Monday, July 25, 2011

Things are Cookin' in Fairbanks

The Summer Arts Festival is half over and even though we've only been at it a week, I feel like I've done enough work for several months.  I'm not burning-out yet; this exhaustion is a good feeling.  It is truly a saturation experience.  We're talking about and doing work with poetry, fiction, and essays.  We are also working on a handmade book compilation of some of our shorter pieces.  And somehwere in there, I fit in with some performative, embodied considerations for art and writing.  We burn our candle at both ends, it will not last the night -- which suggests an even faster rate of combustion, considering how relatively nonexistent the nights are up here this time of year.

Let's imagine for a moment that the students (er, "registrants") aren't exhausted and over stimulated; let's posit that we are helping draw connections between this mixed bag of offerings.  We are in the thick of it all with one week to go.  For sure, anxieties are high.  "Surely, my writing would be further along," some posit, "if not for this book project."  Others choose not to engage embodiment and performance.  Most of the folks here are participating for their own "enrichment;" who can really argue with their choices not to engage in certain dishes at the buffet?

But for those who are?  I think there is a rich synergy that is happening across our various activities.  How often do writers think about composition not as wordcraft but as the aesthetic placement of "objects" on a page?  Turns out the good ones think about that a lot.  Certainly the book making process encourages them to embrace the materiality of reading and writing as well as acknowledge both (a) the layered process of production and (b) the need to commit and commit quickly to decisions in a collaborative project ("first thought, best thought," I tell them).

I also tell these folks a little about my process.  How I work an idea in multiple media at the same time.  Try writing about it.  Try drawing it out.  Collage some photographs.  Improvise a monologue.  Find a gesture.  At some point, the idea settles into what it wants to be: a performance, a poem, a painting -- sometimes all three, sometimes all at once.  But always the different ways of approaching the idea influence each other -- call this a kind of "lateral thinking."

I know, for some this approach is profoundly uncomfortable.  What does waxing a car really have to do with karate, Mr. Miyagi?  But when you relax into it, when you trust the process, you discover that pretty much everything plays a role in creative expression, whatever the medium.  Even a walk in the woods is part of the writing process (in my experience, often the most important part).

Of course, so much creative energy can ignite a fire...and sometimes that is not so good in the woods.  Metaphors have these tricky ways of becoming material.  This weekend there has been a large wildfire blazing in the woods south of Fairbanks.  I know our creative sparks didn't light it.  But that tang in the air is a reminder about what happens to energy released on fertile ground, where tender awaits to ignite.

I think our students are lighting a different kind of fire...if they can just get over their fear of matches.  And their belief that rigid categorical distinctions will keep them warm, or keep them from getting burned.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

At the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival

I found my way to Alaska again.  This time I am working with the creative writing faculty for the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival.  Curious turn of events (networking and chance) how I ended up with this gig: it turns out writers (some of 'em, anyway) are interested in more than writing.  I am interested in the embodied nature of writing, in trying to understand it not only as a cerebral craft but as something that involves our entire being.

So, that makes me the exercise and "invention" guy.  I'm the one (but not the only one) who will get participants out of their chairs and moving about and then reflecting on movement as something that also happens on a page. 

Sitting in the auditorium at the openning kick-off of the festival, I am struck by the richness of the arts in this far north little town.  The breadth of programs in this 30 year-old festival includes lots of music (classical, jazz, world, celtic, opera, etc), a little drama, visual arts (painting and photography), healing arts, some dance, some film, and creative writing.  But I also struggle a bit with identity "crisis" -- where do I fit in this mix?  I, a cartoonist, solo-performer, poet, blogger, social media artist, seem to ride the cusp and cracks of so many of these "fine" arts.

And so I land in the creative writing program, but this is unlike many creative writing programs.  Here we not only practice poetry and essays in writing circles, we also make handmade books and (thanks to me) explore stage pictures and dynamic movement and improvisational sound production.  And I'm pretty sure the participants are eager for the opportunity.  Here, on the frontier, there circulates a rich community of folks eager to create and to combine, to explore in new ways, to abandon rules and conventions, and to set out into new and uncharted territories.  God love 'em!

But so, how will it go?  Well, time permitting, I'll check in with my perspective.  But if you are curious, you might follow one of our "students" (an accomplished science fiction novelist) at her blog where she will be (I believe) filing daily reports of what she learns with us.  I hope we don't let her down; I'd hate to become the model for a vile alien parasite in a future novel.  A writer's revenge is never something to be taken lightly!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Self-Pic and Primates

So, I've been fascinated for the last week or so by this picture. It's a self-portrait. The macaque took this smiling picture of herself. Sure, one could use this to start a conversation about authorship of a photograph, as some have.

What engages me, though, is the expression. The practice. The photo fits so many of the genre formulas of the self-pic. That this monkey can reproduce recognizable codes without apparent access to knowledge of and intent to produce a photograph matters little (to me, anyway). This is what we do with cameras (or stinky whir boxes that flash and go click). I prefer those pictures where we forget we're making pictures, anyway.

So here I look into the eyes of a non-human Other and see something recognizable. Rather than being freaked out by the "uncanny" (as if the macaque is a strangely animated thing), I see joy and wonder. And a big toothy smile.

When we aren't treating our primate cousins as nuisances or exotic entertainment, we amuse ourselves with stories of their vengeful rise to power. How much nicer it is to look into the eyes of the Other and encounter both similarity and alterity. If our guilt (so few species have really benefitted from associating with us) leads us to fear, that is at least understandable. But I think regret is better than fear -- regret for the missed opportunities. What vacations, parties, rituals, or adventures might we have shared, with or without the camera?

In this case, it's all about what makes you smile.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

A Resurrection with Toons

Page from "Vacation on the Moon"
A little over a year after I made it, "Vacation on the Moon" appears this week in print in Palooka 2.  That's actually amazing turnaround.  For a short abstract(ish) comic I made in the wake of a visit home, more therapy than an honest attempt to make art anyone would want to publish, that work has gone farther than I dreamed possible.  But then, I guess our best work comes from dark places and serves other purposes than "just making" something.

The "therapy" part worries me, though.  I've spent much of my career cautioning folks about engaging in therapy publicly.  Beware, I tell the neophyte public speaker, of going places with an audience you are not ready to go -- they are not paid to listen and be kind.  To the experienced performer recently enamored of confessional narrative and the chance to air personal pain, I remind: there has to be something more to your story than just what concerns you; it needs to reach a broader audience and speak to some level of shared experience.  Even if therapy is not a "scare word," we should at least remember that, for it to work, all parties involved should be aware they are entering a therapeutic context and consent to the "treatment" -- we record this wisdom with impressive concepts like "norm of reciprocity" and "expectancy violation."

"Light," a one page comic.
So what of my little comic?  I made it in the week after a summer visit to my parents with my partner.  Those visits are always hard, all the harder for being such a cloyingly sweet concoction of pleasures and pains, memories and loss.  Yet there was a new specter last summer, coiling in the shadows and conversational pauses.  My mother seemed, well, different and not quite all there.  And my father, separated from her for nearly twenty years but still a good friend, seemed to be disappearing into his own isolation and the consequences of limited human interaction.  It was a visit about being (and trying not to be) horrified at what age is doing to my earliest loved ones; it was a visit about struggling to be present, to be visible as I am in the face of those with failing eyesight and faulty memory and too many preferences for who they think I am (or should be).

"Crepuscular Avuncular," some recent digital art.
Returning from that trip, I buried myself in ink and pages.  Words came reluctantly, but images flowed.  Inspired by abstract comics and poemics, I wanted a language that resisted narrative and certainty but could still be (productively?) about something.  Mostly, though, I was flailing in a kind of despair, reluctant to get out of bed, uncertain about pretty much everything.  So was born "Vacation on the Moon,"  and after a few pages it caught a kind of momentum that is hard to describe but beautiful to experience -- a "high" one could spend a lifetime chasing.  It moved quickly from sketchbook to digital processing to finding a suitable publication venue.  With the relatively quick news that it was accepted for publication, I felt something in me shift, perhaps waking, perhaps reminding me it had always been there.  This is, in part, what art (visual, verbal, tactile, etc.) is for -- not just in the making, but also in the sharing.

A little over a year later and those pages seem even more prescient.  My mother is now diagnosed not with Alzheimer's but with vascular dementia.  She now lives in an independent living facility with in-home care, though getting her there was no easy task.  The dementia and its complications came on her with a vengeance in late fall, and the holiday season required a difficult family intervention.  So much of the conversation in the family was retrospective sense-making, looking back for signs and wondering if we could or should have intervened sooner.  I look back at "Vacation on the Moon" and see in it the pre-tremors of a major quake, full of harbingers and warnings.

"Klexmur, Alien Reporter," a weekly comic originally
published at the now defunct Black Magpie Theory.
I look in the back of Palooka at my cheeky bio and wonder who that guy is.  It points readers to this blog if they want more.  And yet, this blog hasn't really been a home for my musings and art for several months.  I've been around.  I've found Tumblr and its preference for short-form ("micro") blogging and reblogging.  I've participated on more than one collaborative blog -- I had a weekly comic strip on one (that is now shifting to another).  I was the primary coordinator for a social media performance/art event that, ultimately, landed me in the pages of ARTnews this summer.  In other words, I've been keeping busy...just not here.

Recent "Self Portrait"
I think that is about to change.  It is time to come back to this blog and let it be a home for art and contemplation.  Maybe also to let it be, in some small and responsible way, a kind of therapy.  But rest assured, I know that these confessions must reach a broader audience, speak to some sense of shared experiences.

Let me know if they do.