Episode 8

Published on:

23rd Sep 2020

Episode 8: Barry Marcus - Creative Culture

Episode 7: Barry Marcus - Creative Culture

Dear Reader: Barry Marcus' story about Creative Culture touches on a number of questions related to the impact that arts learning can have on youth development. One of these is how active art making can strengthen a sense of ownership and agency in young artists. If this peaks your interest you might want to take a look at : 23 Admonitions, Insights and Ideas from the Great Masters at the Center for the Study of Art and Community's website.


Bill Cleveland: Barry Marcus is clever, funny, and a good friend. He also personifies one of my favorite human characteristics; that's quirkiness. You never know what he's going to do, or say, or sing for that matter.

Barry Marcus:

The duck goes quack, the cow says moo

I say hello, how do you do?

You talk to me and I'll listen to you

Talking and a squawkin’’ till our lips turn blue 

BC: Now, that's Barry singing the title track from his CD of children’s songs. These days, he describes himself as a visual storyteller. Back in the 90s, when I met him, he was not only a prolific songwriter, but also a therapist and a director of children's mental health programs. Although the first spark in our friendship was through music, our enduring connection has been fueled by our mutual passion for exploring the kinds of questions that have sustained our lives work and giving rise to this podcast. Namely, can the creative process be a potent force for healing and change, and if so, how do we do that really, really well? 

From the Center for the Study of Art and Community, this is Change the Story, Change the World and I’m Bill Cleveland. We're calling today's episode creative culture, and today's conversation with creative culture, facilitator, and advocate Barry Marcus took place during May of 2020. For myself in Alameda, California and Barry on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, we were coming to the end of our third month living at the intersection of six feet and Sequesterville.

Part One: Rhythms and Seasons.

With your permission, I would like to ask you to recount a piece of your history. A focus of bringing creative process to bear on very difficult circumstances, particularly for young people that you were serving at the place called Families First. Would you be willing to talk about how it came about, how you came to it, and what happened?

BM: Well, can I give a little prelude to that? 

You know, I was at the Sacramento children's home for 13 years prior to that. And because of my role as one of the directors, holding the position of intake, and seeing how people translated what an intake summary looked like into their day to day residential care. These kids were 24 hours a day in the care. In both circumstances--the children's home and Families First--these are kids that blew out of foster homes. Multiple, five, seven foster homes are had very acute and dramatic needs to be removed. They were in institutions, and the people that worked with them primarily besides the clinical step are really the line staff, and they're called childcare work. And they would look at an intake summary, and they would see this description of a troubled child, most often, behaviorally, because that's how children experience trauma, and they would define them by their deficits. So, the first thing I did was I created a thing called “guess who's coming”. Instead of saying, here's this broken-down kid and that's it, I said, here's the profile of our newest guests. And the first they thought it was a joke, but it said, Oh, no, I want you to treat this child like a guest. 

So, in essence, what I really knew was that these children could be relegated to the garbage basket, as soon as they entered the door or sometimes even before. I was recruited as a creative person. What I wanted to do is use the institutional setting as a community of creativity, and use the children's lives and their brokenness, his deep feelings, to connect to a creative process that could allow them to be seen different, and experienced different, and seeing themselves different.

BC: So, what I'm hearing is that Families First was really a golden opportunity to integrate your ideas about using the creative process as a healing force for these kids. 

BM: I did some things that children's home, as I said, the “guess who's coming”, but the transition was the CEO of Families First said, “I just want your creativity.” You figure a way to do it. Now I had done a song site called “Our stuff, our song” and it was helping children create their song individually, then bring it together as a group and then bring it to a public a community parents, family, mental health associates, but also the outside community, to give them a chance to give voice to their inner being as an artist. I had a band learning their songs, and I brought them all together to practice, and then the performance became a ritual and a rite of passage, which I always incorporated and all the work I did is as that community, a living and breathing community, and having rituals and rites of passage. We had this amazing drumming thing with a Ghana drummer, and what the kids created was these chants and narratives with reused plastic water bottles as drums, and they were painted and adorned in various ways, and we had a public ceremony and it was really profound and deep and rich. 

BC: Could you describe how creative culture manifested, first of all, and also describe Families First, what its mission was, who its clients were... 

BM: Well, Families First started out as a professional foster care program, and kind of blocks them while I was there growing into a more of a residential treatment program with foster care. It was a range of service program. But what fascinated me about it, as did Sacramento Children's Home was it was its own community, with its own values, its own rhythms, its own kind of timing and seasons in the life of a child who live there. 

Now, before I say anything more about that, who lived there?

Again, these were kids in and out of places like Napa State Hospital. So, they would get in a hospital for all kinds of sometimes it was psychotic, but very often it was assaultive behavior. That parents and other foster family stuff that couldn't handle or was runaways. 

Now, an interesting aside about runaways, we learned in the 70s that girls… well, they were considered offenders only as teenagers, they wouldn't have been charged with crimes for what they did if they were adults. And the crime was they ran away, while we began finding out why girls were running away, and really (…not sure word…) they were molested, and that was your only way of dealing with it. 

So, these were kids that were used to their energies being coming and going, running, and having no sense of permanency. And the residential treatment home, particularly Families First said, we're going to stick with this kid unless it gets really, really dangerous because we know the next step from us, is an inpatient Napa State Hospital, a warehouse still. And we make a commitment to work with the child, and when there was the family, but in the circle of having the community and the physical ground, I recognized the structure was {…} it was like in a Eureka kind of moment. We had individual kids working on their individual stuff, they lived in individual houses, up to 12 kids. So, you had a child who was a member of a group, not only were they a member of the group, they went to the on-campus school, and so they were a member of a class, but together they were all Families First. 

BC: This facility had many components to it. It had an educational component; these kids lived with each other. They had activities all day, they had counseling, talk about how creative culture really meant that creative process was integrated into every aspect of their time in the facility.

BM: Culture is a very big important word in this situation, because it's this kind of inbred system of “this is appropriate, and this is not appropriate”. And by the way, “appropriate” is a power word. Who determines “appropriate”?, you know, I mean, there are conventions, but again, I don't want to do anything appropriate. But what I was trying to point to is, regardless of whether you see the whole fabric or not as a childcare worker dealing with a kid spitting at you, you're still in a culture. This is a culture, and we have the opportunity to both define it and refine it by looking for the creative juices because even as a mental health facility, the only way you solve problems is to be creative. The only way you connect with other people is to create that energy. So, I was also asking staff to stand back a little and give themselves a chance to look at kids as creative. 

Eventually, one of my favorite projects, and actually this is with Oprah, […] we were able to have Oprah come and see them and say, you know, the difference between you and me isn't where I started, It's where I am now. And that happened to me, and the arts, and expression leads me to healing. So, I saw that as an opportunity to build great of culture where the individual does their work, but they can't do it independent of what the group is doing, be it the house or the school.


Part Two: Release the Hounds

BC: So, Barry, individual, group house, school. Is there a particular initiative or project that you feel really, manifested really connected, at all these levels you just shared? 

BM: The easiest thing to talk about is a book, which we did with a very famous artist named Roy De Forest, The Secret of Dogmore Island. And what he did was he gave us cards, just little cards of outlines of what each chapter should be. So, if you read chapter one in your class, you may have an idea but your class or your house, better buy it to fit the overall narrative that they're developing. And it was group collaboration and Bill, as you know, because you were a part of it. It was very profound and deep and rich and complex. 

BC: So, in that circumstance, Roy De Forest created an outline, a visual outline, in the beginning of a story, and then these groups of young people, basically filled in the voids with their own images and their own narrative. Is that right?

BM: Yes, and how it worked is there, you know, there were two sentences per little card. I'm a very big believer in--this is part of creating culture--and having a goal and a process that comes to a conclusion where there is an artifact. Whether it's a book, song cycle, the Davis family mural ceramic, there's something concrete that the whole, the whole community can point to and say, we did that! And also, I didn't mean we did that. But I think Dogmore represents partnership. I brought in our working writers and artists of different kind, and I introduced them as like the kids, and the kids were like them, because they had deep feelings, they had need to express them and they used arts isn't a way to express the complex feelings, complex feelings.

BC: Wow, in a complex environment working together on a really complex project where you have different groups, classes, negotiating separate parts of this one evolving story. Yeah. It sounds complicated.

BM: So, what I think was very specifically embedded in the concept of creative culture, is I said, you can't create your chapter without your whole class. But your class can't rely on the whole chapter being either honored or related to what else is there without all the other chapters by example. Okay, so wait for structure I hired five visual artists Five authors, the guy who wrote the last unicorn Peter Beagle was one of them. 

Okay, so but here's what happened. Let's start with chapter one. The class is getting near writing kind of a sense of a narrative, it's not written and solidified, but they got a sense of who Dr. Dogmore is and who PEP the flea is and all these characters and where the narrative was heading. And one kid gets up and he goes, “Wait a minute, Barry, what are they going to do in chapter two?” And, “How will we know how it ends? We don't want PEF, good example, we don't have to get killed, you can't kill them.”

And I said to him, “Well, you know, you know, we don't know. But one way you might resolve that if you have an interest in how it moves along, and how the whole thing is done is pick what chapter you're most concerned about. Are you most concerned right now about how it will be picked up from you right now. Yeah, yeah, what are they going to do? Well, you know, what would you like to send an emissary or two into group two, and make a presentation on what you've come up with? and how you want them to know about who these characters are and why you love them?.” 

And, and, again, Bill, they chose two kids, and they got up there. And we had a class where even the most troubled kid was saying ideas and coming up and when we left, I asked the kids in group one, are you satisfied and do you… here's a key word, trust group. These are kids that don't trust nothing. And they left and said, we will leave it in their hands. And so, we had these interlacing webs of people coming and going and kind of reading the stories that moved on.

BC: So, they forge partnerships, working together and building the story together. How did the artists and writers figure in this mix? 

BM: The writers would go into classes maybe six times, six weeks, and work with them to refine what it was. And from that, we also had the artists come in and they would work with him to draw their ideas and integrate some of their art, so that it became again a collaboration. You also collaborated with the artists in your class, and so styles came out. 

BC: At this point, some of you listening may be wondering what all this festive collaboration produced. From what I understand, this is how the Dogmore story goes. Dogmore Island is of course an island of dogs, lots of dogs. With big ones, little ones skinny and thick, shaggy ones and short haired, peppy and slow all living together in elative harmony until the questions who's to dig up an answer to a question that is desperately needed to address a problem. A mystery actually, that needs to be solved, that must be solved, or chaos will ensue. Given the number of authors--over 50 and the number of pages, nearly 120--there are lots of surprising twists and turns and tangles in the labyrinth things search that unfolds. Ultimately, of course, all ends well for the dogs and yes, even the fleas who by the way figure prominently in the stories unlikely though satisfying conclusion. After hearing the Dogmore saga, I asked Barry how the real world adventure that produced it ended up 

BM: The end was this big, whoop dee doo, ceremonial ritual, probably more ritual than a rite of passage where the books were released, and the media was there. We had the local media and they were, […] one of the media came up to me said, Barry, you didn't tell us we'd be crying. 

BC: So, when you say books released, you're saying that there was an edition of the book that was printed. And so, a couple questions number one is big picture. What did you want to have happen? and how did that turn out? 

BM: Well, you know, okay, in an individual basis, I want each child to have a sense of self-worth in the project. It's that simple. And to also be able to bridge that air between ‘I’ and ‘we’ and to be able to identify that my success is also made more rich by my group success, which is also made more rich and complete by my communities’ success. I wanted the community into in turn from someone else the childcare workers with all the celebrate and see what came up. 

But I wanted the community of Davis it Davis is a very fine institution of learning the University of California Davis. I wanted them to go Families First, these aren't the troublemakers, these are source of richness. And that was important. Really important.

Oh, one more important thing. I remember when we did the mural, and we had the ceremony in public on the streets, and several, many of the parents came in this woman came up and was hugging me. I didn't know her, and she was crying. She says, “my son had all of his school never got congratulations for his work”. I don't ever remember a teacher saying this is fine work. He was identified very early as learning disabled and behaviorally disordered. And she said, you know, and she just was crying. I I've never experienced this in my life. So that was equally important. 


Part Three: Turning the Page on the Prussians

BC: So, at a certain point, you know, my understanding is that if this were to take in essence, if this were to become a way of working at Families First, rather than Barry's project, you needed a buy in by everybody who was on staff. Is that something that you you've felt evolve over time? 

BM: Yes. The first and primarily most important thing was that the CEO brought me in for that purpose. She was a very powerful personality as you remember, and what she said went. So, they expressed the great deal excitement I learned later, you better be excited if Evelyn tells you to be. But I think they gained some excitement. One of the things that just came up again in my gut. When we did the drumming thing, there were five groups again, and it was a public performance, and the kids were coming apart then the night before. And some of the childcare, senior childcare workers came to me and they said, “you know, I don't know you're putting too much pressure on these kids, I'm sorry”. And, you know, maybe I just trusted myself and I said, “I know those guys, they're okay, they're going to do it”. But and sometimes there was conflict. And I have to say, sometimes I think, in retrospect, I over stressed the creative parts and maybe needed to look more at the trouble it was to really serve these kids in difficult circumstance. 

BC: So, here's, here's a question. I remember. very specifically, you're talking to me about how certain kids responded well to their access to making, to creating. What do you think is going on with a young person with a history of chaos and in some cases violence when they encounter not just a little workshop, but an environment that is infused with this way of thinking about the world with making and creating?

BM: Well, you know, if you look at violence, you can call it acting....

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About the Podcast

Change the Story / Change the World
A Chronicle of Art & Transformation
Poets, dancers, and painters at war with white supremacy, COVID, criminal militias, and Milosevic? Muralists, musicians, and actors, making a difference in homeless shelters, planning departments, emergency rooms, and death row? Sound delusional? Yea, sure, but also true! And when creativity confronts destruction, and imagination faces fear, in places like Ferguson, Johannesburg, Belfast and San Quentin surprising things happen.

Our stories help shape and sustain our beliefs and actions. Bill Cleveland believes that meeting the challenges of the 21st century will require a revolution of thought and deed— in essence, a new set of stories powerful enough to change beliefs and behaviors.

Change the Story/ Change the World is a chronicle of art and community transformation across the globe. In each episode, Bill will introduce listeners to creative change agents working to re-imagine and recreate the social, political, and cultural narratives that define their communities. Join us
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