Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Using the arts to express and promote "respect for the dignity of life": The Vanguard Discussion Series

Artists, Carolyn Ferrari said, “have a very unique approach to the world, and I think art is a neutral space to tackle some pretty amazing topics.” Inspired by a quote from SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s 1998 Peace Proposal to the United Nations, she decided to create a forum for artists to present about their work in the context of how they use their talents for kosen-rufu, or the accomplishment of world peace through the spread of Buddhist humanism.

The result of her efforts is the Vanguard Discussion series, “public forums that allow artists to address community and societal issues from their unique perspectives, and share how their art informs change, and presents concepts that challenge the status quo.”

Carolyn, an accomplished poet and musical, performance, and jewelry artist herself, began seeking out artists in 2016 for quarterly panel discussions, each to be centered on a particular theme, and held in conjunction with an SGI introduction to Buddhism meeting. The first discussion, held last November, centered on the theme of “forgiveness and healing,” and featured visual artist Laurent Schiratti, musician Zen Zadravec, and photographer Loralei Byatt.

The second Vanguard Discussions event, held last Friday, focused on the theme “respect for the dignity of life.” The four panelists featured were me, musician and cultural programming coordinator Kathryn Grabowski, musician and sound engineer James Beber, and visual and performance artist Daniel Moen

While most of the panelists chosen are SGI members, Carolyn extends the invitation to people who have participated with the SGI community enough to be considered part of it (such as Loralei and Dan), but without having made the decision to “officially” become Buddhists.

All of the presenters have more than just Buddhism as their artistic, spiritual, and cultural framework for their art, which takes the form of writing, drawing, graphic design, photography, music, cultural event coordinating, jewelry-making and other crafts, and other forms of creative expression of the human experience.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ve already seen the primary way I use my written and visual art for the greater good. “My big focus right now is doing a lot of bridge-building,” I said during my presentation, “rather than bonding only over what we have in common.” Whether I’m speaking with people who are SGI Nichiren Buddhist, or who practice other forms of Buddhism, or the Baha’i Faith, or Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, or no faith, I look at “our differences as resources, contributing different things to the pot, rather than saying, ‘Oh, that doesn’t matter, that’s secondary, let’s bond over everything we have in common.’ I like the fact that we’re all different.” After showing a few samples of my visual art, I read my poem “When Your Heart Tells You Something Different.”

The second presenter, Kathryn Grabowski, made the point about how unique our SGI Buddhist organization really is, pointing out that “This movement truly began in response to the unfair treatment of humankind, and in response to war and intense human suffering.” She went on to say that “The arts hold within them this unique, precious power to speak a universal truth. … This is why the arts are so instrumental in bringing together people and healing our differences. … As artists, activists, advocates, and human beings, we have the arts as a tool at our disposal to permeate our differences.”

Some of the ways Grabowski has used the arts to help promote unity in diversity are through her performance work with flute and dance, working with public radio, as a booking agent for jazz musicians, in fundraising for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, coordinating the annual Concert of Colors diversity music festival in Detroit, and now working as the Humanities Programming Coordinator at the Arab American National Museum. Her mission at the latter is “to diversify our audience and make this beautiful institution a place for everyone to come together.”

That also happens to be a pretty good description of what SGI Buddhists strive to do with our organization.

I’ll introduce you to the third and fourth presenter in my next post next week. Until then, I leave you the above-mentioned quote from Daisaku Ikeda’s 1998 Peace Proposal:

“Human rights will only become universal and indivisible when they span the most basic, existential division, that of self and other. This can only occur when both the right to and duty of humane treatment are observed—Not in response to externally-imposed norms, but through spontaneous action stemming from the naturally-powerful desire to assist our fellows whose ability to live in a humane manner is under threat.”

Image: “The Power of Music” by Karla Joy Huber, 1996; marker and colored pencil

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