Thursday, March 6, 2014

How Burning Man Inspired My Run Across America for Veterans

I've spent the majority of my life trying to discover what good art is

Thousands and thousands of hours have been spent behind canvasses, scrutinizing the subtle differences between thickness of lines and shades of white. I worked on canvasses so gigantic that they had to be rotated, so I could reach the top edges and torment them with tiny, anxious brushstrokes. 

My brushes were my slaves. 

At times, I came so close to the surface of the canvas that my breath heated it with the frustration and anxiety that comes from wanting desperately for something, anything, to be perfect. 

There has always been constant, grueling arm-wrestling match within me. On one side of the side, beauty sits; on the other side, violence. They are always trying to win the match through seduction, but will never overwhelm the other with the full force of their power. They are afraid of what the world would look like without their adversary, and afraid of what they might become because of it. Art is a balancing act between beauty and violence, and successfully balancing them with grace is about as probable as lightning striking.It's that hard.

Kafka said, 
“A painting is an  
axe to break the 
ice within us”.

At some paint, I admitted defeat. I went to a dark place. I stopped wanting to create. I thought about it too much. I became so afraid of making a bad painting, that I began to fear painting. I became apathetic.

I went to Burning Man for the first time in 2012. For the first time ever, the ice within me began to crack. 

Burning Man gets just about as close as you can imagine to perfectly tight-roping walking over a gulf that has violence on one side and beauty on the other. In the blistering heat of the desert, spontaneous whiteouts leave you blind and huddling in blustery white mushroom clouds, wondering, "What if this never stops?" 

But it does. 

As the dust settles, what you see will take your breath away. Bronzed people, dazzling the scorching surface of the earth. The afternoon light catches on their bicycles and headdresses and radiant smiles, like the sun reflecting off ripples in the ocean. Powerful and mysterious structures rise up out of the earth, and music erupts from the perimeter of the city, rumbling inwards under the wheels of art cars and sunburnt feet.

The canvas of this painting is the violence of the playa, the destructive forces of nature. The vulnerability you feel under the shocking yellow sun is palpable. The beauty is the chaotic wonderment of forty thousand people believing that they can make it a masterpiece, if only for one week. 

Burning Man reawakened my hope in my fellow man. I saw that I wasn't alone. I saw that community, generosity, and spontaneous acts of kindness and love are something that can be achieved. I saw that art could somehow be something that is constantly evolving into something more and more complicated and beautiful every day. Burning man transformed me and eliminated my fear of trying new mediums. I was no longer afraid of making a bad painting. 

After Burning Man, I decided to try my hand at performance art. 

This time my art is not about fabricating a beautiful object, but about the total and utter transformation of myself as a person, inside and out, and the transformation of my environment as well. I've always wanted to live up to my human potential, but I never really gave it my all. I've decided to try.

I realized immediately that this would involve pushing myself to my limitations-- spiritually, physically, mentally, and emotionally. It would involve changing both myself and the world around me. To do this, I would have to make the gesture gargantuan.

So, I'm running across America.  I leave in two weeks.

Using my body as the canvas, I will run 40 miles a day, 6 days a week for 100 days. I was not an athlete to begin with, but I am now. For the last year, I have trained hard and worked to become a good runner, in the same way that I learned how to draw someone's portrait from life by training my eye and my hand to move in harmony. 
I will run through the sharpest mountains and the driest deserts, exposing myself to the brutal elements of nature. Herein lies the violence on this art. Simultaneously, I must allow myself to be hypnotized by the majesty and creative power that wells up beneath America's soil. But the most beautiful and violent part of America, the part that overwhelms me with her raw, unbridled power, is her people. We are a force to be reckoned with, but our violent, hard edges are softened by our need to be good, to connect with each other, and to express ourselves.  

With this act I am saying that it is so important for us to change as a society and as a culture--that I am willing to push myself far beyond my limitations in order to do it. This is a demonstration in effort and in embracing the tenacity and passion of the American spirit.

I still needed to change my environment, to make the world a better place, to break the ice within others.

I knew I had to run for a cause; to raise awareness for something. I was extremely careful when choosing my cause. I wanted to run for kindness, empathy, community, compassion…

But, I knew that telling everyone to be nice to each other wouldn't push me beyond my limitations. I felt that the most important thing for me to do was to support veterans, especially because I found myself lacking  in understanding towards them. 

I started reaching out to veterans in my community, and interviewing them on film with visionary photographer and videographer Robot Mofield. 
I found out that they had a lot to teach me. Veterans get to experience true brotherhood and community, and for more than one week per year. They've lived in an environment and culture where value is based on what you are able to contribute to your community, rather than money and competition. Veterans have a lot to teach civilians about discipline, brotherhood, bravery, and selflessness. More than that, veterans have made huge sacrifices and continue to make them long after they come home. We have to take care of each other. It is crucial to our survival.

To be the change that we want to see in the world, we must attack the apathy and darkness within ourselves before we can make enough room for other things to thrive. My goal is to show that it is possible to bring together seemingly opposite groups of people, to work towards community and change, towards peace and compassion, regardless of our political ideologies. Because in the end, we are all human.

The veterans I interview tell me that they do not think that this kind of community is possible outside of combat. They tell me that it is only possible to form bonds of brotherhood under the threat of a common enemy.

This is now a truth that I hold to be self evident: Mankind's only true enemy is apathy. When we stop caring about our own well-being, the well-being of other humans, or the well-being of the planet, it prolongs suffering and intensifies disconnection from the people and things around us.

 I want to show this country the kind of community and support that is possible if we reach outside of conventional institutions. I am challenging the country to be all-inclusive in their love for humanity by embracing those who were willing to give all they had so that they might live a purposeful life, and oftentimes suffer because of it--our veterans. I want to activate in those who follow my journey the same desire for transformation and purpose, for hope, and for compassion.

I want to show America how it is possibly to create community on the spot, to indulge daily in impulsive and combustive generosity. This is my performance art, and maybe this is what will finally break the ice. 

Please visit and make a donation if you can. We still need money for groceries/gas/medical equipment. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

22 Veterans Commit Suicide Every Day: Where are they?

I'm sure that you've heard the statistic that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. You can find thousands of articles on-line talking about it.

I've been working on an art project that coincides with my run that brings this to statistic to light. I'm glad that this information has been brought to our attention, but I don't know what we are supposed to do with it.

When we hear this statistic over and over in the news, we become desensitized to the information. We forget the enormity of every single one of those losses, forget that every single one of these men and women were just like us-- human beings. They had dreams, families, knowledge, and wisdom that they will now never have the chance to impart to us.

My performance art project was to paint 22 portraits of 22 veterans who have taken their own lives on 22 rocks and carry them in a backpack with me while I run across the United States. I would start with one rock in CA, adding one every five days, until I ended up with 22 in New York. This was to say that I am willing to carry the burden of this loss. I am willing to feel the weight of this problem myself, because I believe it is something that we all should be feeling. Gandhi said that we must be the change that we want to see in the world.

I truly believe that in our current society and culture, it is not until we personally feel the full weight of problems like these (either through experience or empathy) that we find the impetus to change.

However, I've run into a problem.

I can't find any information on veterans who have committed suicide. If twenty-two veterans are dying every day, then why don't we hear about who they are?

Daniel Somers: one of the only veterans whose story
was made available to the public when his parents
published his suicide note. 
After months of searching for names, and pictures, and stories, and coming up with next to nothing,  I've come to the realization that suicide is one of those life events that deeply cuts everyone who is close to the victim. Suicide leaves anger, confusion, blame, sadness, regret, and guilt in its wake more than any other cause of death.  I try to empathize with those who have lost the ones that they love to suicide, and it's hard. It's never happened to me. But I can imagine that it would be devastating. And I suppose that it is not really something that I would enjoy talking about, especially with a reporter or a writer.

But...100,000 veterans have committed suicide since September 11, 2001. Shouldn't we be talking more about it?

I might be making an assumption, but this seems like an indicator of a much bigger problem. If we don't study it, how will we ever improve? How will we ever be able to change? How is it that the most dangerous part of the military now is coming home? What does this say about our country and our culture?

How am I supposed to honor 22 fallen veterans on my run when I cannot even find out who they are?