Periodically, we pose questions about issues artists face in their work and lives. This month, we asked: What’s something people often misunderstand about your art?
Sonya Larson, writer
I find that white readers often experience my fiction differently than readers of color. “This is a story about addiction,” they say. Or about dating, heroics, or shame.
But readers of color say, “No, no. This is a story about race.”
When this happens, I know that something is working. My fiction explores how different racial experiences can blind us emotionally, and likewise give us sight. I want readers to perceive different dramas in a single story, informed by the racial experiences they uniquely bring to the table.
I do this because it feels true to how these forces operate in the real world—especially on an emotional, visceral level. “Look at this giant elephant in the room!” people of color often say. “It’s so big that I can hardly see anything else.” While white people often say, “What elephant? All I see is a clean, clear room.”
Privilege blinds us. I’d even argue for that as a definition of privilege – the ability to operate blindly and not encounter harm.
When these readers get in the same room, discussing the story together, they can quickly start talking past one another, unearthing the same seen-and-unseen elephant. That’s when things really get cooking. The real drama is off the page.
Dave Ortega, visual artist and cartoonist
With making comics, the end product has to be straightforward (words + image = narrative) so my work is not often misunderstood in the technical sense. Of course, a cartoonist can choose to be ambiguous or abstract but that is not the case with my comics which tell the story of my 102-year old abuela and her early childhood during the Mexican Revolution. When I travel to comics fairs and talk about my work, some people immediately light up with recognition and a few relate to me stories of their own abuelas, nanas and bubbies. If it’s in our DNA to tell stories with words and images (and I believe that it is) then weaved into that is the desire to tell those stories about our personal histories and the lives of loved ones. On a national level, we’ve seen a resurgence of the destructive and deadly consequences of ignorant people who act with complete disregard to these histories or with warped interpretations of them. We stop the telling of and listening to of these stories at our peril.
Ken Field, composer/musician
My main performing group, Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, has a habit of performing in Mardi Gras style costumes – sequins, feathers, colors, and beads. I’ve always felt that a live performance can be a multi-media experience for the audience, and the way a musician looks and interacts with the audience can have a significant impact on how the musical performance is perceived. Our costuming was the result of many years of visits with my late wife, animator Karen Aqua, to New Orleans for Mardi Gras prior to the formation of the Snake Ensemble. We were taken by the celebratory mood, the joyful humanity, and the culture of embracing all of the senses equally. When the band formed, we brought that visual component to our shows, and it had the very positive effect of turning heads and directing people’s attention our way. But it was, and is, a two-edged sword. Some people had the impression that the costuming implied that we were not serious about our music. We actually take our music very seriously, and have been gratified by numerous positive reactions from the press and public that have confirmed that “the music is what counts” (JazzTimes), but it remains an area of confusion.
Tracie Pouliot, community artist
In some ways, misunderstanding was what inspired my current project. I come from a city where, for over 200 years, the majority of people in our community made aesthetically beautiful and finely crafted mass-produced furniture. We were proud to make some of the best chairs in the world, using both handmade and industrial processes
Often people who have not worked in factories mistake factory work for drudgery and assume the product is meaningless to the people who make it. Similarly, people have also mistaken the process of making art with community as pure documentation, unskilled arts and crafts time, or charity work. But the creative spirit is at the core of both. One of the biggest losses that occurs when an industry like furniture leaves a community is that we lose both a place and a means to express ourselves as a community. These days we need to find more ways to create things with each other so that in the process we can discover, build, and express our commonality.
I am a community artist working alongside people who do not identify as artists. Together we make the Chair City Oral History Book Series – a series of letterpress-printed, hand-bound books using first-hand accounts from people who made furniture in Gardner. We try to honor and recreate the artistry, craftsmanship, conceptual nature, connection to tools and machinery, and creative ability that has historically been a part of my community.
Richard Michelson, poet/author
What’s something people often misunderstand? That it is art, not autobiography. My first and only responsibility is to my craft. At my desk, I am a carpenter, insuring each word lines up perfectly with its neighbors.
And yet… rather than complain about this misconception (although I often do), I admit that the confusion is something I strive to create in my work.
As a poet, I have sent myself to places I’ve never been, and explored parts of myself I would not recognize. I want you to believe every word.
As a children’s book author, I have written about the world of dance, farming and baseball (though I am an inner-city kid with little rhythm and no patience for watching sports). I’ve presented “myself” as fluent in both Hebrew and Yiddish, and although I speak neither, readers are always conversing with me in those languages. “Sorry to disappoint you,” I say, “but it is a story.” Yet I say it with pride. I’ve fooled the very people who know best.
Of course, I do bring all of myself, and all my emotions to every project. So maybe others are correct, and I am the one who misunderstands my art. I am creating my autobiography after all.
Ken Field is a composer, musician, and leader of The Revolutionary Snake Ensemble. In January, he will conduct workshops and lead performances at two music festivals outside of Sydney, Australia. In February (Feb 13), The Revolutionary Snake Ensemble (along with very special guests) will return to Regattabar in the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square for an annual (and regularly sold-out) Mardi Gras party.
Sonya Larson is a writer whose stories have been recently published in The Best American Short Stories 2017 (“Gabe Dove”), American Short Fiction (“The Kindest”), and Memorious (“Q County Colored Penitentiary”). She is the Director of the Muse and Advocacy at GrubStreet, directing the writing organization’s race and advocacy work as well as overseeing its annual conference, The Muse and the Marketplace.
Richard Michelson‘s latest poetry collection is More Money than God. His current project, Dear Edvard, a music/theater/opera piece about the life of the artist Edvard Munch, will be performed at National Sawdust in NYC (Dec 10) and Arena Stage in DC (Dec 12).
Dave Ortega is a visual artist and cartoonist. Issue 4 of his ongoing series Dias de Consuelo was recently released (read a review in Comics Beat and an excerpt on the PEN American Illustrated PEN blog).
Tracie Pouliot is a community artist and creator of the Chair City Oral History Project. She welcomes all to attend a Chair City Community workshop for a tour or to help make the books in the series.
Images: Detail image from Issue 4 of DIAS DE CONSUELO by Dave Ortega; The Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, photo by Jean Hangarter.