In ABOG Fellow Brett Cook’s Reflections of Healing project, nine prominent Oakland-based healers – Kathy Ahoy, Traci Bartlow, Melanie Cervantes, Esteban Cuaya-Muñoz, Lillian Galedo, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Tyler Norris, William Wong, and Oscar Wright – were selected with help from community organizations to be honored in large-scale participatory portraits by Brett and community collaborators.
As a model for the final paintings, each participant was asked to provide an image of him or herself as a young person to symbolize the collective power of youth. The finished portraits, along with captions translated into languages local to Alameda County, chalkboards for community reflection, and free health and wellness services, first debuted at the Life is Living festival in DeFremery Park, Oakland, on October 11th, and are now part of a yearlong public installation at the Oakland Museum of California.
Our first profile featured dancer and educator Traci Bartlow. Our second features social entrepreneur Tyler Norris, who I spoke with over the phone in late November. Read my interview with him below.
Joelle Te Paske (ABOG): Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. I guess the best place to start is your context—did you know Brett before participating in Reflections of Healing? Had you worked with him, or with other artists, leading up to the project?
Tyler Norris: I was first introduced to Brett by the Downtown Oakland YMCA. I had done a fair amount of work with the Y nationally over the last decade, and locally over the past year, and that’s where we first were introduced.
Over the last couple decades I’ve had the opportunity to work on community visioning and mobilization projects that have engaged people from all walks of life, across every line you can imagine, to tell a shared story of a possible future. We’ve often used graphic artists, and even musicians and theatre to do so…to bring words to life through story, drama, and song.
I’ve found art to bring life and dimension to people’s lives. Art allows people to feel spiritually, emotionally, and physically alive. It gives ideas weight.
ABOG: Definitely, and that’s very much in line with Brett’s work, too. In the initial interview he did with you, what was your favorite question that he asked?
TN: There was a moment where I was talking about my current work with Kaiser Permanente, and I think I was answering in a typical way, about my role in the organization, and Brett cocked his head and asked, “But Tyler, why do you really do that work?” It was provocative and an emotional moment for me. It got me thinking outside of my organizational mindset and centered on what healing is really about.
ABOG: Those moments are so important—I have them too, definitely. Thinking about that, what was it like to see people respond to your portrait and quotations at Life is Living? Did you have a chance to attend the festival?
TN: I was able to go to DeFremery Park late in the day as it was wrapping up. There was a woman from the neighborhood visiting the festival with a group of kids. Talking to her she said, “I love this park, I love this place, and I love these stories. I will tell these stories to my kids, and to my grandchildren.” It was great to feel that the stories in the park were a bridge for her to tell something to the group of kids she was looking after. And this was all while I was incognito, I felt like a bit of a voyeur in that moment, seeing the project from the outside. I got back on my bike and just felt great. She had something she could point to, stories of other people in West Oakland, which is not always an easy place.
It was also beautiful at the museum [Oakland Museum of California]. My picture is right on the corner off of Lake Merritt, and my coworkers often comment on it. I’m quite young in the photo, five years old—I might have misunderstood when I sent the picture! I admit to not always being present enough to look at every five year old as someone having an impact on the community. What a mistake! This mural makes that vital bridge with every five-year-old child. We must make that bridge, every day, every encounter, every girl and boy. These weeks out on the streets walking with community during the protests, the grieving, the righteous calls for justice for all…remind me how essential it is to make sure we’re paying close attention to every single five-year-old. Whoever’s child they are, they are all our children. We need to embrace them now, and assure that their fullest potential is realized on their future life trajectory, holding up their current and future contributions. Brett’s portrait reminds me of this, and should remind all of us. Let us be present to that.
ABOG: That’s a really interesting way of thinking about it. As something nostalgic but something more, too, as kind of a springboard for thinking about the future. With that in mind, how do you find art and healing to be related?
TN: I’ve thought about this a lot with my own children. Health is wholeness. The word health comes from the word hale or hǣlth in middle English, which means whole.
When we allow ourselves to express ourselves fully—with our spirits, minds, bodies, emotions—that’s health and wholeness. When we have the courage to face a blank canvas, a lump of clay, or a stage when you don’t know what you’re going to say in the moment—that’s health and wholeness. If we can bring that wholeness to our voice, to our expressions, that’s health in the first place. The ability to express who we are as human beings, in our beauty, and in our humanity—the wholeness of ourselves—that’s health.
Art is generous—it’s an offering of creation—that’s a form of wellbeing. I often think about wellbeing as being four things: purpose, belonging, an experience of gratitude and blessing, and generosity. Well, that’s the arts! In that moment of creation, when we’re connecting with others, art is health.
ABOG: That’s a great way of thinking about it, as wholeness. If you did have to choose just one moment from your participation in the project that was the most meaningful to you, or you felt most deeply, which would you choose?
TN: I’d have to say my experience with the woman I met in DeFremery Park. She was a caregiver—a mom, or maybe an aunt—to this group of kids, and she was looking at the murals as something that went beyond that one day. This project gave her stories of a healthier future to talk about with her kids.
Brett Cook (left) interviewing Tyler Norris (right), spring 2014
Left: Tyler Norris original photograph. Right: Tyler Norris original drawing, ink on prepared polyester, 11″ x 14″
In the Oakland Studio/Practice Center, August 2014
In the Oakland Studio/Practice Center, August 2014
Finished portrait with captions in Punjabi and English, October 2014
Preliminary fabrication at Conscious Construction in Oakland, October 2014
Installation at Life is Living festival, October 11th, 2014
Public installation at Oakland Museum of California
For three decades, Tyler has served as a social entrepreneur and trusted advisor to philanthropies, health systems, governments, NGO’s and collaborative partnerships working to improve the health of people and places. His work in the public, private, non-profit and civic sectors has included initiatives with over 400 communities and organizations in the United States and internationally.
As a volunteer, Tyler is active on multiple boards, including as a trustee of Naropa University, America’s leading institution of contemplative education. Previously, he served as founding Board Chair of IP3; Convener of Advancing the Movement and Community Commons; President of Community Initiatives, a Fellow of the Public Health Institute; and a Board member of the Food Commons. Tyler is also co-founder of the High Desert Center for Sustainable Studies in Paonia, Colorado and the Kuhiston Foundation in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (Central Asia.) He earned his Master in Divinity degree from Naropa University (2011) and BA in World Political Economy from The Colorado College (1982). Tyler is also engaged in projects in the Middle East, having once led an international NGO there, the Abraham Path Initiative, under the auspices of Harvard University.