Hansen: Indelible stories behind the art

Picasso probably had this problem.

People just didn't get it. It was complicated and uncomfortable.

Nowadays, the experience of art has not changed much. You may pass by a piece in a gallery window and immediately recoil — "what is that?" — without knowing anything about its history or story.

Maybe that's asking too much. Maybe art should stand easily on its own.

But if you can have the opportunity to get beyond drive-by art, you might experience something much more powerful.

Consider Jason Pearson. His distinctive work has been in the windows of the ArtCube Gallery in Laguna Beach for the past month, but it was his show-ending live performance Friday night that made his art come alive in a profound way.

Projecting images and dry wit, the self-effacing Pearson told compelling backstories that will be hard to forget.

"The problem with the world is me," he started, working off cue cards in front of a small crowd. "I confess that I employ 12 slaves."

Pearson admitted to six "confessions" about how world issues affect him.

"A couple years ago I would have told you that slavery was something that was abolished back in the Abraham Lincoln era," he said. "But there are more slaves today than at any time in history. There's about 27 million worldwide."

He cited examples of forced slavery, sex slavery, domestic servitude and child soldiers.

"When you look at these paintings, you realize in each one of them there's something wrong. In many of them that thing is slavery," he said. "But my confession to you is that although I understand slavery, I realize I'm still part of the problem.

"You see, I buy clothes that are still made by children forced to work in sweatshops. I own a computer with minerals mined by slaves in the Congo. And I even eat tomatoes picked by migrant slave workers right here in the United States. And I want to confess that I prefer to look away."

Pearson's confessions were not told with the off-putting tone of political indignation — just a deep sense of personal accountability and purpose. He did not expect the audience to sign a petition or donate in a can.

Only listen and consider.

He admitted that he is one of the top 3% richest people in the world — but only because he makes more than $38,000 a year. He suggested that people go to globalrichlist.com and see where they fall.

"I have the luxury of driving a car with heated seats and surround sound, yet I want the newer model," he said. "I have the luxury of taking my five kids to the happiest place on earth for the day, where it's easy to ignore the two-thirds of the world's population who don't earn that in about two years."

As a teenager, Pearson was robbed "with a gun against my head" by two other teens.

"I think about how my life would be different today if I was carrying a gun for protection," he said. "Either I would probably be dead or those two boys or all of us might be dead for the one dollar that I was carrying in my pocket that night."

Pearson always made connections back to his paintings, showing how they impacted the art in a cathartic way.

"When abducted children are turned into child soldiers and are too young to carry a gun, they give them a whistle," he said. "Then they send them to the front lines to blow the whistles when the enemy is coming and use them as human shields.

"In several of the paintings, you can see the women wearing this whistle as articles of adornment, but they are also remembering these innocents."

We know art can be overtly political but it's always better when it's subtle, like a mosquito on the shoulder of a woman.

"I live inside a warm trust of Facebook fans, Twitter followers and YouTube viewers," he said. "Most days it's easier and easier to escape into my virtual world entertained by iTunes, Netflix, Spotify and even Angry Birds."

This media cocoon, he said, insulates him from the "2.5 billion people that are living on the edge of survival."

"When I live in my Orange County bubble, I never get a status update that says, 'Today I have to decide which of my children to sell into sex slavery so my other children will have enough to eat.'

"I don't receive a personal text message that says, 'Can I borrow $5 for medication to keep my daughter from dying of malaria?' — as in the painting, 'Comfort Over Survival,' (which has) a skeletal figure with a tiny mosquito on her shoulder."

Pearson concluded his confessions, which were taped, by telling the disturbing story of Margaret, a pregnant Ugandan whose village was attacked by the notorious Lord's Resistance Army.

"When the soldiers went to kill Margaret they saw she was pregnant, and it's bad luck in their culture to kill a pregnant woman. So instead of killing her, they cut off her nose, they cut off her mouth, and they cut off her ears and they left her for dead."

Margaret survived but while recuperating — in a cruel twist of fate — she ended up in a World Vision rehabilitation center with the actual attacker.

With religious counselors urging forgiveness and confession, the two reconciled, at which point Pearson showed a picture of the attacker holding the victim's newborn baby.

"Disfigured without a nose, without ears and lips, she represents real beauty and forgiveness in a world of problems," Pearson said. "Each one of these people in the paintings is Margaret, some of them without noses, some of them without eyes to see.

"These are some of my first paintings in many years, and to be honest with you, I don't care if people buy them. In fact, I'd like to keep them."

Fortunately, it's too late to keep them. The stories are told and painted, the lessons on display in a gallery near you.

Meanwhile, real life continues everywhere, sadly.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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