Transforming Violence through Art / by Jennifer Davey

Peace-making 1, 2014. Oil, collage and chalk on panel, 48 x 48in.  Jennifer Davey-all rights reserved

I have been impacted deeply by recent violent events internationally, nationally, and locally.  Personally, those that know local artist Keith Jentzsch have been saddened and dumb-founded by the brutal attack and subsequent injuries he has suffered for a simple act of asking neighbors to stop shooting off fireworks late in the night.  My heart is heavy as I hope for Keith’s full recovery of his creative, intelligent mind. 

Watching and listening to events in Ferguson, Missouri and seeing the use of military equipment that is now standard issue for police officers nationwide, makes me question much of our direction in the United States.  Why is violence so embedded in our culture?  I wonder when will we mature as a nation.  I wonder how we can truly heal racial divisions and evolve into an authentic and peaceful democracy.  

On the international scene, there is constant news of violence in Iraq, Syria, Russia and the Ukraine, Gaza and Israel.  How does one respond to such violence in all spheres of our world?    

I remember how art transformed violence in my own life.  Art has the powerful ability to transform perceptions.   Altering our perceptions evolves our ability to respond and act as mature human beings in accord with a very inter-connected 21st century.   

Keith’s attack brought back a flood of memories and emotions related to our friend’s murder in 1999.  This murder also took place in a quiet neighborhood in Fort Collins.  I remember distinctly seeing police tape outside of my studio window on Matthews Street.  News came in bits and pieces.  There never seemed to be enough of a story, a why, to piece together the reason for this violence.  The feelings of heightened awareness when walking down the street, no longer feeling quite safe when strangers passed, was raw again.  The wondering how in the world this could happen as well as the unsettled feelings of fear and doubt, resurfaced.  

In this remembering, I also remembered the power of art, and how it became central to my healing.  This brutal event actually made me see very clearly the purpose of art.  First, art touched me as a means of compassion and empathy.  Mark Rothko’s paintings did not talk of tragedy.  Instead, they were tragedy.  He felt the same depth of emotion and loss.  His paintings were a guidepost as to how to be human.  In that recognition of my own pain and loss, there was comfort.  And then, there was the act of creating.  Making art allowed me to heal.  I made art specifically about Mike’s murder for two years. Through this, I learned clearly art’s power to transform grief into action, into peacefulness.  

Art gives humans specific tools enabling us to understand, touch, and heal these horrific wounds created by intense violence through ignorance.  Art provides a way of transforming consciousness and it does seem that our world is in great need of transformation. 

I have been teaching drawing again, and I am recognizing that the process of learning how to see is parallel to the process of learning to create peace.  Peace is a skill that can be learned, practiced and mastered.  Drawing students learn to go from awkward, overtly symbolic shapes to masterful, beautiful lines that actually capture what the drawer sees.  This process mimics the same kind of learning needed to be peace.   It is a skill and an art to learn how to create and build rather than dismantle and destroy.

Peace is a deeply rooted sense of self AND it is active.  It is seeing what needs to be re-aligned and then working to transform relationships in every encounter, starting first with the self.   Peace in the 21st century also relates to drawing and art-making in the 21st century. European Western perspective has changed.  No longer is the accepted cannon a single point perspective representing the Christian faith.  It has expanded.  It also includes inner-perspective and aerial perspective, alongside multiple faiths and ways of being. We see from the inside out.  Western artists pointed to this internal understanding and landscape shift beginning in the late 1800s. Western psychologists such as Carl Jung, William James, and the great mythologist Joseph Campbell recognized this internal landscape as our true home.  Quantum physics confirms that what we see in the outer world is directly and intricately linked to our inner state.  It is clear that when making changes, starting from the inside out provides powerful results. 

Our perspective has also changed in that we can now see from above, both from an airplane and from outer space.  This has given us a new horizon line, or in fact, taken away the horizon line.  There are not borders of planet earth from space.  Earth is a singular whole, connected by land, river, mountains, and oceans.  Borders, divisions, and wars are human made creations and reflect mis-perceptions about the separateness of reality.  This 'us and them', border-state belief reflects a symbolic way of thinking that no longer matches up with reality.  

Changing this perception mirrors the same challenge a beginning drawer experiences in learning to see.  The beginning drawing student draws an eye as an oval with a circle and some eye-lashes.  But this is not an eye that one has observed deeply.  This is not an eye that is individual.  It is a symbol.  Perceiving enemies, perceiving borders, perceiving the necessity for war is a mis-perception that seperateness is reality.  In the 21st century we need to learn to see how we are in relation to one another.  Seeing that we are all connected radically affects how we are in relationship.  The mis-perceptions that keep us separated and in war are perceptions that need evolution.  These perceptions can be transformed in the same way that beginning drawing students learn to see. 1) By taking time to observe 2) By adjusting and re-adjusting internal perceptions to see if they match reality 3) By growing skills to be peaceful in order to respond to our fellow humans as brothers and sisters 4) To be pro-active in working to shift our own perceptions and to heal our own wounds, and then working outward to radiate peace.  I can think of no other practice more relevant for our survival.