Making a Difference… or Not

There comes  a time, and it comes with increasing frequency, to reflect on the purpose of my work. According to Will Durant’s definition, We are what we repeatedly do. (Will Durant 1885-1981) I’m  a storyteller, a writer and a musician and if called for, I can elaborate on the genre, medium and style of my practice. However, the diversity and context  of my work has changed over the years and I find myself opting for a more general and inclusive term to describe my work – artist.

I am an artist. I am no more special than any other human being, and my work is no more important than anyone else’s, or less for that matter. Obviously if your house is burning down you want to have a firefighter on hand, not a storyteller, and if you have a brain tumour you want a neurosurgeon not a ukulele player.

Generally speaking, artists don’t ‘save’ lives, so we don’t fall into the ‘heroic’ category of workers. However many of us in the arts education and health and well-being field believe our work can improve the lives of others, and this is at the heart of what we do. We want to make a difference.

One of the first things many artists are told when working with marginalised people or undertaking community development or health education projects that address ‘big’ issues in communities or sections of them, is ‘don’t think you can make a difference,’ or words to that effect. We are reminded that we are ‘not the first to try and make changes here,’ and that we ‘shouldn’t expect too much.’ Health workers and educators may also be greeted with similar sentiments. Rest assured I have spent many hours reflecting on the impact of my work and whether I and other community artists make a difference.

Evaluating the work of artists in communities is problematic because evidence-based programmes and projects often expect the artist to also be the researcher. The fashion of having everyone do everything does not lead to excellence. It’s not the democratisation of skills (unless people want to learn them).  That, a reliance on quantitative rather than qualitative methodology, (numbers versus stories)  and a lack of sustainable funding has meant that many arts programmes are not ongoing or connected to each other.

So why do I continue to be an artist and not a (substitute what you like)? I have listed a few examples of why I believe my work makes a difference. It may not make a difference to a lot of people but to make a difference in one person’s life is enough for me.

The two year Storytelling for Literacy and Connectedness Programme had many outcomes, from picking up on children’s hearing problems to strengthening their relationships with their carers. However one outcome stood out for me.  A young mother told me she read a book. Seeing the joy her children experienced from being read to and told stories in the storytimes, we brought to the young mothers group, inspired her to want that for herself. She hadn’t read a book since being at school, and then she only read the prescribed texts because she had to. Now she chose to read a book for her own pleasure. Modelling storytelling and story reading is empowering and now she was modelling to her children.

Over my three decades of storytelling I have twice considered the impact of storytelling on people who found it difficult to communicate their responses. In the first instance I would visit a group of people with Alzheimer’s disease and conduct reminiscence sessions, telling stories set in Australia during the 1930’s and 40’s. A worker told me not to worry because half my group went to sleep. She reassured me that  the stories relaxed them and made them content. One woman was often in an anxious state and picking at her clothes, when the sessions began but by the end was showing much calmer behaviour. Another of the ‘awake’ participants told the worker that at the end of a session she felt very happy. She didn’t know why she was happy, she just was. I learnt from this, the power of being in the moment and that the emotions experienced listening to stories are more important than the stories themselves.

At the Support Unit at my local primary school I spent a number of years playing music and storytelling with children who had disabilities, some with severe and life threatening illnesses. While some children were active participants, others, because of their illnesses could listen but it was difficult for me to gauge their responses. Working closely with the teachers and aides helped me to interpret individual responses and interact accordingly.  A child who I mistakenly thought was happy because she was was smiling was in fact, fitting. As I got to know the children over the years and in consultation with the aids, I became familiar enough with their verbalisations and movements to be able to understand when they were engaged in the storytelling. They taught me about being in the present, spontaneity and communication, and I will be forever grateful for their teaching.

As an artist I have learnt the following and much more:

I am not an engineer who can build a bridge across treacherous terrain that will shorten the distance and make it safer for children to walk to school, but I can build a bridge of desire for knowledge, where a child can learn from and care for others.

I am not a surgeon who can restore a limb, remove a cancer or heal a broken body, but I can facilitate the telling of a story to demand justice, heal pain and ease sufffering.

I am not a farmer who grows food to nourish family, friends and community, but I can plant seeds into the minds of young people so that they will grow and mature into productive, resilient and beneficial human beings.

Artists Can Make a Difference

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Photo by Roman W Schatz

The Story of Philosophy: the Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers by Will Durant,(1924) New York: Simon & Schuster

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At the age of 57 she realised all she wanted was a living wage

How do you survive? Not by selling crocheted hats at markets that’s for sure! I admire any artisan who can make a living as a market seller, but most I’ve spoken with supplement their income from markets through selling online and they usually have another ‘proper’ job or income support. For the first time in my life I have no income from any source but my music and storytelling. I am too young for the pension and too old to be on the checkout at the reject shop. I am not going to centrelink to be taught how to write a job resume and then spend my precious time applying for inapproriate positions in marketing and sales. So before anyone takes it upon themselves to see me gainfully employed there are a few points to consider. I am a feminist, a socialist, and a humanitarian. I have a strong sense of ethics, will speak out against injustice and advocate for the disempowered. Too late to be a candidate for the United Nations new Secretary General, but even that position is not up my alley because I’m a storyteller and musician. These are the mediums I work in.

How about volunteer work? Often seen as a way into paid work I believe all artists volunteer in their communities, or all the artists I know do, to varying degrees. For the past sixteen years I presented weekly storytime sessions to the kids at my local school, the last ten years working with children with learning difficulties through to children with severe diabilities in the school’s support unit. This was my heart work, because the children in the support unit taught me how to be a better human being, and I am eternally grateful to them for the privilege of sharing songs and stories with them. However having an income also meant that I could commit to voluntary work. As to ways into paid work, there was never any interest expressed by the leadership in the school to have me conduct storyarts programmes or be an artist in residence. I suspect an attitude typical of many schools in Australia.

So maybe you just aren’t good enough? I have worked in some of the world’s elete international schools and given papers and workshops at international teaching and librarian conferences. I travel to urban and rural areas in Australia to provide professional development training in oral literature and storytelling to early childhood educators. I still do and tomorrow I may receive a reply from one of the hundreds of organisations I email each month saying ‘we want you’ for whatever project/professional development/concert/programme they are organising. Then again, I may not. Much is dependent on funding and getting to the right person. My degree is in performing arts, not librarianship or teaching so those two traditional employers of women are not a haven for me.

So what is the solution? A living wage for every person, regardless of what they do. I hear the haters harking back to that old eighties term of abuse, ‘dole bludger.’  What about the capitalists who make money out of money? No one ever calls them investment bludgers and demand they pay tax! (Actually some of us do but they are more likely to be revered as heroes or larrikins and put on congratulatory rich lists than be made accountable as white collar criminals).

Still, having a living wage is a human right. A more equitable society is not only more just and compassionate , it is more productive. It means that my friends in their 50’s and 60’s who are not working full-time can continue to look after their grandchildren, make art and carry out the tasks associated with their role as community  elders.

Pictured is Artist Joy Serwylo and granddaughter

The Useless Tree


I look at my mandolin and I think about my role as a lifesaver.  Drowning in a river? Quick, grab my mandolin and I’ll pull you out. Maybe not. And the roar went up,’ Its the storyteller, the city is saved!’ These are unlikely scenarios, but do beg the question of the role of artists, musicians and writers to ‘save the world.’ I do lump us all together because there is a crossover in both our working mediums and identity. As a storyteller I identify as all three. And I’m sure you couldn’t find three more useless groups if you looked the world over (lets assume jugglers, dancers, actors and poets are in the mix). We are not builders, engineers, manufacturers, agriculturalists, doctors, scientists, cleaners…in short, useful people. Plumbers are needed, painters are not, unless they paint buildings and bridges. Maths, English and Science are mandatory school subjects, whereas art, dance, drama and music are not. You may well hear ‘we’re all very proud of him; he’s a surgeon/chemist/architect, but how often do you hear ‘we’re all very proud of him, he’s a poet? 

While I am in agreement with the sentiment of the US painter Robert Henri (1865 – 1929) who said that he was interested in art as a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living, the reality is that being a storyteller is how I make my living. I know I am not going to invent a life saving medicine or help humanity in any great way. No-one is ever going to say ‘We’ve got an emergency. Is there a storyteller in the house?’ Some may consider artists indulgent and art a luxury, but I believe art serves a purpose.  A play may act as a bridge between cultures, a poem may inspire hope, a song may revive a spirit, a painting document history, a sculpture unite a community and a story may offer a means of understanding the world. The intrinsic value of art is stated succinctly by Albert Camus (1913 -1960) in his declaration, ‘There is not a single true work of art that has not in the end added to the inner freedom of each person who has known and loved it.’ 

In that light I’d like to share my tale, extrapolated from the story, The Useless Tree by the fourth century BCE Chinese Philosopher Chuang Tzu, now known as  Zhuangzi. 

 

There was once an old man who took his grandson to the top of a hill, where stood a solitary tree. Its trunk was knotted and gnarled, its branches twisted and bent. The boy turned to his grandfather and asked why he had brought him to this tree. 
The old man smiled and gestured to the barren land around them.
“Once the earth here was covered with tall trunked, straight limbed trees, but the woodcutters came and cut them all down for their timber.”
“But why didn’t they take this one?” asked the boy.
“Because it is of no use to them,” answered the Grandfather.
And the two sat down in the shade of the useless tree and shared stories. 

 

Photo: The Useless Tree by Roman W. Schatz

 

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