Category Archives: Culture

Review of South Seattle Theater Group’s Modern Spin on Robin Hood

by Mary Hubert

Actors from Anything Is Possible Theatre's Production of Robin Hood
Actors from Anything Is Possible Theatre’s Production of Robin Hood

When I sat down with Ellen Cooper, the Executive Director of the Anything is Possible Theater Company, I was excited. Ellen, who also wrote the company’s current rendition of Robin Hood, was in the middle of telling me just why her company was different from all of the other kids’ theaters out there. Her reasons were compelling ones.

Above all, she talked of how the messages in children’s shows are not deep enough. The Anything is Possible Theater Company, she said, sought to bridge the gap between real-life issues and what is deemed appropriate for children.

To this end, she said, Robin Hood is set in the present, where the Merry Men are homeless youth and the Sheriff is an old rich businessman. By recontextualizing an old classic, they are able to grapple with issues that many children in the low-income areas of South Seattle face, while still providing the draw of a time-honored tale. This would then spark discussion in families about topics like class inequality and homelessness. She described Robin Hood as “A relevant show about people’s lives. It demonstrates an active and positive way to respond to what’s happening through community-building”.

Other things about this company also sparked my interest. Ellen mentioned the pay-what-you-can night and low ticket prices, designed to make the play accessible to a low-income crowd. AIP even gave away 40 tickets to Treehouse, a Seattle organization serving foster children. And in a neighborhood where this happens to be one of the only theaters in existence, let alone one serving children, AIP’s community-mindedness was something I gravitated toward immediately.

So, it was with high hopes and a growing excitement that I sat down to watch “Robin Hood.

The play did do some of what Ellen mentioned. The set was a homeless encampment, complete with a “99%” poster behind a chain link fence and a tent upstage. The costumes furthered this concept – the Merry Men were dressed in mismatching, ripped clothing, and the “bad guys” – the Sheriff of Nottingham, his daughter, and the host of barons and kings – were in business attire. From the offset, the stage was set for an interesting take on Robin Hood.

But then… the characters opened their mouths. And out came a jumble of what sounded like terrible Shakespeare. As I struggled to figure out why on earth the characters were speaking like this, I realized that as an attempted throwback to the traditional Robin Hood dialogue, Ellen had decided to write it in a strange approximation of pseudo-Old English. With that, what could have been an insightful look into why Robin Hood is relevant to our time – especially to the citizens of Rainier Valley – became simply a concept smacked onto a play that didn’t really fit.

Ellen’s idea to set Robin Hood in modern times, highlighting the disparity between classes in a way that would resonate with the community’s large low-income population, is a brilliant concept for a children’s show. Using a time-honored classic like Robin Hood to bring audiences in and then showing them a new way to look at it is all well and good. However, if you are going to do that, then do it. Language sets the time period for any play, so to not alter it made what would have been a brilliant commentary into a disjointed modernization of a dated text.

This was just the first of many examples of a half-realized concept. The stage was very narrow, so many of the scenes were conducted in a line. Though some handled their text and movement with ease, too often the scenes played like a presentation. The myriad of accents only added to the issue – we had Irish, British, American, and some odd combinations of the three, which served to confuse the audience rather than create a cohesive world.

For all of that, the show was enjoyable. Adorable children and talented young adult actors made us all smile as they carried out the telling of Robin Hood’s tale with gusto. Broad-sweeping villains made kids gasp and adults chuckle. The ensemble seemed to connect with each other in a way that was endearing, especially with a multi-generational cast. And despite some flaws and my disappointment that the show didn’t completely live up to my expectations, I found myself enjoying the piece.
The Bottom Line: Ellen has attempted to recontextualize children’s theatre by making it relevant and placing it in an area where kids have limited access to art. Although her show does not entirely succeed, her effort to create change and get the children of South Seattle involved in art is admirable. Go support the Anything is Possible Theater Company.

Mary Hubert is a performing artist, director, and arts administrator in the Seattle area. When not producing strange performance concoctions with her company,  the Horse in Motion, she is wild about watching weird theater, whiskey, writing and weightlifting.

 

South Seattle Theater Company Introduces Robin Hood To The 21st Century

by Staff Writer

 

Robin Hood does  Jay- Z  and Hendrix?  Anything is Possible Theatre’s  upcoming production of the merry archer and his band of cohorts Robin Hood has little in common with  your grandfather’s version of the  classic tale.  The South Seattle theater company has  promised to present the story as you have never seen it before, complementing its enduring theme of economic inequality and social justice  with hip hop music, electric guitars and a strong and  courageous Maid Marian ripped directly from the 21st century.

The play will run two consecutive weekends at the Rainier Valley Cultural Arts Center and will feature a special Giving Night on June 21st , where  along with entrance into the show, tickets  will include  admittance into a post – performance social  benefiting organizations, including the Rainier Valley Food Bank, the  Columbia City Church of Hope and Project Cool, working to alleviate poverty and hunger within the South Seattle area.

 

Showtimes are below:

June 13 7:00 p.m.

June 14 7:00 p.m.

June 15 2:00 p.m. (pay-what-you-can performance)

June 20 7:00 p.m.

June 21 7:00 p.m. *Special Giving Night* (see below)

June 22 2:00 p.m.

 
For more information on Anything Is Possible Theatre please visit: http://www.anythingispossibletheatre.org

 

Lady Speaks The Blues: South Seattle Poet Monique Franklin

Monique Franklin
Monique Franklin

It greets you like a bewitching tonic; a smooth liqueur culled from honey suckle. Its every utterance serves as an intoxicant to your ears. You can’t help but become entranced by its seeming contradictions, as nothing so raw could seduce you by its polish, nothing so genial could paralyze you with its power, and nothing so delicate could rumble with so much emotion. However, it indeed accomplishes just that, and it is the voice of South Seattle performing artist Monique Franklin.

This voice she possesses has bedazzled the throngs who have attended her spoken word, poetry, and performing arts performances across the Central District and South Seattle. Functioning as her main chisel to craft the provocative tales she shares on stage, that deal with everything from the emotional complexities of abortion, to the alienation inherent in growing up biracial, to the imbecility of misogyny, with the common thread that they evoke experiences so strong that they fill lived in by the audience. It’s no wonder that she’s been mentioned as the Billie Holiday of spoken word.

Comparisons notwithstanding, the Franklin graduate,and single mother, refuses to confine her gift to stage performances, as it seamlessly transitions to advocacy for causes dear to her heart, relaying instructions to her students at tap class, explaining algorithms to an enthralled group of computer science geeks, and expressing her chi while practicing martial arts. Hers is a voice which rarely ever rest, much to an audiophiles delight.

 

Emerald: Not only are you the unofficial poet laureate of South Seattle but you’re also soon to recieve your Computer Science degree from the University of Washington. Poetry and Computer Science seems like an interesting convergence.

Monique Franklin: Even though people think of it as dry, Computer Science is really a creative endeavor. As a programmer you can make anything. It also appeals to me because I’m hoping to help African American, LGBT, and other underrepresented communities have access to something which may elude them. It’s unfortunate that we all get taught at an early age that certain subjects are for certain types of people or that we’re born good at math, and that’s just not true. I failed math in High School and went back and learned it in college, and was then able to pursue Computer Science because of it.

Poetry is something I’ve been doing since I was a child; it’s kind of what I’ve been doing all along.  I came to it because it helps me filter what’s going on in life, it helps me to take another look at it and understand it.  It’s how I process things. I didn’t actually share my poems with anyone until I was 21, but I’ve been writing since I could write, which is since I can remember. I think having that incubation period is really important in developing your own voice and in creating sacred space. Still to this day I write things that are not for anyone else;  they’re only for me.

 

Emerald: Could you share some of your of your history in growing up in the South Seattle Area and how that’s influenced your life and work?

Monique: I grew up on 37th and Andover and going to John Muir Elementary. I come from a single parent family of five – my mom raised all us. I’m kind of in the middle. I have an older sister and three younger brothers, and that was really informative growing up. I was eventually bused out to Orca, which is an alternative school, and that became a pivotal time in my life because we were one of the only black families there. I’m biracial, my mother, who raised me, is white and my father is black, and so even though I was raised in a diverse community,at a very early age I learned that people are fairly superficial. There would even be some who would say, “Oh, you’re half white, I can’t trust you.” As a young person, my understanding of why that was, is different from my understanding of it now, with the cultural perspective of what it means to be black in America, or what it means to white in America. People made a lot of assumptions about me, so it was pretty interesting growing up.

People would ask me questions like, “Is that really your mom?”  It wasn’t just children who would ask, it was adults too. Some of the teachers and people in the stores, would ask my mom “Did you adopt those kids?” People just feel uncomfortable when they don’t have the answer to the race question in their mind and so they feel entitled to get this information. In addition I grew up very athletic and my mom actually coached most of my teams until I got into Middle School. I grew up playing volleyball, basketball, softball, and football, before the boys actually sprouted in middle school. I was considered the A-Train, I used to drag the boys across the field. It was pretty exciting, still the highlight of my elementary lunch time experiences.

The highlight of my sports career though, is at Franklin High School, where the basketball team I was on actually had the highest GPA as a championship team. We actually got honored in Olympia, WA for setting a record for Grade Point Average. The whole legislative body took a moment to recognize us. It was an exciting time to be at Franklin High School.

 

Emerald: Well, you certainly seem to have the confidence of a top tier athlete during your performances as they definitely don’t appear presented by the stereotypical neurotic artist. How has athletics shaped your art?

Monique: Well, I’d be lying if I said that I’m supremely confident always, and that I don’t have any confidence issues to speak of. So I can’t say that, but I will say that when I approach my art I say that I don’t want to not do the things I want to do because I’m afraid, or because I don’t think I have enough guff.  I have the same conversation with youth. I tell them that  it’s okay to be afraid, but it’s not okay to not do the things you want to do because you’re afraid.You can’t grow if you’re comfortable all the time. So that’s definitely how I approach my art and my life.

Overall, I feel like my spirit is of an inner warrior and I’m trying to develop that so that encompasses the competitive spirit I picked up from athletics . I mean I’m undefeated in thumb wrestling. If you want to find out we can do it later (laughter). I grew up playing games, and in a family of five competition was rampant. Even now I have a game brewing. I’m supposed to visit New York shortly, and I want to experience it and do some writing, but I want to challenge someone in basketball while I’m there.

 

Emerald: You’re engaged in a tremendous number of activities. You’re a poet, writer, performer, mother, tap dance instructor, computer science enthusiast. If you had to pin it down, what best defines you?

Monique: I think what really defines me is that I’m willing to learn anything. I’m really community minded. I’m trying to lead the way on Social Justice issues, so those are things that would define me. I love to work with our youth so that defines me.

I look at it like I’m me first and art is something that I do. So whatever I do, I’m going to bring whatever gifts I have to bear to do that. So if there is an organization that I’m supporting and they need a poet I’m going to bring my artist self to that venue. I think it’s irresponsible not to speak up when you should, and however that looks. Whether that’s me as an artist, or me as a mother, I think it’s the responsible thing to do.

 

Emerald: What most sparks you to create poetry and your spoken word performances?

Monique: I think it’s evolving. Right now  the desire I have is that’d I’d like to be known. I don’t want to be famous, but I want to be known. In the sense of being understood and in the sense that I have stories that I want other people to know.  It’s the idea that I have a truth I want to speak right now, and maybe that won’t always be my driving force, but that’s what it is right now.

When I see other people I enjoy their diversity, and the ways in which they do things, the nuances, and  the details of how they do things are interesting to me. I think that bleeds into  my scientific interest. I’m a researcher, so I’m there with my pen  and pad, taking down notes, “That was really amazing what they did there,” but also I think I’m generally interested in knowing other people. There’s something you learn from an artist  about that artist when they’re performing, even if they’re not presenting themselves. The choices they make in inventing someone else as a character is telling.

 

Emerald: What artist influence you today?

Monique: As an artist I write about all types of things, but I’m really influenced by music a lot, though I don’t listen to very much of today’s. The musicality from today’s music is just gone, the loopiness of it can be annoying. It’s catchy, but it doesn’t stimulate me. I listen to Prince, Maxwell, but also to 80’s rock. I like good music, however that comes. I’m into Jazz, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. I’m influenced by dancers, Michael Jackson, and the Nicholas Brothers. My poetry is also influenced by the sciences I’ve taken. I have poems wrapped in metaphor, just strictly around science and love and relationships.  My daughter is a huge influence as well. My last show was titled Momma’s Muse which incorporated some of our real life experiences, with her permission, and also pulls in some other stories from people’s lives, which illustrated what I was trying to convey better than my own could.

 

Emerald: How is it that you’re able to be so emotionally naked onstage, saying very intimate and provocative things? That would frighten most people.

Monique: It comes back to that desire as an artist to be known, and for me the power of art is one of those teaching tools. People don’t  all have the same experiences, but people can share in an experience through art,  and some of that sharing can provoke conversations. Many of them that I wish I would have had the benefit of before I made certain decisions in my life. For me art is  an opportunity to provoke those conversations to happen between other people. Whether or not it’s a strong, “I don’t believe in that, you shouldn’t do it.” Well, at least it’s a conversation, and then also, this goes back to being able to wrap some of the experiences of others into the characters I am on stage, it was really liberating for me to be able to take it on and tell someone else’s story, but to still have aspects of my own story intertwined. So I think the whole mix of it, people don’t know what is true and what’s not when you’re own stage, it gives you a certain level of removal. When I’m on stage, it’s never just my story, there’s always something more.

 

Emerald: You’re very outspoken about LGBT rights as a poet and performance artist. Where does that stem from?

Monique:  For ten years of my life I grew up with two moms and so it created a situation, because during that time there was no protection for people who had alternative lifestyles. They could get fired from their jobs, so we couldn’t have many conversations within our household about it because it would jeopardize my mom’s employment  So that meant each of us had to come up with different ideas of what that meant and unfortunately when we stepped out of our house the overwhelming conversation about it was very negative. It was another opportunity where I found myself in between these places in society and I had to figure it out. It was things that others have the privilege not to think about it until they choose to think about it.

 

Emerald: So did your writing and poetry serve as a type of release from all that was going on while you were growing up?

Monique: Writing and poetry was how I made sense of things, It was my internal conversation that I had with myself about what was going on, and what was really important in the world. I did a lot of philosophical writing about what was going on in my life and what was truly important about being a human being.  I felt like the world had a crisis and so it led me to be a loner. I didn’t trust many people, and I didn’t think most people understood what was important. That meant  I was very selective about who I let into my circle. I didn’t want anyone in my house who felt my mom was an evil person just because she was who she was.

 

Emerald: So does are you of the belief that great art is born out of life’s adversities?

Monique: Good art can come from anywhere. The thing is that humanity is so complex, and you can have an artist make the most beautiful painting and be a deplorable human being. That’s just a fact, but you can’t deny that they’re gifted. The reality is that we are complex, and we have great beauty and we have great horror, it just is what it is. There’s not a person on the planet who can say that they’re happy with every decision they’ve ever made.

I think art is gifted to some people, I think with others art is something they’re driven to develop, I think there’s a lot of things that come into art. I can only speak from where my art comes from, because I’m interested in a lot of different things and I’m interested in developing those different areas, I’m ambidextrous and a Gemini, so all this stuff kind of rolls together. For me art is about what piques my interest in the moment. There’s a sound that maintains my art; it’s very rhythmic and musical.

 

Emerald: So the melodic flow in your poetry is a conscious effort?

Monique: Yeah, I think as an artist, as a poet, I have my own aesthetic around how things sound. When I’m creating something the way it sounds is important, even the way it feels is important.

 

Emerald: What’s your process for coming up with some of your more ingenuous lines and metaphors in your poetry?

Monique: I have a poem called System Administrator it’s actually an erotic piece.

 

Emerald: The title completely gave that away (laughter).

Monique: What I like about metaphor is you say things without having to say it, you get to kind of hide some things, just like in the title of that poem. There’s some ambiguity about it. It’s tongue and cheek to me and that’s way it’s fun. I’m working on a whole erotic chat book called applied physics, and it’s all wrapped around a metaphor right now that are related to certain physicals properties, such as gravity and the uncertainty principle. There’s just certain things that lend itself towards looking toward a certain perspective.

 

Emerald: You’re a fairly successful artist and yet you don’t have any formal training, so to speak, in terms of an MFA or Arts Degree. What would you say to those people who have always wanted to write or perform poetry, or those who have always wanted to follow a passion, but just can’t seem to muster up the nerve?

Monique: It goes back to fear, no one is saying go stand on the corner and hold a sign that says, “will work for rhymes.” (laughter) Success started to come for me with the belief that what I was doing was going to work out in the end, and that I was just going to take the steps I needed to take to get to that end. It has to be more than hoping. It must be knowing that it’s going to work out and I’m going to do everything that I need to do in order for it to work out. If it’s something that you have a passion for, you need to start taking little steps in that direction, and what you’ll see is that the universe will seem to conspire to get you where you need to be. You start moving in that direction and opportunities will start opening up for you, but it takes hard work. It isn’t like I’m just going to roll out of bed and it’s going to be great! Chance plays a role for some people, but for the rest of us we need to work hard.

 

Emerald: They say that for a poet happiness is elusive. How do you define happiness at this stage in your life?

Monique: One of the things I learned about being a mother was how much I value community, which is in stark contrast to when I was growing, as I wasn’t too impressed with humanity (laughter). However, I realized that I needed other people in this life. You need other people to be truly happy and successful. It’s about developing those relationships. finding people you can trust, and to trust yourself is important. I’d say happiness is possible, and defining your own happiness is necessary. I say think about what makes you happy, and find more of that, even if it’s just twenty five more minutes a day of that, and as you increase your happiness quotient life will change for you.
For more information on the multi-talented Monique Franklin, including upcoming shows and events, please visit www.verbaloasis.com. You can also follow Monique on Twitter @VerbalOasis

South Seattle Goes To SIFF: BFE Review

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of our series South Seattle Goes To SIFF

Courtesy of SIFF
Courtesy of SIFF

We’ve all driven through those towns that seem like no one lives there – or that no one should. Bleak, dusty horizons, the occasional meth head ambling by, and a corner store that looks like it hasn’t had a customer in the last century or two. In BFE, director Shawn Telford seeks to portray the lives of those who live in these forgotten towns – particularly, those still young and figuring their shit out. Sound familiar? It is – we’ve seen this storyline more than enough times over the last 25 years. However, despite numerous glaring issues, the film turns out to be quite entertaining.

The loosely constructed storyline follows three high schoolers in the town of BFE: Ian, preoccupied with caring for his dying Grandpa; Ellie, living in a meth house while trying to protect her baby sister; and Ellie’s boyfriend Zack, who must deal with his attraction to his friend’s mother. Sound like a lot? Just you wait, we’re not done! We still have to throw in Tom, the Korean kid battling against the “old ways” of his stern father; a scraggly crew of drug dealers; and a horde of other teenage boys that are buddies with our leading crew.

Telford has attempted to create a slice-of-life style flick that draws parallels between the intersecting lives of everyone in the town. And largely, he succeeds. The dialogue is witty, the scenes with the boys remind me of my own high school adventures, and there are enough characters to fill a movie three times the film’s length. Which actually turns out to be the problem with this cute little movie: it needs to be three times as long to successfully fit that many stories.

In the first half of the film, we see missed moments happen again and again –scenes that try to be both funny and poignant instead have to rely on the barrage of jokes flying throughout every scene, because with so many characters to get to, we can’t possibly get enough screen time with each to care about them. True, the jokes are well thought out, and everything rolled along relatively seamlessly, but I found myself wanting more from the first half of the film than giggles.

Things start to pack a bit of a punch as the movie progresses. We get a few brilliantly performed villains and start to feel for these teens stuck in a dead-end town. We do wish they would stop stating – very obviously – that they are stuck in a dead-end town… but no matter.

As a whole, the film did about 75% of what it set out to do. The town was there, the characters were there, the clichés were there, and the jokes were certainly there. I was rarely bored, and when I was, the kickass soundtrack was always there to distract me. Telford’s use of close camera shots was aesthetically pleasing, and though the ending was cheesy, it fit with the fluffiness of the movie as a whole.

What I missed from the film were the gut-punches, the investment in the brilliantly witty characters, the desire to watch them succeed and the hurt when they did not. The problem with throwing all of the moments in instead of selecting the best ones is that the audience comes away with none of them. In short, everything was there – just too much of it.
The bottom line: Despite the film’s overall disjointedness and Telford’s desire to cram six storylines into a 90-minute film, the witty dialogue and killer soundtrack made the piece a very enjoyable bit of fluff. Go check it out!

Mary Hubert is a performing artist, director, and arts administrator in the Seattle area. When not producing strange performance concoctions with her company, the Horse in Motion, she is wild about watching weird theater, whiskey, writing and weightlifting.

South Seattle Goes To SIFF: Review of Obama Mama

Editor’s Note: The Emerald was extended an invitation to cover the Seattle International Film Festival. As our arts reportage serves the dual purpose of showcasing the amazing array of artist and their projects, who reside within the South Seattle area, and also to draw attention to unique artistic works which are rarely highlighted elsewhere, yet have the potential to be enriching cultural experiences for our readers, The Emerald accepted the opportunity to cover a few select films playing at the festival which we felt would be of particular interest to our readership.

Photo courtesy of SIFF
Photo courtesy of SIFF

by Mary Hubert

The opening of Obama Mama began with a black and white picture of Stanley Ann Dunham amidst audio recordings of people lauding her intelligence and spirit. As the video progressed, I realized immediately that this was going to constitute the bulk of the film. The first hour of the film consisted entirely of interviews with Dunham’s old classmates, recounting how smart, curious and progressive she was through a combination of anecdotes and a very, very extensive history of the civil rights movement. Though the film did an adequate job of beating into the audience that Dunham was, for being born and raised primarily in Texas, progressive and a mental force to be reckoned with, as an audience member I felt inclined to announce, “Okay, I got it!”

The history of the 1950s-1970s, as well as interviews with the same five high school classmates, was repeated ad nauseum, and I found myself wondering whether the director had placed any faith in her audience that they had knowledge of basic history. The persistent repetition of basic facts was drilled into our brains still more thoroughly through the use of short animated sequences to further clarify the points being made. For example, a drawing of a black and a white hand joining to create a cartoon baby was used when an interviewee spoke of Dunham and Barack Obama Sr.’s marriage. The combination of illustration, repetitive interviews, and historical facts succeeded in creating a strong picture of who Dunham was as a young woman, but the information that was relayed could have been achieved in half the time that the movie utilized.

Some of the most interesting aspects of the film centered on Dunham’s work campaigning for the rights of Indonesian female laborers. Though the film did effectively detail this it was again with the over-thoroughness that made me uninterested by the time this chapter was over. As a result, we didn’t get to her life’s work until over an hour into the film. This had the effect of boring me enough that I was much less invested in Dunham’s fascinating work in Indonesia than I ordinarily would have been. That being said, the section of the film dealing with her work in Indonesia was the strongest aspect of the piece, mostly due to the stand alone strength of her labor. The Indonesian culture that was detailed in the film was additionally fascinating, but again had little to do with Dunham and felt once more like a history lesson.

Ultimately, the film felt as if the director did not have enough material to fill an entire 90 minute SIFF piece, so instead of shortening the work, she simply dragged out each section to fill the time. This was even apparent in the vagueness of the interview candidates – many of their points centered on speculating what Dunham “would have done” or “would have liked”, as if they did not know her in the slightest – and in fact, many did not. Additionally, they used the same five photographs of her, as if they did not have any others. Although the film made a bold choice in not involving Obama in its production – it focused on Dunham’s work by itself rather than her relationship with the President – the result was a dearth of material that made what they did have too lengthy and overly sentimental. By the time the film got to Dunham’s 1995 death, rather than being saddened by the passing of a truly remarkable woman I was relieved that this would be the final montage I had to sit through before the end of the film.

The bottom line: A truly remarkable life of a wonderful woman was made boring by over-explanation, lack of information, and pointless montages that took away from, rather than added to, the uniqueness of Dunham’s life. The documentary was unsuccessful in creating a compelling story out of her life – if you’re interested in Obama’s mama, Obama Mama might not be the best source.

Mary Hubert is a performing artist, director, and arts administrator in the Seattle area. When not producing strange performance concoctions with her company, the Horse in Motion,  she is wild about watching weird theater, whiskey, writing and weightlifting.

Ceramicist Jen Mills: Making The Unseen, Seen

by Marcus Harrison Green

Conjuring concrete objects from the abstraction of imagination, culling scattered salvos of thought into a burst of creative

Jen Mills at work
Jen  at work

expression that abides in reality, it is this ingenious alchemy that is the hallmark which blankets most artists (or creative professionals should you prefer the current vernacular), however, none more snugly than the ceramicist. Those gifted enough to possess the enchanted ability to, with their hands, breath life into the dullest of materials, crafting them into a provocative articulation of form, and conceiving in their bowls, vases and vessels, art which functions in the everyday.

 

A paragon who fiercely pursues this craft is found in South Seattle’s accomplished ceramist Jen Mills, past recipient of several visual art residencies and a current instructor at the Seward Park Clay Studio. It is in speaking with Jen, her collegial appearance and Liz Lemonesque glasses, a consistent companion to her youthful face, which belies her depth of thought, and creating a small wonder that she isn’t more often confused for one of her students, that you find yourself entertaining the same perspective of art as she does, not just as a lone manifestation of creativity, but as hallowed practice of self-discovery. An appropriate vehicle of inward exploration for the former Religious Studies Major, who counts Buddhism amongst her favorite theologies.

 

 

Jen's Ceramic Installation "Drift"
Jen’s Ceramic Installation “Drift”

Her artwork, primarily forged from clay, is the result of an attentiveness to those moments in life which are oft ignored by the majority of us. It is her work that polishes them to reveal a  profound significance. Thankfully, for the artist and layperson alike, her approach to art is employed just as fully in her life. So be forewarned that her words may just inspire a revelation of meaning in your own:

Emerald: Most people’s association with ceramics/pottery begins and ends in high school, or if they’re fortunate, as an elective at a liberal arts college.Can you share the value of ceramics/pottery and why it should capture a person’s interest? For instance why should someone go to a ceramics showing?

 

Jen Mills:  Everyone has an association with ceramics. Right now we’re in a coffee shop and we’re both drinking out of ceramics mugs. Most everyone picks up a mug, especially in Seattle, usually filled with coffee everyday, and they eat off the material. They bathe in a bathtub made out of this material. Ceramic tiles are on space shuttles and prevents them from blowing up. We all have a familiarity with this material, so to go see a ceramics show that makes you think about this material that you frequently encounter in a different way, that’s really exciting. It makes you open to seeing the everyday in a different way.

Emerald: You were originally a religion major, how did you go from that to making art as a ceramicist?

 

Jen: Both religion and art motivate everyone, everyone from around the world tries to answer the question, “Why are we here?” Every country, everywhere from around the world is inspired to create. There is a lot of intersection between religion and art because you have a lot of art created, until recently, that was religiously inspired. From  Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, to the ancient paintings in the caves in France, it was all about expressing, ”where are we going and why are we here?” and doing it in a visual way. Both are universal to me, so it was a very short leap to go from one to the other.

 

Emerald: So then is making art, in a way, a religious practice for you? How much does religion inspire your work?

 

Jen:  I do try to practice Buddhism in my personal life, but I’m not too successful, so I would say the making of art, using my own hands, takes the place of that. Through my studies in comparative religion was that (religions) have a lot of fundamental differences, but they also have an incredible amount of similarities once you get to the esoteric level. I think of it as climbing a mountain, once you reach the top it all looks the same.

 

I remember a Christian text, where a priest had written a letter to a nun about how to pray the rosary. The priest said, “You have to lose yourself, until there is no you there, and there is only one, and if you lose yourself you become one with Christ.” That’s very similar to Buddhism…there is no “I”. Again, you get to the top of the mountain, you get a lot of similar answers. Now how you get there of course every religion has a different answer, but they’re going for the same goal.

 

I think a lot of artists are trying to do the same thing. They’re asking, “How do I visually represent this concept that I’m trying to communicate?”  It’s really kind of a leap of faith as you don’t have words; you’re not trying to write an essay like,  “here’s what I think about x,y and z.” You’re trying to depict this concept in a visual way, and there’s a gap. That’s what I liked about studying different religions – history, poetry, politics, everything is all right there, and I really responded to that. Art is the other piece, the other side of the coin in expressing those things. So you get the leap of leaving the known and going into the unknown, so a lot of my work is trying to make the unknown known, are the invisible, visible. I try to be in that inbetween place, where I think a lot of people find uncomfortable, but I find very interesting. So religion and art occupy that unknown place very well for me.

 

Emerald: You grew up in Colorado what influence did that area have on your art process?

 

Jen: Our surroundings affect all of us, some of it is very conscious, and some of it is unconscious. In Colorado, I grew up on the Front Range where you are literally on the edge of the Rocky Mountains. Turn one way and you see flat, flat land, and that’s like Kansas, the Great Plains, literally ramming right up into the Rocky Mountains. You then turn the other way and you’ve got these 14,000 foot peaks, so you’re living on the edge, where this transition takes place and I found this really exciting.

 

I was really fortunate to grow up in a really beautiful part of the country. When it snowed you had this blanket that covered up everything, and you wondered was that a pile of garbage underneath all of that snow or is that a rock? You don’t know. Snow makes everything beautiful – it’s like this frosting or glaze over the land. So I would get up in the middle of the night, and when the moon was full it was brighter almost than it was during the day because the light would reflect of the snow and I would be the first one to go walking in the snow, and I’d think to myself, “no one knows I’m out here,” and I would come back home and find another set of footsteps, and it would startle me. “Where did this person go? Who was it? Where they old or young?”  All I have is this trace of footsteps, this seen thing, that is now unseen, and this is all the evidence left behind.

 

So that thought left a mark on me, and so I go on to be a religion major, and try to make the unseen, seen, and at first I didn’t think my art was influenced by any of that at all.  I thought, “that religion degree is in the past,” but of course my art is influenced by the sum of my experiences, and what’s come before in my life. My art isn’t autobiographical but I’m the lens and of course it’s going to come through me, and that’s the way Colorado filtered through me, the snow, living on the edge, the snow covering things up and taking it away. The accumulation over time of snow, first an inch, than an hour would pass and it would then be a foot, you could literally see time in physical form. You’d measure the snow on the ground and discover, “Oh wow, it’s four inches and I can’t see my bike anymore.”

 

Emerald: What is your process? Some artist say they just have an innate compulsion to create. Does that describe you?

 

Jen:  Creating art is something that I need to do. I love sketching and researching and letting my mind wander, letting it be free to make associations that I can bring into my work. I almost see it as a collaboration with material, the concept I’m exploring and myself. There are those times when you get frustrated, and every artist has these moments, when they ask themselves, “Why am I doing this? This is so hard.” and you don’t really get recognized for the work that you do. Art making and art isn’t really valued, at least not in this country. People say, “Oh you’re an artist… What else do you do?” or “Oh that’s nice, but what pays the bills?” And that can be really disheartening, it’s not like we’re constantly living in a state of total bliss, and I just have this ‘need” to create. Sometimes just getting in the studio is the hardest thing to get done in that day, but that is what you do. There are days that I get into the studio and I can’t wait and it’s amazing, but then sometimes, I’m like, “okay, what’s going to get me in the studio today…”. So part of my practice is discipline. It’s easy to get into the studio, or anywhere, when you’re excited. but what gets you to the studio when you’re not excited, and it’s the last thing you want to do? So that’s the discipline; those artist I know who have any degree of success are incredibly disciplined, rational, business people, because they have to be, there’s no other way to do it. The notion of the successful crazy, weird artist is largely a myth.

 

Emerald: Stepping back into the intersection of religion and art, some artists say all spirituality is just going beyond a routine way of seeing life, and ultimately that’s what art is, do you agree with that assessment?

 

Jen: I would agree, though I don’t know if every artist would. Many artists describe making art as a kind of a trance. I think anyone who creates talks about it using a religious language  – a small “r” religious language – a state of mind that you can get to when you create. Not all the time of course, as there are some times that drudgery is the name of the game and you’re banging your head against the wall because the ideas are coming, you have the idea, but you can’t figure out exactly how to do it but there are times we get into the grove, and we know it’s happening, and we hit the target and we know it’s worked and  then you’re trying to do it again, you’re trying for that same spot over and over again and I think that’s what keeps all of us going no matter what kind of artist we are, writers, artists, or musicians.

 

Emerald: What influence has the South Seattle area had on your art and you personally?

 

Jen: I’ve always enjoyed a group learning experience, because I enjoy conversation. I think that when you encounter ideas, people, things, that are different from you, that have a different point of view than you do, you are forced to look at the assumptions you’ve made, reevaluate and grow. That’s the only way to grow, to meet resistance. Our bodies are actually meant to encounter resistance.  That’s the reason that astronauts’ bones and muscles deteriorate in outer space, because there’s no resistance. We get stronger by lifting things that are outside of our comfort zone. We respond in a positive way to being challenged outside of our comfort zone.

 

I think that ever since I was little I enjoyed class discussions where people expressed different points of view and I was in that uncomfortable in-between place. That’s why a lot of my work has more than one part to it, so there’s a conversation that’s happening between multiple parts that then makes a sum greater than the individual parts. South Seattle has always been that to me with it’s diversity. Hopefully Seattle can find a way to preserve that, that conversation, because it seems to be disappearing. It’s what’s going on now with people only watching Fox News or MSNBC, if you’re only talking to the people who agree with you, it’s bad. Any place, whether online or South Seattle, where you can bump into and encounter those different conversations and point of views is a great place. I have to keep myself open to different points of view because otherwise I’d be bored, and I hate being bored!

 

Emerald: Is ceramics undervalued as an art form?

 

Jen: I do think in comparison to other disciplines that ceramics is the underdog, although that’s changing, and has been for the last few years I think. It’s being seen more and more, for its great conceptual possibilities as well as its functionality. There are now more galleries that are picking up ceramic artists, in addition to painters, and other disciplines. They are seeing that ceramics can contribute to the conversation that the larger art world is having.

 

Ceramic artists have differing opinions on whether or not that’s a good thing, as with any discipline there’s people who don’t want to interact with that large conversation, and you’ve got potters who are saying, “Why should I?” But I choose to work with clay because this material has everything that I need. It’s a really exciting time to be working in ceramics, and I’m really excited about its history, from porcelain in China that are thousands of years old to the new artist today who is using challenging our ideas of what a permanent piece of art should be by not firing the work to make it a permanent form, and letting it disintegrate back into the ground, creating a temporary ephemeral piece. That’s a huge range and a potential for conversations that ceramics can have that not a lot of other art forms can have.

 

Emerald: In producing art, when do you encounter your, “aha moment?” When do you know you’re finished with a piece?

 

Jen: That’s a good question. Sometimes you have to go over the finish line. Working on art is sometimes like looking in the rearview mirror, like,” oops that stopping point was back there.” There is an element of subjectivity to art. The artist has their opinion and you have your opinion. It’s wonderful when we agree. But there are those who are with you, and those who think you’re on a different planet. You can always know that something is well crafted, and that the skill is there. But when you’re finished with a piece it’s when it answers the questions you are asking the work. Does this say what I want it to? Does this communicate the questions I’m asking? For example, does this ceramic cup (she holds up an ordinary looking coffee cup) provide an answer to human anguish? Well no – this “artwork” will fail. It’s purpose is to hold liquid and to drink out of.  So it really matters what questions are you asking the work. The answer can sometimes determine whether you are finished or not.

 

Emerald: You’ve had a great amount of success, with several artist residencies and awards. What advice do you have for those artist who are just starting out or who have persisted without any success?

 

Jen: You have to show up. In order to make the work you have to be there to make the work. So to the new, younger artist I’d say keep going, even on those days you don’t want to, or you get that 20th rejection letter, you’re not going to succeed if you quit. Sounds obvious, but if you don’t apply you’re not going to get the opportunity, you might as well apply because you’ve got nothing to lose. What’s the worst that can happen? You’re not going to get it? If you don’t apply, you’re certainly not going to get there. You’re not going to make the work. So just do it, just show up.

 

The second thing is to take risks. The more you put yourself out there, even if every fiber of your being is afraid, and saying oh my gosh who is going to like this? Someone is going to respond to it. There’s something for everyone. Now is it going to be the best thing you ever made? Maybe not, but if you don’t put it out there you’re not going to get any feedback to get better. You’re not going to encounter any resistance to get better to make you stronger. Just keeping putting your work out there, and if that’s at a local coffee shop, just so you can see it outside of your studio on the wall, or outside of your living room or wherever you’re working, the work benefits because it’s encountering a new thing, you’re benefiting because you’re encountering a new thing, and you will see your work in a different way.
For more information on Jen Mills, including views of her scintillating ceramic pieces and future exhibitions, please visit http://www.jen-mills.com

Homegrown Documentaries

Seed ArtsSeattle, WA – Bicycling nudists, Rwandan filmmakers and a Seattle family confronted by terrorism are the intriguing characters you’ll meet at the second annual SEED Arts Cinema Series SEEDArts Cinema Series, “Made in Seattle: Homegrown Documentaries”. The two-day series, April 4 & 5, is comprised of three dynamic, award-winning, locally made documentaries to be screened at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center, 3515 S Alaska St, Seattle, WA 98118. The films are Finding Hillywood (4/4 at 7pm), Barzan (4/5 at 5pm), and Beyond Naked (4/5 at 7pm). Each film will be followed by a community conversation with the filmmakers and moderated by Rustin Thompson, The Restless Critic.

The Cinema Series opens on Friday, April 4 at 7pm with a screening of Finding Hillywood. Set amongst the hills of Rwanda, Finding Hillywood chronicles one man’s road to forgiveness, his effort to heal his country, and the realization that we all must one day face our past. A unique and endearing phenomenon film about the very beginning of Rwanda’s film industry and the pioneers who bring local films to rural communities. A real life example of the power of film to heal a man and a nation.

The Series continues on Saturday, April 5, with an evening double feature. At 5 pm, we present Barzan by directors Alex Stonehill & Bradley Hutchinson. Barzan is an intimate portrait of a suburban family ripped apart by a terrorism accusation. Shot both in Iraq and Seattle, this investigative documentary examines terrorism, immigration, and the sacrifices we make to protect the American dream.

The series concludes at 7pm with Beyond Naked, the “Best Documentary” of the Seattle True Independent Film Festival (2013). This film shows what happens when four first-timers accept a challenge to ride naked in Seattle’s legendary Solstice Parade. This feature-length documentary explores our deep-rooted fear and awkward fascination with nakedness through the lens of one of Seattle’s most popular traditions.

Admission to the Cinema Series is $5 per film. All films will be screened on the new digital projection system at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center, 3515 S Alaska St, Seattle, WA 98118. Limited concessions will be available. For more information and updates, call 206.760.4285 or visit http://www.rainiervalleyculturalcenter.org/cinema.