Archive for the ‘interview’ Category

Monica Raymond, on the Fascination of What’s Difficult

Monday, November 26th, 2012

Monica Raymond, a past MCC awardee in both Playwriting and Poetry, recently took part in an 18-month residency at Central Square Theatre as one of the PlayPen Playwrights.

Tomorrow (Tuesday, November 27, 7 PM), her play The Owl Girl will have a reading with Ken Baltin, Stephanie Clayman, and others at the Central Square Theatre.

We caught up with Monica to ask about her plays, her many-faceted art, and her view of things locally and abroad as a widely accomplished multidisciplinary artist.

ArtSake: Can you discuss the journey of The Owl Girl – what inspired it, how it’s developed, and how it’s changed (or not) as actors and other collaborators have been involved?

Monica: I first got the idea for The Owl Girl when I was working on audience development for Occupied Territories, which we did at Boston Playwrights Theater in 2004. Occupied Territories was an evening of short works about the Middle East – three by Jewish Americans (Saul Slapikoff, Barry Oshry, and me) and one monologue written and performed by Palestinian American Soha al Jurf. Saul Slapikoff produced it, and the late Ted Kazanoff directed.

In the process of getting people to come out for these the performances, I met with David Dolev, an Israeli who was living in Cambridge and running Muslim-Jewish dialogue groups here. And he told me that there were families in the West Bank who still had the keys to the houses their families had lived in before 1947.

That was the seed that led to The Owl Girl. I knew it was going to be about two families that both had keys to the same house, and wind up living in it together. I decided to make them two symmetrical families, each with a father, a mother, one male child and one female child, and the characters were originally called “A Mother. A Father. Another Mother. Another Brother.” and so forth. The play’s original title was Parable.

I started the play. I thought it would a political play, maybe a psychological one. But when Joze, the exiled brother with a gift for peace, comes back to his old house and meets Stel, the daughter of the family that’s living in it now, he tells her “I’ll tell you something strange about my sister. It used to be that we were quite close in age. She was only a year and a half younger than I. But, at a certain point, I kept on growing, while she has stayed just thirteen.”

At that point, I thought “Hey, wait a minute! What’s going on?” I hadn’t intended this to be a magic play. I had to put it aside.

Then I had a commitment from Len Berkman at Smith (where I went to grad school) for a slot in their New Play Reading Series. I had a couple of things I’d started, and I asked him what I should work on. And he said “Do something with a lot of characters. That way we have lots of parts for students, and they bring their friends, and we have an audience.” At that point, there was even a ninth character, a neighbor who spies on them. So I wrote the first act for that reading, sending Chris Rohmann, who was directing it, new pages almost every day. That winter I finished the draft and submitted it to the Clauder Competition. It won the Clauder Gold Medal, and I had a week to work on it with trained actors. Dan Burson, the literary manager at Portland Stage, was tremendously helpful in thinking of ways to rearrange the second act so that the suspense keeps building and the changes keep coming. I did a lot of work on the script during that week, and I tweaked it a little more when I got back. Since then, the shape of the script has stayed essentially the same.

I did make a couple of small but important changes since. On the advice of playwright friend Ben Marshall, I changed the title from Parable to The Owl Girl. And when I was at the Playwrights’ Center in 2009, Polly Carl said “At least give them names!” So I did.

ArtSake: What draws you to the topics of your plays, like the Israel/Palestine situation (in The Owl Girl) or race and American history (in A to Z, which also received a staged reading this month)?

Monica: Maybe it’s what Yeats called “the fascination of what’s difficult.” I came of age when the personal was political. And vice versa. And, as an audience member, I’m drawn to plays which have some kind of mythic or historic resonance. So I make what I like to see.

But also, the plays are what Ursula LeGuin calls “thought experiments.” In The Owl Girl, the strategy was to take the situation in Israel/Palestine and make everything at once extremely literal and yet symbolic at the same time. The house. The key. The grapevine.

A lot of theater (and TV and movies) we see, even if it’s not political per se, confirms a certain view of the world. I like to shake that loose a little bit, to sow questions, a kind of fertile confusion.

ArtSake: You’re also a poet, a photographer, and (correct me if I’m wrong) a filmmaker. What does working in multiple disciplines bring to your work as an artist?

Monica: Craziness! The poetry goes back a long way, maybe the longest. And for the first part of my adult life, that was my main art form. At a certain point, I started thinking I had done what I’d set out to do in poetry, that I couldn’t really go any further. It turns out that’s not true, but that’s what I thought at the time. I was teaching at the Museum School, and I had been doing a lot of visual art and auditing performance classes, and for a while I was making some solo and group performances. That’s what led me back to theater.

I went back to graduate school in theater, and I thought “Great! This can integrate everything I love and have been involved with – language, visual art, even music.” But that didn’t actually happen. I still write many many poems that have nothing to do with my work in theater. And lately I’ve been writing some essays as well – mostly about the intersection between art-making and social change, which is probably the most galvanizing question of my intellectual life these days.

The connection between poetry and theater feels clear to me. Lorca wrote “A play is a poem standing up.” When you work in poetry, you’re learning about the arrangement of words and spaces in time – to elicit a feeling, explore an idea, create juxtapositions that have never happened before. In theater, you still have the words and the silences, and also bodies, colors, music, fabric, the shape of events. And the physical space of the theater and the audience. There’s just so much more to work with.

I love taking photos, and I did shoot a whole lot of video footage of Occupy Boston when I was involved in it. But I wouldn’t call myself either a photographer or a filmmaker. With the technologies these days so cheap, easy, and portable, everyone’s a filmmaker or photographer. But each of these things is a discipline and has a learning curve, and you have to subject yourself to that, not just “Oh, I shot a couple of great photos, so I’m a photographer.” Maybe if I had another life… Or if I reach a plateau, and feel like I’ve done all I can with language, then I’ll have a chance to steep myself deeply in these and see what I come up with. I would love to.

ArtSake: You were one of the 2010-2012 PlayPen playwrights at Central Square Theatre. How have you found the experience of working with a local theater company and with other playwrights in a year-and-a-half residency?

Monica: The Central Square Theater is right around the corner from where I live in Cambridge. It really is my neighborhood theater, and this was a great opportunity to learn more about how that theater works. And I got to work with some amazing playwrights. Joyce Van Dyke was working on the final draft of Deported, which was produced last year at the Modern. It’s a script about the repercussions of the Armenian genocide, generations after it happened. It even goes into the future. Because of my interest in the possibilities of theater and social transformation, that was a very exciting script for me to get to work with.

ArtSake: Looking into the future, what would you like to see happen with the local new play scene?

Monica: First off, I think things are moving along – the Huntington did new work by a couple of local writers last season, and seems to be developing an ongoing commitment to that. Interim Writers has been bringing out unprecedented audiences for readings of new work. And some of the Small Theater Alliance theaters are doing new work, some by local writers.

One thing we need is better press coverage for new work – both wider (covering more shows) and deeper (really articulating what’s happening in a particular show, not just “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”) And we need some concerted marketing efforts. We don’t really have a sustained audience yet in this town for new work, though we’re starting to.

I’d like to see the bigger and mid-size theaters doing more new local work, not turning to NYC.

I’d like to see a playwrights’ producing collaborative along the lines of 13P in NYC or Workhaus in Minneapolis.

I’d like to see the universities and governments getting into the act – Oregon Shakespeare is commissioning plays about American history – why don’t we have a commissioning project for plays about Massachusetts? St. Paul, Minnesota has public artists in residence, including one to make events, not monuments – why not Cambridge or Somerville?

I’d like theaters developing new work to bridge that gap between readings and performances – “okay, we’ve got it to the point of a staged reading – now you’re on your own.” I’d like to see local theaters committing to going all the way with the work of local playwrights.

ArtSake: The new play development process sometimes involves a protracted period of rewrites. When do you know that a work of yours is truly complete?

Monica: I’m not sure where we’ve gotten the idea that new play writing has to be so labored and so precious. Coward wrote Private Lives in four days, and Shakespeare, Ben Jonson said, never blotted a line. For the rest of us mortals… well, a marble sculptor knows when the piece is done when she feels all over it and can’t feel any parts that still need polishing.

Monica Raymond is a playwright and poet, and her work has been recognized by the Massachusetts Cultural Council in both fields. Her play The Owl Girl, a parable about Israel/Palestine, won the Peacewriting Award, the Castillo Theater prize in political playwriting, and a Clauder Competition Gold Medal. A to Z won the 2011 Ruby Lloyd Apsey Award for plays about race. She has been a MacDowell Colony Fellow and a Jerome Fellow at the Playwrights’ Center, and has taught writing and interdisciplinary arts at Harvard, CUNY, and the Boston Museum School. She is in her twelfth year of trying to live a carbon neutral life in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Wendy Jehlen: Dream Weaver

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Artistic Director and choreographer Wendy Jehlen (FY12 Choreography Fellow) has a remarkable capacity to synthesize multiple forms into a uniquely compelling work. This Saturday at BU Dance Theater, she has an upcoming performance of The Knocking Within, inspired by research into the neuroscience of sleep and the anthropology of dreams. The Knocking Within weaves a portrait of two lovers and the nightmares that plague them, unveiling their insecurities, their fears and the violence that lies just beneath the surface. From Capoeira, Kalaripayattu, Bharata Natyam, West African dance, to a wide range of Contemporary dance forms, this performance promises to be stunning.

What’s the best/worst day job you’ve ever had?
Worst – waitressing. By far. Best – the one I have now – ASL/English interpreting.

What’s the most surprising response to your choreography you’ve ever received?
I have a friend who said that one of my pieces, Haaa, brought him memories from being in the womb.

How do you know when your work is done?
It never is. Every time a piece is performed, it changes. Every time a piece is rehearsed, new moments emerge. And every audience member brings something unique to the equation.

What do you listen to while you create?
Usually nothing. I almost always work in silence. I am coming out of a long addiction to RadioLab, though. I listen to RadioLab when I run and I have gotten a lot of ideas for narrative and choreography from their stories.

The Knocking Within
Boston University Dance Theater, Saturday, November 10th at 5:00 pm and 8:00 pm, 915 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston (entrance on Buick St.)

Image credit: All images courtesy of Wendy Jehlen. Top image from New London, CT, 3/3/2012, The Thirteenth Biennial Symposium on Arts and Technology, “Aesthetics +Creative Pathways”. Multi-Media Concert at Evans Hall. Performance “Lilith” for dance, video, electronics. Wendy Jehlen – choreography, Huang Zhe – visuals, Shanfan Huang (Anikai Dance).

Bill Peters on Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Along with writing ArtSake, we have the privilege of administering a grant program for individual artists. And if you do that over a number of years, some artists and some projects just stick with you. Bill Peters‘s fiction is one of them.

For his 2008 grant, he submitted excerpts of a project that would later become Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality, now being published by Black Balloon Publishing. Bill’s writing – then and now – is daring, by turns funny and searing, and entirely one-of-a-kind. With an inimitable voice, the novel follows a pair of friends threatening to emerge, for better or worse, from their “Rochester Classic Drivearound” days.

We asked Bill about his writing, the publishing process, and the “City of Quality.”

ArtSake: Your characters in Maverick Jetpants speak with a hilarious, hermetic language, a sort of Esperanto of in-jokes. What comes first in your writing process, voice or plot?

Bill: In the case of Maverick Jetpants in The City of Quality, voice definitely came first. In the beginning, all I had were a bunch of phrases I’d come up with. The first few, I think, were things like Kangaroo for a Kid, Mango Jitney, Janitor Bats, and Peanut-Butter Shoulder – borderline gibberish. And I combined them with a lot of aggression and whatever else I’d learned about writing at the time. Those phrases, eventually, developed into the in-joke hierarchy between Nate, the main character, and his best friend Necro as they wandered around Rochester, N.Y.

The way I’ve generally explained it, this language initially helped me reduce a tendency I had to weight down my stories with too much background in attempt to define my characters. The Nate-and-Necro speak became a series of icons, or shortcuts, for what would have been acres of exposition. ‘Hermetic,’ though, is a good word to describe Nate and Necro’s conversations, and their dialect is what drives the plot, which came next. The potential for one-upmanship between the two boys was huge, and whatever littlest new thing breached their Great Wall of Vocab quickly became an invasive species. Translated into a plot, that basically meant that after Necro brings up Did You Shee The Fight (an in-joke Nate doesn’t particularly care for) and takes an interest in illustrating fantasy art, Nate decides to help frame him for arson.

That, literally, has been what I’ve gone with for the elevator-pitch description of the plot. The real point of that arc, however, is to get Nate to drive aimlessly around Rochester looking for Necro, and to get him thinking, in some partially-adult way, about his relationship with Necro and his pathology regarding whoever still seems to care about him.

Generally, though, when I write, what comes first for me could be a sentence fragment, or if I’m lucky, a paragraph or a portion of a scene: basically, whatever sounds good that I can type out without immediately second-guessing myself. I’ll repeat this process until I have a bunch of handfuls of words spaced out over a page or two. It’s completely disorganized, and often interrupted with pacing around or checking the news, but eventually I’ll start to get a sense for what feels right for beginnings, middles and endings. Put another way, I write the highlights first, the stuff I feel good about, and then try to fill in the gaps.

ArtSake: What has most surprised you about the process of publishing your first novel?

Bill: How much my relationship with the manuscript changed between the day I received the publishing contract in the mail and the day I turned in my final copy edits. Suddenly, I had to be accountable for all of the book’s lazy moments that I let be lazy because I assumed the manuscript would never be published. Un-screwing-up all of that was far more stressful than I thought it’d be.

Publishing this book was obviously a life-changing opportunity for me, but also my last opportunity to get the work right, and my last opportunity to get it right while balancing a job and the other people in my life. Editing took two years. And over two years, you mature and experience new things, and the way you look at scenes and sentences you wrote six years ago evolves. In other words, you refine your expectations, and you start to wonder whether you can meet them. In many ways, this is good, because it prevents complacency. It’s just hard work, is all.

Because of who I am – which is to say driven by panic and the fine print – rewriting and editing and completing this book was not the journey of spiritual fulfillment I’d once expected it would be. It was much more like some weird labor camp where I was occasionally allowed to tell jokes. The morning I turned in my final copy edits, I corrected one last typo while waiting in line at FedEx. I could’ve gone another year editing, another five. After I mailed away the manuscript that morning, I thought: Well, I guess that’s why you write other stuff.

But it wasn’t all stress. When I received galleys, and then final copies, I had a clearer sense of the work that I, and everyone else I’d worked with, had put into the book. It looked like a real book – free of the double-spaced, Times-New-Roman sadness of a Microsoft Word document. And that felt pretty darn good.

ArtSake: You submitted excerpts from an early version of this novel for your 2008 Artist Fellowship, so you’ve been working on the project for a good chunk of time. Since the inception of this novel, what has remained of your original ideas, and what has transformed?

Bill: I’d say maybe 60 percent of the original work is still there. The original first chapter is gone, as is a chapter where one character, Lip Cheese, kills himself, and another in which Nate goes on a spiritual retreat. Another shorter chapter, where Nate grinds through a day in the chemical recycling division of Kodak Park, was also cut. The plot – coming-of-age by way of allegations of domestic terrorism – is played up more in the final draft. But the main aspects of the book that I cared about the most in terms of language and feeling still exist.

ArtSake: “The City of Quality” refers to Rochester, N.Y., where you grew up. Place obviously factors strongly into your book. I’m curious (and perhaps you guessed this question was coming): how did your time in Massachusetts affect your life as a writer?

Bill: Massachusetts has had a tremendous influence my writing – certainly more than any other state. My writing instructors in undergrad and grad school taught me everything I know about fiction. The Massachusetts Cultural Council awarded me a fiction fellowship, which was a huge encouragement for me to continue revising this book to the state in which it was accepted for publication. Working in various capacities for Masslive and the Republican newspaper in Springfield allowed me to learn about a community.

Maverick Jetpants in The City of Quality also started out as interrelated short stories that were set, vaguely, in Hatfield, Massachusetts. In earlier drafts of this book, there was a bit more country bravado in Nate’s voice. Maybe there still is, I don’t know. But in my head, it’s a dark, autumnal Massachusetts countryside all the way. And Necro’s unusual speech habit in which he precedes a verb with “take and” – as in “Hey, why don’t you take and empty the register?” I got that from Massachusetts too.

ArtSake: These days, it seems that writers are often called on to assume a more active role in promotion of their books. Have you found that a challenge? A lot of fun?

Bill: No but also yes. I’m terrible with clerical duties. Rather than sort out the piles of paperwork on my desk, I’d just as soon burn the entire desk. I always, too, feel a bit embarrassed to have to ask for favors. I’m okay at hanging out without a hidden agenda, but not so okay at schmoozing in a way where it isn’t obvious that I’m schmoozing. But I do like being able to promote my stuff on Facebook and Twitter. I can work my personality into it a little more.

ArtSake: Can you point to any one decision you’ve made as an artist that has had the most impact on your career?

Bill: There are many exciting, boring, sound and poor decisions that factor equally into this area of my life – from deciding to major in English after planning for Psychology, to moving to New York City instead of staying in the town in New Hampshire where I lived after graduating college. Then, as I’ve said elsewhere, there’s the decision I made, in writing this book, that I would resist pressure to clearly define any of Nate and Necro’s in-jokes.

Probably, a bigger decision than those is this: in fifth grade, I used to draw my own comics, and kids liked me for doing that, and I had friends. In sixth grade, though, I found I had fewer friends for it. By seventh and eighth grade, I’d developed a real problem with shyness – I was pretty good at sports, which could’ve landed me a few more friends, but shyness was such a problem that I actively tried to be more mediocre, athletically, to avoid the attention. But when I came home, I kept drawing. If people found out, I’d have been embarrassed to the point of brain failure. I hid the comics in my top dresser drawer when anyone, with the exception of two friends, came over. But I drew through whatever that anxiety was. And eventually, drawing turned into writing, and by tenth grade, I no longer cared. I kept my old friends and made some new ones, and we were proud of not being Trendy – our favorite thing to call everybody else – and I realized that, whatever it was I’d been afraid of, maybe for a little while I’d weathered it.

Bill Peters will be in conversation with author/musician Nathan Larson on Friday September 28 at 7PM, at Amherst Books. Event co-sponsored by the UMass Amherst MFA program. Find more information on upcoming events.

Bill Peters grew up in Rochester, New York, and has received fiction fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the University of Massachusetts. He works as a copy editor for the New York Times News Service, the wire service for The New York Times. He currently lives in Gainesville, Florida. Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality is his first novel.

Steven Barkhimer on Blood Rose Rising

Monday, September 10th, 2012

Steven Barkimer is a past MCC Fellow for playwriting and a well known and respected artist in the local theatre community. A live, episodic, theatrical “mini-series” he co-wrote, Blood Rose Rising, is about to begin performances at Naga in Cambridge.

Blood Rose Rising is a multi-media theatre series that unfolds over a season, with episodes performed in repertory (read more about the story and the way it unfolds). We asked Steven about this project, his writing, and his work as a many-faceted theatre artist.

ArtSake: Can you trace Blood Rose Rising from first inspiration to your upcoming performances at NAGA?

Steven: Not to be murky or evasive, but I must refer you to Ben Evett for first inspirations. Indeed, one of the reasons I undertook this project is that the inspiration was not mine at all! Instead of conceiving and nurturing my own brainchild, I thought it would be fun and enriching to help someone else realize a vision. Having known Ben Evett for some time – we first spoke together years ago when he was cooking up a film project (!), then worked together at the New Rep and later at the company Ben created, the Actors Shakespeare Project, which is now a robust and thriving theatre company – I was flattered that he approached me as someone who might help him write a theatre piece – or pieces. He wanted it to be zany but dark, something that might attract a loyal audience and would evolve so that people could come back and see it again and again. He had a premise that involved a man meeting a dead woman, and would explore the lengths to which he would go to sustain that bizarre relationship. After some chatting, we decided to try it as a theatrical mini-series, perhaps having six or eight parts to the first season (the first season, mind you!), and to run them in rep. Each part would be its own self-contained unit, so that audiences would not feel unable to drop in on episode 3 without having seen episode 2, etc., but the hope is certainly that they would feel intrigued enough to go back and see episode 2.

Finally, after over a year, we got three-and-half-scripts that seemed ready to be offered as workshop productions, which we did in the basement space at Zero Church Street. It was greeted with much enthusiasm, and we took the feedback, re-working the scripts for another year until we offered a new Episode 1 at the Davis Square Theatre this spring. Now we hope to recreate the rather more informal wacky cabaret vibe of the workshop in the nightclub space at NAGA, which should be very exciting.

ArtSake: You act, direct, write, and make music. When you’re approaching a project from one angle (say, as an actor), do your other performing arts “hats” inform the way you work?

Steven: Everyone should try on another hat at some point. It really develops your appreciation for the spectrum of talents that flow into any theatrical creation. Theatre is such a collaborative process by nature; it can only help if one develops sympathies for all the other things that are going on, the needs other people have. It also helps teach you what your job is and what it isn’t, and this can save a lot of time and unnecessary friction. And yes, my years of experience as an actor have definitely informed the way I write – I don’t feel compelled to “stage-manage” the actors with copious indications of how they “feel” at every moment – let the actors do their job! I don’t try to “explain” to the director how things Need to be with minute staging instructions, etc.

ArtSake: Along the same lines: you write and direct and frequently perform in new plays, and I assume you take in interest in the local new play scene. What do you hope to see in the new play community’s future?

Steven: Kate Snodgrass is the soul of the Boston Playwrights Theatre, and while accepting her well-deserved Elliott Norton Award for Sustained Excellence this year, she said that with the proliferation of playwriting talent, and particularly right here in the Boston area, there is no excuse for theatre companies not to include at least one new play in their season each year. I can’t improve on that.

ArtSake: You’ve worked with (Blood Rose Rising co-founder) Benjamin Evett before, with Actors’ Shakespeare Project. What do you gain through an ongoing creative partnership?

Steven: Creative partnerships deepen (or don’t) like any other, I suppose. When people have a common interest, they automatically develop shorthand signals that allow them to quickly agree on certain ideas and sentiments and proceed to the areas that require work. There is always something gained by an ongoing and repeated collaboration with artists you trust and respect. You see it all the time with, say, a director and a lighting designer. It’s often the case that three or four words, perhaps completely opaque to an outsider, will convey what an hour of conversation could not achieve between artists less intimate.

ArtSake: Share a surprise twist in the Steve Barkhimer story.

Steven: My undergraduate education was the Great Books program at St. John’s, and in order to make their curriculum recognizable to the outside world, St. John’s claims their graduates have a Philosophy major and a Mathematics minor. Upon graduation, I got up at 3 a.m. every morning for three years to go to work – where else? – with the characters and crooks in the Fulton Fish Market under the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan in the early 80′s, before the joint was “sanitized.” My play about that, Windowmen (read an excerpt), will soon be completed and produced at Boston Playwrights Theatre.

ArtSake: You must have some memorable war stories. What has been your most challenging stage experience as a theatre artist?

Steven: At a theatre in Vermont. All decided at the technical rehearsals. True story:
1) We want you to do that monologue very casually as you move downstage.
2) We’re adding stairs, so you’ll be coming downstage from a platform upstage.
3) Oh, you’ll also be wearing a bear costume.
4) No, you won’t be able to see so well out of the bear head, so you can’t really look down.
5) … as you’re doing the monologue, casually, while you go down stairs you cannot see, dressed as the bear, we need the bear to be playing the accordion as he speaks. Think of something you’d play as a waiter at a café on the French Riviera.

And yes, I did it.

ArtSake: What’s the most embarrassing line of dialogue you’ve ever written?

Steven: “Don’t extend your pseudopods at me, you amoeboid a**hole; go flick your flagellum somewhere else.” In my “endless alliteration = wit” period.

The first live episode of Blood Rose Rising, Immaterial Girl, will be performed September 14, 2012, 7:30 PM, at Naga in Cambridge. As an actor, Steven will perform in Lumberjacks in Love at Stoneham Theatre, opening September 13, 2012.

Guy Pettit of Flying Object

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Flying Object is hard to categorize. Is the organization, based in a storefront in Hadley, Mass., a publisher? An online journal? A visual arts and reading venue? An artists’ service org.? A mad scientist-like lab of invention?

In a word, yes. The multi-disciplinary group publishes literary and art, hosts exhibits and readings, offers workshops, and sells works in numerous artistic disciplines. On its “About” page, it says:

We’re particularly interested in collaborative and interdisciplinary work of emerging, experimental, and often overlooked artists, writers, and performers that seek to expand the traditional boundaries of a given art-form and to see that work realized through performance and/or publication.

We asked Flying Object director Guy Pettit about the organization, his standard workday (or lack thereof), his community, and what makes Flying Object so hard to pin down.

ArtSake: In an interview with Joshua Edwards for Poetry Society of America, you said, “We are intentionally only the approximation of a ‘non-profit arts organization.’” Can you talk about what you gain by keeping your self-identity as an organization flexible, even elusive?

Guy: Well, for one, I think the mystery welcomes a wider audience. Flying Object is concerned with curiosity and discovery and I’m under the impression that allowing visitors and participants to investigate and piece together their own understanding of Flying Object gives them a certain amount of ownership, or at least, an unusual and engaging challenge. My hope is that the flexibility of the organization is influential on an individual level, or in other words, that it stirs up optimism in the power of multi-disciplinary exploration and practice to improve our lives in meaningful ways.

You could say we’re guided and inspired by Keats oft-quoted theory of Negative Capability (… “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”) and Dickinson’s illustrious poem, #657, that begins, “I dwell in possibility.” And for good measure, it wouldn’t hurt to hear the following – a quote by Charles Willson Peale that appears on paraphernalia from another elusive organization based in Los Angeles called The Museum of Jurassic Technology: “The Learner must be led always from familiar objects toward the unfamiliar, guided along, as it were, a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life.”

For now, Flying Object may be most well known for saying “We now sell gravity.”

ArtSake: I assume that the multi-discipinary nature of Flying Object’s missions and programs partly reflects the interests of its principal members, but is there an aesthetic goal? What do you gain creatively by working with so many different art forms?

Guy: I don’t think there is an aesthetic goal. But there is an attempt to discover, create, and support work that is innovative, intelligent, thoughtful, and perhaps a bit disobedient. I’ve found that the nature of the space – its name, the collection of books we’ve selected and make available to the public that might not be otherwise, the architecture and design of the building, the letterpress studio, the shifting appearance of the gallery – attracts people who are interested in making similar attempts.

The gain from working with so many different art forms, for me, is in many ways practical and perhaps obvious. I’ve found that techniques filmmakers use can be applied to the presentation of poetry and vice versa. A book-artist might design a new form based on music packaging., which I recently learned about, has given me some ideas for letterpress – two ostensibly disparate art forms.

ArtSake: Can you take us through an average work day for Guy Pettit?

Guy: That would be impossible, I’m afraid. It’s what makes working at Flying Object so thrilling. I have to do a lot of coordinating and managing, which keeps me on the computer more than I’d like, but the days are always punctuated by the excitement of producing books, or exhibits, or events. Most of all I look forward to the interactions and connections I make with the community who seek out and use the organization.

ArtSake: Your storefront is located in Hadley. What appeals to you about the place you work?

Guy: We’re right on a bike-path and the Connecticut River, so you can reach us by bike, boat, roller-skates or even skis when there’s snow. There’s a road, too, of course, making us just as easily reachable by car or bus. Our building (an old firehouse built in the 1860s) looks out at the gorgeous and historic Hadley common. It was the Hadley police station for some time, too. When I was cleaning it out before we opened I found evidence tags from the mid-80′s and a Department of Veteran’s Affairs issued stretcher that’s probably from the very early 20th century. It’s fun to be in such an old building and to hear all the stories from people who have a connection to it in one way or another.

The community that participates in our organization has an incredible range of backgrounds and interests – book collectors, painters, musicians, poets, graphic designers and architects, book artists, doctors, gardeners, and filmmakers to name just a few.

And Hadley is sort-of like neutral ground. Everyone passes through (and hopefully converges at Flying Object from time to time). A couple of the best bookstores in the country are only a few minutes down the road. The area is full of people organizing their own art collectives, organizations, and initiatives. The area has a rich literary and artistic tradition. The 5-colleges are all very close and constantly bring in really strange and brilliant people.

I don’t often use this word but I think the location is really ideal.

ArtSake: What does an artist need to know if he or she is interested in publishing, writing for, exhibiting with, taking a workshop at, or in some way working with Flying Object?

Guy: Familiarize yourself with the space! Visit us!

We like to start at a conceptual level at Flying Object. Bring us an idea first and we’ll go from there. If you’re an artist, there are 5 guest-curators for our gallery, all of whom are willing to hear proposals. We’re always booking music and readers and film screenings – but it’s important to know that we have to plan far in advance, and many of our events are produced as part of a series. Workshops and contests are announced on our website, through our email list, and on facebook.

The website is actually one of the best places to start – that’s where you’ll find our address. We want to hear from you, if only just to say hello!

ArtSake: What are you reading right now? What artist(s) are you excited about these days?

Guy: I’ve been reading through Edward Tufte’s Beautiful Evidence and The Visual Display of Quantitative Information – two stunning books on visual information, systems, and graphics. Amanda Nadelberg’s newest collection of poetry Bright Brave Phenomenon is a current favorite of mine. As is Jacqueline Waters’s One Sleeps the Other Doesn’t. I’m in love with Forrest Bess’s paintings after getting to see them last week when I was in New York for the CUNY Chapbook Festival. I’ve also been discovering the work of Paul Chan, who publishes both print and e-books under the imprint Badlands Unlimited.

ArtSake: It’s interesting the way your inclusiveness and DIY nature makes room for letterpress, traditional publishing, and gallery exhibitions on one hand, then electronic publishing and online art and writing on the other. Would it be fair to say this is just one other way you make sure you don’t close yourself off from creative possibilities?

Guy: Totally fair to say. We wouldn’t want it any other way.

ArtSake: What’s up next?

Guy: There’s a great apartment above the gallery and bookstore that we’d love to have as a residence for a Creative Director – a fellowship position – who would oversee and guide the programming, exhibitions, and publishing we do for 1-2 years. We’re going to work really hard to try and make that a reality by next summer. That’s the dream.

But as for near future, there’s a ton coming up: a talk on the history of erasure and treated books, an after-party for the UMass Juniper Literary Festival, readings, an exhibit of drawings by Joshua Vrysen, and a free workshop on letterpress for the Pioneer Valley Zine Fest, which will be held at Food for Thought Books in Amherst. And that’s only the half of it.

Guy Pettit is Director of Flying Object and author of the chapbook LOVE ME OR LOVE ME NO1.

Pagan Kennedy and a Career in “Not Fiction”

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

If you want to publish your first book and launch a career as a nonfiction writer, then Pagan Kennedy (Fiction/Creative Nonfiction Fellow ’10) may have a few ideas for you. A widely published writer, Pagan is getting ready to teach a year-long, “MFA-level” course at the Grub Street writers’ service organization called the Nonfiction Career Lab (applications accepted until by April 25, 2012).

We checked in with Pagan about the Grub St. class, the writing craft, and the “rules” of nonfiction.

ArtSake: What do you see as the optimal outcome (or outcomes) for someone taking the “Nonfiction Career Lab” program?

Pagan: During the year, students will have a chance to refine a book idea, produce a professional manuscript, and then show it to agent and editors. In other words, the program is designed as the perfect launchpad for anyone who aims to publish a book.

Students will also “build a platform,” learning to do all the zillions of micro-tasks that lead to a successful career in publishing. As a working writer, you have to be a Jack-of-all-trades. Ethan Gilsdorf, my co-instructor in the program, writes books, blog posts, magazine articles and opinion pieces. My own income comes from books, magazine pieces, film options and grants. So this is one of the skills that we want to pass onto students: How to juggle lots of assignments and end up with the coolest career in the world. In just the past couple of years, my work has taken me to the most amazing places: I’ve been wired up to a “telepathic iPhone,” learned the art of lock-picking and met a biologist who investigates “animal crime scenes.”

ArtSake: Now for the tough question: “nonfiction” or “non-fiction” (with a hyphen)?

Pagan: Maybe we should rename the genre “Not Fiction” – and go hyphen-free forever. I like that term because it reflects the true mishmash of the nonfiction genre; the only thing that holds us together is that we’re not writing fiction. “Nonfiction writers” practice a zillion styles and viewpoints: Creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, journalism, story slam, documentary, memoir, biography, blogging.

ArtSake: In memoir, it’s okay to add just a teensy weensy bit of self-aggrandizing embellishment, right?

Pagan: There’s a debate raging right now in the world of nonfiction about whether it’s OK to fudge some of the facts. My own position: It’s absolutely not OK. In the late 1980s, I worked my first real journalism job as a fact-checker at The Village Voice. This was pre-Internet, so I would have to make hundreds of phone calls to verify every last darn niggling detail in the stories. Those calls were a hoot – for instance, when I worked on Michael Musto’s gossip column, I’d talk to drag queens and performance artists, asking them questions like, “So last Saturday you rode onto the stage in a purple paper-mache penis. Is that correct?” The job was my journalism school: I learned the value of rigorous research. Often an overlooked detail could become incredibly important.

Writers like Mike Daisey say they cut corners – and veer into fiction – because they want to tell a “better” story.

But it’s absolutely no reason to cheat in this way. It’s entirely possible to find a whimsical, weird and heart-breaking tale that’s all true.

When I was teaching at nonfiction classes at Dartmouth College, my students used to complain that they felt hampered by the “rules” of truth-telling. They wanted to invent magical lands, ride dinosaurs and/or fight zombies.

As a nonfiction writer, you can be all of these things – as long as you make it absolutely clear to the reader that you are talking about one of your own fantasies. The magic words that give you license are “I imagine.” Once you’ve written those words, you have the ticket to talk about the bizarre stuff that goes on in your own head. Here’s an example of Gay Talese pulling this trick in a nonfiction piece:

Suddenly I imagine the fish coming to life, jumping off the fork, wiggling along the floor, and being retrieved by a waiter, who carries it in a napkin back to the kitchen, where I have visions of the fish swimming backward in time, a flashback fish floating freely ten days before in the Labrador Sea of northeastern Canada, a fish that is flat-bodied and pancake-size and has two eyes on the same side of its head, a Picasso fish, cruising easily along the muddy bottom of the sea in search of a shrimp until five minutes before sunrise, it glides into a net, is trapped, is confused, is frightened, but is not alone – hundreds of other Picasso-eyed flounder are ensnared there, swirling around, bumping into one another, angling to flip over the their seeing-eye side, hoping to figure out what’s going on – but then they are squeezed together as the big net soars drippingly out of the sea and scrapes along the side of a ship that is piloted by a bearded, brandy-breathed, scrawny, wife-abusing French-Canadian fisherman, who had been illegally trawling in that area all week, and who now, after grabbing fistfuls of wiggling fish out of the net with his gloved hands, hurls them into an ice-filled hold in the stern of his ship, and then starts his engine for the six-hour journey to the dockside depot of a seafood distributorship in Newfoundland, from which the fish will be flown a day later in refrigerated aluminum containers to JFK airport in New York, where Mafia-affiliated teamsters will receive them and drive them to the Fulton Street market, then deliver them into the hands of wholesale dealers whose vans on the following morning will be double-parked in front of myriad Manhattan restaurants, including Elaine’s Neapolitan chef, and will be cleaned by her Spanish-speaking scullions, and will be prepared and offered that night as a fresh fish special – flounder meuniere almondine, twenty-nine dollars – and this is what was ordered by, and brought to, the fat man I saw sitting in front of me with his mouth agape.

- From A Writer’s Life by Gay Talese

Whew! What a sentence. And it all qualifies as nonfiction writing – because Talese has made it clear that he is reporting on his own daydream.

I’m passionate about teaching students how to push the envelope of the true story, without ever violating the ethics of journalism. And I look forward to doing that this year in our Nonfiction Lab.

There’s an info session about the Nonfiction Career Lab Wednesday, April 11th, from 5:30-7 PM at Grub Street HQ.

Pagan Kennedy is the author of ten books and has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe Magazine, The Village Voice, and many other outlets. She has won numerous literary prizes, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and an MIT Knight Foundation Science Journalism Fellowship. She has taught at Dartmouth College, Boston College, the Warren Wilson MFA Program, and Grub Street, Inc.

Cristi Rinklin: Diluvial

Monday, March 26th, 2012

Cristi Rinklin (Drawing Fellow ’10) is creating a mesmerizing installation for the Currier Museum of Art in NH, a transparent frieze mounted on floor-to-ceiling windows with walls of accompanying imagery. Here, she discusses the installation (called “Diluvial”), her campaign on USA Projects to support the exhibition, and her work and life as an artist with a flood of creative vitality.

ArtSake: Fascinating project. Did the concept of a transparent, frieze installation strike you all at once? Did it develop in steps as you continued exploring new media for your work?

Cristi: It’s kind of a long story, but I’ll try to sum it up as succinctly as possible. The first time I created a project similar to this was in 2005, when I was invited by Amy Schlegel from the Tufts University Art Gallery to create an installation for their sculpture court. Amy was familiar with my works on mylar that combined painting and digital prints onto translucent film, and she had seen a small, experimental project that I had done for “Boston Art Windows” in which I installed translucent digital prints into a storefront window that was illuminated from the inside, creating a lightbox effect. Based on that, she invited me to conceive of an immersive installation that would activate the walls and windows of the Remis Sculpture Court at Tufts, and Nuvolomondo is what came out of all that. I’ve always considered this one of my most ambitious projects that I’ve undertaken. As luck would have it, Nina Bozicnik, who is currently the Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Currier Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire had seen Nuvolomondo while it was at Tufts, and it really resonated with her. When she got the position at the Currier, she invited me to create a similar project for their space.

ArtSake: Why did you choose to use USA Projects as a way to raise funds for your Currier Museum of Art exhibition?

Cristi: I had never heard of USA Projects until the Mass Cultural Council brought it to my attention back in the Fall. In fact, before then, I had never even heard of crowdfunding! All of the MCC Fellows were invited to submit projects to USA Projects, and it just so happened that I was in the midst of developing Diluvial for the Currier, so I decided to give it a shot.

Watch Cristi’s introduction video to her USA Projects campaign

ArtSake: The title Diluvial references deluge geography but could also apply to the flood of visual experiences the work conjures. Did the “flood” theme steer the painting? Or was it a theme you discovered after the fact, naturally occurring in your painting, as it were?

Cristi: It all developed very organically. For some time, I had been working with abstract imagery based on the landscape that depicted forces of creation and destruction. I’m very fascinated (and frightened) by the chaotic and unpredictable power of nature, and over the past few years, the world’s population has experienced its catastrophic force on a dramatic scale. These ideas were present in my work over the past several years, and when I began developing imagery for Diluvial, I was looking a lot at the Hudson River School painters, and their attitude towards the American Landscape as this kind of sublime, grandiose, epic theater that was infused with spiritual significance. In my research, I found that several of these artists, such as Thomas Cole, and Asher Durand, believed that much of the Northeastern landscape was forged by the Great Flood. The term Diluvial, refers to this, but it has also come to refer to geological formations that were created by glacial shift. It was very serendipitous, because I had already begun developing the imagery for the central window frieze, and it depicted a lot of gushing waves and waterfalls, so when I discovered this information through my research, it all fell into place.

ArtSake: Speaking of titles, yours are always interesting – “Fumarole,” “Fierce Descent,” “Bound for Glory.” Is titling your work something you enjoy doing? Something that comes easy? Or do you labor over the titles?

Cristi: I labor over titles, and they never come easy. When I look back over them, I feel like some of them work well, and others I cringe over, but nonetheless, I feel like titles are important. The titles that you mention above come from some of the writings on the nineteenth century American naturalists and painters. They’re terms that give the landscape a dramatic sense of destiny and purpose, which resonates with me.

ArtSake: You’re married to another artist (Andrew Mowbray). What does it mean to be part of a family of artists?

Cristi: I think creative people are often drawn to each other, and being married to an artist seems quite natural to me. I have a lot of friends and colleagues who are also creative couples, so I think there’s definitely something to this kind of attraction. It luckily means we can share a lot of similar experiences and support each other in both our values and ideologies, as well as our practice. We have a young child now too, which has really changed our lives in unexpected, yet extraordinary ways.

ArtSake: What do you try to instill in the emerging artists you teach at the College of the Holy Cross?

Cristi: Work hard, don’t be afraid to take risks, be resourceful, and find your community. These will be the people who will inspire you and keep you going!

Cristi Rinklin’s USA Projects campaign for DILUVIAL will be active through April 27, 2012. DILUVIAL is at the Currier Museum of Art June 9-September 9, 2012.

Images: all images courtesy of Cristi Rinklin, who is represented by Steven Zevitas Gallery.

Mira Bartok Talks The Memory Palace

Friday, October 14th, 2011

Years ago, Mira Bartók‘s work as an artist and writer was threatened when a car accident and subsequent brain injury made even the most basic functions of memory a major struggle. Yet rather than shy away, Mira makes memory a central organizing idea of her memoir about life with a schizophrenic mother; the book is called, in fact, The Memory Palace.

Similarly, the accident complicated Mira’s ability to piece together a life as an artist, making it harder to seek freelance work and grants. But she responded with relentless research, making herself an expert in grants and residencies, and sharing that expertise on her blog Mira’s List.

The Memory Palace was recently released in paperback, and on the cusp of a host of events in New England, we asked Mira about her book, her art, and her life as a multi-faceted, generous, resiliently talented artist.

ArtSake: One of the things I love about your book is its dual portrayal of an artist’s unconventional life and the challenges of living in a family touched by mental illness. Is it possible the same traits that have helped you thrive despite your mother’s schizophrenia have contributed to your successes as an artist?

Mira: Maybe having a certain level of curiosity, optimism, determination, and passion helped me to survive a challenging upbringing as well as thrive as an artist. Possessing those qualities certainly doesn’t hurt these days when the future looks so bleak.

ArtSake: In your interview with Terry Gross on NPR, you mentioned that the largest impact of your traumatic brain injury (TBI) was on your own self-conception as someone with boundless endurance and energy. Did the injury change the way you viewed yourself as an artist, as well? Did it change the way you create art?

Mira: I think that the way I view myself as an artist continues to evolve, but it always did, even before my accident. I grew up thinking I was a painter but that morphed into becoming someone who serves the idea, rather than the medium. There was, however, an earlier post-TBI period when I didn’t know if I had it in me to create anything at all of substance anymore. I was very frustrated because I would immediately forget what I wrote or drew the day after I created it – if I even had the energy to make something worthwhile. I still struggle with that from time to time. But nowadays, I think the biggest change is that I am much more choosy about how I spend my time. I have much less mental endurance now, therefore, I can only take on projects that mean a lot to me. It means saying no to a lot of things. What this injury did was take away the ability to have a day job and also make art.

ArtSake: On The Memory Palace blog, you’ve mentioned your disappointment that some responses to your book have focused on the rare instances of violence in schizophrenia. Have there been other reactions to your book that have surprised you?

Mira: My biggest surprise has been how widespread an effect my book has had on people. I get letters, very positive ones, from people of all ages, genders, races and backgrounds. I have also been astonished how many teens, boys in particular, have read and liked my book.

ArtSake: I’m fascinated by the range of your creative work. You trained as a musician, are an accomplished visual artist, and have written for both adults and children. How does your work in one artistic discipline interact and inform the others?

Mira: Okay Dan, full disclosure – I am not actually trained as a musician. I’ve only taken lessons here and there. But I dare to suck (sometimes). :-) As far as all these disciplines interacting, I feel like they all inform one another. Music informs everything – I write out loud in a voice recorder and the words have to sing or they are not worth putting down on the page. I hear music when I work on certain drawings, like ones I am working on for an upcoming (far down the road) YA novel set in the Norwegian Arctic. I heard music while I was drawing my memory palace images for my book, which is partially why I filmed the drawing of it – so it could be used in a little stop-action animation with a sound track. When I get stuck in writing, I try to draw what I am thinking and vice versa. I think it is not only the way my brain works – one way of seeing overlapping the other – but it is also my way of recycling ideas and seeing what happens to an idea when it is used in another format.

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ArtSake: I was interested to note, in your acknowledgements, that you thank Jedediah Berry, who was a colleague in the UMass Amherst MFA Writing Program. Can you speak about how having a community of writers and readers during the writing process has contributed to your work?

Mira: I think having a community of writers and great readers is imperative for an author, at least that is my opinion. We can help elevate each other, champion each other and give each other honest feedback. Everyone needs a b.s. detector once in a while because we don’t always use our most authentic voice. Sometimes we become too much in love with our own language and that doesn’t always serve the project at hand. A good reader can help your best self emerge on the page. And if you are doing muscular reading of good work, it can only help you learn how to edit your own work in a more refined and brutally honest way.

I don’t meet regularly with any writers right now but I think I would like to again in the future, after my book tour is over. And yes, Jedediah was really a godsend during this crazy process of trying to write a book. There were other editing angels along the way too, especially my friend David Skillicorn, who is a documentary filmmaker. I was about to send my book out to my agent until David read it. He made some suggestions that made me rip the book apart again and turn it into the one you see today. I also gave my book to non-writers to read: farmers, teachers, musicians, and others who are not professional writers but who love books.

ArtSake: You’ve moved around a lot in your life, including to some artistically auspicious cities, like Chicago and Florence, Italy. But it seems like you’ve found a home in Western Mass. What appeals to you, as a creative person, about the place you live now?

Mira: I really miss Chicago sometimes, especially being able to go to a major museum any day of the week. But my need to be in the natural world is a much stronger pull. I need to walk out my door and go right onto a forest trail and that is what I have here. I love the silence, the night-songs of coyotes, the stars that aren’t obscured by city lights, and the green, green world that is my backyard and the hills beyond. It is peace – pure and simple. It helps me to create from a quiet, timeless place without the perpetual pressure to be in the world of machines and noise and people.

ArtSake: Shelf Awareness has a cool interview with your editor Dominick Anfuso, who was drawn to the book as an uncommon mother-daughter story. Can you talk about the process of finding and working with your publisher?

Mira: Well, my agent, Jennifer Gates, sent my book out to a bunch of editors at publishing houses in NYC and created a feeding frenzy of sorts. Several editors bid on my book – one was even a pre-empted bid which I turned down because the editor called certain sections of my book ‘artsy.’ That word always makes me cringe. The editor is a fantastic literary editor with an amazing reputation and stable of brilliant authors but I knew she wasn’t right for this particular book. Plus, well, there was that artsy thing. :-)

Anyway, I talked to the editors who interested me and in the end I chose Dominick Anfuso and Leah Miller from Free Press (Simon & Schuster). Not only was their financial offer good, these two editors felt like sensitive, warm, and funny people I’d want to not only work with but also sit down and share a meal. They asked me really smart questions about my work and didn’t try to tell me how they would change my book to fit their needs.

The funny thing is that I assumed that the more independent literary presses would be more innovative in their ideas about how my book could be developed but in this case, the opposite was true. Free Press was open to the most imaginative ideas and loved my unconventional structure, using snippets of my mother’s diary and my own art work to begin each chapter. And working with them was great. Basically, they asked me probing questions on my manuscript, questions that forced me to dig deeper emotionally, and the book you see now is the result of that more intense mining of my past. I would work with them again in a heartbeat.

ArtSake: Your blog has a treasury of superb advice for artists looking for funding (and we re-posted some of it on ArtSake). What’s the most important thing an artist needs to know, going into a funding search?

Mira: Some important things to know are: Where are you in your career? Are you emerging? Mid-career? Established? And what do you realistically need?

Also, it’s really important to know that when you are looking for funding, most larger grants and fellowships have deadlines nine months to a year before the award is actually given. So artists need to plan way, way ahead!

ArtSake: In so many ways, The Memory Palace is the book you were born to write. That’s why I am so fascinated to know what your next writing – or artistic – project will be. Any hints?

Mira: Dan, these days I am all over the map. I have been on book tour since January, except for a brief two month hiatus this summer. And my paperback tour won’t end until Thanksgiving. When I have had a minute or hour or two, I have been working on several things – some short flash fiction pieces and a radio documentary called The Sound of Memory that my husband, Doug Plavin, and I are working on for our new venture, North of Radio. But the project closest to my heart (and one that will take a lot of time which I don’t have right now) is an illustrated YA novel called Nine Valleys in One Twilight, set in the Norwegian Arctic during WW II. It’s based on two true stories but it is more speculative fiction than realism. Also, I am imagining the book as both a print book and something animated for the IPad. I have been thinking about this novel since 2008 and just haven’t had the time to dig in. Hopefully that can happen after this book tour is over! And hopefully someone out there wants to help me fund this thing because my Memory Palace book advance runs out in December. :-)

Thanks for asking great questions Dan. Cheers!

You can experience a reading and/or discussion by Mira:

New York Times bestselling author, Mira Bartók is a Chicago-born artist and writer and the author of twenty-eight books for children. Her writing has appeared in several literary journals and anthologies and has been noted in The Best American Essays series. She lives in Western Massachusetts where she runs Mira’s List, a blog that helps artists find funding and residencies all over the world. The Memory Palace is Mira’s first book for adults. She is also co-founder of North of Radio, a multi-media collaborative that she runs with her husband, drummer and music producer Doug Plavin.

In the Hands of Holly Lynton

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

A few years ago, photographer Holly Lynton left New York City for Massachusetts farm country, a setting that better fits her desired lifestyle and has a closer synergy with her recent explorations in photography. The photographs in her “Bare Handed” series – some taken in Massachusetts – find mystery and spiritual resonance in people’s voluntary encounters with natural forces, often dangerous ones like honeybees, wolves, or catfish in raging rivers.

We asked the artist about her work, crowdfunding to support exhibition costs, family in art, and how a photographic idea transforms in her hands.

ArtSake: Your “Bare Handed” photographs reflect a reverent, spiritual connection to nature, subtly exploring ideas like sustainable farming and the locavore movement. Can you talk about what aesthetic and creative decisions you make to open up considerations of broader ideas?

Holly: A lot of research goes into the creation of each one of these photographs. In the case of Les (pictured above), I had to find the right bee keeper. One with 30 years’ experience, who wears no protective clothing, because it’s too hot in New Mexico, but also he works with bare hands so he does not crush the bees or anger them. While I was in New Mexico, via word of mouth, I located the wolf sanctuary. The catfish noodling, I read about in the New York Times. Now, in Massachusetts, I also rely on word of mouth, noticing a farm, and visiting agricultural fairs.

When I approach my subjects, I correspond with them first, either by email, phone, or in person. As I am not interested in photographing in a photo documentary or journalistic style, I look for individuals who will collaborate with me. Sometimes, they don’t even realize we are collaborating, but they need to be able to take direction and work slightly outside of their comfort zone. I need them to trust that I know what I am doing when I ask them to repeat certain gestures or go to a specific place. They have to be comfortable in letting a situation unfold. My photographs are an exercise in combining spontaneity and control.

Sometimes, I don’t have a lot of control over a situation. I recognize when someone is at work, and I can’t interrupt them. In that case, I wait for a magical moment. I practice patience. I can watch people at work for hours, and return over several days to try to make a powerful photograph.

In general, I look for moments where two elements intersect, or two contrasting elements come together to create another meaning. I have a psychology background, and when writing up a study, one often has to dismiss findings as possibly being caused by a third variable not anticipated in the experiment. My photographs are meant to be like that third variable. I hope to reveal an aspect in the scene that isn’t anticipated, or might not even be seen the same way in reality, along a time and space continuum.

In terms of aesthetic decisions, I intend my photographs to evoke a sort of fantasy, and have almost a dreamlike quality. I used to say my images came to me as dreams, not while I was asleep, but rather as daydreams of scenarios I would then go about trying to create. Now, they evolve differently, but I intend them to have that same quality.

ArtSake: Can you talk about your experience in the recent Flash Forward Festival Boston, where you were featured in the Fresh Works exhibition?

Holly: The Flash Forward festival was a great experience. The festival was extremely well run, the work strong, and Paula Tognarelli, Director of the Griffin Museum, who selected my work for the exhibition, was a pleasure to work with. The coverage and attendance of the event was great, and the variety of events presented and the fact that it was all free, a rare thing these days, made it particularly accessible to the general public as well as other artists. I hope they keep it up in Boston.

It’s been wonderful, too, getting to know the art community in Boston. It’s a very photography-supportive city.

ArtSake: You’re well on your way to your goal in a Kickstarter project to cover costs for an upcoming  Bernice Steinbaum Gallery exhibition (see prints the artist is offering as pledge rewards, below). Why did you choose crowdfunding? And to what do you attribute your campaign’s strong start?

Holly: I chose to raise funds with a Kickstarter campaign, because going into this exhibition I had two choices, either borrow the money or raise the money. It is a glorious thing to go into an exhibition not completely in debt, (let’s face it, artists always underestimate their expenses and rarely pay themselves for their time) so I thought I would try the approach of raising the money. I chose costs that were limited to the production of an exhibition not the ones that go into just the making of my work, and launched the project on Kickstarter. I had heard about Kickstarter from a fabulous organization called Creative Capital, which is a granting organization as well as an organization that runs programs for the professional development of artists. After researching the site, and watching some fellow artists raise funds for projects, and pledging on several myself (there is great art to be “bought” at prices artists can afford), I decided to launch my project.

Kickstarter is an alternative to receiving a grant. Grants are very competitive and often hard to receive, so this is a way to raise the funds oneself. It’s empowering. With crowdfunding, the hope, obviously, is that a lot of people will give a little money so the artist can reach his/her goal, rather than a few people giving a lot of money. And it’s not for nothing, they get art!

I can’t really say what the initial success of my project was attributed to, actually. People were a lot more generous than I anticipated. I was bowled over. I had read that the average pledge was $71, but in my case people were pledging more than that. I have seen other projects though where they raise a ton of money by generating a huge crowd (300-500 people) where there are many pledges at the $20 level. My rewards are limited edition prints that normally I could not sell at these prices. The small prints would be half as much to produce as the pledge reward. I chose two images that aren’t associated with a series and aren’t even on my website, but were produced for different group exhibitions. Because of the volume and the nature of the project, my lab has agreed to work with me on this, which furthers the sense of community created by Kickstarter. It is a good opportunity to pledge and receive a print of mine at a price point that doesn’t normally exist.

It is also an amazing experience to realize that so many people support my work and what I am doing. Most artists make work to engage in a dialogue, and yet, so often we find ourselves creating in a vacuum or isolated from the general public.

ArtSake: In your Kickstarter video, you daughter serves as your spokesperson, and in fact, she’s contributing drawings as donation rewards and has been featured in past photographs. Can you talk about your decision to involve your family in your creative work?

Holly: My family is hugely important when it comes to my creative work. My husband is extremely supportive of what I do, and has also been a model in many photographs. He hasn’t been my subject for the last several years, but early on, he often agreed to try out physically uncomfortable situations for the sake of my photography. He has amazing hands! At one point, I think he was concerned that my photography might be more important to me than my family. That’s not the case, but I also couldn’t envision a partner or a family that didn’t support me as a photographer as it’s so intrinsic to who I am.

In general, I have always thought that we, as a culture, undervalue the insights of young people. As a parent, I’ve seen first hand that my children often have amazing insights. They are also incredibly creative human beings and love to be involved with what I’m doing. Sometimes the only way to get my work done is to involve them in it! It has it’s limits though. After watching three hours of sheep shearing, or even something as exciting as lambs being born, my son will bore of it and wish his mother would stop taking pictures. But in general, the choice is to include them or exclude them, and I believe including them makes for a happier family. I also want to teach them what it means to have ambitions, creative desires, and a goal to pursue, and how one goes about pursuing one’s goals. I believe this is important behaviour to model directly, so the more they are involved the more they see how that all works.

In terms of being in my photographs, they model if they want to, however, as with all my subjects, I can’t force them do anything they don’t want to do. Although, I can be very persuasive! But if I get a flat out “no” I respect that. With the image “The Red Coats,” which is on my Kickstarter, they ran out into the snow like that, bare legged, to follow me outside while I was photographing something. As I swung around they were too perfect looking not to photograph. I told them to hold still, but the expressions were all theirs. With all my photography, I wouldn’t know exactly what the photo would be until I got the film back.

Both of my children can articulate clearly what it is that I do. Involving them in my art is a sign of respect, and they understand the ups and downs of it, as they see it first hand. Of course, I don’t tell them everything since they are little, but I try to put things in terms they understand and share what I can. I think this is important for them to see as well, as carrying on an artistic practice is not easy. Both of my children are incredible budding artists. My daughter has a real skill in drawing. She already draws a lot better than I do. My son too for that matter! I have her on my Kickstarter doing drawings as rewards, because I truly believe that if she chooses it she’ll be a great artist some day. I could just say that as a mother, but I’m pretty critical, and I don’t like all her drawings. I tell her when she’s made a great one, and I think anyone who receives one from Kickstarter will be lucky! She’s getting paid for them too! I want to teach her that it is important to be rewarded for your art.

ArtSake: You’ve taught at the New School’s summer art program (and in your Kickstarter video, your daughter says you’re always encouraging her to develop her art). What do you try to instill in emerging artists?

Holly: When I talk to emerging artists I try to be honest. A teacher of mine once told me that it was not talent but persistence that carries you through as an artist. I firmly believe she is right. There are many aspects that go into a creative practice. Determination, critical evaluation, perseverance, challenging oneself, and staying true to a vision. I was taught to work to find my own point of view and perspective, to have as a goal the ability to create photographs that would immediately be recognized as mine. If I showed you a slide show of images by truly great photographers (assuming you had a good photo history background), I bet you’d be able to name most of them. That is a lofty goal of course, so I also try to encourage artists to find balance. Happiness. Happiness for me is key, as it’s an attribute that so often seems highly unattainable. At least among several people I’ve known. I try to encourage emerging artists to find a way of living and working as an artist that gives them a happy, balanced life, because I also believe that self-esteem can be fragile when developing an art career. For me, having a family enabled me to stay grounded, that and moving to the country. It took me a while to learn an important lesson, again taught to me by a great teacher, that being an artist is a way of life, a way of seeing the world, a way of thinking, and that you are that no matter what. Having an art career is something separate.

ArtSake: Share a surprise twist in the Holly Lynton story.

Holly: When I was studying at The Aegean Center for the Fine Arts on the Greek Island of Paros, I met my yet-to-be husband on the ferry dock while we were both waiting for ferries going in opposite directions. We had an urgently intense conversation for 20 minutes, during which time I showed him the brochure for my art school and talked about my creative writing and photography. I tried to convince him to come with me to Athens where I was going to buy a mountain bike. He tried to convince me to go with him to Samos. He was on his way to Turkey and had missed his first ferry off of Paros five days earlier so was behind schedule. Both stubborn, neither of us conceded, and we parted, exchanging addresses. It was a year before we saw each other again, and what happened in that time and after is a long story. Is that enough of a surprise twist? We’ve been together now for seventeen years. I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be the same person or photographer without him.

ArtSake: Can you point to any one decision you’ve made as an artist that has had the most impact on your career?

Holly: When I was an undergraduate at Yale, I began taking classes in photography. Initially, I was into creative writing and thought I’d be a writer. Immediately hooked on photography, I found a natural ease in making ironic and humorous, street photos very much smitten with the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. After a year, I hit a rut. This lasted for three semesters, and each semester I thought about giving up photography, but each semester I found one negative I wanted to print and reasoned that I couldn’t print it without darkroom access. I’d only have dark room access if I signed up for the next photography class, and so I did, and I persevered. In my last semester at Yale, I had a breakthrough in my work that thankfully moved me out of that rut before I graduated. I went from a critique one week with Tod Papageorge where he told me my people looked dead, to having him not even recognize that my photographs were by me the next week.

It’s those moments that add up and have impact. I don’t think I can point to one single decision.

Holly Lynton currently has work in a group show called GREENHOUSE at Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in Miami, FL. She’ll have a solo show of work – the work for which she’s raising funds on Kickstarter – at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in November 2011. Watch for a profile of Holly in the July 2011 issue of PREVIEW MASSACHUSETTS.

Images: courtesy of the artist, Holly Lynton; LES, AMBER, HONEYBEES, NEW MEXICO (2008), C-print; ANGEL, WOLF, NEW MEXICO (2008), C-print; SKIPPER, CHRISTIAN, CATFISH, OKLAHOMA (2009), C-print; DREW GARDENS and THE RED COATS, the two prints available as rewards in Lynton’s Kickstarter campaign; TURKEY MADONNA, MASSACHUSETTS (2010), C-print; installation view of GREENHOUSE, courtesy of the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, Miami FL.

Huckleberry Delsignore’s Magic Hook

Friday, June 24th, 2011

Are you in the mood to be intrigued, amused, possibly a bit frightened? Specifically, by animals masks? Even more specifically, by captivating, colorful animal masks made through an ingenious process using yarn crochet?

Well, good, because thanks to Huckleberry Delsignore and her yarn innovations, such masks exist. And in part due to the masks’ popularity, her career is on a roll. The trailblazing Pittsfield artist is selling her crochet creations at MASS MoCA and elsewhere, is just finishing up a museum residency in the Berkshires, and will soon see her unique masks on an episode of MTV’s Cribs.

We asked Huckleberry about her work, her secret origins as a super-crochet-er, and about how she balances “real life” with the fantastical realms of her art.

ArtSake: First – and you must hear this a lot – your masks are SO COOL. Can you trace their origin? Did the idea and your unique process hit you all at once, or develop over time?

Huckleberry: Gee, thanks! I started making masks about a year and a half ago. Before the masks, I used to make odd dolls. I was sitting around with a friend one night and we thought it would be so cool to make something like the dolls that a person could wear. I made the first one as an experiment, and haven’t been able to stop making them since. The process has become refined over time. The newer ones are technically much better than the earlier ones.

Over time I have realized how gratifying it is to have found an outlet that people, no matter what demographic, engage with. Children can’t stop themselves from putting the masks on, while adults are simultaneously horrified and intrigued when they see my art.

ArtSake: Do you create masks on commission, and if so, what would you say is the general ratio of commissioned work to work initiated independently?

Huckleberry: I love taking commissions. It is so much fun making something knowing it is going to be a part of somebody’s life. I get inspired by bringing pieces of a person’s imagination to life. Right now, I seem to make approximately the same number of commissions as additions to my own mask menagerie.

ArtSake: Artists can often list a long series of day jobs they’ve worked to support their art. But I was intrigued to learn that, as an emerging artist, you hitchhiked back and forth across the country, supporting yourself exclusively by selling your crocheted goods. How has that level of self-reliance impacted your art?

Huckleberry: It’s true, my youth was filled with wanderlust. When I was unable to support myself while going to college, I took to the road. I led a simplistic lifestyle, keeping my expenses very low. I crocheted in coffee shops and curious folks would strike up conversations with me about what I was up to. It was a great learning experience. Eventually I settled down and started a family (and started waitressing). By settling down I was able to take on bigger projects and form deeper connections with people in my community. As for my self-reliance, I have always been a very motivated and fiercely independent lady.

ArtSake: Can you describe your experience as Artist in Residence at the Berkshire Museum?

Huckleberry: I was so honored when the Berkshire Museum invited me to be an Artist in Residence this spring. I took the opportunity to make something bigger and more complex than before. After researching geodesic domes, forts, rock and mineral structures, I set off to create a faceted crocheted sculpture that one could go inside. The process of making the work was difficult. There were a lot of setbacks throughout and I was so proud when it was finally complete. Since on display, the exposure of being in The Berkshire Museum has been so flattering. I get a lot of positive feedback. The residency ends this week and I can hardly wait to have the work back and get to view it in different contexts.

ArtSake: You’ve also produced work as a film artist, and you’ve collaborated in theater and photography projects. What do you draw from working in multiple media?

Huckleberry: Life is experienced in multiple medias, and I love collaborating. For me, it is about being available to participate in inspiring projects.

ArtSake: On your blog, you mention that you did a film shoot for MTV in April. What was it for, and can you describe the experience?

Huckleberry: MTV approached friends of mine regarding filming an episode of Cribs at their beautiful and magical estate. They chose to go with a fairy tale theme and asked if they could use my masks for filming. The entire day was so enchanted. It is supposed to air sometime this summer. I can hardly wait to see it!

ArtSake: You have three daughters! How do you balance your family life with your creative career?

Huckleberry: My daughters are ages 3, 5 and 7. Balancing life as a single mother is complicated but they are proud of what I do and love playing with the masks.

I make art to preserve my sanity. I must been actively engaged in a creative project or I feel myself wilt. Fortunately, my work is easily transportable, so I am often crocheting at the park while they play. I also stay up very late and get a lot done while they are sleeping.

ArtSake: Share a surprise twist in the Huckleberry Delsignore story.

Huckleberry: I have no clue how to read a crochet pattern.

ArtSake: Can you point to any one decision you’ve made as an artist that has had the most impact on your career?

Huckleberry: A little over a year ago I lost my job. Little did I know at the time, it was the best thing that could happen to me. My children were in school full time and I had only one thing I needed to focus on: making my art career happen. I crocheted as much as possible, kept my web site fresh and up to date, and did my best to let people know what I was up to. A good web site is an amazing resource these days.

I guess the one decision was to take myself seriously as an artist and to work harder than I knew possible to make cool stuff happen.

ArtSake: This summer, you’re teaching a class on DIY art at IS183 and a weekly crochet class in your studio. What will you try to instill in your students?

Huckleberry: Through the IS183 class I hope to share the resources I have gathered in how to find your niche in the art community and how to get your art into the world. The weekly crochet class will focus on teaching the basics of using a hook and yarn and how to use your intuition to make just about anything.

Images: images courtesy of Huckleberry Delsignore. All photos are by Jay Elling, with the exception of AMORPHIUS BLACK (third from top), which is by Eric Korenman.