Susan Boyle, performs on "Britain's Got Talent"
Like everyone else on planet earth I have been moved to tears by Susan Boyle's amazing performance on Britain's "Got Talent." Any of you who haven't yet watched her on YouTube, do yourself a favor. I want to reflect here on Boyle's massive appeal from a very personal point of view, for I have spent much of the last three years managing a project that harnesses the creative energies of hundreds of middle-aged female "nobodies."
In late 2005, my sister Christine and I began crocheting a coral reef, a project we started in our living room as a response to the devastation of living reefs due to global warming. From the start we envisioned this as a collective enterprise and we announced on our website that we'd welcome others who wanted to participate. Three and a half years later we have just opened an exhibition in Scottsdale AZ that contains the works of 500 people — almost all of them middle-aged women.
The "Crochet Reef Project" exhibition at the Scottsdale Civic Center, 2009
The "Crochet Reef Project" exhibition at the Andy Warhol Museum, 2007
The "Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project" exhibtion in Scottsdale, comes on the heels of exhibitions in Chicago, New York, London and Los Angeles. In all of these cities we've held workshops and invited participation in the creation of this woolly environment. To our amazement thousands of women have shown up and close to 1000 have made pieces included in an exhibition. Every one of these women, has told us how important it is to them to have their work recognized and validated in an authoritative art gallery space. For most of them, like Susan Boyle, this is the first time their artistic talents have been taken seriously.
Time and again, they and other visitors to the exhibitions have been moved to tears by the vast outpouring of creative feminine energy on display. Christine and I (oursleves now technically middle-aged women) have watched with an increasing sense of awe the exponential growth of our project. When we began we thought a dozen or so people would join in. We seem to have tapped into a parallel universe of female power — I can think of no way to put this anymore, except to say that we have become the channels or mediums for what appears to be an unstoppable force.
Margaret Wertheim, a science journalist and author of physics books wrote the Quark Soup column for the LA Weekly and is currently a contributor to the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, as well as a contributing editor to Cabinet magazine. Her books include Pythagoras' Trousers and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet. she and her twin sister Christine Wertheim also founded the Institute For Figuring, an organization based in Los Angeles that promotes the public understanding of the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science and mathematic.
Why has this force not been channeled before? How is that such power and potential has gone unnoticed? Unrecognized? Unutilized? If this much of it could be channeled randomly through our living room, imagine what could be achieved with even a modicum of social support and encouragement. As I watch Boyle's astounding performance I think about the dozens of equally ignored and in some cases equally brilliant women whom it has been my privilege to observe as artists during the course of the Crochet Reef Project. I think especially of our beloved contributor Evelyn Hardin — an unemployed woman in Dallas TX who left school at 16 and is nothing short of a creative genius — though, like Ms. Boyle, nobody has seen fit to say so for the past 40-odd years.
Above: details of the "Crochet Reef Project" exhibition at the Andy Warhol Museum, 2007
When Susan Boyle walked onto the London television stage on Saturday night everybody laughed. "No one is laughing now," as one of the show's judges remarked. Except in joy. Boyle's transcendent voice, issuing from her blubbery and sagging body under a mop of frizzy unruly hair, resounded off the studio walls like an angel in flight. Our spirits soar with her not merely because of the virtuoso performance but because the experience so far exceeds our expectations. Over the past three years I have had the chance to observe how many middle aged women can defy expectations when given the chance. It is with joy that I can announce that the Crochet Reef Project has just been accepted for exhibition by the Smithsonian. It will be the first time ever that the Natural History Museum will exhibit an art project.
Postscript. Now after 70 million YouTube views and endless press — it's impossible to see Susan Boyle raw. She has become a bona fide Phenomenon. I'm glad I saw her before that happened, when it was genuinely possible to be moved by the sheer tenderness of a middle-aged woman defying expectations and annihilating disdain. Her impact results not just from her voice, or the song (surely a canny choice), but also from the joy of her being. She represents the triumph of what we Australians call the "dag." Every wrinkle on her face and crinkle of her unruly hair — all of which she seems so comfortable with — resists the barbie-doll ethos of our culture that weakens so many women. I agree with the show's female judge, Amanda Holden, that she should resist all efforts at beautification and Hollywood-style makeovers. When our tears flow it is not merely because of her surprising talent, but because for many women it is such a release to witness a woman so evidently and joyously in defiance of the social rules that require shabby-flabby people to be silent and slink into the shade. That takes real courage.