TOY STORIES

Don't worry, there's a happy ending!

Don’t worry, there’s a happy ending!


Back in 2009, 25 Random Things About Me was the big thing on Facebook. I actually wrote a series of articles on how to use this idea to write a great artist statement.

I don’t remember what my 25 Random Things were. But today I add one more.

It’s about my toy stories. I make up stories about inanimate objects.

It began at a very early age, like maybe 3 or 4 years old. I had very few dolls as a kid but a lot of stuffed animals. And I always made up stories about their rich inner life. Like the night I thought they were cold and lonely, so I put sorted them into groups of ‘friends’ so they would would be warm. That left no room for me. So I slept on the floor.

Fortunately (or not), the next day I thought they might have chapped hands so I liberally covered them all with Jergen’s hand lotion. My mom threw them all out, and I got my bed back.

I still worry I had an alternative motive there. But I don’t think I did. I mourned the loss of all my little fur buddies, and I still miss them. Hence my large collection of old toys and very small dolls.

Which is why I felt sorry for this mama kangaroo at the thrift shop. I was shopping for small stuffed animals to decorate our Christmas tree. It’s our first Christmas without our kids, and we only have space for a very small tree.

She had a pouch but no baby kangaroo. How long had they been separated? Did she still miss him? I almost left her there, because I knew I would feel sad whenever I saw her. But then I realized I was putting my discomfort above her loss, so I bought her anyway. (I kid you not, these were my thoughts.)

And then at another thrift shop, I found a tiny bear who was glued into a little box. I didn’t make the connection at first. I just didn’t like the box he was glued into, and I thought he might be happier without it. So I tore the box off, and I put him in the microwave so I could soften and remove the glue.

Only I forgot to to remove the little metal hanging hook from his head so there were sparks and flames and the top of his head melted a little bit. And I had to clip the glue out of his fur so he looks a little ragged. I felt guilty that I’d made him worse. And now he smells a little….well, burnt.

Then I realized he would fit perfectly into the mama kangaroo’s pouch and they would be a comfort to each other.

So I guess I’m still telling stories about inanimate objects…. I don’t know what it means, and I don’t want to analyze it too much. It actually kind of works it’s way into my art, so I’m going to leave it alone.

Our first California Christmas tree, decorated with stuff I found at area thrift shops.

Our first California Christmas tree, decorated with stuff I found at area thrift shops.

MANIFESTO 2015

“…And I can do this with my hands, by creating my little horse, which symbolizes the power that comes from our choices, our actions, even in the face of despair.”

This little horse actually means something really big.

This little horse actually means something really big.

My post on 9/11 reminds me that in the face of tragedy, we always have the power of our choices.

I’ve been silent here for awhile, as we’ve wrapped up our mammoth move to Northern California. And even when I’m writing regularly, I usually stick to subjects I consider “safe” for me: Writing about the business of art, writing about making art has affected my life, sharing the lessons I’ve found in wall-climbing, martial arts, hospice, parenthood and silly pets as I muddle through life.

None of that is changing. But there is something that’s been building, building lately. If you follow me on Facebook, you may have wondered why I’ve gone all “social justice-y” as my social worker daughter Robin so aptly puts it.

I’ve decided to speak out about white privilege and racism on my blog.

Rest assured that this will not dominate my writing. That is for more knowledgeable, articulate writers than I.

But let me explain how I got here.

Several years ago, our family became involved with an abusive person who is black. In his manipulation of our family, many topics revolving around race and class were used as tools to bully and intimidate. We became ‘hyper-allergic’ to anything that reminded us of that difficult period in our lives.

My daughter is the one who walked us back from that hard place. She made us realize that the way these issues were used was hurtful, but the truth of them was valid. Not only valid, but devastating in their consequences for people of color.

I began to examine many of the things I say and believe that I felt made me a ‘liberal’, a non-racist person. I was dismayed to realize I was oblivious to what more than a third of the people in the United States experience every single day of their lives. (Numbers vary, but roughly only 62% of the U.S. population consists of non-Hispanic white people.) The daily life of people of color in our country is very, very different than anything I have ever experienced. The death of Trayvon Martin opened my eyes even more.

More recently, we’ve gotten to know our new neighbors, a naturalized American of Mexican ancestry and her white husband. I had no idea of the extent of hostilities experienced by Hispanics in California. I was totally ignorant of the police shooting/death of Andy Lopez. Soon after, the events in Ferguson, MO took place, and the grand jury decision was made. Days later, the results of the Eric Garner grand jury were announced.

As I educated myself about these incidents, more and more examples of similar tragedies arose. I felt overwhelmed. But I realized I could no longer turn away.

Normally, I would slowly return to my ‘normal life’, feeling sad but sidelined and powerless to change anything. But as I learned even more, something shifted.

It happened after I read a powerful post from a black blogger. (Deep apologies, I can’t find the appropriate link, but will find it later. I need to get this written NOW!) She noted that her white followers, white people, even her own white friends, were being remarkably silent on these issues, even on Facebook where a cute cat video can go viral in seconds. She checked around, and found this was the case for other bloggers of color, too. “Where are the white people??” she asked.

Oh. Uh…. Yeah. That would be me.

Why WAS I being silent? What was holding me back?? Believing that these events don’t affect me? That I have nothing useful to say? Was I worried about appropriating a people-of-color cultural narrative?

I realized it doesn’t matter.

Andy Lopez could have been my kid, a young man who loves his Airsoft games with his friends. Except that my kid does it in the woods of New Hampshire, on private property, whereas poorer kids of color play in parks. And poorer kids of color get shot on sight, whereas my kid is white and would probably NOT be shot.

Andy Lopez could have been my kid. But saying, “There but for the grace of God…” doesn’t do it for me anymore. Because Andy Lopez deserves grace, too.

What about simply standing up and saying, “I stand with you”….?
What about simply saying, “I believe this is unjust and intolerable”….?
What about simply saying, “We have to find a way to change this”….?

I found I could no longer tolerate remaining silent.

And I began to post on Facebook about it.

The first post created quite a stir!

Things I’ve been told lately when discussing Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Andy Lopez, Tamir Rice…..
“He wasn’t a good kid, he’d just stolen cigarettes from a store!”
Me: “Do we shoot to kill when teens shoplift?”
“He lived in an awful neighborhood!”
Me: “He didn’t choose to live there. Probably his parents didn’t, either.”
“Why do those parents let their kids play with real-looking guns??”
Me: “Have you WALKED through a WalMart lately?? And heck, I had a preschooler chew his organic peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich into a gun and pretend to shoot it!”
“Why don’t those parents teach their kids not to wave a play gun at a police officer?”
Me: “I’m sure they did. But the operative word here is…’kids’….”
“Andy Lopez was a big kid. He looked like an adult!”
Me: “He didn’t choose that, either. And even an adult shouldn’t be shot on sight for carrying a AirSoft gun.”
“He wore a hoodie! That’s a gang sign!”
Me: I don’t even know what to say

In my passion to be more involved, I alienated some people, good people. I incurred endless arguments from well-meaning people who explained to me why these victims don’t deserve my compassion. I became more frustrated as I saw people endlessly defending their own points of view, while not even really considering mine.

I say one thing to these people: I’m sorry I didn’t respect your journey.

I don’t want to respect their point of view–I try, but I’m not that evolved!–but I have to. “Let go, let God”, says a wiser friend than I. I get it. Everybody has their own journey to make. I’m at a different place in mine, but it’s not for me to say where you should be in yours.

Neither will I become silent. My art, why I make it, and why it seems to matter so much to other people, are all wrapped up in my journey. I cannot separate my art from my activism. That’s why it seemed so right to take my simple earnings from my very first open studio here, and walk around the corner to donate it all to the Center for Peace and Justice in Sonoma County.

So my manifesto which begins today, as an early “New Year’s Resolution”. Or a “New Life Resolution”, if you will. I will hold onto the other core issues I treasure–humane rescue of animals, the spirituality of art, hospice, homelessness.

But there will be a few additions:

I will share my views openly (and peacefully!) when and where I can about social justice for people of color.

I will continue to examine my own deeply rooted beliefs and assumptions that keep me from being engaged.

I will support accountability for those in power.

I will support those who write and work for these issues, with my respect and my pocketbook.

I will not hide behind rationalizing, and defensiveness, and silence.

Because only our silence stands in the way of real justice.

And here’s my manifesto for 9/11:

BIRTHDAY

Today is my birthday. A Google alert tells me that today is the anniversary of the day the Lascaux cave was discovered by four teenaged boys who followed their lost dog down a hole.
In all these years I’ve made artwork inspired by the Lascaux cave, I never knew this.

It makes this piece (which I wrote on 9/11, my 49th birthday) even more poignant to me….

AN ANCIENT STORY FOR MODERN TIMES

The events of September 11, 2001 were almost too horrible to contemplate. The world seemed filled with evidence of hate, destruction and despair. As I watched events unfold, I was aware of my own reactions of anger and hate for the people who could stoop this low, and overwhelming sympathy for those whose lives were so carelessly taken in these acts of violence.

I went to my studio later, lost in despair and fearful of the new world that awaited us. As I worked, I couldn’t help thinking, “What does it matter that I make these little horses? What relevance do they have in the light of this tragic event?” I kept working as I thought.

The Cave Paintings of Lascaux…

Soon, however, it dawned on me. When the Lascaux cave paintings were created, the Ice Age was ending. The climate was changing, the great glaciers were retreating. The grasslands disappeared, and with them, the huge herds of animals that followed them. These ancient people watched as their entire way of life changed and disappeared. Some archaeologists now think the cave paintings were created to call the animals back.

Even as we stand, fearful and afraid at the dawn of a new age, so did they stand and watch as their world changed around them. They were afraid and perhaps filled with despair. But they went into the dark cave and created the most profoundly beautiful and evocative art the world has ever seen. Poignant in its message (though we cannot read it), we still feel its power 17,000 years later.

The Dawn of a New Morning…

We, too, stand at the dawn of a new morning. We, too, are afraid and despairing about what those changes will mean to us, as a nation and as individuals. We have choices to make about how we will meet those changes.

Life is not about what happens to us, but how we get through what happens to us. The kind of person we want to be determines the kind of choices we make.

We can choose how we face life.

The Choices We Make…

As an artist, I choose to affirm the creative force of the universe. In my own small way, I must stand on the side of creativity—to grow, to understand, to move forward in a constructive way, and to act in whatever way I can to honor this force. I can do this globally, by contributing to causes that seek to alleviate the conditions that bring acts of horror like this to the world. I can do this locally, by holding my family and loved ones close, and honoring the creative spirit of all other people. And I can do this with my hands, by creating my little horse, which symbolizes the power that comes from our choices, our actions, even in the face of despair.

Luann Udell