Making A Difference

Yesterday I saw an article in The New York Times (Facing Their Scars, and Finding Beauty) about a portrait painter who has done a series of strikingly beautiful pictures of burn victims. Andy Newman wrote:

“The painter, Doug Auld, 52, says that if people have a chance to gaze without voyeuristic guilt at the disfigured, they may be more likely to accept them as fellow human beings, rather than as grotesques to be gawked at or turned away from.”

Admittedly, as Newman points out, the painter is making a living and even gaining some notoriety for this project, but he is also making a difference, not only in the lives of his eleven adolescent and young adult subjects (one of the ten portraits is of two sisters), but potentially in the lives of everyone who views these portraits.

Auld has a website featuring this State of Grace project; here’s an excerpt from his mission statement:

I cannot think of a more difficult time to endure such a tragedy then to be facially burned as a teenager. A time when most normal teens are coming into forming friendships, sexual awareness, and dating. A time when ones self- perception is so fragile. An adolescent scarred by burns would be forced to grow up fast and develop a sense of who they really are at their core.

…I hope to show the inner beauty and courage of these young people. They have endured a hardship that has forced them into a place most of us know nothing about. I want an audience to see this and confront the traditional issues of acceptance and rejection due to surface deformity.

…I am not interested in shock. I am interested in reality and confrontation. These works confront the viewer with our fear and our repulsion of the unknown while simultaneously displaying a unique disarming beauty.

In his project history Auld concludes:

“Science has determined that what we call ‘beauty,’ is determined by angles, measurements and symmetry of features. However, non physical ‘human’ traits such as personality, inner strength, confidence, and character can redefine our perception of who we find to be beautiful.”

After I won my war with cancer ten years ago I thought a lot about doing work that could make a difference. My past careers as a publicist and computer trade book author seemed shallow and unrewarding, albeit lucrative. Post cancer, I did do a few projects for Microsoft Press to pay off the medical bills and keep up with my overhead, but I was still searching, still berating myself for not volunteering at a children’s hospital. When I returned to California I taught computer science, “Education is a valuable service,” I told myself. I taught one year at a local community college and a second year at a state university, but I was greatly disillusioned by the students’ complete lack of interest. It seemed that the students were just marking time, and that reconfirmed my cynical assessment that college is wasted on the young.

During this time I completed the book I had started many years before (my husband’s biography) but I was acutely aware that I had never studied the craft of writing. I had read many books on craft, but I knew enough to know that there was much more to learn. So I went back to school myself, to get another master’s degree in creative nonfiction. During my two years in that program at Goucher College I wrote a book that has yet to find a home with a publisher.

Roots and Wings is an intimate portrait of a group of teachers who trip over their own passions and predilections for the betterment of their students and education as a whole. Every year, these teachers work with their students at a California private school to produce the sixth grade project, always an original and often abstract creation melding music, dance, theatre, art, and technology to express a theme relating to core academic subjects such as social studies, language arts, or science. It is the culminating event prior to graduation. Cathleen, the arts coordinator, is on a mission to integrate the arts with core academic subjects. Not all of the team is onboard, and challenges range from pedagogical differences and personal insecurities, to the amorphous nature of the creative process and a lack of objective measures of accountability and success. Even in a private school the challenges are huge.

Being a proponent of the arts, and one who bemoans the lack of arts education our schools, I thought that this story about a school that integrates arts education with basic core curriculum could make a difference. Naive, perhaps. I am still looking for stories that can make a difference, and hopefully stories that can also sell. The Luther Henderson biography, currently in progress, means a lot to me personally, and I do believe his contributions to music and the stage should be noted and preserved. Interviews have made it clear to me that Luther made a difference in the lives of those he touched, and that is perhaps all that any of us can hope for — to set a good example and be helpful to those we encounter. Meanwhile, still looking for that story that will make A Big Difference with a capital D, I applaud (with a touch of envy) those like painter Doug Auld, and even TV personality Ty Pennington of Extreme Makeover, who have found a way through art and entertainment to make a living while making such a powerful difference in people’s lives.