By John Woodford
Executive Editor, Michigan Today
Carol Ann Carter, associate professor of art, told the 65 attendees that the format chosen for the School of Art’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day program “might seem too ’60s, like a sensitivity session, but we’re trying to show the parts that make the whole.”
The School’s informal panel discussion was designed to help those attending find out who they are, where they are from and how identity contributes to the creative process.
Photographer Kaori Ohgata, ’92 M.A., who came to the United States in 1985, said that by leaving her homeland and moving alone to this country, she disqualified herself as a “traditional Japanese woman” in her native culture. In America she is “defined as a Japanese or Asian woman.” She is trying “to adjust and to communicate what it is like to live between two cultures.” Meanwhile, she continues to be asked “if I feel guilty about Pearl Harbor or about the trade deficit” by Americans who see her as representing the Japanese nation instead of herself.
Theodore K. Ramsay, professor of art, grew up near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and was among a group of “mostly poor rural white kids” bused to the city’s all-white schools. The town lacked a museum back then, he said, but the mortuary became one for him. Artist Grant Wood occasionally gave his paintings as rent to the undertaker, his landlord, and those works and other artifacts in the mortuary fascinated Ramsay.
Although he’d drawn since childhood, his culturally limited upbringing and small size (he wrestled at 112 pounds in high school) inhibited him somewhat. But at college “the world opened for me, and I learned to say that I wanted to be an artist,” especially after a course in African art “opened a whole new realm of forms and images.”
Kyle Kieliszewski, ’94, of Alpena grew up in a mainly Polish-American community outside Alpena. When he went to town he encountered “ridicule about how stupid Poles are supposed to be.” Delving into his heritage, he learned that “Poland” is derived from the word for fields, polanyi. He worked long and hard on his grandfather’s farm, so “fields mean things green and living” to him, and he tries in his art to convey “not just the beauty but the hell of work in farm fields.” Fields have become a complex symbol of his identity and subject for his art.
Jiba Anderson, ’94, of Detroit is studying photography, graphic design, illustration, costume design and acting. “I’m looked at as a jack-of-all-trades, master of none,” he said, “but I put all my effort in everything I do, so I reject that label. I don’t like being idle, and I don’t like ignorance. I don’t like ignorance in myself, and I don’t like ignorance in my community or anyone else’s.” His sense of African American identity is particularly strong, he said, because his mother is from West Africa. “I’m not for homogenization, of dissolving differences,” he added. “The world is like a gumbo, and culture should reflect that.”
Betty Smith, the School’s development officer, confided, “I change every day, so I don’t have a clue as to who I am. If some day I don’t like myself, it doesn’t matter much. I’ll be different tomorrow.” But Smith said it “can be hard to be a staff member at the University of Michigan. If you’re a staff member, people think you’re not very smart.”
Trained as a biologist, she gave up her academic career to earn money to put her husband through school. She retains a very important lesson from her scientific studies, however: “Inbreeding is death; diversity is everything. That’s one thing you learn in biology.”