible condition they face on the streets.  From November 2012 to June 2013 the Saatchi Gallery exhibited “Case History,” by Boris Mikhailov, a set of 413 photographs taken from 1997 to 1998 of the homeless in Ukraine following the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991.   Recently in the media photographer Lee Jeffries has received recognition for his portraits of the homeless in major cities in the US.  Both of these artists seek to bring awareness to the people that are often passed by without a glance; these images provide an opportunity for the public to look into their eyes.

I think there are different ways to bring attention to poverty and marginalized communities within the realm of art, and it seems to me that Mikhailov and Jeffries’ portraits call the public to action or to sympathy as a result of their documentation of the dire conditions of the marginalized.  I would propose that Peter Maurin however, might provide a different approach.  Dorothy Day described Maurin as articulating his vision in such a way to others that “he did not begin by tearing down, by painting so intense a picture of misery and injustice that you burned to change the world,” but rather, “he aroused in you a sense of your own capacities for work, for accomplishment.”2  While the intense picture of misery is a necessary one to tell, for this project I hope rather to provide a snapshot of the community at the farm of which our homeless women are a part of, and to affirm the women’s dignity by allowing them to define themselves within the artwork.

In a sense, entering into the lives of marginalized persons in such an intimate way as Mikhailov and Jeffries can be done only if the subjects give permission for the artist to do so.   I do not think that initially I would receive the same permission, and I hope to take a different approach.  Rather than focus on individual women and their distinction as homeless, I will instead highlight the Catholic Worker Farm as a community.  In our community I see our homeless guests as housemates with whom I am trying to love, and at its most basic level I see our houses of hospitality as groups of people just trying to live together.  There’s a balance I’m discovering between the need to recognize the distinction between the women as “homeless” and myself as “volunteer,” and also to view each of the women individually as a housemate and as a person.

Sometimes it has proven useful for me to act based on what one might assume to be the tendencies of homeless people, other times it has backfired.  Embarrassingly one time I vocalized my assumption that one woman only wanted something from me when she had sweetly greeted me in the morning, and she was hurt that I had automatically assumed she was being insincere.  In regards to acknowledging the person as an individual, a volunteer at the farm expressed the gratitude she feels when members of the local community take a personal interest in her, rather than only associating her as a part of the group of volunteers at the Catholic Worker Farm.  I see this volunteer’s gratuitude for personal recognition as connected to my desire not to create work about “the homeless” but rather about the women as individuals whom I know as a part of this community.

Emmanuel Mounier’s notion of personalism is the inspiration behind the work I hope to make.  Mounier proved to be inspiring to Peter Maurin too, as he regarded himself as a “personalist.”  Mounier wrote about a Christian “philosophy of engagement,” which he called personalism, the basis of which is the conviction that Christians have the responsibility to “take an active role in history even while their ultimate goal is beyond the temporal and beyond human history.”3  Mounier’s writings about the nature of the person, and how persons should treat each other provide inspiration for how to create art about a marginalized group and how to recognize each person as more than their association with the particular marginalized population.  Above I quoted Mounier on how treating a person as an object is to discredit them, and he continues, “but if I treat him as a subject, as a presence – which is to recognize that I am unable to define or classify him, that he is inexhaustible, filled with hopes upon which alone he can act – this is to give him credit.”4

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In order to address the tensions, the categorizing, and the ideologies of the house, and to empower the women in the creation of this artwork, my work will be a collaboration with women who are willing to participate.  Rather than conducting an interview with the women and drawing their portraits, in which I would choose how to portray them, I will instead attempt to practice Mounier’s idea that I am unable to define or classify the women with whom I live and alternatively invite them to add to the artwork in their own way.  The art pieces will be multilayered, with a first layer of drawings of the spaces in our houses.  I plan to place the drawings in common areas for the remainder of my stay at the farm, and invite the women to add whatever they would like to the base layer; for example, comments and text regarding the space they occupy here, memories about the spaces, habits, desires, preferences, feelings about the Catholic Worker House, or drawings.

Mounier writes that, “real love is creative of distinction; it is gratitude and a will towards another because he is other than oneself,”5 and that to understand another involves not “seeking to know another according to some general knowledge… but accepting his singularity with my own, in an action that welcomes him, and in an effort that re-centers myself.”6  Instead of taking full control of the artwork and in order to give the women the opportunity to define and express themselves, I will extend an invitation to them to take part in the creation of collaborative pieces.

1 Mark and Louise Zwick, The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins (Paulist Press: New Jersey, 2005), 99.
2 Mark and Louise Zwick, 97.
3 Mark and Louise Zwick, 98.
4 Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism (Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.: England, 1952), 23.
5 Mounier, 23.
6 Mounier, 21.