by Lisette García and Barrett Martin
excerpted from Ponderosas: Conversations with Extraordinary, Ordinary Women
by Lisette García, Ph. D
available November 20th
“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And then you have to do it all the time.”
Barrett: I first met Erin Currier and her late partner, Anthony Hassett, in 1996 when I was visiting mutual friends in Taos, New Mexico. A group of us went on a hike together, in the magnificent Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the high desert of northern New Mexico. We all had much in common—a great love for music, art, and an obscure martial art that we were studying with the same master in Taos. Even though we were all relatively young, we seemed to understand each other in a much deeper way than most new friends.
Now almost 25 years later, much has happened. We lost Anthony to cancer three years ago, just as he was beginning to express his extraordinary literary and visual art skills, which people are just starting to appreciate today. Erin also continued to grow in those years, almost exponentially, to the degree that her own artwork has been featured in museums and collections around the United States, Europe, and South America. Five books of her paintings and writings have been published so far, including a monograph, and her artwork has graced the covers of magazines, albums, and other people’s books, including the cover for this book, Poderosas.
Erin’s art is based around the portrait tradition, but her work is unlike any portraits you’ve ever seen: Her subjects are human rights activists, educators, laborers, poets, musicians, athletes, and other heroic figures, many of whom are relatively unknown, including some who have been martyred. Many of them are people Erin and Anthony met in their many travels around the world, to countries and environments that few people ever visit. By immortalizing these unknown people, from shoeshine boys in Latin America, to the women who maintain lavatories in the Global South, Erin changed the way we see people through their faces. In doing so, she makes everyone appear like a holy being, as someone sacred and worthy of equal respect. Having known Erin for so many years, I have seen her work progress into something truly extraordinary in the world of art, which is why her name now precedes her in art circles around the world.
We spoke with Erin over the course of two days, after we flew to her home in New Mexico, almost exactly two years from the date of Anthony’s passing. Erin picked us up at the Albuquerque Sunport in her new Toyota pickup truck, and as we sped across the New Mexico desert, our conversation began in classic, road trip style, which continued over dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant in Santa Fe.
. . .
Barrett: When I first met you and Tony in 1996, you had just gotten together as a couple, and not long after that, you had your first solo art exhibit in Taos, at a coffee shop called The Bean. Please tell us how that all came together.
Erin: Well, I had just gotten my BFA from the College of Santa Fe theatre department, and I was working as a barista and waiting tables at The Bean. I was blown away by the amount of trash that was being thrown out every day, so I started gathering all the trash at the end of my shifts and transforming the debris into Buddhist deities. I had also been doing a lot of Tibetan Bon meditation at the time, and learning how to do Thangka paintings.
I had my first solo show at The Bean in 1998, and it was a great success. It was on the radio, on the front page of the newspaper, I sold most of the work, and I received a lot of positive feedback. Viewers were able to see the statement I was making in regards to impermanence and transformation. And then I was picked up by a couple of galleries—one in Taos and one in Malibu, CA, and soonafter that, I was able to quit the barista job at The Bean, and work as a full-time artist.
Barrett: I remember having a dinner party at my house in Taos and you said you had decided to dedicate yourself to your art full-time, it was like a command to the universe, and apparently the universe listened. I said, right then and there, I wanted to commission three pieces from you: a Manjushri and two Sarasvati paintings and I asked you how much for all three. You contemplated for about 30 seconds and said $250 each, so I wrote you a check for $750 on the spot. I still have two of those paintings, and that was the first time I ever commissioned an artist. You said, if I remember correctly, that was also your first direct commission.
Erin: Yes, it was, and it was also around the same time that I began exhibiting at the Parks Gallery in Taos, and the Tops Gallery in Malibu. Between those two galleries, they were able to sell all of my early works. I was also doing murals, antique finishes, and decorative painting in Taos and Santa Fe, so I was able to work full-time as an artist by January of 2000.
Lisette: And you have done an annual show ever since?
Erin: Yes, beginning in 1998, I’ve done a gallery show every year for 22 years. Sometimes I have 2-3 additional shows, in places like Buenos Aires, Berlin, or Venice Beach. In the past two years, I also had my first major museum retrospective.
Lisette: What inspired you to use the Buddhist Thangka painting technique, and how did that evolve into some of the more European influences that are now appearing in your art? Like, what inspired your evolution from that very first coffee shop show, to doing work for museums?
Erin: I think my work has both Eastern influences and Modernist influences, in addition to being deeply inspired by Latin American Art, especially that of the Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera. It is a long historical trajectory, but basically I was painting Buddhist deities and doing my daily spiritual practice, and in that practice, I envisioned these deities as embodiments of compassion, wisdom, and the other. I had an epiphany that this is all fine and good, to visualize these ancient deities with all of these positive attributes, but where are the living examples in the world today?
Simultaneously, I had become interested in the Civil Rights Movement, and had begun reading a lot about it, in books such as Taylor Branch’s Parting The Waters, and it just totally blew my mind. That’s where I found embodiments of the Bodhisattvas in our world today, the Civil Rights activists who were dedicating their lives to equality and human dignity.
I started creating portraits of Civil Rights activists depicted as Buddhist deities, like Septima Clark, who taught thousands of people how to read and write, who I painted as Prajnaparamita, the goddess of wisdom. And Angela Davis as the Green Tara, and Bob Moses as the Medicine Buddha, just as some examples.
At the same time, I was able to save money to travel the world, something I had yearned to do for as long as I could remember. Anthony and I took our first nine-month trip around the world—it blew my mind for several reasons.
First, I saw that the struggle for human rights was not just relegated to the US, but that it was a worldwide event, and that there weresimilar struggles happening everywhere. I was also profoundly affected by the economic disparity I saw, but I also saw how warm and kind people are, how much the same we all are, and the commonalities we share. I experienced that most people are good, and their needs are basic and universal: a roof over their head, to be of service in their communities, to raise a family, eat good food, and have access to clean water.
So my work kept shifting and became more humanist, and more narrative, and based on social justice and transformation. But I never looked at it as being solely political or solely spiritual—I looked at the spiritual and the political as being one and the same. It’s the same internal battle to overcome anger and desire, played out on the world stage. The underlying foundation of all of my work is an expression of respect for all sentient beings.
Barrett: When you started taking those trips with Tony, you’d often be gone for almost a year at a time. You lived in Kathmandu, Bangkok, Rome, Berlin, and Buenos Aires for extended periods of time, and you were also exposed to human rights activists and spiritual teachers that Americans are almost never exposed to. Those people, plus all the trash you brought back from those countries, found their way into your art in a kind of global, collage-montage. Can you describe your collage technique, because it’s so unusual and unique to your style?
Erin: I always keep travel journals, and I gather post-consumer waste the entire time I am traveling. Every portrait I create is comprised of trash from all over the world, and I like to use packaging in as many languages, and with as many cultural references as possible. This makes the statement that the emancipatory struggle is an international one, thereby highlighting our commonalities in every piece I create.
I really consider myself to be more of a traveling ontographer, documenting the environments that I encounter, and incorporating discarded ephemera from the streets into portraits of figures who resist or defy authority, as well as people who live outside of their societies’ conventions. The discarded waste becomes re-transfigured into something beautiful, in the same way that discarded human beings— like women who clean bathrooms, and men who shine shoes, are recognized on the same platform as oil barons and kings.
Lisette: Those street sweepers, the lustrabotas and obreros, are examples of people that Americans wouldn’t be exposed to unless they were a global studies student or something like that, which is not common. What is the process by which you find these people? Is it research, or local people telling you about them? I’m particularly interested in your subjects from Southeast Asia and the Middle East, as I have a particular fondness for those parts of the world. I fear that many Americans would know very little about them, and most couldn’t point out those countries on a map, yet here are all these great humanitarians from those countries, many born from the hardships created by the bombs that we decided to drop on them.
Erin: Well, I immerse myself in the daily life of countries we visit, studying languages, getting around on foot or by bus, sketching, documenting, making friends, and collecting trash. Sometimes I read about someone, sometimes I’ll hear a story or encounter someone directly, like Leila, who cleans bathrooms by the Sphinx in Egypt, for example. One person often leads to another.
Another example: When I was in the process of researching poets and revolutionaries in Nicaragua, I came upon a small museum founded by the mothers of slain Sandinistas. I spoke with one of the mothers, an openhearted woman named Juana, and I became inspired to portray the mothers themselves. So, she loaned me some photographs, which I copied at a print shop and then returned to her.
On another occasion, Anthony and I were traveling in Southeast Asia on the border between Laos and Thailand, and we kept seeing a man’s face on the telephone poles. He had this beautiful, warm face, so we began asking the local people about him, and we found out that his name was Sombath Somphone and that he had been disappeared by the police because he was a humanitarian and thus, a threat to their power. It was feared that they had murdered him, so I did a portrait of him as the Buddha.
Lisette: You grew up with somewhat of a social justice background—did you begin to feel that drive within yourself as you grew into your artistic expression?
Erin: Yes, my parents actually met at an Abby Hoffman rally in the 1960s! (Everyone laughs)
My mother protested against a factory that was polluting a local river—there is a photo from the front page of a local newspaper with her holding my baby sister and looking indignant. One of my aunts was arrested for storming the fence at the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant.
Another thing I admired about my mother, is she had this little book called, Shopping For a Better World and she would always bring it to the grocery store. My sister and I would want some cookies or some juice and she’d look up the product’s company and say, “Nope, we can’t buy that because they don’t hire women for a fair wage,” or they test on animals, or that company doesn’t have any people of color in executive positions.
Barrett: I love that, it’s really the first level of the divest and boycott movement against predatory corporations and oppressive countries that abuse their people. It’s making a comeback now, and social media is the new version of that little book your mom carried to the grocery store.
Erin: It was frustrating for a 6-year-old, but even back then I knew my mother was right. I didn’t want to consume something from a place that was polluting the environment, or discriminating against people based on their gender or ethnicity. My parents instilled in me a real ethical core, for which I am grateful.
Lisette: If you were in an alternate universe, if you hadn’t met Tony, would you still have traveled so much?
Erin: Oh absolutely! Growing up, I couldn’t wait to travel. I had a map of the world, and I would stare at it and try to imagine daily life in all the various countries. I begged my parents, “Can we go to China or Japan?” As I got older, geography was the one classwhere I got an A++, I just loved it. Any time one of our family friends would come back from another country, I would just grill them about everything they saw. I couldn’t wait to get out in the world, so as soon as I turned 18 and graduated from high school, I left New England to drive across the US. I had been accepted to a number of prestigious East Coast art schools,
and I was even offered scholarships, but I wanted to travel. So I rebelled against going to school in New England, perhaps because everyone assumed I’d go to art school. In truth, I wanted to be a screenwriter and a costume designer, so I enrolled at the College of Santa Fe, which had a great theater department.
Lisette: You’ve been a professional artist for over 20 years now, and your work is in galleries around the US, Europe, South America, and increasingly collected by museums. You’ve also been speaking and lecturing, and writing essays, which are beautifully written andreflective of your philosophy. The social justice message is more apparent now in society, and it’s causing young people to become aware of the products they buy. Can you describe how you navigate this new position, as an artist who is both speaking and publishing? And what is the role of the artist in the world we now live in?
Erin: I think everyone has a role in the potential transformation of our world, and I feel that art is an important piece of that. If nothing else, but for the active-imagining power of art, because there is less and less of that in our contemporary world.
When we first traveled the world, the Internet had just started and it was few and far between to find an Internet cafe to email our family and friends. Tony and I traveled for days and weeks at a time without any contact. We didn’t know where we were going, and this was before every inch of the world was made accessible by the swipe of a finger. There were guidebooks, but these were extremely limited, and entire towns were absent from them, so most of where we visited was via word of mouth. We’d have to ask around to figure out which train to jump on, or where to find a boat. That process fueled our imaginations.
Staring at that world map as a kid, imagining all those possibilities, what the world was like, what people were like, how they communicate—that’s the danger of smartphones and social media, losing the sublime mystery of it all. But this could shift again, everything is possible.
Lisette: How did you develop this powerful philosophy on life, and the way it is represented in your art and writing?
Erin: With ancient Indigenous civilizations, there were infinite modes of being, and infinite ways of structuring a society—autonomous, self-governing societies. As a species, we need to collectively see that this particular globalized reality is not how it has to be, that there are other ways we can live. Often people feel stuck or become intractable, but that’s where art comes into play. And travel too—it imagines potentially different ways of seeing and being.
For example, if you get a group of artists in one room drawing the same subject, you’ll end up with as many variations in drawings as there are artists in the room. This is why counter-power, rooted in imagination, is crucial. There is no single way to attain liberation, each method must be appropriate to the situation, utilizing the information and tools available at the time.
Another example: In 17th Century England, sowing the ground with parsnips, carrots, and beans was considered to be an act of treason! It was a revolutionary action of the diggers and gardeners, who had been impoverished by England’s sudden and arbitrary process of privatizing the commons. This act was the digger’s means by which to alleviate hunger and free themselves from servitude and slavery. They felt that this freedom to the common earth was the poor person’s right, by law of creation.
Barrett: That’s a perfect example of an unjust law, written by unjust men, being challenged by the righteous. It’s the responsibility of enlightened people to break those kinds of laws, like Ghandi making salt from the Arabian Sea, or the Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights Movement, or an American soldier refusing to follow an illegal order—it’s immoral, therefore it’s not a legitimate order.
Erin: Exactly, and guerilla gardening is an effective act of resistance to this day. The Black Panthers occupying the statehouse was another, or factory workers occupying and running defunct factories in Argentina is another example. Most recently, the nonviolen tmethods of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock in North Dakota, chaining themselves to bulldozers, linking arms, crawling inside pipes, has had unprecedented reverberations throughout the world. It succeeded in galvanizing Native Americans across hundreds of tribes, as well as people all over the US and the world.
Lisette: So this period you are in now, where you take Classic and Modernist paintings and reimagine them with Indigenous faces in non-European environments—what inspired this? Because so much European and American art didn’t include Indigenous people, unless they were depicted as the noble savage, which is the farthest thing from the truth. The Indigenous people were farmore socially advanced than Europeans or Americans, as you have just alluded, and the Native Americans already had democracy in the League Of The Iroquois, whereas the Europeans and early Americans were still subjects of various monarchies.
Erin: My new series pays homage to Classical and Modernist masterpieces, while addressing contemporary issues that have compelled my work. So I’m focusing on immigrant rights, worker’s rights, women’s rights, civil rights, and basic human dignity. For example, Eugène Delacroix’s epic painting, Liberty Leading the People, provides the composition and palette for a painting I did that portrays Indigenous women on both sides of the US/Mexico border, dismantling the border fence. In my rendition, feminine strength and grace in action, is in the form of Indigenous women.
All of the works in my new series are grounded in a feminine focal point. For example, in another painting, I depict United Farm Workers co-founder and activist, Dolores Huerta, replacing the male gardener in an homage to Vincent Van Gogh’s, The Gardener. So the women step into the foreground, not as passive subjects, but as fully engaged and active participants. The emancipatory moment is right now, so for me as an artist, now is the time to honor those who came before me.
Barrett: You grew up in a small New England town that was mostly white people. And I grew up in an equally small town that was mostly white, and it occurred to me that until you leave those places and start exploring your own ideas and other cultures, you don’t really learn anything about the world. If you stay in rural, white culture, it’s very limiting to what you can learn, and you become unable to comprehend all the other cultures around the world. Your art allows another person who hasn’t traveled very much to get a glimpse of the whole world through your eyes, and that’s a pretty remarkable thing to convey, because only a very accomplished artist can do that—teaching through their art form.
Erin: I try to portray people from all over the world. However, when I travel to a particular place, I allow the people and culture of that place to take precedent in my work. My most recent show focused on people from Bali, Australia, Peru and Mexico. And as faras the teaching modality in my work, I’m trying to bring back knowledge that I acquired on those specific journeys. I talk to lots of people in the places I have been to, in order to get a sense of what their day-to-day existence is like.
Lisette: And probably a lot of conversations about our similarities too? Your mom’s influence was socially very forward-thinking.
Erin: That’s true. I recently heard Boots Riley speak, and I loved that he tied everything back to economic disparity and class struggle, because really, if you are economically oppressed, then it doesn’t matter how many rights you have on paper. If you cannot afford a roof over your head, to put food on the table for your children, to have access to clean water, to have a dignified life that every human being deserves, then these are all forms of oppression.
Barrett: And that’s exactly what Martin Luther King was starting to focus on in his marches. He was beginning to lead protests against economic inequality across all races, and that’s when they assassinated him. He had realized the trick the US government was using against everyone—they were playing the races against each other, when it was really about economic inequality within the races. He saw that it was about class division, as much as racial division.
Erin: Absolutely, and the economic disparity has only worsened since MLK’s time. I just read an econmic report that eight men control more than 50% of the world’s wealth and resources—they own the equivalent of what the rest of us seven billion people share. It’s obscene.
Barrett: We need to name and identify those eight men.
Lisette: One of the best definitions of an artist that I’ve ever heard, is that it’s the artist’s job to take the complexities of a given society, which includes race, economic class, spiritual, and cultural beliefs—pretty much everything. And then the artist reinterprets those complexities through the medium of their art form, in such a manner that the average person can understand what is really going on in their society. What is the Erin Currier definition of art, and how do you teach that through your art?
Erin: That’s what I love about utilizing trash in my art—the post consumer waste comments further on the story of the subjects I paint. I am able to include humor and cultural references through the use of the ephemera, which makes it a multilayered tapestry.
For example, that painting where I depict Indigenous, Native American women dismantling the border fence on both sides of the US/Mexico border—for that piece, I used a ticket from a Frida Kahlo photography exhibition, with a photo of Frida looking in the mirror, reflected back on herself. I collaged it into the border wall of the painting, thus making the statement that we are seeing ourselves reflected. You take down a border and the people on the other side are essentially you. The use of trash also allows forpeople to make their own references.
For example, I have a Czech friend who noticed that a word on a Czech political poster I had used in a painting meant, change. And I used a torn Arabic poster from Lebanon that turned out to say, transformation is in your hands. I love how the viewer’s perspective adds to each piece.
Lisette: The last time we spoke, you talked about how stepping into your power meant having the courage to destroy a perfectly painted portrait in order to do the trash collage over the top. I loved that—can you describe that process a little more?
Erin: The process is very much like a spiritual practice for me, in that I draw the painting first, and then I paint it. At that point, I have this completed painting that I am happy with, and then I have to glue all of this ephemera all over it. I never know if I will be able to bring it back to life, from beneath the trash. It’s really a process of letting go and trusting.
Barrett: Well, I’ve seen you go through that process many times over the years, and you’ve gotten really good at it. A question about the use of humor in your art: I’ve seen dozens of your paintings, and a lot of the trash you use contains funny anecdotes, innuendos, and double entendres. So even with a political or spiritual message, there can be a lot of humor, even if it is about someone who has been assassinated, or martyred by a government or a right wing death squad. You are able to show the beauty and humor in their lives.
Lisette: Right, because in the West, our historical art is so full of violence. We have been bludgeoned with the crucifixion, which is everywhere throughout the Western world. If you go to the Louvre, or the Vatican, or any traditional museum, the paintings are mostly white men in battle, on horses, trampling other people of color, and cutting them down with swords. A lot of the victims are Indigenous people. There is absolutely no humor to be found in any of those places, it’s mostly just violence and religious guilt. How do you find the joy and humor in the subjects of your paintings? Was Tony a big part of that?
Erin: Anthony was the funniest guy in the world, and everyone who ever met him said that. I used to say to him that if I were inprison or in solitary confinement, the only thing I would want, is to be able to laugh. Laughing means more than even a meal. It’s the greatest gift, to laugh and it is how he won my heart, why I fell in love with him.
So yes, I try to bring that humor into my work, because there is already so much darkness, violence, and cruelty in the world, although I do believe that most people are essentially good. But there is an element out there that is very, very dark, the same forcesthat have allowed a situation in which eight white men control half of the world’s resources.
I’ve found that I can bring a little light to the world through my work by painting people who are uplifting and inspiring. And my hope is that when I am dealing with a dark subject matter, like the assassination of a Yemini schoolboy, or the Alabama church bombing that killed four young girls, then I can say that there are some things that cannot be destroyed—the spirit that persists beyond the body, social movements that span across lifetimes, even love itself. It’s like what the Black Panther Fred Hampton said, “You can kill the revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution.”
Barrett: Or Martin Luther King, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Lisette: You were recently an artist in residence in Joshua Tree, CA, where there is a huge artistic enclave. The artists and musicians are leaving Los Angeles, and American cities in general. It’s being called the Hipsturbia movement. Artists are leaving cities and moving to the suburbs, and even out to the country, because the cities have become unaffordable places for people to create. They can’t afford the space needed to do their work, especially artists who need space and light, and they have been priced out. This is also, ironically, going to change the political demographics in the US, because all these educated and cosmopolitan creative people are moving to places that were traditionally more conservative.
Erin: Yes, it’s really interesting how society follows the artists. Wherever they go, everyone else follows.
Barrett: Artists seek out the old, forgotten places and make them cool again, and then all the technology and urban professionals follow in their footsteps, inevitably destroying it. It’s exactly what happened to San Francisco and Seattle—the art and music scenes were decimated by the technology companies who exploited them.
I always thought it was interesting how artists and musicians are respected and revered after they get to a certain point in their career, the point of fame and so-called success. But American society doesn’t really respect them through the long process, or allow them the time and space to do their work when they are young and vital. I’ve often wondered what that disconnect is? I expect these are the toxic tailings of the cancer of capitalism, now in its last stages. Because the opposite is true with Indigenous societies—they revere their artists and musicians.
Erin: Yes, totally. The profit-driven capitalist mentality is parasitizing the entire planet.
Lisette: And it has really metastasized lately!
Erin: Unfettered capitalism undermines kindness, sharing, dignity, respect for the planet, and respect for the arts and the artists whocreate them. For example, if a person has a great loft space with lots of light, our capitalist system conditions and even encourages that property owner to rent it to a stockbroker for ten times what they could rent it to an aspiring musician, or an artist, or a student, or a young family starting out, or even a retired senior citizen. On an individual level, we have these choices. Do we just take all the money we can possibly get, or is it more important that we connect with one another as humans who support our fellow human beings?
If you own a restaurant, do you want it filled with students and working class folks, with artists and elderly people who just want agood, affordable meal? Or do you want to jack up the prices up so that only the elites can go there? Unfortunately, with the privatization of so many of our institutions, like schools, prisons, hospitals—money is valued more than health, well-being, education, or dignity.
Barrett: In most Indigenous cultures, there is no separate world for art. Their creations are in their weavings, beadwork, on their clothing, on their pottery, on their homes, and on their bodies. Art is not a separate part of life for them, and their art is not rarified and commodified into a thing to sell, unless they choose to sell it.
Lisette: When I was a kid, it seemed like everybody played a musical instrument, made their clothes, painted, and made artwork for the family business or restaurant. Where did that all go? I see it when we travel to remote areas of the world, it’s still alive, but not so much in American cities. It’s like we forgot how to create, because we were condtioned to only consume.
Erin: Art remains alive and well all over the world. Artists find beauty in places that are run down and forgotten. In Detroit, where the city had been abandoned and was rife with vacant lots and crumbling buildings, the artists took them over. Guerilla gardeners planted gardens in vacant lots, and homeless mothers and their children created safe, clean, sustainable homes within the abandoned houses. It’s the perfect metaphor for what we were discussing earlier, which is the transformative power of art. The artist comes along and transforms the rundown place into a treasure, like what is happening in the Salton Sea area now, and then everyone is able to see this hidden jewel and say, hey I want to live there too!
Barrett: That’s true, the artists and musicians do all the work of transforming the place, but are often pushed out again by the landholders once the values go up—again, capitalism at its worst. But I agree, this is a very true dynamic, how the artists can transform the canvas, or the abandoned building, or an entire city into something more beautiful. That is a perfect teaching modality, and it’s not unlike what alternative music did to Seattle back in the 1990s.
How do we then continue to awaken people about more looming things, like the current politcal crisis in the US, or the extremely dangerous climate change that we will be contending with for a very long time, well into the next century?
Erin: Well, if you really want to know what I think (laughing), I think that all borders, and governments, and militaries should be dismantled. This colonial, imperial experiment has run its course, it has failed miserably, and it has become parasitic and brought the world to the brink of destruction. All occupied lands should be given back to the Indigenous people, to the extent that they become custodians of the land again.
Lands, waters, and all resources for that matter, should never be owned by any corporation, so it is our responsibility as human beings to take care of the Earth. We are inextricably connected to it, and Indigenous people have known this for thousands of years. They lived in perfect harmony with their environments, so their rightful place is at the vanguard of the future, and the rest of us must support them.
Lisette: We totally agree. The Indigenous people have tens of thousands of years of observational experience in their environments, whereas we’ve only been here for about 500 years and all we’ve done is destroy the planet.
Erin: But even we as artists, who try to live outside of it as much as possible—we are also complicit in this, because we live and work within this uber-structure. Fortunately, a lot of conscious people are trying to break out of it.
Barrett: Agreed, we’re in the system too, and it’s parallel to working for the old company store model. That’s when the only employment is with the company, you’re paid with money printed on company paper with an arbitrary value, and you have to buy everything at the company store at exorbitant prices—and you’re always in debt to them. They designed the system to enslave you, without you even knowing you were enslaved.
The Brazilian rubber barons did this to their workers, the Latin American fruit and coffee companies did it to their workers, as did the American timber companies, where my great-grandparents worked for company store money that was worthless paper outside of the logging camps. This is essentially the world we are forced to live in now, but we can change that by becoming self-aware, empowering our localities, and by moving to green energies, perhaps energies that we have not even conceived of yet.
We should be buying and harvesting our food and products from local farmers and crafts people, and using new modes of distribution that benefit people at the local level. We are all complicit in this fossil fuel-driven environmental destruction, but we were born into it, so it was all we knew. But the more we wake up and become self-aware, the more power the people have, and this is especially true with the power of the purse—that is where we can be extremely effective.
The old revolution models don’t work anymore, and violence has never worked except to oppress others, so it has to be peaceful and nonviolent, with a focused intention on the people’s financial power—kind of like that book your mom used to take to the grocery store. Who will we vote for, or against? Which products will we buy, or not? The artist makes this societal awakening into a visible, audible, understandable thing.
Lisette: I read this quote by Stanley Kubrick where he said that saying something directly to the audience does not have nearly asmuch power as when you tell the story with integrity and subtlety. When you let the viewer become engaged with the deeper message, it has much more of an impact on them. So we can say that building a wall on the Mexico border is absurd, because anyone who has read history, or visited that border, knows that it will always fail, and the only people who will benefit is the corporation who builds it—temporarily.
So when you paint a portrait that shows Indigenous women with their babies on their backs, dismantling the wall, that has real power behind it. The symbolic references that enter the mind are deeply affected by that kind of powerful imagery, much more then even words.
Erin: Yes, the visual effect is extremely powerful, and that’s why our government wouldn’t allow photographs of the dead soldiers coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq. During the Vietnam War, people actually saw the dead soldiers coming home every night on the news, and it sparked all the protests and direct action by the people, which eventually led to the end of the Vietnam War.
Barrett: I remember seeing the Vietnam soldier’s coffins on TV when I was kid, but here we are, still in Afghanistan, still in Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East nearly 20 years later. And we just sent troops to Saudi Arabia, which is a totalitarian dictatorship, ruled by false kings who torture and behead their own citizens. American wars apparently never end—as long as there’s money to bemade by the weapon-makers.
Lisette: Knowing you as I know you Erin, you live every part of your life like a piece of art and it’s very tangible. Everything, from how you wake up in the morning, do your spiritual practice, your martial arts practice, your hair and make up—it’s all part of the offering and the statement of your life. How does that feel from your perspective, and what is it like living your life like art?Especially within the social justice perspective you’ve just elucidated—you’re really walking the walk!
Erin: Thank you for your kind words Lisette! Well, I never looked at art as being separate from my life. The Catalonian artist/poet Joan Brazos said, “Art is life, and life is transformation.”
I look at making art as being akin to breathing, or eating, or sleeping. It’s a vital part of my life, which I have integrated into my daily practice ever since I was a child. And as far as walking the walk, in terms of social justice, the underlying statement of my work is about human dignity. Whomever I encounter, it is important to me that I treat them with respect, and that I am kind to anyone who enters into my orbit.
I think that is the most transformative act, simply being kind to all beings. The people I most respect and admire most in this world are people known for their kindness, compassion, and empathy, which they embody in their daily lives. Life is not about worldly success, or wealth, or fame, or beauty, or celebrity. It comes down to how you treat the person who delivers your mail, or sells you vegetables, or collects your garbage. The day-to-day encounters and interactions between oneself and others—that is ultimately all that matters.
Lisette: I think that kindness is the greatest gift we can all give to each other.
Erin: I agree, and it is probably the most underrated yet most significant virtue, and thankfully, a contagious one. It’s our most powerful, transformative gift to the world, and to each other—kindness.
About the Author
Dr. Lisette Garcia is an experimental psychologist, human rights activist, Buddhist scholar, and Latina percussionist. She has taught at Barnard College and Columbia University, and she is a voting member of the Latin Grammys. Her first book, Poderosas: Conversations with Extraordinary Women, is a book of stories that takes place between Dr. Garcia, her husband Barrett Martin, and 12 extraordinary women. Each woman highly accomplished in her field, none have sought fame, yet all have made an indelible mark on their respective communities.
These conversations take place in unusual and sometimes exotic locations, as these women describe their work and life experiences: A Latina pediatrician at a Texas barbeque, a Cherokee healer during a sweat lodge ceremony, two Shipibo shamans in the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest, an anthropologist in a noisy New York restaurant, a Tlingit professor in her cozy Alaskan home, a Zen master in her Los Angeles Zendo, two mothers in their homes near the Mexico border and the Pacific Northwest, an African American dancer in a New York studio, and an artist in her pick up truck, speeding across the New Mexico desert.
Each of the stories in Ponderosas show how powerful a woman can be when she embraces her circumstances, envisions her life, and then transforms herself into a “Poderosa” – a powerful woman, who effects real change in her corner of the world.
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Lisette Garcia holds a PhD in experimental psychology from Tufts University. She has taught at Barnard College and Columbia University, and she later became a professor at John Jay College Of Criminal Justice. As a native of El Paso, Texas and the daughter of Mexican immigrants, her experience as a Mexican-American women and human rights advocate has taken her to many different places around the world: As a civil rights activist who worked directly with Maya Angelou and Coretta Scott King, as an advocate for child soldiers in Liberia, as a prisoner’s advocate for the India prison system, and as a Buddhist scholar with over 20 years of practice and 4 years of silent meditation retreat. Lisette is also a percussionist and voting member of the Latin Recording Academy, and has worked on numerous albums in Peru, Brazil, and the United States.
Barrett Martin is a Grammy-winning producer, composer, and award-winning writer and editor. He holds a masters degree in ethnology and linguistics from the University of New Mexico, he has guest-lectured at universities around the United States, and he was a professor at Antioch University in Seattle. His first two books, The Singing Earth (2017), and The Way Of The Zen Cowboy (2019), are about his musical work with Indigenous tribes and musicians in West Africa, Cuba, Brazil, the Peruvian Amazon, the Palestinian West Bank, Australia, New Zealand, the Mississippi Delta, and the Alaskan Arctic. As a producer, composer, and musicologist, he has worked on over 100 albums and film soundtracks worldwide. He is also a Zen Buddhist and martial artist with over 25 years of practice and study.