Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Brown angel

Now that I have both electricity AND internet access, I'm posting this story from last Christmastime.

“Where did you get this?” I asked in astonishment. I held the small brown felt angel in both hands, my heart pounding. The label read “Artist Proof Studio, South Africa,” an enormous distance in time and space from my temporary seaside home in the Marshall Islands.

“At the craft fair on Kwajalein,” replied my Marshallese friend, puzzled at my reaction to the Christmas ornament she had given me.

I became acquainted with Artist Proof Studio in 2003 through the cofounder, Kim Berman, who came from South Africa to Brandeis for an Ethics Center institute on peacebuilding through the arts. Other artists at the Brandeis institute included Playback Theater actors from New Zealand, employing the Playback method of improv theater, in which audience members tell stories from their lives and actors perform them on the spot. Kim took the storyteller’s chair in one of the institute sessions and, summoning enormous courage, spoke in measured tones through raw grief. She told of losing her partner and her lifework when the Artist Proof Studio burned down with her partner inside, just three weeks before. As the actors re-enacted her story, I could almost smell the charred flesh, the burning linocuts, the melting metal printmaking press.

A few years later, one of the undergraduate Ethics Center Student Fellows was an intern with the School of Playback Theater in New York. I attended the final performance, this time taking the storyteller’s chair myself. I told of my Playback experience at Brandeis, when I sat in the audience as actors told Kim’s story. Then I watched my student Will take the part of Kim as he acted out my story: Playback actors re-enacting a story about Playback.

Over time, four other Student Fellows went to live with Kim in South Africa, most as interns in the rebuilt Artist Proof Studio, one working with AIDS orphans in the Art Therapy Centre.

I thought I left all that behind in 2009 when I took a yearlong leave of absence from Brandeis and traveled to the Marshall Islands to teach English. But when I sat in the equatorial December heat and unwrapped the Christmas present from my Marshallese friend, I found a xeroxed typed card inside a plastic sleeve: “Artist Proof Studio products are sewn and embroidered by groups of women in communities directly affected by HIV/AIDS. Your purchase supports these women in their struggle against HIV/AIDS.” Behind it was a stuffed felt angel, orange beads shimmering on its wings.

Artist Proof Studio, South Africa.
Brandeis University, Massachusetts.
School of Playback Theater, New York.
Kwajalein Atoll High School, Marshall Islands.

All connected through a brown angel.

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