October 25, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The other day I was playing the game Guess Who? with two middle schoolers who both have a cognitive disorder. I was working on using descriptive words, turn-taking, and how to construct a question. One of the students was having great difficulty with the game so I sat next to him giving him starter sentences, modeling, and prompting which pictures to knock down. At the end of the game the young man decided to show his secret person to his opponent. At this point I said,
“Grass (name obviously changed), why did you do that? You’re suppose to keep your person a secret.”
He replied, “Oh no!” I didn’t know.”
I responded with, “It’s okay. We’re all learning. You’ll get this next time we play.”
As I quickly cleaned up the game he grew silent.
In a quiet, extremely soft, but very clear voice he said, “I’m sorry I didn’t know how to play the game.” He said it in a way that made it seemed like how I perceived him was dependent on his skill. My heart was crushed. I care about him for who is, not what he can do.
I assured him with these words, “Grass, we’ll get this next time. You’ll get this. You are awesome and we’ll get this.”
He smiled. We gave each other a big high-five and then he left my room.
This interaction made me think about the people I interact with daily and deeply want them to know how much I care about them is not based on what they do or do not do, how much money they make, or what they look like.
Instead of a list of weekend do’s I decided to make up one: See someone as who they are.
September 25, 2012 § Leave a Comment
September 24, 2012 § 1 Comment
At 80 years old, Vera Klement, an oil painter in Chicago, still grapples with the doubts of creating, with wondering what to create next, with creating something that people will understand and connect to. This brief documentary (10 min) follows Vera on a recent project as she paints a portrait in homage to Dmitri Shostakovitch, celebrates her 80th birthday party, and reflects on how she came to paint. Her courage and wisdom are inspiring.
“Really trite things, those are the things that move people,” she says. “But if you paint them with great severity, you can get away with it.”
A nod to Vera and her perseverance.
September 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Though I haven’t read any of Junot Diaz’s work, I’ve heard his name thrown about so often that I was excited to attend a reading by him this week. Which turned out to be not a reading at all, but a Q&A. Which was – perhaps – even better (he had so many good things to say on creating), but also a little ironic considering his advice on becoming a better writer: “Don’t write every day,” he said. “Read every day. There’s more to being a writer than writing.”
And it wasn’t just daily reading habits he was promoting, but a mentality to engage the world as fully as possible for art to be any good.
“To be an artist worth anything means a deep commitment to the world. People want news from the world and that can only be gained by being in the world. If you run the risk of asking people to be transformed by your work, which is why we do art at all, you need to be transformed yourself.”
Diaz took 16 years to write a novel. “I am deeply committed to fucking things up,” he said. He doesn’t shy away from failure and when someone asked about the length of time it takes him to create, he responded by saying that we have adopted a corporate workflow to outputting artistic work, which is damaging to art. Art should and does take time to create, and we as artists should and do go under the process of being transformed “to be the people we need to be to write the book we want to write.”
“What it means to be an artist is that no one’s fucking dying to read your shit. And that’s ok. Uncouple yourself from the assembly line. Any work of art worth anything requires you to be fundamentally lost in it for awhile.
Fight the desire for approval, fight the desire to turn art into a profession, and fight the desire to escape from the world rather than commit to an invitation to be in the world.”
On teaching, he says:
“What we do as teachers of the arts is model compassion. How one looks at their work is how one looks at their flawed, vulnerable self. They need to see their past work as part of the journey, not just mistakes. Lack of compassion – which is what helps us to make it through college, hold a job, and hold it together – makes us terrible artists. Learn what compassion is [suffering together]. Get an operational definition of it, and practice it.”
A nod to Junot Diaz.
June 18, 2012 § 1 Comment
Urban. Community. Contemplation. Art.
I love these words. Candy Chang does too. She combines street art with urban planning to create visual space for discussion to happen among community members.
One of her most recent work was the I Wish This Was project, which individuals shared what they want where they want with a sticker. Vacant buildings and broken doors soon turned into conversation pieces of what could be, what is needed, or what change has yet to happen among community members. View more of her inspirational work below.
This woman has inspired me. She has given me hope and creativity for the urban community that I am a part of. A nod to Candy Chang.
May 21, 2012 § 5 Comments
Today I am inspired to be playful by Danish photographer Nikolaj Lund. Besides capturing some stunning landscape images and portraitures, Lund also happens to have a masters degree in cello performance and classical music. I love how he combines his two areas of passion and revitalizes the image of classical music, a more traditional genre.
The results are surreal, unexpected, and joyful.
A nod to Nikolaj Lund.
May 7, 2012 § Leave a Comment
We were waiting. She was writing and this sight was striking.
I didn’t grow up with my Mom reading books to me or helping me with my homework. By the time I was in first grade I had already surpassed her in reading and writing in English. In second grade, I was the translator for my teacher conferences. In middle school, I would help her sound out words like ”cat” and “the.” In high school, she attended and sat through hours of English at choir concerts and award ceremonies. My rich literacy experiences were not reading before bedtime or afterschool homework help, but it was full of oral stories. These were the moments of her telling me stories of how life use to be. Stories of how life was in Laos or Thailand and of her early years in the States as a refugee immigrant. I especially love hearing stories of my Mom raising us and her longings for home.
My mom, Yeu, sacrificed a lot to give us (eight children) all that she could. She chose to live life in a world that did not understand her. She chose to experience a world where her children spoke and understood another language. She chose this way of life because of her love for her children. When I experience moments of her writing, reading “Main Lobby,” asking for directions or a menu in English I get so proud of her. These moments remind me of the sacrificial beauty entangled in my mother’s love for us.
A nod to my mom, Yeu.
April 25, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The poet Li-Young Lee says that the exhale, the outgoing breath, is dying breath. It is also the breath of speech. When we inhale, we are full of ourselves and of silence. When we speak to another, we let go—both in breath and words; we give ourselves away.
Kalispell’s Westbound feels like a long-awaited exhale. Rooted in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Kalispell is the project of Shane Leonard, accompanied live and on recording by Ben Lester (A.A. Bondy, S. Carey), Kevin Rowe (The Barley Jacks), and others. Westbound, the first full-length album, has been six years in the making. In that time, Shane has traveled as a musician and a teacher, from Massachusetts to Wisconsin, partnered and single, rarely static, and so the songs too have changed and deepened with the retelling.
The result is a unique mix of clawhammer banjo and pedal steel guitar, of old-timey Appalachian traditions as in “Methodist Lift” and the ethereal, ambient music of songs like “Sepia Ghost.” And in each is the poet’s exhale, Shane giving himself away.
It’s like when good friends gather, perhaps around a fire in someone’s backyard as the night settles or on the front stoop of your house, cigarette in hand—the setting doesn’t matter. It’s about the moment after the laughter quiets and the tone shifts, when you venture to say what’s been heavy on the mind, so near the tongue, so hard to admit:
How you’ve grown impatient with the “state of summer’s same.”
How you feel alone with the person who should know you best.
How “there was no devotion / in our frozen poses.”
How you said yes when you meant no.
These are the small confessions that Shane offers in each song, moments of too-familiar discontent and a longing for something deeper, truer. In the intimacy of sharing is much hope. The piercing lyrics of “Lucky a Hundred Times” are matched by startling gratitude (“sighing at the cold bedside / ‘mother, won’t you tell me when it feels likes flying?’”) and the heartache of watching helplessly as a loved one struggles alone in “Marion, MT” is lifted with “swallow the stream you can’t swim.”
The lyrics and combination of old and contemporary sounds speak also to holding life loosely. There’s a cycle of inhaling and exhaling in our bodies, of silence and speaking in our lives. Six years changes a song, changes a person. You don’t know where you will go next or who you will be in the going. For now, Shane closes the album with the title song, “My heart is where I started / I am westbound.”
Westbound will be out May 17th, but if you pre-order it now, you’ll get a free download of the Last Year EP. Check it out here.
April 13, 2012 § 11 Comments
I lost a poem last night. I thought of it as I was falling asleep, but I did not get up to scribble it down and I cannot remember any of it now. I’ve been thinking about it all day, how it’s lost. How it might have been really good. How I didn’t have a strong enough desire for it, to chase after it. How I regret the not chasing.
I don’t know what was behind the not chasing – sleep and laziness seem too easy answers. I always have an excuse for why I do not write. And lately, as I consider writing more, I wonder if I will have anything to say, let alone anything worth saying. I wonder who would even be interested in hearing me and how people will respond when I’m laid bare on paper.
Brene Brown, who describes herself as a researcher/storyteller, is amazing. She delves into this feeling of fear and unworthiness and discovers that vulnerability lies behind both, but without vulnerability we also don’t experience joy, creativity, or love. Listen to her TED talk below. It is so worth the 20 minutes.
These are hard, but good lessons. I’m not good at being vulnerable; this post took a few weeks to write. What is most dear to me, I tend to hold silently or to let other words obscure my meaning. I have a friend who tells me often, “Keep it honest, Abi!”, another friend whose advice to “engage in the situation in the truest form of yourself” is written on my bathroom mirror, and a third friend who recently emailed me, saying:
The world is full of many things to be loved and despised but also simply seen. Don’t overlay your vision with something that’s not there. Don’t forget to take joy. Don’t try to keep your emotions at arm’s length. Experience this thing and see it as it is, however it may be right now.
I’m surrounded by this message, and yet it is still sinking in, still a daily practice. Be vulnerable. Keep chasing.
Photo credit: Naama Oshri.
April 9, 2012 § 3 Comments
Guest post by Anna Marie.
I will begin by saying that I am not a dancer or gymnast or any other kind of accomplished artist besides a musician. However I want to share some insights I’ve learned from taking dance class, playing the piano, and listening to artists talk about something we all need to learn how to do: be grounded. And stop grasping, physically and emotionally.
Dancers and gymnasts often strive to achieve beauty through a perception of weightlessness. They strive to appear to defy gravity. Gymnasts play with it, throwing themselves high into the air, performing physical feats up into space that awe viewers. I think of dance as a continuum of weight and weightlessness, moments when something is dragging you down and moments when you are the embodiment of grace, a bird flying. This contrast is illustrated beautifully in this video below. The man is weight; the woman, weightlessness. (Although this is animated with added effects, it was choreographed and performed by dancers for the artist to copy, and the movements are honest-to-real dance)
In college I took classes in Alexander Technique from Dr. Toni Poll-Sorenson, dance professor and Alexander Technician. (Check out her practice here.)
“The Alexander Technique is a way to feel better, and move in a more relaxed and comfortable way… the way nature intended. An Alexander Technique teacher helps you to identify and lose the harmful habits you have built up over a lifetime of stress and learn to move more freely.”
Many artists seek out this therapy, and this class was where I heard conversations about the difficulties each discipline faces. We addressed the issue of reaching our achievements. For dancers and gymnasts to reach their goal of defying gravity, often they resort to the most intuitive solution – gathering their bodies upward, trying to reach up to the sky in their movements, grasping at the idea of getting off of the floor. Toni stressed that this gathering oneself upward is self-defeating and can give you destructive bodily habits. The only way to create an illusion of weightlessness and flight is to be absolutely connected to the floor, grounded deeply, to submit to gravity, not fight it. When grounded deeply, one can gain the balance and strength necessary to make the jump or achieve the stance that will make you appear as floating lightness, unencumbered by the laws of gravity.
The need to be grounded manifested itself in my experience as a pianist as well. During one class, I played a piece for Toni and my peers. With particularly vigorous passages, I would desperately gather my shoulders upward and forward to get the power I needed into the keys. Toni suggested I start again and try driving my heels into the ground while I play. When I did this, my legs suddenly felt like they were tree trunks, solid and grounded with roots as deep as I am tall, connecting me to the seemingly unmovable mass of the earth. This released my upper body, and I felt like branches swaying, unburdened and flexible, but at no loss of power. I felt I physically had more power to create a larger sound without striving upward to do it. It was as though all the power from the muscles of my legs, back, shoulders and arms were being channeled through my weightless fingertips to the keys, creating more sound and more endurance for quick passages. I was streamlined, playing from my whole body, rather than my hands and forearms taking the brunt of the work. Toni and the class noted that the sound changed noticeably, that it had a deeper bass quality to it.
Other ways to create lightness are to either create a piece that seems weightless, or to create a moment when the viewer can feel transported, as though they were being transformed into weightlessness through their experience of the art. Stick sculptor Patrick Dougherty achieves both of these.
(View more of his sculptures here.)
We learn that stick sculptures need to be physically grounded. They need to be structurally sound before they can look like they could be easily blown over. We learn also that the artist needs to be grounded in technique, design, and hard work in order to create a transcendent experience: something that looks very simple that transports viewers to another place.
Dougherty describes the effect this way, “The mark of a good sculpture is that… people walk up and say ‘yeah I could do this.’ I don’t mind that illusion. I think it adds to the vulnerability and personability of the piece.”
I admire him for preferring that people don’t know the extent of work that goes into it. If they knew, it would take away from their experience of whimsicality. In a way, that is the test of an artist: his or her willingness to stop grasping at being admired and sacrifice the persona of being a genius in exchange for an outcome that truly is genius.
A nod to those who have spent the hours, days, or years stripping down their visions in order to rebuild them again, from the ground up.