Saad Ghosn – Art For Change as a Non-juried Enterprise
Walking into the interior of Saad Ghosn’s house near The Cincinnati Zoo carries an almost physical impact, shifting from the bright leafy world of his front walk to shady rooms replete with colorful and exuberant art, some of it his own. This is the ninth year Ghosn has published his self-funded For a Better World, Poems and Drawings on Peace and Justice. Annual exhibits that have shown the work done by a multitude of writers and artists have followed. He is presently applying for a non-profit status for the organization in order to seek grants. The latest show, at The Art Academy of Cincinnati, is of the 2007 book. The idea behind the annual enterprise is to showcase art based on a single theme – peace and justice – and contributions come from anyone who wishes to participate.
In 2005, Ghosn started a related brunch, the second Saturday of every third month, to network. Four meetings a year have been held for six years, with perhaps 20 people showing up. The issues discussed are global and, as Ghosn intends, they encourage collaborative thinking and resulting creativity.
Born and trained as a physician in Lebanon, he received his M.D. (French and Lebanese state diplomas) and served on the French
Faculty of Medicine, Beirut, Lebanon. Ghosn is a pathologist, Director of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the VA Hospitals in Cincinnati and Chillicothe as well as a Professor at the University of Cincinnati, working 70 hours a week. He is also a passionately involved artist (51 shows in Lebanon and the US since 1970) and published writer. Divergent as these disciplines may seem on the surface, there is a forceful undercurrent to Ghosn’s endeavors: his vision of the possibilities for helping others and of art as an instrument of social change. Ghosn is a man who lives out of his beliefs.
While in medical school, he had the idea of using art to connect medical students with the community at large. Then in 2001, when there were riots in Cincinnati, “We started talking about politics and art. I became very interested in art as a vehicle for change, and I wasn’t seeing these events reflected in local art.”
Ghosn became increasing uneasy with American policy. “With the Iraq war, I realized we were not approaching it in the right way. The best way to protect yourself is to make friends and not enemies. The approach that Bush took of course increased the number of terrorists and attacks. I felt very isolated at the time; you couldn’t really talk. That’s when I did the series of drawings and visual art called “My Country”, and I showed them at two galleries.” This was a series of 40 works. “I would come home in the evening so upset with what was going on that I would go into my room and start drawing. I was expressing myself, but still I felt isolated.”
It was then that he wanted to involve others in airing their views, give them an open platform for expression – to provide an all-inclusive sounding board for artists. He has called the effort the SOS project. “If you are triggered to do something based on an issue that is important to you, you think about it, it grows in you. You think about its positives and negatives, and it then becomes potent. What pleases me is that so many people got together and became friends and now work together.”
Collaboration and philosophical discussion among artists can probe ideas and develop concepts. He didn’t see that happening in Cincinnati. “It’s because America is a product driven, results oriented society,” say Ghosn. “Broadly, if you are an artist, society expects you to create a commodity. This isolates one. We are, to start with, an individualistic society, goal oriented. You can’t become a doctor because you are in love with medicine, the science. That is more about becoming a doctor and becoming chief of the hospital.” This, in other words is a society that quantifies more than it qualifies.
Ghosn’s father was a physician in Lebanon, and he is not sure how much that drove his ultimate decision. “I was very gifted in mathematics and physics, and everyone thought I would become a mathematician or a physicist, but I found them too dry for me. I was interested in philosophy and art, and medicine was gentler around these lines – the human aspect of medicine. I was dreading mathematics and physics as isolating.” Genetics was just starting as a discipline, so he went to France to get his Masters in Genetics and Hematology at the University of Paris, Paris, France (1974) where he remained until 1976 as Resident and Attending Physician, Pediatric Hematology and Immunology, Necker-Enfants Malades Hospital. Then in 1975 the war started in Lebanon (Lebanon’s bloody civil war lasted 15 years, took over 144,000 lives, wounded more than 184,000 and left 17,000 missing.), and although Ghosn wanted to go back and help people, he came to the United States as a resident in Anatomic Pathology, VAMC, Boston, MA until 1976, followed by a residency in Clinical Pathology, New England Deaconess Hospital, also in Boston, as well as being a Clinical Fellow in Pathology, Harvard Medical School. A brief description, leaving out many other appointments and honors, shows that from 1981 to 1984 he was teaching at both Harvard and Northeastern Universities in Boston. In 1984 he moved to Cincinnati and from 1984 until 1996 was Associate Professor of Pathology, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, becoming a full professor in 1996.
“When my boss came to Cincinnati and recruited me, I was ready to move, although I still wanted to go back to Lebanon. The war lasted for 15 years, and every year, I would say, ‘hey, I want to go back,’ but something stopped me.” He says that he was virtually camping in Boston, didn’t want to establish roots, “so when I finally decided to come to Cincinnati, I thought, ‘well, that’s it; I want to establish roots.’”
Those roots resulted in not only a distinguished teaching and administrative career but also generated an enduring artistic project that has now become an annual event. Feedback from many artists involved in the SOS project has been that it has changed the way they work. “It’s not because of me; it’s because they were working in a venue that was not commercial, not commodity based, one that was empowering every single person who wanted to do it.”
One recent show curated by Ghosn and Theresa Gates Kuhr (Tiger Lily Press), Art from the Press, took place in Covington (The Covington Artisans Enterprise Center, 25 West 7th Street, Covington, KY 41011, Nathalie Bowers, Arts District Manager). Bowers, married to an Englishman whose job brought him to the area, arrived in Cincinnati in 2008, having lived in England where she worked eight years for a hedge fund as well as being marketing director for a theatre company and an executive in philanthropy for the arts. This experience gave her unusually broad skills for the new job.
Under her energetic and intelligent direction, the organization was altered, and a jury committee was put in place. The first year on the committee, members curate a show and in the second, pick shows for the coming year. Thus, as a new member, Ghosn recently co-curated Art from the Press, including such artists as Jay Bolotin, Andrew Au, Mark Fox, Rich Finn and others. Talking about how economic development in Covington has embraced the arts, Bowers says, “I am so proud of our leaders; wonderful things are happening here!”
Bowers met Ghosn at a show curated by Maureen Bloomfield and subsequently talked with him about SOS over tea at Sitwell’s. “I decided we really needed his energy. He’s such a wonderful community coherer and is incredibly passionate about artistic values. Unlike many others, Saad has no cynical view. He’s very cranial and intense and a loving person; it’s amazing when you think of all he does with two full time jobs as well.”
One of the other things Ghosn has done for some time is to write articles profiling a variety of artists who use art for social change for Streetvibes, an alternative newspaper that highlights homelessness and social justice. The publication provides a forum for those normally left unheard. February, March, April and May 2011 editions, for instance, feature such people as Barbara Houghton, Martin Zeinway, Kim Shifflett, Cedric Cox, Carolyn Mazloomi and Steven Finke, all of whom work with socio-political themes.
“SOS art,” he continues, “is by definition a non-juried show. Anyone who wants to say anything about peace and justice can join in, and given that inclusiveness, I think the quality is very good indeed. Artists who are well known are side by side with others.”
Ghosn feels that art is for the sake of the artist, so by default creates thoughtful and good work. “Art is not for the sake of art. If it’s for your sake, then you put yourself into it, and you want it to be a good creation, so of course the standard of the art will be good. And, if it’s for your sake, it’s not for your sake as an isolated individual; it’s about how you fit in the world; how you fit into society, into life in general.” Because of his beliefs, his education, his values, he is against hunger. Hunger is an option and the result of political decisions concerning everything from commodities markets and supply chains to corporate control of farming methods and materials. “I’m going to use my art to say something about hunger. It hurts me. And if I say something, I will be contributing to the world. I would like art to be seen, to be used as a connector. Art is very potent. For instance, Guernica says more than any words could do.”
He continues, “The other approach to art is its technique; you have to develop certain things. That is very important. What is the best way to convey hunger? It could be by using the conceptual approach. It could be using a different technique. So, I will put artistic experiments at the service of my idea. I won’t do them in abstraction. This way it stops being a commodity. It does give you a commodity, yes, but it goes beyond that – it’s a spiritual activity that disconnects you from the material. Your involvement transcends the material. This dimension makes you less violent, more tolerant.”
Ghosn’s arts involvement is vast, and encompasses everything from boards of arts organizations to curating shows in both Cincinnati and in Kentucky. Replying to questioning concerning his view of area arts, he says, “I think Cincinnati is a very strong city for the arts. We have very good schools, and I am very impressed by the quality of the shows. I can see that in the past few years, there is more acceptance of people who do work that is socially engaged. Before, it was not so much encouraged. Art was more conceptual. But this is changing. Of course there is still all the snobbism of conceptual art, who makes it and who doesn’t. Demand, too, often controls what is made. It’s hard for artists to have an outlet while the economy is not good. We would like the city and the country to give more financial support to the arts. I was on The Cincinnati Arts Allocation Committee that provided grants to artists, and a few years after I was there, the allocations disappeared. Money is there, but more and more it is going to the few who have a lot, and our system is not favoring distribution of money for cultural quality of life.”
He concludes, “I need more time. I still have two full time jobs! In a few years I will be focusing more on the SOS art. I would like to continue to contribute to peace and justice in the community. My main focus will be the vehicle for that.”
– Cynthia Osborne Hoskin