Recap - WTQL January Massachusetts Tour
Here’s my poetic challenge right now…
In the month of January, I was on the road for about two weeks touring around Massachusetts, doing Earth Meditations with teenagers, making art and playfully researching with elementary students and recovery programs, having conversation with a wide range of folk, from 4th graders to seniors, and went camping on an island in a blizzard by myself. I had so many POWERFUL experiences with people, places, and more-than-human entities. The feelings that we encountered so tangible and bodily, that it feels like I’m literally swimming in a river of everything coalescing from that time. I’m left wondering, how can I best recap them in a way that offers you a vision or taste of those feelings and experiences. There are many stories to tell, and details to share, but to tell everything in its entirety would be too word-flooded and weighty.
So I’m curious… From this river of experiences, which cups of water should I offer from the larger body to steep for you a cup of tea? I’d like to offer you a flight of 5 different teas from that clean and wide flowing river, imbued with the experiences of specific moments, to slowly sip on and savor, hoping that they offer insight and meaning, as they are deeply meaningful to me.
Tea Number 1
Collaborator ::: Rivers & Revolution (A inter-disciplinary program within Concord Carlisle Public High School)
Rivers & Revolutions is a lot like a semester abroad program without the abroad part. It’s like a school within a school. It’s a program that is mind-expanding while staying local. It introduces you to new people and invites you to see familiar people in new ways, challenges you to consider innovative ideas and explore long-held beliefs, takes you to uncommon locations and deepens your connection to local places. It asks you to be a part of a learning community while reflecting on past educational experiences. Now in its 14th cohort, this seasoned program of 50ish students per cohort builds a culture of trust, collaboration and support between its members (students and teachers alike), allowing growth. Making mistakes, making messes, taking intellectual and creative risks, offering positive and constructive feedback, and asking for help are the marks of this learning community.
I’m in a classroom with 52 teenagers and 6 teachers... We’re in a circle together doing an Earth Mediation, which is an impromptu group action that’s part empathetic contemplation of the natural world, part performance art, part embodied poem, part summer camp game. For this specific Earth Meditation we’re using our bodies to poetically act out the water cycle.
We start by looking at the lines and finger prints on our hands, like water currents, like tree rings, like topographic maps, like wind, like layers in stone. We rub them together to hear the subtle sounds they make when activated with motion. In that moment we are a light drizzle of rain. We were waves, pounding rhythms on our chests. We were thunderstorms by walking tightly together and clapping our hands loudly above our heads. We were snow, by quieting ourselves and spreading our fingers like intricate flakes, silently letting them fall to the floor. We were mist and fog and the open ocean. We were a flash flood in the parched desert, drinking it in like a human spirit taking in a poem. We closed our eyes then walked concentric circles around the room and soaked in a poem by Rilke spoken out loud… “I live my life in widening circles, that reach our across the world…” We held the last drop of water in our hands, fingers cupping it carefully, then each of us vulnerably and courageously looked another person in the eye, walked up to them and said, “I saved this for you. I want you to have it.”
We finished by evaporating into clouds. We formed a circle once again and took four deep breathes together. The first we inhaled and exhaled that last drop precious of water we gave each other. The next breath we breathed in all the water in Concord. The next all of Massachusetts. And the final breath, was all the water in the world.
Later that afternoon we took what we experienced and applied it to making art by painting on gathered sticks from the woods along the river behind the farmhouse where I stayed with friends. It was a session of close observation, collaboration, and great energy. I loved the chemistry of this fun and lively room mixing with the morning’s Earth Meditation.
Tea Number 2
Collaborator ::: Express Yourself
Exyo is a thriving organization in Beverly that immerses young people in the arts, where they find powerful tools for self-expression, uncover inner strength, and deepen connections. They primarily serve young people with mental health challenges, those in recovery programs, or who need extra support. They are a source of home and are amazing. Seriously. The staff and students really love each other well. Michelle Obama has even visited them y’all.
We’re in a small circle, maybe 12 of us, mostly teenagers. There’s a weight to the room. This group of young people has chosen to bravely face the world and come make art together on the day of the funeral for one of their classmates. The starting tone for the group was far different compared to the 6 other classes we had during the day, which bookended this session with different energies. With this group of young people, we talked about their art belonging to them, giving them space to grieve and process everything they’re feeling in that moment. We talked about dark spaces, and geodes growing crystals slowly underground. I’m amazed and impressed with their openness, and directness with me. Their realness, and willingness to make art in that moment. Maybe making art was a relief and release for them. They jumped right into the project when invited, because Exyo is such a safe and established place for them. We had conversation about how art has power in a moment like that. Over the course of our time together, they told me about what they were making and also took time to process internally, letting the paint do the thinking and talking. I saw a range of emotions as I observed the room smiles and sadness simultaneously, their artwork using the metaphors of seasons, rhythms, mountains, moons, geodes and plants. Each student was given space to feel what they needed to feel, and freedom to paint. They offered open-hearted eye contact and although I loved all the groups this day, this one really sticks out, because as an educator and collaborator this was my first time leading a group in such a moment. It was a gift, for me personally to be with them. These sessions are primarily for the students, but they’re also formatted as research for me to see how art forms and fits to hold different emotions, experiences and metaphors. The artwork we made that day is set design for a large scale production Exyo is putting on at the Wang Theater in Boston on the 23rd of May. We’d love to have you there :)
Tea Number 3
Collaborator ::: ICA Teen Art Council
ICA T.A.C. is an intensive leadership development program at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, that utilizes arts engagement, creative action, and positive youth development practices to build real-world skills. In TAC, they hone their abilities to collaborate, innovate, take positive risks, and manage projects from inception to completion. They use the arts as a means to connect with and impact teens’ broader communities.
Here’s the scene… We’re in a long rectangular room on a Thursday evening at the ICA with the tables and chairs pushed against the wall to make way for bean bags and pillows on the floor along with bags of chips and popcorn. Everyone in the room has a 2’ wooden circle and there are art supplies strewn across the floor and table tops. Paint, cardboard, glue, brushes, snacks, pens, and fabric in their hands. The room exists in various states of order and chaos and I freaking love it. This collaboration with TAC is a project that explores self identity in connection to the natural world and the world within each of them individually. Leading up to this moment, each of them filled out a ‘zine (a small homemade book) that asked them to share who they are, what they love, and a significant experience the'y’ve had outside. They generously and authentically demonstrated who they are so we could get to know each other, and dig into this honest work.
There’s music going, good conversation, snacks, and a spaciousness to the room where we can all make art together without feeling rushed by the next thing. One of them said during our closing conversation that she liked having so much time to just paint with out having to be anywhere else. I look around the room and was grateful for the calm and present energy they created, as their intelligence and creativity patiently and steadily took form on their circle canvases. I was reminded that I love art-making like this; when the instructions are minimal and the ownership of “what to make and how to make it” belongs to the artists. In this moment I’m deeply content and inspired by their freedom, skill, and hunger to make things.
Tea Number 4
Collaborator ::: Art & Nature Center Advisory Meeting
The Art & Nature Center showcases original exhibitions that investigate our interconnections with nature through contemporary art, memorable objects and interactive experiences. Designed for visitors of all ages, the family-friendly center features changing exhibitions, hands-on displays and art-making spaces. This is gallery space where the culminating exhibition will be held at PEM for Where the Questions Live in September. The Advisory Meeting is a full board room of professionals, experts, and thinkers that help guide, shape and advise the life of the Art & Nature Center.
Our meeting this afternoon is in a pretty standard board room, stock chairs, whiteboard, long table etc etc. Rooms like this can be a challenge to conjure up true feelings and artistic insight, and I’m here to get good advice on how to best create a powerful exhibition experience that visitors will feel with their whole bodies. So, to switch things up a bit and get some blood moving, and colorful stories and wisdom flowing, we have a moment where everyone in the room is given a prompt, a 6” circle of paper and some colored pencils.
“Draw or write about a meaningful experience in nature from your childhood.”
Oh my gosh! Stories on stories on stories. This was so fun. Most of the folks in the room were well-seasoned adults, so it was really exciting to hear them describe their rarely-told childhood adventures building tree forts, being knocked to the ground by an owl, seeing geese fly in front of the moon, contemplating flight or the colors or bird eggs, or catching crabs. Their energy was contagious and honest. Everyone shared their animated stories and people really listened to each other. The feeling of togetherness in the room at that moment is one I’m deeply interested in learning more about and replicating in the exhibition and future programs. I got this idea from a another friend and collaborator Megan Dickerson, and it was a fun DIY way of opening up a room, and the conversation and advice after that warm up was lively, dynamic and generous.
Tea Number 5
Collaborator ::: An island roughly the size of a school gym I met by accident
(I’m keeping its location a secret for the time being / maybe forever)
I walked over ice the color of the January night sky and was met by a cast of characters, none of them human. White pines, birch, beech, the bones of Great Blue Herons, moss covered stones, a possible grave stone, a tempestuous white oak, the foot prints of mice in snow, two sparrows, an owl two crows and a stick hut. I brought only the clothes I was wearing (which was nearly all the warm clothes I own, wrapping by body nine layers deep in wool goodness), a tote bag with two thermos of soup from the grocery store, my journal, car keys, phone and a pocket knife. I spent a very strange day and night there that started with bright sunlight, then quickly transformed into a full winter night of storms. I was intentionally there without a sleeping bag or tent to viscerally spend the night and experience this blizzard, the windchill dipping down to -20 ish. I build a great shelter in a fallen tree and sealed in with sticks, dirt and crafted a splendid nest made of leaves and pine needles on the inside, but all in all I only spent a grand total of maybe an hour resting in the shelter, truth be told. Instead of sleeping, I chose (or maybe the cold chose for me) to walk around the island, saying prayers and poem out loud, talking to trees, climbing them, just looking at things, and carrying around / caring for the egg of Great Blue Heron I found (the egg was/is an unhatched leftover from the spring, abandoned to time and creatures. I asked permission from the island to borrow it). The wind howled and the snow completely blocked my vision in the most intense moments. I got lost out on the ice both literally and figuratively and genuinely felt like I met a convivial presence equally alive, if not more alive, than my own. I climbed to the top of a 50ish foot tall pine tree in my thick layers and felt it sway in the storm and watched the lights on the far shore. I felt my imagination drift outwardly into the lives of other creatures out there. Without no other people watching, I crawled, climbed, sung, spoke, walked, and opened up all my senses are wide as I could to drink in this tiny universe unto itself. Isolated yet connected to everything else. I was all at once in love with this place, yet mystified by it. Mystery being the root of everything I felt there. Mystery Mystery Mystery. It was shocking a electric to be alive in such a dramatic storm, wide awake in middle of the night getting blasted with snow by myself in this strange and animated place. The deep, fracturous and earthy groans of winter echoing through the ice around me in stereo, were like untranslatable voices speaking from the interior of the island, asking me questions and telling me stories in a language I could not quite understand. I have never had a night quite like it. I was offered many lessons from this place and I’ll be applying them in the final installation of WTQL.
Thanks for reading. This is my offering to you. These 5 teas, imbued with the feelings of these different experiences. To think out loud with you for a second, these moments have very specific sensations for me and it makes me nervous to share them because they’re so personal. But good art is deeply personal and this project is teaching me the extensive value of baring and offering more of myself, as it has offered to by so many of you.
When Janey Wichell, the Director and Curator of the Art & Nature Center at Peabody Essex Museum, asked me early on what I wanted people to walk away with from the exhibition, I had a variety of answers, of varying weights, but after this formative January trip, my answer has significantly crystalized. My imagination is making shapes and connections.
In the exhibition, I hope to offer people the translated feelings of deep mystery from the natural world in a blizzard at night, the wovenness of our inner lives to each other, the meditative and embodied Earth empathy, the wonder and attention of childhood, the spirit of togetherness and collaboration, and the space for self discovery, ownership and freedom. That’s what I want them to walk away with. There own direct experience with these wonderful sensations is what I want to make art about. These feelings were experienced in that circle as we embodied water, feeling what we needed to feel as the class grieved the loss of their friend, sharing and remembering our adventures in nature as kids, on the island by myself, and making art with presence and purpose as a way to know ourselves and each other better through natural metaphors.
One of my favorite definitions of creativity is, the ability to connect things that don’t have an apparent connection. These different programs during research phase are helping me to find these often unseen hidden connections. Sending out threads to weave together different experiences: Meditations, Grieving, Safe Spaces, Islands, the Egg of Great Blue Heron, Blizzards, Childhood, Explorations of Identity…
Where the Questions Live is a curiosity-infused, format-bending project that investigates the literal and metaphorical threads of humans as a part of the natural world. And as the project continues to bloom and unfold over the coming months on it’s climb towards the opening of our culminating exhibition in September, these experiences and feelings are intended to act as playful research. We hope to learn from what we find and what’s given, letting it shape the installation and project, the way the river shapes and is shaped by the contours of the land.
In my opinion we’re all artists because we all help co-create the world we live in, and our own individual lives. May your life be a creative web, weaving and connecting disparate experiences into an imaginative and artful life. May it be a river, shaping and being shaped. May it be a cup of tea, steeped by your experiences and sipped slowly. Thank you to everyone who has contributed thus far, in large ways and small, to our unique project. I’m deeply grateful. See you in the coming months, friends.