I'm a non-binary portrait photographer from Portland, Oregon. I'm 32 years old. My pronouns are they/them. I am a White person. I grew up poor, and now I'm in the artist/working class. I experience chronic pain and chronic depression. I have panic and anxiety. I am a recovering addict with four years of sobriety. If I were to call a religion mine, I would say I'm more Buddhist-leaning, but I believe in the power of mindfulness, meditation and prayer to a universal power of my understanding. Those are a few of my identities that shape my perspective. I'm charged by solitude, good music, doodling with my left hand, creative cooking conversations with other creative queers, walking my pup. I'm a Taurus. I'm grounded, mindful, playful, and I love color.
In my line of work, my messages are generally falling on the spectrum of self-love, acceptance, and mindfulness. I try to create and spread positive, honest, uplifting messages to anyone who finds my work. I’m inspired to create photographs that capture emotion and depth paired with words that match the feeling tone of the image. I have an intention of not editing flaws and showcasing folks for who they are and celebrating their bodies as they are. When I take photographs of someone, my intention is to create a safe space to empower the person I'm working with. I feel a lot of folks are misrepresented or underrepresented. Being able to celebrate their bodies gives younger people of those types more agency in finding out who they are and celebrating themselves as they are and not trying to conform to this passing narrative or other traditional beauty standards. That is the future: showcasing beautiful trans and gender-non-conforming bodies, bodies of all shapes and sizes and skin tones, making sure to not edit flaws, pimples, or cellulite, capturing the beauty of bodies that have disabilities, recovering addicts, folks with mental health issues, not the well-off, slim, White cis bodies that Instagram started with.
In the future I want more lifting each other up, more lifting the voices of our Black, Indigenous, trans, and queer friends, more art, more connection to each other, more opportunities.
Before [the COVID-19] quarantine, I saw many people helping each other out. Even folks I know who don't have many resources were offering up the resources they do have to folks with less than them, offering that up freely, not expecting praise, doing it because it was the right thing. I saw a lot of that. I want more of that in the future.
I want to continue to learn and grow artistically as much as I can. My pleasure comes from creating, and being able to create the types of things that I want to create. I see a vision in my head. Sometimes I don't have the correct lens or the correct lighting or whatever to make that image come to life. By growing my skills as an artist to be able to match what's in my brain with gear, skill, and a growing community of creatives, I believe I can create the future I want to see.
My art process starts in usually meditation in the morning. I do a lot of meditation and grounding, lighting incense and candles. I create a space where I feel comfortable and filled with joy. Then play. I love doing some naked dancing in my kitchen while I make breakfast. I love being able to play. If I'm going to paint something, I draw with my left hand first to warm it up and loosen up. If I'm writing, I brain dump before I actually get into writing something. With photography, I arrive on location an hour or two early before the model gets there. I take a slow intentional walk around the area and feel what I want the images to hold. Also, I am looking for the best spots with lighting.
I recommend other creatives to read “The Artist’s Way”. That book has taught me that you know, no matter where you are on the artist spectrum, if you have never made art in your life and you want to start , no matter what, you are not a fraud, you deserve to create. You will make art that you don't like, and it will get better. Collaborate with other artists. Fill your life with art of all kinds and make it beautiful.
Photographs to me are much more than a picture of a person. I feel led by love, and I find it in each person I work with — more about the feeling of a photograph and the emotions that it brings up.
I'm a big optimist, and I see the good side of things. The photography industry as I know it is a beautiful, collaborative and uplifting community. The more the merrier. Anybody is invited to see this art. It's not , “Look at this art, you should pay attention to us.” It's more of, “look at how much fun we're having. You could do this too if you wanted. You can come to the party if you want."
Hi, my name is Sarah Turner. I currently live in Portland, Oregon. I am an artist, curator, community builder. I run a couple different things. I run Pink Noise Radio with my co-host, DJ Mac B, that's on Freeform Portland FM. We [feature] ambient noise by femme musicians in town all around healing. I run a project called Pink Noise Experiential Party that is similar in aesthetics, in that it is mostly noise and ambient-based music with experiential installations that are all pink. So it's a chaotic but peaceful setting for people to enter into. I also make a lot of TV art, I call it. I'm sure people also call it that, but lots of people installations with old CRT televisions, looking at electricity and glitch, and thinking of TV as a sculpture and an object, and building that into different formations and spaces.
I am also part of a collective called The Cult of Artists, and we make experiential lounge spaces for festivals and raves, and just show off things for people to have a good time when they're feeling good. So I grew up moving around a lot. We lived in Maryland when I was born, and then we lived in rural Illinois, and then we lived in Williamsburg, Virginia, and then Appalachia, Virginia. I moved across the country by myself, I think, four times, just back and forth from West Coast to East Coast. Finally, I landed in Portland about four years ago. But throughout that time, I did a lot of weird stuff, I think. Yeah, like I said, I always wanted to get into art, but I just was so discouraged from doing it. I think especially where I grew up, and my family background, it just was more proper for me to get a real job, and make money to save money for a house and get married and have a baby, and all that kind of stuff.that just never felt right for me.
I went to college, and I went to grad school to try to get a good job, a stable job. I did. I did. I had many opportunities that I'm thankful for to be able to learn and grow and. Then I got a job working in the arts and nonprofits. Then I realized that nonprofits ask a lot of you, and can be tiring because they like to pay you in passion, which is great when you're like, 22 and you've got a lot of passion, and a lot of drive. I did, and that was fun. But I think that now looking back on those experiences, things that I'm thinking about towards like creating a different economy around the arts is looking at a different model.
How can you keep your practice and your community and your project sustainable in this capitalist society that we live in? Because ultimately, we do live within this society, and it can be a temporary reprieve to kind of build your own world outside of that. Still, then it's not inclusive, and you spend more time building this infrastructure, rather than the thing that you're trying to do, which is trying to make art, and share that with people.
I'm in this new space where I'm kind of…Well, I'm not working at a nonprofit currently. I'm exploring what it means to piece things together and to do freelance and to do kind of odd jobs again, and thinking about different models of sustainability .it's been funny, I've had a lot of weird inspiration; should we go with the Burning Man rattle? Which is to not be dependent at all on some kind of benevolent grant type of thing, to just have a job, that you can make a lot of money, and then use that money to do things that you want to do. So no strings attached type of work, but the thing is that you need a collective to pool money together to do that, which is great. I love doing that, or is it to create some kind of other for-profit endeavor that can then subsidize the money that you want to use to do art programming. Because that is one thing I've learned, that art programming does not pay for itself, you always need subsidized funding.
Thinking about how to tap into different markets of money to be able to have a pool to take from to pay people what they're worth for their time and their efforts, and materials too. So yeah, it's interesting looking around the country and having that experience too, living in all these different places and seeing different models of how people are interacting with art and entertainment, and how they're spending their money and how much money they have. Portland's about to boom with millionaires. I mean, it already is but with all these other company is going public, there's going to a lot more money here, and so how do we connect those people with art in a way that's not the traditional like donor model, because that doesn't work anymore, at least for the things that I envision for the future of Portland.so that's fun. That's fun to think about. It's a whole new territory, understanding how to play the game, but just find more interesting loopholes, I think.
In my curatorial practice, I like to bring people together who are of varying backgrounds and skills to create this multitude of learning environments for people to come together and share skills and experiences. Because it's not just about displaying art but about building a community around that to create sustainable conversation and relationships in a particular space. How I like to think about that is from more of a holistic aspect of not just inviting someone because they're cool and they make cool art, but because they're genuinely a good person who is deeply invested in the same community that they are participating in.
I kind of look at it as like the social programming aspect. That's a gross word, but it's a way of like thinking about how you can provide this kind of container for people to grow in a particular way. What I like to do is come up with a theme and a topic and a space for people to congregate in to allow this growth for kind of a fourth space, which Ray Oldenburg wrote about the third space, which is this communal type space that people can come and go to. It's similar thinking of a bar or a park, or another kind of public space that there may be regulars who kind of regulate the codes in the space, but you can go in freely and talk with people and forming relationships .that's different from work, or from home, in that you do have flexibility of being comfortable. You're not regulated to particular rules, but you still are presenting your public self to people.
A fourth space, I like to determine as a little bit more pointed, in that, you're meeting in public with other people but for a particular reason. So it could be a church, for example, you're all meeting for a religion that you share. I sometimes think about art like that, as like a church that you go to, kind of feeds you and gives you faith and life. Art's fourth space is developing a particular community around a central issue. So the fourth space that I like to create is around new media art, providing tools and opportunities for people to present their work and learn and grow together.
People can come from all different backgrounds. That doesn't matter, because what they're coming to talk about, coming to learn about, and coming to share is art.so through that commonality, they can kind of shed their differences in order to kind of focus on this one thing together. Then through that, through their negotiations of both participating and presenting and learning, they're then also creating deeper relationships that can be sustainable friendships and potential new collaborations and partnerships.
In thinking towards the future, I just want to create more communities where people have that solid bond together and can then grow collectively and have a collective impact on their ideas and causes that they care about for the community. Because with more people and more resources, you can do bigger things, and that's important.
Thinking about the future, all of the installations and performances and videos are about setting intentions. A lot of times, I make them in accordance with like moon ritual cycles and particular times of the year.so setting an intention for creating a better world, I guess if you want to get that big, but definitely providing something better for personal manifestation. Usually, my own, and then sometimes I lend that out for other people to experience as well.
I've always kind of dabbled in art. I did a lot of dance, I did drawing, I did singing when I was younger. But I kind of came in through the backdoor as an artist, as like a big A artist, I think, because I did more like art administration and curatorial work where I was always in a supportive role of artists. I always wanted to be near art, but I never thought that I had like the chops to do it myself. While I was at Open Signal, I noticed that every single thing that I did with media there, which for those of you that don't know, Open Signal is a public access TV station, and a media center. Everything I did to prepare for anything, an exhibition, a class, a performance, an artist's talk, I had to build the infrastructure of electricity, which just basically means like running an extension cord from a wall to a computer, laptop, projector, what have you. I just started realizing how important that medium was. It's for that particular tool, I guess, but that it can be so fickle and so fleeting, too. I think that that metaphor is interesting.
There's a weird history of electricity and especially, electromagnetism, which is fun. I found this book during this residency I went to at Signal Culture in New York, that was called A Boy's First Book for Electricity, or something, and I read it. It was like, first letter book, or something like that .it's just interesting how we as humans have figured out how electricity works and not how to hone in, and we have advanced so far because of it. I primarily like working in new media, and you literally can't do anything in new media without electricity.
That's kind of how I started down the rabbit hole. Then I don't have great skills as like a filmmaker myself. I don't know how to use fancy cameras. I knew I immediately was drawn to experimental film, because I was like, "Oh, I can just [bleep] something up, and this is fun, and you can extrapolate different means things from that." the best way I found things up was with these video processors, which are all circuit bent, old video wares, so character generators, or video mixers, or VCRs even like, anything people used to use these tools for live editing on TV.now, we don't use those, we use things on our computer. But now people use those tools, and circuit bend them to just like...You can use BPMC, Fluxus, and totally just glitch the hell out of like some video, and it turns into this new, beautiful thing that looks like old tracking lines but beautiful patterns that you can control and manipulate yourself.
What's so interesting to me about that is that you were physically using your hands and hardware to manipulate this image that can seem...Video is weird. It's fleeting and temporary, but it seems so stable and real, because it's an image, right? It looks like our reality. But in fact, it's just all these dots and pixels that are put together to make us think a certain way. It's definitely an optical illusion.so with these different tools, you're able to take this electricity and move them and shape them in different ways that the tools did not originally allow you to do it. To me, that's super punk. So it'll take someone else's footage and [bleep] it up to how you want to do it and like remix it, but then also reshape these tools to do something that they weren't necessarily intended for, and to kind of reclaim that power as the toolmaker, too.
That's why I like kind of creating new works around electricity because it seems like such a dominated manufacturer, a medium that's like so hard to access unless you have this vast knowledge of physics and electricity too. A CRT is a Cathode Ray TV, which is the big boxy TVs. I'm sure a lot of us had them growing up as kids in the 90s. They don't make them anymore. Obviously, they're like all flat-screen TVs now, but what's unique about a CRT is that it has different physical and chemical properties than a flat-screen does now.so it works well to interact with older modes of media players. So VCR is you know, DVD players, anything that has an RCA hook up, those three prongs of red, white, and yellow.
With my practice, I prefer to use CRTs because they work well with capturing electricity and glitches in electricity so you can get that kind of funky, screwed up looking stuff that happens to digital media. I like using CRTs because they are like physically manipulating the electricity within the object, rather than just kind of like a filter, or an app that you can put on top of a video. For me, that's kind of interesting, in that it's this idea of looking at similarities and metaphysical properties in both our bodies and technology.a lot of the work that I do with the CRTs manipulating energy from our bodies to then display on the TVs themselves.
So, for example, like this one project, I just made, what's called an aura reader, or grounding aura reader, which I thought was pretty clever. I'm usually pretty bad at naming things, but grounding in the sense that like grounding your body energy to the earth, but also grounding electricity from the technological object as well, too. So with this one project, you stick your hands on a pyramid sensor, almost like your hands are in the formation of praying, and the sensor is hooked up to an oscillator that I built.then the oscillator translates the completed circuit of your energy touching the sensor to the televisions, and then displays back to your energetic properties. So it's kind of an aura photograph, but it's live with a moving glitchy image, and it's chaotic looking to represent the things that you need to heal inside of yourself.
The electricity goes through the oscillator through RCA cords, and then into the TV monitors, so into like, the video feed, and then it shows up in the black and white static, but it's always different patterns depending on the energy that you are putting out. So when it is working, it'll show you that sort of screen, or it'll be like squiggly lines, or it'll be horizontal lines, or vertical lines.
The participant is able to see their aura on the screen, and then I am there to assist them in reading it, and then have different devices for healing their aura after it, too. So I took that to Spaceness Festival up at Southwestern Washington, and I had Amber Case and Crystal Cortez do sound healing sessions for people, individual sound healing sessions. So they would see their aura, we decipher kind of what they needed to get more grounded. Then they would have an individual healing session where the sound would help to mitigate the chaos inside of them. Then I also made additional healing cards that people could take away with them for prolonged healing afterwards, which a lot of them were pretty funny.
For squiggly lines, people were pretty neurotic and had a lot of energy that had loose ties just kind of evaporating into space. A way to ground them was to get deep moon energy. So I told them to take a walk to the beach by themselves—It's always good to be by yourself when you're trying to get grounded—Take off your shoes, stand in the sand, and then pop open a beer and stare at the moon, and with each sip, as you stare at the moon, kind of internalize this moonshine into yourself. That's a kind of funny and ritual to have this experience with this liquid and the moon and yourself to kind of just get back into your body. So a lot of the work that I do is semi-ritual practice, but also just kind of tongue in cheek and kind of silly too.
Some of the other glitch or archetypes were vertical columns. For that, I kind of interpreted it as saying your energy is strong and powerful and precise, which the vertical columns do represent that fairly intense kind of collected white energy on the screen with little movement. Then I said, as a solid, no rising above the melody. However, it's possible, but their energy could be stagnant, unchangeable, and immutable. So my prescription was to work on themselves in order to let new light in and to become flexible for...
For that one, a lot of them included like little kind of silly things that represents electricity grounding too. So part of the instruction was to touch the first piece of metal that you see and feel the static leave your body. Which is also common in energy healing and aura healing, is to imagine your chakra energy coming out of your root chakra and going deep into the earth.so it is a similar kind of practice of releasing static and releasing your own org energy.
And then yeah, dots and artifacts, and that your energy is ubiquitous. When you enter a room, people can feel it, which in a lot of ways is great, you know, there's certain people that you just can feel coming into a space, but sometimes that can be draining, to be putting so much of your own energy out into the space, and it can also leave less room for others to share their energy with you too.so sometimes you kind of miss smaller details from other friends. That was fun. So I told people to go down to the beach. These were all kinds, site-specific to being the southwestern sea view. So, go to the beach, go along with your phone, and then just count the stars, and imagine each star you see is a beaming array of light down to you.in turn, you're beaming your energy back to it. Which I thought was a fun correlation with the dots too.
It definitely looks stars-like too. Yeah, and it goes on and on. So I like that practice of just being aware of your energy and noticing how other tools that we have created can also incorporate weird metaphysical metaphors for that as well.
I'm not alone in this. I have many friends and collaborators that also participate in Glitch Witchticism, but essentially, it's using video and glitch, in particular, to create these new rituals around things in a beautiful hypnotizing kind of way. I've been on this kick to do these altars recently. I did one... This is going to be a whole series. I did one for the Winter Equinox, or sorry, Winter Solstice, Spring Equinox, and then I'll do one for summer and autumn as well. They're all using televisions is a kind of the primary communicative tool to show people how rituals can exist in a space on a loop.
I enjoy participatory theater or participatory art. It's not socially engaging. It doesn't have that feel-good kind of thing. In fact, I sometimes like to make people feel comfortable. I guess it's the same as my curatorial practice, which is I like to provide space for people to do weird things, but with comfort. So I'll create these TV ritual sculptures that have a time-based ritual happening on the screens that seems kind of impersonal and passive, to allow people to approach them in their own way. But as they stand near the altar, the ritual will become more clear, they'll see different movements and different objects being used that are on the screen and being acted upon. Then those objects are also on the altar itself in real life with people. So it's a tool of showing them how to use the different objects themselves. Then they can participate with this kind of like ghostly, headless character who is walking them through this ritual, and so they can participate in it, and as deep level as they want to.
With the Winter Solstice one, I found a ritual for the Winter Solitaire, which is an independent singular which can do the spell to help them get through the winter season.so in the directions for this particular spell, it told you to gather candles, smoke of some kind, so incense, bowl of water, yeah, just different colors, specific colors candle. So red is an important Christmas color, or excuse me, Winter Solstice color. There's silver, there's gold.so I went searching for these on the internet, found footage of all these different objects. I did, but then I was like, these feel like much of the Creator. So then I put them through the different glitch machines to cleanse them, and then put them on the screen to then represent these different objects that would be placed in a regular ritual space. It was this installation that people could go and experience the spell for themselves. Also, put the ritual in the entire space itself so that it was manifesting it for everyone just by being there.
And then for the spring equinox altar, I created my own spell, which was...So, spring equinox is all about shedding the darkness and allowing room for growth and bloom. I created four steps of ritual, which was to cleanse yourself from the space by lighting some incense on the screen, then lit a candle and turned on a baby TV monitor on the screen to allow light into your space to kind of brush out all that darkness that was in there.then made an elixir that you could drink to wash away any remaining negativity from the winter before. Eat a strawberry to then plant the seeds for blooming of love.so then all those objects were also represented outside too.
So it's fun, you know, people often look at art like something that can't touch.so when they approached the altar, and there were strawberries there, they assume that they weren't supposed to touch them or eat them. So I had to kind of like gently guide people be like, "Please eat a strawberry, this will help complete the spell." so we've been looking at that some more just through different collaborations I've had. I just worked with Devin Cabrillo and Sage Fisher and my good friend Alexis Rittenhouse on a video for Dolphin Midwives, where we kind of extrapolated this idea of Glitch Witchicism in more creating this narrative for a song off of the Dolphin Midwives' new album called Flux. Where it's these characters, who are visited by this kind of ominous creature who takes them into Sage's alter layer and instructs them to do all these kinds of ritual techniques to then free her from this alter cave.so a lot of the footage is just of them doing these made-up rituals that are just kind of silly and strange but have similar aesthetics and movements to things that you might find in more of a traditional spell casting.
Art is weird, and it can be anything and everything. I frequently think the loudest stories that we hear from our computers, and art allows another channel for distribution of hearing from other people who don't necessarily have those tools to access, to share their story so loud, so...that's what's important. It's like being able to share your story to create empathy in the world, and more understanding .it's a great way of allowing us to visualize and celebrate and just be excited about like other people's voices too. How do you be an artist? I think the first thing is that you just say you're an artist. I think you just have to say it, because I think for me, I was always intimidated by like, "Well, I can't say I'm an artist. I didn't go to school for it, my art's aren't that good," like, and that held me back from doing it, from practicing it, from like, engaging with it. I can't figure out when... I think it might have just been like, the first time that I showed my work that I was that someone was like, "Oh, yeah, Sarah's art and like, she's an artist," like, describing me to someone and I was like, "I guess I am, I guess this means I am this act means that I am." so then I just was like, "Okay, I'm going to embody this and do what an artist does and extrapolate from there." If you can find space to practice art, that'll let you just go wild. Having a studio is quite a luxury. I highly recommend it if it's possible.
It's also important just to like, take the time to do it, and do not feel ashamed about it either. I think that our culture like promotes so much about productivity. Like, any time that you do, being productive, you need to get paid for it, which I agree to some extent, but also as an adult, There are a slight few times that we play anymore. For me, art is very much about like playing and experimenting and practicing. It's important just to take that time to do it and to prioritize that and not feel guilty about it. Yeah, that's important.
I've always thought that art is a communicative tool. For me, I think why I like experimental art is that it provides a conversation and an idea without hitting you over the head with it allows a lot of room to think things over and over without a definitive answer, which I think is a good thing for us to negotiate with. Obviously, there's a lot of like, chaotic happening right now. I think we tend to fall to yes or no, black and white, us versus them kind of a thing, and I think art can provide this nuance and the gray area that can allow our brains to live in the dissatisfaction of not having the correct answer all the time.
I'm a musician from Plano, Texas, but I've been in Portland for about 12 years, and I've been playing guitar for probably 23 years and been out gigging since 2004. I started out in a band in college called Chico Y Los Gatos. That was my band name for years. I released two albums of original music. I was actually a theater major, and then I switched to English and majored in English, but all at the same time had this band going that I would play in Denton. When I was in Portland, I got into a lot of tribute bands. It's almost all women tribute bands and stuff, so that's been really fun, and got my chops up by doing that.
I never thought I would enjoy tribute bands so much. But it turns out, you know, if you learn other people's music, you're really expanding your Encyclopedia of music knowledge, you know? I love learning guitar riffs from classic rock. That's why my main gig right now is Major Tom Boys, all female-identified David Bowie cover band.
What's next? That's a big theme in my music. Now that I'm in a marriage, there's this... I can write about that. I do, actually. I have one song about the time I fell in love with my wife. She had cancer at the beginning of our relationship. I didn't (until years later) write about that time, but I feel I captured it really well. At the end of 2008, when I met her, it was a hard time.
My album title comes from a drive out to Astoria, Oregon. Out there you'll see trees taken out because of deforestation. I always thought it'd be cool to do a photo shoot out in one of those areas because this is, sad beauty of it. What do these trees have had to say, that are gone now? I'm trying to figure out, what would my ancestors, how would they have responded to this? You know, the destruction that we're seeing, that seems to be beyond our control? When did the scales tip? When did things go too far? When do we let technology run without us? Was there a moment we could have stopped things? Is there still a moment to stop things, you know? Is it okay to still be comfortable in our lives, you know? That's something I asked myself a lot now too.
I have another song that says, "Stand in the middle of the road a crow or a sparrow. Wait for the car to lose control. Ride the wind or the window." When you come upon a bird in the road, it doesn't matter how close you get, they will fly over, you know? So that's what I was thinking about. I was thinking about the way they stand there right at the edge until it's the last second. Don't be afraid to let things get scary, and put yourself maybe in danger artistically as well. Another verse says, "Jump from the highest of the bluffs. Point your feet towards the river. Sink till you're almost out of breath. Kick your legs and go deeper." It's about pushing yourself to go further into your fears. It's essential to practice that in your art and then in your life.
Music, it's a vehicle for connecting with people that you might not connect with otherwise, and always has been, and will continue to be in the future. That song I mentioned earlier called, it's called Oceanside, about falling in love with my wife. I had a man come up to me at a show, talk about how it reminded him of him and his wife, you know, and falling in love. I was, "Oh, that's so sweet." It's relatable to anyone that falls in love. You know, and that that's the importance of music.
Artists, particularly in this country and a lot of countries are not valued. If I was going to change a belief system, and if I wanted to speak to one goal in the life that I've always had in the back of my mind was, how do I sustain artists, you know? And, the belief system is believe that artists are valuable. Practicing art, viewing art, experiencing art, making art, all of that stuff is so healthy for you. It's vital for your health. It's crucial for your education and learning. Art is absolutely essential. You know, I still have trouble committing to the job I'm in, because I feel if I get too stuck in it, I'll never quite get my music out there. I feel trapped in my job. But, be okay with another career -- you're going to do your art, no matter what. If you do it and you practice it, and you get yourself out there, then you're doing it., there's nothing... What else is making it than doing it?
I used to write more about relationships when I first started writing music — the ups and downs of dating. What I've written about has diversified as I've gotten older, and I write about more significant things now than my personal relationships. I write about more social issues now.
I am biracial. I'm half Mexican, half white, Italian, but I'm a white-passing person. So I feel there's the responsibility of white people to do better for people of color. Being that I'm biracial, you know, being true to my Latinx roots about that. I do need to do better as somebody that's both a person of color and a white-passing person of color.
I wrote a song that goes right before…it was around where the inauguration of Trump was, you know. I was trying to figure out how to move forward without a heavy heart. The song starts with, "Quiet down your mind, nobody's fooled, nobody's here by mistake,," basically trying to say this is, you know, we're all here. We all brought us here. The song asks: "I call to the beasts who live within the ocean waves."
What's next? How do I respond, and how do I take responsibility?
Hi, my name is Emmanuel Onry. I'm a Portland native, an opera singer, and a contemporary, soulful artist. I'm an educator. I strive to bring all these worlds together and bring culture and diversity to my listeners.
As a kid, probably about seven years old, I turned on the TV one day, and there was an opera on. It was the only thing, the only channel that came through at that time. I sat down and I started to recognize a connection between Marvel and the superheroes that everyone celebrated back in the 90s. I witnessed a connection between superhero culture and what I saw on TV before my eyes, which was classical opera music.
We think it's a stuffy thing, but for this seven-year old's eyes, it was: villains, people cheating on one another, hearts being broken, death, betrayal. It was extremely exciting. With that in mind, I said, “This is what I want to do.” I ran to my siblings and to my stepdad at the time, and I said, “I want to be an opera singer...ooo-ooh!” I hadn't hit puberty yet. I had this huge, high soprano voice, and I was singing around. Little did I know, several years before I was born, my mother also wanted to be an opera singer. She auditioned, and she was accepted for the Portland Opera. Then someone came along and told her that she couldn't do it because she had three kids. She totally gave up that dream. She never told me this until later on in life.
When I was ten years old, my father passed away, and there wasn't a lot of conversation around his death. From that moment on, I went mute as a kid. That year was a very silent year for me. Other than music, I was fairly quiet. It was the year that a lot of people didn't have a chance to get to know me; I lost a lot. However, there's one thing that stood very, very close to me during that time, and that was singing and music. There were moments I would sing over myself. I’d weep and cry. I would sing hymns I witnessed at church at the time, or sing different songs that would breathe life into me, would comfort and console me. Oftentimes, I'd be singing at one or two o'clock in the morning crying and weeping myself to sleep. That was the thing that comforted me. And yes, I did hear, “[knock-knock]...you need to cut that out. Cut that out, son. It's late, like, stop that.”
Music was a real tangible thing for me. My whole family sang, but I didn't have any training. I was told I should probably never sing. The gift “wasn't given to me” (quote from my aunt). “Baby, you need to grow up and be a doctor if you're going to do something, because you didn't receive the gift.”
Then at age thirteen, Miss Helen Deets from Clear Creek Middle School came to me. She told me that I should sing in choir. I was like, “Okay, sure, my family sings.” She heard me sing, and I was like, “This was fun”. She was like, “You actually have a really, really, great voice.” She gave me a song from “Carmen” later on; she started putting me into different competitions.
When I went into high school, I was told that I should not sing classical music because my voice was soulful, and that the color of my skin was connected to my soulful voice and therefore, I should stick with what I know. That was a subtle way of saying, “You're African American; this type of music is not meant for you.”
There was another moment that I found my voice, and I would say that it was probably around the age of eleven. I was going to church one day, and I was allowed to walk to church for the first time by myself. I didn't have to go to Sunday School, so it was a day to be celebrated. On my walk there, I witnessed a dog that hit a fence, and the fence toppled a little bit. I was like, “That was a close call.” He kept on hitting the fence and eventually the fence falls over. This dog is charging in, and all the sudden, I use a big voice. The dog stopped. I was thinking to myself, “This dog is listening to me. This is strange.” I continued to talk to the dog, yelling with a huge voice. My voice was traveling a block and a half, trying to get this dog's attention. The dog stops, goes back. There was a voice that lived inside of me that was really, big, and there was something about it that was convicting, honest, authentic, real. It had command to it. Later on, I realized that's the same sound classical singers use.
I eventually started to mimic that same sound. I had this big space. I knew that space; I knew that command, emotion, healing, how to sing to the soul. From that moment, I started to cultivate those things. I studied about three hours a day in my garage. Then I started to compete. Two years after that, my junior and senior year, I became the number one [high school] opera singer in the state of Oregon.
I was doing gospel music and trying to keep both worlds very separate. I had a chance to tour to sing background for Josh Groban. Then I witnessed a moment between pop music and gospel music like with his “You Raise Me Up”: gospel backgrounds, classical singer in front. I thought, “There might be a niche to this.”
Now I'm using the same technique with a little bit more soul, and a lot more authentic classical music, or traditional classical music and more, and also very traditional gospel music that I know, and fusing them into an EP project, which I'm creating now.
Everyone has a voice, and everyone has the ability to sing. I believe that the human voice can be strengthened like the human ear by working on intonation, vibrato, breathing, and other technical things. Some people have it naturally, and other people have to work for it, like myself. The great thing about working for something is that you can also create a science out of it as well. That is the part that I really love about being a vocal coach and working vocal health and public speakers. It's a major thing of knowing what someone is doing with the voice in order to change it and create a healthy voice.
Many public speakers lose their voices quite often because of their speech patterns, using the voice wrong, speaking too harshly on the voice, or not remembering to simply breathe between sentences. They're running out of air by using the voice wrong. That's where we as vocal coaches, and people who've studied vocal health, are able to assist both speakers and singers.
Everyone has the ability to sing, you just have to work for it.
We're losing the power of the voice in many ways: being able to advocate for ourselves, speaking out about right and wrong. We’re constantly using technology, where we communicate silently with our hands. We're more increasingly losing the ability to use the voice. Why do we need to reclaim the voice? Well, you have to wonder why it's so scary to do karaoke in front of our friends. There's something vulnerable about using the voice. The voice is very telling. As a vocal coach, I'm able to assess if a person is sad, depressed, what they've drunk the night before, what they've eaten the night before, what they've eaten before the lesson. I'm able to tell if the person is having issues with coming in on entrances too late or too early. Maybe they have issues with hesitating in their daily life or they deal with issues of being on time. There are tons of assessments that I can assess from hearing a person sing. We can change the voice by changing regimens in our daily lives.
There's power in using our voice when we use it correctly.
There are small changes that we can make, both in our daily lives and in our musical lives, by simply using the voice — to breathe life into individuals and circumstances, and also to to kill off or damage. Action follows the voice.
When I am teaching a technique in vocal sessions, I will tell someone to do a visual action that reminds them of where the sound is going, or how to visualize the sound. Usually that causes a change instantly within the voice. If a person is singing high, sometimes we think of squeezing the voice. When we get stressed, or we think something is difficult, we squeeze the voice, we put stress on the voice. What if we do something with our hands and make our hands fall down while the voice is shooting high? That's called contrary motion. We can use that same contrary motion in life to decrease stress. Reclaiming the voice in that powerful way can both bring forth a change in mental health. That is the power of the voice.
I’m someone who, like many other artists, never fit in. We live very, very lonely lives, and then we find other people who don't fit in who are like us, and then we're like, “Wait a second, this might be a thing. Maybe if I live life long enough, I'll maybe find a community of people who are not status quo, who see the world as I do, who are authentic.”
I grew up in the ghettos of Portland. There were ghettos, believe it or not. One summer there were six killings. They didn't happen to die, they were murders. To grow up in a space like that, but then to somehow arrive into a community and culture of singing week after week inside auditoriums with predominantly White audiences...there's a dichotomy there.
My first rehearsal: I walked into our rehearsal space right off of Water Avenue. I see this Russian woman who is the custodian. She greets me. I see that she's Slavic, and start a conversation. She says, “Yeah, I'm Russian. I'm from Ukraine.” I say, “I spent time in Ukraine.” We have this full conversation in Russian; she's helping me out as I'm, you know, stumbling through. She tells me that no one has spoken to her in the last three weeks, because her English is broken. She appreciated me taking time to speak to her. So then I go to rehearsal.
Then the artistic director approaches me, “So, your last name is French?”
I say, “Yes, it is.”
She says, “...but you speak Russian.”
She goes, “You also speak French?”
“Yeah, I'm okay.”
She looks me in the eye a little bit, and then I look her in the eye. We take a pause, then she goes, “What are you, a part of the witness protection program or something?”
We both laugh. Then she looks at me again. I realize, “Hmm, that's a very odd statement. If I said that I was a part of the witness protection program, that would be more convincing than for me to be an African American young person that also has the skill set that everyone else in this room has. They are all linguists. You have to study about three or four different languages in order to be in the opera. It'd be easier for me to joke about being a part of (or to be a part of) the witness protection program, than to be in the same space and simply love the same music.”
I realized from that moment, all eyes were on me.
The Russian woman said, “I like the chernyy guy.” Chernyy means Black. People were talking. I was new, young, African American. All eyes were questioning why I was in the room. “How did you get here? Why are you here? Everyone is twice your age. You've got to pay attention and you got to show up. Learn your music, and whatever issues that you have with learning, just learn the music, figure it out, do your best to shine.” I did. I ended up being recorded on a few things with OPB, having different photo shoots, being heavily involved in the company. Other doors began to open up as well. But it was odd, it was lonely. I had friends come along and help me and teach me along the way, but the experience of going into this space with no one else looking like me was a very lonely experience.
In many spaces I felt like I had to work overtime in order to regain soulfulness. The soulfulness that's experimental in Portland, the indie and jazz communities, that fuels my soul. I had to reach out to all these different communities to fuel this space, because I was doing rehearsals at time, which was heavy. I knew I needed soulfulness to maintain my own authenticity. With my own music I hope to take all these fusions of sounds and put them into one EP.
I have felt like the poster child. You dress up, you play the part, and then you go home into a world that looks nothing like the opera. I've been on stage, and seen people in the audience. After the show, they give me a thumbs up, “Good job.” Then I take off, you know, the wardrobe and makeup, and I'm walking home, and I try waving at people. They grab their purses and pull their partners closer. They don't speak, they don't use their words. I’ll go out of my way to say, “Hey, did you enjoy the show?”
They'll say, “Yeah, I enjoyed the show. You should see it sometime.”
My response is, “Ah, thanks. Actually, I was on stage.”
“No way. That is so cool. Wait, you mean you were on stage?”
“Absolutely. I was on stage.”
People don't see you. You bring them into an experience on stage and they see you as part of a story. Outside of that, they don't necessarily see you.
A friend of mine performed “The Color Purple”. She was getting on the subway in New York. “I got on the subway” and someone called her a “black b****”. They said, “Move out the way.” They pushed her out of the way and they got on to the subway. It almost made her late for her show.
She gets to the show, she performs the show, you know, raving reviews. Aterwards, they have a talkback, and they're signing autographs. That same man who called her a “black b****” comes up to her and says, “Hey, that was the most amazing performance. Thank you so much...” raving and raving and raving about who she is and her performance on stage.
She's looking with a blank face like, “You don't see at all that I'm that black b**** that you pushed off the subway. You don't see me at all.” He's asking for an autograph.
That is show business. Some people see you on stage and they see you as your gift, they see you as this stunning thing, but they don't see you day to day, and nor will they treat you with honor, dignity, or simply, “I see you, you're here, you're human, you're like me,” common courtesy.
That is the strange dichotomy I experience hour by hour, place by place: Portland, LA, New York. People don't treat you a certain way in the States, till they think that you're worth something. We need to work on that, treating people with utmost respect. You never know who you're talking to, who you're listening to, or who you're sitting on train with, or who you've cut off on the street. It's always good to simply do good because good is good. You don't have to taste all of the best pies in the world to know that a pie is good. You know that it's good because it's good. That's my way of navigating the world. You know some things are good, because it's good. You know what is righteous, because it's righteous. It feels good down to my soul.
If I have to question if it is, then maybe there might be some ill intention there. Let's search and see what that is. But goodness is good and it's important to treat individuals as such.
It's extremely important for artists to a) be an artist, and b) use your superpowers and your influence for good.
I’m finding ways to use my voice as an activist.
I'm working with this company called Third Angle New Music on a project called “Sanctuaries”. It’s an opera about gentrification in Portland.
Gentrification is a dichotomy. Classical music is a mostly, European, White form of music that an all-black cast will be performing. Most African Americans come from a soulful, gospel, type of music, a jazz background, rock and roll. Our culture was the genesis of those. To end up doing an opera about the gentrification history of Portland, being initially a White utopia, is wild. These are the things that are and that were, and are again becoming. I was not necessarily wanted in this city; my family was allowed to be here. They created red lines in order for us not to be in certain spaces. “Let's get rid of the riff raff. It's wrong. It's bad. Crime rates. There's no good in this space. Let's totally change it. And not only change it, but push everyone out that looks like this specific demographic.” It's hurtful. So to navigate this story artistically and honestly, to do the soul work together, is exciting.
I encourage every artist to use your voice to your advantage by helping educate. Educate, and educate in love. Continue to be the students, as well.
I’m working with an African American Requiem. Damien Jeter, is a phenomenal composer and opera singer, is talking about our story, the American story.
For African American roles for men, we have two stereotypes: either you are overweight and funny, or you are muscular and sexy; you are the sex symbol. Very few roles have anything in between. If you're short, skinny, this or that, you're not fit for the camera, you're not fit for the role. It breaks my heart when other ethnicities are able to show who they are.
I have to break that mold and do that work.
In activism, speaking, singing, living, it's important to me to encourage other creatives to no longer fear, or feel like they're alone. I'm in it with you.
I'm extremely excited about the EP that's coming. It is the only time in my life I've felt like I have had work that represents who I am as an artist and an individual. I have to navigate many spaces in many worlds every day. I can put them into one song: the Slavic community, the Black community. I’m able to add all these beautiful, inspired sounds, and visuals, and I'm able to put them into one project and be very intentional about that. We've created it in classical form, but we have traditional sounds of gospel music, and also soul music with pop technique. There are different formats and different cadences that we use and different canons. These inform the listener about what's coming next. We're planting small sections that are preparing the listeners’ ears for what is to come. In my song ”Living in the Light”, we have taken three or four different melodies from other tracks and planted them.
Joal Stein is a civic curator, poet, and activist focused on investigating spatial and social power through contemporary culture, working across art, urbanism, architecture, and social engagement. He serves as a lead editor and writer for The Changing Times, and a contributing editor for Deme Journal. He's worked with nonprofits, governments, and institutions across the United States and internationally in Colombia, Italy, Ethiopia, and India. He's received an Autodesk Foundation Design Futures Scholarship, a Banff Curatorial Residency, and he's been a cultural agent for the US Department of Arts and Culture. He holds a Master of Science in Design and Urban Ecology from Parsons, the new school for design. He's organized exhibitions and progressive activist art projects for the UN Habitat, the Institute for Public Architecture, People's Climate March, and the Fight for 15 Coalition.
Joal Stein: Hi, my name is Joal, and I am a curator and writer. My background that led me to be a curator and writer is actually as an urban planner and designer. That led me to do a lot of work in different cities and different communities around the country, and internationally. What always captivated me about that work were hearing the stories of people and their lives, and how their lives intersected with other lives in particular places, leading to an understanding issues of power and access, inclusion and exclusion, both on the individual level and the community level.
Now, as a curator, I work with artists, mostly social practice artists, who are asking these questions through their work, and about places and people and systems and structures and I help them find a way to put that work into content but also to make them happen. And more recently, as a writer, I've been leaning more into my identification as hard of hearing, sensorineural hearing loss from birth, having had hearing aids since I was a baby. I've been trying to understand how that has shaped my view of the world and lead to more questions of how other people experience their capabilities or disabilities in different ways in space. Not just as people that are hard of hearing, but people with all different types of disabilities across the spectrum. Then also reframing disability not as a source or a lack thereof, but as a different way of viewing the world that has its own power and insight and ways of being.
When I graduated, I was working for the City of Portland and what is now called Prosper Portland. And at the time, it was the Portland Development Commission. I was doing community economic development and sustainability. And I realized I am not a bureaucrat. There's a lack of creativity and not really space to ask critical questions in those kinds of situations. You don't get to ask difficult questions. And so working with artists became a way to enter into that. That opened up this whole exploratory and critical, creative practice, right? What is a job? Or what is a good job now? What is work? And what does it mean to be a community? And what does it mean to be a community in transition? And how do we ask questions about race and legacy, legacy and race, and these communities and address them?
I went to graduate school in New York after doing that, in a program called Design and Urban Ecologies. So in a sense, we were doing a lot of political economy. Like, what are the things that created this place more than the actual physical elements of it. So it became such an experimental forum for all of us. And we were actively shaping that program too. And so it gave me a lesson in what it means, like, to make a pedagogy, to create knowledge and to produce knowledge. How can you take a personal and political stance about the type of work you wanted to articulate whatever project that you're proposing, and pick your place and then make it happen, figure out how to correlate forces around that. So the idea of knowledge, it wasn't this thing that we necessarily acquired. It was the thing that we made.
One of the most compelling projects in graduate school, so we were working in Medellin, Columbia, and the premise was to do sort of a community planning project that use arts as a form of social and community engagement. We were working with a theater group, it was called Casa Amarillo, the Yellow House, they called it. It had started as a theater of the oppressed workshop crew, a theater troupe. The theater troupe would go out into the streets and do the performances, these street that people were afraid to be in as a way to reclaim space through art, as a way to use their body as a form of protest and use movement of body and use these stories as a way of reclaiming this space. And that was eye-opening to me around where we talk about who gets to be seen as the arbiters or the holders of knowledge or expertise because they were tasked by the city - or they were given responsibility by the city - to run the community planning process in their sort of regional of the neighborhood.
What ended up in that experience was a way to be flexible with different methodological frameworks. So our forms of producing knowledge weren't going around with reports and surveys or we weren't just doing traditional data research, but it was using these games and players almost. These immersive theater plays with them, and our understanding of that place was so much more granular because knowledge is never necessary like this person moved here and this was the date. But knowledge is oftentimes in the body, right? You know this when you see dancers, it's like, oh, there's so much that the body holds, and trauma or joy or desire that you can never articulate fully, but the way the body moves expresses it differently. And those are things that are hard to capture and to... See, it's not accepted in a formalized education system, right?
Another project, the idea was just to use art as the vehicle of organizing, right, like let's turn this march into one giant art parade in a sense, where all these different coalitions can have their sculptures and dances and songs, but also to learn to work with one another and to see themselves as part of a larger whole. And so we use art as a way to bring the different groups together and housing and climate justice and became such a joyful thing. And that was really special where it's like you'd ask people to come and help make a banner or a really cool giant sculpture or paint together, and then you build a relationship that way.
Art is important in terms of politics, not as a decorative tool at the end of things. Frequently, you will be told, "Artists can paint the banner and make it look beautiful." But artists can actually be creative strategists in many ways. They ask questions and think of out-of-the box solutions or approaches to things. One big question is: what is the role of an artist in society, what's the role of an artist in public life? How do you support those things? And you're seeing that more and more where you have artists-in-residence in City Hall, state governments. What role can an artist play in society? What role should an artist play in society today, and what role should they play in politics?
I've heard this phrase a lot, and I'm just trying to decide whether I believe in it wholeheartedly. There's merit around the notion that 'the battle of the future will be won through a battle of imagination.' That battle for imagination is a very political one - it's what kind of future do we want to build? What kind of future do I want to live in? And who else gets to be in that future with us? And the power of artists is in creating a sense of this imagined future that you can touch feel smell, you get a glimpse of a little bit of it you never get the full future. A lot of the politicians right now that people are excited, really mobilized by, have a sense of this moral and civic imagination that they offer, of here are the things that we can build, not necessarily empty promises that we want to give you this, but here is a society that we can create. Politics should ,in my opinion, be a forum where we develop an imagination of how things could be. And artists are so good with that, are so good about telling these stories about here's how things could be and here is a story about us right now."
There's this idea that a lot of artists, at some point, have to reckon with where they came from. You have to come home to yourself at some point. The home that you stepped out of, if you don't reckon with that, you're missing a large part of who you are.
An artist named Allison O'Donnell had a piece at the Hammer [Museum] in LA — they're hard of hearing. Her art statement talks about the first time she got digital hearing aids, she's hearing the sound of a banana peeling for the first time. And she's been doing this years-long video piece asking these questions around essential community questions.
Walking into that exhibit or the video is showing, there are a lot of the people there that had been cast. And it was like mostly community members, high school students, lots of different types of people. And a lot of these sort of teenagers, younger people, all deaf or hard of hearing. are in it, and they were there to see this exhibit. And so many of them are on their smartphones, signing to their friends and showing them. And I had never thought about how Facetiming had opened up a whole new world of communication for signing people and deaf people. And so that was a whole cultural aspect that I just didn't engage in, right. I was more in the hearing world and hard of hearing, but never in the culturally deaf community. And so I was like, "All right, I need to figure out how to think about what this means," because, to me, I was always just normal. I never really felt like…
There were times when I was like, "Okay, the hearing aid's battery's dead, now I've got to, deal with it," but to me, it was just like having eyeglasses, right? And then I had this readjustment almost where I was like, "What the 'F' is normal? There's no normal." And to redefine normalcy as this range of embodiments and knowledges and capabilities, right? To redefine normalcy as this spectrum that everyone exists on an individual level and plane. And the ways in which specific environments are set up is what, in fact, dictates whether or we're seen as capable or disabled. It's almost like turning that idea of disabilities on the head.
And now, I was reading this book. It's the best book of poetry I've read in years called Deaf Republic, written by a hard of hearing poet. And there's a line in there that says that "silence is the invention of the hearing." And so to integrate that where deafness isn't necessarily a lack of hearing, it's just another way of being in the world, to not define these things as a lack thereof, but as a different source, a different way of operating and being a part the world.
Being hard of hearing has shaped how I view the world and how I move through the world and how I communicate with others in the world and how I choose to be present in the world. And how then bringing in my sort of urban design and architectural background of what are specific spaces that work for me and don't work for me?
I'm trying to bridge the sense of understanding either the products and the systems and structures and what it means to be hard of hearing and move to those things and how I can ask more significant questions about that, and use that as a way, as my point of view, to then highlight systems of inclusion or exclusion. The battle of the future is also itself a battle of imagination, and offering a vision of the future that people want to believe in and see themselves, and then providing a vision that people can see themselves coexisting with other people in that. In that battle of imagination, it's frequently seen around the corner as something that isn't quite there yet. In articulating these glimpses of what is yet to come to be, an artist has a particularly unique ability to draw from that sense of unknown. Give it form and provide it with life in the present so that people can see or taste or touch or hear or move through something that they don't necessarily know fully yet, but they understand a bit more. Artists have this ability to reinvigorate a sense of imagination in public life and a real sense of vision for the future. Not one that's sold to us, but one that we are actively participating in.
Think About the Periphery
We only step into the frame
in small moments, where
the beauty is in the background
where life plays out
where a world is made
and holds you steady
our bodies can be our own borders
lured in by a reckless promise
we index ourselves against the crowd
subtitling the intentions of others
a neediness for the parts
of the world i cannot control
while focused on narrow affairs
life walks through stage
blocking in the periphery
and with my hands I
am still running through my lines.
If you'd like to see more of Joal's work, you can check out his website at radagenda.com.
CITRINE is a short play co-written and co-directed by @higher.feeling, Hannah H., and Joni W. This work also features:
The play is set in a dreamy futuristic orange grove 🟠 debuted at Echo Theater in Portland, Oregon 🧡 This exploration of queer leisure and pleasure weaves womxn and non-binary femmes in a meditative ritual that postulates devotion, poetry, and quiet time as central to knowledge of the sacred ⚡Photos by @not_jeff_wall.
Church of Film and Future Prairie recently hosted a beautiful evening of light and sound. We called it "Channel One", and the whole thing was directed by Higher Feeling. We enjoyed music by Jonathon Mooney, Casey Marx, Onry, Dashenka, Amenta Abioto, visuals by Church Of Film, projections by sarah sarah turner turner, installations by Talia Gordon and Clamber, poetry by Joni Renee Whitworth, and a tea ceremony by Brianna Sas. Our show was sponsored by the Regional Arts and Culture Council. Thank you to our supporters!
Willie Little discusses his career, themes and issues he's exploring as a queer Black artist from the south, advice for emerging artists, and the Regional Arts and Culture Council grant that helped him publish his newest art book and memoir, "In the Sticks."
I am a multimedia installation artist and storyteller. My work has evolved from trying to make sense out of my life, who I am, and where I come from, to making sense out of how I fit in the world. So the work, the process is very shamanistic with found objects I tend to find. I conjure them up. As a storyteller, some of my work, I would create narratives and become characters, but in this one exhibit called Kinfolks about my family's tobacco farm, there was a piece I wanted to create called Git Me A Switch, and it goes like this...
Aunt Rachel, Oh, Aunt Rachel. Born in 1898.
She raised Cousin Jimmy Lee from a child.
When he had been showing out, she wait till the right moment, bedtime.
As soon as he was butt naked, she take a switch and turn him every which way but loose.
Now in that piece, there was a copper clock that I wanted to be the centerpiece for this clock. So I went to the flea market, walked in, went to the booth, the first booth, there was a clock. I was like, "Oh my god, but it's black. I wanted a copper clock." Went to the next booth, bam! There it was! Copper. Then I want to have wood, reclaimed wood, and in my neighborhood, I'd go the same way every day. But I decided to turn left, there was a stack of wood, just like a gift from the gods. So I usually conjure up work, things for my work, and that makes me know that I'm on the right track.
I have written a book called In the Sticks, it's a memoir and an art book, and it's a coming of age story, a memoir about how I grew up, who I grew up with and what I experienced the first two years of integrated schools and who I became. It's a coming of age story of family dynamics.
It's all about growing up and growing beyond the shame of youth to the pride of an adult.
It's about how art became my destiny as I created my past in this exhibit juke joint. It is an installation about my father's illegal liquor house and the patrons of Little's grocery in the late 60s and early 70s. In that exhibit, I describe snapshots of life, the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the people whose existence is vividly ingrained in my memory. I had 12 mannequins, I had artifacts from the 50s and 60s and a jukebox, and I became the characters. It had a narrative audio track, where I would breathe life into a warm, humorous yet CD depiction of a slice of rural life and that exhibit traveling around the country for several years. It culminated at the Smithsonian in 2003, but now it's in the permanent collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. So I'm so proud to have it. That part of something I created in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian.
I created the narrative audio track with professional production. The other thing it is a 320 square foot shotgun shack, that's a replica, a three quarter-scale replica of my father's illegal liquor house. So when you walk in the building, you are walking in a juke joint. It has the walls, they have the four walls, the forefront with all these signs and memorabilia from the 50s and 60s. It has a jukebox inside and the 12 characters and his food, like penny candy and canned goods. It's a grocery store in there too. The thing is, I had written three grants to make this work and when I got the... The second grant was the most extensive, and I talked to the administrator. She said, "Willie, when you apply for this grant, what do you want to get out of it?" I said, "Well, I want, when you walk into my exhibit, you'll know what a juke joint is, if you've never been in." She said, "Well, you should write like that." I said, "Well, I guess I will." I did, and I got the grant, and the work was funded. I found out that the more specific a story is, the more universal it is. It was 15 years, and so many people walked up to me, telling me that I was telling their stories.
I thought it was just creating my story, but they said it was a more universal story, but I had no idea. Because I tell stories with intricate details, and the intricate details lend themselves to people experiencing a similar thing. So when I talk about my first day of school, and my first year of school, most of the things that happened to me are familiar to what everybody experienced, the bullying, or being teased. Because I tell it in such detail, people will say, "Oh my God, that's my story too." I did that when I talked about some of the characters in the Juke Joint too. I described their figure flaws, their foibles. Like I said, the more specific it is, the more people say that I know someone like that, or that's me.
2003 to 2004 was actually the final, that was the last time…It was what I thought was the last time it was going to show, but it was at the Smithsonian. It was selected to be in the Smithsonian, the Arts and Industries Building. While it was there, it was reviewed by the Washington Post. It was a wonderful cover review in the art section. Then after that, because it was in the Smithsonian, I got wind that they were building this new African American Museum. I got in contact with the curators, they said, "Please, update us on every time you do something different to the exhibit."
They called me in 2010 and said, "Willie, we're getting close to purchasing work," and they said, "Can you exhibit? Do you have another exhibit?" So then, in Winston Salem State University, I knew the curator there, and I said, "Oh my god! Belinda, can you help? Yeah, I need a bigger venue!" She made it work. So I have the exhibit there, and I just made it the best it could be.
Then the whole team at the Smithsonian came. They had their little notepads and white-gloved the exhibit. My heart was beating fast.
They said, "Willie?" I said, "Yes."
They said, "We really liked your exhibit. We'd like to invite you to be in the permanent collection." I was like..."Oh my god." I was so happy.
I think I wrote my first story in 1992, and it just kept growing. I knew that as long as I can remember everything, I'm going to write it down. I started jotting down. I had a first full story that came just like butter; it wrote itself. There are few stories that wrote themselves, but then I would take notes, and whenever I see things on television, or in films, or in books, to give me an idea of how I want my story to come together, I would do it.
A woman named Moorisha Bey-Taylor connected me with my publisher, Curator Love. The company's run by a woman named Erika Hirugami, and she helps artists realize their dreams because she is a curator and a publisher. So that came together. It was so serendipitous. I had had an exhibit in San Francisco, and my partner and I were about to leave. Here comes this beautiful chocolate sister, and we started talking, and a year and a half later, I'm getting my book published. I received a Regional Arts and Culture Council grant. That grant helped me realize the book. I was really grateful for that.
I had written the book, and the book had been finished, somewhat pared-down, the story was great. So it was all about getting it published because it paid the cost for the printing and the layout, and the editing because Curator Love did everything to make it a beautiful book. One of the things that made it difficult to get it published through the mainstream was that I wanted it to be an art book and a memoir. I think that the costs involved, and with a mainstream company, I would have to be someone really, really famous for a publisher to want to do that. So that was the best way to make this happen was to self-publish it. The thing is, I felt fortunate about it because another friend of mine who's an artist at the Froelich Gallery, the gallery that I am represented by, had just had a book published, and he did a book launch at the gallery. I said, "Oh, wow. How did you get that book published?" Because I had to ask everyone else and he said, "Oh, it was self-published," and that gave me the idea also. So he did a great job with his book, Stephen O' Donald, and I have followed in his footsteps and created a memoir art book. The book can be purchased at lulu.com, L-U-L-U.com, amazon.com, and curatorlove.com.
I don't mind saying that I am 58, and I'm gay and black, and I'm originally from the rural south. all of it, every bit of who I am, affects how I talk about work. As a gay man, I have an affinity for women. Most of my work is about women because I feel that the woman is an integral part of civilization, and the black woman is the cradle to human civilization. Especially in America, because I believe that she raised America, figuratively and literally, up until the 20th century. Then being so marginalized and teased and bullied, as a very sensitive gay black boy from the south, I carry that with me. As I moved to the west coast over 18 years ago, I feel liberated, and I think that I can say it as I mean it, and mean it as I say it. Because my work is so challenging and I take no prisoners because I tell the truth as I see it. So that's one of the things.
In the book, I tell the exact truth about the people, and people who bullied me, and how my family was so uber-religious, and how I felt so ashamed to be gay, and I would hear the ridicule, and I kept so many secrets, and I revealed that. There's so much pain, and I hope that that work, the stories and the words I tell, inspire young gay black men from the rural south, mainly because there is such a stigma behind that whole thing.
Many stories have been told about the gay experience, especially coming out today, but very few deal with the gay black men in the rural south, and I have many stories. Because this book deals with it from my very early earliest, from a young boy to a young man. There are so many other stories that could not be put in that book because this is a childhood memoir. I hope that I will be able to tell a more layered story about how I grew up in the rural south, so I think this is just the beginning.
I knew that I had a story to tell from a very young age. I know that I have not finished telling the story. I want to reach as many people as I can to tell many more stories about how I grew up with the most honesty, and truth.
My audience ranges because of the subject matters. It all depends on the subject matters, and it varies from personal history to social commentary. So two people were kind enough to—because I've only had the book out for a while—write a review. I'd like to read a little bit of what someone said. She said: "I love this book so much. The writing is so descriptive and beautiful. You feel like you were living it with the author. The artwork is so great, and it really helps tell the story. Willie's life growing up is so different from mine yet, there are so many things that were the same. Playing outside, going to church, getting penny candy and soda being scared at school, playing with Barbies, and think was so different like being bussed as a part of desegregation. The juke joint, growing up being Baptist and working in the fields all summer vacation long and being black and gay in the south." This woman was not black. She was not gay, and she said it was a page-turner for her.
In Dallas, Texas, a woman walked up to me with an African accent. She said, "Oh, Willie, thank you so much. When I walked into your exhibit, it took me back to the shebeen to my native Togo."
A doctor walked up to me, said, "Willie, I was once ashamed of where I came from, but you validated my existence." Then, when I had this exhibit at the Froelich gallery, the exhibition called Not a doll, Living Doll, that was the exhibit where I saw Mo. There was an eight-foot-tall painting of a beautiful black woman with Nubian knots. Her hair was naturally beautiful, and she was wearing a white Victorian-inspired gown. She's so elegant, but there's a chain wrapped around her waist. At the bottom of the end of the chain is a red AK 47. This young white girl from Beaverton was standing there in tears. She said, "Willie, this is so beautiful. This is beautiful. I totally get it. Thank you."
During the same reception, a young white boy, he was really young, came up to me with a big smile on his face. The title of the work is Not a Doll, Living Doll. It has these insulting and degrading pickaninny dolls that I reclaimed. They sit alongside the portraits of beautiful black women in the 21st century. so he said, "Are you the artist?" I said, "Yes." He said, "I get it, the dolls are the women and the women or the doll." I said, "Yes, you get it." He was so happy because he got it without me…He didn't really think about it. But he understood that this work with this defiance describes the trials and tribulations that the black woman has endured and has to endure.
I once had an exhibit at Clark College. The students were talking to me and at the end of the talk, a young black woman. She was a student, she probably was a freshman, and she was so quiet and shy and very meek. She said, "Mr. Little, I want to tell you that I was adopted by white parents, and while they try to fill in the blanks, this work helped me fill in so many blanks. Thank you."
My work has such a broad audience because it has many layers. Some of the layers are laid with humor to disarm. My family and I always had to laugh because it's better to laugh than to cry. When your situation can be bleak, it's not good to wallow in that. See the humor in almost everything. I get my sense of humor from my birth mother, who didn't raise me, but also the woman who raised her, who were not her blood relatives either. She had a wicked tongue. I get it from both people, my sense of humor. My work always has to have some irony or parody in it as well.
I'm affected by everything I see, everything that's going on. For example, when I lived in Oakland, between the years of 2014 to 2016, there were many instances of black people being shot by police. In Oakland, this downtown Oakland, they protest it every week. Almost every week, you'll hear the helicopters, and I would get more and more, more angry about it. I remember, I represented John Lewis, who used to work with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He said in an interview, he said, "When I was a young man and Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior stopped me in the office one day, where we were working." He said, "Son, if you see something, say something or do something."
I decided that I'm going to act because I've seen stuff, and I'm saying things, and I want to do something and I wanted to create that work called Not a Doll, Living Doll, where I talked about the issues of gun violence and race in the 21st century. But the future, the absolute future, I want to be really hopeful, but right now, I have a sense of rage. It's so necessary. I remember when I graduated from high school in 1980, I tried to project to the year 2000 because I thought the year 2000 was so far away. Because I was the first, my class in 1968 was the first class to experiment with desegregation. North Carolina eased the state into desegregation with the first-grade class in 1968. I described that whole first year, my first day of school, and we had made strides there. I was the first class to go with people from grade one to grade 12 in an integrated situation. Then I was about to graduate and go to UNC Chapel Hill, the school of my dreams, and I felt that, I projected that this world would be so different. It would be a post-racial society.
When Obama was elected, that was absolutely great. But when I think about the backlash to that, and where we are now, I have a sense of rage. Then I remembered the quote from James Baldwin. It says, "To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time." the fact that he said that we were called Negro and it's still relevant, it says it all. My desire as an artist is to continue to tell my story and tell that story on a grand scale through film or stage. I always knew I had a story to tell, and I won't stop, and I think I'm still alive because I have much more to say.
Art documents what's going on in our culture. Because we're living in a moral moment, people are really responding to that moral moment through art, and we have an explosion of creation going on right now, self-expression going on right now. So we'll look at other people, you'll look back, and see and examine the work that was created because of what's going on in the culture right now. It fills me because, in my process, I actually spend a lot of time alone thinking about work before I do anything. When I get quiet, the quietest time for I would say is the hours between two and three in the morning. That's when things flow, words flow, ideas flow, and things become crystal clear. That's when I know things are going to be extremely, extremely powerful once I start creating from that point, and then I started going in, as if I'm not even thinking out, I'll put things together I'll draw them and then I will sit on autopilot. Once I'm done, then I can set out the layers, and there are so many layers because nothing is intentional, but then people will tell me, they'll see all these different things in the work.
For example, I created this piece called That Strange Fruit, and it's a portrait of a black woman. She's taking a bite out of a watermelon, and the watermelon has these stars on it. The watermelon is the American flag. I was creating that because we had moved from Oakland to Portland, and I had to work in a storage locker, and I would fly to Oakland and work on my exhibit because it was going to be at the SFMOMA artists gallery. So in this cramped space, I'm painting on stars and stripes on a watermelon, and I wanted them to be perfect. I wanted the stars to be perfect, but in that cramped space, it wasn't, and when I finished, they looked kind of cattywampus! Then when I was finished and looked at them, I said, "Oh, look at the stars, some of the stars look like clan hoods." then the flag was actually backward, the way the flag is usually presented, so I'm like, "How about all that?"
So it spoke to the nature of America, and some of the stars represent the different kinds of people, and some of them are racist bigots and wear clan hoods. So I said all that to say it looks like I intentionally did that, but it just all happened because I'm just working. But then there was…Because there are other layers that I actually intended to kind of create, but these were like gold.
One of the things I can say about my role as an artist in Portland is that it's very white. I think my role in Portland is to broaden that perspective and make some people feel uncomfortable, and it does. It makes some people feel uncomfortable, and it actually educates people. It inspires people. Some of it makes people laugh, it makes people think, and I think that's one of my roles. There are ways of saying things as you mature that aren't necessarily hitting the person on the face because I've gotten…This past work with Not a Doll, Living Doll was actually…I kind of went more into, kind of, in your face defiance. The work is all about seducing the audience with beauty — have the message be layered within.
In 2000, I had a residency in South Africa and I was there for a whole month. I created these prints, these limited edition prints, and it was called God Given Birthright. Then there was one piece that was kind of in your face, it was the second amendment, the three shopping bags; they were upscale shopping bags. Then there was one that was the Second Amendment with little tiny guns in the background of the Second Amendment, which was part of the bag.
I also created one that had little tiny crosses, and then it had passages from the Bible layered on top. There was a little cross burning in the passage because the passages were specific to women in the clergy sexuality, all the things that people use as their crutch to justify bigotry and hatred. But many people who were really religious bought the work because it was so pretty and they had no idea. But it was really talking about those hypocritical passages, but that was the beauty of it. I got across my [inaudible 32:43] with the beauty.
I think this industry is a really difficult one. If I didn't love to make art, I wouldn't do it. My art is my life, my life is my art. One of the things that is really important for artists is to if they want to make it as an artist, is to show up. Show up for many things, just show up every day you can to do work. Show up with people you want to build relationships with so that you can show work. to show up, once you start getting funding…One of the worst things to do is to get rejected and give up; don't give up. If you want funding, apply every year like you're paying your taxes because they will see you and see your growth and get tired of you and give you some money. Just show up. I love to give sage advice to anyone who wants to listen because I haven't had very good advice given to me upon people who really want to see me succeed.
My best friend just got a Guggenheim. He applied every year for several years, and he got a Guggenheim and Creative Capital grant. This is what you do, you continue. For the grant, I got to go to the headlines, that was what brought me to California in 2002. I think I applied seven years in a row, and in the last three years, I was on the waitlist, and then I was an honorable mention. Then in the third year…They invite you to do a personal interview. Then because of that interview, I was an alternate. They're like, "If someone backs out, then you can go." The next year, I was so prepared, I was so ready with all my answers, and I had all the ducks in a row. Then they said, "Willie, you know, you don't need to work so hard, baby. You've already, you know, you got it. You got it." I was so diligent going back, but I'm like, "I'm going to show you how good I am."
Do not take your work into a gallery to say, "Can you exhibit my work?" Build a relationship with a gallery owner, be seen, come and talk to them and get to know them. But never go crazy trying to show them how great you are, just talk. Then the other way is to have someone refer you because I know that if you've never shown before, that's always a catch 22, but you just have to kind of keep showing up again. Just keep showing up and just building relationships. I think that's the best way.
Joni Whitworth: Welcome to 2020! I hope you're easing into the New Year. The artists of Future Prairie have just returned from a snowy residency at the Suttle Lodge in Sisters, Oregon. We had a great time hiking in the forest, making and sharing new work and planning for upcoming shows. Thank you to the Suttle Lodge for hosting us and making our stay so memorable.
We're also celebrating this week because we just got the news that we've received a grant from the Multnomah County Cultural Coalition to continue our programming. This funding is going to help a lot to offset the rising cost of production and transcription and publishing our podcasts. We’re very grateful to the grant committee there for recognizing our hard work.
Today we're going to hear from Kyra Rickards. She's a model poet and actress exploring art and expression through gesture. In this episode, she reads some beautiful poems from her new book, Crescent Moon, and talks about making art as a woman of color.
Kyra Rickards: Hi, my name is Kyra. I'm a poet and a freelance model here in Portland. I just self-published my very first book of poetry. It's called Crescent Moon.
I'm a mixed race woman of color. I'm Filipino and half white, born in Hawaii, and then I moved here when I was a kid. Everyone I grew up with was like, mixed race or they’re people of color, except for my dad and my brother. And then I moved here and all of a sudden I was a minority. It took a long time to sort of renegotiate my identity. It's a strange thing where people know you're different because they can see the color of your skin so they automatically other you, but then they don't want to talk about it, but then they really want to talk about it.
People define Asian-ness as what they are familiar with. How do I take that and articulate the pain of otherness and , create art from it? And also, how do I create for myself a source of strength from it? , while growing up, I always loved reading and writingI'd always thought of myself as , “Oh, you know, , I do poetry as a hobby.” And then I discovered modelling. , this is such a different and interesting way to interpret art and to use my body in a new way that I had never really experimented with before because I was , there's no way that anyone's going to cast a short brown skinned Asian girl , you have to look a particular way if you're an Asian model.
Poem: After the Cold Moon
I think of myself in parts. Remove teeth, line them together along the cell. Small white stones, I sow to call me home after I have forgotten the hour.
Poem: After July
My silhouette in the afternoon fill space between gaps and conversation, the arch of you leaning back, but I am distracted. Come closer. Let me kiss the tips of your fingers. Let me remember movement, the warmth of midsummer on your mouth.
I did a project with my friend Salimatu this summer about mixed race identity. We did a short video and photo set on film. And we were talking about the tension that you feel as a multi ethnic person growing up and how people always want to figure out what you are and make you choose. And that's the thing; people always want to make you choose. Andthe project that we did was about occupying and owning that middle space of identity.that was really wonderful and beautiful to do. And it was a great way to intersect all these things that I've been thinking about for a long time with also modeling. It's also a great source of empowerment to be , okay, here I am. I’m a woman of color. I’m a brown Asian woman of color, and I'm finally being able to make a mark visually in a way that I want to, and to create art in a way that I want to.
There's pressure people of color who write, to write only about that experience. But being a person of color isn't always about pain. And just because I'm not writing about my identity doesn't mean that it's not steeped into my work. How I think about love and how I think about touch and how I think about connection has everything to do with my identity as a person of color.
Poem: After Making Small Talk
I keep this silence, this mouthful of desire, a low chorus repeating. Maybe it’s the scent of you. Maybe it is the weight that makes me soft beneath your teeth, making love a slow sigh exhaled singing. What always come back to this moment. I want to be lost. I want to lose track of my breathe.
I always find myself coming back to this idea. The idea is to make everything different and make everything matter differently and to feel unique and being , okay, how can we make something new different and unique and cool every single time and really innovate and bring forth voices and uplift voices that haven't been heard before, or show experiences that haven't been depicted before?
Poem: After Leaving My Window Open Overnight While it Rained
Tender hearted lost sigh of summer, come here. I had something to tell you but I swallowed it and let it simmer deep in my belly where it grows sweet white tooth and gentle. There is nothing to fear, is there? It is only the kind of dark that is velvet and billowing, a quiet welcome curling and pooling over the cell.