An artist and father explores the idea of sharing

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Joel Tauber, “What Mysteries Of Sharing Are Hidden In Happyville?,” from the art installation and movie, “The Sharing Project” (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

How do you teach your child to share? It’s a challenge that every parent confronts. After all, the word “mine” is one of the first words to come out of a toddler’s mouth, and children see their toys as extensions of themselves.

The artist Joel Tauber has been wrestling with this issue. He and his wife Alison have two kids: Zeke, who’s 5, and Ozzie, who’s 3. And Tauber realized that teaching their kids to be good at sharing wasn’t going to be easy.

“We applaud selfishness in so many ways. Probably the dominant narrative in our culture is, get as much stuff as you can. We’re bombarded by all this advertisement all the time, telling us to get more and more stuff,” Tauber said.

Tauber really started thinking about sharing. He interviewed 21 experts in fields ranging from evolutionary biology, psychology and anthropology, to history, philosophy and education. He tried to get at the root of why humans choose to compete or cooperate.

“It troubles me, seeing how we’ve become a really selfish culture. I don’t think that’s good for us as a whole. I try not to be that way. I’m conflicted just like everyone else though. There’s a part of me that wants good things for myself and for my kids and for my wife, and for us to live an easy life. But then I also am really troubled by all this inequity,” he said.

Joel Tauber, “Trying To Fix Happyville,” from the art installation and movie, “The Sharing Project”

What came out of this investigation is “The Sharing Project,” a video installation at the University Art Museum at Cal State Long Beach. While thinking about sharing, Tauber discovered a forgotten Socialist commune called Happyville. One video in the show features long nature shots – birds chirping, the breeze blowing through trees, ripples across a lake – as Tauber narrates the history of this utopian community.

“In 1905, Charles Weintraub and a bunch of his Socialist Russian Jewish friends decided to leave New York City and head south. They purchased 2200 acres of land in South Carolina. They didn’t know how to farm and the land that they purchased wasn’t conducive to farming anyway. But those minor practical issues didn’t dissuade them,” he said.

As Tauber explained, the settlers cleared the sandy soil into pasture, and constructed a grist mill, saw mill and cotton gin. But their lack of farming experience was a problem. Heavy rains washed out the fields and dams. Crushed by debt, Happyville disbanded in 1908, after just three years.

The main video in the Long Beach museum shows Tauber and his son Zeke among the ruins of Happyville, playing with the boy’s brightly-colored plastic tools amid the rusted tractor and crumbling foundations.

Joel Tauber, SHARE (photo direction: Joel Tauber, shot by Kristi Chan) from the art installation and movie, The Sharing Project (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Part of what got Tauber really thinking about sharing was his family’s move from Los Angeles to Winston-Salem, North Carolina four years ago, where he’s developing a video art program at Wake Forest University. He was startled by the economic inequality he saw in his new home. Census data shows that 23 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty level.

“It turns out that Winston-Salem might have the most childhood poverty in the whole country, and that’s while there’s all these really wealthy people there,” he said.

All of Tauber’s art projects revolve around ethical issues, whether it’s as complex as altruism or as simple as saving a tree. Before “The Sharing Project,” Tauber adopted and maintained a sycamore tree growing in the middle of a giant parking lot at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

“It was getting hit by cars, starved for water and oxygen, and eventually asphalt was removed, boulders were placed around it, then that started happening for other trees,” Tauber said. “Taking care of that tree, which is really ongoing, taught me how to love, how to become a husband, how to be a father.”

That lesson, of how to be a father, is something he continues to explore, in his life and in his art.

Joel Tauber’s “The Sharing Project” is on display at the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach, through July 19, 2015. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, June 20, 6-8 pm, with a performance by Earth Like Planets. More information here.