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Diane Calder

HOW I LEARNED TO
LOOK OUT AT THE WORLD


Every avid insistence by my mother that I was destined to become the next Shirley Temple strengthened my determination to avoid achieving success as the child celebrity of her dreams.  I pictured myself as an artist, writer or scholar, looking out at the world rather than being looked at.

When Mom announced gleefully one morning, “You made the front page of the Tribune,” I discovered that my second grade teacher had entered one of my limericks into a campaign fabricated to involve primary school children in America’s efforts against the evil Axis.  A press photographer from the Chicago Tribune had captured my image as I dutifully scrawled my illustrated message in chalk on the cold metal of one of hundreds of bombs laid out on Navy Pier.  My aphorism was ?Let’s bomb the Japs right off the maps!? I won an invitation to attend Saturday classes at the Chicago Art Institute and free admission to the museum’s collections.

The Art Institute’s trove of Japanese treasures soon became my favorite haunt.  Until that time, the only images I recall having seen of Japanese people were those in political cartoons, government Victory posters or world news clips projected between features at the movies.  All were designed to picture our enemies as totally evil, sneaky, slant eyed, yellow skinned, cowardly and conniving sub-humans.  The Japs portrayed in propaganda bore little resemblance to those who gazed back at me from scrolls, screens and Ukiyo-e prints in the museum.  Proud actors posed as valiant warriors.  Graceful women wrapped in silk robes patterned in dazzling hues and designs, arranged flowers or played stringed instruments in houses similar to some I had seen by Frank Lloyd Wright.  How could I be sure that my bomb would single out the evil Japanese and do no harm to any of the Art Institute types who obviously shared my regard for beauty and nature?

That early encounter with art as a bridge to new vision heightened my desire to investigate ways in which words and imagery influence our apprehensions of the world.  My determination to learn as much as I could about cultures foreign to me emboldened me to seek out opportunities to travel extensively.  A long awaited expansion in the study of art history, beyond its narrow focus on the exclusive canon of white male heroes, coincided with my participation in the Feminist art movement and eventual return to MFA studies at Cal Arts.  Both demanded extensive investigations into the meanings of linguistics and visual imagery, which served me well as I taught and wrote about art, mostly in L. A., but also in Europe and Japan.

I was participating in a month long exchange in Yamagata and Tokyo, showing work titled “Hanging by a Thread,” a gaigen’s examination of Japanese women, when news of 9/11 hit.  My Japanese hosts averted their eyes as CNN repeatedly interlaced images from New York with old film clips of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  As the memory of the hurt and confusion I had experienced as a child resurfaced, I realized that possessing the tools to more clearly assess motive in a territory where art, linguistics and audience intersect, is vital to all I hold dear.