This Thing Called Community

The other day someone asked me when I knew I was an artist. I didn’t even hesitate because that day had nothing to do with art. It had to do with something far deeper and hungrier in me, the need for community. And I sought it for most my life.

It started in my late teens when I spent about three months in a commune. It was a period of time when I struggled with a lot of things. I needed to get away from my father’s violent temper and his drunken rages. I mostly stayed with Kristina in a cheap motel room where the only window overlooked an alley where the working girls entertained clients who couldn’t afford to pay for a room.

We both worked in a coffee shop owned by an Armenian immigrant, who gave us jobs during our high school years and paid us under the table. He was the closest thing to a stable family for both of us then. He knew what my father looked like and he always hid me when he saw him coming. We always felt safe at work. Other than Dimitri’s coffee shop, neither of us really had a home other than the beds of temporary boyfriends.

That changed when we became involved in the Peace Rat collective. We helped young, scared men apply for conscientious objector status, the first joint writing project Kristina and I did together. When their applications were denied, we helped them get to Canada. During the height of the Vietnam war the fervor to go after pacifists like ourselves was at insanity levels. Several of us were evicted from our apartments, and found it nearly impossible to rent another because we were considered anarchists. So when we heard of a communal living situation in the foothills, we went for it.

It took three months for me to know as much as I loved the community and the people in it, I was basically a loner and living among so many people was not something I could do. I went back to work for Dimitri and rented a cheap hole in the wall studio apartment in a seedy part of town. But I stayed in touch with the folks from the commune, and I still communicate with some of them.

My experience there taught me the value of being around those who saw the world through the same filters. We were not the same people, but we shared similar visions. We wanted peace. We wanted equality for all humans. We wanted love and kindness to guide us along whatever path we walked. We wanted a sense of belongingness, a community where it didn’t matter if we were understood as long as we were accepted.

Over the years, through the pursuit of all those pieces of paper that pronounced me educated, I experienced that same sense of community in many different ways and with different people. I was a member of a peyote church for about a year. I went to what were then called happenings, love fests, music festivals. I moved on to barter fairs, rainbow gatherings, and Dead shows. I was part of a community that grew and changed according to my need to take part in it, whether it was a small introspective group harvesting peyote for a ceremony or a gathering of several thousand naked dancing hippies. It was all community and it all fed me.

As I grew older I began to narrow my search to one that was more permanent and less transitory. I wanted permanence. Understanding of who I was inside became important. Introspection in others became important. I became impatient and finally discouraged by the shallow and the selfish because I knew the good that was out there. I had followed it for decades and knew the hold it had on me. I didn’t want to explain anymore why the inner world mattered as much if not more than the outer world. I didn’t want to explain anymore. I was tired of trying to fit into that square peg with my round life.

And then I noticed something start to happen. Some of my circle of what I thought was my community started to fall away. It wasn’t any one thing most of the time. It was simply that one day I realized I had what I wanted all along. I didn’t recognize it at first because of the layers of clay, ink, paint, and dye that covered it. But eventually most of the people I felt the most connected to, most of the people that were the constant in the communities I was part of were artists. It was that way since i was 14 and it is that way now. I had completed the circle. The realization was like suddenly realizing I had ten digits when I thought I only had nine. I felt whole for the first time in my life.

It’s been a few years now since that day but once it became clear there was no going back. My community are people who spend a lot of time alone giving life to what lives inside them. They’ve explored the light, the dark, the good, the bad and everything in between. When you’ve gone through that it doesn’t need to be explained. It’s in the very air you breathe together. It’s in those quiet moments when you understand what it means to see behind your eyes. It is the baring of souls through art. It is drawing the depths into the foreground so others can, if not understand, to at least accept. It is belongingness. It is community.

Kate Taylor’s Art

The River Daughter

For many years those who saw Arman Peace’s dramatic depictions of nature as a sensuous woman, wondered about the model in his paintings. When Aquia came through the tunnels, they learned she was his aunt, Coventina, the spiritual leader of Anahita, and the lover of Arman Peace.

The villages of River Valley are ruled by rotating volunteer councils, but Anahita is the only one headed by a spiritual leader. Her name is Coventina. She is descended from the first River Daughter, and she is revered for her wisdom. Few remember a time without her, but she has only ruled since the death of her husband several decades ago.” A soft smile touched Aquia’s lips, as though a secret hid behind them in wait. “The whispers say her touch can heal the most wounded soul. And they also say that same touch can burn through the skin and destroy the unwary fool.

from When The Last River Dies

Coventina visits one of Arman Peace’s paintings of her. It was painted to commemorate the day they conceived Dante. But she continues to seed the trail of half-truths about her love for Arman Peace, one which is the yearly festival devoted to the celebration of love. The residents of River Valley believe it kept alive the memory of the man she loved with all the passion and heartbreak of good myth. Coventina has her reasons for allowing them to continue to do so.

As you get older, my young novice, you will understand how little separation exists between those you loved and the time that passed. It becomes all one thread that weaves our hearts to one another. You can cut it. You can burn it. You can bury it. But there is no way to destroy every single thread, and all it takes is one to hold the memory inside you forever. Just one solitary thread.”

from When The Last River Dies

In the third and final book Coventina, during her final days, reveals her reasons for keeping the truth hidden. She hands the secret to her grandchild, Calistina, the new River Daughter, to hold as she held it for all those years.

Coventina’s gaze drifted to the tall peaks visible through the small window cut into the stone wall of her cottage. “Human follies are perpetual. Societies grow and fall, and then they grow again only to fall again. Right now, we are climbing back up, digging our knuckles into the dirt. This is the time to decide the future, to make the decisions necessary to move forward.” She turned her focus back to Calistina. “Your generation will make those decisions, not mine. And you will have to continually defeat those who resist change, those who won’t cede power until the fires consume them. You will have to lead from strength and inspire from hope.”

from When The Last Ocean Dies

Kate Taylor’s Books and Arts Ursine Logic

The Philosopher Artist

The character of Arman Peace never appeared in any of the three novels, but he was a presence in all of them. Everything we know about him came from other people’s memories. That’s how we learned he was the one who shaped Yewen and Lilyani. That’s how we learned he was the one who changed the life of Anahita’s spiritual leader, and whose blood will run through its veins forever.

Arman Peace’s dramatic and tragic works of art that depicted nature’s destruction at the hands of humanity won him fame, but it was his philosophy that drew students to his classroom. They valued his classes not only for the art training, but for the life changing insights they gained from listening to him speak. He taught them to understand they were not separate from nature, that everything was connected to itself.

He told me healing only came after we learned to make what we remembered and how we remembered inseparable. Only then would our memories remain pure and untouched by forces outside ourselves.”

from When The Last Ocean Dies

But unlike the other students, Yewen did not choose Arman Peace as a teacher. He was not an artist, nor did he have much interest in art. Arman Peace sought him out as his student, not to learn about art, but to learn about the inner world of the artist, to understand how creativity grew in some but not in others. He wanted him to understand the artist was inseparable from the art.

Arman Peace knew this was a way in to the understanding already rooted inside Yewen. He saw in Yewen a pure connection to nature, a depth of understanding that he was connected to every other living thing.

Part of it came from his training as a monk from the Monastery of the Trees where he learned without the forests, the planet could not survive. But Arman Peace believed Yewen was destined for more than an objective receptacle of facts about the need for forests. He saw him as the powerful protector the forests needed to preserve them for the future. Arman Peace knew from their first meeting that was Yewen’s true path, because an understanding of the connection was already in place.

If the forest burned that was fine because we lived in the city. If there were no more fish in the lake, that was fine because we preferred meat. We became insular and insulated, immovable forces caught in the amber of our own ignorance.

from When The Last Ocean Dies

As Yewen began his search for Arman Peace, the man, he started to understand how clearly his path was seeded by the mystical artist. Arman Peace knew he couldn’t teach him how to speak to his inner world enough to create art that came from inside him. That was a path Yewen needed to walk on his own to gain the insight needed to bring forth what lived inside him.

But what Arman Peace taught him and the other students was the important lesson they came to learn. The ills of the world were caused when humanity split itself off from nature, when humanity began to treat nature as a separate part of themselves, as a commodity, as a force determined to wage war against them. He made them understand only when they reclaimed that connection would the planet finally begin to heal. He knew in Yewen they finally found their needed voice.

Maybe future generations will look at the paintings and demand a world where the air is clean enough to bring back the birds, the butterflies, the flowers, and even the stars. They existed once, and somewhere they still exist. It is up to humanity to find the crack in the worlds so memory and the present can occupy the same place once more.”

from When The Last Ocean Dies

Kate Taylor’s Art and Books Ursine Logic