Cambrian: Arts & Events

Art’s role during crisis isn’t just colorful, it’s cathartic

Lucien Downes, an artist friend of the columnist’s living in the Virgin Islands, adds vibrant “island life” art to an outdoor wall that was torn apart by Irma’s winds.
Lucien Downes, an artist friend of the columnist’s living in the Virgin Islands, adds vibrant “island life” art to an outdoor wall that was torn apart by Irma’s winds.

I am an artist and I’ve been working…

My mother gave me an article from National Geographic about the recent extreme solar flares that scientists have speculated are causing more than extreme weather changes. The article suggests that this cosmic episode may have an effect on temperament, bio-clocks and health. It goes so far to say that certain people may become more forgetful, despondent, or prone to hair-trigger reactions during this solar effect.

Of course I assumed that my mother was using this article from a reputable source as a thinly veiled justification for any behavioral changes that she might exhibit and get in trouble over. She’s “mature,” but she is still one feisty gal. After a quick discussion about how handy it would be to blame everything on a condition known as “solar flare up,” it was mutually agreed that she is only exhibiting the same symptoms of fatigue we are share, and that weather patterns have mostly unpredictable origins and effects.

As if political fatigue hasn’t been enough to exhaust us all, we are now in the throes of hurricane season with all the devastation that can bring. Our collective psyches have been assaulted by flying rhetorical debris for months, and now we find ourselves pummeled by the physical storms that beg for humanitarian consensus. It’s an inside-out whiplash that is producing some very unexpected effects in the art world and well as the lives of so-called “normal” people (read: nonartists).

I received a heartwarming photo of an artist friend living and working in the Virgin Islands who was spared the brunt of Hurricane Irma’s destructive path. He was busy adding vibrant “island life” art to an outdoor wall that was torn apart by the high winds, leaving an artistic message of hope and solidarity. A couple visiting Cambria from Texas who were also spared damage to their home made a purchase of art for their friends living near Houston who lost everything of value in their home. These gestures of personal support and love are meaningful as we grapple with “survivors guilt” and inclusive ways to set aside our political differences.

Times of great distress throughout history have produced some of our greatest artworks and demonstrations of valor. Consider the article from the L.A. Times by Julia Keller, a cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune published on Nov. 27, 2008 titled, “The Worst of Times Can Make For the Best of Arts.” In quoting William Solomon, author of “Literature, Amusement, and Technology in the Great Depression,” she notes that dramatic upheaval of life opened up new areas of art previously subjugated. While there are myriad examples of art treasures born of the WPA (Works Progress Administration), artists who struggled continued to express themselves and significantly transform the world’s conception of art, often with the desire to bolster community spirit and encourage civic activity.

“One of the most remarkable aspects of this period was the impulse to reconsider the social functions of art,” Solomon declares. Such an impulse reflected a desire “to help represent or disclose the conditions of existence endured by Americans across the social or economic spectrum. Movies and books and music and photography and painting can contribute to the forging of collective bonds, and in the process maybe help alleviate suffering.”

Artistic expression is often the result of tumultuous times and can give voice to the unspeakable or to those who have an inability to take direct remediating actions or offer financial aid. By way of example, the infusion of whimsy in the latest abstract paintings by Susan Jenkins takes us in a direction opposite of the oppressive fatigue or social malaise that has overtaken our general community. Her works tell the viewer that we are not merely impotent observers; we are called to celebrate our cultural, economic, political differences as well as harmonies. Rather than seeing the light tones and free forms as decorative, consider seeing beyond those features into a path for redemption, empathy, hope and connection. Watch for an upcoming solo show of her works next month.

Two local exhibits this month feature political and social commentary interpreted in sculpture and photography, and this is not coincidence of timing. It is times such as this that we respond in a visceral way to circumstances beyond our control in an effort to find joy, hope and solidarity.

Patrick Dennis’ column appears the second Thursday of each month and is special to The Cambrian. Find him online at

Ongoing and upcoming

“Prefix 927” — Cambria’s nontraditional art show emphasizes out-of-the-box thinking, humor and funky themes. Through Sept. 24, Cambria Center for the Arts, 1350 Main St., Cambria. 805-927-8190.

“All the Flowers Are For Me” — The sculptural works of Anila Agha explore “the entwined political relationships between gender, culture, religion, labor and social codes.” Through Sept. 22, The Harold J. Miossi Art Gallery, Cuesta College.

“Social Justice” — The controversial photography of Sam Peck is featured in this exhibit asking artists to express their own concepts of human rights, inequality and betrayal. Sept. 21-Oct. 30, Art Center Morro Bay, 835 Main St., Morro Bay. 805-772-2504.