Mark Barone & Marina Dervan: An Act of Dog: 5,500 Portraits for Animal Justice
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Jun 17, 2017
Guest: Mark Barone and Marina Dervan
Host: Birju Pandya
Moderator: Ariel Nessel
Birju: Today’s conversation is with Mark Barone and Marina Dervan. This week’s theme is focused on compassion specifically diving into compassion of all kinds of living beings such that humanity and beyond is free from discrimination and feels supported across the board. Since we have a remarkable moderator Ari Nessel today, I thought we can ask him to reflect on the theme as we get started and to give you a little bit of context, Ari is no stranger to this question of living in compassion himself and he has been practicing this approach for sometime in many many different forms but a couple that seems salient for this conversation is that he has been a supporter of animal rights movement for decades at this point as well as being involved in social justice work as a co-founder of wonderful non-profit foundation, The Pollination Project, which supports people who are taking steps towards a compassionate existence. Ari, thank you for joining us in moderating this call.
Ari: Thank you Birju. It is an honor. You have been a great supporter and benefactor in growing my consciousness for compassion. Starting off this call with a story is somewhat influential for me. There is a teacher who has two students and she gives them each a chicken. She tells them to go somewhere where no one can see and kill the chicken and come back when you are done. Very quickly one of the student comes back with the dead chicken and the other one doesn’t return for over 24 hours. Teacher sees the other student with the chicken in his hand but alive and well. Teacher asked, “What happened?”. Student said, “Everywhere I go, the chicken sees”. I think that is an engaging conversation with Mark and Marina, it is an honor of being with people who have the capacity to see that the chicken sees, the dog sees, the cat sees, the cow sees and we as humans are not alone in this capacity for both joy and sorrow or pain and surprise too. It is a miracle living on this planet. So little bit about our guests Mark and Marina, they are couple dedicated to reaping consciousness around animal welfare. They believe that everyone can learn to cultivate compassionate at any age and to help to create a world that is rich in humanity and free from discrimination. One of their guiding questions is rituals and practices in our life and their life and in your life. Allow us to deepen the roots of compassion across different boundaries so with that I welcome you both.
Mark & Marina: Thank you for having us. Good to be here
Ari: Let’s start off with some very basics. Can you tell me about your work in the world? What is it that you both are working on?
Mark: I painted five thousand five hundred portraits of sheltered dogs which is the number that are killed every day in this country. The object was to actually use art as social change and creativity for social change. I think the visuals are so important because people throw around numbers and they talk about it and it is so easy to dismiss so I thought it was extremely important to put a face with the number being killed on daily basis. Really, that is just dogs but the dogs are symbolic of all sheltered animals not just dogs so that is the path we started going down almost six years ago now and so I completed the fifty five hundred about a year ago or year and a half ago and now our project is taking on a really the second level of what it's intended to do.
Ari: And when when you started it six years ago, can you with everyone a little bit of impetus for how this came about? This is a big commitment that even if you have to take five pictures of dogs. But fifty five hundred so you made this commitment, I'm asking you I imagine you felt like this is a long term commitment so the impetus that got you started and how did you sustain that over this long haul.
Marina: I will tell you a little bit about it. The catalyst for it was Mark and I had been in a fairly new relationship for about a year or so and his dog friend Tina, she was about twenty coming up to twenty two when she died and I had always been a cat lady before that. Obviously, I love all animals but that's kind of what I grew up with it and getting to know Tina just so was a whole different relationship, so shortly after she died probably about six months later I thought well that would be a nice thing to do would be to adopt another dog. So I'm sure it could've been another day, it may have been a different experience I had but on that day I was looking online for dogs that were available for adoption and the thought of finding a dog somehow I came across pages that gave statistics on what was going on in the shelter, in the gas chambers and it was just a whole different thing. I wasn't actually fully aware of. Of course I was aware about all the other animal issues because I am a vegan but I really didn't know what was going on at the shelter level so it really affected me deeply and I was sad that I was outraged and all kinds of things and so I kept sending Mark those images, those graphic videos, very hard to look at visuals and as an artist the only way he could work on was visuals and initially it was like quit sending me that stuff it's I got it. I don't need to be anymore so I kept sending it and this will happen in a very short window and so within about a day or so it obviously penetrated Mark also in a deep way. He woke up and said to me,okay see if you can get me an approximate number of dogs so I can illustrate at least one animal and I can do it. It's actually feasible that I could paint that number so that really is how the whole thing began. And we named it An Act of Dog and that was really the catalyst for the whole thing.
Ari: So you're looking at these videos that are difficult and you're still watching them and you're still sending them to Mark. Tell me a little bit more about that.Most people in my experience they watch the first three seconds and then turn it off because it's unpleasant to see. what is it that allows you to keep watching and paying attention to the difficult to watch videos, the graphic images.
Marina: Well as an individual I'm well I'm very interested in reality and I'd much rather face reality as it is and deal with the emotions that come up with that and I as I had I think about thirty-two years ago I changed my diet to a plant based vegan diet. My entry way in was through health but after going into that into that world you become exposed to the compassionate side of animals and so I obviously became very aware and had seen all the graphic imagery and videos that were associated with cows and pigs and everything else so I was really comfortable looking at it, because you know without facing it you can't feel it and without feeling it you are not actually going to do anything to fix it. People have cats and dogs and that's really a matter of having nurturing and compassion and responsibility and taking care of your companion animal, I understand educating people about the other side, the other animals involves a whole other education and dealing with people’s ideologies. It's just a different thing to educate on. so I think I was shocked to see people at the level of companion animals where it's not something you eat it’s a being we’ve had a relationship with for a long time, so it was shocking to see wow even at that level we don't have we don't have humanity. And so for me I couldn't stop looking at it and you know I felt compelled even though it was very uncomfortable for Mark to look at it, and you know when people say now quit sending me that I don't want to see it that doesn't stop me I'll still send it with somebody that I'm close to and even if it brings up for friction and tension I'm happy to do that because it's not about us. That’s how it began, it wasn't easy but it was necessary.
Ari: And Mark can you tell me like as you're receiving these videos from Marina what's going on with you and lhow does it translate into coming up with this idea.
Mark: Well just being an artist for so long it was very difficult to look at the images and the callousness with which this was carried out and.
It was just so dismissive of souls and the way they disposed of these animals it was it was like putting some plastic bottles in the recycle bin for them and the lack of compassion --it just became a job and I know what the animals in my life meant to me and so it was very hard for me to relate to that and so it, you know things like that never prompt me into you know just being kind of laying there in a fetal position what can I do? I mean I always think about you know, “how can I take this imagery and do something with it? and how can I make it powerful enough that it's going to actually engage people and change their minds? or engage people into this conversation about what's going on?” because when you think of the word shelter you think of a safe place for these animals to be and in many cases it's not. There are some shelters that do very good work but there's still a great majority of them that don't. The imagery was very rough to look at I mean VERY rough to look at the way we just discarded these animals. For me the kind of imagery that was started to fly through my head at the time was the Vietnam War memorial, I thought of imagery from The Holocaust in the Holocaust Museum. And all these things and I saw some parallels there that really probably because I've been to both of them many many times and to me they're very moving it and as an artist you know I want to be able to do something that has beauty but also -- It's a dichotomy where there's beauty and there's horror at the same time but there's beauty in the painting and beauty in the soul that you've tried to capture but there's also horror in what's actually happened to these animals and so. I mean all those things go through my head and so I mean I really had to get into the images that I was painting on a very deep level in order to them otherwise I mean I probably would have done twenty or thirty of them and that would have been the end of it. So I mean it touched me in a very deep way and made me want to try to do something or use the talents that I had to actually try to make a difference.
Ari: As you think about the first one you painted versus the 5000th one what is it like energetically? Does it go from exciting to tedious? how do you like relate to this like really big long term commitment that you made of five years of painting?
Mark Well you know the ignorance of doing something like this is is really a wonderful thing because you know you have all this energy when you started and it's not that I didn't have energy at the end because I had a different kind of energy at the end but you just don't know what this path is. you think you do when you start it but you really don't know and so there was this I think at about. The first hundred I understood how long it took me to paint those and then my mind the way it starts working is I start projecting you know I've got to do five thousand, four hundred more of these, and so it starts to play with your mind a little bit too. Can I actually do this can I actually get it done and then the other thing is that I think after a while, this low level depression kind of set in with me and I don't think it's left to be honest with you and I think that it was needed. I mean I don't think that you know you can go through this thing whistling and singing because that's not what the subject matter is, and so there's this kind of low level buzz of depression that I think hung over me for the last four years of painting. And I tried to connect you know because I could see it in their eyes you know I could see it in the eyes of these animals that Marina would get for me and they came from rescue groups that couldn't get them out in time or rescue groups that got there like ten minutes late and they killed the animal anyway, and so there was this, you could see it in their eyes, I mean when they when they took the pictures of these dogs, when they were trying to get them adopted, you could see the fear in their eyes, you could see their souls, you could see all of the stuff when you looked at them their postures, everything and it told the story and so there's a few things that happened, one is that as it went on my resolve became stronger as I went on to make this happen and to show this number. And the other thing that happened is that artistically I was able to capture things in a couple strokes that took me twenty strokes to do when I first started painting them. And it took me two strokes to do by the five thousandth. And so there was all that transformation that happened throughout and so, to take a stroke of paint and to have it be meaningful and to say by just putting this paint on there and pushing it in a certain way and pulling it a certain way it captures emotion and so I realized how to do that and after five thousand paintings you start to really kind of find that emotion that you're looking for in a much easier way than I did when I first started.
Ari: It almost sounds like Zen calligraphy -- where the Zen masters can very quickly create an artistic piece with very few strokes. Did it feel like you're doing that with that immediate need for efficiency or that intuitive wisdom that was sort of coming through as well?
Mark: Yeah I think it was some of both and I think that the further I got into the project the deeper I got into each animal and the connection I felt more and more towards each of them as individual souls and it just came out of you know, Marina would ask me you know how do you do this? and I don't think about that stuff anymore you know just like the Zen master was doing calligraphy it’s just within him and he does it and he does the stroke and it is what it is and it says what he wants it to say, and so in the same way when I'm putting down a stroke that's either the face or whatever it is, it's doing what I want it to do and it's the color I want to be, it's the value I want it to be, the size I want it to be, the pressure that I want to be and so I don't really think about it anymore it's just become part of me as I'm doing it I’m trying to relate to the imagery.
Ari: I'm just picturing and feeling into what it's like making this long term commitment and this low level depression which feels like it’s a deepening of empathy. I have a lot of friends who do investigations of
various forms of animal abuse and they're editing the videos and they're looking at all the time how to make the video as powerful as possible so that people can see the cruelty that exists. Marina as you watch Mark going through this depression how are you helping sustain him? What's what's going on with your relationship and how are you supporting one another?
Marina: Well fortunately that’s my background helping people navigate emotions and complex suffering, so that was a real plus, because given that the relationship was so new and we took this on at such an early stage, you know it's something you have to know how to navigate, you have to know how to hear someone and make it OK for them to wherever they are at. And to help them express that in a more complete way so that there's an emptying out so they can make room for more of that, because it's one thing if you're going to face something for a day and then you're not going to face it again but if you're facing it you know eight to ten hours a day, there has to be an emptying for you to be able to take in the other souls because he really did connect with each one of them and I would say as the person who also took the photographs of of the paintings --something that I noticed happened from the beginning and what changed as as we got to the halfway point was the initial paintings showed more of the whole body of the animal the environment of the animal you know the cage, the ball, you know things like that and in a way, it was a little bit easier, not that it’s easy to stomach at all, but there is something about the distance that was a little bit softer to take in. So what happened to Mark as an artist -- I think of the hand as an extension of the heart and as he got further into it there was a deepening in Mark’s opening and he zoomed into the face, into the eyes, so you no longer saw the environment or the whole body- the face was right in your face the eyes were looking right at you. There was nowhere else to turn, nowhere else to focus but the soul. So that was a really significant thing that I noticed and I believe it happened as Mark’s own process changed, his own being because you know his diet changed, his compassion became much deeper and much richer so there was multi-levels of transformation going on. you know of of a true that's really doing work for social change and what happened was that he got better into it and it was a deepening in my opening that the painting then he named Dan into the fight into the eye that you no longer know the environment or the whole body of the animals the fight in your fight the I will right looking at you so there wasn't any way to founder with no moral focus on that thinking the thought right in the eye that with a really significant thing that I notice and I believe that it happened as my own process
Ari: Mark can you speak to how you’ve been transformed in the process of trying to transform societal consciousness?
Mark: Yeah, I think for me going through this process of doing this project and the issues that we were dealing with -- my compassion for the animals and really trying to put myself in their place really changed how I look at things and to not really look away.So I'm much more open to looking at problems in a very deep way. And I did to a certain extent with the human condition before I even did this project but this project just took everything to a level that I have really never experienced before and painting and being an artist is a solitary isolated profession anyway, so you are really there with your own mind, in your own thoughts and there were really difficult days but I learned to be comfortable with that whereas before I would just would shut it off and turn it off because it was hard --it was hard mentally to bring that in those kind of atrocities and so it allowed me to be at least open enough to start taking that stuff in and looking at it for what it was and then figuring out what can I do about it you know what can I actually do to try to change this dynamic and so it went in very deeply. And I don’t know if that had anything to do with me or just the level of commitment that I had that it actually had to go in, because I know for me as an artist I just cannot paint things for the sake of painting, to push paint for the sake of pushing paint, I've never been able to do so there always had to be a purpose to what I was doing. The purpose here for what we were doing and what we were trying to accomplish it was a very rough subject matter wise and so you had to let it in order to feel at a very deep level and actually paint it.
Ari: So for both of you what was your approach to self-care as you did this? Mark you were giving up your earning potential by doing all this pro bono right?
Mark: Yeah. I cashed in all my retirement savings to do the project so I mean that's completely gone because I mean to do five thousand five hundred paintings is financially a very expensive project to take on and
I haven't taken any sort of salary or pay since we started the project you know. It was something that -- I just had to do. It was a calling for both for Marina and I. I don't know how I came up with doing five thousand five hundred paintings I think that was because I knew that if I didn't do anything large enough
It wouldn’t garner the attention that was needed to actually incite the changes I wanted to do and wanted to happen and so that was really it for me.
Ari: Wow! That’s a very serious commitment. I imagine you didn’t take it lightly. You cashed in your savings! There must have been many points along the way where you had to take a step back and assess if you wanted to keep on doing this, or hey the number of animals being killed is actually less today, shall we lower our goal? I’m wondering what those conversations were like and we talk about energy that find in my own life there's like three kinds of energy I see there's like that initiating energy which can sometimes come from anger and dissatisfaction, then there’s the sustaining energy grounded in self-care and purpose and then there's a mystical energy that comes in, and I heard you talk a little bit about that-- you weren't painting the paintbrush was moving through your hand-- almost the eyes of the dog move through your hands you were an instrument. Can you tell me a little bit about whether you notice those forms of energy and how it changed a little more and was there any mystical experience in the process of this painting?
Marina: You know I would say there are the natural struggles that come up when you you see all of a sudden and the way I would encapsulate it, it was more what it mirrored back to us was how we live these compartmentalized lives and lives that are focused on our own individual selfish needs. And I don't think that happiness comes from that. I think happiness doesn't come from serving yourself it comes from serving others. And we really connected to that early on, no matter what was going on with us in terms of the financial struggle, witnessing the absolute apathy from people. And the excuses those kinds of things could take you down very quickly.
And what I like to explain to people is there’s huge difference between empathy and compassion you know compassion is not dependent upon how you feel, it's not an emotion, it's a commitment to being in action to alleviate that suffering, so it’s not like -- I’ll do something about it when I feel better. It’s not dependent on that.So early on we knew that that was our commitment. That no matter how you felt no matter how bad, when you could feel the energy wavering, and it would come more from listening to some of the ignorance that we would hear out there. Or we would meet billionaires that could help us in a second but that would leave the two of us still struggling and doing it by ourselves, and things like that we would just be more disappointed with that level of disconnect and the inhumanity but ourselves, you have to change your lifestyle. So very early on we knew it’s not about us anymore so you live on less you know you live frugally you don't have any luxuries. You know you can't go and shop you can't go and do all the things that you do without thinking of beforehand that all changes one hundred and eighty. So you know it's a spiritual journey.
Birju: I wanted to ask a question to you Mark related to the nuts and bolts of this because I do feel that. talking about these pictures really doesn't do them justice. They are huge and they are rich and can you share a little bit more about the size of these paintings, the kind the canvas that you're working with the kind of palette that you work with, that kind of detail?
Mark: Yeah I did 11 eight foot by eight foot paintings and those all deal with different excuses that the shelters use to kill the dogs, and they also deal with dogfighting, they deal with animal testing and all that so the large ones have usually dogs that were fairly well known and and we used them for the large paintings to tell the story about a lot of different things in the animal welfare world. The other ones that I did were twelve inch by twelve inch and they were oil on panel and if you actually hung them ten feet high so if you stack them ten feet high they would go to two football fields long. So the way that I've always approached my work there's a couple ways I approach it -- one I used to start paintings where I would just start with the paint you know the different colors and all that, when I started painting a raw canvas and that becomes for a lot of artists it's pretty scary to look at a blank canvas --where do I start and so what I started doing is I would cover the whole thing in a sepia color I would draw with a marker you know a sharpie a permanent marker underneath and so when I would cover the whole canvas with this kind of this deep sepia color than I could actually start wiping out the light, so I could work from light to dark very quickly because I would have one brush loaded with black and the sepia would work as my how and then the rag where I was wiping out would work as my white and you know it was a very quick way to work it was also a way where color would not distract you when you're looking at composition to put these paintings together, because really if the composition doesn't work the paintings never going to work no matter how well it's painted, so I always start from that place where it was the sepia where I could work through it very quickly and it was spontaneous and if it's more spontaneous you know just like when I was doing just your drawings in school they were like for a minute or thirty seconds or fifteen seconds so it was very gut responses and that's what I wanted from the the sepia phase of it and then as I started kind of working in the color, I would put these clear transparent glazes over it you know and through certain colors and paints that are transparent and certain ones that are opaque and like, viridians, ultramarine blue and crimson Those are all very transparent colors so I would work the transparent over the sepia then I could start working paint sticks on it with a palette knife and everything else on a wet surface and that would be my First kind of push to start getting color into it and then after that I would start working.
it into a more polished form of what I wanted the work to say.
Ari: I’m just trying to pay attention you have 5500 of these. You think of writers block, And I have to imagine it’s not so different for artists. Were there times when you would sit down and nothing would come out and other times when it would just flow or was it consistent?
Mark: It was fairly consistent. I think Marina’s point, where the shift kind of came halfway through how I was looking at them I knew there was a shift that was needed in how I was looking at the animals. So it became much more up close because depending on how you're placing this animal in the picture I mean how do you want this viewer to react to it and so as time went on as I became more engaged with each of their souls that I was trying to paint, I wanted the viewer to do that also and so the views of the animals became much more up close and much more into the viewer’s space but there was no lack of subject matter and I think that my paintings that I used to do previous to this project which really had nothing to do with animals, was a lot different I mean it was just a completely different approach where the subject matter was coming from within me but the subject matter was already ready made, it depended on how I wanted to actually interpret it and what I wanted people to feel when they when they looked at it.
Ari: Well one of things that comes to mind for me as I looked at some of your art is something I’ve seen in my own life. Last summer I went and visited factory farms and slaughterhouses and I saw in myself and I see this in society -- when we see a large number of beings exposed to cruelty or slaughter that the heartfelt response isn’t as strong unless you look at a single one. When you look in the eyes it’s a whole different experience. They’ve shown psychologically that when one animal dies it's a tragedy or when one being is in pain it's a tragedy when a thousand die or are in pain it's a statistic. Is that something that you saw right away? That people need to look in the eyes rather than talking about the problem as this like enormous issue which for some reason causes people to zone out?
Mark: Well I tell you one thing that both Marina and I could speak to is to that we realized that there was a rescue group and we were in Louisville and that's where we did the majority of the project and they came to visit us for a specific reason and we had to go back to our house and so they were left in the studio by themselves. Being left in the studio by yourself to confront these images was a completely different experience because what a lot of people tend to do when they come into the studio when they don't really want to look at the eyes, and exactly what you were talking about when they don't want to look at the imagery they start engaging with Marina and I in conversation very quickly and so it starts to turn towards them, it doesn't turn towards the imagery and the project and the animals. Because it's something that they just don't want to face and we could see that. Or they start crying I mean all of them do and so I know that when we work with the school kids, and we were showing them how to use art for social change, it was a group of ninth graders and so we didn't want to say anything we just wanted them to come into the studio and react. Because when you start talking about it all of a sudden it's a way for them to build this kind of little wall with their emotions where they don't have to really react they don't have to really feel because they're talking you know it doesn't become real but when they're left by themselves to walk around and look at the imagery that's a completely different deal.
Marina: Yeah and one of the things that happened that was very powerful was the kids you know they enjoyed the process even though it was hard. Even coming into the studio obviously it affected them. And we were working with them to do wood cuts to create this powerful imagery to raise awareness and funds and Mark was looking at the imagery that they were drawing and he said to the principal there’s no soul in this they are not getting it. So we didn’t tell them what it was we told them the content was difficult and showed them a video we said everybody has to watch this. It wasn’t an option. We said we’re going to take you through this process and you’re required to participate in the watching of these videos and we showed them a short clip of the trailer from PBS about the project and segued into showing them what we had seen. One of the videos where the dogs were being taken and thrown into a gas chamber and then the gas pipe was hooked up you’d hear the dogs squealing happy at first and then squealing and then silence and then you’d watch these guys with the hook go and grab puppies and throw the puppies on top of the now dead puppies. And then you have the puppy kind of jumping up and down and then you hear the squealing in the chair and you hear the silence.
And we remember the silence in the classroom as these kids were watching and they stayed very present to what was going on and what was significant about it was after they had watched it they said that they did not get it until they watched the video. Every single one of them they said of as hard as it was for them to watch and that they wanted to get up and walk out, it was the very thing that brought it home to them and then the work completely changed. The work became so powerful in what they were drawing it was pretty amazing. Fast forward to the end of the process and we took them individually and interviewed them one by one it was profound what they had to say about their own inner transformation and how they now want to take it out into the world and their own future as leaders.
Ari: Wow am picturing what it is like the transformation the kids went through. How your hand is infused by your heart energy. And it transformed what they created. One of the things Marina mentioned is that in the process of doing this you changed you broadened your heart to include animals outside of dogs.
Is there any insight that came around the food choices? And that came about from understanding the dogs and their souls?
Mark: Yeah I mean for me I mean I was changing my diet before I met Marina and then just went completely. And first it was for health reasons and the more I got into the project it started spreading out to compassion for all animals I mean there was a video that I watched one time and it was these cows that were going to be sent off to slaughter and Marina can correct me if I'm wrong but I think it was in Germany and so anyway somebody came in and they and they bought all the cows and they just let them live out their lives and they bought the cows and they let them go for the first time into the field you could actually see the cows you know just hopping around and jumping up and down and it was amazing. So you know that they knew. You know that there was a soul there, you know that they felt much deeper than we ever give them credit for. There are so many instances where I've seen cats and dogs with other animals and all this so I mean there's this kind of harmony this built in harmony in nature if we let it be. I just have no desire to disrupt that at all anymore especially with you know the way that I choose to live my life. At first it was health reasons like Marina, and then it became much deeper much more profound than that. You know the project has opened my eyes to so many things I mean there are so many things I've learned through this process. Some of them were really uplifting and some of them weren’t but they were all certainly learning and teaching experiences for me.
Ari: An area where I’ve felt a lot of grief over the years is this propensity I see that people who really care for cats and dogs end their circle of compassion there and they're willing to love these animals and eat these other ones. What is it you think helps people expand further out and to see a cow or a pig or a turkey -- they all share similar capacities How might people who start care for for dogs and cats might be inclined to start caring for animals possible you know it's breakfast lunch and dinner and dinner.
Marina: We are conditioned to relate to a dog or a cat as a pet. An animal that we have in our homes. And there isn’t that same relationship to the cows and the pigs because we’ve been conditioned that those are animals that we eat and are required for protein, and for all of these different reasons. So there are two different narratives. So when you are trying to make that connection, there's a difference. You're going to have to argue different points. It can't be the same point. You know. It's like when people say to me about the Chinese eating cats and dogs, and as horrific as that is, it speaks to a culture that doesn't have the separation. That they consider all of those animals, in their belief system, are on the plate. And it's just our culture has separated them. And there's all of the profit driven industries around that, from you know you need x amount of animal protein. As I've started out as a nutritionist, so I was very objective about why I switched to a vegan diet. It was not for compassion. It was not for an emotional reason. I actually just couldn't see any evidence to support the human body that was designed for animal food. There was absolutely nothing and I did a lot of research, so it didn't make sense to me.
So I can educate someone on that level, but just you still have to deal with lots of other conditioned ideas about this. And so, you know, for us with our project, we know that people are already connected to the companion animal. You know the idea to get the exhibit up, to create an interactive space where people can come and participate in a school. People from around the world. And now you have an audience in there that you can actually they're coming there because there's already a connection for them to the companion animal. And that's the point where you can introduce them to all these other areas, other ways of expanding your consciousness and your compassion. But if there were fifty five hundred pigs up on the walls, nobody's coming except for a tiny percent of the population. So you know there's no point in appealing to those that are already changed.
Ari: So in many ways, what I'm hearing you say is this is really very much a segue to not just opening hearts to dogs, Maybe we start off by bringing attention to this problem of overpopulation of dogs and not a people, breeding versus adopting, but really it's just about in general how humans our consciousness and our compassion expanding it outward unbounded to include not just one species, but tens of thousands and millions of species that exist on this planet.
Marina: Yes, and that expansion goes to humans because you know there'd be no need for charity if humans were actually humane. You know the majority of the abuse are created by people. And so in some ways the charities are band aids and we're never getting down to the real problem. You know which goes down to the ideology, choices, behaviors, cultural context, you know, things like that. But it comes down to the individual, so you know there are so many multi prongs here because you've also got to look at the relationship between violence, violence in interpersonal relationships. Often you can find those individuals were violent with animals as a child, and so there's all of these extensions where you've got people abusing animals and when you can see these relationships early on, where you can help that individual with that problem. So that it is not extended to the animals, and then it's not extended into the relationships themselves. Because we pardon our pained. A lot of us come from troubled environments and if we don't learn how to navigate that pain we pass it down to the weakest link which is usually children or animals. And as a society we focus on the well being of a child. We ask the child how it's doing with reference to its grade, you know, getting a high IQ and I Grade rather than helping them cultivate compassion and focusing on high emotional IQ. And so that's really what we're doing by going into the schools working with the kids. We're going much deeper into cultivating those roots of empathy. And understanding in a holistic, the gestalt, of how it affects us in our collective happiness as a society.
Ari: Yeah, one of the things I really hear being emphasized by Marina this idea of not looking away as you said. And it is just this broader notion of seeing this sense of apathy. James how Adams said, "The freedom now desired by many is not the freedom to do and dare, but the freedom from care and worry." So it is this idea that our freedom is the freedom to be ambivalent almost, to not have to engage with discomfort. And it seems like what your project here is, Mark, is so much about people having some space--what is this uncomfortable? What is difficult to see? What causes grief? And so what are you seeing? You talk about these children, what are you seen? How have you seen them change more broadly than having painting differently? And if other people have seen it. You mentioned other people came in as well. What do you think are the after effects of touching in to this aspect of bearing witness and not looking away or looking towards?
Mark: Yeah think that, you know, we were born to create. You know it's something that's inherently I think in everybody. And you know in the schools it's one of the first programs that they cut out is art. I always wanted to approach art a much different and more profound way with these kids. And I wanted to make it meaningful and if it's meaningful for them they'll want to do it. And so there was a group in Virginia that we worked with, and it was a middle school, sixth graders, and so they were using our project as a model.
So they were going to do art work, they were going to have an art show. They were going to help rescue groups with shelters in their area all that. Well, it did much more for them because the kids start going home and even the teacher didn't know this because we do a Skype with them. So at the end of the semester, we would do a Skype with them. At the beginning we do a Skype with them. And so at the end of the semester, they had come up and it would be after school and there'd be like, well, there's only supposed to be like thirty of them there, but there was like a hundred of them there. And so they are all coming up to ask questions, and they were extremely engaged. And so one of the girls was talking about how she went home and told their mom, "How many products do we have that are using animal testing?" And so they started going through all the products in their house and they said, "We can't use this anymore."
So they start throwing them all out and then she actually started going to the store with her mother to pick out products that did not use animal testing. So it went so much further beyond the artwork itself. The artwork was really the segue to get them into this, to start them thinking in a very conscientious way, not only about their artwork, but the impact and not only the impact of their artwork would have, but how they live their lives and what kind of impact that would have. And so I just see the art piece of it. There so many schools that are just doing exercises for the sake of doing exercises to learn how to use the new medium, you know, and you can do something that's actually purposeful along with learning how to paint, you know. It doesn't have to be "Oh, I have to do a color wheel." I mean it's just it's meaningless, you know. I mean you can still learn about colors without having to do a color wheel, you know or color charts or value charts all that stuff. So how do we want to approach this? How do we want to do it? And so the kids love animals. They all talk about the animals that they had in their lives, how much they meant to them. And the kids boycotted the circus because they knew that the animals in the circus were mistreated. So they all boycotted the circus. So there was all these things that they became just much more aware. And at a sixth grade level, I was never as aware of these kids. I think at twelfth grade I don't think I was as aware as the six grade kids. And it was just really a profound experience for Marina and I to talk with them and engage with them to see how what they were doing had really profoundly changed them. And I know that Marina remembers other things I don't remember about the conversations but those were just a few of the things that really stuck with me.
Marina: I would just add that the thing that struck me by what a lot of these kids were saying was, the essence of what one of them said was that, you know, before doing this process and seeing what an active dog was doing and working with us, that they saw that they could paint, that they could create their art that could go with the wall or you know just paint for the sake of painting. And now they felt that they could paint to change the world. And to me that said it all. And they were obviously aside from the awareness and money that they raised through their campaign and having an extraordinary teacher that really cared. So it was it was amazing. They are the leaders of tomorrow for sure and we want to be part of influencing that with those seeds of compassion. And showing them how they can use their creativity to be a voice for all social issues.
Ari: Here's a quote that says, "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." And I'm hearing that wisdom totally being expounded by your teaching. Like not do color wheels or things but think about how your art changes the world and make it be better expression of your heart. So is that I'm so grateful for the time.
Birju: Thank you, Mark and Marina It's really been a privileged to just listen in, and what you just shared about how to me anything could be imbued with the values of compassion whether it's painting or anything else that to me is a heck of a lesson.
I'd love to take a step back and would love to listen a little bit about where you both are coming. Have have you lived saintly lives to prep yourself for this kind of movement? Where you coming from? This is amazing.
Marina: There's no saintly lives. [laughter]
Mark: I think I would actually implode if I walked into a church, but, you know, my life I took a big turn almost eighteen years ago, and, you know, I was pretty much drinking my life away. And there wasn't a lot of purpose to it, and the day I got sober was the day things really changed for me. And it was probably the most important day of my life. It gave meaning to my life, and it actually made my life where I could actually have one rather than just existing and taking up space in this world. So I'm very grateful for that, and I think that's where the shift really came for me. And before that I mean I guess I did some things that were good, and I'm sure some things that were bad, but it certainly didn't have a rudder to it. And now, I've had to grab on to a spiritual anchor. Something that works for me, and and it's continued to keep me sober to this day, and I'm grateful for that. And that was really a very important day for me, so I've known Marina for eight years now, so I don't know how saintly or unsaintly she was previously to me.
Marina: I would say I come from a background of a lot of violence, alcohol, and a big large Irish family. And so what I was interested in doing from a very early age was seeing how a human being there was a place where we could be heard that we could hear each other without the violence. We could hear each other without the make wrong. And so that led me on my own path. I started out as a nutritionist, and then I saw that I could get people well, but emotionally they were still stuck. And so I was always my own lab rat. And then I looked at my own transformation. So I ended up coaching executives on couples and stuff for over twenty five years. And my interest was really teaching people how to drop the pretense, how to tell the truth, and ultimately have to hear each other, how to navigate that conflict. And so I was creating compassion--finding compassionate solutions to people problems. And so this to me was just another extension because it was already vegan for so long. Turning everything I had learned and cultivated to animals it was just easy. It just made sense.
Birju: I appreciate hearing a bit about your own background and how that led you into the work that you're doing in the world. And I'm curious similarly for you, Mark, that I'm sure that you're familiar with many beautiful causes, you're the CEO of what I believe is an art based consultancy. And so I'm curious how did that work come about? And among the many causes that you've you must have come across, what was it that stuck about this one with you?
Mark: When I got into the one where I was helping transform blighted areas and our goal was not to "gentrify." My thing was to actually give artists a way to actually own something and have property in, and I think that if you look at the past, anywhere that they infuse the arts into these communities, they took off, whether was Greenwich Village, Soho in New York or London or wherever it was. The arts are always took off, but the problem was that the artist never really owned anything, and so they would be the first ones to get booted to the curb, because all of a sudden, the place started becoming a hip place to live. And so it was when I was first getting sober, that I lived in this neighborhood that was just full of drugs and they were making a lot of mess down there because you'd smell it coming through the sewers and all that stuff, so anyway I owned this house down there that I had renovated, and I just knew that I could never get rid of this thing. So I went to the city at the time and met with the mayor and he had all his people around him. And I said, "This is absolutely brutal down here." I said, "None of you sitting around this table and have ever lived down here." And I said, "I need your help to fix it up." And I said, "If you don't give me your help I'm just going to sell it to one of the other slum lords and I'm getting out of here."
He knew that the stuff that I was actually proposing that they actually take on as a city which was the rental licensing ordinance which is how I got started in it. And what the rental license ordinance did is if you have rental property which we had like eighty percent rental property down there eighty five percent rental property, and a healthy neighborhood has about twenty five percent, so we were like three times that. And I said, "So if we're going to have this much rental property, you have to actually have something governing over the stuff because these guys are running these properties into the ground. They're getting as much rent as they can out of them and then when they become too dilapidated to actually rent the city, the city tears them down at the taxpayers expense, and then we lose another historic property."
And I said, "I'm really sick of it." So I said, "The rental license ordinance, it worked like a driver's license. So if you want to drive a car you got to go take a test and then you get a driver's license. You want to rent a property you have to have it inspected so it has to be up to a certain standard code wise and then you can get a rental license and you can rent it out." So it really made them fix up their property, so we can keep losing pieces of our city.
Mark: So and I told myself, well the ordinance is great having more police down here is great I said but it's not going to solve your problem. I said, you're going to have to infuse something into this neighborhood to actually turn it around and I said I've got an idea I said why don't we offer an incentive package for artists to come down here to buy a piece of property to fix it up” and I said the place was so blighted and so stigmatized none of the townspeople were ever coming down there and so I talked to one of the commissioners and met with the mayor again and he said yeah we can take this on and they said, well do you want to work for the city in the first time I told them, “No I don't really want to work for government” and the second time they came back and I figured out I needed to be doing this and so I started working for the city and started working in the planning department and started piecing together a program that became a national model in the bunch of other cities or country started emulating what we were doing. Everybody thought that it was really grand scheme, grand plan but it was really just about fixing up the neighborhood I lived and so it was really it got myself out of my own head which is going to help me stay sober so it was really self preservation more than anything but it turned out to be something much bigger than that. This project now is something that was very close to my heart because I know when I got sober all I really got out was divorced which I went through at the same time when I was with my two dogs which meant everything to me so I didn't really care about living on the streets or in a palace. It didn't make any difference. I wanted the two animals and so they became a real big part of my life and that's how I got into this project.
Birju: Well, thank you for this context. Super super helpful and just building that picture of you coming around the specifics of what this offering is and I'm seeing that we do have a question in our queue so I'm going to create space for that.
Pavi: Thank you to Mike and Marino. This is Pavi from California and I just wanted to say thank you so much. It's a small word thank you is but for all that you've done to think your story and sort of the spirit behind it, there is an immense amount of gratitude that comes up and I'm so glad we had this opportunity to hear kind of behind the scenes of this project, what's been in your hearts and minds. Here's my question and the first one was around inspiration just as you have been through this journey with all the difficulties and challenges and some bumps in the road along the way and I was wondering if there in the lives of each or individually what are your sources of inspiration? Are there any particular people or mentors or guides that you have looked either in the human or other forms. What are those sources and the other question is quickly could you speak a little bit about the P.B.S. documentary and how that came about and what the plan is for that being introduced to the world.?
Mark: Well, thank you for your wonderful comments and your support. One of my parents have been a huge influence on me. My father really came from nothing and his father was right off the boat from Italy and they didn't have much at all and he put himself through school and then he had a job working in Chicago working for HUD for the government and he wanted to open up a zone architectural firm and my grandfather thought he was crazy leaving a good job and everything else but he took a chance and he went after it and he struggled. I mean he struggled big time and he ended up cashing all his retirement just so he good keep my mother and four kids in food and clothes and so he's been certainly inspirational to me and there's a lot of artists that I really enjoyed as far as what they've done with art work. Leon Golub is one of them he was certainly somebody who was trying to do something very significant with his work and really trying to incite social change and there's many other artists that certainly come to mind. As far as the documentary…..
Marina: Yeah the documentary, we got connected with them a few years ago Bonnie Silver and they obviously connected to the project and thought it was just wonderful what we were doing and so they decided to come on board and partner with KET and so they have been filming us for the last three following the journey and that will be probably in the next I know they done all the editing and then I sent it off to some of the film festival as well for international exposure and then probably in the next few months we'll get an air date and it will premiere in one city and then it will roll out to all the cities across the U.S. from probably internationally too so that’s to answer your question on P.B.S..
To answer your question about my inspiration, I would I would say my own environment growing up was definitely influential. But I would say most significantly working and listening to people's unhappiness for the past twenty five years, what I concluded was that all of these people and they tended to be very wealthy individuals that had more money, more votes, more cars, more, more and none of these things for making them happy and what I realized is that their unhappiness was because their life was focused on themselves and as soon as I helped them to shift it towards making their life about being a contribution, it changed. So that taught me a lot because it wasn't just one or two of them it was pretty much all of them so it became a great lesson for me to to just emphasize that more and more that being in service to the collective happiness rather than the individual is where is that and so this was just a natural extension an animal to me always, I believe animals really show us what it means to love.
Birju: Thank you so much so that question posed in and of course the answers Mark and Marina. I love to go to our next question which is from Mich in New York City she says a heart tugging listen let you know how we compare to other countries in making progress in this area? Bless you both.
Marina: Ok, so the question really is how are the other countries doing in this arena?
Marina: Well, I know that Germany is pretty much a no kill country so they have certainly come a long way because at least at the level of their animals. They've got it right so they understand that when you take the option of killing off the table you become resourceful.I kind of parallel it to children and we don't kill children because they have been abandoned or they're not wanted or whatever reason, we find a solution.
Mark: Yeah yeah and the other thing is that there's a lot of countries that were pretty much in parallel with the killing and so we've had so many articles written about us in other countries and we have had so many people contact us for what we're doing because they feel the same kind of pain that we have felt as we've gone through this project and the same issues that we're dealing with in this country they're dealing with in their country and we hear from them all the time and they constantly ask us how can we do it and there was couple that really stuck out to me. One was the magazine in India where they wanted to publish an article about us because they wanted a lot of the artists in India to take on similar sorts of issues and use their art for actually pushing sorts of social issues in that so that one stuck out to me and the other one was from MSN Latin America and we were hesitant to do the article at first and we just didn't know we if it was going to work and then all of a sudden it just took off.
Marina: We got about I think about five point three million shares on Facebook because it really connected. They're much more connected to South America they understand it I think much better than where we are and I would I would say one of the surprising things was Hong Kong. We had an organization in Hong Kong where they eat all the animals including cats and dogs, they wanted to actually have the entire exhibit right there in Hong Kong. That that for me spoke volumes to the young people there and also Korea. We had a Korean young group contact us as well and made it part of their book because the work is about those doing stuff like this in the transformation so it's been an amazing international experience. Yeah I would say India probably has a lot more consciousness and compassion as a culture in certain parts of India.
Birju: Dovetailing off of this, can you share a bit more about your journey of building community around this whether it's domestic or internationally how have you found being connected to others in this space of concern, do you feel like you're part of a movement?
Marina: Oh most definitely. Yes it's definitely a movement of compassion and with the social media and because we've been covered by press around the world it's really helped connect us to these other people that perhaps are isolated and alone or they have that same apathy of all nobody really cares, no one's really doing anything and it's wonderful to see the people getting engaged and want to really make their life about something that matters and so it's for it's been very inspiring because we see more apathy in our own home land than we do in other countries and as I said at the beginning for two people that didn't have the means to take something like this along when we come up against people that have the means and then they look away and they don’t help or they don't want to see the exhibit up -- all these different forms of resistance, we just have to have fight and we just keep going and we believe that when the P.B.S. documentary gets out it will reach people who care and want to partner with us to actually bring this to life in a very real physical fight.
Birju: Much appreciating that and I'm curious about for the both of you having gone through so much of a journey in manifesting this,what is the edge of your learning right now?
Marina: What is the edge of it?
Birju: yeah, like what is the place at which your own curiosity and passion is the strongest?
Marina: I would say the strongest would be making that connection with tomorrow’ leaders which are the young, which are the kids which is really penetrating their consciousness at early age through creativity and allowing them rather than being told what to do or how to do and how to think or how to feel. To really be supportive and being catalysts for something different for their process such that they can create the kind of wealth that we're talking about because they do want. I would say that probably for both.
Mark: I feel exactly the same way. I mean I see the kids, we talked about it before about the students that we work with here they don't realize how powerful their voice is. They really don't know and they are much like the kids in Virginia that when they went home and they said we don't want to buy these products anymore they're doing animal testing to do it and all of sudden they change that's the kind of impact that these kids have. Now if I tried to reach out to the adults and tried to change their minds that's a much harder sell that is that is a much tougher deal because there are many ways much set in their ways and their ideology and everything else but the kids are wide open and things and they look at things without parameters. They're just looking at them and so and then their work the younger they are the less inhibited it is and so it's really honest and it's really guttural work that they're doing and I can do really edgy stuff but I mean I'll get I'll get a lot of pushback by start doing really really edgy stuff and they won't I mean nobody's going to go verbally beat up some sixth grade kid because of the piece of art that he did. They have a platform where a lot of adults and seasoned artists don’t have, and so we want to tell them and show them that you know that their voice does matter and it carries a lot of weight and it's really important and they engage with it and they really engage with it and when the art has purpose or even more engaged than if you're just saying , “Oh, here are some new paints we're going to try out”.
Birju: Very much appreciate the response and aliveness of the next generation as a possibility and one more question for you both, how can this ecosystem the server space community that is behind putting these calls on be in support to what you guys feel most passionate about?
Marina: I think you're already doing it and certainly having us share your platform today and it to a lot of your audience is very meaningful to us. We appreciate you all for inviting us along to do it and to continue to share to let it percolate and think about the conversation that we've had today and how can you all contribute to that manifestation of it being something much bigger because we all have talents and resources that could take this to the next level.
Mark: Yeah if they specifically want to engage with our project or anyone wants to I mean we are certainly wide open and happy to engage with them and have them be part of what we're doing.
Birju: Thank you both and after the call we'll be sending out to both on the website and as a thank you email more information about the work that you guys are doing, the location of active dogs online, events and gatherings that you may be connected to going forward.
As we as you move towards closing the call would love to invite in the space of gratitude for Mark, Marina and Ari for skillfully moderating this conversation and service space as a whole for holding space through the process and if we could just take a minute of silence to hold gratitude for that and specifically to hold gratitude for all of the animals that Mark and Marina are putting all their efforts into supporting and raising awareness for minute of silence. Thank you.
Prabha Nallappan, Kozo Hattori, Pavi Mehta
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