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EXPAT ART AS THERAPY: Works that capture unexpectedly beautiful moments of life in other countries

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As the summer wears on—and I’m wondering what I am doing working long hours in a big city while everyone else seems to have escaped to beaches or mountains or on other adventures—I’m returning to my series based on the ideas of pop philosopher Alain de Botton. As those familiar with his work will recall, de Botton maintains that art can provide relief from as well as solutions to one’s angst.

But does the art we expats produce play a role in improving people’s lives? That’s what this series of posts explores.

No doubt, the works of international creatives has some appeal to what global soul Pico Iyer has called the great floating tribe of people “living in countries not their own.” (Expats currently number around 230 million, or about 3 percent of the world’s population.)

But are the works expats produce too specific to their own situations, or do these works, too, speak to broader life problems?

De Botton outlines six specific ways art can respond to human needs. My last post examined his first principle, that art can compensate for the fact that we have bad memories. I offered some examples of how international creatives have preserved precious moments of their lives in other countries in their works, not only for themselves but for posterity.

Today let’s look at de Botton’s

PRINCIPLE #2: Art can give us hope. Simple images of happiness touch us. We tend to be moved by small expressions of beauty—not because we are sentimental but precisely because so much of life is not pretty.

The example de Botton cites is Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, (or Nymphéas), a series of around 250 oil paintings that depict the French impressionist’s garden at Giverny. Monet painted the series during the last years of his life, while suffering from cataracts.

Claude_Monet_Nympheas_1915_Musee_Marmottan_Paris

Nymphéas, 1915, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

De Botton is of course stirring it up by insisting that beautiful art serves an important purpose. Artists of today seem to be in a race to outdo each other in the outrageous stakes. I’m thinking of Damien Hirst, who built his reputation on artworks displaying dead animals, or their parts, in formaldehyde tanks. Providing a respite from the ugliness of life is the last thing on his mind. Likewise for Jen Lewis, who uses her own menstrual blood to create abstract designs. Provocative, yes, but not my idea of beauty.

Returning to de Botton’s second principle: which expat artists have excelled at producing the kind of beauty that provides relief from life’s less pleasant aspects? (Who are our displaced Monets?)

By way of an answer I’ve arranged a small “exhibition” of works by four visual artists, three painters and one photographer, all of whom have been affiliated in some way with the Displaced Nation. As de Botton has done at several museum exhibitions, I’ve added post-it notes describing the therapeutic effects I’ve experienced upon viewing these artists’ works.

#1: “Lost on a Mountaintop,” by Candace Rose Rardon

Lost_on_a_Mountaintop_by_candace-rardon_800x

POST-IT: Those of us who have traversed international boundaries carry in our hearts the fear that we may someday lose our way—literally, of course, but even figuratively, with no family or old friends around to serve as mentors or sounding boards. Candace Rose Rardon shows us the flip side: how glorious to be lost on the top of a mountain range with the world stripped down to pines, sun, wind and hills, ready for you to paint your own scenes on it. Even a stay-at-home curmudgeon could be struck down with wanderlust, at such a prospect. Candace is a writer, sketch artist and illustrator without a location. She tells stories about the world through her words and watercolors.
OUR CONNECTION: Candace was the recipient of one of our Alice Awards.
SEE ALSO: Candace’s blog, The Great Affair; and her first book of travel sketches: Beneath the Lantern’s Glow: Sketches and stories from Southeast Asia and Japan.

#2: Les Mimosas de Mesubenomori,” by Julie Harmsworth

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POST-IT: My first (and only) visit to Nagasaki, made while I was living in Japan, had a lasting impact. To this day I carry around images of the damage wreaked on that city from my visit to the Atomic Bomb Museum. But for Julie, who moved to Nagasaki from the United States to teach English, the city was the place of her rebirth as an artist. She often walked to this local park, and this painting is her tribute to its flowering mimosa trees. For a moment her painting makes me forget the pain this city endured, along with the horror for war it engenders. Though one can never lose sight of the darkness, it’s possible to be touched by these simple, beautiful trees.
OUR CONNECTION: We are mutual blogging admirers. Julie, btw, has now moved to France, where she continues her work as a fine artist (hence the French title of her painting).
SEE ALSO: Julie’s portfolio site.

#3: “Russian Market—Phnom Penh,” by A. Spaice

Russian-Market-PhnomPenh_framed
POST-IT: I’ve never been to Phnom Penh but imagine it might be a variation on other Southeast Asian cities (Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Saigon) I’ve visited. From reading descriptions of the Russian Market, which lies in the southern part of Cambodia’s capital city, I can certainly picture it: a narrow warren of stalls, crowded, busy and sweltering, full of the kinds of goods you see in all of the markets in that part of the world (though apparently at better prices), everything from handicrafts to fake Swiss watches to pirated software to designer clothes considered unfit to be shipped abroad because of small flaws. The global economy at its finest! But what does writer and sometime photographer A. Spaice offer us? A glimpse of a splendidly isolated flower and flower-to-be. Such a beautiful reminder that the “I shop therefore I am” credo of Asia isn’t all there is to life!
OUR CONNECTION: A. Spaice was our first international creative to be “wonderlanded” (read her interview and an excerpt from her short book, Bangkok).
SEE ALSO: A. Spaice’s Design Kompany site and weekly e-zine.

#4: “End of the Drought,” by Antrese Wood

Endofthedrought_Antrese_Wood
POST-IT: The Pampas grasslands of Argentina are one of the most fertile areas in the world. When a drought occurs and its crops are destroyed, not only farmers—but also does the rest of the world—suffers, as world food prices are nudged higher. Antrese’s painting of the grasslands landscape “after the drought” reminds us that even when nature gives the earth and its inhabitants a terrible beating, the rain returns eventually and the beauty of the landscape is restored. If a glimpse of such beauty helps us forget the pain even for a moment, then perhaps it is possible to regroup and carry on. (Note to self: Come back to this painting once the dog days of August have arrived.) An American married to an Argentinian, Antrese has been living in Argentina since 2011.
OUR CONNECTION: Antrese was one of the interviewees in our long-running Random Nomad series. At that time she was about to embark on an ambitious project, “A Portrait of Argentina.”
SEE ALSO: Her portfolio site and her podcast series for artists, SavvyPainter.

Note: All four artists’ works are reproduced here with their permission.

* * *

So, readers, what do you think of the above “exhibition” of works that capture unexpected moments of appreciation for life’s beauty? I know that writing about these works helped to lift me out of my late-July funk, but did you, too, find it therapeutic? And are there other expat works you would recommend for this reason? Do tell in the comments.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with Alice nominations, book giveaways, and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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EXPAT ART AS THERAPY: Works that capture precious memories of life in other countries

ExpatArtasTherapy_Principle1As explained in my introductory post to this series, the Swiss-British philosopher (and Adult Third Culture Kid) Alain de Botton argues that art of all kinds can be a form of therapy, providing powerful solutions to many of life’s dilemmas.

But is that also true of expat works? Does our art benefit humanity more broadly, or are we creating things—memoirs, novels, films, dance and stage performances, social enterprises—that will only ever speak to people like ourselves: what fellow global soul Pico Iyer has called the great floating tribe of people “living in countries not their own”? (We currently number around 230 million, or just over 3 percent of the world’s population.)

SEND IN THE CLOUDS: "London from Hampstead Heath," by John Constable (British Museum)

SEND IN THE CLOUDS: “London from Hampstead Heath,” by John Constable (British Museum). Photo credit: John Constable, via Wikimedia Commons.

In his “Art as Therapy” lecture, de Botton specifies 6 ways art can answer human needs.

The remainder of this series will look at whether, and to what extent, these observations apply to the works of international creatives, beginning with…

Principle #1: Art can compensate for the fact that we have bad memories.
De Botton cites John Constable and his paintings of clouds above Hampstead Heath as an example of how an artist can sometimes capture something significant yet fragile they have experienced and don’t want to forget.

Will the John Constables among us please stand up? Seriously, it strikes me that we international creatives are well positioned to preserve the memories of the daily wonders we’ve encountered in far-flung parts of the world, our knowledge of which accrues over time. (Not for us the Wonders of the World, when there are so many intrepid world travelers around, eager to conquer them.)

Back in the days when I lived first in England and then in Japan, I always felt like the poor cousin of the anthropologist—I wasn’t an area specialist but that left me free to approach life with an Alice-like curiosity, never quite losing the sensation of having fallen through the rabbit hole. And to convey that to others…

But let’s look at some examples, shall we? Each of the visuals below is inspired by or belongs to the work of an international creative that has featured on this site in some way. I selected these four individuals because of their ability to conjure up an image of something rather precious within their new landscape—the expat equivalent of a dramatically shaped cloud. And, as de Botton has been invited to do at several museums, I’ve added post-it notes describing the therapeutic effects I experienced.

#1: Parabéns: We’re All Mad Here

Parabens

Photo credit: Marbela via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

OBJECT LABEL: Parabéns: We’re All Mad Here, inspired by Megan Farrell (aka Maggie Foxhole) and her book, American Exbrat in São Paulo.
ML’S POST-IT: I have never been to Brazil, but reading Farrell’s step-by-step guide for foreigners who are living (or planning to live) in São Paulo piqued my curiosity. I particularly enjoyed her vivid account of the Brazilian birthday party. What a palava! Far beyond my wildest imaginings. But what is even more curious to me is the Sweet Table, sitting in splendid isolation until the very end of the festivities. According to Farrell:

“The design of the Sweet Table is on the same level of importance for the birthday party as is the set design for a Broadway performance. It consists of hundreds of sweets, strategically placed around the other decorations. But most importantly, NO ONE TOUCHES the Sweet Table until the birthday candles have been blown out at the end of the party. No one. An interesting objective when you have anywhere from thirty to fifty children running around wild and free.”

I rather like the thought of deprivation in the midst of so much decadence: does that make the brigadeiro, when you finally get one, taste even sweeter?
FURTHER READING: Our interview with Megan Farrell, by Andy Martin: Why exbrats in São Paulo need their own book to appreciate life in Brazil’s largest city.

#2: Are Acacia Trees Humans in Disguise?

Acacia Trees

Photo credit: Gezira Sporting Club, by Jorge Láscar via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

OBJECT LABEL: Are Acacia Trees Humans in Disguise?, inspired by Alice Award nominee Kathleen Saville‘s description of these trees in Zamalek, Gezira Island (Cairo, Egypt) in a post for her personal blog.
ML’S POST-IT: The thought of living in Egypt scares me, and I’ve been avoiding most trees ever since Hurricane Sandy. But after reading Saville’s description of Egyptian acacias—

I see folds and twists in the trunks like nothing I have ever seen in another tree. Each tree looks like a long thin body or leg covered with support hose. It’s odd because the appearance is almost human like.

—I feel calmer. Might I have a tree-hugging future?
FURTHER READING: Saville’s blog, Water Meditations, focusing on her water travels.

#3: Elephant Road Trip

Elephant Road Trip
OBJECT LABEL: Elephant Road Trip, inspired by Ruth Hartley and her novel about Africa, The Shaping of Water (Hartley grew up in that part of the world).
ML’S POST-IT: Hartley’s novel begins with the construction of the Kariba Dam, one of the largest dams in the world, over the Zambezi, the fourth-longest river in Africa, flowing into the Indian Ocean. As much as I enjoyed Hartley’s book, I could never quite wrap my head around the scale of what she describes, whether talking about the dam, a massively ambitious project, or about the problems Africa faces as it attempts to shake off the colonial yoke. Perhaps that’s why I took comfort in Hartley’s description of elephants serving as the continent’s original bulldozers:

The roads over the escarpment follow for the main part the old migratory routes taken year after year for millennia by elephants. Elephants, who for all those thousands of years would roam, not just around Zimbabwe, or just around Kenya, but all the way up sub-Saharan Africa from south to north and back again. Now human governments have decreed that elephants must obey human laws and stay within the bounds of national boundaries drawn by straight-edged rulers on maps. In the time before colonization, a mere 150 years ago, elephants travelled where they always travelled, and they walked across mountains with consummate skill and ease, always finding the most direct routes through the least difficult of the passes.

In the midst of a man-against-nature, man-against-man story, I found it a restorative to imagine these pre-colonial times when the elephant, such a magnificent beast, could be relied on to forge trails through the dense brush and trees.
FURTHER READING: Coming soon: our interview with Ruth Hartley about her book.

#4: Shanghai Mix

Shanghai Mix

Photo credit: Rachel Kanev.

OBJECT LABEL: Shanghai Mix, consisting of a photo taken by globe drifter Rachel Kanev, which she chose to feature in her iinterview with James King for our site’s “A Picture Says…” column.
ML’S POST-IT: Rachel has captured a memory of an experience I’ve had several times myself but had nearly forgotten: namely, what it’s like actually to witness Asian economic development rather than pontificate about it. As Rachel puts it in her chat with James:

In that fleeting instant, one can see Shanghai’s varied transportation, high-rise buildings and red lanterns, as well as Kate Winslet—that curious amalgamation of Western modernity and Chinese traditionalism that is everywhere around you in the city.

Perhaps because she snapped the photo just as the sun was setting, it fills me with sweet nostalgia. (I’m not remembering the smog, for a change…)
FURTHER READING: Rachel Kanev’s blog, Globe Drifting

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So, readers, what do you think of the above “exhibition” of works that touch on expat experiences and emotions. Did you find it therapeutic? And are there other expat works you would recommend for this reason? Do tell in the comments.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with Alice nominations, book giveaways, and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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EXPAT ART AS THERAPY: A new series based on Alain de Botton’s strange and wonderful notions

expat_art_as_therapy introGreetings, Displaced Nationers. While countries in Asia are celebrating harvest and moon festivals, we are marking the occasion with the start of a new series: EXPAT ART AS THERAPY. The series owes its provenance to the fertile and somewhat loony imagination of the young Swiss-English philosopher Alain de Botton. Today and over the next few months, we’ll cover some of the same ground as de Botton in his “Art as Therapy” lecture, in which he demonstrates how art can shed light on life’s big themes.

Except our topic will be the work of international creatives, a subset of artists more generally. Can the art people produce as a result of living among cultures in other parts of the world—and feeling, at times, displaced—shed light on life’s big questions?

Haven’t yet heard of de Botton? Here is (more than) you need to know:

  • Having grown up in both Switzerland and the UK, he’s an Adult Third Culture Kid who comes across as European, English, both and neither.
  • He’s a prolific pop philosopher, with a shelf-full of books and two very popular TED talks to his name.
  • He also has his critics, who call him a “high-brow self-help guru.”
  • Regardless, he hasn’t looked back since his 1997 essay titled How Proust Can Change Your Life became an unlikely blockbuster in the “self-help” category.
  • As explained in a recent Displaced Dispatch—what, not a subscriber yet? get on with it!—de Botton has set up a cultural enterprise in Bloomsbury, London, called The School of Life, which aims to “teach ideas to live by” and “inspire people to change their lives through culture.”

Returning to the aforementioned “art as therapy” lecture, De Botton lists six ways that art can respond to human needs, and in this series I’ll be attempting to apply this scheme to the works of international creatives. Does the art produced by expats, rexpats, TCKS, ATCKs repats, and other international creatives have something to contribute to the good of humanity at large and if so, in what ways?

It all sounds rather grand, doesn’t it—or would grandiose be more accurate? In any event, not to worry, you won’t remember any of this by the time the column starts up properly next month.

That said, perhaps it would help if I left you with a couple of examples of the kinds of questions we’ll be examining, enough to whet your appetite for more.

Here goes:

1) How does it benefit the world that Alan Parker has written a best-selling indie book about what it’s like to be a Brit man trying to raise alpacas in Spain? I’ll warrant that many of us, myself included, have no wish to live in Spain or raise alpacas—yet I did feel moved by the account of his adventures as reported on this blog, and presume that others have as well. What are we all getting out of it?

2) Likewise, are there pleasures for all to be reaped from long-term expat Kathleen Saville’s description of the acacia trees on the island in Zamalek, Gezira Island, where she lives in Cairo? (NOTE: Saville, who blogs at Water Meditations, is a contender for a September Alice Award, which you’d know if you read our most recent Dispatch.) Take me for example. The thought of living in Egypt scares me, and I’ve been avoiding most trees ever since Hurricane Sandy, but after reading Saville’s description of Egyptian acacias—

I see folds and twists in the trunks like nothing I have ever seen in another tree. Each tree looks like a long thin body or leg covered with support hose. It’s odd because the appearance is almost human like.

—I was blown away. Why, and would others with no special interest in Egypt feel the same?

* * *

At this point I hope I’ve said enough for you to make a mental note about checking out next month’s column!

In closing, please join me in a resounding chorus of “Shine on, shine on harvest moon/Up in the sky…” (Click here if you don’t know what I’m talking about or can’t remember the words.) Yes, I know it’s not high art; it’s a Tin Pan Alley stuff. But it’s seasonal and makes me smile—and our mentor, Alain de Botton, would give me a pat on the back for that!

STAY TUNED for Beth Green’s book review column.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with Alice nominations, book giveaways, and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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