Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Influence of Experience on the Creation of Art

Vietnamese Boat Refugees coming in to Subic Bay, Philippines, google image

The impetus for my assemblage began in an experience I had in the Philippines in 1975 and my life long reflection of what home meant.

The year was 1975. I was a young art teacher in my twenties working for the Department of Defense in the Overseas Education program that serves American Military personnel and their children. My assignment was Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippine Islands.  The first year I arrived Subic Bay was still an active war base; it was the last year of the Viet Nam war.  Much happened during the three years I taught art there; Marcos, the President of the Philippines declared Martial Law and virtually became a dictator, Imelda counted her 7,000 shoes, and then came the fall of Viet Nam.  At first the wealthier people flew out holding gold bars and people with connections were helicoptered out the last few days. The common person got on anything they could that would float and took out across the South China Sea in desperate hope of escape from war and tyranny. They floated on boat and raft into the bay of Subic Bay by the thousands.  The Philippine Government was sure that Viet Nam would bomb Subic Bay Naval Base that housed all the armaments for the Navy for the war.
Boats so over loaded, they seemed impossible to still be
 google image
 They would not allow the refugees to come on the mainland but  they did come to
Grande Island sitting right off the coast of the base.  Teachers were asked to help process the refugees as they came in.  In a period of three weeks we processed 70,000(I have found varying numbers reported, from 39,000 to 60,000, the 70,000 is only from my memory of what I was told at the time) people who were then sent on to 
refuge centers in Guam and the USA.
This was one of the most formable times of my life.  I remember clearly asking people questions with an interpreter while they were standing in long lines waiting so quiet it seemed erie.  Frozen in my memory is one woman holding her most prized possession, her tin wash basin! The children cried constantly, and I asked one of the mothers, why they were all crying so much.  She said all their lives they had heard the explosions and gun fire of war, and it was too quiet for them. 

That time marked me deeply, seeing people lose what had been their home, having to leave everything behind they knew and loved.  I began to think about how it would  be if that happened to me, if I were torn from my family, my mother, my home and all I cherished, the desperation and courage it would take to risk every thing to leave not knowing where home would be next.
Vietnamese Refugee arriving in Subic Bay
google image
A year later I returned to the United States and returned to teaching in St. Petersburg, Florida.  It was not long after that I was asked to teach at a school that was a center for Vietnamese refugees we were now calling boat people.  The center was to assist children who spoke little or no English in their education and help them adapt to a new culture.  Many of the aides assisting were Vietnamese as well.  It once again threw me into a world of these engaging people that were torn from their country to build a home in a new place and culture.  Many of the teachers aides had been principals, teachers, doctors or lawyers in Viet Nam, but our teachers did not always ask and  just assumed because they could not speak English well, they were uneducated and lower class.  It frustrated the aides greatly, the children were puzzled and I was amazed at the lack of understanding of the American staff.  I think the aides and I began to understand this was going to be the typical reaction they were going to receive in this new culture.  The children were immediately given the message their adults were not respected and therefore they were not worthy either.  

All these experiences left me with the life long pondering of what it would be like to lose one's home and have to build another life. And it also led me to think deeply about the ideology of what home is. Is it a place? Is it people? Is it more complicated than all of that?  The journey is difficult, and acceptance is not guaranteed.  Our country is a country of immigrants and we are a nation of people who have left behind a home we knew to a home we chose.  I remember reading a quote recently written by a British author who when he came to America noticed all Americans had a lonely look and he thought it was a genetic memory of lands and home.  It struck me from this quote, are we inherently unsettled people, who generation after generation have a national unconscious mind of lost people.  It is something to think about.  
In this Surrealistic assemblage you will see many references to home through symbols of different kinds. I will leave it to you to interpret these symbols as your experiences bring you to them. Mine will be different, but I wanted to crack open a door to give you insight into the creation of this piece...Home in many languages.
Elizabeth Gordon

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