Making Espresso, I Stop the War

Narrative Artist Statement

My mother, my two aunts and I were interviewed by sound artist Catherine Forester for her upcoming installation about women and generational continuity. I noticed that we talked a lot about food.

Even Catherine’s question about our involvement in politics prompted us to talk about our efforts in Hunger Hikes, Crop Walks, and Heifer International, an organization whose goal is to end world hunger. At the end of the interview, we sat and discussed our lives further while eating Swedish coffee cake (kaffe brod) and drinking coffee around a table simply and elegantly set.

Recalling the interview later, I reflected on the fact that, for all our talk about food, my family does not discuss our political appetites or agendas. I never knew, I still don’t know, if my parents belong to a political party. We have no politicians or political activists in our family, nor do we know any. Once I shook the hand of Mayor Richard M. Daley when he presented me with an award for the design of a fifth anniversary logo for a Chicago AIDS organization.

Actually, that presentation is a revealing event; my political energy, my social activism, takes shape visually. Ultimately, I find working as a visual artist to be a political act; visual images influence the viewing public, albeit in small ways. Recently, having had some success with homeopathy on chronic ailments, I’ve begun to think of my visual works as homeopathic remedies for realigning the energy of the body politic.

I find my role in political and social issues the same as my calling in art and life. I am an observer and recorder of the dualities, the ambiguities, and the slow transformations that result from the nays and the yays that must co-exist in a world of opposing energies. Revenge / compassion. Nukes / no nukes. Open immigration / border patrols. Peace / war. I observe, and in observing, in a complex way, I intervene. As the painter Georges Seurat said, “Observation is intervention.”

In addition to seeing art as a socio-political act, I observe that food serves as political fodder. My own practice includes reading labels and buying local, organic food as our budget allows. Before we moved to our apartment, I composted food scraps. I support access and distribution of healthy, sustainable food and drink to all. My understanding is that no one in the world should go hungry, that our planet is capable of supplying enough food for everyone, if we could just get the politics and economics of distribution worked out.

Closer to home and on a lighter note, food has political pull in my husband’s Italian-German family. Each Panarese/Döring gathering has certain foods that must be made and consumed; it is law. Without Glenn’s mother’s Italian sausage and rigatoni at Christmas there would be social chaos. As a counterweight to dominant Italian fare, Tante Pauline faithfully contributed her Germanic version of Rice Krispie treats year after year. Pauline made Rice Krispie treats wie himmelhoch. We think her secret was to buy the large marshmallows and cut them up into small pieces with a surgical scissors instead of using the small marshmallows which have more stale surface area.

Aunt Pauline took her Rice Krispie treat recipe to the grave in January 2006. She was waked
at the Arlington Heights Lutheran Home between two sprays of pink roses and edelweiss.
The casket sat next to a colorful stained glass window of Christ being resurrected; the window allowed a lavender, then blue, then pink winter light to wax and wane on the casket throughout the wake. I took one last photo of her in the casket surrounded by the rose-pink light right before it was wheeled into the chapel for her memorial service. A funeral luncheon was held immediately following the casket’s interment at the cemetery. Ironically, we celebrated Pauline’s entry into eternity by eating Italian.

Aunt Pauline’s very good friend, Jane May Comiskey, learned of Pauline’s death and wrote to my husband asking if she could commemorate her passing by taking us out to lunch at the Art Institute of Chicago. We met for lunch on what would have been Tante’s 91st birthday in the museum’s courtyard restaurant. After toasting the life of Aunt Pauline, both Jane and I ordered the Barramundi with black olive oil; Glenn ordered the organic risotto. The day was warm and bright and I took photos of Jane as she ate crème brulee and drank her espresso. Glenn and I split a strawberry rhubarb oatcake torte with vanilla ice cream. I drank peppermint tea; espresso wreaks havoc with my hormones, and so I find energetic stimulus in other ways than by drinking the pressure-made beverage so popular today.

Fully satiated by our lunch, I came home and printed my digital photos of Jane eating her dessert with her espresso at her right hand. This is the type of colorful and aesthetically composed image I like to paint in the grided, vertically and horizontally striated marks that has come to formally represent my world view—my life, humanity’s life, is given form by opposing energies, by lights and darks, by comings and goings, by joyful and disastrous events, by living and dying. Through these dualities of existence, we have the opportunity to grow, progress, and transform. Whether or not we transform for the good of the body politic comes through complex choices, choices that are as multi-faceted and nuanced as an image made up of droplets of ink particles or a picture painted in bite-sized squares.

A few days after lunch with Jane, I found myself re-reading Stephen Levine’s Healing into Life and Death. Levine tells the story of a writer, Paul Reps, who wanted to practice meditation in Japan after the Korean War. He was told by an Asian immigration officer that it would not be possible since he was not military personnel. Reps sat silently in front of the officer, then wrote a one-line poem on the back of his visa; “Making a cup of green tea, I stop the war.” He handed the visa to the officer who read the poem in silence: “Making a cup of green tea, I stop the war.” After a long pause, he looked at Reps and said “We need more people like you in our country right now” and approved the visa.

Reps acted politically as an artist, a mediator, a poet. When confronted with an opposing energy—the immigration officer—he writes a poem “Making a cup of green tea, I stop the war.” The poem creates a bridge, a relationship, between the two men. Choices are made and access is gained instead of denied. An understanding begins through an act of art. How can you, how can we, in the act making a cup of green tea, stop the war? The possibilities are as multi- faceted and nuanced as ways to make kaffe brod, Rice Krispie treats, rigatoni or espresso.

When observing or confronting the dualities and opposing energies of life, I make a picture, I make an installation. I act politically through my creative act. A bridge is offered, an invitation for relationship is extended.

I transform as dualistic thoughts are brought into relationship with one another; my brain, my eyes and hands must work together in cooperation. An internal peace ensues. I trust the transformation acts homeopathically on the body politic and a shift in energy is begun.

Making espresso, I stop the war.

—Deborah Adams Doering