Thursday, August 6, 2015

How Raymond Watson tore down walls

In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning…
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

In Belfast, Northern Ireland there is a wall that divides the loyalist area of Shankill Road from the Springfield-Fall Roads Catholic area. There are currently 99 barriers of various shapes and sizes dividing nationalist and loyalist communities in the city. In spite of the sorrow and trauma the walls have caused, it is called the Peace Line. The barriers have increased in number and height since the Good Friday Peace Accord ended the fighting in 1998. 
My photo of a section of the Peace Line
Raymond Watson knows about walls. He was barely twenty when the British government incarcerated him in the infamous Long Kesh Prison for his involvement in the political conflict. He was given a sentence of seven years and spent some of it in solitary confinement. 
I met Raymond last year in Cushendall, Northern Ireland while visiting my storytelling friend, Liz Weir. We shared a meal at Liz’s house and later enjoyed a celilidh with fiddlers, poets, and tellers.
Over tea I asked Raymond to tell me about Long Kesh.  "Well, it was no five-star hotel,” he said, giving me a sidelong look. He and hundreds of other men were kept in prison without heat, minimal food and clothing, and only a mat to sleep on. They were routinely stripped and examined in all orifices for possible messages smuggled in.
The violation of human rights were significant in Long Kesh, yet international law required the British to put a Bible in each cell. As part of a protest against wearing prison uniforms that signified they were convicts rather than the political prisoners they were, each man wore only a blanket. The concrete block cells had no heat and the winters were brutally cold. To keep his bare feet off the cold floor Raymond stood on his Bible. The irony of that image sticks in my brain still.
Particularly heart breaking was the invoking of the ancient rite of fasting as a form of protest for better prison conditions. Ten men eventually died of starvation.
While in prison Raymond had time to reflect deeply on the nature of the conflict that brought him to Long Kesh. Walls defend us, protect us, give us the illusion of safety, he thought, but more importantly, walls keep them on the other side. He saw the true walls are those in people’s minds, dividing us one from another.
Raymond turned to sculpture after his release to find a way to make sense of what happened, creating works that told the story of his experiences in Long Kesh. His sculptures are poignant, expressive, raw testaments in wood and iron.  Later he wrote The Cell Was My Canvas: Stories of artwork inspired by the experience of political conflict in Northern Ireland (2013) which chronicles his prison days and the evolution of his art. Raymond wants us to think about the walls we create; his art challenges our usual way of thinking about ourselves, neighbors, politics, culture.
Once, on a trip to Tibet he saw prayer flags by the thousands flapping in the breeze. “A lot of my art is around conflict resolution,” he explained. “I was traveling through the Himalayas and I saw a couple of towns which had thousands of Tibetan prayer flags containing wishes for the future. I thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do a similar project here (in Belfast)’.”  As a community project, 10,000 flags were created and sewn together to make a bunting more than a mile-and-a-half long. The bunting runs along the interface between the Shankill and Falls Road—along the peace line—as mute testament to love that endures sectarian violence.
What I found so remarkable about Raymond was his lack of bitterness as he spoke about this long, difficult time in his life. It could have turned out so very, very different. He could have died or been bitter, angry, spiteful towards his jailers. He could have spent the rest of his life hating. Such toxic emotions would have poisoned him, those he loved, and certainly his art. 
Raymond Watson came to a place that makes no human sense at all. Instead of hatred there is forgiveness and--yes, even love. Not the emotional, love-me-tender, kind of love but love for life and self and others. A love that breaks down walls and is willing to endure—no matter what.