Enter Into Joy

Monday, November 15, 2010

Dallas Observer MasterMind Awards

On November 11, 2010, 29 Pieces artist Karen Blessen was one of three Dallas artists to win the Dallas Observers first annual "MasterMinds" creativity award. Following is the part of the article about Karen:
Dallas Observer photo by Danny Fulgencio

Karen Blessen - artist, peace advocate

(by Elaine Liner, Thursday, Nov 11 2010, Dallas Observer, from “MasterMinds: Matthew Posey, Joel Hester and Karen Blessen Are Winners in Our Inaugural Creativity Awards”)

She didn't hear the gunshot that killed the stranger on her front lawn in Lakewood late one night in 2000. But for the next three years, Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic artist Karen Blessen thought of little else but the murder of 26-year-old David McNulty. She immersed herself in chronicling the effects of that random act of violence on McNulty's family and friends, and on those who knew the perpetrators, including the killer himself. She wrote about all of it in a long article titled "One Bullet," published in 2003 in The Dallas Morning News.

After that, Blessen says, she needed a way to heal from those "three dark years" and turn her creative energies in a different, more positive direction. She began a meditation practice she still follows that requires memorization of lines of sacred texts. No more Law & Order episodes before bedtime; in fact, no more TV at all. More exercise and a healthier diet brought even more clarity.

In 2006 came what Blessen calls her "creative burst." Over several months early that year, she built a series of shoebox-sized sculptures—"happy collages," she calls them—she would title 29 Pieces. A collection of tiny assemblages and script-covered tableaux amid swatches of cloth, pieces of twig, glass, beads and wire, they contain bits of writing by mystics and religious figures such as St. Theresa of Lisieux and St. Augustine. There are lines from Psalms and from prayers in Lakota Sioux language. The first piece says this: "If the very world should stop...."

That phrase, which came to Blessen in meditation, was her cue, she says, to reevaluate everything in her life. Was she where she wanted to be spiritually? Artistically? Personally? "The art and writing just poured out after that," she says. "It was as if a portal had opened."

After 30 years as an illustrator and graphic artist (her Pulitzer in 1989 was for work published in the Morning News), Blessen, now 58, says she "put down the colored pencils and started down a different path." Having seen the effects of violence on her own doorstep, she became an advocate for peace and for teaching nonviolent conflict resolution. She is the co-founder, with her friend Dr. Barbara Miller, of a nonprofit organization called Today Marks the Beginning, which uses art to promote peace and to raise public awareness of social issues. This fall the organization received $30,000 raised at the annual Art Conspiracy event.

Within Today Marks The Beginning is a program Blessen created and still directs called MasterPEACE, which sends volunteers, including artists, musicians, actors, writers and yoga masters into eight public and private schools in Dallas to teach lessons on peace to fifth-graders. Students learn about "Heroes of Peace," including Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and others, and they're guided through studies in the meanings of love, empathy, consequences and harmony, which they then translate into art pieces using simple tools and found objects. Blessen has helped get students' art displayed publicly, including an exhibit at the Dallas Public Library. Neiman Marcus at NorthPark Center will host a show of 30 student-created MasterPEACE artworks reflecting "love" in February 2011.

Janet Perera, counselor at DISD's L.L. Hotchkiss Elementary, says the MasterPEACE program has had a profoundly positive effect on her school's students over the past four years. There are 1,000 kids enrolled at Hotchkiss, many of them children of recent refugees from African and Asian countries. More than 30 languages are spoken in the school.

"Many of these children have been highly traumatized in their lives," Perera says, "and Ms. Blessen's creative programs help traumatized children feel better about themselves and gain coping strategies." In addition to art, the children do yoga lessons, garden and develop relationships with volunteers. "They've just come from refugee camps, many of them," Perera says, "so it just makes them feel good that people care about them."

Former Hotchkiss principal Lea Beach says she believes MasterPEACE could have great impact beyond Blessen and her organization's art lessons, "though they are phenomenal in their own right." Beach would like to see Blessen's program expanded beyond the few elementary schools where it's now being used. "Our society is going through a huge change," says Beach, who now works with a nonprofit after-school program called HeartHouse Dallas. "With immigrants moving into our communities, it's going to cause a cultural shift. We're going to have to learn to get along together. I have seen refugee children learn ways to stop bullying and teasing through this program. But many children, not just refugees, are dealing with horrific situations and they could be helped, too."

At Parish Episcopal, a private school in North Dallas, counselor Vicki Millican has invited Blessen to teach several MasterPEACE sessions to middle-schoolers. The goal, Millican says, is "to help our students gain a deeper understanding of empathy and learn to find more peace in their lives....I am quite certain that their participation has made an indelible impression on them that will lead them to think and act more peacefully throughout their lives."

And that's precisely the point, Blessen says. "We're showing children how creativity can help us slow down and make some better choices. The very act of creating brings children to a calmer state."

That's the same effect making the 29 Pieces had on Blessen, after all. "When the murder happened, I knew something had changed," she says. "For three years I listened to people affected by one act of senseless violence. It had been a blip on Fox news, four paragraphs in the paper. But it just touched me deeply to discover the value and cost of one life. After those years of exploring things that were disturbing and dark in the world, I suddenly had a profound and transcendent experience that I expressed in the 29 Pieces. Now I want to share that."

In her cozy studio in Deep Ellum, Blessen has been working on a long-term project to expand the 29 Pieces to larger-than-room-size multimedia installations. With an estimated budget for the sculpture of $3.5 million, the super-sized 29 Pieces will become a traveling exhibit, or, if she can find the right building, a permanent installation similar to Donald Judd's massive Chinati Foundation in Marfa.

"It's time for artists to work on a larger scale," she says. "Art is going to manifest in ways we can't even anticipate yet."


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