Periodically, we pose questions to artists about issues they face in their work and lives. This month, we asked practitioners in a variety of disciplines, Have you had any important mentors? Who have they been, and how did they affect you?
Brynmore Williams, filmmaker
When I think about my important mentors, the deeper question beyond “who they were” would be “why they were?” As artists we can be plagued with a healthy degree of self-doubt. The process through which we find our voice and grapple with our medium is typically a long and protracted one. So finding a mentor who sees through our haze and recognizes a talent still unseen by us can be an important step toward self-actualization. That was indeed the case for me. Having been primarily self-taught and a generalist, my mentors who presented themselves to me were instrumental in steadying my hand and bringing more honesty into my work. I had some mentors who were not so much guides for my work but rather for the things that enabled me to do the work. Things that artist stereotypically shun like accounting and marketing and tax prep. Mastering these mundane tasks actually enabled the mental space and clarity to focus on making work and it kept much of the stress of regular living at bay.
John Minigan, playwright
Although part of the focus of my grad program had been writing for the stage, it was not until I took a three-day workshop with playwright Alan Brody in 2000 or 2001 that I started to understand what I was trying to do in making the transition from writing poetry to writing drama. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to get great mentoring mostly from directors and dramaturgs I’ve worked with at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, the New American Playwrights Project in Utah, Actor’s Rep of Vermont, and New Repertory Theatre. Directors and dramaturgs including Aaron Galligan-Stierle, Bridget O’Leary, Eric Hissom, Patrick Flick, Shana Gozansky, Chuck Metten, Kristin Clippard, and Steve Stettler have pushed me to challenge and surprise myself.
And my “magic charm” is a bracelet that the great playwright Tina Howe made and gave me. It may not be mentoring per se, but wearing it never fails to get me inspired, focused, and productive.
Gabriel Polonsky, illustrator, animator, and filmmaker
Many artists have inspired me such as caricaturist David Levine, cartoonist Robert Crumb, and Leonardo da Vinci, and I have learned by collaborating with some amazing artists and filmmakers. Both of my parents are well-known painters and teachers – our house was non-stop creative chaos. I learned to be an artist and filmmaker at home, and went to school to have fun and cause trouble.
Penelope Smith, my third grade teacher at Cabot Elementary School, was a true mentor. She was unlike other teachers. She empowered students to develop their creativity and use art projects, creative writing, and role-playing as education tools. She was one of 35 out of 110,000 teachers to win the prestigious Walt Disney American Teachers Award.
She took me under her wing and had me come in before school opened to illustrate storybooks written by the other students. When I was 8, she invited me and my brother to her house to make animated films – this was completely outside of school. One of our animations won first place in the New York N.E.T. Film Festival. It was her recognition of my talent that made me realize that one day I would become a professional illustrator, animator, and filmmaker.
Four decades later she did an interview for a documentary film I’m making called Release from Reason about the life and work my father, the renowned Boston Expressionist Painter Arthur Polonsky. She admitted that she asked us to make the animated films at her house when we were kids in order to teach her how to do animation, so that she could then teach it to her students!
Laura Siersema, composer
One day after a session with Maggie, walking down Trowbridge Street in Cambridge, I felt something I had never experienced before in my life. As if slightly elevated above the sidewalk, I was enveloped, cushioned in timelessness. I believed it was the Feminine. Maggie was a Jungian psychoanalyst and we had just begun our long journey together, which would last over years, until her death. Guide through the chronicle and cipher of my dreams; attentive to events whose plumb lines captured our attention in the daylight, Maggie traveled with me on an inner way towards my own creative center: where physical, psychological and musical sensations are one. Where, in fact, I co-create with God. To passage between waking and sleep, courier of images and sounds occasionally glimpsed or heard – where beauty is both dark and light, and the evidence of trauma transformed. What access to rage and powerlessness, survival and hope, became the necessity of excavating and composing Aberfan, my work about the 1966 coal mining disaster in Wales – the crushing, dismembering experience of a man-made landslide upon a schoolhouse. I can only assume a sympathetic situation had existed within myself from the very beginning: a spontaneous child disavowed.
Playwright John Minigan was recently a New Voices Fellow at New Rep Theatre. His short play “It’s the Jews” ran at Actors Theater Playhouse in New Hampshire in June and will run at the “Dealing with Diversity” Festival in Vermont in July. His play “A Monogamy of Swans” will be staged in Seoul, South Korea in the fall.
Gabriel Polonsky is an Emmy nominated director, award-winning illustrator, artist, and animator. The founder of GP Studio, he is currently at work on Release from Reason, a documentary film about his father, painter Arthur Polonsky.
Laura Siersema is a composer, pianist, vocalist, and poet. Learn more about her ambitious Aberfan, which is a sponsored project of New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt organization.
Brynmore Williams is a filmmaker and cinematographer. An installation version of his film Unchastened is currently exhibiting in Peace: Cutting Through Turmoil at the Brickbottom Artists Association Gallery (thru 7/1).
Images: still image from Brynmore Williams’ film HERE’S THAT SECOND CHANCE YOU HOPED FOR ROBERT H. GOSS; Timothy Weinert and Miranda Jont from the New York Fringe production of BREAKING THE SHAKESPEARE CODE by John Minigan, directed by Stephen Brotebeck, photo by Ben Asen; illustration of Barack Obama by Gabriel Polonsky; photo from the process of creating the “Altered Interlude” in Laura Siersema’s ABERFAN.