Oregon Humanities Grant
Oregon Humanities has awarded our podcast, Future Prairie Radio, a 2021 award of recognition for social practice-based arts. Season Four was produced, recorded remotely, and transcribed during quarantine. You can listen to the podcast here. Thank you to our recent guests, to those of you who help spread the word about show notes and interviews, to sound engineer and editor Mat Larimer, and to OH for their financial support and leadership as we co-create the future of a healthy, thriving, sustainable Oregon.
Future Prairie Radio Season Four Episode Three: What Speaks to Me with Steven Christian
My name is Steven Christian. I go by he, him pronouns. I'm from the Bay Area in California, and I was a former football player. I retired from playing football after having two hip surgeries, I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to play at the University of Hawaii and then Oregon State University. Afterward, I sort of dove into the creative arts as a means of expression, and it provided some opportunities for me to make a living. One of the things was, I did a documentary on student-athlete rights, and the effects of college sports on athletes, and how it affects them later on in life.
From there, I've decided to come to Portland and journey down the road of trying to become a physician as a medical student and then on to a primary care physician. Throughout that journey, some of the experiences of creating work in Portland, as a creative artist and as a teaching artist, focus around finding the opportunities in health education and in medicine. It's been rewarding. You know, technically, I'm a full-stack augmented reality mobile developer. All that means is I make augmented reality experiences with mobile devices that incorporate all the senses to improve equity in a lot of different spaces in art and tech.
I would say that the AR piece is the new piece in the puzzle. Most of it has been focused on visual storytelling and New Media Communications with video production, primarily animation, video editing, and stuff. But with the introduction of AR into my skill set, it's expanded to me being able to create experiences that people can access on their mobile devices holistically and then take those digital content pieces and bring them into the real world to expand that interaction and that knowledge.
With being a physician, we see many opportunities—within the AR space— we're seeing many options in medical training and medical education that I hope to continue pursuing as I become a physician. I'm a retired football player, and the journey from playing to real life has been fascinating. I spent my time trying to find myself for the past five years, and I've stumbled across a few things that have stuck, obviously with comics and animation, and I have focused on community-oriented and culturally relevant visual storytelling. That stuff has defined who I am and described what I do as a creator.
Most of my stuff, which is actually relevant now than it ever has been. But a lot of my work focuses on what the Black experience is, and how Black people in particular, or particularly kids that have a lack of role models in specific areas like medicine and business, and seeing how they have those aspirations. I explore fantastical, quirky, whimsical stories that I can tell with lead Black characters, which take the essence of the Black experience dealing with racism and police brutality and all those things? How can I make a story that resonates with people? How can I make a story that resonates with people but still has an impact that forces people to question the experiences that people have that they probably shouldn't have because of their skin color and stuff?
That approach has definitely been a long journey. Obviously, it came to a head this summer, with everything that's been going on. I feel fortunate to have had the time behind me to sort of develop these stories out so that I know how to approach telling them in a time that is definitely pertinent. Again, for me being a part of the Black community in Portland and going down those stereotypical trajectories for young Black men, looking at where I'm now, it's interesting to see that this is where my life is turned to, rather than being in the NFL.
Eyelnd Feevr is my pride and joy. I would say I started Eyelnd Feevr as a portfolio piece to get hired when I was working on the documentary. I wanted to hone in on the idea that, like the #Oscarsowhite thing and the rise of the concept of Black Superheroes Matter, and all that, we weren't necessarily seeing a lot of adventure stories with Black characters in it. I started this back in 2015, 2016, so there was nothing. So I put pen to paper and started writing out stories, adventures that were relevant to me, but that spoke to the broader concept of what diversity looks like in adventure stories.
I've used Eyelnd Feevr as a way to explore the different mediums that I'm interested in, whether it's digital 2D animation, whether it's 3D animation, whether it's actual physical comic books, or comic strips, or even 100-page graphic novels. The project has lent itself to that, and with Eyelnd Feevr, sort of expanding. I would say it's come into its own in a way that I'm pretty proud of because of the inundation of emerging technology with it. Every book that I create in the Eyelnd Feevr series ends up being a test of the extent of emerging technology, particularly augmented reality in it.
In the grand scheme of things, I make augmented reality comic books, where you have the text in your hand, and you can read it as a regular graphic novel. If you have your mobile device on with you, you could shine your phone over the pages, and it sort of brings the book to life to where you could read a regular book, you could watch a video, or you can listen to it on an audiobook. It creates an immersive experience that incorporates the visuals, a little bit of the textual dynamics, and the auditory pieces that make it just immersive.
Fortunately, the Coronavirus and everything has allowed me to focus on it a lot more because nobody's going outside, and there are not as many distractions. Unfortunately, I've had to shift gears from relying on third-party sources to manufacture the books, create everything, and promote things. My goal was to go to every bookstore across Portland and try to get the book in there and do conventions. But all that stuff has pretty much been shut down for the rest of the year.
So for me, it's been trying to hone in on creating the product. When the opportunity lends itself, I'm going to look at digital avenues and stuff like that. So it's definitely been interesting. One of the big things that I guess I try to undersell is that all the books are made by hand because I make them by hand, which creates a unique experience for the reader. Because from start to finish, outside of the paper and ink, all that stuff is made by me. As a creator, that's one of the more powerful things to do, especially with books because you don't often read a handmade book that checks a lot of boxes on the unique scale, with emerging technology and augmented reality, there's an app, and they're also made by hand.
I do all my printing through the Soul District Business Association, a community organization or nonprofit in north northeast Portland. But outside of that, yeah, I got a printer, a bookbinder, and then I have a tape, like a label maker that allowed me to print all the information on the spine. Then I design all the pages, illustrate, write, and put the book together to design and print it out. I have a paper cutter, like a stack paper cutter, so I put the books together, put the spine on, and then I start cutting the books. After that, I interface with the app, and then I put it out there, then people buy the books and stuff online and download the app.
I make about 20 to 30 books each round. I've been logging who buys the books and stuff. I've been logging how many books I make. There'll be a letter in the book, and there'll be a number corresponding to that. That lets you know what batch of books I made this from and the number on that batch of books. Roscoe was the last character that I've developed in the series, which is interesting because he's the main character, and everything's pretty much focused around him now. I initially created him as sort of the antagonistic kind of annoying character similar to Cartman in South Park, where he's annoying. He was a side character to my previous main character, TJ.
I started to sit down and think about like, okay, when I'm looking at an adventure story, and I'm looking at the character dynamics, what speaks to me? For Roscoe, he's adventurous, he's outspoken, he's all that, and TJ is sort of the soft-spoken, supportive leader, or supportive dependable person that Roscoe goes to. So I started to develop stories out of what would happen with an experience that stays true to the character; it lent itself to Roscoe. But more importantly, for me as a creator, I develop both of those characters as sort of two sides of the same coin. I have my own experiences that I sort of revere, and the people I revere, particularly with my father, and my relationship with that, and being an athlete.
Roscoe is the athletic one who didn't have a relationship with his father, and TJ is the stable home one that wasn't an athlete. So with it, I sort of explore what my life would be like in this weird fantastical way if I didn't have one of those two things in my life. it's definitely allowed me to reflect on my experiences because I find myself in my life trying to find ways to be successful in things that I'm not necessarily well-versed in. I have the idea of the American Dream. That speaks to Roscoe's drive, but what that American Dream looks like is up for debate. It's subjective. For me, and for other Black people across the country, outside of sports, and entertainment, that idea of achieving the American Dream is something that you don't know, you don't understand, and you don't see your capacity in until you're given opportunities and exposure.
For Roscoe, he's trying to put himself out there to get that exposure. Unfortunately, he doesn't have much direction with it, and he's likely to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing because he doesn't know. that's what drives the story because there's a dynamic where the world of Utopia plays on the idea of race, and plays on the idea that there's the human race, then there's other races. The concept of different races interacting with each other allows me to exploit that idea and talk about police brutality in a visceral way but doesn't hit close to home, as it were if it was two people attacking people. This is the beauty and joy of being creative, being able to tell these stories that resonate with people and develop characters that speak to me, but also talk to the broader audience. see them see the growth in it, and that's been great.
I am trying to get into medical school right now. This is my third time applying. I recently applied back in 2017. I took a gap year because it's expensive. It's taxing on your mental health, your physical health, all those different things. I took a gap year, I applied last year in 2019. I ended up getting two interviews, but I wasn't fortunate enough to make it to the other side. So I am currently in my third application cycle right now. I will be going back to writing my personal statement and putting together all my work and experiences, and putting together the application, and scraping together every ounce of pennies, and nickels, and dimes that I could find to pay for all this stuff.
I was a health and wellness coach before the Coronavirus and everything. Now I'm sort of biding my time to get back into the healthcare space. I didn't get my rejections till the end of April, like, April/May, and then I didn't get my feedback sessions to last month, and applications opened up last month. So I spent like three weeks trying to figure out if I actually wanted to apply this cycle or wait till the next process. So it wasn't until last Monday that I officially decided to apply to medical school. Then that's when an onslaught of reality hit where it's like, I got to do this, this, this, this, this, this. Then I got to come up with $1200.
For primaries, I have all the schools that I'm applying to, I'm applying to 30 schools, which is actually not a lot, that's sort of the expectation. If you applied to less than 20, then you're not applying enough. It's one big primary application where they have your personal statement. They have your work and experiences, your "disadvantage" statement, letters of recommendation, all your coursework and everything, that is your cover letter, and then you send that in. I'm sending it to 30 schools, but it'll cost me around $1200 for that. You pay that price; can't write it off in your taxes, nothing like that. Then you hope that you don't get immediate rejections, and any schools that respond back to you, they'll send you a secondary. The primary is around $45, the secondaries are about $100. Then you have another wave of applications where it's probably three to seven questions, and they're all essay questions, so around 700 words for each question. Typically, half of the responses will come with secondaries. You submit the secondaries, fill those out, submit those to the specific schools because they're all school-specific. Then you pay that $100 for each one of those, which will probably run me another 1500; then from there, you get interviews. Last year, I got two interviews, so I had to fly out and do all that stuff. They're going to be doing those remotely this time, so I don't have to travel, which will save me money. After that, you wait and see if you get in.
That's pretty much the journey that I've been going through for the past three years. There's so many different things, and it's interesting to see how the Coronavirus has perpetuated those inequities, where people in certain areas can't take the MCAT and because they can't take the MCAT, it's hard for them to apply and make their applications more competitive, and then you can't get clinical experiences. You're not working in healthcare. You're not volunteering and shadowing. You can't even do any of the stuff you want to do to show that you want to be a physician and staff.
Much like everything else, the Coronavirus is definitely exploiting many of these flaws in these institutions that are not necessarily known for their diversity. I'm curious to see the lasting effects of this on the pathway towards being a physician. We're going to be in a pandemic, for at least the next year or so, based on empirical evidence. So I'm curious to see how this moment will affect so many industries over the next 10 years because this is like the great depression for us.
It's one thing that people are dying, and people are losing their livelihoods and stuff. it's another thing to see the perpetuation of inequity and how that sort of furthers the gaps between people and communities. I'm curious to see what some of the solutions will be. Hopefully, the work that I'm doing with emerging technology and trying to get more Black people into emerging technology, health education, training, storytelling, I hope that I end up being on the right side of history with this. For me, it's a matter of sticking to my guns and seeing how I can sort of leave an impact with the work that I do.
I know what it feels to not see—to not even be aware of something, not even saying that it was impossible or possible, just, it wasn't even on the radar. Once things start to become more—I become more aware of things. It kind of came to that conversation. That a level of imposter syndrome that a lot of Black people have is just, "I'm doing this, I have interest and stuff, but will I get the opportunity to show what I can do? When I do have that opportunity, because I don't see people doing it, will I be able to rise to the occasion?" and that is a real thing that, like, for me, at least there's not a lot of people in AR. So when I put something out, I'm self-conscious that it's going to break when somebody downloads it, or I'm self-conscious that this is going to be a brief reflection of why there isn't diversity in the space because I wasn't able to see the project through and live up to, the expectation.
The beauty and curse of Twitter are some people feel that way, the same reason some people don't see the grounds for making AR hardware cheaper or having low-cost solutions for head-mounted displays. There's a sect of people in the industry that only care about enterprise solutions, only care about things that cost $3000 to $4000 for entry-level points, only care about those corporate branded sorts of solutions for AR, rather than some kind of consumer-oriented ones that are low-cost solutions, which are the things that I focus on.
In the distant future, I guess continuing the AR work that I'm doing as a creator, as a developer, and as sort of a teaching artist. I do a lot of teaching to get people to learn how to create comics and stuff. Now that I'm in the AR space and emerging technology, I'm trying to incorporate a lot of that skill set of teaching into the work that I'm doing, to where I'm teaching people how to do the projects that I'm making, and developing online curriculum around those things. So that's one of the immediate things that I'm continually building out now and putting out. Hopefully, as we get towards the beginning of the year, I get accepted into medical school. I get to sort of close some doors that I currently have open now and open more doors towards a different career that is sort of tangential to some kind of creative stuff that I'm doing.
For me, my role in AR is one to sort of being a use case for why there should be more diversity and emergent technology., with the work that I'm doing, particularly with Island Fever, I'm trying to find an opportunity to create a seamless, low-cost, immersive experience for physical books. I want to do that because, you know, books in and of themselves are the essence of us knowing anything and everything; they're the conduits for us to explore and learn and all those things. Any YouTube video, any speaker, anything comes from their ability to read, parse down information, and transmit data to others.
The only problem is, now particularly with the Black community, is that illiteracy rates are high. That's because there's stories that people don't identify with, people don't have access to the right books, and many reasons that are byproducts of lack of equity. So creating books and telling stories to sort of get books in the hands of Black kids and set them down this road of learning to read and appreciating books.
With Augmented Reality and stuff, it's sort of lowering the bar of entry barriers for early readers and people who haven't necessarily appreciated literature growing up or in their lives. So even if it's gimmicky or with bells and whistles, by adding sound, adding video, incorporating more senses, into the reading experience, so that they are eager to pick up the next book and go down that journey again. For me, that gives me the most joy when I'm developing and coding and animating at two o'clock in the morning. It's like, okay, this is why I'm doing it, and this is the angle that I have. Hopefully, I get to that angle sooner rather than later.
I approached everything as I approached football. So with football, there were specific reasons why you did certain things. Those were sort of, you built some kind of tasks around doing those things to achieve the end goal of winning a national championship every year, or getting a scholarship or getting drafted. Those were always, like, the specific goals. You sort of mapped out the trajectory for that. So when I retired, I realized that that part of me didn't quit. It was still there. It sort of drove me to explore other things and get that sort of fix that football gave me despite it not being there. So what I've done in my creative career, my journey towards medicine, is make a lot of lists. I have a wall with a dry erase wallpaper on it, and I have tons of dry erase markers. I literally have a wall, that the sole purpose of that wall is for me to write down ideas and mind map how I go from the concept to the actual thing I want to achieve. It feels great to go to the wall and erase one thing because I accomplished it. I sort of continued to do that repeatedly until I sort of reached the point that I could erase everything off the wall and figure out a new goal and continue that. The other thing has been time management and time management to juggle different projects throughout the day and throughout the week or the month.
I want to make more money and learn new skills. I'll do that right when I wake up, it will be from 8 o'clock to 10 or 11, and that time is solely for me to learn something new, learn something about blender, learn something about 3D modeling, or if I saw a tutorial video on YouTube, it's like, "Okay, I'm going to watch that video and learn about that new skill in the morning," and then once 10 or 11 hits, then I go about my day. I work on the different projects that I want to do.
Those have been the two things that I encourage other people to sort of look into or add to their work or whatever it is, finding ways to have a wall or space or a document to throw ideas on there and then look at that, be able to get out of your head and look at what's in front of you and say okay, how can I get from point A to point B? and then you make lines. You try to connect them in feasible ways. Then put the time in and block out your time to understand how long it's going to take and make the idea less of an idea and more of reality with actions.