Posts by mnezam:
The fluorescent light bore down but had a way of beating off her skin like daylight. The way her son put it, she could turn anything around.
She built her empire in the water, of the water. She knew her empire was her skin and bones. The extent of her story she carried on her back; it’s what went with her through the water. It was heavy in the air, but light when she was submerged.
In her fuchsia and black swimsuit she held, floating on her back, a post-swim ritual. If you were looking from the sky she would look dead to you, her eyes closed and her palms resting upward.
As he watched her swim, he — the perfect student — found himself forgetting about his math homework.
“Lisette, honey.” Lisette slowly opened her eyes. “It’s time to go home,” the strapping lifeguard said, holding his floatation devices this way and that. Lisette blinked as her vision slowly settled into his face. “Where to?” she joked and reached for his hands.
Home was home. It was where Lisette put up her swim cap, where she slept for a few hours a night, where she got her mail, took her pills. Nothing more.
In her earlier life, Lisette had been an international businesswoman. She sold subsidized supplies to NGOs. Her work took her all over the world, and her children had a hard time tracking her down. When Sherry passed away it was even harder. Sherry had been the messenger, the graspable thing when their mother was like air. If Lisette was like air, Sherry was like earth.
Lisette walked her usual 7 blocks to the swimming pool at 6 am, well before the public hours started. She would go early and watch the swim team practice. “Like music,” Lisette would tell whomever happened to be working that day. Sometimes she’d move her hands as if she were conducting.
Then Lisette would suit up and be the first one in. She began with breaststroke, then a fast freestyle where she sailed through the water like a bullet, 2 laps of butterfly, back to freestyle, and then 5 full minutes of back stroke.
Lisette feels that the water peels away at her, shedding off the layers of her life, its weight, its obscurities. When she gets out of the pool, it’s a clearer picture; she is lighter.
The strapping young lifeguard was explaining this to his young trainee who sat nearby with a confused look on his face. “And when she ends her practice she just floats there..like..like it’s going to go on forever.” He glanced at Lisette who was concluding her backstroke. “So most of the time you have to go over there and let her know the pool’s closing.” The trainee looked at him with his mouth open. “It’s not so hard,” the handsome guard explained and turned back to his empire.
“You’re, like, in love with that old lady?” the trainee exclaimed.
“What? No,” the guard responded, sitting up taller. “I’m just explaining to you what it’s like. You’ve got to understand these things if you’re going to work here.”
“Yeah, right,” said the younger boy. He got up and walked to the locker room.
The lifeguard moved back to Lisette who was turned on her back, looking soft as ever. He crossed his arms and then relaxed into his chair.
“I’m just sort of enjoying things. I don’t know how else to explain it,” she said when the handsome boy asked her age.
Listette wore a braid that cascaded down her back. She let it stay long even when she swam. The kind of woman who was unaware of things like that.
She had put the same concentration of the business of her life prior, into her new, self-proclaimed duty at the pool. Her children still couldn’t get a hold of her, but at least they knew where she was most days.
One day her son’s family had come rushing to the pool at emergent speed to tell her the news that someone had broken into her house – they had gotten a call from the neighbors. Lisette kindly asked them to step off of the pool deck in their tennis shoes, and to lower their voices as she floated.
There were only a few things that Lisette had ever given herself to. That had been Sherry, and now this.
“I guess I don’t really know what you mean. I thought you’d just say you’re 83 or 67 or something. That’s what people usually — That’s just what I was–” He sighed. “I was expecting something different.”
“Okay, well, goodnight dear.” Lisette turned for the door and headed out with her flip-flops squishing into the floor as she walked. As she held the door handle she turned back to him. “I think tomorrow I will show you how to float.”
The pretty boy packed up his gear and mounted his bike. At home he studied as hard as he could and did everything right. He did his extra credit homework, took the dog for a walk, tutored his neighbor. On his bed that night, he lay, pretending to be floating. The boy didn’t know if he was supposed to be thinking of Lisette, or God, or dying.
The next day Lisette arrived with a flower in her hair. A little purple one she had picked from a stranger’s garden. In the water she was faster than all the other swimmers. She glided through the water like a home. Like lap 4 was taking out the garbage, like the turn was changing the linens. She came to her finale and waved the lifeguard over.
“Get on your back, like this.” She showed him and he slipped into the pool, leaving his flotation device behind. He lifted his legs up and let his body relax. “That’s it,” Lisette said from beside him. “Now, close your eyes.”
The guard nervously looked around and then pressed his eyelids together. They floated in silence, the occasional splash of a lap swimmer moving at the wall.
“What do you see?” Lisette asked. The water tapped at the sides of the pool. “I always think of my ex-wife at the beginning. I think of Sherry.” The boy got a splash of water in his mouth and coughed. “You’re all right,” she said. He looked at her. “Sherry with the long hands..”
The boy went back to his practice, repositioning his figure lightly atop the rocking tide. This time he let his eyes drift shut on their own and he reached for Lisette’s hand. After a while the water slowed around them as the swimmers started leaving the pool.
“I get it,” he said, bursting open his eyes. “Time stops. It’s like time and everything stops.”
Peacefully, Lisette responded, still floating. “Oh, no. No, no. Time doesn’t stop. Not like that. Time never stops.”
She imagined her life floating up and the rock of her body sinking to the bottom of the pool. And this is how she stayed in the middle. The boy tried to ration out the physics of time never stopping, and in what dimension Lisette was referring, and then he would tell himself to get back to what he was doing, and he looked at Lisette, and he let his eyes become glossy. He still moved between floating, and sinking.
Comments Off on Home is Home
I stand at the edge where the water meets the shore, toes curled as the misty cold rolls in. My reflection in the water, your reflection in the water, a reflection bobbed back and forth. The sea has a way of coming and going and coming back again, leaving us with nothing.
“Don’t ask me questions,” you said. “Just quiet down.” So I left that night. No door slamming. Hush. A train rolled by.
I squint to find stillness but it never comes. It is quiet but it is not still.
Halfway up the shore a seagull sits on a rock and ruffles its feathers. The rocks are rubbed smooth by the gliding water, like a shoe shine.
My feet begin to dig into the sand with the pull of the receding tide. I am slowly rooted down, accepted into the earth, but suddenly thrown off balance and taken into the sea – one swift gesture of Yes and then No.
And in front, again, the vastness layed out on the line. Nothing to hide. What if I blink? Would it come back again? If I blinked would I miss you like a siren surging from the break and then back again?
I lay out the rocks, the flattest ones and then the roundest.
Then again, he hadn’t told her the truth. He hadn’t told anyone the truth.
Dante watched the baby as it crawled around in the sand, slapping the denser pools of water. He has been embarrassed to admit to Marleen how much courage it had taken to come here. Then again, he hadn’t told her the truth. He hadn’t told anyone the truth. His lawyer had said it was okay because at this point, it was a matter of ‘personal choice.’ It isn’t about the truth anymore, he rationed. That was gone. Marleen sunbathed with her top clasps undone, although it was overcast.
It seemed to him like she was egging him on to feel that she just didn’t get it. Little Simon dug fiercely with a stick, carving out an incongruous trench.
“You ought to have a big brimmed hat on at this rate,” Dante called over the sound of the waves. She didn’t hear him but threw her head back in middle class exasperation. He turned back to the sea.
Marleen’s sudden break from her job allowed the perfect time for the trip they had been wanting to take. Their lifestyle was more lavish now and it seemed necessary to vacation abroad after being together for six months. Greece in the spring sounded appropriately pampering except it had been dark and blustery every day, taunting the edges of a storm. They hadn’t bothered to check the weather.
Dante’s son came with them. He was only 22 months old, not quite ready to be left with his grandmother for a week. Plus, he was rather attached to his father and vice versa. Marleen just barely rolled her eyes when Dante initiated the discussion to bring Simon. Dante didn’t notice.
He felt that this secret was hidden even from himself, the image of his wife fading and rolling in and out like the tide, never quite complete, always eluding.
Yes, Dante had a small secret. But didn’t everybody? he told himself. He felt that this secret was hidden even from himself, the image of his wife fading and rolling in and out like the tide, never quite complete, always eluding. She was 33, just barely. They’d celebrated her birthday on a rooftop a month before. He and their friends had surprised her with her favorite champagne and a lobster dinner atop their Brookyn loft. Dante remembered removing a strand of hair from her lip after she laughed her boisterous laugh. That full feeling when she gave herself up completely. This is how he prefers to remember her. Otherwise, he is starting at gaping holes in a narrative that seems less and less real.
Dante liked to imagine that it happened like this: that she climbed up a tall cliff in the distance. On a windy day her hair and her skirt billowed violently; she had to squint to see. On this day it was sunny and her legs glistened like porcelain, throwing the sun back at itself. She took a long breath, and she lifted her arms up like a gymnast, as if she was reaching. Flicked her wrists and jumped high into the air, dove swiftly into the sea; returning home.
He bit his lip and turned back to the scene of his now constructed family that felt flat. Simon was up and running, a fearless spirit that yelled at seagulls and ran until he fell. He had learned so many things from his almost two year old son that every adult around him had forgotten. He began to see the layers of forgottenness everywhere as it surfaced like lichen on beach rock.
But the opposite of forgottenness isn’t remembrance. It is divulgence.
Marleen had appeared to him like a hazy dream two weeks after his wife’s funeral. She had approached him at a gas pump about his latest piece of writing.
“Why the change?”
“No change,” he replied blankly.
I bend down and let my hands graze the water. There is no one else around; I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt wholly alone like this. And then, an image flickers in my memory. I am six years old and I have constructed a diorama for class out of beach rocks and seaweed, made to resemble our cottage. I had collected these on the only vacation we would ever take: the seacoast of Maine.
I find my father with Inés, folded over her and sweaty. The look in his eyes.
I will never see my mother again and my father will not explain. A silence in the house, even when Inés moves in. My diorama is dumped in the trash per my father’s request. I ask, “Where mother will live, then?” I am forever told that I am her spitting image, her long brown hair, her tiny waist.
On the beach I notice how quiet it is. It is so quiet.
Dante pulled out a cigarette and let it hang from his lips. His chest hair looked comical like something out of a cartoon, spirally and erratic. He felt stupid. Marleen looked wonderful. She did so well at looking wonderful.
He reached over and caressed her arm. She had her eye on Simon and the baby sang and bent down to collect shells. He realized it was hard to feel a complete sense of belonging anywhere.
Dante couldn’t remember when his wife had started to disappear.
Marleen turned to expose her back to the sun and groaned. Dante couldn’t remember when his wife had started to disappear. He had been working too many long hours. He had been traveling a lot.
But, no; she had started to go away sooner. When they had started a family. When Simon came along. She became skittish and despondent. What was it that I missed? What was it that I got wrong? He had asked himself these questions till he was blue in the face, sometimes keeping him up at night as he lay next to Marleen.
Then Simon dropped his shells and sprang up, transfixed on the horizon. Dante, too, craned his neck to look past his son.
The faint light reflected off of her, the only thing in the expanse of blue that lay before them, giving her the luminescence of the moon.
The faint light reflected off of her, the only thing in the expanse of blue that lay before them, giving her the luminescence of the moon. He had never seen her like this: the utter peacefulness of floating and the limitlessness of the sea. It wrapped around her like a robe, like a train. She flapped a fin to the water and leapt up, quietly descending back down. The ripples bloomed around where she had been.
Simon stood with his mouth agape and then began to giggle, smack his hands together. “Mermaid,” he gurgled in between laughs. Simon pointed and looked at his dad. He wanted him to know that nothing had been his fault.
“Oh, good,” Marleen said, turning her head in his direction and resting the opposite cheek. “Simon’s learning big words.”
Dante nodded his head to his son who turned back to the sea. Would ‘mermaid’ mean ‘mother’ now? he feared, but then he didn’t. Mermaid was good. Perhaps it was better.
Simon went back to stacking his shells and Dante took the limp cigarette out of his mouth, tasted sand on the tongue. He hated that.
The wind picked up and they had to throw out the sandwiches they’d made for the day. Instead, they stopped at a roadside shack, sauce dripping into their laps as the light began to wane on the ride back.
I stroll westward toward the lighthouse, toward the setting sun. There is nothing to be moving for and there is no reason to run. So I stop.
When I leave this beach maybe I will become stardust or a Joshua tree.
Comments Off on Saudade
Hooper happens to be a particularly good listener. At only 24, she snagged the Grand Jury Prize in the Shorts category at the DOC NYC festival in November for her film, “Flo”. This past spring “Flo” was awarded Best Documentary Short at the Lower East Side Film Festival. The documentary profiles New York photographer Flo Fox — now living with Multiple Sclerosis, lung cancer and visual impairment — but feisty as ever.
This is only the beginning for Hooper, who explained that as a filmmaker her “goal is to promote open-mindedness and connect human beings through storytelling.” A mere two years out of college, she is already working for one of the largest video platforms in the country as a Content and Community Manager at Vimeo. After her recent success we felt it was a good time to talk with her about the journey she has taken, her craft and her deep love for travel and old people.
Art Animal: When did your interest in film begin?
Riley Hooper: I’ve been interested in film since I was pretty young. I can remember making stop motion videos with toys in grade school. Then in high school I would always use school projects as an excuse to make a movie. In high school I also became very involved in journalism. I was an editor on the newspaper staff. That continued in college; I worked for the Occidental Weekly all four years and was ultimately editor-in-chief of the paper. So I became interested in documentary film specifically because it combined these two interests: the investigative, curious writer in me and the artistic visual filmmaker in me.
AA: What’s one of the earliest films you remember making?
RH: Very early on I made a Jaws parody with a little bathtub toy in a bowl of water. In high school my friends and I made a video for this biology project. The theme of the project was Survivor, like the TV show, and the area we chose was the Bamboo Sea in China. We made a Kung Fu-type video with dubbed voice-overs; it was like a survival guide where the master taught the student how to live in the Bamboo Sea. It was pretty good! That’s the first video I remember being really proud of. I shot this really epic intro in this bamboo forest we had in my backyard.
AA: Who doesn’t love a good Kung Fu movie? Always the best. What you did with film after college? Did your aspirations for a career in film bring you to New York?
RH: After college I moved back to Portland (where I’m from) and interned at Willamette Week, Portland’s alternative weekly newspaper. That summer I made a little documentary about a rooftop garden at a restaurant in Portland. I made it for a travel video contest, which I entered and didn’t win. However, a week after I finished it I saw an ad on Vimeo for another short film contest. The contest was called “One Dam Good Town”, and it was to make a video that shows why your town is the best. I entered that contest and I won! The prize was a trip to Amsterdam for a Vimeo event they were having there. After that I moved to New York to intern at Maysles Films. So in January of 2011, in the middle of “snowmageddon” — that HUGE snowstorm — I moved to NYC.
The Maysles brothers, in terms of filmmakers, are my idols. I saw Salesman sophomore year of college in a documentary studies class and afterward I called my mom and told her, “This is what I want to do with my life.” Their style of documentary filmmaking — they call it “direct cinema” — is observational: no interviews. I just love it.
AA: Is “direct cinema” the style you try to emulate?
RH: That’s the idea. I still have not made a film that’s entirely observational. Having a background in journalism I still very much appreciate a good interview. I’m not anti-interview, but I think “direct cinema” is very powerful with a film like Salesman where you’re following the main character and you really get a sense of what his day-to-day life is like and the emotions he’s going through. It’s always more effective to show, not tell. That’s why that style of filmmaking can be so moving.
AA: Would you say that you have a style or aesthetic as a documentary filmmaker?
RH: I guess somewhat. It’s definitely something I’m still working on, but I am drawn to very quirky characters, and I think that comes out or is a part of my style. Those are the types of stories I like to tell. I think the other thing is that I have somewhat of a simplistic, minimalist style. I don’t like to use fancy tricks with filmmaking. I shoot handheld with available light. I don’t do much in post-production, just cut the clips together!
AA: How did you find Flo? What made you want to tell her story?
RH: I have a friend, Sonia. She went to Occidental College with me, and she used to work at an art gallery that represents artists over the age of 60. It’s called gallery 307, located in Chelsea. When she told me she worked there and what the gallery was about I got so excited! I love art and I love old people, so this was just the best thing I could possibly come across.
Flo was one of the artists represented by the gallery. I wanted to do a series on these older artists, to tell their stories. I have always been interested in the elderly. I love old people. I think that the elderly are often overlooked in our society. People sometimes think that life has to stop at a certain age, but I think if you’re a happy and healthy person, then you will live a long and happy life. So a happy older person who is out there enjoying life and doing what they want to do is really special. It’s really important because that’s what we all want: to be happy!
I’ve been trying to articulate why I like them so much. It’s been hard, but what I have come up with is this: old people are like the culmination of the human experience, and I like to tell human interest stories. They have so many stories to tell; they’ve learned so much by just living their lives. You can tell a person’s true character when they’re old.
This is more of a general reason as to why I was interested in this gallery. Flo herself isn’t even that old. Obviously, Flo’s story has its own fascinating aspects. Her story is inspirational — the fact that she’s overcome so much. Also, the fact that she doesn’t take the photos herself anymore brings up this question of art. What is art? Who is an artist? If she’s not taking the photos herself, then is she the photographer/artist or is her assistant? Art that questions art is always my favorite.
AA: I also think that there’s something in the way you shoot. You capture good moments and people look at ease in front of your camera. Can you talk a little about how you approach being behind the camera, or working with people in your films?
RH: Well, Albert Maysles calls it “the gaze,” and it’s his way of making people feel comfortable, letting people know — without even speaking — that he is there to empathize with them. I can’t claim to have “the gaze” but I love the way he talks about connecting with his subjects.
I think what it is for me is that I’m a good listener and just a naturally curious person. I’m always interested in knowing more. People respond well to that. Most people will tell their story if they have someone to listen. I think I can make people feel comfortable in that way.
AA: Besides the Maysles are there any other films, filmmakers or experiences that have deeply affected your journey and craft as a filmmaker?
RH: I think traveling has definitely affected me as a filmmaker. I studied abroad in Rome and traveled in Europe quite a bit. Since then I’ve been to China and back to Europe twice. Experiencing other cultures is a very important thing. As a storyteller — a person who wants to tell stories about the human experience — traveling is invaluable.
My whole goal is to promote open mindedness and connect human beings through storytelling. So the experience of being in a country where everything was new, where I was outside of my comfort zone, where I saw new and interesting things — that was really important. Simply having new and exciting adventures while traveling really energizes me to want to make films. The world is a beautiful place and you never know what will happen next! I hope that comes across in my filmmaking.
For more about Riley Hooper and her films, visit her Vimeo page at vimeo.com/rileyhooper.
Comments Off on Interview: Filmmaker Riley Hooper
Dinner always begins with the effortless tap on my door, followed by the monotone, “c’mon, Juh-sell.” I peek my head out and see my perpetually pain-stricken host brother, Jeremy, trudge down a dark hallway toward what seems like his death bed. Instead, it is a reheated meal full of awkward silences and placated conversation. Jeremy, who has told me that he “hates his parents” and that they are “trying to ruin his life,” drags his feet as I meet up with him. His ears are plugged with headphones and the expression on his face does not change the entire walk to the dining room.
Upon our entrance, his mother screws her face up disapprovingly, pointedly looking with her blue-lidded bug eyes at Jeremy’s iPod. Half a second later, she shoots a toothy smile in my direction.
“Bonjour,” I greet.
The mother giggles. She gets excited when I speak French.
“Bon-jurr,” she attempts as the microwave beeps thrice, each sound shriller and louder than the next. “Dinner is ready,” she says, removing instant “french” fries from the microwave with a sock as an ovenmit. “Where the hell is Stacey? Stacey?!?!“
The mother’s much-hated boyfriend, emerging from the corner of the room where he has been flipping through last month’s Cosmo, adjusts his belt and seats himself at the head of the table. Jeremy chooses the seat furthest away from him and plops down, legs sprawled out.
With a stack of paper plates and a bottle of orange liquid, the mother calls out for Stacey again. Stacey descends the stairs with flopping ponytail, yapping loudly on her cell phone. In quick but large gestures she grabs a container of yogurt from the refrigerator, and in no time is back up the stairs, still immersed in the latest gossip. Jeremy glares at his mother as she shrugs and turns back to her fiasco on the countertop.
After placing a bowl of soggy fries directly in front of me, the mother begins her daily dose of useless questions, and Jeremy resists answering. How was school? What did you do? Why are you ignoring me? The boyfriend chews loudly and shakes his head, and then chews even more loudly and huffs to let us know that he is angry. His nostrils flare as he stuffs another dripping forkful into his mouth. It is silent except for his chewing.
The mother brushes a strand of hair out of her face and Jeremy scours his plate. Silence and Chewing. He sticks his earphones back in and the boyfriend throws his fork down in a huff.
I am always the lifesaver in moments like this.
“Juh-sell,” the mother turns to me. “Where did you get that top? In France? It’s adorable.”
While I answer she stares at Jeremy and tells him to finish his plate before turning back to me to smile with disinterested eyes.
“It’s cute,” she says. “You all are so fancy over there.”
Jeremy turns his music up so that it is audible from beyond his headphones and the boyfriend shoves another forkful into his mouth with unusual force.
“Yellow and blue, and what are those?…Flowers?”
Jeremy crosses his arms and narrows his eyes. The boyfriend sets his fork down for the first time and looks over at Jeremy.
“Adorable. I’m going to have to get me one of those.”
The boyfriend resumes his eating. Jeremy stands hastily from the table and goes out the front door.
“Well, I am full,” the mother announces.
I thank her for the dinner as she reaches for the boyfriend’s free hand.
“Of course,” she says as she shoots a kiss in his direction. He adjusts his belt and chews.
Comments Off on Dinner
For a while there was nothing, and then there was everything. Quick as lightning the wheat had come up, the soy and the corn stalks broke through the soil, and the chickens had begun to make noise. The days in February had run together, but today the grass thawed and there were sounds, there were flutters, and there were buds. Yes, I had left behind my training wheels. I had begun to grow into a woman.
Spring came unannounced and unexpected, like she had been waiting all the while right underneath the surface.
Mama never brought the washboard out. It was handed down to her by her mama, but now that we had enough money to buy a machine, we had to change. Don’t want anyone drivin’ by thinkin’ the Hardys are poor, she said. Poor was not something to wear, but it was something you couldn’t help bein’. There were only a handful of kids that I knew who weren’t trying to conceal an embarrassing truth about the reality of their home life. This became harder as the city grew wide and its tentacles reached the outskirts of our town.
I walked out to her, sitting in the pool of white daylight. It was dawn, the grass still cold—the way I like it. She pressed hard into the board and it gurgled. She looked over at me, startled. In the harsh light of dawn Mama looked like an angel. The sun lit up behind her like a halo.
Now you know I ain’t out here just for fun, Virginia. This thing’s got spots. She pressed extra hard at the fabric.
We don’t use that thing no more, Mama had said that summer when I pulled it out of the shed to make way for my new bike. Mama must have saved it.
You gonna just watch me? I know you have some chores to do. I’ve been fighting this thing all morning, she said and turned up into the sun. I couldn’t see any spots. I backed away toward the barnyard and she called after me, Don’t be late getting ready for church this time. Jesus knows. Mama looked up into the sky not like a lady who was working, but with bliss.
It was a few years earlier that Mama found salvation in the lord. She found him in a bowl of soup. Later, she would change her story and claim that he had spoken to her in the field and that birds scattered. But I was there. Alone in the kitchen, she looked up from the soup bowl and her eyes welled with tears. This was two days after her Daddy died. I was looking in from the hallway. With her eyes wide she walked straight up to her room. She hadn’t touched her soup and I didn’t understand because that was what Mama ate when she was sad.
She announced to all at the funeral that she had been reborn and read a prayer for Grandpa and then had one of those shaking fits I seen them have in church and collapsed onto the ground.
In church that day the pastor talked a lot about hell and a lot about sinnin’. He’d gone to the city a few days earlier and watched a lady filing her nails while her son eyed a pack of cigarettes. Thinking no one’s eyes were on him he reached for a box but the pastor was there to set him straight. Brothers and sisters, keep your children close. Don’t let them fall into the fiery pits of hell with the others. There are demons everywhere and they are a makin’ their way closer. Mama pulled me close. I saw Daddy cleaning under his fingernails.
By late afternoon it had started to pour. I huddled in the living room corner with my brows furrowed, annoyed that I was stuck inside with my parents. Daddy was reading the paper like usual and my Mama was moving in and out through the kitchen. We had grown tired of this. For the past four months we had watched the crops freeze and the light wane from behind these same windows.
Outside I saw the barn door was wide open and knew I’d get lain into if I didn’t go close it. I peered across the room and no one was looking. I quietly slid out the back door.
A loud jolt of thunder pounded and crackled, rattled the ground underneath me as I ran. I stumbled into the entrance of barn, shaking from the cold. There they were with their mouths wide open – three boys from my 5th grade. Little Mack looked at Billy, the new boy who had just moved out from the city. Johnny still stood with his mouth open. Then Billy pulled out a lit cigarette from behind him and took a drag. I looked down at my bare feet and saw my chest heaving. I swallowed to catch my breath.
What, are you gonna tell me this is bad for me? Like I need some little church girl to tell me that.
I lifted my gaze to reach Billy’s. I ain’t a little girl. Billy coughed, then chuckled. The other boys followed in suit.
What’s that mean? Billy asked, not impressed by anything.
Means I’m not a little girl. I moved over to them. The younger two looked at each other, but Billy kept his eyes on me – I think he knew what was comin’ — city boy who’d done it all before, boy who’s parents drove a shiny sports car, boy who was tall and pretty boy who laughed at other people, who didn’t know what a woman was.
I looked Billy in the eyes and my nostrils flared like a bulls’. The horses in the stall made a loud noise and the boys looked over, frightened. I stepped in, found the moment and pressed myself and my lips up against Billy. He breathed hard; the younger ones backed away. It was slobbery and smoky. His nose was runnin’. I pressed into him harder and he fumbled his footing. I pressed again and my pokers, pointy and tender from the cold, rubbed against his chest so I bit his lip and he jumped. The horses neighed and it was my turn to let out a snicker, and it turned into a bellow. I shot out of the barn, mud flicking up at my backside as I ran.
I came up the stairs of the back porch and suddenly felt sick to my stomach. Papa was on the porch and I turned to see him puffing a large orb of smoke, breaking one of Mama’s rules. I rested my hands on my knees to catch my breath. He looked at me with that blank look he gives everything. You give it a good run?
Excuse me, sir?
Daddy turned back and chuckled. Ginyah, how old are you now?
Hm. Reminded me that I used to love these things. I looked at the cigarette in his hand. Then he looked up at me. You don’t believe everything they say, do you?
I blinked and shivered.
Go on and wash up for supper tonight. Mama wants you to lead prayers. I gave him a look. Go on – do it for your Mama. You know I do.
Mama set the table with beans and potatoes and ham that night, and lit a candle. I tried to fit on the first sports bra she bought me that year and I never told anybody.
Comments Off on When We Were Born Again
So, what is an artist residency, really? Do artists just escape into the woods for weeks and compose their next brilliant masterpiece? What happens there that doesn’t happen in regular places? And how does the growing group of site-specific, community-minded artists negotiate the deep relationship with two drastically disparate places: their community and their resident studio?
Installation artist Carlie Trosclair is in the midst of exploring these questions. An emerging St. Louis-based community artist, she has already made heads turn with her work. Winner of the 2012 Riverfront Times Mastermind Award, a Fellow of the Community Arts Training Institute and Artist-in-Residence at the Rebuild Foundation, Trosclair has proven herself to be a force that resonates in many different settings. Though she is a trained MFA graduate who proudly exhibits her work at galleries, she has begun to develop a new understanding of how to be an artist over the past year. Trosclair’s recent place-based approach has altered her practice dramatically and complicated her relationship to studio-intensive residencies.
“Community art is a completely different language and different way to approach art-making,” Trosclair said.
By way of New Orleans, Trosclair migrated to St. Louis, MO in 2008 to attend the MFA program at Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts. Leah Greenbaum of St. Louis’ Riverfront Times wrote in a recent article that it was during this time that Trosclair’s focus shifted from painting to full-scale installations. Greenbaum noted the way in which the artist “began to challenge [the] viewer’s conditioned response to the built environment” by engaging in a dialogue with materials in domestic spaces, like wallpaper, textiles and furniture.
Trosclair’s work disrupts our habituated interactions with environments, suggesting that space is more complex than we typically notice. Her understanding of “environment” continues to expand and evolve as she questions the relationship between the physical, social, historical and political.
At the time Art Animal met with Trosclair, she was three weeks into her 4-week long residency at the Woodside Contemporary Artist Center in New York. She had recently learned — after fleeing her assigned studio space for a nearby abandoned building during a summer residency at the Vermont Studio Center — that what she’s looking for in a residency is something more than what she calls a “white cube space.” Drawn to Woodside because of its unique setting within a mid-19th century stone church, Trosclair became submerged in an architectural goldmine. The church’s interior is raw with low ceilings, stained glass and many of its original detailing.
Trosclair explained that when she first enters a new space, she takes a step back and begins to document it. She wants her art to be a response to that space, and therefore begins by “waiting for something to speak.” At Woodside, this process has taken the form of photographs and sketches.
“The white cube [at other residencies] was different,” Trosclair said. “There’s much less to work with and you’re starting from a completely blank space.”
Yet, Trosclair encountered an unexpected challenge in the unconventional setting of the old church.
“I’m always looking for snippets in architecture that I can work from,” Trosclair said. “Here, there are so many details it’s almost overwhelming.”
Although she admits that art-making becomes more difficult the more site-specific it gets, Trosclair enjoys the push-and-pull of “finding what [she’s] attracted to but complimenting it rather than overshadowing.”
As Trosclair probed around her new space at Woodside, she knew that her regular materials were not going to cut it. She chose to let the environment guide her, even if that path led away from where she started or where she’s been. Her attention was drawn to the stained glass windows in her studio and their interplay with light. She decided to cede her usual textiles and wallpaper, using photo documentation, image manipulation and the repetition of images instead.
“It’s hard having an idea of yourself, a label and the concepts and materials you use,” Trosclair said, “and then the space calls for something else.”
However, Trosclair’s receptiveness and vulnerability to her environment is what makes her art so evocative. She invites the viewer to literally enter into that exposed relationship between the artist and the space. Upon entering, the viewer becomes a part of the art environment, both complicating and contributing to the evolution and fluidity that is the nature of Trosclair’s work.
Trosclair demonstrates her artistic openness within her community-based practice in St. Louis; her work is prefaced by her ability to engage in the discovery process of other community members. She noted that embedding herself in a neighborhood “has changed [her] studio practice to be more accessible, resourceful and flexible in order to be a co-facilitator in a creative process rather than the sole decision maker of a project.”
Trosclair values her residencies because they give her an opportunity to refine her technical skills of art making. However, collaborative and community-based approaches to art are central to Trosclair’s values as an artist. When Trosclair is in Missouri, her work is no longer confined to a studio, and she can instead focus on becoming immersed within a community. She is currently a collaborative artist at the Rebuild Foundation, a community-driven nonprofit founded by artist Theaster Gates who manages projects in Omaha, Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis; over the past year, she has spent time at the Rebuild Foundation’s Pink House in Pagedale, MO, where she has been fostering relationships with locals and exploring the possibility of collaborating with them.
“Working long-term within the fabric of a neighborhood has changed my way of thinking about making,” Trosclair said. “What is usually a very private trial and error process becomes an open, shared experience that is influenced and fueled by the individuals who take part, no matter what capacity. It’s about creating and discovering together and is entirely dependent upon and built through the neighborhood’s participation.”
Transitioning from her secluded studio practice at Woodside to her immersive, collaborative life in St. Louis is hard, but necessary to Trosclair’s artistic development. She is grateful to have the opportunity to create within a studio and a community, but still struggles with her own internal dialogue. She is always asking herself how she can bring her two lives into coexistence, and how to live in the balance.
“It’s almost intimidating,” Trosclair said. “How to you mend the two? How do you make art in isolation from the community? How do I go back? It’s almost like a dual life.”
For place-based artists like Trosclair, location is everything. Setting becomes their muse, their canvas. So why does Trosclair elect to stay in the small city of St. Louis, veering away from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago?
After fumbling to find the right words, Trosclair finally concluded that artists in St. Louis “are in tune with what is going on in the fabric of the city that they love. They want to promote it, share it, support it and push its bounds.”
Comments Off on The Community-based Art of Carlie Trosclair
The light filtered in in a dirty way. The windowsill was dusty and pale walls hugged light around the room as though it were steam. This was the kind of light you could see.
Ivelina’s wrist and watering can were illuminated as she stood arrested, staring out onto the rooftop patio. For a moment, this image held still until a house fly flew into focus and Iva’s gaze moved. She looked down at the empty watering can in her hand and then back out the window.
Zachary came home that night with the sound of a door slamming. The sound triggered her animation as if he himself was nothing more than a door slam. A thump in her chest, and it went deeper. It was the first time she’d heard her heartbeat like this. It was the first time she had truly felt her heart beat. There were wisterias crawling up the gate grate, the slowly aging rust adding a decided charm to the roof. Rooftops like these were hard to find in Chelsea. They were even rarer for those making a living off of little more than hope, which for Zachary and Ivelina came in the form of naïveté and in accidents they couldn’t confront. Hanging trellises, wrap-around vines, potted plants and rows of gardenias made the roof seem simple and old. This is where Iva usually stopped for an 8 o’clock visit: water, rest, regain. The quiet communion with plants followed long days as a cocktail waitress. Most nights Iva continued on to Zachary’s studio, helping with boom mics, holding ladders, coffee runs. Thursday afternoons she was the pianist for the Vitrolics’ private parties. She is far more exceptional than anyone there ever notices, and more exceptional that she can comprehend herself.
And then she heard him in the stairwell, a mixture of sounds, and she had a hazy recognition of the corresponding movements. But today, she couldn’t envision these familiar gestures, losing the memory as though he were slowly disappearing. There are only so many sounds you can hear within a person: a stomach gurgle, a jaw click, a deep cough, a heartbeat. But this heartbeat was different. Have you ever felt a heartbeat within yourself and realized it was not your own? Have you ever felt a stranger’s heartbeat within your own body and realized it was a part of you?
“Nie ne obichame tuk zaedno,” Ivelina’s mother would always say. “Why aren’t we loving here together?” She would say this when she was mad or when there was a disagreement between the two of them. Iva never used this with Zachary when there was a disagreement. She chose to keep silent. Iva’s low-leaning gaze focused on Zachary’s foot, his tattering blue Converses faded from the sun. He’d made his way into the kitchen, kept still at the entrance with one foot draping the border. Iva raised her eyes to scale his torso, identifying his structure.
. . . .
When his face came slowly into focus she could see in his gaze plain bewilderment. She followed his eyes to the puddle of water underneath her feet, her house shoes soaked through to an entirely different hue. She looked back up to Zachary, the watering can still in hand.
“Well,” he uttered. “Did you fall asleep or something?” He looked at her. She felt him looking at her in the way that people watch news segments of things perturbing—concernedly, but distant. Iva moved her eyes to the watering can in her right hand, rust eating the edges near where the handle touched the base. A banjo struck up across the apartment alleyway and Iva’s hairs vibrated to the hum. Zachary looked disturbed and then began to speak, but didn’t. He only opened his mouth and inhaled. Iva’s head had turned slowly to the window.
“I love strings.” The statement started emphatically and waned toward empty, toward solemn. She stood again facing Zachary with the watering can still clutched in her right hand. “Well, I would love it if you would get out of that puddle, Ivelina. What did you do to yourself?”
“I—…” Iva lowered her eyes towards her feet again, turned toward the can. She looked back up to Zachary who never wore shoes indoors and who never understood her culture of house slippers.
She carries the weight of her past life undetected. Ivelina is from a place where trains run slow and where the grace of a woman is in her silent curves. It wasn’t silence that made her leave home; it was the fear of it. On cold winter evenings, if she kept her breath low, she could uncover the sound of Nothing. There are some people who strive to find this. For others, for Ivelina, it is obscene and violating. When her grandfather closed her palm around an envelope full of money and the ticket, she heard that silence again.
Her mother was waiting for her on the edge of the pond, half obscured by cattails swaying wantonly in the breeze. She touched Ivelina’s hand; they made a paper boat out of the envelope and she asked Ivelina if she wanted to jump in. Her mother smirked slightly as Iva turned to her, questioning.
She realized she was moving toward noise.
Noise was busses screeching, accents, accidents. It was cleaning someone else’s bathroom. Forgetting. It was hospitals and watering cans. It was not knowing enough English to get a job; but you didn’t have to know English to fuck.
Zachary filled a cup with water and walked towards Ivelina. He wanted to say, “Neither of us will be all right.” She wanted to say, “I will plant flowers in your shoes. I will hang them on a telephone wire and plant flowers in your shoes.” Zachary took a sip of water and set it down on the table.
“Are you going to help me tonight?” He brushed her arm, avoided her spill. He manufactured a grin to counter his earlier honesty and she imagined potting soil, digging holes in Bulgarian terrain and dropping soil in his shoes. She could see his look of pure and utter fear. She could feel his hand tremble. Where she could have trembled, too, the baby kept still.
The difference between who we are and what we become is a chasm that can echo like canyons until we construct our own solid ground. Ivelina left with two suitcases in hand, Zachary’s shoes tied to one. She walked down the road during the 8 o’clock evening lull. There were telephone wires overhead that she didn’t even notice.
Zachary had expected that she would go home. But she went south. At a rest stop, she played piano for an empty bar. Mid-song she stopped, closed her eyes and imagined the baby taking over for her in the way that some trees can grow back from nothing. She sees their branches reaching up over the ledge of the window despite the hot, dry heat. Despite the dead wind that presses the walls of the room. This new home is a transition. It is not an instant; it is a length of time. They close their eyes and they are swaying like the trees.
Photo courtesy of Jan Tik
Comments Off on Predpriyatie
There is nothing quite like Art on Track. This art exhibition is the largest mobile art gallery in the world. It challenges artists to convert the interiors of Chicago EL train cars into works of art. Yes, convert. What you will not find at Art on Track is hanging canvases and mounted sculptures. What you will find is a giant paint-by-numbers Lite Brite or an interactive, space-age photo shoot. This year, I traveled to Chicago and spent the big day with some of the exhibition’s featured female artists.
As designers, Maria Squeri, Laura Rafson, Erika Galvez and Elizabeth Rosenberg spend most of their days creating on computers. Their design collaborative, CMYKittens, is a project that allows them to move beyond the screen and create what they call on their website, “life-size (designs) people can enjoy.” For those of us that are not familiar with design lingo, CMYK stands for the colors associated with color printing: cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black). These ladies have used their background in design to create large installations for Chicago’s new art initiative, Built Festival, as well as Art on Track.
The first time I encountered the collaborative was at Built Festival in August of 2011. Their colorful installation, inside of an 8′ x 20′ shipping container, was called Stories. The four artists had created a story board wall where festival goers could contribute drawings while the Kittens delivered interpretive readings. The container also included a live CMYK-process collage and letterpress demonstrations.
I remember their container being a hit, filled with people of all ages. Who doesn’t like stories, big, bright colors and pretty lights? Clearly, CMYKittens knows how to use their design interests to create inviting, public works of art.
The continuity of lights and bright colors worked their way into CMYKittens concept for this year’s Art on Track. However, this year, the designers were thinking more intentionally about the unique setting of the El train.
“Last year, we were focusing more on the graphic design process and color,” they explained. “This year the CMYKittens [are] going to not only focus on color but also on space. We want to create a setting that makes you feel like you are in a larger place and not inside an EL car.”
Considering space, light, color and audience interaction, the Kittens themed their car, “CMYKamping,” a name conceived during the rigorous nine-hour installation process. CMYKamping created a feeling of an outdoor camping trip in a train car, the highlight of which included an oversized, paint-by-number Lite Brite.
On the day of the event, the artists and crew met bright and early at a train depot near Chicago’s Midway Airport. Then, what felt like an artistic marathon began. Artists have from about 8am until 5pm to install. At 5pm the train begins moving and Art on Track has officially begun.
Working with CMYKittens during the installation, I began to get a sense of their process. The design for the train car was thorough and began with blacking out the car. Any source of light had to be covered up in order to create an alternate reality of outdoor camping. As you can imagine, this was tedious; but I was amazed by how playing with such a simple element like light could seriously transform the feeling of depth in the space. On the ceiling we hung tiny lights, which, Squeri explained, would “resemble stars at different lengths to create a perception of depth like a night sky. Since the ceiling will feel more open we are hoping it will distract the passengers from noticing how small and short the actual car is.”
Rosenberg seemed to head the storytelling nook, a corner of the train that was to be converted into an outdoor campfire. The crew laid out some Astroturf, wrapped vines and leaves around the handrails and draped seats in green fabric. Rosenberg then brought in an impressively constructed campfire setting, complete with paper-mâchéd rocks, logs and a flickering fire. She practiced the Chicago-themed ghost stories she had researched, illuminating her face with a flashlight.
Last but not least, the Lite Brite was installed. Let’s just say that none of the Kittens are stranger to power tools. When 5 o’clock hit, the group had converted into camp counselor uniforms, each highlighting a different color of the CMYK scheme.
Considering the form — physical, social, historical, political — of the train cars is the greatest challenge to Art on Track artists, and ultimately what makes the successful installations interesting. In this respect, CMYKittens rose to the top. Their paint-by-numbers Lite Brite and campfire stories invited visitors to become a part of the art.
“We love having our viewers feel like they contributed and are a part of the installation,” they explained. “It gives a great sense of community and makes viewers feel welcome.”
I asked the collective to consider their favorite part of Art on Track. Their answer?
“Interaction. Not only with the community, but with each other. You get pretty close to people when you work with them every day for months! It’s a great way to be a part of Chicago’s diverse art community and the people you meet at the show that enjoy it as well.”
That sounds pretty different from sitting at a computer all day.
Photos thanks to Sara Collins
Comments Off on Art on Track and CMYKittens