Periodically, we pose questions about issues artists face in their work and lives. This month, we asked: Why is it important to you to incorporate real stories or real people into your art?
Margo Guernsey, filmmaker
Storytelling is as old as human beings. For me, telling real stories about real people is a way to ground us in a deeper understanding of who we are in this world. We all tell ourselves stories about who we are as individuals, about our families, and about our people. What are the narratives that define who we are as Americans? What are the narratives that you lean on to understand your place in this world? A lot of those narratives are told by a dominant segment of society at the expense of others. My films tell the stories of liberation fighters who have gone under the radar, but who I believe are on the forefront of creating a society where all human beings can fulfill our vocations and live full lives. Storytelling is delicate, because we are all grounded in time and space, and bring that perspective. Part of my practice is to work in collaboration with voices that reflect the protagonists, or are as close to the protagonists as is possible (the biggest challenge is often the distance of history). What stories do you tell yourself, about your own life, that keep you going each day? What are the narratives you want to shift?
David Valdes, playwright and novelist
Because I tend to write plays on topics I am passionate about, I find myself drawn to real people, real words, and real experiences. Specificity helps elevate something from true-ish and well- intended to truthful and more authentically human. For my plays with heavy nonfiction components (Downtown Crossing and Bully Dance), direct quotes, found text, new stories, and first-person accounts provide ways of seeing an experience that are more concrete than what I would have imagined whole cloth. Even when a play is completely fictional, I find myself listening to interviews and watching video recordings of people who have walked the walk of my characters.
For my recent play Up the Ladder, Down the Slide (which deals with elder parents in decline), I drew on my own lived experiences (including a near-verbatim hospital scene) and stories told by friends, supplemented with YouTube videos made of or by people with dementia. The more deeply steeped in the material, the more likely I can render the texture of the experience authentically, which provides a solid terra firm from which I can then take flights of fancy and engage in narrative invention.
Kristen Emack, photographer
Many years ago I was awarded a grant to spend a week studying at Maine Media Workshops. I took a class with the highly regarded photographer, Andrea Modica, called Intuitive Portraits. She asked the class to spend the week photographing one person. Modica documented the same family over a 15 year span which became a book called Treadwell.
When my daughter was young, I was somewhat isolated. I had entered middle age while all her peers’ parents were a decade younger than me. I am also a single parent which means the purse strings were consistently tight. Not being able to afford to go out, we spent a lot of time at home, finding creative and free ways to spend time together, and I started photographing her. I thought of what I learned in Modica’s class about the challenges and merits of photographing the same person over time. I began to understand that I had a growing body of work underway, which is now named after her and called Appaloosa.
Photographing my daughter over time provides a natural narrative arc. She is growing and changing physically, emotionally and, as she becomes a teen, socially. Capturing her moments of joy and boredom, and watching her feminine identity unfold is part of what makes the work compelling. There is no need for construct because the drama and tension of growing up is right there in front of me. It’s advantageous to work with my daughter, both because photographing what you love, or what you are trying to understand typically strengthens the work, but also useful, because I have daily access to her. Challenges arise when there may be mother/daughter tensions between us, or she reaches a stage where she doesn’t want to be exposed in a particular way.
Recently the images are starting to change. She is becoming a teenager and is more aware of my lens, more interested in how she appears and is viewed. Friends are becoming deeply important. All of the images in the Appaloosa series are of her alone, but now I’m flirting with the idea of incorporating her relationships with her friends into the work. I’m teasing out the next steps with this series as she starts to change.
Photographer Kristen Emack (Photography Fellow ’19) recently won 2nd Place in the Cambridge Art Association National Prize Show for an image from her Cousins series. Other photographs have been recently accepted into The Griffin Museum of Photography, The PRC Exposure 2019 show, The Fence 2019, the CAA Emerging Artist Show and are on display at Blue Sky Gallery and Pro Photo Supply in Portland, OR.
David Valdes (Dramatic Writing Finalist ’19, ’03), formerly David Valdes Greenwood, is a playwright and author. In 2019/2020, his play Last Catastrophist will be produced in the Fresh Ink (with a staged reading at Boston Playwrights Theatre June 25), Wandaleria will be produced by Rochester Repertory Theatre, and Downtown Crossing will be developed by Company One. Also, his play Up the Ladder, Down the Slide is a 2019 Eugene O’Neill Finalist.
Margo Guernsey (Film & Video Fellow ’19) is a filmmaker and director of the documentary Councilwoman, which will screen at Millersville University (Pennsylvania) in October. Her next project, The Philadelphia Eleven (working title), about the women who defied Episcopal leadership to become the first women priests, is now crowdfunding on Kickstarter.
Images: still image from COUNCILWOMAN, a film by Margo Guernsey (Film & Video Fellow ’19); Kristin Emack (Photography Fellow ’19), BRANCHES (2017), 18×12 in.