Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Sam Bower: Green Museum

by Richard Whittaker, Apr 27, 2009



I met Sam Bower one afternoon by accident. I'd gone to join a couple of friends at an ongoing experiment in the gift economy [Karma Kitchen] at a restaurant in Berkeley (on Sundays at lunchtime, the restaurant is given over to a volunteer group.) Just a few days earlier, I'd heard about Sam, the founding director of When I got to the restaurant, a couple of men were standing outside near the door chatting. I stopped for a moment and soon learned that one of them was Sam Bower.
     I always love these moments of synchronicity. We ended up sitting at the same table and by the time I left, I felt that I had a new friend.
     In spite of my interest in environmental art, I knew almost no artists working in that area so I was especially pleased. And what better subject for artists to focus on? Since began, the number of artists addressing environmental issues had increased exponentially Bower told me, and the trend seemed in no danger of slowing down.
     It wasn't long before I asked to interview Bower.
     As a child, Bower loved to draw, paint and make things. But it wasn't until after he'd finished his college studies that he decided to follow his love of art making, a choice that led to collaborations with other artists and eventually to an entirely new undertaking. Bower is one of those people who found the right place for his many qualifications. As environmental problems bear down on us with increasing urgency, creative responses will be absolutely necessary. But how to take advantage of inspired ideas coming in from unexpected places?

     When Sam and I sat down for the interview, I asked him to talk about some of his early experiences with art.
Sam Bower:  I've always liked making things. And in third grade I won some kind of an award for making a drawing of a tiger, a stripy tiger. I remember what was fun about it was it had this great expression. It had these eager, big eyeballs that were staring out at you and kind of a big, toothy grin. 
     I was always drawn to the side of painting and drawing, but I've always loved sculpture also. In my family, the emphasis was always on academics, being able to appreciate language or to do well in school. But my parents were always very encouraging about any sort of thing that they felt might make us happy. And I'm very grateful for that.

Richard Whittaker:  I'm guessing you didn't suffer from what so often happens to kids: no, Johnny, an apple doesn't look like that! You know what I mean?

Sam:  Yes. Art was always something that I could get attention for, drawing things or making little cartoons. And early on, I got involved in the school magazine or the school newspaper.

RW:  That would be high school?

Sam:  And junior high.

RW:  Now, you've moved around and lived in different places. Tell us about that.

Sam:  Well, my dad was forty-two when I was born. My mom was forty. I have two older brothers who are much older. They had all been shuttling between South America and the US before I came along. I was born in New Jersey and lived there until I was three. Then we moved to Venezuela. And we lived there until I was eleven.

RW:  What did you gain by spending seven, eight years in another culture. Do you ever ponder that?

Sam:  Yes. One of the things I did right after college was move to Ecuador. I lived there for five years. There's an aspect to growing up in another country and especially in a developing country or one that has a lot of the sort of economic contrasts that you see in the developing world. It helps you get a sense of just how diverse the world is, and also it made me really question a lot of the systems and structures that people often take for granted.
     Living in Venezuela was a wonderful experience. I got to go to an international school that had kids from all over the world whose parents were involved in business or the diplomatic corps. Half the students were also Venezuelan. All my neighbors were, of course, Venezuelan, and just down the hill you could see beggars and people living in cardboard boxes. So coming to terms with the range of human experience at an early age was something that has really shaped my view of the world, a lot of it.

RW:  Do you remember wrestling with that issue?

Sam:  There were certain things I was aware of about how different I was in some ways. I was a foreigner. I could speak fluent Spanish, but I was not Venezuelan and I wasn't raised Catholic. My friends would have their first Communion and they would invite me. So there were certain cultural things like that which were interesting to experience as a child.

RW:  Do you remember thinking about the people just down the hill in cardboard boxes?

Sam:  I lived in Caracas, and on the hillsides there were a lot of people living in what they called the ranchitos, squatter slums, people living in cardboard boxes and under little pieces of zinc on sticks. In the winter there would be landslides and floods and, sometimes, whole communities and neighborhoods would get wiped out. We had plenty of landslides in our neighborhood, too, but that's definitely something to be aware of, the fragility of infrastructure.
     In a lot of developing countries a lot of things are either falling apart or being built. The space in between is sometimes rather tenuous.

RW:  Do you think you got an early taste of being where we are now? I mean it seems we have already moved across some threshold so that we're now in a kind of global modality. Do you agree with that?

Sam:  I think that ever since people could travel long distances, we've been living in an increasingly global context. If you look at Columbus and the Spanish coming to South America in the first place, they brought with them disease and a different set of economic priorities and all sorts of things that affected an entire hemisphere. So for people who were living in South America before the Europeans came, what was happening in Europe was already setting itself up to affect them and their fates certainly were intertwined even before they were aware of it. 
     I think what's happening now in terms of an awareness of our worldwide interconnectedness-especially when it comes to climate change and certain impending ecological problems-is that, almost as a species, we're becoming more aware of how our world is shaped by forces initiated in far away places.
     I'm grateful and encouraged by that increasing awareness, but there's still a lot that we're just beginning to understand-about how ocean currents work and about the many effects of climate change, for instance.
     The clothing that we wear, the food that we eat and the things that we furnish our homes with come from all over the world. I mean, the recording equipment that you're using probably has materials in it from a dozen different countries. It's the sort of thing that we have taken for granted in this wondrous, global world. But I think we're beginning to understand what the implications are of all this, especially in economic terms now with the big global financial collapse we're experiencing.

RW:  True, long ago Europe's influence came to the New World. But do you have any sense of something happening, a shift, in the last thirty years?
Sam:  There are different ways of looking at it depending on how optimistic I'm feeling. You know how you hear about people who have near-death experiences? They have this moment of illumination in which everything seems to fit together and they have an understanding of the fullness of their life. I think there might be a similar sort of thing going on now, culturally, and I hope it comes at a time when we can take that information and really change the way we choose to treat each other and the Earth.

RW:  That's an important thing.

Sam:  I think that it's ultimately the thing for perhaps all of us. It's really the opportunity to live in a way that's more in harmony with this larger context. The term "sustainability" is thrown around a lot; unless human beings can find a better way to live with each other and the Earth, I think we risk losing a lot of the cultural and physical comforts we've come to enjoy in the last few hundred years.

RW:  Certainly these are the concerns that underlie When was it founded?

Sam:  We came up with the idea in the late 90s. I started to work on it in 2000. We came online in 2001. The original idea emerged from my experience of working with a few other people making collaborative sculpture. I was part of a group called Meadowsweet Dairy that included Henry Corning and Glenda Griffith. And also, at other times, there was Dan Ustin, Alan Leavitt and Alex Tereshkin. We saw there was a great need for a type of cultural infrastructure that would support the work of artists addressing ecological issues in their work. So we started to bring people together. We had a series of meetings, and a friend named Tyler Johnson became our first technical officer. He had experience setting up complex, database driven Web sites. And when we brought in Tyler, we decided on the name,, and began the process of becoming a non-profit.

RW:  Are any of these people still involved?

Sam:  Tyler has been volunteering for years now as our technical officer and Henry has been involved in sort of an advisory capacity lately. For many years, he was president of the board.

RW:  I gather that you took this on somehow.

Sam:  Yes. Once we had the idea, we realized it was likely to be a lot of work and someone was going to have to take responsibility for it and make it happen. And so I left Meadowsweet Dairy to focus on to make sure that it could happen. That was at the end of 2000.
     Tyler and I, for the first few years, set up the infrastructure and the shape of the site. We had a board of directors. Then a growing number of people all over the place were excited by what we were doing and contributed thoughts and information and so on.

RW:  So the beginnings involved others, but aren't you're carrying this project pretty much yourself now?

Sam:  I'm the founding executive director. My goal is to find ways to involve even more people in running the site. Right now, though, it's largely on my shoulders.

RW:  Now early on there was a project you told me about that was important in this shift to Was that the one in the Farallon Islands?

Sam:  Yes. This was the last big project I was involved in with Meadowsweet Dairy, a collaborative project out on Southeast Farallon Island with the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. They have a research station out there. We got a Haas Creative Work Fund Grant to do this. We worked with them to design and create a stainless steel structure that had 32 artificial bird nesting boxes on it. We broke up old concrete foundation rubble and stacked it around this form to create a sculpture that had spaces where different species of burrowing seabirds could land on the sculpture, recognize it as natural habitat, crawl inside and nest in there. There was a doorway on the side of the structure so that for the first time, scientists could go inside and study the nesting behavior of burrowing pelagic birds from inside their burrows. It was an incredibly moving experience for us.

RW:  Could you say something more about that?

Sam:  The Farallones are an incredible place. I had the chance, back when I lived in Ecuador, to work out on the Galapagos Islands. I've lived in other places, too, that are incredibly beautiful, sort of pristine areas and the Farallones have this peculiar combination of human impact and history. They're also a type of cathedral in the sense of being a spectacular landscape-the big stone arches and the rocky peaks. It's bleak and there are only a couple of trees on the island that were planted there by settlers. The rest of it is pretty much rock and birds. There are so many birds out there that, during the breeding season, you have to be careful where you walk. It's extraordinary!
     It's so beautiful to be in this spectacular landscape that has been set aside for other creatures where the human presence is there really only to serve and support their well-being, to understand what their lives are like and how we humans are impacting them. It's a glorious reversal of the traditional human approach to nature.
     This is a place that had been set aside, where humans are in service to a larger set of systems and migrating creatures. Being out there and creating a bird habitat sculpture that the general public could never visit, but that served the scientists and the birds successfully, was just such a spectacular privilege! It really brought home the notion that art has a job to do and that you can do the things that the world needs in ways that are aesthetic and metaphorically rich, and that there can be a type of aesthetic and useful role for humans in the world. I think the experience of being around so many different creatures in that setting, and in that context, made me and my colleagues realize how important it would be to create a resource that would encourage more of that.

RW:  It sounds like it was kind of a revelation.

Sam:  It culminated in a series of thoughts that had been brewing among us for awhile. It made it so obvious that some sort of resource was needed to support this type of work.

RW:  It became a compelling exemplar. It revealed something concretely then.

Sam:  And a direction. I think that, as a culture, we're just scratching the surface of how what we understand as art could be better integrated into the world. The project itself—you could look at the physical structure, the seed or igloo shape, that fits into the landscape, but which is also enigmatic and curious—that thing is only part of what the artwork involves. Obviously, the birds use it. The scientists use it in a certain way. But the making of it brought together the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Coast Guard, the Point Reyes Bird Observatory and the funders from the Creative Work Fund—a larger art context. We brought a reporter from Artweek and someone from the Oakland Museum out there. The interlocking world and the opportunity to look, again, going back to what we were talking about earlier, at the way we're all interconnected. Helping people see and experience that, is as much a part of the artwork as the thing itself. It served as an excuse for a wide set of conversations and opportunities to collaborate to address specific needs.

RW:  Right. It helps to have that articulated. The artwork is more than the object itself, or it can be. In some cases an artwork's real importance, its center of gravity is in the aspects that aren't so visible. So I wonder if you want to say something more about this? What is it that artists can bring when environmental issues are under consideration? I mean, there are the scientists, the politicians, the engineers, etc., but what is it that artists can contribute? Could you say more?

Sam: Yes. I don't think that's unique to ecological art. If you look at a painting, for example, the pigments come from all over the place. It's painted on cotton or some other fiber and that was grown in some other place by another group of people. In many cases, they used fertilizers or pesticides, their kids' health was impacted by that. There's an entire community, a whole story that relates to each of the ingredients in that thing. And in traditional art, we're used to pretending that somehow that's not even relevant. I think that once you start to really look at how deeply interconnected these things are and how deep the impact of these things really is, it shapes what you're saying through a work of art. And the fact that you're not saying something about it is very telling. We're each having such a huge impact on the world around us and depend on so many incredible coincidences and networks and systems of commerce and exchange. I think the more we, as artists, can help reveal how we affect each other, people, other creatures, ecological systems and whatnot, the closer we'll be to taking responsibility for what we're doing and perhaps find better ways of behaving. If we pretend that we have no impact, then we leave that responsibility for cleaning up to others. And we don't worry about it. We just buy things from the store and throw things "away" in the trash. So if we really want to change things, it really helps to look at these facts.

RW:  What you say opens this up so broadly. It means that the environmental aspect of any work of art could be, or needs to be, brought to light.

Sam:  Anything. I think that's closer to it. Not just works of art. Artists don't have any unique responsibility to have their work examined any more deeply than when we go to a store and buy a pair of shoes or visit relatives in Ithaca. All the things we're doing as human beings have impact.

RW:  I couldn't agree more. But perhaps one of the important things that artists can do, in terms of environmental art, is help raise consciousness about this.

SB:  I think raising consciousness, helping people see and understand how they're connected to these larger systems in the world around us, is an incredibly important thing. I think art can do this in ways that are provocative, meaningful and inspirational, deeply moving, beautiful, connected with history and culture and resonant. I think that's a big part of it. There's another part of it where I think artists have the opportunity not just to call attention to problems and preach, but to really help solve problems. To help create things that work better, that are just more beautiful and right. And that, for me, is the most exciting side of this work. We have a lot of people pointing fingers at what needs to be changed or how terrifying things are, and that's important. We need people calling attention to these problems. Be we also, very urgently, need people to help us solve them. And in a way that's compassionate and beautiful. I think we're far more likely to do things that are good for us as a society if we're drawn to them because they look better, are more meaningful and tasty. These are things we'll choose to do simply because they feel better.

RW:  That's a wonderful point. Listening, I think of how in mathematics, beauty is spoken of almost as an indication of when a solution to a problem is really the right one. I can't help thinking there may be a relationship here.

Sam:  Absolutely. If you look at a bell pepper. I love bell peppers, they're wonderful things. If you chop open a bell pepper and look at the elegant shape and the way it works. One of the reasons we find a tree or a lemon, or anything that grows out there, beautiful is because it works really, really well. Aesthetics arises out of that integration of form and function.

RW:  So in a way, beauty could be a signal of something's appropriateness, its health, its goodness. It could be. Maybe it's not always that.

Sam:  There's something to that, but it's also important to understand the many types of beauty. It's not just confined to a layer of paint. It's how something functions. It's aesthetics in a deep Beuysian sense in that something can resonate with all aspects of how we live. It may be on a molecular level, the way things flow and cycle and decay. It might be in terms of collaborations or the wonderful meals it engenders. The impacts can be thought of in a wide range of ways.

RW:  That's right. The potential breadth and depth of this idea of beauty is hardly ever explored. We don't generally understand the possible depth of this thing we call beauty, whatever that is. We think of it as just being a surface phenomenon. You're opening this up.

Sam:  Yes. And in some ways, we're so used to thinking of physical objects as being beautiful, of music, dances and performances, but we also have things like death that can be incredibly beautiful and moving. That's essential to any ecological system. Sometimes something that falls apart, a ruin of a building or a ceramic cup that falls to the ground and gets a crack but still works can have an appeal to it and deep resonance that is so much more meaningful and beautiful than something that is pristine.

RW:  So true. That's always been somewhat mysterious to me, but I think we all respond to that. What is the beauty of ruins that touches us so much?

Sam:  I think it's part of an expanded, well-rounded aesthetic. It's healthy to appreciate birth, death, decay-I mean, all states of matter have their elegance. Same with systems. People are drawn to stories of great misfortune and hardship, in part because there's something to learn from that.

RW:  You must resonate with the philosophy behind Oxbow School, that it's a great benefit to have our creative capacities developed. It's true for all of us-not just for artists.

Sam:  Yes. Encouraging creativity and interdisciplinary thinking through education is really important.

RW:  Getting back to your own art history, we haven't gone into that much. Did you get a degree in art?

Sam:  I was a history major-US history and then China and Japan in the 19th and 20th centuries. For me, art was something that people did, but it wasn't something to study.
     I wanted to understand the world, and I also felt that college was a good place to study things, read books and that sort of thing. Growing up, my experience of making drawings and cartoons and things for school magazines and newspapers shaped my understanding of how people saw art. What happened was that people would write stories and articles and you'd end up with little marginal spaces that had to be filled up with something. You'd have this little corner and someone would say, okay, we've got this space that's this big and we need something that can go there. And I'd read the article or do something that would somehow relate to the page.
     In school, I could always write, too. So there was this interesting attitude toward what art was for. It was really a decorative filler that people enjoyed at the same time. So moving that on to college, I thought, well, I'm going to focus on the real thing, which meant, to me, academics. At the same time, I loved making art. It filled me with such joy! So in my spare time, I would always be drawing and painting and that sort of thing. So finally, after college, I ended up down in Ecuador and in all the time that I had between doing different cultural exchange-type work and things like that, I would be drawing and painting. It became clear to me after awhile that's what I most liked to do.

RW:  Now how old were you at that point?

Sam:  In my mid-twenties. Right after college I spent a summer before moving down to Ecuador and just painted.

RW:  What kind of stuff did you paint?

Sam:  That summer my dad wanted "a view from the house." It was a way of encouraging me to do something creative. So I painted a realistic view. But I also painted a whole lot of other stuff. Initially it started out more realistic, and when I was in Ecuador I was influenced by the folk art there. I was doing things that were much more symbolic and also related to some of the things I was seeing down there, including ecological issues and all that.
     At a certain point, I managed to save up some money and I got a free studio space in a house that was about to be renovated. So I just painted like a madman on scraps of wood I collected, which I would kind of assemble into sculptures. I did that for six months and then I had a show and sold a bunch of that. Then I got an opportunity to work with my girlfriend who was down from the US to work on a sustainable development project on the coast of Ecuador. It was in a community about eight hours up river by dugout canoe from the nearest road. I lived in this community for six months in a little bamboo hut looking for ways to represent their needs to the project and improve their income and well-being through sustainable use of their biological resources. That was a great, moving experience there. After that I moved back to the United States.

RW:  There's such a richness in your life and experience, I can hear that. How is the a vehicle for all these different aspects of your life? Have you ever reflected on that?

Sam:  Absolutely. I feel very lucky to have found something that incorporates so many of my passions and interests and where I feel like I can bring together so many aspects of my life to do something useful. I think that in some ways though, we're each manifesting the opportunities to learn and grow in the ways that we most need. So it's the sort of thing that's going to happen for anybody.

RW:  If they don't lose heart?

Sam:  Even if they lose heart, perhaps that's part of what they're needing to learn.

RW:  I'm not arguing with you, but that's a very optimistic view. 

Sam:  It might be uncomfortable and awful. Certainly all sorts of people have been challenged by difficult things. It's not an easy thing. I do see that there is the opportunity for growth in all manner of experiences.

RW:  I went to your Web site and there's a lot of material there. How many artists are on your Web site right now? 

Sam:  There are a lot of different ways that artists appear on the Web site. There are over a hundred and thirty including various artist groups in the "Featured Artist" list. But we have online exhibitions as well and we haven't had time to migrate some of those artists  to the featured section. We have a big backlog of artist information to add, too. Then there are writings that mention a whole number of different artists and feature them in the context of an essay or that sort of thing. Then there are also lots of events and opportunities listed that can highlight a particular exhibition or project that someone is doing.

RW:  So it's been eight years and now it's quite rich. And it's constantly evolving, right?

Sam:  That's the idea [laughs].

RW:  Well I looked at several of the featured artists and like what you've done there. It's simple and yet elegant. You can go to artists' Web sites, and I did go to quite a few. Each time I was wonderfully impressed. It's exciting because I don't always feel that way about the things I look at in the artworld. It was refreshing to have this very positive feeling over and over again.

Sam:  That's wonderful.

RW:  I wasn't thinking of turning this interview into any kind of critique of the artworld.

Sam:  Please do. There's a big difference between a malicious or angry denunciation and discussing something you've noticed that seems imbalanced or in need of improvement.

RW:  Well that's such a big subject, it's hard to address. What I find so refreshing about the artists and the art I've found at is that it's all pretty much grounded in real and actually important issues. A lot of high art seems to be relying on some other things which I don't find very meaningful in any deep sense. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Sam:  I think it's important to recognize that our contemporary understanding of what art is has been shaped certainly by our times, by the way our economic situation is, the way our overall society is structured. I think that today what most people think of as art is essentially a commodity. It's a type of creative object. Generally when we think of the art world, it's much more about objects that can be bought and sold and less about unrecorded performances, service or ephemeral sorts of things, although obviously, those are included in the artworld as well. But for a long time our understanding of all this has been shaped by what people could make and sell in galleries and store in museums.
     I think a lot of it really emerges from a place of disconnection, that somehow the artwork itself can be autonomous. That somehow this big metal, shiny thing represents itself. Yes, it's connected to art history and it's saying certain things, but we don't think about where the metal comes from. We don't think of what it means to have this thing in a particular space and potentially to devote an entire room in a big building in a city to house it, presumably, forever!

RW:  And the art market says it's worth 27 million dollars. What does that represent?

Sam:  I think it represents a cultural investment in a certain approach to notions of longevity and the cultural meaning we give an artwork like that. Contrast that to, say, a remote place where an artist creates an erosion control sculpture out of willow and stones. It helps stabilize a riverbank and create a willow thicket. And it can involve school children in the weaving process. That object is not going to be sold in a gallery. It's not going to be donated to a major museum. What is it that we value? And what is it that the people who pay for these objects, what are they trying to create in the world? I think it's tied to a deeper economic system that regularly exteriorizes ecological costs. It's tied to social values. It's tied to the priorities of what we can, at least in this country, view as the dominant culture. It's really about where...

RW:  And this is about the big shiny thing?

Sam:  The shiny metal thing is probably very moving and fine. The fact that people invested that much effort in protecting it, saving it, polishing it, building a big room with lighting around it. I'm sure it's a cool looking thing. There are all types of artwork that I've found incredibly moving. It's really about where we want to devote our resources once we know.

RW:  Once we know what?

Sam:  Once we have a sense of what the way we're living is actually doing.

RW:  The interconnectedness of it all.

Sam:  Yes. If you look at a Richard Serra torqued ellipse-I've seen those things, they're cool! It's an impressive sculpture. I've been powerfully moved by them. If you look at that in the context of energy resources expended, where all that metal came from, who had to work to make it be, what it takes to store and move and protect. There are sculptures he's made where people had to build bridges and strengthen roads just to get those things there. Maybe those bridges and roads needed fixing. But when we see these things, it's helpful to understand what they mean in terms of our priorities. If we're looking now in this period of economic crisis and people are cutting budgets for everything from schools to medical care to environmental regulations in some places, it's really helpful to compare what our priorities are and what we're funding. So going back, once you understand how things are interrelated, you have the opportunity to decide how you want to live the rest of your life, how you want to spend your resources in other ways.
     At this point in time, I think we need artworks that help heal our connection to the natural world and address the very urgent issues of our time in ways that are more than just about pointing fingers, but which actually contribute to solving these problems.

RW:  Serra's pieces are impressive, to say the least. Now that's Daniel McCormick's work you're referring to with those erosion control sculptures, right?

Sam:  Yes.

RW:  It's really encouraging that is celebrating artists like him. His work not only helps restore streams, but I know he uses his projects to educate school kids and get them involved in hands-on experience. Both social and environmental benefits result from his work. Of course, it's all connected.

Sam:  Absolutely.

RW:  I wanted to put something else out that I don't read or hear about. There's the outer environment with a whole list of problems: toxic waste, habitat loss, climate change, water and air pollution, the loss of wilderness. We're worried about these things. But aren't there analogous issues in our inner environment that we should also be concerned about? Take habitat loss, for example. Our mental space is constantly being colonized by the effects of advertising. Or let's look at wilderness preservation. We need to preserve diversity. That's an outer benefit, but there's also an inner aspect. Contact with nature is a kind of spiritual restorative. You see what I'm getting at?

Sam:  Yes. Art, in a lot of ways, manifests the sacred. There are plenty of artists who really see their work as service and have a deep spiritual connection to the earth. There's one artist, Robin Lasser, who did a project out at the NorCal dump in South San Francisco that is related directly to what you're talking about. It's a video. She had this conveyor belt moving by with all these items of packaged foods. As they're coming by, she opens each one up, takes a bite and sets it back on the conveyor belt, takes a bite, sets it, takes a bite, sets it. The conveyor belt is speeding up and more and more food is coming. She's taking one bite and leaving behind all this waste. This waste we're creating in the world around us in terms of garbage and trash and pollution is also something that we're internalizing and, by making a mess of our rivers and streams and air and soil, we're literally killing ourselves as well-not only through the higher incidence of cancers and asthma and so forth, but also in a spiritual sense. We're really impoverishing our souls.

RW:  The two realms are necessarily connected.

Sam:  I think the idea of art is both a means of unfolding and an outgrowth of an inner life. In the context of environmental art and especially on the more ecological projects, there's the aspect of healing our relationship with the natural world. It's also something that, in the larger public dialogue, tends to be under-emphasized.

RW:  Would you say more about that, about what tends to be downplayed or left out?

Sam:  I think that often artists have been perceived as being less serious in terms of having a contribution to make, say, around climate change or wetlands restoration or even community organizing. Very often artists are perceived as being a little "out there" in terms of things that have practical value.
     Now I don't think artists have a direct line to spiritual experience any more than anyone else, but I think you could say that in the work world, the world in which people go to big meetings and build big structures, there has been an under-valuation of the interior life and spiritual experience. Artists, or it could be an architect or even an engineer-might have a rich spiritual life-but in order to fit into that work context, they tend to dampen that part of themselves.
But, from a larger world-healing context, it's very important to interconnect the different aspects of our interior lives, exterior lives and our relationship with the natural world and all the different forces we depend on.

RW:  World healing. How could we look at what healing means here? 

Sam:  Healing emerges from the recognition that something doesn't feel right. I think it goes back to something we were touching on before. When you talk about world healing and an interior healing, it really comes down to how big are you? How big is here? From a spiritual point of view, there's a great opportunity to begin to see ourselves as really big, as big as the world.

RW:  We're all part of this larger web.

Sam:  Exactly. So I think the process of looking at what seems to be off, in a way that's beautiful and can help others, is part of what this work is about.

RW:  I'm wanting to bring up water. This is such an important part of all this.

Sam:  You can look at that from a wide range of perspectives.
RW:  True. For one thing, it's used as a primary symbol for something deeply spiritual.

Sam:  If you look at all matter as fundamentally being in flux and our own perceptions of the world and our own interior experience and perhaps even our lives as spirits-if you believe in reincarnation-there's this underlying feeling that everything is constantly flowing and changing. Water, as a metaphor and theme, helps us understand that change in a deep and very physical way.

RW:  Do you have a memorable moment of experiencing water?

Sam:  Yes, actually. I lived in Ecuador in this community alongside a river. You could walk to the edge of town and jump into the river and swim and you could drink the water. It was just the most amazing thing! 

RW:  When one is really thirsty, the craving for water is so primal, and the satisfaction of a drink of clear water is almost something transcendental, almost a cellular thing.

Sam:  If you think of what we are, I mean we have these bodies made up of cells and each little cell contains a drop of seawater. In some ways, all the little creatures that emerged from the seas found each other, bound together and found a way of collaborating effectively and sharing the recipe over and over with helpful modifications and here we are today! Every chance we get to replenish that connection to the seas is just a delight. In some way, it's a reminder of home.

RW:  It's said, in a spiritual way, that one returns to the great ocean of being. If you think about it, it's not such a far-fetched metaphor.

Sam:  It's true. Do you think the oceanic feeling is as common in Western spiritual traditions as it is in Eastern spiritual traditions?

RW:  I don't know. Good question. But I would think that in the desert, of all places, the appearance of a spring would be precious.

Sam:  You can see why places where water mysteriously bubbles out of the stone, or accumulates in a pool for no reason, are sacred sites. It's almost miraculous! It also provides life for a lot of creatures besides people, and very often such places are quite beautiful, a refuge and filled with diversity. And people who didn't take care of their springs didn't do as well as the ones who did. You can see how this aspect of stewardship and reverence and honoring is a really important thing, culturally.

RW:  Do you happen to think of any particular artists around such things?

Sam:  Betsy Damon comes to mind. I think that her work with sacred springs throughout the world is really important work. So many cultures that grew up around springs learned to revere them through spiritual practice and songs and ceremony. And those traditions have really come under a lot of strain in modern times. The move to be more efficient and tap the springs and dig wells and pump water great distances makes it more difficult for people to understand where their water comes from.

RW:  Does it make sense to you that there would be physical qualities in sacred sites that would conduce toward a special condition? Take a mountain and the great view from the top, for instance.

Sam:  Sure. Just like an artistic object or some sort of intervention or performance can be incredibly moving and transcendent. As an experience, places can do the very same thing!

RW:  One way of talking about a sacred site would be to say that it's a place where the inner and the outer meet.

Sam:  Do you think that's true for art?

RW:  It seems that some artworks have a special action on people, and some art maintains this power over long periods of time—like Rembrandt's portraits, or the pyramids. It's kind of mysterious. This is what you're talking about, right?

Sam:  Yes. I do think that, in the same way there are places that are particularly moving and give us that sense of deep connection, the same thing is true in art. It is different for different people. As in any ecosystem, there are creatures that like damp places and creatures that like dry places. It's the sort of thing that heals them, going back to the notion of healing.

RW:  Yes. I think that the etymology of healing is around wholeness.

Sam:  That makes perfect sense. So how can we facilitate more of that? I just saw Godfrey Reggio's film Koyaanisqatsi again. That was about things coming apart. I think we're still facing the same dilemmas, and certainly at an increasing pace around the world.

RW:  Do you want to say anything about how things are with and where you're going?

Sam:  What we've seen as a small non-profit is that our capacity to process all this information has been stretched to the limit. So what we're looking toward is opening up the process, the curatorial process, the data entry process, to engage and involve more people. But underneath it all, what we most need is to strengthen our capacity to serve.

Sam and I talked a little more on the following day.



About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine          


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