Monday, October 22, 2012

What prehistoric art tells us about the evolution of the human brain.

Everyone answers the question “What makes humans human?” in her own way, but if you were ever a liberal arts student, you might have to resist the urge to roll your eyes and reply, “The humanities.” Maybe you’d get more specific, quoting the critic Haldane McFall: "That man who is without the arts is little above the beasts of the field."
OK, so you’d be pretty pretentious, but would you be wrong? Not really. Paleontologists tend to link the development of modern human cognition to the rise of our ability to express ourselves as artists and historians through cave painting, sculptures, and other prehistoric art. Representing the world in symbols may have heralded the beginnings of language. Creating paint from charcoal, iron-rich ochre, crumbled animal bones, and urine meant understanding how materials could combine to form substances with new properties. Storing the paint—perhaps in an abalone shell that would be discovered 100,000 years later in a cavern on the South African coast—required innovation and planning ahead.

Link to whole article on Slate.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


“Pledge.” When was the last time you heard that word? It’s an old word it seems, one you rarely hear any more. A “Pledge” was a freshman applicant to a fraternity or sorority when I was in college. Otherwise, the only other times I heard the word were was in the phrase, “Pledge of Allegiance” or when the housekeeper wanted me to get some (Pledge) furniture polish.

The word has a long history and diverse applications, but most of us understand it to mean “a promise to do, or not to do something.” When someone says to you, for example, ”I promise to take the garbage out in the morning,” that is a pledge. Pledges are a big part of addiction recovery programs

Simple pledges between friends function as informal oral contracts. In the loan, mortgage bail and pawn industries, written commitments guaranteeing repayment and itemizing collateral are formal legal pledges of repayment and security.  But perhaps the most pervasive use of a pledge in our society is the oral vow made at weddings.

The most important element of wedding and addiction recovery pledges are the witnesses. We recognize the challenges involved with the nature of their pledges can be significant, so the public nature of these pledges—presence of witnesses—is strategic. A wedding unites two families that want the marriage to last; marital longevity is good for society and the children of the couple. Consequently, our society has placed witnessed oral vows at the heart of the marriage believing the witnesses and pledges will serve the pledgers well during difficult times.

In addiction recovery communities, the same thing happens. Participants are required to verbalize their commitment to sobriety in order to engage the ongoing support of their peers. Both these applications recognize the power of witnessed public declaration; witnesses provide us with strength and external discipline. I have found, therefore, that making pledges can be a highly effective tool in my professional tool chest.

I made my first pledge to you, Opus readers. You may have missed it, but I wrote a column for this newsletter about five-and-a-half years ago in which I said I was writing a book about professional development for visual artists. When Opus heard about my plan, they ordered a thousand books and suddenly I not only had discipline, I also had a deadline.That book led to a nice modest teaching offer from Emily Carr University, a second book, an exhausting number of invitations to lead workshops and present lectures and a new career. I couldn’t be happier and the experience gave me an idea.

I have long been involved with a charity that provides subsidized housing to veterans of the performing arts industry. We are a bunch of former theatre professionals operating as a charity and like all charities we must constantly fundraise in order to offer the housing subsidies we do. So I started thinking about how I could use a pledge as a fundraiser.

That led, in 2011, to me writing to most of my friends asking them to pledge a sum per kilometer as sponsors of a 1,200 kilometer walk I was planning (the distance from Vancouver to San Francisco). Their pledges would all go to my charity—Performing Arts Lodge Vancouver (PAL Vancouver; My friends pledged and paid $18,600 and so, when my legs were swollen and sometimes bleeding and I wanted to quit, I kept walking because of the self-imposed pressure of my pledge and my witnesses.

With that project completed, I set a new goal. I worked on it, refined it, abandoned it, came back to it and then I started talking to my closest friends about it to see what they would say. It grew and it changed, and so I have made another pledge to friends that will benefit PAL Vancouver. I pledged to attempt the hardest thing I have ever tired to do (and the last thing on my “bucket list”). It will push me harder than my walk but if it works, I will live the rest of my life with a legacy of tremendous pride and fulfillment. (And I will have raised over $100,000 for PAL Vancouver with my various efforts.)

I am not going to tell you what my new pledge is about—yet. I’ll do that in 2013. I have told you about my pledges to illustrate how effective making public pledges has become for my creative practice. Now, I have all my students at Emily Carr make a career-relevant pledge as one of their assignments. Besides discipline, public pledging has brought energy, ideas, collaborators and other forms of help to my practice.

The last thing I must say about my new career development tool is about pacing. Since adopting this fabulous new way of making pledges, I only do it once every two years. To do it more often would ruin the novelty of them; my pledges have to be unique, compelling and motivational to my witnesses and that can only happen with lots of time in between.  

Try it. You’ll like it. It works!

Vancouver Panel Discussion