In a World of Environmental Policy, Tevyn East Champions Art

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East has a passion for environmental activism.

Photos courtesy of David Lovere.

As economic growth has come to a halt, people everywhere are struggling to make ends meet by pinching pennies and cutting unnecessary expenditures. Education systems are no different. At every level of education across the United States, schools are cutting what they consider to be either the unimportant or the less-important programs. For better or worse, a large number of those programs fall under the category of “the arts” — visual art, dance, theatre, music, and so forth.

In a world where the number of PhD recipients on food stamps and other forms of welfare more than tripled, and where the highest paying jobs are often technical or pragmatic and not academic or artistic, it makes sense that schools are re-emphasizing more practical, concrete, direct-to-jobs programs. That emphasis begins even as early as elementary school with more science and math and less dance and theatre.

In public K-12 schools around the nation, for example, only 4% of elementary schools offer dance and even fewer, 3%, offer drama — a 20% decline since 2000. This decline is worse for minorities: “fewer 18-year-olds surveyed in 2008 reported receiving any arts education in childhood than did those surveyed in 1982, dropping from about 65 percent to 50 percent…Just 26 percent of African-Americans surveyed in 2008 reported receiving any arts education in childhood, a huge drop from the 51 percent who reported as much in 1982…For Hispanics ages 18 to 24, the figure for getting any arts education plummeted to 28 percent in 2008, down from 47 percent in 1982.”

With fewer individuals trained to appreciate art, that will naturally cause a smaller audience to later consume artmaking. It is no surprise, then, that art audiences have begun to dwindle: “Nearly 35% of U.S. adults — or about 78 million people — attended an art museum or an arts performance in 2008…That’s down from about 40% in 1982, 1992 and 2002. In particular, audiences for classical and jazz concerts have declined by double digits since 1982, the most of all the art forms.”

Challenging the Norms

The idea behind this trend — that artmaking is neither practical nor conducive to productivity — is a commonly held assumption these days in the United States. We increasingly push the next generation to not “follow your dreams” but to “get a job,” to not pursue careers of the imagination but careers that guarantee a retirement (and for legitimate reasons in this economy). But not everyone shares this assumption.

Tevyn East’s upbringing exposed her to the idea that her religion of Christianity should focus on issues of justice and engaging society.

Tevyn East is one of those who cry foul. And East has a very interesting perspective on all this commotion.

A preacher’s kid, East grew up in a church community. Her upbringing exposed her to the idea that her religion of Christianity should focus on issues of justice and engaging society. But that exposure also made her realize that Christians did not always practice what they preach. East says,

“I have gone through my own periods of being frustrated with the hypocrisies of the [religious] institutions to respond to the signs of the times and to really provide a relevant message to today’s world.”

As an artist, East desired to make art that would actually be relevant to what happens around her. To do this, it seemed that she would need to distance her artmaking from her religious beliefs.

“For most of my life as an artist I was at different times distancing myself from the church or then finding myself compelled to reconnect with it. It is a long story of how I came to explicitly reference my faith convictions.”

East is trained as a dancer. She graduated from Hollins University in Virginia with a degree in dance. She spent most of her time in college working collaboratively with experimental dance groups, most notably the Zen Monkey Project in in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was while working on capacity building for community organizers in Washington, D.C., though, when East was able to reflect on how to connect her theological ideas with her social efforts. East says,

“I found that within the Christ message that there is total opposition to the domination we see in the world, the domination of everything.”

Specifically, East has a passion for environmental activism. While in Washington, D.C., East had the opportunity to engage in environmental activism from the policy side, taking a break from her artmaking. But while working on policy activism for the environment, East began to sense something was wrong. She explains,

There is a spiritual povery in our social and environmental movements. So I felt this deep commission and calling that I should tie the peace of my faith and values to the story of our relationship with the world and the earth.”

But this calling went deeper than just fusing faith with policy. She saw the need to fuse faith with artmaking, forgoing the policy activism altogether.

“The tools within policy work are really depressing. You find out how difficult it is to leverage any change. The system is created to prevent change. The method of doing reports and studies and scrutinizing and carefully crafting statements — in a way that’s really important. But these statements and reports and studies are not changing the world. Information is not what we need.

The Power of Art

East has a passion for environmental activism.

After careful reflection, East decided to go back to her artmaking. She says,

After spending time doing advocacy work, I felt this new clarity that art gets in our system in a different way. It can affect our imagination and our perceptions and can be a midwife for transformation in a way that a lot of things can’t.”

East believes that the politics and practicalities of policy work have their place. But policy work cannot change how a society chooses to assign value. Since she believes environmental activism requires a change in society’s values, artmaking needs to take a front seat. East says,

“When looking at changing a story, or changing the identity of a people or culture, then it is the music, the rituals, and the visual expressions of imagining our future — that is what can change us in a deep, core way. So when we’re letting go of the arts, we are letting go of our ability to imagine alternatives and animate possibilities. Which is more and more to mean that we are programmed how to think, we have mass media, standardized tests, global markets that usher products to us, and we don’t understand where things come from and why. In order to really work beyond that sense of being bound and programmed and captive, we need that freedom that can only come from the arts.”

Christianity and Artmaking

As a person of faith, East often faces an uphill battle. When you think of “serious artmaking,” you do not often associate the concept with Christianity. As both a Christian and an artist, East believes that she has a responsibility to present truly vibrant, provocative art:

There are a lot of artists who create merely to shirk their responsibilities to the world. I feel that the schism between the faith world and the art world has not only made it such that our worship is lackluster, it also creatures a failure to truly embody an alternative vision. This leads to our own spiritual poverty.”

As both a Christian and an artist, East believes that she has a responsibility to present truly vibrant, provocative art.

So East went on what she calls a “crazy journey” to pull together a social critique with creative tools and to make a show that is both radical and relevant. She is currently on tour with “Leaps and Bounds,” a show that she choreagraphed, produces, and performs all by herself. Described as “a one woman show which explores the intersection of faith, ecology, and the global economy,” the show has taken East to more than 100 communities in over 50 cities across the United States. The show has even been adapted into a film.

The show utilizes a variety of tools, including storytelling, song, poetry, prayer, movement, and music. East describes it as,

“a patchwork quilt that weaves together economic theory that sort of journeys from the beginning of space and time through the biblical narratives about the human relationship to earth. It speaks to the biblical legacy of resistance and the rightful vocation of people of moral standing and people of faith to resist the domination system.”

While that may sound either heady or religious, East is careful to say that anyone can come and enjoy it — it is meant to move and inspire, not divide:

“What’s great about the show is that it reaches a lot of communities — any group or individual that is seeking encouragement or a life-giving alternative vision. There are many people who have felt wounded by the church and have found the show to be compelling and healing. And it’s been received by interfaith communities and synagogues and secular communities. It really does bridge a lot of communities.”

At the heart of her message, East says, is the universal value of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” She hopes to present a timely vision that both presents beautiful artmaking as well as her personal religious convinctions. East says,

“This is critical for us now and for future generations. This should be something that faith communities get. I reference the manna story and the mandates God gave: take only what you need; do not hoard and store up; and there is time to rest and appreciate the gifts of life. Those are mandates in our Christian tradition and we need to recognize and look at living simpler lives with the peace and healing that can come from being responsible for the well-being of our communities.

Tevyn East will be performing “Leaps and Bounds” in Eugene on Sunday, October 14, from 3-5 pm. The event is sponsored by Eugene Interfaith Earthkeepers. The Unitarian Universalist Church in Eugene will host the event in its new building at 13th and Chambers. There is a sliding scale cost of $7-$15, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds. For more information about East and her work, visit http://www.affordinghopeproject.org/.

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