diana lynn

 

Merriam-Webster defines censorship as “the practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and removing things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society, etc.”

 

 

Anytime one of us steps beyond the circle of social approval we face consequences. Some ruin us. Others inconvenience us. Some get us killed. Artists are especially known for telling the truth and butting heads with censors, and their works have been silenced, erased, and altered by others who have had a different political, social or religious agenda – and the power to do so.

 

Who remembers now that Helen Keller was also a radical socialist? Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement” nudes had loin cloths painted on later by one of his students at the insistence of the Church. World renown Chinese artist and activist Ai Wei Wei has recently so outraged his government, state museum workers erased Ai’s name from the list of the award’s past winners and jury members. In 2012, five members of the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and imprisoned. The list is endless.

 

We need to honor outspoken artists and all brave ancestors, and insist on preserving their stories as accurately as possible - so let’s not ever whitewash the world class boxer, Mohammed Ali.

 

He died today and that caused my deep remembering…

 

 

Boxing is brutal sport I cannot watch, but Mohammed Ali is one of my heroes. I grew up around boxing. It was always on our TV because my father had been a professional boxer back in the Depression. Dropping out of school and starting too young at age seventeen, Dad trained and fought hard for seven years trying to make it big. He was driven by the dream of a fortune he would pass on to his brothers and sisters and his mom and dad when they could not find jobs. 

 

Dad adored Mohammed Ali. He respected the man’s ability as a fighter, but loved Ali’s outspoken willingness to stand up to the government, pass up millions of dollars, and relinquish his title rather than fight in an unjust war halfway across the world in Vietnam. 

 

Dad was pugnacious too. As a fireman, he had to travel across the LA basin to get to the special station he'd been assigned to as punishment for welcoming black firefighters during the tumultuous early days of racial integration. Dad always stood up for what he believed and admired Mohamed Ali’s personal willingness to step way outside what was considered acceptable behavior.

 

You can hate boxing, but you don't have to hate boxers. I remember Dad bringing home aging pugilists who’d hit the skids and my mother feeding them. As a little girl, these guys with their cauliflower ears and loud talk and broken noses seemed scary, but nice. They were all men who were willing to do the intense work and take the heavy risks the sport demanded. These are not lesser men, though many consider them so.

 

Dad told me about the early days of boxing, how hard he tried, how close he came, and he often repeated his one major regret: he’d knocked out an opponent and as he was leaving the stadium saw the man, broken, beaten, walk away with a young wife who was very pregnant. Dad said he'd never forget that image and that he would've thrown the fight had he known about the baby. A few years later, Dad woke up one morning alone in a seedy hotel room, his manager and his trainer having abandoned him there. Dad was sleeping off his own first knockout. He quit that day, barely in time.

 

Not so for Ali. He suffered. When we saw Mohammed Ali shuffling and struggling to light the Olympics Torch, crippled by a disease probably caused by the punches he’d taken, we loved him even more and understood the price of human brutality. His legacy is one of spirit, not just of titles and accomplishments, and he will be missed. 


Family photos are treasures, but not enough  -  I'm writing down our stories too.

 

One of my father's great-grandfathers was born in Scotland in 1821 and left a very long and detailed journal.

 

He wrote: "I attended school until I was about fourteen when father had me go down in the mines to work with him. I received one fourth of the minor's wage. When father had an easy place at work, he would do my share and his own and send me out to play a while. Father was always good to me and sang as merrily as a lark at his work.

 

We would go down on summer mornings and the birds would be singing so sweetly, the hares hopping in the rows among the green wheatfields, the Hawthorne hedges white with blossoms, the perfume so pleasant,  it took a stout heart to light the stinking lamp and go down into the bowels of the earth for eight or ten hours. But we could take a days rest once a week, and then we would work in our vegetable gardens. Mother had lots of flowers, many roses and honeysuckles.

 

There were several girls working in the coal pits along with their fathers and brothers. They pushed small cars on the track containing about 600 pounds each. They were good girls, and seemed to always be treated with respect. After working hours, they always dressed up like ladies. I am glad to say there are no women allowed to work in the coal pits now, as they have found other better employment."


Another Scottish great-grandfather, a less content man, left an even longer diary, but one filled with blow by blow, bloody accounts of seven years of fighting under Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars, followed by years of privation and suffering as an unskilled laborer, and ending after crossing the Atlantic and then the American plains, where half-way over, his wife refused to go another foot, so he left her by the side of the wagon train.  

 

He wrote, "June 26, 1853, I feel very sorry to for poor Margaret. I have heard nothing of her. She had nothing but the wrapper she wore and no money. I now wish I had given her the clothes as she requested for she said she did not think I would keep her under-clothing. I felt sure she would follow us later, having no clothes. I also expected to remain for a time in camp near Charlestown, but did not, as all the companies advanced, so it will be hard for her to come now."

 

None of them ever knew what happened to her.  

 

 

 





A year or two after my husband was killed, I started folding origami cranes out of copies of his death certificate. I ended up with a thousand of them strung on long threads, and then made a series of  B&W copier images of my hands in various stages of the folding. In the first image, you could read the certificate and then sequentially see it being folded. In the final image, my hands let the paper crane fly up off the image. Doing this gave me another sense of closure to help move on with my life in relative peace. 

 

This turned into an installation piece that  showed for over a decade in some great art venues around the West. The last showing was at an art center in the small historic gold mining town of Weaverville, California. My son, and a friend, Chloe Peart, came with me and we labored together putting it up as a part of my larger exhibition on impermanence. As I was hanging the last of the thousand cranes, I spontaneously started folding a few new cranes out of blank white paper to add to the tail end of the flock... and then was moved to fold a few more out of clear acrylic, cut the last one into two pieces, glued half inside the gallery window, and glued the other half onto the outside of the window. It had taken me over ten years, but they finally flew away - the toughest emotional work was done. 

 

A few days later I was back in the gallery taking show photos and keeping quiet watching viewers react to the work. Two young cowboys came in with their wives. Both were in full Western dress - long duster Sunday-best coats, great boots, huge hats, and with their hands firmly stuck in their Levi pockets. They looked purposefully disinterested while their wives shopped in the adjacent gallery gift shop. As the two young men wondered into the room with a thousand paper cranes hanging from the ceiling, one immediately hunkered down and pretended to shoot at the paper birds as if duck hunting: “Bang! Bang! Bang!” he yelled softly. They snickered and sauntered around saying something like, "What the hell is this shit?" True, it was not the kind of art they were used to looking at.

 

Then one of them swaggered over to the image with the full sized death certificate and began reading. He motioned to his friend to come over and they read together. The certificate revealed how Donn Johnson had died putting out a forest fire while he was piloting an air tanker plane, and that he was only fifty years old. Their mood shifted. One said to the other, "Those tanker guys are somethin' else." They pulled their hands from their pockets and folded them in front of their bodies. They stood silently next to the cranes for a long time and then they slowly walked away to go tell their wives to come look.

 

 


my . artist run website