Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Posting Peace

Under the cover of darkness Saturday night, and as a Mother's Day surprise for Ashland, a fence in the railroad district became the temporary home for an art installation entitled "The Peace Fence." The fence itself — which sits on a 20-acre parcel of land owned by the Union Pacific Railroad Company — was installed in 2006 after a decision to postpone clean-up of 58,000 tons of soil contaminated by a rail car repair and maintenance facility sited there for nearly 100 years.

While walking along the fence line recently, Ashland artist Jean Bakewell suddenly saw the fence in a new way — as a potential canvas. She proceeded to put out a call to friends, artists, authors, poets, and organizations, inviting them to submit cloth panels of art that reflected personal hopes and visions regarding peace and the planet. The response was enthusiastic. Within a few weeks, nearly 70 panels were contributed — most by local artists and organizations, and some even coming from California, Washington, and Canada.

DT: What inspired you to use the fence as a canvas for creative expression regarding peace?

Jean: Having been a child of war, I've been a peace activist my entire life, protesting in one way or another. And then I read Sharon Mehdi's book, "The Great Silent Grandmother Gathering," (Viking Penguin 2005). It was so wonderful, so simple. It showed me that just one person can make a difference.

Several weeks ago, walking along the fence line thinking about my brother and his wife who had recently died, I suddenly saw that the fence — which has been so controversial and considered such an eyesore — was actually a gift; I saw that we could use it as a place to creatively express our visions for peace and the well being of the planet. I called my partner Kay and told her about the idea and she said, "You know what, that's one of your better ideas!" Next I shared the idea with friends, and it was a ripple effect from there. I started getting calls and e-mails from people I didn't even know, people wanting to contribute. So many people have helped make it happen, and the panels are just absolutely incredible.

DT: You say that you're a "child of war." Could you explain?

Jean: I was born in May of 1939 in the seaside resort of New Brighton, England. The bombing started in September. New Brighton is located directly across the River Mersey from Liverpool — which was a primary target for the Germans. Our little town just happened to be in their path, and consequently received rather heavy bombing. The first word I said was bomb. "What do the Germans do, Luv?" my mom would ask. "Bomb," I'd answer before running with my doll to the makeshift bomb shelter in the cupboard under the stairs. I was two.

My growing up was neighbors dying, blood in the streets, our roof being blown off, playing on bombed out sites and in burnt out buildings, living with food shortages, collecting wood from wrecked ships to use as fuel, and yet ... to have experienced it all feels like a gift. To have done without, be hungry, cold, make do, share — brought us all together.

DT: You said that you've been a peace activist your entire life, could you elaborate?

Jean: In the late 1970's, after reading the book "Nuclear Madness" by Dr. Helen Caldicott, I got involved in protests at Diablo Canyon, Lawrence Livermore Labs, and the Concord Weapons Station. Then in April 1983 I went to the Peace Camp in Greenham Common, England, where 50,000 women came from all over the world to protest the siting of cruise missiles at the United States Air Force base located there. There was a 14-mile long fence around the base, and we formed a human chain, five people deep in spots, all the way around it. Due in part to our action and the almost 20-year presence of the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp, the missiles were eventually sent back to the US and the fence came down.

Actually, I also now recall a massive Mother's Day protest at the Mercury, Nevada nuclear test site in the 1980s. (May 12, 1987) The event was attended by Carl Sagan, Daniel Ellsberg, Jessie Jackson ... it was absolutely amazing.

DT: So, you've been involved with fences coming down in the past, and are now choosing to see them as opportunities. As a canvas. What do you envision happening next with the Peace Fence project?

Jean: I would love to see fences everywhere covered with art and poetry. Would love the idea to spread, for people to be inspired to create something similar in their own communities — be it on a public fence or in their back yards. As for the art itself, among several of the ideas we are considering is creating a calendar based on photographs of the panels, and also having the installation travel to other communities.

I believe many forms of protest are needed, and can be effective, but this project is about encouraging people to put their creativity to work; it offers them an opportunity to give voice to their hopes and dreams for humanity.

I'm currently reading Malcom Gladwell's "Tipping Point," and the way I see the tipping point is that you do the work, keep doing it and doing it — in this case, the work is waging peace — and then suddenly there's a massive paradigm shift. And that's where I think we are right now in the global peace movement.

This article, part two of the article published last week, was published by the Ashland Daily Tidings on May 16, 2007.


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