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Art & Love Intertwined by Aarik Danielsen 2010

Third World poverty, cancer and faith serve to enlighten Jenny and Dave McGee.

For the longest time, Dave and Jenny McGee couldn’t see the forest. Their vision wasn’t obscured by trees of their own making, the figurative fixations that preoccupy so many people and prevent them from seeing the beauty and wholeness of a widescreen, well-examined life. They simply lived in a part of the world where there were, literally, very few trees to gaze upon.

One work in Jenny McGee’s El Salvador series represents a particular turning point for the artist; looking for some avenue to explore the swirling winds of violence that often sweep across the nation, she was connected to a group called Homies Unidos, or “United Homies,” which helps rehabilitate and reintegrate ex-gang members. Hoping to transcend assumptions and really understand both their life experiences and experience with art, Jenny asked a former gang member to take a canvas she’d painted red to a shooting range and pierce it with bullets.

“To him, the bullet holes not only were a physical breakthrough of the canvas, they were a metaphorical breakthrough of stopping the cycle of violence,” she recalled. “To him, the red of the canvas represented the bloodshed of his past, unfortunately, but also the bloodshed of what’s going on in his country.” In the man’s responses, she witnessed true transformation and how beauty transcends transgression.

“Sometimes we have these stupid stereotypes in our head of people that can ‘get’ art or people that can experience art,” she said. “This ex-gang member who has a second-grade education got so much out of art, got just as much out of that art as anybody with a master’s degree in art could have.” She called the painting “Whom Shall I Send?” because it illustrated God’s mysterious ways. “Sometimes God just sends the unlikely to send his message of love and recovery and hope and grace,” she said.

— Aarik Danielsen

“El Salvador is one of the most deforested countries in the Western Hemisphere,” Jenny, an Orr Street Studios artist, said of the couple’s longtime home. “It’s hard not to notice the lack of trees and the trash everywhere and the lack of respect for environment and beauty.”

Upon returning to Missouri in the fall, Jenny produced a prolific body of paintings in which trees, often standing solitary, feature prominently. It’s reasonable to assume these works merely relay the scenes recently before her eyes and reflect the joy of revisiting a landscape rich with white ash, black walnut, flowering dogwood, sturdy oak and hickory. There is truth in that conclusion, but, ultimately, the not-so-secret significance behind each piece is best conveyed in a sentence that has come to define the McGees’ approach to everyday life.

“The secret to the life of a tree is that it remains rooted in something deeper than itself,” Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a 17th century monk, once said. Remaining rooted in faith, family and an ability to express struggle and solace has been a must for the couple while experiencing cultural challenges in El Salvador and enduring the chaos thrust upon them when, in October, Jenny learned she had breast cancer.

“That” quote “pretty much defines my goals right now in this recovery process and the creative process as well,” she said. This intentional grounding has spurred her to fertile creativity, conveying forests’ worth of meaning in paintings housed everywhere from Orr Street to Broadway Brewery, Art in the Park to New York City’s World Trade Art Gallery. It also has brought clarity and certainty for their young family — the McGees have two children — at a moment of instability; in a beautiful paradox, living like trees has ushered the McGees into a glorious clearing.

A LITERAL FALLING IN LOVE

A branch from the Hodgson family tree, Jenny was born in the Philippines to missionaries, her father an esteemed Catholic theologian and Bible translator. Her sapling days were spent in Springfield, using “very minimal materials to make inventions and creative things,” a pursuit that bore fruit yet often landed her in trouble. As a girl, she began a jewelry enterprise with an unconventional business plan: borrow a neighbor’s geode, “accidentally” drop it and string together a necklace from the resulting splinters. Entrepreneurship far outpaced judgment, however, as the entire formation shattered on impact and her mother pulled into the driveway just in time to see the sight.

Dave grew up in a small Pennsylvania town, the son of an Assemblies of God pastor. The two met in Springfield when she entered the climbing gym where he worked, looking for a job. He was impressed by her natural athleticism — once a collegiate swimmer, she was quickly able to ascend advanced training structures that took him two years to master — and the strength of her spirit, seeing “a passion for life and energy that was contagious.”

“I was drawn by her joy, her relentless ability to charge through hard stuff with a smile on her face,” he said. In turn, she noticed his “magnetic way of interacting with people.” She “noticed that everyone wanted to hang around Dave … Dave makes you feel special, and there is something that he exudes that makes you feel accepted and free to be yourself.”

Fast friends, they traveled on a group climbing trip to Arkansas. There, a mistake of his led to a fall of hers — her landing point, a local hospital. “I fell for him,” she joked. The accident shattered Jenny’s ankle and a sense of identity Dave forged around safely guiding others. “It also caused a different type of relationship than I’d ever had with another person,” he said. “Just one of total service and love but love … having no agenda whatsoever and without regards to really even what she thought of me.” With vulnerabilities exposed and hearts mutually encouraged by the other’s response, their relationship evolved, and they were eventually, fittingly married atop an Arkansas cliff.

WHOM SHALL I SEND?

Nearly every inch of the back wall in the McGee’s Orr Street Studios space is covered with creations that differ immensely in tone and tenor yet share a striking resemblance and

remarkable unity. The paintings, from a series of 24, exist as a stirring document of the family’s time in El Salvador and a testimonial. At the end of their honeymoon, the pair went to the Central American nation to visit her college roommate. What was intended as a three-month trip became a six-month stay, then nine months and, eventually, ended as a 7-1/2 year excursion. “We kind of laugh and joke that we never really came home from our honeymoon,” she said.

The cause of their extended stay was a connection to ENLACE, a Christian organization, whose name is Spanish for “link,” which links churches and rural community leaders to sustainable development initiatives involving housing, clean water, viable agriculture and more. ENLACE presented a response to what Jenny termed the “heart-opening, eye-opening, mind-opening” grief and shock that welled up inside them upon viewing the country’s deep poverty, a reality seemingly more real than any they’d experienced. They channeled their abilities toward ENLACE’s communication department; she drew on a storehouse of graphic design skills she’d honed in college while he used his keen photographer’s eye.

The McGees grew closer together in purpose and unity, yet, in another sense, the honeymoon ended. Raising their own financial support, they initially survived on $400 a month and a diet of roadside shellfish and pupusas, a local dish of handmade corn tortillas filled with various meats, cheeses and vegetables. Over time, their passion for the people and funds for ministry grew, as did their ability to avoid the parasites this menu encouraged. They used their talents not for a First World voyeuristic curiosity but to transmit a tale far more nuanced than often realized.

“It would have been too easy to simply try and show the poverty and show the despair … but that’s not the story,” Dave said. “… The story I was always seeing was a story of hope and transformation.” Jenny noticed, in interacting with the locals and telling their story, his camera becoming a true extension of his personality.

“When I look at Dave’s photographs, I just have this amazing sense of David’s sneakiness,” she said. “He loves to be behind the scenes and spotlight other people. In all of his photos, I just see such a servanthood, I guess. He does such a good job highlighting his subject matter and bringing out the best of his subject matter.” She pointed to a photo of a local couple in which Dave’s shadow was literally cast over the image, a coincidence yet “so metaphorical and beautiful of how I perceive Dave’s gift of photography.”

The couple’s roles and range of responsibility within the organization reversed over time. As she grew into motherhood, Dave helped grow ENLACE through strategic planning, fundraising and communicating its mission to outside groups, many of whom he brought to El Salvador for short-term projects. This shift allowed Jenny liberty to create, a desire that deepened as she found freedom in an existence far from any art scene or external expectation.

“When we landed in El Salvador, I felt the freedom, for the first time, to break away from the necessity we feel when we’re in school to have to be the best in our profession and to make it in this world,” she said. “I felt separate from that for the first time. Maybe it was just crossing the border, but it was, for me, the first time to stand on my own ground and say, ‘This is what I want to do. I just want to go for it.’ ”

Collective experiences

Since five college classes, four in drawing and one in painting, was the breadth of her fine art training, she sought instruction from leading area artists. One of these mentors introduced her to “La Fabri-K,” a creative collective housed in an old battery factory. Composed of local culture-makers, the group worked to stimulate creativity in impoverished areas, holding workshops in printmaking, music and other media for local children. The encouragement and equipping she received there inspired her to press ahead with a series she’d begun in 2002, the series that now hangs at Orr Street.

Each work contains a line from “Here I Am, Lord,” a song she grew up singing in Mass. Lyrics such as “I will go Lord, if you lead me / I will hold your people in my heart” and “I the Lord of snow and rain, I have borne my people’s pain” serve as organizing statements and meditations on the spiritual, systemic devastation she was viewing. Each reflects some experience or aspect of Salvadoran culture. A still life of bottled water highlights the lack of potable water in the region; a mixed-media piece integrating DVD covers recalls film pirates who peddled their wares on many street corners; landscape scenes and portraits of children exist as smaller pieces of a large puzzle.

While in the country, the girl who had once “exaggerated with minimal resources” matured as an artist and began using a host of eco-friendly techniques, repurposing and reusing a wide range of materials. Jenny’s work increasingly integrating everything from recycled paper to crushed pearl and turquoise, milk-based paints to soy-based lacquers, even the very soil of El Salvador in a humble yet subversive attempt to see the broken earth around her redeemed. More than a mere commentary, she was laboring to see some measure of its beauty restored.

Work with ex-gang members

One work in Jenny McGee’s El Salvador series represents a particular turning point for the artist; looking for some avenue to explore the swirling winds of violence that often sweep across the nation, she was connected to a group called Homies Unidos, or “United Homies,” which helps rehabilitate and reintegrate ex-gang members. Hoping to transcend assumptions and really understand both their life experiences and experience with art, Jenny asked a former gang member to take a canvas she’d painted red to a shooting range and pierce it with bullets.

“To him, the bullet holes not only were a physical breakthrough of the canvas, they were a metaphorical breakthrough of stopping the cycle of violence,” she recalled. “To him, the red of the canvas represented the bloodshed of his past, unfortunately, but also the bloodshed of what’s going on in his country.” In the man’s responses, she witnessed true transformation and how beauty transcends transgression.

“Sometimes we have these stupid stereotypes in our head of people that can ‘get’ art or people that can experience art,” she said. “This ex-gang member who has a second-grade education got so much out of art, got just as much out of that art as anybody with a master’s degree in art could have.” She called the painting “Whom Shall I Send?” because it illustrated God’s mysterious ways. “Sometimes God just sends the unlikely to send his message of love and recovery and hope and grace,” she said.

RECOVERING RHYTHMS

The biggest shock that confronted the McGees was not one of clashing cultures but an alarm that sounded much closer to home. By mid-October, the family packed up and moved into a remote mountainous region; little did they know Jenny would discover a lump in her breast and, within 10 days, they were packed again and moved back to Columbia, where her sister and parents lived.

Her illness has forced the family into a new push and pull, of work — Dave continues his development work with Enlace from a laptop; she paints to process the world within and around her — and needed rest, of embracing chaos yet eschewing mental and spiritual clutter, of togetherness and solitude. This push and pull is best symbolized in the trees of life Jenny paints. “The solitary tree is really interesting because I feel like this process of recovering from breast cancer has been not only a communal process … but it’s also been a very solitary, lonely experience,” she said.

Ultimately, Dave and Jenny have drawn on experiences old and new to create rhythms of reliance. “The early days of living in El Salvador were days of absolute reliance … on God and on one another,” he said. “There was nowhere else to turn, and life was new, newer than we could ever have imagined. That experience of trusting my identity and in God’s presence and in my wife has been what has ultimately got us through everything since.” One of the ways Dave and Jenny found to let people in was through a blog they regularly maintained. There, the couple shared updates with remarkable candor, integrity and even a little humor.

In an April post, Dave wrote: “My stomach dropped in October when the Doctor told Jenny and I that she only had a 50% chance of the cancer not coming back in the next 5 years. For a few months, I had nightmares about coin tosses. I would see a quarter flying through the air in slow motion, my eyes fixed on it, trying to keep track of which side was ‘heads’ and which was ‘tails’ as it flipped over and over again. It was torturous to think about how of control it all felt … how much everything was suddenly out of hand.

“But after much thought and prayer, I asked myself if I ever had control over Jenny’s life?” he continued. “What were her chances of survival before cancer? What are my chances of surviving the next five years? It is interesting that we live so much of our lives with the perception that we are in control.”

Ultimately, in losing control, the McGees gained clarity — she said the entire experience has been “a wake-up call of self-awareness, self-care and also a healthy dependence on other people.” They’ve affirmed the healing and mending experienced has come not from their own strength but through a deepening faith in God and each other. Dave ended that particular post with Jesus’ words in Matthew 6, instructing his followers not to worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. After combating the cancer, which spread to her lymph nodes, through intense rounds of chemotherapy followed by lighter ones, surgery and taking medicine that continues to this day, the McGees reported in May that a biopsy showed not one sign of lingering tumors.

Difficult but hopeful days lie ahead: the McGees are growing more grounded in the area, having recently bought a house, but must also continue to raise support via his work and her art. The McGees found their family tree bowed but not broken, their roots anchored deeper than even they imagined.

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