Fly High, Justice, Ginsberg
Somewhere in the mid-1970s, I called Pocatello, Idaho my idahome. Around the same time, my somewhere-in-her-mid-to-late 20’s mother was a newly-minted divorcee and an enthusiastic ceramicist and printmaker. Together with a stained-glass artisan named Judy, she rented a gallery space in the (still) not thriving downtown. We’d pull up in her brown Pinto and proceed to shape some of my fondest memories.
With me by her side, Mom would throw pots, spinning one piece after another. We’d stuff the kiln full of art that paired well with macramé, from bud vases to ash trays, waiting eagerly to see what emerged more beautiful from the boxed inferno. I loved everything about it. It was tactile, practical, and involved a cash register.
That was the same decade when Ruth Bader Ginsburg would emerge as a legal powerhouse in her volunteer role with the ACLU. In the latter part of the ’70s, I vividly remember riding my bike through the streets of Hailey, Idaho, drumming up votes (or not, in this case) for President Jimmy Carter. He might not have been able to compete with the charm Ronald Reagan brought to the Republican ticket, but Jimmy sure did change the future when he nominated RBG to the US Court of Appeals in 1980. Thank you, President Carter. While you may have lost the election that November, you certainly changed the future of my rights as a woman. But I clearly didn’t know that at the time. When Reagan officially won the election in the midst of the Iran Hostage crisis — and I watched my mom cry at the results — I penned an essay I’ve referred to often in my adulthood. In it, I wrote:
Hi I’m Lisa. I want to know why there are wars. The hostages might be freed but, if we have more wars they’ll take away more people. And Reagan, he is not doing anything about it. He is fighting against girls so they can’t work. What about if you’re poor. I just don’t know why dumb Reagan won.
I was spot on and fully entitled to my heartbreak. But little did I know that Carter planted the seeds of justice in that first court appointment, and in that very moment, Justice Ginsburg had my back. And my future.
When we left the ’70s in the rearview and I was squarely living out my tweens, my mom and I found ourselves on a once in a lifetime trip to the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. Upon laying my naïve eyeballs on Yves Klein’s Blue Monochrome, I predictably announced, “I could have done that. It’s just a blue canvas.” My mom’s response:
“But you didn’t.”
But I never actually had the knack for art. I’ve always identified more with the cash register part of that pottery studio memory. Today, I see being a patron of art and being surrounded by art as a privilege. It’s also part of my DNA. My paternal grandmother, who picked up a paint brush for the first time in her 40s, became a well-recognized and award-winning naturalist. For the most part, she painted (wait for it…) birds. Fierce women and art. That’s what I come from.
Fast forward to 2018, when I buzzed over to 1508 U St. to see whether the building would work for an office expansion. I paused first to take note of its blank wall, which faced U Street. THAT, I thought, would make a STELLAR backdrop for a mural. And in that moment, the image of Justice Ginsburg releasing a flock of birds began to take shape in my mind.
It took a long minute to negotiate and eventually close on that property. That’s because the seller clearly wasn’t confident that I qualified as a woman buyer. He openly questioned the company and our viability despite our nine strong years in business (note the number NINE). So, he put off ratifying the contract. And pushed back on the terms. And questioned my financing. Never mind him. I fucking persisted. And the building is better off because of it. Just ask the constant stream of people being with RBG right now.
So much of the credit for transforming our building goes to Rose Jaffe. Pre Ginsburg, 1508 U Street was a mansion transformed into a little cubicle farm. In 2019, it became a dramatic backdrop for a now famous image of the most famous woman in history (at least at the moment). Rose Jaffe was the artist that brought my dream to life. She offered the genius of mixed media to bring Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Flock West (as we like to call our office). The historic wall offered a brick canvas as tall as it is wide. On it, Rose gave RBG — small in stature, but larger than life — true visual magnitude. Her likeness on that wall eclipses the physical limitation of the brick. To visit her image there is to always look up, to be enveloped by her draped robes. The birds she is releasing invite us all to soar. To follow our dreams. To break barriers.
I said goodbye to my mother many, many years ago. It’s still like yesterday, though. As I joined so many others at the mural to honor Justice Ginsberg this weekend, I did so promising her — and my mom, and my grandmother — to fight for a just tomorrow. I have them to thank for reminding me that breaking those barriers isn’t just my right as a woman; indeed, it’s my obligation.
RBG is the very first woman to lie in state in the Capitol. But on U St, she’ll stand in power. In perpetuity. You can count on that. Now go make your vote count. Justice hangs in the balance.
Fly high, Justice Ginsburg. Fly high.
Author’s Note: I sent the original version of this piece to my colleague and asked, is this too heavily focused on ME? Now. Let us ask: what man among us would ponder this aloud. We all know the answer.