In other chapters, Susan also worked with Judy Chicago as a midwife for the iconic feminist art installation The Dinner Party, was a principal driver of the historic Art in other Places Conference, and is an accomplished textile artist. She has, I think one of the best minds, and hearts I know for translating human creativity to needs of the human community. In our conversation, we talk about how that complex alchemy works, and doesn’t, getting the respect of people who really distrust you, and what happens when the lights go off in a high-security prison classroom.
This is Change the Story / Change the World, A Chronicle of Art and Community Transformation, my name is Bill Cleveland.
BC: You got it to work.Susan Hill: [:
BC: [00:01:32] Well, at least you have something to eat.SH: [:
BC: [00:01:37] So how you be?SH: [:
BC: So, my reason for doing this is to give you an opportunity to go into your Rolodex of available stories. But before I start one thing, I would ask is how do you describe that as a way of working in the world?
SH: First of all, I'm going to say, thank you, bill Cleveland. And I really want to acknowledge that you have been a fellow traveler in so many ways. And I'm so grateful for all of that.
But the question of “How do I describe the work?” is really lovely. And when I thought about it, I thought, my first real job in the world was; One, I was a summer waitress all night from when I graduated from high school and all through college. And after college, when I moved to New York, my first jobs were: I was the receptionist, because I couldn't type, to the president of the Ford Foundation, and in the holidays, in my spare time, I sold toys at FAO Schwartz. So, the linchpin of me working in the world is good service and fun and interesting people.BC: [:
SH: [00:03:10] And there were interesting people coming to the Ford Foundation for money, with good ideas. And there were wonderful people coming into FAO Schwartz to buy toys. I consider myself an artist, but I'm self-taught, didn't go to art school--- didn't have those goals. So, I see myself more as a facilitator for good service. I want to work collaboratively, and for the purpose of social change, whether it's small or large, and I really am committed to collaboration. I'm committed to working in council circles so that everyone has an equitable voice, and I'm committed to nonviolence.BC: [:
SH: [00:03:48] it's a Rolodex.BC: [:
SH: [00:04:23] Yes. Well, first of all, I hate housework. But I, I believe implicitly that everybody is creative. And I believe that creativity is not from our brain, it's not part of the logic that we have, that as Jung says, it's actually from the heart, that the soul is located in the heart. And that creativity is a deep intelligence that we all have that manifests differently.
Creativity is very much like cooking. there are certain ways that it demands, that given the ingredients, it has to be done. You can't rush it. You can't overcook it. Yes, I really love walking into places and, creating the environment. I think it's equally important, even if you're borrowing a classroom from the history teacher in the California youth authority prison system, the way that you, what we used to call, create the rules of the room, is as important and has to work in the service of creativity. And then you go about the business of being creative.BC: [:
SH: [00:05:41] Everybody there has it.BC: [:
SH: [00:05:45] I grew up in very small towns in Massachusetts, south of Boston, quite close to Plymouth. And my grandmother was the oldest of 12 children, six boys, six girls, and they all. lived in that area. So, we had tons of relatives on Cape Cod. We had tons of relatives in Maine. So, we were continual, in these small, new England towns --- going fishing.BC: [:
SH: [00:06:17] that's an interesting question because I think actually one of the greatest artists in my family, was my grandmother, my little short, Scottish, Anna McDonald McNeilen, grandmother, who was, as I said, the oldest of 12 children. And she was taken out of school when she was probably 10 or 11 to stay home and help her mother. But I think I learned about beauty from her and I learned about making things grow. From her, I learned patience from her. She had an intrinsically artistic soul. We did have one artist in the family, my great aunt, Emily Josephine O'Hare, who was the granddaughter of a celestial navigator on clipper ships.BC: [:
SH: [00:07:03] And her name was Emily Josephine. Her sister's name was Susan. But Emily Josephine went to Pratt in New York and was an artist and she taught in a private school in Boston if she had shows, and she traveled and everyone thought she was, crazy. SoBC: [:
SH: [00:07:21] it wasn't a good thing to be an artist. But I think the other side of it is that people in my family, women and men alike could make things. And things got made or things got repaired and effortlessly, and that, was always wonderful to see. Yeah.BC: [:
SH: [00:08:37]] I think, as I thought about this, I do want to acknowledge that we, you and I we're so fortunate to have lived in a golden time when everything aligned and not only that, but it completely bore out.
SH: Ex-hippie philosophies, that the world is good, and everything will work out. But we were in Arts in Corrections in the earliest days of Arts in Corrections when there was a small number of prisons and the budget was adequate, and there were enlightened people in the community. And in the California legislature that supported that work that saw the benefit of that work. So, we were given a kind of support to do something on a large scale that was quite phenomenal.
Then my experience is that our experiences really deepened as we got to work with more artists. and I think in that system, we also knew that this could not possibly last. The California prison system is, I think, the largest paramilitary well-armed bureaucracies in the world.BC: [:
SH: [00:09:07] …dedicated to punishment. What the fuck would did they let us in there for? there was something really deeply prophetic and wonderful about the fact that we knew that it wouldn't last in its earliest incarnation, so that we really paid attention. And I think that what was, important was, as I said, learning to be bilingual, so that when we did work with the prison administrators, which we did, I think the partnership was so solid, but we had to speak the same language. We had to acknowledge the same goals.
So, when you, ask about my work and telling stories, I think part of it is to say that I personally went in and was an artist. That's how I started. I was invited by Susan Allen Loewenberg, bless her, of LA theater Works to go and do a large project in what was then the only women's prison. And out of that, I became the director at ArtsReach, which was the Southern California partner for Arts in Corrections. So, I would go in and be a resident artist.BC: [:
SH: [00:11:00] With a very, yeah very interesting cast of characters there. But I also was the director of ArtsReach, which meant that I was in collaboration with all of these institutions and funding sources and artists. We had usually about 150 artists that we could call on. It was usually 50 people under contract at any one time. We wanted the artist teams to look like the prison population, which was largely black and then brown, and then, white, and other. Which we did. We had to break a lot of people out of the comfort zone,
That kind of collaboration, I think, is something that I learned from. And it informed me for all of the work we did. Our work in prison was good, and we were invited. then to go and duplicate the program in the California Youth Authority, which was a separate prison system for kids ages 12 to 18. Although they could be a little older. We were specifically told that we had to create a theater program. And we did. And we had an ensemble of nine Los Angeles actors that were multilingual diversified, funny, irritating, troublesome, fabulous.
And they were trained, by some of the best which included Lori Meadoff, Dexter Locke from City Kids in New York, John Bergman and Geese Theater Company, , phenomenal, Rebecca Rice. and they were trained to work in teams and to work with incarcerated kids. And we did plays that they made up. And I think the prison system really thought when they asked for a theater program, I think they meant a talent show. And from there we also worked in continuation high schools in Los Angeles. Multi-generational. Community high schools that were also multi-lingual worked in in a, facility, it said over the door for abandoned and neglected girls. it's been, and I've worked in also, I did a program in a elder facility in Los Angeles.:[:
Also, we were very fortunate that, although the prison system was very racist and gang oriented, that we got mixed groups of people in the room so there would be people in the room who might be enemies in the yard, or certainly not talk to each other, but they became part of the ensemble once in the room.
And then also we never patronized anybody. we just worked to the highest standards we could. We just thought, “Come on, you want to do this good, don't you? Let's do this good.” Which meant in that place music was rehearsed, and there was genuine constructive criticism that everybody shared. And the language was non-violent language. We used given names. And so, when a guard or a staff person or an administrator would come into the room,
Very often they would come over. to me and say, “I've never heard them call each other anything except their gang name. And he just called him Daniel. He just said he was his friend. Do you know who those two guys are?” “Yeah. That's Daniel and Luis.” Or one guard came up to me and he, watched this kid and he said, ”I didn't know, he could talk. And you have him singing.”
And there was this play that we did, where there was one white kid in the play. And most of the rest of the kids were black. And we were working with some African drummers in it. And the white kid decided he was going to play the sax. “Okay.” And he was going play the fool and, “Okay.” So, he came out first in the play, like the narrator, the guide, and the kids in the audience began to laugh and he began to play his sax. And the more they laughed, the louder he got. He just stuck with it and he was good. And then they quieted down, and he said what he had to say. And then someone told me, cause’ we don't know these things. He said, “He is the grandson of the grand wizard of the clan in Oregon and his grandfather would kill him for being on that stage.”
So you touch I think one of the great things, see, it makes me cry, but one of the great things about creativity, especially with an incarcerated is that it's untouched. It's not, if you're fortunate, it's not broken. Although the first thing anybody will tell you is I can't draw.BC: [:
As the California system got bigger, it got more secure. There used to be small sleepy prisons that had 500, 600, 700 people in them. And then they began to build new prisons which held a t least a thousand, but more likely 7,000. And they were built in seven pods of a thousand people, each. And people were really housed in steel cages and they didn't get out for hours at a time, and was high, high security. So, they decided that they would try this with the worst boys in the juvenile system at Fred C Nellis, a school that was built in the 1930s. So, it was all this soft California architecture. And I think it was set on something like 83 acres. They built this high security cinderblock steel building and they, locked up the kids that they considered were the most violent in the state.
And there was something like 23, 24 of them. They never let them out at the same time. They said, you, know, if they came out or saw each other, they would fight. So they could come out and then they would get locked in a cage in the room, and get fed, or get talked to, or watch TV and go back. It was awful because we couldn't go there. It was high security,
But had been involved with a program at Nellis where we involved the boys in what we call letters to the world. And we did it in council circle that they very quickly took leadership of, and they began to ask questions of each other, and they began to then think about, where they might want to make amends or who they might want to talk to in the world. That would be important so that their stories could be heard, and they'd be folded back into the community. And we invited members of the community and their families to come as these kids sat in the circle and did this public presentation, which was very ceremonial and respectful was really wonderful.
And at the end of it, the superintendent came up to me and he said, Susan, “Do you think you could do a program like that over on the high security unit?” “Oh my God, really?” And he said, “Yeah, I think it would be good.” So, the thing that was incredible to me was that we were invited, that we were invited to go. he said, “Oh, we'll make it very small, like three, three boys. We don't want you in, in any danger, so it would be small.
We had gotten, so we really liked working in teams. Very rarely did we do special programs that weren't teams, and they were multidisciplinary teams. So, I asked Marcel Dijebe, who was a drummer from Benin, and I asked Amde Hamilton, who was one of the founders of the Watts Prophets, hip hop, spoken word, poets from Watts to go in with me. And I was the visual artist. And so, we were going to do images and rhythms with them and make a book of the poems in the drawings that they did, each one would get a book.
So, the first night, it's an all steel room and everything is bolted down and there's just these steel tables in there. And they bring us eight kids and they, and then they leave the room. The guards leave the room. And these kids are shifting their chairs and they're not too comfortable. “Who the hell are these people?” And we just start, and we do it in the council circle and we go around the circle and we start with drawing. And then week by week from the drawing and spontaneous drawing, we'd go into the drumming, and the rhythm of the drumming would then take them into spoken word poetry. and we just passed the creativity. And they were fine.
And in fact, that was when there were blackouts in California, we were losing power. And I was in there one night when all the power got shut off. And I was in this pitch-black room with the boys. The only guards up behind glass on the second floor. And I have to say, I was scared. we were sitting in these steel bolted down benches around the room, and, all of a sudden, I just hear a voice right at my shoulder. I didn't hear anybody coming or anything. And he said, “Don't worry, Susan. You're okay.”BC: [:
SH: [00:20:31] I don't know. I don't know because when the lights came on, everybody was sitting down. But it just shows you, the humanity --- that humanity begets humanity. You ask the best people, and they get the best of people.
And the books that we did, we did a drawing. I asked them to draw hearts and I brought in the best oil pastels. There were they're beautiful. They're French, they're called Scenlea and I had beautiful handmade paper. And I gave them time to just draw these hearts that filled the paper. And then I said, “Okay. now rip it in half.” And there was this moment, and then they did. They ripped the hearts right down the middle --- which they knew all about that. And then the books were then bound left and right, so they opened like doors. And behind the hearts was a poem. And then, the poem opened and behind the poem was the drawing. And they were beautiful. They were really, absolutely beautiful, and the boys got to keep them. And we got good copies of them. Copies got sent to the governor so that there was this different look at who had been identified as the most dangerous kid in the state.BC: [[:
SH: Of course.
BC: …and to basically say, “Here's an occasion--rise the level of heartfulness and vulnerability you want to. Which is no small thing. It's not like we're out here in the regular world, and the worst thing that could happen to you is someone might laugh at you. this is a place where you show anything approaching vulnerabilitySH: [:
BC: [00:23:03] So to have created that kind of a safe space in that dangerous place, a force field in there, that's more powerful than that horrible architecture that they created to house them. That's quite something, and I know that's, that was your mission.SH: : [:
BC: [00:24:06] And two things. They know, a whole lot more about where you were than you do. They were experts in that realm. And the other is, the smorgasbord that you brought was filled with choices --- choice-making which on the outside, we are blind to including, “I don't want to have anything to do with this.” And every step of the way is, “Okay, I'll do this, I'll do this. I'm in it. I'm not in it. I'm not sure if I trust you.” All those things were given free rein, we take those things for granted, but inside it's a rare thing.SH [:
And I think that some of the principles are:
• You absolutely have to be yourself
• You have to keep your word, absolutely.
• You cannot patronize anybody.
• And I also will accept an answer like, “I can't tell you that.”
But the savvy of the people that you're working with is so acute that you will be done in 30 seconds if you're not authentic.
SH: And it's it's a tremendous life lesson actually. It really is.
Actually, one of my favorite games was, is an introductory circle, for the council is to say, “Okay, everybody's going to go around and say three things about themselves. Be careful what you say, because it's, going to stay in the room. But three things about yourself. Two of them are true, and one of them is a lie.” Cause that's part of the great creativity there.BC: [:
SH :[00:26:19] I'm living in Maine, which is in and of itself, this highly creative state. The number of artists artisans that are here are phenomenal, but I often hear six weeks is good enough, six classes in 45 minutes each is good enough. No, it's not. No, it's not.
I think about these things a lot because preparing the ground is very important. And, I think that by preparing the ground is that and it's something that we looked for as we interviewed artists. And if there was any hint and all that the artist was interested in going into the program had a chip on their shoulder about authority, or felt sorry for the inmates, or thought they knew everything, that was just not going to work because there was no curiosity and no respect there. And I think that when you go into a situation where you're going to work within an institution or a group where there's some codified rules that you have to understand that, you're in partnership with them, and get right with that partnership. And “get right with that partnership” is, as we said before, means telling the truth keeping your word.SH: [:
As I said, your teachers are important. For me, it was reading bell hooks. It was theater sessions with Augusto Boal. it's the teaching principles of Judy Baca, the incredible muralist in Los Angeles who thinks about the neighborhood. and who's going to look at the wall and what the history is, those teaching principles. but choose your mentors. And follow them. and then I love Judith Tannenbaum's advice. Which was if you think you'd be interested in someplace, go hang out,SH: [:
Like, “Susan, we'll do theater, but the kids will get jobs afterwards. Right.” ‘Uh, no. no.” They will be punctual. They will understand teamwork they will have better literacy skills. They will speak better. That will help them get a job. But this is theater. And so, you have to know that you're not in the service of something that you don't agree with.BC: [:
and the other one is and both either for the, students and even for the institution is, “Oh, now that I can draw this heart I'm now an artist with, I have a career.” What you're doing, and this goes back to the point you made early on, which was, “No six, six weeks, Isn't, it's not right, It's not appropriate. And part of that is, is that cycle we're talking about, which is, “Oh I have some mastery here. I must be great. I'm terrific.” You're dealing with people who really want to think of themselves selves as agent in the world with things they can do well. And you don't get to do that in six weeks.
Part Four: What’s next?
Obviously, what we've gone through over the last. 18 months, the pandemic is, it’s front of mind. But, I think, the most scary epidemic that we face is this exponentially growing sense of, disparate universes of thought, and belief, and levels of respect, , in a system as flawed as it, as it is, that will absolutely not work if we continue in that direction.SH: [:
And in fact, the Oath Keepers did that. They sent two very provocative people out to walk the protest line to taunt, you know, little taunts to see what would come up and God bless Belfast, they just said, “Oh, shut up and go home.”BC: [:
SH: [00:33:13] obviously is a big question. What can the arts contribute to these turbulent times if we're looking at why things worked so well, when we worked in the prison, I mean, we made a neutral, respectful space. It wasn't police controlled. You know, folks had our back, the inmates had our back because we were trustworthy. It was a neutral space.
People contributed as they could, it was supportive. It was not judgmental, but we also brought a kind of constructive criticism so that people learned to do something better. I think also that it was in depth. We all know that change takes a long time. Change is gradual. Um, but I think if you pair that with each one, teach one, so that exponentially, these good ideas catch on and they grow and they're peer shared and validated.
That's another piece, I think in these times where healing is such a central need, that the work of the hand, whether you're singing or dancing or. Painting or writing something down or cooking or growing something, you know, loving on each other. That work of the hand is the work of the heart. That is the work of the soul.
Um, and that's different than your mom. Which is logical and a gatekeeper.BC: [:
SH: [00:35:04] I will say that, um, especially when you live in Maine, you have to stay in touch with E. B. White, the writer who said something that I live by, which is, he said, ”I arise every morning, torn between a desire to improve or save the world and a desire to enjoy the world. And that makes it very hard to plan my day.” And I've read a Charlotte's Web every year because it points out so clearly the foibles of adults and it has great. Political wisdom. And it shows you the wisdom of interspecies communication.
There's the Reverend James Lawson Jr. He continues to teach his free workshops, third, Saturday. They're available on zoom. I'm always there. He is, I think 93 now, and so focused on the teachings and the legacy of Dr. King and speaking about contemporary issues, um, and its soul force strategies of non-violence workshops.
One of the primary things that if I can see any time is Sherry Mitchell, who is an indigenous activist author and a lawyer. She does incredible teaching. Her book is called Sacred Instruction. And did a four-part series of discussion too, was considering indigenous systems of wisdom versus Western scientific systems of wisdom. That included how the colonizers had permission from political and religious documents to look at the indigenous people as less than, and the divisions in the work that comes out of it.
Because I'm living in a really rural place, tending the land, growing the food, cooking the food, engaging people by sharing food is something I been looking at and thinking about. And that includes Leah Penniman, who is the founder of Soul Fire Farm, and her book Farming While Black. And it's a farm that combined African-American traditions and indigenous traditions and brings people in to learn about growing food, sharing food, being in community.BC: [:
SH: Thank you. Take care.
BC: And we'd like to thank all of you out there for tuning in. As you can probably tell Change the Story /Change the World is a labor of love. And knowing that there are folks out there like you traveling along with us, makes all the difference. So, for myself, Judy Munson our music, Maestro, our scribe, Andre Nnebe, and a UKE 235, our mystery mentor, we'd like to express our deep appreciation and remind you that you can express yours by subscribing to this podcast, sharing it with your friends and enemies. So, for right now, this is Bill Cleveland for Change the Story / Change the World signing off till next time stay well, help folks and make something useful. Adios.