Periodically, we pose questions about issues artists face in their work and lives.
The concept of “meaning” can be fraught when it comes to creating and engaging with works of art. How does a work’s meaning interact with an artist’s intention, or with its audience’s perceptions? Does the meaning of the work change as its creation progresses?
This month, we asked, Do you consider what a work means as you make it?
Wendy Jehlen, choreographer
In a word, yes.
I grew up in Bharata Natyam, a dance form in which meaning is paramount, and the ways in which a dancer evokes emotion in their audience are an essential part of one’s training. Even when movement is abstract, in that it is not narrative, the emotional impact of that movement is specific and intentional. As I have grown and traveled and studied and collaborated, I have layered other movement forms and philosophies, but this remains my foundation. I believe that it is my responsibility to take my audience on a specific journey with me, and to guide them on that journey.
Sarah Sousa, poet
I don’t set out trying to write a specific kind of poem, but different poems require different sorts of “writing consciousness.” I may begin with an image or scene, something that struck me in the course of my day. I know that there’s a seed of a poem there and I have to write my way into it. When I’m working on a series of poems or a book-length project that has an underlying theme which I’m aware of from the outset, the process is a little different. I know some motifs, images, sub-themes I want in the poems and the process is one of tricking my subconscious into working with these things in a genuine way. To that end, I read widely. Poetry research is a lot like poetry: non-linear, associative and surprising. I’m working on a series of poems now about a dystopian society which practices a matriarchal cosmology because ‘Mother’ is set on destroying her creation. I’m reading about environmental collapse, goddesses of every culture, charms of the dark ages, witchcraft, even various nature/field guides. When something in the reading jumps out at me, I take note and use it to begin writing the next day. As a younger poet, I was more likely to take the former approach and sit down to write with an experience from life, something I had witnessed or overheard, an “idea” I wanted to flesh out. Now I find it more productive and fun to tease out a poem through wordplay, erasure, bricolage and self-crafted prompts. It’s play with potential and, these days, I find it more generative. I’ve learned that if the poem doesn’t change in the course of writing, if it doesn’t offer up some contradiction, if I’m too in control and not surprised by what I’ve written in the end, the poem isn’t any good.
Michael Zachary, visual artist
Andy Warhol thought that if you looked at a thing long enough it lost all of its meaning, but I have never found that to be true. Whatever meaning close looking strips from us is replaced by other things that are truer and stranger than the meaning we so blithely assign to things. Things that fall apart quickly when you pay close attention to them generally have very little to do with what is really going on in the world.
Meaning is an emergent property of my practice. I don’t think about it as much as I look for it, and I look for it the way I look for the patterns in rustling leaves and the ripples on the surface of water that hint at what direction the wind is shifting to next. The work itself is really just a tool, a process for cultivating the discipline and focus to really pay attention to small signs and details. Sitting still and breathing would probably work just as well.
It is hard to say what I am looking for, but I generally know it when I see it. Like a surprising conversation with a stranger at a bar or the memories triggered by the patterns light makes when it shines through trees.
Ben Pender-Cudlip, filmmaker
As a nonfiction filmmaker my work balances aesthetic concerns with more practical ones, and I’m always thinking about what it will mean. I’ve just finished a social issue documentary about how child welfare workers tried to “save” Native American children from their culture by forcibly transferring them to white families. It follows the first official “truth and reconciliation commission” in the United States as it investigates this practice and works toward healing.
This film will mean different things to different people. I hope that Native people will see it and feel represented, heard, and honored – especially because there are few mainstream works about Wabanaki people in Maine. I hope that non-Native people will understand that this film captures an ongoing crisis, one that we can work to end.
But to quote an interview with Esther Anne in the film, “it’s not about you.” In those words, I hear that it’s not about you, white allies, and the cathartic reconciliation you seek. It’s not about you, white filmmakers, and the art you think you’re making. This is real life and real pain, and if the film is to have any meaningful impact it must serve Wabanaki people.
Wendy Jehlen is an internationally renowned choreographer and founder of ANIKAYA Dance Theater. She has recently received grants from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art Building Bridges and The Boston Foundation Live Arts Boston Program. In April , she premiered the new work Conference of the Birds and will present her work Delicateness in the Time of Brutality at Studio@550 in Cambridge (4/21, 8 PM).
Ben Pender-Cudlip is the director of numerous short films and, most recently, co-director (with Adam Mazo) and cinematographer of Dawnland, which has numerous upcoming screenings including its world premiere at the Cleveland Film Festival and East Coast premiere at Independent Film Festival Boston (4/28, 7:30 PM, Somerville Theater). He works as a freelance cinematographer for documentary films and television programs. His work has appeared in film festivals internationally, and his clients include the New York Times and FRONTLINE.
Sarah Sousa is the author of the poetry collections Church of Needles, Split the Crow, and most recently, See the Wolf. She has upcoming readings at the Easthampton Book Festival (4/14) and the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (5/5).
Michael Zachary‘s drawings are currently on view in a three person show, Juxtapose, at RSM Gallery in Boston along with Kim Carlino and Damion Silver, two other artists whose dynamic, approach to their craft stretches the limits of their chosen medium. The show will be open into May. Follow the artist on social media: @drawsoftly
Images: still image from CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS by ANIKAYA Dance/Wendy Jehlen; Michael Zachary, 19TDG (WAVES) (2017), CMYK ink markers, conte crayons, graphite on paper, 13.5×19 in; Cover art for SEE THE WOLF (2018) by Sarah Sousa; Still image from DAWNLAND (2018), a film by Adam Mazo and Ben Pender-Cudlip.