Archive for the ‘interview’ Category

A Rare Insight

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Every story suggests a larger narrative. Even complete in its own right, it can serve as a tile within a larger mosaic, or a window overlooking a vaster experience. Photographer and filmmaker Michaela O’Brien encountered two girls with the rare skin disease Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB), and her investigations of their story led to the documentary In Crystal Skin, as well as a larger conversation of the way society addresses (or doesn’t, as the case may be) rare diseases.

The film is currently raising post-production funds on IndieGoGo, and we asked Michaela about her project and the larger story it illuminates.

What inspired the In Crystal Skin project?
I first visited a Colombian orphanage in 2011 as a documentary photographer. It was here I met Nixa and her older sister Nury, both of whom were born with EB and continue to struggle with this disease. The sisters wrap their limbs in plastic to minimize damage to their raw and fragile skin. Life with EB has proved isolating; the sisters draw stares on the streets of Bogotá, whether on their way to a medical appointment, or just out for a walk. Despite their challenges, the sisters are a feisty, resilient pair who fervently yearn for independence.

Inspired, I began an impromptu shoot, and upon my return to the U.S., shared the footage with editor Melissa Langer. Convinced of the story’s power, we embarked on the first of four return trips to Bogotá, scraped together with personal funds and vacation time. Over the course of the next three years, we uncovered a larger EB community, colored by different people and perspectives, yet united by a common struggle and setting. In Crystal Skin reflects this process of organic discovery, following four characters along their individual yet interwoven paths which combine in a universally resonant story of courage in the face of great odds.



How does this film relate to the larger dialogue about rare diseases of all kinds?
This documentary will be a window into the untold story of a tireless network of individuals, parents, and doctors battling an orphan disease. Our film unearths the personal experiences of spirited individuals to create a portrait of just one of the world’s 7,000 rare diseases. These rare diseases affect 1 in 10 Americans and over 350 million people worldwide.

From the tight-knit neighborhoods of Bogotá to the bustling biotech firms of Boston, the struggle to understand rare diseases and how they affect our lives and our families reaches across continents to form a global community. In Crystal Skin ignites dialogue about managing life with a rare disease and reveals those at the forefront of developing life-saving therapies for EB.

Our IndieGoGo campaign is a chance to be a part of that dialogue and to be a part of a larger effort to bring these stories to light. Our donors’ generosity will help finish this documentary and in turn will help bring the experiences of people living with rare diseases out of anonymity.

Why are you choosing to crowdfund the project?
Creating In Crystal Skin has been an act of dedication and perseverance. What inspired us to create this film in the first place – the voices and stories of those living with a rare disease – is what drives us to complete a documentary which will reach a wide audience. We are turning to Indiegogo first to raise money to complete a film which deserves to be shared, but also to establish a relationship with the many individuals experiencing life with a rare disease and those involved with patient advocacy, EB & rare disease research.

The In Crystal Skin IndieGoGo campaign is raising funds through 7/1/14.

Michaela O’Brien is a filmmaker, producer, and photographer based in Boston, MA. When she is not behind the camera, she works as an Associate Producer at Northern Light Productions located in Allston, MA.

Images: all photos by Michaela O’Brien: Melissa Langer places lav mic on interview subject, Maria Alejandra; cribs in an orphanage, Bogota, Colombia; Miguel watches the city pass him by as he rides the Transmilenio to work.

Tova Mirvis: Visible City

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

Tova Mirvis, a 2010 Artist Fellow in Fiction/Creative Nonfiction, is about to publish her third novel, Visible City, an engrossing story of neighbors whose lives unfold in close-set NYC apartments. As the author prepares to launch the book (March 18, 2014 at Newtonville Books), she shares details about her writing process, living with “undoneness,” and the writer/voyeur connection.


ArtSake: In your novel, characters live in New York City apartments in close (and sometimes revealing) proximity to their neighbors. The character of Nina in particular has a yearning to learn about the neighbors she can see from her window. It struck me as an interesting parallel to a writer’s curiosity. Was it easy to imagine and empathize with Nina’s drive to “see?”

Tova: So much of my desire to write fiction stems from an urge to see into other people’s experiences. I am always wondering: what people are really thinking, really feeling? What lies beneath everyone’s outer façade? I think that in this way the role of the writer is very much like the voyeur – both watch, imagine, and construct other people’s lives from small stolen tidbits. Both carry a curiosity about other people, and both live in the constant interplay between the self and the other: what are we seeing in others and what of our own selves are we bringing to what we see? And I also felt, as I was writing, that some of the hazards are the same too – for both the writer and the voyeur, there is the tendency to remain somewhat outside of life, to watch rather than to act.

ArtSake: Along with winning an MCC grant, you were also a Scholar-in-Residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University in 2009 (and later a Visiting Scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Resource Center). What impact have those honors had on the trajectory of Visible City?

Tova: These honors were immensely helpful, and I am very grateful for them. Beside the financial help, the MCC grant and my positions at Brandeis were like the equivalent of people standing by the side of the road, cheering as I struggled to make it to a very distant finish line. Writing a novel is a long lonely marathon, and it’s very easy to become discouraged along the way. Visible City took a lot longer than my other two novels – about eight years – and the process was filled with many setbacks, and much time when I felt painfully lost and discouraged. These honors played a large role in enabling me to keep going.

ArtSake: What comes first in your writing process – Plot? Characters? Place? Or something else? And does this change depending on the project?

Tova: In the beginning, there is some combination of character and place that eventually grow into something larger. For Visible City, I started with the image of a woman standing at her windows watching, with the array of Manhattan windows before her. One piece leads me to another; the process is very associative and murky. I rarely know where I am going with an idea and I make many wrong turns along the way to figuring out the plot. A clear sense of direction – any kind of answer to the question of “what is this book about” – comes only after I’ve spent months getting to know my characters. It’s a writing process that sometimes feels haphazard, but it’s the only way I know how to write a novel – to slowly, slowly forge my way in.

ArtSake: You’re a mother of three children. How do you balance parenthood with your writing process? Has being a parent changed how you write?

Tova: Balancing the two is always a challenge – it’s not just an issue of making time in the day, but of finding the space inside my head. To write a novel requires you to hold inside yourself all your characters’ lives, to be able to find a wide enough internal space contain all the threads of a novel. It requires you to tunnel in to find that deep focus. I’ve learned over the years to be very disciplined about how to manage my time because I’ve had to be. Being a parent has forced me to be very strict with myself about making use of the hours I do have. Being a parent means I’ve had to let go of the fantasy of open, endless blocks of time, to adamantly disavow the notion that I can only write when I am not interrupted. I’ve learned, by necessity, to write in the spare scraps, to jot an idea down while stopped at a red light, to pull out my laptop while sitting in my car waiting to pick up my kids from school. I’ve learned to live with the constant sense of undoneness.

ArtSake: What’s the most surprising response you’ve had to your writing?

Tova: Recently I wrote an essay for the New York Times about my divorce from both by husband and the Orthodox Jewish world which I’ve long been part of. I feel the impulse to tell my own story, to write about my personal experience, but putting it out for public consumption is immensely nerve-wracking. With fiction, you can shield yourself, but in the personal essay, there is nowhere to hide. I was excited, of course, that the New York Times had accepted the essay, but terrified too of reaction, mostly from people I know. There was, I know a range of responses, but within a few hours of the essay appearing on the Times’ website, my email inbox was flooded with hundreds of emails from strangers, telling me they loved the essay, sharing their own stories of divorce, of religious grappling, of painful transformation. For so long, this subject matter has been my private painful terrain, and I felt like I was being given an unexpected embrace from a makeshift community of strangers.

ArtSake: What would be your advice to an emerging writer? What do you wish someone had said to you when you were first starting out?

Tova: The best advice I got when I was starting to write was from the wonderful novelist Mary Gordon who was my college professor. I once was complaining to her that I didn’t have time to write – looking back, I find it funny that I thought I was busy then! – but she looked me squarely in the eye, and very plainly said: if you are a writer, then you write. I’ve carried her words with me for at least twenty years and pass them on to young writers whenever I can. There are always reasons not to write, always numerous other things we need to be doing or want to be doing. But so much of writing is sitting yourself down. Nothing happens until you at least do that.

The other thing that I like to tell people, and that maybe I wish I knew better in the beginning, was how slow the process is. Fiction takes a very long time to become layered and rich. There is no rushing a novel. Patience is essential. There are many bad days along the way and I don’t think you can write a novel unless you can withstand that feeling of being absolutely lost and floundering.

ArtSake: What are you writing now?

Tova: After so many years of working on the same book – of living deep inside it and being obsessed and consumed by it – working on something new feels like coming out of a cave into the bright glaring light. It’s exciting but also daunting. Right now, I’m working on two different projects. I’ve slowly been writing a memoir about religion and divorce, but writing memoir is a new and (very) anxiety-producing endeavor, so it’s something I do in small doses. And I miss writing fiction if I stay away from it for too long – I crave the freedom of invention, the feeling of sinking into a fictional world. So I’ve also been working on a new novel, set in Newton. As I did with Visible City, I’m starting with a few pieces that interest me, and those lead me to others. I’ve learned to be cautious when saying what a book is about at the outset, because so much changes in the writing process. But at this point, I know that the novel is about religious passion (or the lack of it) and teenage angst and about a realtor who can’t sell a dilapidated house along the town lake, and about next door neighbors who are feuding. It’s probably about many other things too, though I don’t yet know what those are.

Tova Mirvis will read from Visible City at upcoming events at Newtonville Books (3/18), Brookline Booksmith (3/19), Barnes & Noble (3/24) and Greenlight Bookstore (3/31) in NYC, and the Newton Jewish Community Center (4/8). Find a full event schedule.

Tova Mirvis is the author of three novels, Visible City, The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe Magazine, Commentary, Good Housekeeping, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She has been a Scholar in Residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University, and Visiting Scholar at The Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children.

Images: Cover art for VISIBLE CITY by Tova Mirvis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2014); Tova Mirvis, photo by Nina Subin.

Video Tour of Pedigree

Friday, September 27th, 2013

A ceramic deer-hoof chandelier, a devolved dining room set, a curio of mutated porcelain figurines; with Pedigree, now on exhibit at the New Art Center in Newton (through October 14, 2013), curator Elizabeth Devlin of FLUX.Boston has assembled an art experience somewhere between a Victorian salon and a mad scientist’s laboratory.

The curator was kind enough to take ArtSake on a video tour of the show. Watch the embedded video, above, as Liz deftly guides us through the unique world of Pedigree, which features past MCC awardees Elizabeth Alexander, Caleb Cole, Cynthia Consentino, Joo Lee Kang, Joyce McDaniel, and Shelley Reed along with Liz Shepherd, Chris Fitch, Christina Pitsch, Thomas Buildmore, Josh Luke, David Lowrey, Berio Gizzi, and Brian Kane. Through a wide array of media, it explores the notion of pedigree in art history, society, biology, and the arts community. Scenic elements in the show were provided by Mad Props.

Pedigree is part of the New Art Center’s Curatorial Opportunity Program.

On October 10, 2013, 7-9 PM, Josh Luke and Meredith Kasabian of Best Dressed Signs will do a presentation and gilding demonstration at the New Art Center. Free and open to the public. (Their hand-painted, gilded, mirrored signs in Pedigree must be seen to be believed.)

Kathleen Smith: New Art, New Opportunities

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

Kathleen Smith is the Exhibitions Director of the New Art Center in Newton, where Pedigree opens September 16 and runs through October 14. The show is curated by Elizabeth Devlin of FLUX.Boston and features Elizabeth Alexander, Caleb Cole, Cynthia Consentino, Joo Lee Kang, and Shelley Reed and other intriguing artists.

Pedigree is part of the Center’s Curatorial Opportunity Program, which offers the opportunity for curators and artist/curators to propose new exhibitions, often including local artists. We asked Kathleen about the New Art Center, what makes for a strong curatorial proposal, how artists can maximize an exhibition experience, and what’s on the horizon for the multifaceted art space in Newton’s community.

ArtSake: The New Art Center has a long tradition of enlisting local artists and curators to organize group exhibitions. What are the main goals of the Curatorial Opportunity Program, as it currently stands?

Kathleen: Since May 1991, the Curatorial Opportunity Program (COP) has offered a public call for curatorial proposals, which is always very competitive. During our 2013-2014 cycle we received fifty five proposals, of which four were selected. We are working to establish COP satellite galleries around the Greater Boston area to allow for more exhibitions to be realized and to create and maintain a curatorial conversation among other mid-sized contemporary art spaces. The COP is devoted to providing a platform for artists and curators to organize thought provoking art exhibitions that expose Newton and the region to new art and new ideas, develop their practice as thinkers and makers and also gain valuable work experience, thereby improving the cultural health and profile of the region. The COP is the Boston area leader in providing opportunities for individuals to explore the curatorial field and experiment with alternative approaches in the presentation of contemporary art.

Each selected curator is offered a monetary stipend, which continues to be an integral part of our program. Our goal is to increase this type of support in the future. It is important that the curatorial process is deemed valuable and compensated. We provide support in a variety of other areas as well, in administration, exhibition design and production, and promotion. As many of the curators come to us with varying skill sets, we work closely with them to develop their curatorial skills. Through programming with the curators we also work to educate the public and help create a diverse audience that thinks critically about contemporary art.

The best education one can gain in the curatorial field lies in the practice of doing. This is what drives me and the program; as an educator and an independent curator myself, I believe in the importance of taking risks – artistically, curatorially and ideologically, as well as being part of a larger discourse that highlights the social significance of art. I stand behind every proposal and curator that we select and I look forward to taking the leap with them now and into the future.

ArtSake: How does the program fit into the New Art Center’s larger program of opportunities for artists?

Kathleen: The New Art Center employs over fifty working artists and teachers through our well-respected studio art program that is devoted to high quality art education and is committed to sharing the studio practice with children, teens, and adults of all ages and all levels of experience. We enable our students to become artists and create a platform for artists who teach to further their art practice through our competitive Holzwasser Gallery program, which awards exhibitions of one person, two person, and three person shows and is named after an inspirational student and artist Mary J. Holzwasser.

The New Art Center’s mission is to support the development of visual artists and cultivate a community that appreciates art. The core idea that drives this mission is our desire to provide a comprehensive experience of art, which is the development of the artist as well as the audience. In a 1957 lecture, 20th century artist and thinker Marcel Duchamp developed this idea stating that “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the art in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” Thus the artwork is not complete until it is received and it is this reception that is critical for the artwork’s meaning and posterity. The opportunities we create and offer to artists are intimately tied to the development of audience.

ArtSake: What advice do you have for artists or other individuals who are considering applying to curate an exhibition through the program?

Kathleen: Be bold, be brave, but also be thoughtful, diligent, precise, and organized in the development of your project. Critique and then refine your proposal, as one would a work of art. Think in ways that no one else thinks and ultimately take risks. We want to take these risks with you.

The COP program investigates contemporary culture through the visual arts. We support an interdisciplinary practice that connects the visual arts to various strains of investigation that inform contemporary life and culture. But don’t let the idea overpower the visual experience you hope to create. Think about how your specific ideas relate and connect to the contemporary art field but also how they critically advance the field.

This program offers a platform for diverse curatorial visions in a non-profit and alternative exhibition space. Take this opportunity to participate in a program that is motivated by nothing other than a desire to learn, to educate and to connect the visual arts and contemporary culture, and create something unemcumbered by outside pressures. This sort of opportunity is rare in the region… and in the country for that matter. Say something new because it truly can make change.

In an increasingly complex 21st century landscape, art matters. Show us why.

ArtSake: One of your past guest curators, Kate True, said in an ArtSake interview, “Artists make good curators because we… may be more open to experimentation, play, free association.” What kinds of experiments in curating have most intrigued you in the course of the program?

Kathleen: Our most recent exhibitions have been model experiments. Kate True and AJ Liberto’s exhibition Upsodown and Diane Pontius’s exhibition From the City to the World both engaged the visual arts with other media, as well as diverse histories and populations. Although all of these curators are also visual artists, they were devoted to setting up dialogues across media and disciplines. They composed their cohesive exhibitions around hybridity and play, and still balanced form and content, unity and variety.

Liberto and True were inspired by Carnival, a populist and performative experience steeped in history and inserted into it an original dialogue with contemporary art. They included, video, performance, painting, photography, sculpture and printmaking and layered in various American histories often overlooked and marginalized that engaged with Carnival and its ideas.

Pontius represented the contemporary city and those who create and inhabit cities today, from poets, to filmmakers, to writers and bloggers of all ages and from all backgrounds. She merged a pop sensibility with the grittiness of the street to create an environment that what was both celebratory but critical.

Curators have also used their exhibitions’ public presentations to experiment. The 2011 exhibition We Still See the Black, curated by Alexander DeMaria and Owen Rundquist, investigated the exchange between the music and imagery in the contemporary subculture of heavy metal, and programmed a metal concert within the gallery. It was a transformative experience for the artists, who were also musicians, as well as for the New Art Center and the audience many of whom had never experienced that genre of music before.

ArtSake: What makes for a successful exhibition?

Kathleen: A successful exhibition does something no other exhibition has done. It is formally and aesthetically cohesive and puts artwork and artists in dialogue with one another to create a vision and an experience that is entirely new. It excites the eye and engages the body and mind. It has a unique and focused voice that also remains open to more general readings and conversations surrounding issues of art-making, art history and culture.

ArtSake: What can an artist participating in an exhibition do to make the most of the experience?

Kathleen: Get to know your curator, have conversations with him or her. Be bold in your choices and inspire the curator to take risks with you. This experience of connecting with other artists and the curator offers an opportunity to look at your work, your ideas and your practice in new and exciting ways. In turn, you can make change in others— you can inspire the other artists and the curator to have similar transformative experiences.

ArtSake: Tell us about the COP shows this upcoming season.

Kathleen: Pedigree (September 16-October 14, 2013), curated by Elizabeth Devlin of FLUX.Boston, is an exhibition that allows you to see, feel, and think simultaneously about the past and the future of visual art, through an American and more specifically a Boston lens. It is about spectacle but it is also about reflection. It is about the power of making things, whether they be categorized as fine art, craft, or something in between. It is completely fresh and new in its conversation that places new and old world visionaries in the same space to work toward similar ideological goals set forth by the curator Devlin. Her own unique visionary, Devlin choreographs an experience, not just an art exhibition. Or should I say she creates the model art exhibition because it is an experience that you cannot find anywhere else.

Our second fall show, The Country Between Us (November 15-December 20, 2013) curated by Ariel Freiberg, is a painting exhibition featuring four regional female artists and inspired by the work of poet and activist Carolyn Forché. The exhibition explores fragmentation within the medium of painting and how this formal fragmentation can have social and political significance.

Wild and Woolly curated by Ryan Arthurs explores the myths and icons of the American West and will enliven the winter exhibition slot from January 10-February 21, 2014. With humor and ironic distance, this exhibition seeks to re-contextualize the American frontier narrative.

Finally, The Flash of an Instant, curated by Sarah Pollman and Caitie Moore and currently scheduled for March 28-May 2, 2014, examines the ability of photography and video to accurately index the environment around us and questions basic spatial and temporal assumptions.

We are excited to dive into each project!

ArtSake: What would you like to see in the future of the local visual arts community?

Kathleen: The future of the local visual arts community is looking stronger than ever in the Greater Boston area. The region is coming of age culturally and it begins locally.

I think this positive outlook is directly tied to the growth and investment that I see in local art institutions and how these institutions are constantly looking outward. The Curatorial Opportunity Program provides experiences that respond to contemporary art discourse, shape it in a local context and connect it to a global conversation. Pedigree, which opens to the public on September 16, is a perfect example of this exchange. The local visual arts community should be included in the larger context of the ever growing global art community. As a result of placing our call for submissions online, for the first time ever in 2013, we received proposals from all over the country and even had some international proposals. In order to strengthen the local, we need to become a global platform and we need to participate in a global exchange. The Curatorial Opportunity Program can help make this future possible.

Pedigree at New Art Center runs September 16 to October 14, 2013 in the Main Gallery. Opening Reception: Friday, Sept. 20, 6-8:30 PM.

The next deadline for curatorial proposals through the Curatorial Opportunities Program will be in March or April 2014.

Images: photos courtesy of New Art Center.

Greg Cook: Enchanted Forest in the Neighborhood

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

Greg Cook creates, writes about, critiques, documents, organizes makers of, and (if these previous verbs are any indication) is invested in art, here in Massachusetts.

We caught up with Greg, creator of the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, to ask about his projects, the different ways he engages the arts, and why both vigorous support and criticism are integral to an arts community.

ArtSake: We recently asked artists whether they separate or integrate their art from their other careers. This question seems especially pertinent for artists such as yourself who are also engaging the community in ways that go beyond art-making. How do you balance your work as an arts writer, organizer, chronicler, and community-builder with your work as an artist?

Greg: I tend to get excited by my writing jobs and let them eat up my time for making visual art. It’s been especially tricky with The Great Recession coinciding with the arrival of my first child. Right now to make a living I’m juggling two regular writing gigs and a teaching job.

It’s all art, right – writing, organizing, painting. I do try to integrate things, or perhaps make things do double duty as both visual art and journalism – like my photography. Or I try to drag my family along to art things as – supposedly – fun family outings. I’ve not been so successful at finding time to draw or paint. Which leaves me feeling antsy and guilty.

ArtSake: Your Enchanted Forest will be part of the upcoming Window Arts Malden Project. Why was it important for you to get involved in Window Arts Malden?

Greg: It’s vital that artists participate in our own neighborhoods. In the art world, success tends to be defined by fame and money and museum shows and history books. Most of us artists are far from that. So how do we define success then? I think it’s about finding ways of making this often frustrating, dreary life a bit more fun, a bit more meaningful, a bit more wondrous.

I like crosspollination. I was taken by some of the Asian artists in last year’s version of “Window Arts Malden.” And the windows project creates a pretty easy entry point for me to do something in public with my own paintings. I’m tired of art world hi/low, insider/outsider, fine/folk hierarchies that too often don’t foster better art but do serve to reinforce class and race barriers.

ArtSake: Can you talk about the origins and underpinnings of the “Enchanted Forest” project?

Greg: The “Enchanted Forest” is a place of magical trees and birds and witches and hungry wolves. The latest version will be in “Window Arts Malden” from Sept. 22 to Oct. 13. My goal is for it to grow into a walk-through environment.

The idea originated when a friend was writing a fantasy novel set in a fictionalized New England. It occurred to me that the true story of the early European settlement here was a real-life fantasy epic – with “witches” and adventures into unknown worlds and culture clashes and racism and slavery and wars. And it had interesting parallels with our War on Terror.

Some of my first pieces were painted flags addressing this history that I displayed outdoors around Gloucester. After a while I got to thinking of the New England woods – the awe-inspiring nature of the Transcendentalists, the haunted early colonial forests of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown.” Then it turned sort of funny. Lurking underneath it was the haunted forest in Disney’s film “Snow White” and those fiberglass trees they used to have at McDonald’s restaurant playgrounds. You know, cartoony trees with faces on their trunks. Also those amazing, weird witch “history” museums in Salem.

ArtSake: You’ve long been an art critic for many local and national publications. Can you talk about what role you strive to play when you write local arts criticism?

Greg: I try to be fair. I try to be entertaining. I try to tell our histories – especially our local histories. I try to share things I love, and argue with things I disagree with. I try to leverage the power of my connections and the institutions I’m part of to foster a more rich community.

A lot of journalism – or curating – is the basic choices we make of what things to highlight and what things to pass over. Our decisions send messages of what we value in our community, what we want more of, what we wish would just go away. I try to be mindful of the signals these everyday decisions send and try to focus on things that model the Boston that I’d like Boston to be.

ArtSake: You are a vocal advocate of what you call “Yokelism,” or support of locally-made art. Why is Yokelism important? And have your feelings on Yokelism undergone any evolution during your time as an arts writer?

Greg: Art makes our lives better. That’s why everyone goes everywhere listening to music and reading and watching videos on their smarty phones.

And it’s even better when your neighbors are making some of that art. You might say it’s the difference between living in a town with lots of movie theaters versus living in Hollywood. You can see great movies anywhere, including lots of dull places, but it’s funner and sexier and more meaningful to be where cool stuff is actually being made.

Having artists making good stuff in your town doesn’t just mean more cool art stuffed in every nook and café like they do in the wonderland of Somerville. These artists also bring cool ideas about what our government should do, what our parks and roads should be like, what our grocery stores should stock, what our schools should teach. When we primarily import art from Away we lose this vision of what our community can be.

To be clear, I’m not a cheerleader for everything locally-made. Just ask public art folks. I want good, locally-made because I want to live in a more amazing place. And I do like the occasional art from Away. But there’s plenty of art being made here that could compete well with the contemporary art in our museums, but gets ignored. I mean our local museums generally even overlook artists here who are already in the history books. This isn’t just a problem here, but an art world geographical bias that hurts most American communities outside New York and Los Angeles.

Too many curators and critics are interested in a certain few individual artists and approach art mainly as consumers of end products. I do love to look at pretty pictures, but I’m just as interested in how we foster the making of this stuff, how we foster art-making communities. What is our responsibility to our community as art world leaders, as public intellectuals?

One of my favorite things about Massachusetts is that in our state constitution John Adams made it the law that our government should support the arts. Not because the arts boost our restaurant and tourism industries – though he liked a good hotel restaurant as much as the next founding father – but because they foster the “wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue” that are “necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.” In other words, our constitution says the arts are one of the necessary ingredients for a healthy democracy.

Have my feelings on Yokelism evolved? The core idea is the same, but lately I’ve been thinking I need to better engage local donors, the folks on museum boards. In particular, I wonder about people who give our museums money to foster local art-making.

ArtSake: What draws you to folk art, which you document as a photographer and writer?

Greg: I’m interested in good art wherever I can find it. So much of the art that has most grabbed my heart in recent years has been public community spectacles. (I’m not sure of the term “folk art” since for most people it still implies something lesser than “fine” art.)

My heart breaks when I see mourning families at the annual “Mother’s Day Walk for Peace” in Dorchester carrying painted and printed banners honoring loved ones murdered during this city’s gun violence. I’m dazzled by the hundreds of people in carnival costumes and sequins and feathers dancing through Dorchester for the annual Caribbean Carnival parade. When I watch people carrying the statues and paintings of saints through Gloucester during its annual St. Peter’s Fiesta, when I hear them shout the blessings, I’m knocked out by the passion and the beauty of it all. It’s just astonishing art. As a reporter, and particularly as a photographer, I’m allowed to get very close. It’s like mainlining the pure creative, passionate, community energy of the world.

ArtSake: What’s the most surprising response you’ve had to your work?

Greg: When I was first working as a reporter, a guy who didn’t like my reports threatened to shoot me. He said this to me in person. In front of witnesses. In a town hall.

ArtSake: What would be your advice to an emerging New England artist? What do you wish someone had said to you when you were first starting out?

Greg: Think bigger. Make the art you want to make. Create the community you wish to live in. Don’t wait.

ArtSake: What’s up next?

Greg: I’m organizing a big mini golf outing at Route 1 Miniature Golf (the Orange Dinosaur!) in Saugus on Sept. 21. The idea is a fun meet-up of Boston creative folks and their friends. Just because. Everyone’s invited – including you reading this now.

I’m launching monthly arts and cultures talks at Malden Public Library beginning, I think, Oct. 8.

I just finished a comic for the Boston Comics Roundtable’s kids anthology “Hellbound IV: Creatures and Monsters,” which is scheduled to be released at the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE) on Sept. 28 and 29. I’m supposed to have prints in “The Message is the Medium: Prints, Propaganda, and Persuasion” at Zeitgeist Gallery in Lowell, from Oct. 2 to Nov. 2.

And I’m trying to curate a show of art inspired by Krampus – the hairy Austrian Christmas demons – at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, where I teach, from Dec. 4 to 17. Because, ya know, I’m all about bettering our community.

Greg Cook is an arts reporter and critic for publications including The Phoenix (Boston and Providence), Art New England, and WBUR’s ARTery. The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, which he founded, won a 2009 Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. He oversees the New England Art Awards, an annual open-source, community project to honor art made in the region, and he teaches at Montserrat College of Art. His art has appeared in Nickelodeon magazine, Publishers Weekly, and The Believer, and has been widely exhibited both locally and internationally.

Images: all images courtesy of Greg Cook. The photos from Cambridge International Carnival and the Lowell Folk Festival were taken for WBUR’s ARTery.

Cur8or: Kim Carlino

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

Kim Carlino, Artist, Independent Curator, and Exhibition Director of the Loft Parlor @ Mill 180 in Easthampton,  has organized and curated The Laboratory, Version 1, a DIY exhibition that utilizes non-traditional space for large-scale contemporary art exhibitions. She has fabulously re-purposed a defunct dye laboratory on the third floor of Mill 180 to house the work of 24 artists from the NorthEast region and beyond. Yeah, we love that! The exhibition ranges from video, sound, sculpture, photography, site-specific wall paintings, installation, painting and drawing. So get a move on out to the Pioneer Valley and check out some great homemade work.

We caught up with the very busy Kim to answer our Cur8or 8.

1 Being the curator of The Laboratory, Version 1 is like being a a) kindergarten teacher, b) Stevie Nicks impersonator, c) dictionary editor, or d) mortgage lender.
E) Cruise ship director.

2 What is the most misunderstood aspect of being a curator?
That curating is just putting some work up on the walls.

3 Finish this statement: “The work exhibited at The Laboratory, Version 1 is…
a delight for the senses.

4 What’s the most surprising response you’ve ever had to your own work?
“I did that in middle school.”

5 What artists’ work do you most admire?
I am inspired by Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Julie Mehretu, Elizabeth Murray, Matthew Ritchie, Philip Glass, and Arvo Part.

6 Share a surprise twist in the Kim Carlino story.
Kim Carlino likes to start things. Big things.

7 The unauthorized biography of your life is titled:
“Art/Play: Making It Up”

8 What is the greatest thing about DIY?
The greatest thing about DIY is that you can throw the rules out the window. You can adopt the formality or get rid of the parts that don’t serve your aesthetic.

The Laboratory,Version I
The Loft Parlor @ Mill 180
180 East Pleasant Street, Easthampton, MA 01027
June 8 – July 27

Image credit from top to bottom:
Carolyn Clayton, Specimens from Hoard. 2013.
Angela Zammarelli, Get Through This. 2013. Peter Brauch, Building Something. 2013.
Catie Heitz, Untitled (Cheery-ohs), Untitled (Silver and Gold) 2013.

Jaime Clarke, on Vernon Downs

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

It’s not uncommon for artists to contribute to a region’s literary community from various angles, but even so, Jaime Clarke‘s contributions are particularly well-distributed. He’s a writer (one published novel and another soon-to-be), editor of various anthologies, founder and former editor of the literary journal Post Road, and to top it off, co-owner of one of the Boston-area’s most active and renown literary centers, the independent bookshop Newtonville Books.

Jaime’s next novel, Vernon Downs, is being published by Roundabout Press in April 2014, using a unique financial model that uses pre-orders to cover publishing costs. We caught up with Jaime to ask him about that model, about the book and its origins, and about Jaime’s adventures in book-writing/editing/selling/championing.

ArtSake: Word has it Vernon Downs was inspired by your own interest in/friendship with the author Bret Easton Ellis. Can you talk about the novel’s origins?

Jaime: All true. I saw the midnight showing of Less Than Zero as a teenager in Phoenix and immediately sought out the book. I was staggered to know that it was written by someone in college and published when the author was merely twenty-one. The idea that someone close to my own age was doing what I wanted to do obsessed me, and that’s how I discovered Bret’s work. And then the controversy over the publication of his third novel, American Psycho, was incredible. (The book was dropped at the eleventh hour by his publisher, Simon & Schuster, and then bought and published by Vintage.) It just seemed incredible that a book was having that kind of impact on society, like books did in the early part of the century. All of this fed my ambition to go to Bennington (I attended the low-residency MFA program) and to find my way to New York City, where I met Bret, who was completely generous to me as a young writer. I remember I asked him to read the novel I was working on and Bret not only read it thoroughly, he annotated it heavily with suggestions to improve it dramatically. That novel came close to being published a couple of times and maybe one day it will be.

I lost touch with Bret after I left New York in 2000, though I never lost interest in him as a writer. As I got older, I started to think about the idea of a famous writer as a mentor to a wannabe and how every protege/fan is one part assassin. I loved the idea of using my acquaintance with Bret as background for a story about young writer’s admiration for another and everything that that means. So I wrote a draft of Vernon Downs in 2005 or so. Bret read it and liked it, but I remember his abiding comment was that the character based on him didn’t have the kinds of flaws he has in real life and he encouraged me to really explore that more. Then I got married, rescued a bookstore with my wife (Newtonville Books), edited some anthologies, etc., so the manuscript languished until I showed it to Dan Pope at Roundabout. He liked the bones of that old draft and because so many years have passed, I realized I could have another chance to not just take Bret’s advice into account, but to enrich the narrative with all I’ve learned as a writer and reader over these last eight or so years.

ArtSake: I’m always interested in the journey of a book from concept to completion. How close is the Vernon Downs being published to the book you’d initially conceived?

Jaime: The notion of mentor/protege exists, and some of the scenes from the original where the protagonist actually believes he’s Vernon Downs made it into the revision, but the book is hopefully a much deeper exploration of these ideas than before.

ArtSake: Roundabout Press is using an intriguing model to publish your book: it will be published in April 2014, and the publisher is using pre-orders of the book to generate operating funds. As someone with multiple perspectives on the book industry, what drew you to this unique model?

Jaime: Roundabout used Kickstarter to publish its first book, The Fourth of July by Kevin Dowd. Rather than do something like that for Vernon Downs, I wanted to use my position as a bookstore owner, author, small press lover, literary magazine publisher, etc. to try to really help establish Roundabout financially. So Dan Pope and I came up with the idea of selling pre-orders exclusively through Roundabout’s site, with all monies going to Roundabout not just to help produce Vernon Downs, but hopefully to help publish other books by other writers. I won’t get any royalties on any of the pre-orders sold between now and next April. And as an incentive, Roundabout will send a pdf of my essay “B.E.E. & Me” (an obvious allusion to U and I by Nicholson Baker) to everyone who pre-orders a copy of Vernon Downs. Hopefully this idea of authors being cooperatively invested will catch on among small publishers. With all the recent contraction in conglomerate publishing (next year the Big Six publishers will become the Big Five with the merger of Random House and Penguin), now’s the perfect time for the Rise of the Small Press. Technology has made it possible for publishers to hang their shingle, and there’s plenty of material out there good enough to be considered, but they need money. Publishing is an expensive proposition, as I know from Post Road. So I’m really trying to spread the word about the pre-order program with Roundabout.

ArtSake: Does your work as a bookseller affect the way you approach writing? Does your writing affect the way you run your store?

Jaime: I wish! I can see the kinds of books that publishers dish money out to publish every day at work, but I’m not interested enough to try to emulate them, regardless of the riches. As for the latter question, my wife (co-owner Mary Cotton) and I are both keenly interested in literary fiction, so most of the authors we host are of this variety, and we keep their books on our shelves.

ArtSake: You’re a founding editor of the literary magazine Post Road. What’s the most important thing for a writer to keep in mind when submitting his or her work to a prospective editor?

Jaime: You’ve probably heard this before, but the most important notion is that a rejection isn’t personal. There are all kinds of external factors having nothing to do with your work that have a lot of bearing on whether or not the work is accepted for publication. For literary magazines, space is a big one. We would sometimes get long pieces we loved, but we had no way to publish them. When editors reject work and say it doesn’t fit their needs at that particular time, they’re probably telling the truth.

ArtSake: I don’t want to get you in trouble here, but from your time running Newtonville Books, do you have a favorite author visit experience?

Jaime: This question IS ripe for danger as we host so many writers who’ve become friends over the years, and we think of them as family at this point, so each is its own wonderful experience. But I think they would all agree with this answer: we hosted George Saunders (in March) for Tenth of December when he was in town for the Associated Writing Program conference and it was an unforgettable evening. He gave a terrific reading, but the Q&A session after was magical. He clearly loves interacting with his readers and he did not disappoint.

ArtSake: Another dangerous question to ask a bookseller, but what are you currently reading?

Jaime: I went to a state school, so I’m perennially catching up on the classics. Ladette Randolph just hosted a discussion on Anna Karenina for our Celebrity Bookclub, so I read that for the first time. And Holly LeCraw did the same with All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, so that’s what I’m currently reading. We have a bookclub with friends that meets in hotel bars and we just read The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. Veronica by Mary Gaitskill before that.

ArtSake: What are you writing now?

Jaime: I’m still working on the revisions for Vernon Downs. At some point, I’ll have to let it go, but not yet!

Vernon Downs by Jaime Clark will be published by Roundabout Press in April 2014 and is being supported through pre-orders via Roundabout’s Web site.

Jaime Clarke is a graduate of the University of Arizona and holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from Bennington College. He is the author of the novels We’re So Famous and Vernon Downs, editor of Don’t You Forget About Me: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes, and Conversations with Jonathan Lethem, and co-editor of No Near Exit: Writers Select Their Favorite Work from Post Road and, with Dennis Lehane, of Boston Noir 2: The Classics. He is a founding editor of Post Road and has taught creative writing at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and Emerson College.

Julie Wu on The Third Son and the World(s) of Writing

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

Julie Wu (Fiction/Creative Nonfiction Fellow ’12) is among the writers & poets in MCC’s Commonwealth Reading Series, reading at the Forbes Library in Northampton on April 24, 2013, 7 PM.

Days later, she’ll celebrate the publication of her novel, The Third Son (from the publisher: “a story of yearning and freedom set in occupied Taiwan and in America at the dawn of the space age”). We asked the author about the book’s (and her family’s) history, her community of writers, and the different worlds that come together when writing fiction.

ArtSake: How does your own family history relate to the plot of The Third Son?

Julie: The Third Son is a story of overcoming many layers of obstacles to freedom. The book is inspired by my parents’ immigration story, which unfolded during a very tumultuous time in Taiwanese history, but it is not really my parents’ story. The general emotional journey is very much my father’s, but everything else – plot, dialogue, everyday detail, details of the story, details of character, is fictional. As a major example, my parents met for the first time as adults, whereas in The Third Son, Saburo and Yoshiko meet as young children.

Of course, especially since this will be a lot of readers’ first exposure to Taiwanese history, I made every effort to make sure the historical facts were as accurate as possible. I had two different historians read the book to make sure of that.

ArtSake: You’re trained as a physician, and along with writing, you also have backgrounds in opera singing and as a violinist. Have your medical career and arts experiences always been separate “tracks,” or do you feel as if they’re part of the same continuum?

Julie: To me, these are separate worlds. I have enjoyed standing in several different pairs of shoes and mingling in different circles of people. But all of these worlds come together when I write.

ArtSake: Have you found it challenging to balance the unconventional challenges of a writer’s life with other aspects of your life?

Julie: I prefer having balance in my life. Before I had children, I worked half-time as a physician and wrote the rest of the time. Once I had my son, this kind of balance was not possible. My son required a good amount of my time, so I had to basically decide whether to give up medicine or writing. At that point I had already started my book, and I was lucky enough (thanks to my husband) to be able to choose to stay home to work on that. Right now I feel very fortunate that I have been able to pursue my dreams while also being there for the kids.

ArtSake: You’ve studied at Grub Street and are involved with the writing blog Beyond the Margins. How important is it to you and your work to maintain that connection with other writers?

Julie: I love being part of the writing community! I enjoy other writers and artists socially, and I also am one of those writers who really believe in and benefit from group critique. It’s also been really helpful to me as I travel along the path to publication to regularly touch base with other debut authors. It keeps me sane.

ArtSake: Along with the MCC award, in the past you’ve received a residency fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center. What impact have those awards had on your trajectory as a writer?

Julie: The grant I got from the VSC was really a confidence booster for me I had not published a thing at the time. And my residency there was wonderful. I wrote a ton and really enjoyed talking with and learning about the visual artists there, as well as the writers. I do hope to go back some day!

When I applied for the MCC award, I was in a different place. I’d sold my book already, and I said to myself that if I won, I would fly to Taiwan to do research for my next book. So when I won, I was thrilled, and then I started planning my trip!

ArtSake: What are you writing now?

Julie: I’m working on a novel about political prisoners in Taiwan in the 1950’s and 60’s. Thanks to the MCC, I did go to Taiwan last October to interview several remarkable men and women who spent years in a labor camp off the coast of Taiwan, on what is now called Green Island. They had to build their own prison out of coral and volcanic rock they chiseled from the shore, grow and cook their own food, build their own musical instruments out of driftwood. Amazing people, and I hope my story can do justice to them.

The book launch celebration for The Third Son takes place on Tuesday, April 30, 2013, at Newtonville Books. Julie will also read at Forbes Library in Northampton (4/24, 7 PM), Concord Bookshop (5/2, 7 PM), Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley (5/16, 7 PM), and Harvard Cooperative Society (5/31, 7 PM). Find a full list of readings.

After graduating from Harvard with a BA in literature, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, Julie Wu received an MD at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. She has received a writing grant from the Vermont Studio Center and is the recipient of a 2012 Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship.

Charles Coe, on All Sins Forgiven

Monday, March 18th, 2013

Charles Coe (MCC Poetry Fellow ’96) is an active contributor to the literary community and worked with us at the MCC 1997-2015. So we were thrilled to ask Charles a few questions about his “other life” – and his new poetry collection All Sins Forgiven: Poems for My Parents.

ArtSake: Did the central idea of your collection – poems for your parents – steer you writing? Or did the theme emerge from the direction of your poems were already taking?

Charles: As a writer, you know that lot of what we write insists on being written. There were poems about my parents from my first book in 1999; they were still around at that point, although they were starting to go downhill. I began to realize that there was a lot I wanted to say about them – and about our relationship.

ArtSake: What has been your experience with your publisher, Leapfrog Press?

Charles: They’ve been very supportive. Leapfrog was started by Marge Piercy and her husband, Ira Wood, but they sold it a few years ago to Lisa Graziano, who moved it from Wellfleet to Fredonia, New York. The press had done Picnic on the Moon, my first book, and I was contractually obligated to offer them my second, although they weren’t obligated to publish it. Fortunately Lisa was very happy with the manuscript for All Sins Forgiven and has been behind the book 100 percent.

ArtSake: How does your background as a musician impact your poetry?

Charles: I try to create a musical flow in my work; I guess that comes from my background as a singer/songwriter. But my approach to writing poems and writing songs is very different. My songs are in a conventional style with rhyme and meter, but I very seldom use either in my poetry. However, there are a couple of haiku in the new book. And one villanelle, which has a very specific and traditional form.

For me, writing a poem is like playing a jazz solo. I’m going for something that holds together and flows at the same time. The poetry I’m drawn to has a musical quality; your tongue doesn’t trip or stumble. I think all writers and poets should read their work aloud, poetry or prose. Your ear can identify problems you can’t always catch on the page.

ArtSake: Does your work as a poet and music artist inform your work as an administrator at MCC?

Charles: There’s a great synergy between my work as an artist and my work at MCC. When I go to visit organizations as an administrator, they know I understand the challenges of making art. I’m not just some guy with an armload of files and a bunch of opinions.

ArtSake: Were any artists – literary or otherwise – particularly influential to you as you wrote the poems of All Sins Forgiven?

Charles: Very long list. Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Billy Collins, Robert Hayden, among many others. A lot of their work is about ordinary life, which I often write about as well.

ArtSake: Your involvement in the poetry community goes beyond writing. You’re involved in the National Writers Union and you organize events (including a reading with Richard Hoffman and Susan Donnelly at the upcoming Mass Poetry Festival). Is giving back something you’d recommend to other poets, writers, and artists?

Charles: Absolutely. A poet has many opportunities to contribute to the community. I do a lot of free readings to help raise money for community organizations. I think artists need to move beyond being providers of cultural “product” and look for ways to be neighbors, to be part of the community ecology. It’s the right thing to do and an excellent way to reach new audiences. Everybody benefits; it’s not missionary work.

Listen to Charles read three poems: DNA, My Mother Cut My Hair, and A Poem for Happy Endings

Charles Coe will read from All Sins Forgiven at a the Book Launch Event at the Cambridge Public Library (Main Branch), Sunday, April 7, 2 PM. Also, he’ll read at the Fitchburg Library (4/1, 6:30 PM), Porter Square Books (4/10, 7 PM), Uno’s Restaurant in Hyannis, Writers Night Out (4/17), Newtonville Books (4/22. 7 PM), and Newburyport Literary Festival (4/27, 2 PM).

Charles Coe, Program Officer for MCC’s Cultural Investment Portfolio, is the author of the poetry collection Picnic on the Moon. His poetry and prose have appeared in numerous newspapers and literary reviews and magazines, and his poems have been set to music by composers Julia Carey, Beth Denisch and Robert Moran. Charles also writes feature articles, book reviews and interviews for publications such as Harvard Magazine, Northeastern University Law Review and the Boston Phoenix. In addition to his work as a writer, Charles has an extensive background as a jazz vocalist and has performed and recorded with numerous musicians in the Boston area and throughout New England.

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.