The practice of Quakerism can be rather unclear to an outsider. As a student at a Friends school, I experienced what I call the hidden curriculum, where I learned to live the Quaker testimonies without explicitly having been taught the history or been given a prescribed practice. After graduating, I often noticed something was out of sorts but was unable to put my finger on just what was missing. In order to better understand the intersection of the hidden curriculum and what was missing, I decided to use art as a process of both self-discovery and contextual understanding. I chose to start my journey of understanding by exploring the testimony of simplicity.
Through my work I learned that a life of simplicity requires discipline. This mandates taking on only what is manageable. A commitment to simplicity translates into uncomplicating an overscheduled and overburdened lifestyle. It means discerning aspirations and learning to eliminate distractions. I arrived at this understanding after creating three art installations for my exhibition Simplicity Quantified. My artwork is a tangible examination of the life choices people make and the potential benefit of altering behaviors.
For the first of the three installations, titled “Age—24 years, 4 months, 1 week, 3 days, Possessions—1586,” I meticulously went through and documented every item that I owned: six and a half cups of flour, 327 straight pins, eleven pairs of socks, etc. I then numbered sales tags and listed the quantity and the item on each card. The total number of my possessions was 1,586. In order to install this artwork, I lay down on the floor and laid out each card to form rings around the outline of my body. The viewer could see the space taken up by my body compared to space taken up by my possessions. The installed piece covered approximately a 12-foot square.
Cataloging each of my possessions influenced my understanding of simplicity, as it allowed me to examine concretely the ways in which living in a consumer culture brings out an excessive nature in others and myself. Only when I had everything exposed, could I evaluate what is necessary and what is unnecessary.
The response to this piece varied according to the age and living situation of the viewer. Viewers who shared a household with many members and had lived in a particular home for many years were frightened or overwhelmed to consider the volume of sales tags needed to document their belongings. Many viewers challenged me to re-document every ten years throughout my life (whether I will take on this challenge remains to be seen). At the time I completed this piece, I was a single graduate student living in a one-bedroom apartment. Now I have a husband who is an avid collector, a son, and a house much larger than my apartment. We recently put in attic storage to help keep all the outgrown baby toys and clothes. I thought, “How many more sales tags would have to be created to account for the belongings stored out of sight?”
Whereas the other artworks re-affirmed my values, this first piece in the exhibition significantly affected my behavior. I now buy far fewer things, re-use or up-cycle whenever possible, and consider the lasting footprint of my purchases. After this project, my friends and family bemoan that it’s impossible to buy gifts for me and that instead I request gifts of donations.
The second piece in this series is titled “Freedom Seekers.” In order to explore a deeper dimension of the testimony of simplicity, I considered Friends witness during the Underground Railroad. I researched both Friends’ and freed slaves’ accounts and found stories, letters, and photographs of those who participated in the Underground Railroad.
“Freedom Seekers” reflects on the simplicity of goodwill: “to live simply, so that others may simply live.” To sacrifice possessions and safety in order to provide others with basic needs is a supreme manifestation of the testimony of simplicity. This artwork is a memorial to the life-threatening steps taken by those seeking freedom and to the selfless actions of those who sought the equality of all human beings.
The piece consists of two rails in a room, installed south to north. The rails are suspended approximately four feet off the floor, at the level of the center of my breastbone. Folded inserts, or signatures, connect to the rails with magnets. Each signature has a hand-pulled, letterpress print of a photograph of a freed slave. Inside some of the signatures are excerpts of stories from Friends or freed slaves. Because the signatures are attached with magnets, the viewers can easily remove them to read the inserts and then reconnect them to the rails.
Viewed from above, the signatures’ spines rest below the rails to create the image of a railroad track. On the images of the freed slaves, a small rectangle is punched through the center of the breastbones, allowing light to pass through. This place on the body is where I envision the Light Within to be positioned. This is also the reason the piece is installed at breastbone height: physically linking the viewers and the images of the freed slaves. Audience reaction to “Freedom Seekers” was more somber than it was to the other two artworks.
This piece left me with many unanswered questions about simplicity. If it is not just about avoiding too much stuff but instead requires focused, sacrificial commitment to working for a more just and equitable world, then how am I living this commitment? What actions do I take daily to be the change I want to see in the world? As I was led to deeper questioning and discernment about my beliefs, I began to read more about Quakerism and to research graduate programs in peace studies. I discovered and enrolled in the collaborative Quaker studies program at Woodbrooke and the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. The Quaker studies program afforded me the opportunity to learn more about Quakerism while conducting research on the hidden curriculum I had experienced as a student at a Friends school.
The third and final artwork of this series came in the midst of this transition in my life. The piece is titled “28,125 Days: Are you living life to its fullest potential?” Since I did not know what I wanted to commit my life to, I decided to collect information on the life ambitions of others. I also wanted to compel viewers to think about the ambitions of their past, present, and future: to reflect on their own lives and choices, just as I needed to reflect upon my own.
In this piece, I asked viewers to type into a website their birth dates, the present date, and a life ambition (of their past or present). The computer then calculated the number of days each had lived, and all three pieces of information were then printed on an index card and added to the 25-foot-long card catalog drawer. My goal is to collect 28,125 life ambitions, one for every day of the average American life span. Viewers were also invited to read the ambitions in the drawer, to mark their favorites with copper clips, or to write down a memorable one on a library due date card.
The reaction to this piece revealed the viewer’s age group; everyone under 30 years old found it thrilling to see how many days he or she had lived. But those over 30 found it daunting or depressing. One viewer in her 70s asked if she should write that her childhood ambition was to be an animal doctor, or should she write to be a veterinarian, the latter being the more contemporary term. I encouraged her to write the ambition the way she wanted it to be remembered. “Animal Doctor” was written on the card that she finally submitted.
I now teach college freshmen and invite the students of each new class to identify their life ambitions, hoping that they will take a moment to reflect upon where they want to be in the future and the choices they need to make for that future to become a reality. I encourage them to have many ambitions, some for their whole lives and some that are more easily attainable. My three ambitions were these:
- To win the Nobel Peace Prize
- To earn a PhD
- To have a really good dish to bring to a potluck
Ten years later, I’ve met two of the three.
During the development of the artwork in this exhibition, I came to understand that simplicity embodies more than wanting and consuming less. It is fundamentally rooted in simplifying one’s life so that every action deliberately aligns with one’s commitment. As a result of creating this work, I have begun to simplify my life in direct ways. I am dedicated to sharing my experience and knowledge through art and education while encouraging others to do the same. As part of my PhD studies, I developed the Global Action Steps, a curriculum for K-12 about current global affairs in which students create service projects for international recipients. Upon completion of my studies, I formed the Nobis Project, a nonprofit that works with educators and community leaders to promote global citizenship education and service learning.
Recently I have come to realize that the work that I do every day as my witness to simplicity (in my classroom, in my volunteer work, or with the Nobis Project) reflects the hidden curriculum or core values that I learned at a Friends school. And at times I have found myself wondering if a fourth piece of artwork is waiting to be created: a piece about how knowledge becomes understanding, as well as the simplicity of learning and teaching goodwill. Yet as I write, I consider that maybe this fourth piece has been created and is named the Nobis Project. I selected the name from the Latin song “Donna Nobis Pacem” (give us peace).