Future Prairie Radio Season Three Episode Fifteen: Through Questions About Hands with Arcadia Trueheart
My name is Arcadia Trueheart, and I use she/her pronouns. I grew up in Portland, Oregon. The first and probably most significant influence on me becoming an artist was being raised by parents who are working artists. Art was always much integrated into my life. There was a seriousness about it because it was the work; it was how my parents made a living. I was involved in that. I was always on job sites with them and around their studio and making things on the sidelines. It was also integrated, and our relationship and are in play, and I'm an only child, I have a close relationship with my parents. We would go on road trips and spend a lot of time quietly drawing and painting wherever we were on the coast or in Eastern Oregon.
Art was also the unspoken religion of our family. By that, I mean looking closely, being observant, and appreciating beauty and truth. That was a big part of what they taught me or more, what they modeled to me, and my life growing up. Now I have a lot of gratitude for them for everything they taught me.
I wanted to be different than them and find a way to be my own person. I got into theater and performance, which to me, felt different than visual art. I was involved with circus theater with aerial dance and more traditional theater and acting as a teenager in my early 20s.
A big part of that was exploring my queer identity. I wasn't out at all as being gay at the time. I was curious about the different ways of being and how other people are. It felt this hidden something about myself that was different than other people. It made me curious about all the ways that people are, especially internally, and what we might not see about other people what their experiences are.
Over time, theater more became not this exploration of personalities for myself but learning about theater and social practices. I spent time living in Guatemala and Bolivia. In those countries, I had the opportunity to observe and participate in several different groups that use theater of the oppressed and theater in a healing modality. That has inspired my work, and it's important to me to have that social justice practice through theater. Stories should be amplified in that way and shared in that way, specifically by the people whose stories they are.
Handmade Stories, that project, the seed of that started when I was in college, and I went to Western Washington University up in Bellingham. I took this radical theater class, and we were supposed to create an assignment for ourselves that brought randomness into our work and chance. I made myself a series of clues to go around town and whoever I ran into a task if I could draw a portrait of them, but I quickly realized that it would be less intimidating for both me and the person I was talking to if I drew their hands.
The project was to draw their hands. I would do that, but while I was drawing their hands, they would start telling me about their hands. Through that, they would tell me all about their lives. There was one person, in particular, I remember who is a painter. He told me how two weeks earlier he had gone blind in one of his eyes and how, because his vision has had changed, he could use his hand, and his brush had also changed, which made what he made differently and changed what he painted. Stories like that fascinate me.
Several years later, I applied for a grant with Awesome Portland to do a project in which I interview people specifically about their vocation through the lens of their hands. I ask what their hands do in their careers and how their experience with that informs them. I began to see that hands could be a map.
I remember interviewing one person who is a farmer. He was showing me his hands and going through every scar or mark on them. Each of those held an entire story about his family — where he lived growing up, his culture, religion, healing practices. In that project, I displayed those drawings in public parks, and we invite whoever was walking by to come and write their story on the back of a pre-printed postcard. I sent all those postcards around. Everybody got a postcard from an anonymous other person in Portland with a story about their hands. It wasn't much part of that grant or that project between recorded interviews, but I decided to anyway.
When I applied for this grant with RACC (the Regional Arts and Culture Council in Portland, Oregon), Handmade Stories Live, the idea was to bring these recorded interviews to life somehow. I love interviewing and oral history, and that's part of what I studied in college. A transcript or recording that gets archived away somewhere doesn't do justice to the initial interaction's aliveness. Especially with that project, I was often interviewing people at their place of work. I was in the back of somebody's food cart, in their metal shop, or on their farm. Those were such rich encounters. I felt a selfish experience that I got to have this encounter and gifted with the stories of the people I was talking to.
I wanted to find a way to bring live performance, which I believe can bring much life and heart and energy to whatever the subject is. I can use these interviews as the inspiration for live performance using shadow puppetry, as well as live music and edited audio from those original images views and poems that I've written in response to them, and to combine that into a performance for the public to watch.
I started this project two years ago as a rebellion against technology or wanting to remind people of the importance of touch and physical connection and being in the same place as somebody. Also, to see more and more, jobs and skills that are done with the hands are undervalued and not paid in the same way, and jobs done with the hands touching a keypad are valued in such a different way. That was an essential part of the project for me.
How do I bring in technology? I do appreciate technology during this time, mostly, and that it's been important for many people. That's a question that I have going into the performance now: how to hold both of those things.
My work is connected to the body. It has been since I was 11 years old doing aerial dance and expressing myself through my body. Through learning about masks and puppetry, having an opportunity to create a body outside of a human, putting life back into an inanimate object, learning about other people's stories through their bodies, and asking people questions about their hands, I've developed my work.
This pandemic quarantine — I live alone — has made me look inward and start looking at my own body, which I didn't use to do. My art was always about understanding other people's bodies and stories. During this time, I started exploring, what is it to touch my body, and how does that experience look visually? I love painting and drawing as a visual language to describe an experience you can't express in words.
It's vital that audiences that the stories they are hearing will inform them in some way, which will inform how they are moving in the world in the future. My hope with that is for more curiosity and compassion, you know, hearing some people start understanding that these are people who live in Portland. Their hands hold a vast wealth of stories. Let's bring more curiosity into it. What are other people's hands like in this city and what do they know, and what have they experienced?
I want to continue along this path of exploring my body's interior experiences and sharing that technique — the way that I'm doing it. I'm exploring how it would work best for others to do it. Others can take the time to get them to get to know themselves physically and express that visually.
I've been working with a friend of mine who is a theater artist as well. We're exchanging images with experiences of touching our body and creating dance movement pieces inspired by those images. We're sending them back and forth to each other, which has been a beautiful way to connect that's not in-person or touching. It feels healing. It feels healing for my relationship with my body, as well. I want to bring healing into art. That's always something that I've admired in other artists.
I admire the artist Lily Yay, who's worked around the world. She's Chinese and has worked in places worldwide, creating art with people who have experienced a lot of distress. That experience of people being involved in their healing and collective healing, by going through that process with other people, is something that I'm looking forward to working on.
A significant influence for me is the theater of the oppressed, which is based on the idea that ordinary people — people who aren't necessarily trained actors or performers — are involved in practicing a future they want to see. Whether that is standing up to their oppressors, or interrupting discrimination and oppression, or creating better relationships with each other, you know, it's not a technique that I have spent a lot of time doing personally. It's something that I admire. that even outside of that specific technique, and it's a particular way of doing theater, but that all theater and performance should be a practice for reality. You know, it's improvisation, and it is real. It's this opportunity to create something real now, but that's a practice for life.
The biggest thing for me is having limits. By limits, I mean structure. Some of the limitations that, you know that are pretty easy are limits on what materials you're using, how much time you have to make something and how much space you have to make it in, and what you're making it about. If about, you know, if you had all the materials in the world in front of you, you can make something about anything. as much time as you want it to make it, it would be overwhelming. It also might not be poignant and specific. I would say to others that we all have these restrictions already. Be grateful to them, use them as a guide and structure, and limit it even further.
I'll make an assignment or an exercise for myself. I will listen to the news for half an hour, and I will make something for half an hour using only paper I find in the recycling bin. It's not the thing that I'm making is this masterpiece, but it is about the process of being creative. The whole debate about round process versus product, I do believe in a high-quality product. That is important to me. The process is about practicing, and it's about practicing being concentrated and absorbed in something and spontaneous within that and playful!
"Handmade Stories" was about limits and structure I made for myself. I was only going to draw people's hands, and I was going to ask them about their lives and talk about their hands. Having that limit, not asking about their experiences in general, brought up much more specific stories that illuminated who they were more extensively. Working on the "Handmade Stories Live" project for performance, I'm working on setting limits. I listen to the recordings. I'll type whatever words or phrases catch my eye and catch my ear and that I can type fast enough. I use all of those to put into a poem. I cut up small pieces of paper and make 20-inch drawings that are inspired by that poem. Maybe one of those ink drawings inspires a shadow puppet that I will make for the show. That can be done quickly, creating a limit of time and material and subject, and playing within those boundaries.