“A Secret Symphony?” Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon

Arts Wire: A Secret Symphony?

Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon

 

 

 

 


“A Secret Symphony.”
It certainly has a ring to it. Yet, let us step back from the poetry of the statement and ask ourselves a few questions. What did Barbara Earl Thomas, artist/writer/thinker, mean by this, and was Arts Wire really like this at all?

Her vision of the internet and its possibilities is romantic. Her metaphor of music and poetry appears appropriate for an organization such as Arts Wire. The notion of many people chiming together as a united force fits well. Yet, the symphony is secret, perhaps because it is behind closed doors. Barbara implies you might not even know that someone was playing on the instruments next door – after all, the computer was silent.

Nevertheless, her vision for Arts Wire is somewhat contradictory. It proposes a world that is very connected, with “people coming together.” Yet at the same time, they are in “solitary rooms filled with god knows who.” What kind of world is this? Is a secret symphony some sort of anti-social social network?

There was certainly a kind of symphony within Arts Wire. Being “online” meant conversations could happen instantaneously across international and national borders, whatever the distance. Suddenly the world could spin faster; it could actually get on with things quicker. Response time dropped, and people could chime in time, creating a symphony of text voices. In the files we go through as interns, we commonly come across an outburst from an excited user that they “just got online!” – a crash of cymbals, perhaps, in our orchestra theme. Moreover, the connections that Arts Wire managed to create continually added people to the orchestra. For once, everyone was in the same hall, albeit a virtual hall, and could post, edit, and comment to make themselves heard within the orchestra.

There was a conductor at the front, Anne, with her first violins, the Technical Working Group, along with the core staff and a mass of artists, organizations, and other folks taking up the other instruments. As with any orchestra, the instruments varied a lot. In Judy Malloy’s chapter on Arts Wire in Social Media Archaeology and Poetics, she tells how Arts Wire held the “vitality, diversity, and cultural significance” of its individual artists and nonprofit organization members at the core of its collective vision1 (p. 333). There were artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and theater artists chiming in together. Alongside these were the drum beats of critics, arts administrators, and arts funders, such as the NEA.

Arts Wire aimed to “reinforce democratic values and encourage interaction among its users”

Arts Wire, according to its mission statement, would “reinforce democratic values and encourage interaction among its users” in order, Arts Wire hoped, to “develop for artists a more integral place in society as a whole” (p. 335). At its height, Arts Wire hosted more than 100 websites for artists and arts organizations with links to more than 400 more (p.334). The mission of this collective body was to stand against the tides of the era’s culture wars that were pulling arts communities apart through censorship and restricted funding. The need for arts advocacy, as the founder Anne Focke explains, was great at the time. From our podcast interviews with various members of Arts Wire’s team and through examining the files, it seems that the relationships established through Arts Wire were not always harmonious.

Each person had their own personal interests. One big collision we came across was between artists and funders. We found posts that worried about what material was appropriate for Arts Wire with a concern that funders might see what they were doing and restrict their funding. Put into the context of the culture wars at the time, censorship was a fraught issue. In a discussion of privacy during a recent podcast interview, we interns had to question whether it is even right for us to examine all the Arts Wire material when it was never intended for our audience at the time it was created. So, if we’re part of a symphony, who are we performing for?

Furthermore, being online was a complex process that affected people’s ability to read and participate in the collective effort. Today it is simple to log on and have access, but in Arts Wire days, one first needed equipment: a computer, a connection (such as Sprintnet), then a modem, which was not always standard with computers then. You needed to pay to be online. You had to able to navigate the system using text-based commands, such as AND_NOW? And you had to have enormous patience for “the *very* slow connection” that Judy Malloy recalls. It was enormously confusing, the equivalent of a cellist picking up a tuba.

When I asked Anne what she found most challenging about it, she told me that, “It was really just getting my head around where I was, what was I actually doing, what’s happening, how was it all working, where is my message going? At the time there was no concept of the virtual world, and that’s really hard to explain to people today when internet use is so second-nature.” Not to mention, there was the difficulty of typing and navigating on a black-and-yellow or black-and-white screen. Clearly, you needed specific skills and imagination to operate in this virtual world.

Being online was a complex process that affected people’s ability to read and participate in the collective effort.

Immediately one must then think, who had these skills, and how did that affect their presence on Arts Wire? In the files, Arts Wire users complained of “not being able to type fast enough,” or feeling they needed to “read through everything before they even knew where they were or could even contribute to the conversation.” On top of that, people were concerned about their “persona” online: How formal should they be? Who was listening in? Was it even safe? It was at this time that “spam” came into being. (Spam was also present on fax machines, another new technology at the time. On one of our podcasts, former Arts Wire staff member Barry Lasky reported that spam could literally print itself out of your fax machine.)

For all the good the internet does, it’s important to recall that its history, and Arts Wire’s history along with it, is represented by those willing to take the risk and able to invest the time and money to master the tools and the material. Who could play these instruments and meet together in these rooms? And was everyone following the conductor?

Arts Wire was not-for-profit, but one had to pay to be online. For Barbara Earl Thomas to have sent the message above, she first needed a computer. In 1991, a midrange computer with 4MB of RAM, a 200MB hard disk, and 14″ display would cost about $4,300. Cheaper computers were available but none less than $2,000. A considerable expense, would it be worth the money and effort just for a volunteer effort? Then, it cost money to be online. In 1991, a subscription to HandsNet (another early public interest online network) cost $270 annually, not including other connection costs. The costs of using Arts Wire included “choose-your-own” subscription fees of $5-15 dollars a month for an individual or $2,500 annually for partner organizations, plus a monthly fee from MetaNet, whose platform Arts Wire used, and whatever your own local internet service charged, which was usually a charge by the minute. Did the users have to pay these fees? Well, for the majority of users, the answer was yes. This all meant an individual would need to be fairly well off to afford to be online, and it would be more expensive if you were not a fast reader or typist. In fact, we know from Anne’s boxes, that her tactic was to print out posts from online, sign off, draft a reply, and then cut-and-paste it as quickly as possible when back online.

It’s important to recall that the internet’s history is represented by those willing to take the risk and able to invest the time and money.

The fact was that Arts Wire’s user and partnership fees were an important part of its budget, even though it also received foundation support and both in-kind and financial support from its home base, the New York Foundation for the Arts. All of which meant, though, that our Arts Wire community was narrowed to something that, in another context, was dubbed an “elite-internet-culture.” The mission of Arts Wire may have been for artists to have “a more integral place in society as a whole,” but to be an “integral person” on Arts Wire you needed the necessary money and knowledge. Arts Wire’s conversation, its “orchestra,” seems not only to be made up of a special few with access to funds and online knowledge, but each participant could only chime sporadically, not together. They were not in sync, they didn’t keep time. The notion of the instantaneous ‘”chat,” like the emoji we discovered in the files, was truly in its infancy.

Another problem this orchestra faced, as it headed boldly into the computer world, was focus and cohesion. With much enthusiasm, many groups created their own spaces for conversations about their specific interests and to find audiences. Over 80 interest groups were created, according to Judy Malloy. (p. 339). As she notes, this weakened the central place of Arts Wire. The burning fire at the heart of the house was no longer so easy to find. Conversation threads also died out, and their occupants moved away to websites of their own. It was therefore hard to keep up with Arts Wire itself.

This sense of losing track is related to an issue that we interns and Anne spoke about, together and in our podcasts. Today, we face threads from twitter, facebook, tumblr and reddit. It is easy to loose track, to not feel integrated. At the same time, we do not want to feel told that we must live in the virtual world – the anti-social social network.

We do not want to feel we must live in the virtual world
– the anti-social social network.

Sometimes this sense of losing control is not felt just in conversations online but also in the technology itself. Just as today an iPhone 6 is replaced the next year with the iPhone 7, in Arts Wire’s day the technology was also rapidly adapting, and by 1994 the World Wide Web changed Arts Wire’s audience, interface, and outlook. The development of technology, one could argue, even controlled the character, motivation, and drive of Arts Wire. By extension, helping its users continue adapting to the changes would be its greatest challenge. Making sure that if the violin went out of tune, the problem could be fixed without the utter breakdown of the song.

So why did they do it? Why did they bother to exhaust their emotional and intellectual energy learning to use these computers? And what were they getting from it?

Let us set the context. The culture wars under the Reagan administration threatened the funding for the NEA, and the national government did not recognize the full value of artists. The role of the artist in society seemed to be changing, becoming more activist. While Barbara wrote of “solitary rooms,” I think what the artists involved in Arts Wire got was a sense of the wider community and kinship with each other. From our podcast interviews I have picked up on the fact there was a real “family” behind Arts Wire. The reviewer Kenny Greenberg in Internet World observed that, “It is the human spirit that makes Arts Wire special.” For Judy, it was this budding community that made Arts Wire “a lively place” (Judy Malloy, p. 337).

Furthermore, they had to use computers. The pioneers on Arts Wire knew that their world was changing. They were ambitious, and they took the gamble with the technology. They did the heavy lifting for us today and indeed continue to. Ted Berger, Joe Matuzak, Tommer Peterson, Judy Malloy, Anna Couey, Sarah Lutman, Barry Lasky, David Mendoza, and many others we weren’t able to interview have not lost contact with each other, and many are still invested in the art and computer world. By 1991, when Barbara was writing, Anne had already established a national steering committee and linked prospective artists and funders together from all over the country. After Anne left, during Joe Matuzak’s time as director, Arts Wire’s reach became international. Overseas communication was now a reality. These connections really were the crux.

So why did they do it? They were ambitious, and they took the gamble with the technology. They did the heavy lifting for us today.

In comparison to what had come before, this was astonishing. Here was an online group where people from all over the country and all walks of life were commenting in one place, at a time “when the national arts support was in crisis.” (Judy Malloy, p. 336) In theory, the kinship Anne orchestrated was remarkable. As the conductor, Anne recruited a wonderful team of musicians, even if they did sometimes have trouble with the instruments and keeping time.

What about in my own experience as an intern? I believe that this “symphony” metaphor has played out in our lifetimes. As Arts Wire wrote the manual, reached out to non-users, and helped artists on the way, they were “tuning” the instruments that my generation plays today without thinking about it. Despite its virtual presence, what I have been struck by is the memory of Arts Wire among people today. As an intern, it has been my role with my team to do the work of Arts Wire again, bringing its artists and organizers together, in a kind of reunion (albeit easier to do now) to ask them what happened and how they felt. In doing so, I have made my own connections, with Anne, Zach, Karen, Abby, Jessica, and everyone we interviewed.

In a funny way, we have come full circle, with a desire to create an artistic community all over again. We have joined Anne in conducting the symphony.

Today, kinship in the art world will be more important than ever.

The people we have interviewed have such a strong willingness and enthusiasm that they’ve taught me an important lesson. The art world and the UW art department in particular have a vibe of kinship. I do not believe there is anything “secret” about it. From the start, there was nothing “solitary” about the artists or Arts Wire as an organization. Today with the recent threat to the NEA under the Trump administration, kinship in the art world will be more important than ever. If the NEA were to end, it would not be the end of arts. Creativity is grass-roots and it will find a way. Continuing with the orchestra metaphor, I do believe that the show will go on…instruments in tune, or not.

Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon is an undergraduate Art History student who spent a year-abroad program with us this past year and is now traveling the western U.S. on her way home to the University of Edinburgh.

Notes

  1. Social Media Archeology and Poetics, edited by Judy Malloy, MIT Press 2016.

“Arts Wire in Today’s World,” Abigail Cloutier

Understanding Arts Wire in the Age of Twitter

Abigail Cloutier

 

 

 

 

If Arts Wire was ahead of its time, nevertheless participation on Arts Wire provided confidence and experience in working online that greatly contributed to the rich and diverse presence of the arts in contemporary Internet.

– Judy Malloy

 

I received an email from the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design describing an opening intern position with pioneering alum, Anne Focke. The main purpose of the internship was to create an archive for Arts Wire, a national computer-based bulletin system formed in 1989 for artists, arts groups, funders, and many more to connect online prior to public awareness of the Internet. Meeting with Anne, I was eager to inquire about specifics and learn what it was all about. However, I discovered that my questions could not be fully answered quickly as it would take multiple sit downs with Anne and fellow interns to really begin to digest the work that has been done and, conversely, the work we are doing (or attempting to do) now.

Disclosure: I am still not exactly certain of what it all means. As a technologically “savvy” millennial, I’ve found it hard to wrap my head around Arts Wire: what it was, what it is, who used it, and what we should do with its findings today. But by doing some research, I gain more clarity bit by bit. Judy Malloy, an early and consistent member of the Arts Wire team, described the platform in her book Social Media Archeology and Poetics: “Before Internet usage was ubiquitous, in an era when every time the technology was mastered, it changed, Arts Wire’s strong presence on the Internet, its emphasis on bringing the nonprofit arts community online, greatly contributed to the early presence of the arts on the Internet.” 1

As a technologically “savvy” millennial, I’ve found it hard to wrap my head around Arts Wire.

Arts Wire came into being following the 1988 Orcas Conference: Creative Support for the Creative Artist, a gathering of 200 artists, artists’ organizations, and private and public funders all aiming to find fresh ways of supporting artists both locally and nationally. At the time, “logging on” involved a computer, which not everyone had, a modem, and patience with the technological limitations of the time. Arts Wire created a user manual and found itself at the center of the online arts community, connecting artists, funders, and arts groups from very distant points, geographically and culturally.

While I am beginning to grasp what Arts Wire is, I am just beginning the journey of what it means for us today. Joe Matuzak is quoted in Malloy’s book as saying, “In many ways Arts Wire led the way. That meant we made the mistakes, but it also meant there were a lot of times we mapped out new terrain.” The material we twenty-somethings are reading for the first time is history, but it is still alive and kicking. Seasoned artists like Anne, Judy, and countless others lived through this time of exploration. They cultivated a new field and were determined to find solutions to connect and empower artists and nonprofit communities.

The material we twenty-somethings are reading for the first time is history, but it is still alive and kicking.

Contemplating these accomplishments, I cannot help but consider the ease of our own interactions on the Internet today. In some ways, it is a fulfillment of Arts Wire’s vision to bring about instant communication for varying artistic communities. However, if it weren’t for my seeing the internship advertised by UW, I would never have known of the pivotal influence of Arts Wire and other early online networks on websites like Tumblr, or even Facebook. It may take some time to understand all of it, but exploring what Arts Wire was created to be and what it accomplished has given me a broader appreciation for what it means to work for your right to express your opinions, to share critical information, and to remain engaged in a community you care deeply about.

Arts Wire is living history and this is a lesson that we in the age of instant WIFI, simple URLs, and access at the click of a cursor or touch of a screen would do well to read, study, and acknowledge.

Abby Cloutier is a undergraduate student in Art History who will be returning to the UW School of Art + Art History + Design in fall 2017. She was with us just for spring quarter and wrote this piece after being part of the team for only a few weeks. For the rest of us, it was both interesting and useful to remember what it was like to confront this material for the first time.

Notes

  1. Social Media Archeology and Poetics, edited by Judy Malloy, the MIT Press, 2016.

“Interning with Anne,” Jessica Capó

Interning with Anne

Jessica Capó

 

 

 

 

This internship started with a conversation with Anne where she asked me what it is that I study. When I told her that I studied art, she asked if I was an artist. I replied that I study and practice art, but I do not consider myself an artist. She mentioned that she felt the same way about her writing. This was my first time interacting with Anne, but I already understood so much about the way that she thought.

When I asked what her medium is, she told me this was it. Creating organizations, projects, etc. This was her medium. At first, this was hard to wrap my head around. I am so used to studying artists whose media are plaster, clay, metal, and oil on canvas, but not organizations. How many organizations and projects could she really have created? It turns out, there have been several, and getting to know Anne is the only way to find this out because of how humble she is about her creations.

Anne’s attitude toward creating new projects and tackling anything head on is inspiring to say the least, and I feel it is a reason why this internship has been able to go so far. It has given me, for instance, several opportunities, such as being able to curate my own show, learning how to run a podcast, and even writing and editing a piece like this one to be posted online. She has taught us interns so much about being an artist that we would not otherwise have gained from our classes at the University of Washington.

I have gotten a look into a history where, luckily, my subjects are still around.

This internship turned out to be much more than simple archiving, which the initial description of the position implied. I have had the opportunity to learn skills, such as podcasting, that I have been curious about for quite some time. I have gotten a look into a history where, luckily, my subjects are still around. I have been able to talk to them about the files I have been going through for months on end. Because of our podcasts, I have talked to them about the problems that were occurring at the time and what they felt about it. This is probably one of the most important pieces of the internship to me, because we’re able to create a verbal history of the era.

For many people, the 1980s and 1990s might seem as though they just lived them, but we’re getting to a point where there will be no recollection of the technology they had in those days, like big breathing boxes of computers, dial-up connections, and floppy disks. Being able to talk to individuals who were online so early on and were a part of systems like MetaNet where Arts Wire began is incredibly important. These were some of the pioneers of what arts organizations could have done and built for the community.

It is important to create an oral history, or spoken archive, of such moments in time, especially because of the way this history was built. Almost everything was online or by telephone, and the internet was not yet easily available. It only makes sense to have these memories and moments uploaded for the current internet community to enjoy. It’s hard to imagine a world without these online systems, but that’s just what our interviewees helped us to imagine. What was it like before we were able to type in a simple Google search?

It’s hard to imagine this life, where thinking about typing online just seemed stressful and responses took days rather than minutes or seconds.

Going through the archives, it’s hard to imagine this life, where thinking about typing online just seemed stressful and responses took days rather than minutes or seconds. However, that’s why it’s so important to talk to the people who were there at the time and can recall what was happening then. What was it like to live in these moments where the technology was changing so drastically?

This internship may have turned out to be a lifelong project, since I haven’t had enough time to realize just how I have benefitted from it and what exactly I have learned. The exploration with my fellow interns is still occurring, and I don’t know that there is an ending to it quite yet.

Jessica Capó received an undergraduate degree in Interdisciplinary Visual Arts from the UW School of Art + Art History + Design in June 2017. She was one of two interns who spent the entire year with me. Among other things, she became our “techie,” taking responsibility, for instance, for figuring out how to set up a podcast and then being in charge of setting up the equipment each time and hosting us around her dining table because my office at the School was too echoey.


Who is the “public”?

“Wait a minute!” I said. “I am the public!” I pointed to people in the room and said, “You are the public, and you are the public!”

 

In an interview earlier this year, David Mendoza recalled making this comment. He was referring to a moment in the late 1980s when he was in the midst of a debate about public funding for the arts. Three students – Karen Beech, Jessica Capó, and Lizzie Trelawney-Vernon – at the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design – conducted the interview as part of an internship with me, Alum in Residence. We were delving into the history and files of Arts Wire, an online network that started at about the same time as the incident in David’s story. The students decided to produce a podcast series including interviews with intriguing people they found in the files. David was definitely on their list. The hour-long interview, with David in Bali and we in an apartment near the university, covered many of David’s experiences.1 The following exchange took place at the end of the interview.

DAVID: I want to put in one last pitch for public funding for the arts.  Anne, do you remember my pin, “I AM THE PUBLIC”?

ANNE: Oh, I still have a couple, David. I should start wearing one.

DAVID: I created that pin because I got so tired of people using the word “public” and saying, “I’m against public funding for the arts. I’m against public funding for this, or public support shouldn’t go for that.” At some debate I was in, I said, “Wait a minute! I am the public!” I pointed to people in the room and said “You are the public, and you are the public.” The anomalous idea that a public means someone who is not me or not many other people…I just wouldn’t accept that. So I created a pin that said, “I AM THE PUBLIC.” And we distributed it widely. People loved this pin because they got it immediately, because they knew they were not being included when the word “public” was used.

What public funding for the arts did, what the NEA did, what NYSCA and many other arts councils did, was diversify the arts in America. They realized that not just a few major European-based institutions were the arts in America: there were all kinds of others. Just last night I was listening to PBS NewsHour and learned there’s a revival of Zoot Suit, Luis Valdéz’s play that he created with Teatro Campesino in California, which went on to Broadway and a movie. Now it’s being revived again. And once again, it has relevance, to the Chicano community especially. Teatro Campesino was supported by both the California Arts Council and the NEA. That theater would never have been supported by a Koch/Trump type of philanthropy, though I don’t actually want to include Trump because he’s really not a philanthropist. But people who were known for their philanthropy gave big money to what they liked. Nothing wrong with that, but there was nobody to give money to Teatro Campesino. That’s what public support for the arts did. And, that’s why we created that pin, “I AM THE PUBLIC.” Everyone who wore it was part of the public.

JESSICA: I just want to chime in…Anne has one of these pins in the office. And when she told me the story about it, it really spoke to me and I tend to tell a lot of people about it. Personally, I am myself Hispanic and a lot of my co-workers are minorities as well, you know, Pakistani, Taiwanese. I mentioned this same pin to them, actually just today. I mentioned it to them in the art context but also in terms of what’s happening today. And they loved it, and they were just, like… YES, this is exactly it.

DAVID: Yes! Maybe your first activism after this podcast could be, just make some! Just make it!

VOICES ON TOP OF EACH OTHER: Just make some!  Yeah!  And… create some. Definitely!

DAVID: I’m telling you, it was amazing. Actually the message is quite, I don’t want to say deep, but profound in a way…patting myself on the back a little, I guess. But I remember, for example, a Gay Pride March [in Seattle], which used to be on Broadway in those days. We were marching and had bags of them and were handing them out. People loved this pin! They got its message immediately. Then I’d see it on people all over Seattle. I think it’s a very good thing to revive! They’re not expensive…just reproduce it.

JESSICA: It’s so funny, I was just thinking about this today. After mentioning them to my co-workers, it was, wow! I just want to make more and start giving them to people. Yeah… it’s just amazing. It doesn’t have to be in the art context, but just in general…what that actually means to people. Just making them realize they are part of this whole debate. They are the public. “Yeah! I am, and I really should have a bigger say in what’s going on.”

KAREN: It’s a reaffirmation of your own value. This understanding that, like, wait a second, I’m culpable. I’m responsible. And that means that I also have power and I have agency. That is really important! We so often become isolated in the sense that we think, well, my opinion is this. But the point is not that. The point is that my opinion is as valid as the “public’s” opinion, that everybody has an individual opinion, and that, all together, is what creates any group, right? even on the scale of the country.

DAVID: And remember, you have to always be aware that when you hear someone talk about the “public,” they probably have an idea of it that doesn’t include a lot of people. They’re excluding part of the public.

ANNE: When you come back in June or July, David, we’ll give you a new pin.

JESSICA: Yeah, we need to revive this!

DAVID: Yes!  I have one in my little treasured storage chest in Seattle. It’s time, it’s time again. We’ve come full circle with what’s happening right now.

KAREN: If you had the opportunity to share some advice or to provide some guidance to people who are wanting to be involved now and wanting to be active now, in the current moment, what might you say?

DAVID: I was so devastated after the election that when I left the U.S. last December, people here would ask, “What’s wrong with you?” I really had thought, with the election of Obama, that all the work we’d done had slowly progressed, one step forward, one step back, and onward. I thought we finally had arrived where we’d been trying to get all these years, though of course, there was still a long way to go. And then this sudden turn… I just felt like it had been a waste in a way.

But I’ll tell you what heartens me right now, where I find solace and hope is seeing all these people who are turning up at the town hall meetings of Congresspeople around, in Nebraska and Kansas, that I’ve been reading about, and in Texas. Republicans in Congress are having meetings with 800, 1000, 1500 people showing up who are well-informed, who are angry, who are speaking out. My god, we never had anything like that in those days. We would only have dreamed we could have orchestrated something like that. What’s truly important now is showing up first and secondly opening your mouth. That would be the advice I’d have. Show up, open your mouth, and be informed.

“That would be the advice I’d have.
Show up, open your mouth, and be informed.”

 


AFTERWORD
:  At one of our weekly meetings a month or so after the podcast recording, the group of interns surprised me with several hundred brand-new pins. You can bet that one way or another, they’ll make sure David gets some of the new ones.

• • • • •

NOTE

1 Jessica Capó created a website for posting the series of podcasts produced by the interns from their work with Arts Wire files. There will be about 15 episodes in the final series. They’re posted weekly on Fridays. The site is here., and the interview with David is titled, “Golden Horseshoe.” You’ll find a list of all the podcasts with live links to the audio at the “podcast” tab, and a brief description and additional notes at “extras.”

The podcast production is definitely low-tech, just the make-it-up-ourselves style I love. We gather at Jess’s apartment a few blocks from campus (my office reverberates too much) around a dining table with a small microphone and a cell phone on the speakerphone setting. You might need to adjust your ears a bit.

Final note: You can also read a memoir David wrote about his life since graduating from the UW, here.


David Mendoza – The past half-century

This story starts at the University of Washington, heads off to Europe, comes  back to the Seattle art world, then moves on to New York City, the fierce battles of the Culture Wars, and his life in Bali today, while reminding us of our continuing need for vigilance, activism, and courage.


Fifty years ago, David Mendoza and I graduated in the same year from the same university with undergraduate degrees in the same subject, art history.1 As the official “Alum in Residence” at the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design for the 2016-2017 academic year, I invited David, who has remained a friend, to come back to the school and join me in a conversation about what he’s done with the years since we graduated.

So, on November 21, 2016, he and I sat in the school’s Jacob Lawrence Gallery with an assembled group of students, faculty, staff, and community members. My opening question to David was, “So, what have you done with your art history degree?” As he told us the story that follows, it was clear that he’d given the question a lot of thought in advance. And no one wanted him to stop once he got started.

 A resume can tell you that David has been director of the Foster/White Gallery, executive assistant to the chair of the New York State Council on the Arts, the first director of Artist Trust, the first executive director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, and a long-time board member of Art Matters foundation. He has lived on Bali since 1998, where he produces a line of clothing and home goods with a focus on natural dyes, handmade batik, and preserving traditional craft techniques of Southeast Asia.

But the real story can’t be captured in a resume. It’s full of twists and turns that affect a life forever, of people and events encountered unexpectedly, and of the power of following both your dreams and your intuition and fighting for what you believe in.

You can read his story below or download it here.

Anne Focke


 

David Mendoza in conversation with Anne Focke at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery, November 21, 2016. Photo by Nadia Ahmed.

What did you do with your art history degree? a memoir

David Mendoza 
November 21, 2016

 

Fifty-three years ago today, November 21, was a Wednesday. The next day about noon, and late as usual, I was running across the Quad to a class in Parrington Hall when I ran into one of my pals running in the opposite direction. He said, “JFK has been shot,” and kept running. That was 1963.

DEGREE

I graduated in 1967 during a tumultuous time in our nation and on campus. I started at the UW as a Business major, switched to Architecture, then to Interior Design, and, after being called to a meeting with Professor Warren Hill, switched one more time to Art History. Warren – we became friends later – was a professor in Interior Design, and he, shall we say, urged me to switch majors. I couldn’t draft – same problem in architecture. So I surveyed my accumulated credits. Not only did I have quite a few credits in Art History – including architecture and design history – but I’d earned good grades and loved the subject. So, here I am, all these years later, talking to you as an ancient alum.

I was trying to finish my art history thesis for our brilliant professor, Lawrence D. Steefel, while experimenting with pot and listening to Sgt. Pepper. The topic of my paper was Dada, and in retrospect it was a very Dada time with the Vietnam War (or American War as the Vietnamese call it) and the cultural revolution (the eve of the “Summer of Love”). Studying the Dada artists, their performances, and their anti-war positions all tossed together with the world around me meant that, in early May 1967, I found myself unable to fashion a coherent thesis paper. As the month rolled by and the deadline for turning it in approached, I had pretty much decided that after five years of university and lots of credits, I was not going to graduate and get a degree. My focus turned to how I would explain all this to my parents who had struggled to help pay college costs for me – the first in our family to attend.

The topic of my paper was Dada, and in retrospect
it was a very Dada time.

Probably through a combination of wine, pot, angst, and itchiness to get out of school and into the “real world,” I decided to make an appointment with Professor Steefel. I still can remember clearly that day – nervous, resigned to reality, and eager to get it over with. I actually prepared some notes to try to explain what had happened to me. These included references to lyrics on Sgt. Pepper as well as Dada history. It was a long meeting, maybe two hours. He asked me questions, and we had a very expanded discussion. I thanked him and left, feeling relieved that the meeting and my college career and degree were over.

About a week later, grades were distributed. When I opened mine, I found that Professor Steefel had given me an A and the five credits I needed for my degree. I was in shock. In just a moment, my whole life turned a new corner.

EUROPE

After working as a waiter to make money, I left for my grand tour of Europe in the fall of 1967. It was time to see all the paintings, sculpture, and cathedrals I had only seen projected from slides on a screen. Being the romantic that I realized much later I was, I decided to go to Europe by ship. So I took a train across the U.S. to New York City and Grand Central Station, never having been before. Once there, I immediately got off the train and into a taxi that took me to the 40th Street piers to board the S.S. France. Nowadays, the only place you see the scene I encountered is in old movies – crowds of people, some boarding and some saying good bye to departing loved ones. Like in the movies, the France departed in the late afternoon and, as we passed the Statue of Liberty, we were all standing at the railing admiring New York City.

 •

My eight months in Europe started in London visiting museums and castles and seeing some theater, and then continued on to Amsterdam and Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh. My plans to take a train from there to Paris changed at a party hosted by someone I met in Amsterdam where I met a good friend of the host. An American woman, older than me, she had just arrived from Stuttgart where she had bought a new Porsche. Apparently, she did this every year. I told her my plans, and she said, “Why don’t you ride with me instead to the south of France?” I hesitated, but my host said, “Don’t be crazy. Marilyn knows France very well. You would be lucky to have her as a guide, and you’d get a free ride as well!” So I did.

This is just what the doctor ordered for my romantic
“tour de France.”

Marilyn had rented an apartment in a small village near Nice named Haut-de-Cagnes. She had visited several times before and had fallen in love with a woman who lived there. I stayed with her until she helped – pushed – me to find a room. The village was magical, one of the so-called villages perchés, or “perched villages,” high above the Mediterranean. There were no cars, only steep and winding walkways, and a gathering of expats and French, Bohemian and worldly. This is just what the doctor ordered for my romantic tour de France.

One rainy day about a month after I arrived, I was walking across the plaza in front of the Chateau. I saw a black man with a suitcase and typewriter case talking to one of the old French women in black who lived there. As I approached I heard he was American and did not speak French so I approached to ask if I could help. He said, “Oh, are you American? Do you speak French?” I said yes and helped him find the apartment he had rented in the village. He had just arrived via Marseilles from Africa and had come to write a book. His name was Alex Haley, and he was grateful for my help.

Being an “old timer” in the village by then, I helped Alex get settled and, over the next few days, showed him around and introduced him to Marilyn. We three had dinners and wine and chats. Alex told us he was writing a book that traced his African-American ancestors back to Africa before they were brought as slaves to the U.S. Marilyn and I looked at each other skeptically, but Alex was a great storyteller and he proceeded over these meals to tell us bits and pieces of what he had found. His stories were filled with people who had names like Chicken George, Kunta Kinte, and Izzie. While in Africa, he told us, he had recorded griots, storytellers who were the keepers of family and tribal history.

Sometimes, when I visited him for a meal and wine, he would tell me more of these stories sitting in front of the big stone fireplace, and I still found his tales far-fetched and unbelievable. I began to think of him as “Uncle Remus.” At that time, Alex had a reputation as a celebrity interviewer for Playboy magazine and also as the author of The Autobiography of Malcom X. This meant that, from time to time, he had to return to the U.S. to interview someone for Playboy – and to make some money. When he left he offered me his apartment to save money from my travel budget. In exchange I helped transcribe some of his audio tapes on his old typewriter.

One time, when Alex was away the phone rang and a hoarse voice asked, “Alex?” I replied that he was in the U.S. The caller was James Baldwin, on his way to the south of France. He wanted to meet up with Alex who had discussed doing an interview with him. James had a bad cold and was in a bad mood. His French then-boyfriend had left him in London. James was looking for the boyfriend, whom he suspected was somewhere down here near Nice. After that trip, James fell in love with the area and rented a villa in Saint Paul du Vence, a village higher in the hills than Haut de Cagnes and famous for a Matisse Chapel. Baldwin lived there until he died.

 “Thank you for your help and friendship here in Haut de Cagnes
while I am writing
Before this Anger.” – Alex Haley

Although I was very happy in that village and didn’t want to leave, Alex encouraged me to continue my journey and my adventure. He was right. On departing he gave me a paperback copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and signed it, “Thank you for your help and friendship here in Haut de Cagnes while I am writing Before this Anger.” That was his original title for the book that later became famous as Roots: The Saga of an American Family.

At Museé Picasso, Antibes, France, 1967

SEATTLE AGAIN

When I returned to Seattle in April 1968, the “anger” that Alex referred to was in full force. Continue reading →

String Tales – my “literatura de cordel”

Pamphlets, broadsides, newsletters, flyers,
leaflets, booklets, chapbooks, and zines

From one to maybe 24 pages, quickly and cheaply produced and easily distributed – these print forms fit my style. Over the years I’ve produced many variations on the form.

Recently, I’ve started turning some of my blog posts into small publications. I make them myself and call them “String Tales.” I reformat the text and images, print them on an inexpensive color printer that prints up to 11×17 inches, fold them twice, hang them on a line, and give them away.

The inspiration for the form is a tradition I first learned about from Don Russell, a friend in Washington DC who founded and runs Provisions Library: Art for Social Change.1 Literatura de cordel, or “string literature,”  is a popular form of publishing that thrives in Brazil. Don and a team from Provisions traveled to Brazil to research the tradition. After their trip, the Provisions team put together a mobile print workshop and took it into DC neighborhoods.

Wanting to know more, I followed leads from the Provisions website to other references and stories about this “string literature” and who makes it.

They are the bards of the backlands, traveling with their poems from town to town and market to market. Practitioners of an art form that originated in medieval Europe and is now mostly obsolete elsewhere, they nonetheless continue to thrive here.2
              — Larry Rohter describing “the troubadours of Brazil’s backlands”

These poets and storytellers travel through towns in northeastern Brazil, reciting or singing their stories and poems in marketplaces, often to townspeople unable to read or write, and offering them for sale in small, cheaply-printed booklets pinned on cords or strings (cordel) hung across market stalls. Bold woodcut graphics on the covers attract passers-by.

The roots of the tradition are deep, fed by many sources – one-page flyers brought to Brazil from Portugal in the 16th and 17th centuries, song traditions of medieval troubadours, Iberian ballads, and moral themes from biblical stories and from African and Brazilian-Indian traditions.

Literatura de cordel is a living, breathing, popular tradition with themes that range from fantastic heroes to local politics. According to a blurb describing a 2011 symposium on cordel, themes include “critiques of current international and local events, humor and satire, adventure, romance, sensational or moralistic narratives, religion, the exploits of heroes and bandits, environmental concerns, educational advice on health and child-care, and more.”3

In addition to the traditional chapbooks, cordel blogs are now active on the internet. A quick online search for “cordel blogs” demonstrated just how true this is. Even though I know no Portuguese, I lost myself moving from one site to the next.

Especially as the form is practiced today, cordel stories can take oral or print or now digital forms. I’ve long been fascinated by the potential of a story or an idea that begins in live conversation and gets picked up and shared in print, with details and meaning shifting slightly. Then that print piece, in turn, might be put online, again with adaptations. Or the order might change, with a digital piece prompting a conversation, which becomes a reference in a book or magazine.

I’m grateful for the capacity of digital networks to send messages, like my blog posts, across otherwise impassable distances. But I’m willing to bet that when I hand someone one of my String Tales rather than giving them a link to my website, the chance that they’ll actually read it increases a hundredfold.

References

1. Provisions Library: Art for Social Change
From the website: “Provisions investigates the relationship between art and social change through research, production, and education. From its library home in George Mason University’s School of Art in Fairfax, Virginia and at sites throughout the District, Provisions produces and supports projects in the US Capitol Region and across the globe.”

2. “Troubadours of Brazil’s Backlands,” Larry Rohter, The New York Times, June 14, 2005.

3. Literatura de Cordel: Continuity and Change in Brazilian Popular Culture, a symposium, American Folklife Center, 2011.

Sources of cordel photos

Arte em cordel, Museu do Cordel Curiosidades.

Aula de arte, Literatura de Cordel, 19 de Novembro de 2015.

Espaço de la Cruz, Fotos – Decoração e diversão 2.

Photos of String Tales are my own.


Archaic social media – Arts Wire uncovered

Imagine it is 1989

The internet is barely known, email is a strange and difficult idea, and the World Wide Web hasn’t been invented yet. But the censorship wars are raging, the AIDS crisis is hitting artists hard, and debates about public support of the arts in Congress and elsewhere are fiery. Artists and others in the arts need to connect as a community across distances. Arts Wire was created to meet that challenge and is now being rediscovered.

Banner headline for Arts Wire’s front page, the “Hub,” November 1992

What was Arts Wire?

In early 1989, I puzzled over how to spread the news and make the connections that artists needed. I soon learned about the “information superhighway” and found mentors in San Francisco and Washington DC. Named Arts Wire later that year, the network was built by a small group of us spread from coast to coast—Seattle, Ann Arbor, the Bay area, New York, Arizona, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and more. The New York Foundation for the Arts was its first supporter and its home base throughout. It got started through paper memos, telephone calls, occasional face-to-face meetings and went online on CompuServe, Sprintnet, and finally the internet. We made our own place online with help from a network provider in Arlington (VA) and later moved to Carnegie Mellon.

Arts Wire proselytized on behalf of this new tool, and its staff educated and trained new folks to use the then-baffling technology. The news on Arts Wire came from its staff, steering committee, and individual users—artists, arts funders, and staff of arts organizations, public arts agencies, arts service organizations, and arts advocacy groups. Arts Wire enticed associations to join and bring their members online—National Association of Artists Organizations, National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, Native Arts Network, CraftNet, VisualAIDS, Association of Hispanic Arts, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, American Music Center, NewMusNet (led by composer Pauline Oliveros), and many more.

Despite the ethic of the day—Don’t use paper! Save it on floppies!—I just couldn’t give up my attachment to words on paper. While trying to be frugal, I nevertheless printed out many “online captures” of what we were doing. As we’ve learned 25 years later, ink on paper is much more stable than the magnetic coating on floppy disks…rusty paper clips aside.

 AND_NOW? Archaic Social Media

In 2016, Arts Wire came back into my life as I figured out what to do with my new role as Alum in Residence at the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design. For one, I thought, why not clear out my storage unit? It was stuffed with banker boxes of materials from a life of “projects.” Interns and I could inventory, discuss, and find a home for them.

Two undergrads signed up for fall quarter, two more joined us in the winter, for a total of two art students and two art history students. Arts Wire would be a good, discrete project to start with. All four interns—Karen Beech, Jessica Capó, Zach Heinemeyer, and Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon—have taken the project on with intelligence, imagination, and overflowing enthusiasm.

As the intern team digs into the 16 banker boxes of my print-outs and other materials, they’re creating an inventory and engaging in conversations with me and with special guests about what they’re finding. They’re learning about archiving, but also about how a new entity can be created and what the early days of the technology were like (before they were born). They’ve found things that make them laugh out loud and things that are completely puzzling. As importantly, they find sobering news of events going on in Arts Wire’s times and discover how related the news is to the news of our world today—censorship, health crises, discrimination, political battles, protests, media debates, and the impact of the latest technologies. They’ve mentioned gaining a new understanding of history with the advantage that they can talk with people who were there and are still alive now (many, even, still kicking!).

Lizzie, Zach, Anne, Jess, Tommer Peterson (Arts Wire publication director), and Karen, recording a podcast for AND_NOW?

Toward the end of February 2017, they produced and presented a series of public programs to start sharing what they learned. The series, named “AND_NOW?” after the opening prompt on Arts Wire’s first home page, included:

  • A week-long take-over of the art school’s Instagram account – #AND_NOW?
  • An exhibition, “AND_NOW? Archaic Social Media,” that drew on material from Arts Wire files and ran from February 23 to March 10 at Parnassus, the school’s storied coffee shop
  • A podcast series, “AND NOW? Archaic Social Media” <andnowpodcast.wordpress.com>, launched on February 24 that includes interviews with people involved in Arts Wire as well as wide-ranging conversations that investigate, through today’s eyes, ideas found in Arts Wire files.

My files only go from early 1989 through about 1995 when I bowed out. Other people, in other parts of the country, can continue the story, post-1995. One person who has written much of this history is Judy Malloy, an early social media poet and arts writer, and an important Arts Wire staff member. Recently she wrote a chapter about Arts Wire for a book she edited, Social Media Archeology and Poetics, published last year.1 One of my favorite quotes from that chapter comes from Kenny Greenberg, who, in a 1994 review of Arts Wire for Internet World, observed:

As with art—Gophers, SIGs, and HTTP sites notwithstanding—it is the human spirit that makes Arts Wire special. The voices behind the information and the personal reactions to the data make Arts Wire a lively place.

1  Social Media Archeology and Poetics, edited by Judy Malloy, published by The MIT Press, 2016.

This work is possible because of support from the Jini Dellaccio Project.


Awards & leadership

Detail AFALA award, 2005

“Quietly and persistently, she did something radical.”

With these words, I recently toasted Beth Sellars, independent curator and artist, as she received the Anne Focke Arts Leadership Award from the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design.

Sometimes invisibly and usually behind the scenes, Beth has been working for artists for years . . . actually, for decades. She began as a curator for museums in Boise and Spokane before moving to Seattle in 1996 where she was curator of the City of Seattle’s portable art collection. She is best known, though, as the curator of Suyama Space. Founded in 1998 by Beth and architect George Suyama, Suyama Space was a much-loved and highly-esteemed art space in downtown Seattle that closed its last installation in December 2016. Located in a remarkable space that began as a livery stable more than a hundred years ago, Suyama Space presented 55 large-scale artist installations. (See Taryn Wiens’s essay, which both describes Suyama Space and serves as a eulogy: “The Closing of Suyama Space.”1)

In 2007, Seattle arts writer Regina Hackett wrote, “Beth Sellars knows where the art is. She has sought it out, organized it into exhibits and cheered it on at gallery openings and studio visits.”2) Always at the heart of her work are the artists. As Taryn Wiens wrote, “She is with each artist every step of the way from their initial research to installation, sometimes hanging from ropes and climbing to the tops of ladders, especially when the artists are afraid of heights.”

Beth Sellars at the closing party for Suyama Space

Thinking about leadership, T.s. Flock made the salient observation that Sellars has led with “ingenuity and advocacy.” The artists’ installations, he said, “were enabled by the quieter, less visible work of Sellars herself.”3 As I see it, the risks Beth has taken over the years embody the permission she gives artists who work with her and reveal a spirit akin to theirs. She leads by example.

Who gives and gets the award?

In 2005, Seattle’s 911 Media Arts Center created the Anne Focke Arts Leadership Award, sometimes fondly called the AFALA. Like many awards, it both celebrated leadership and raised money at the same time. I was honored and grateful to receive the first one and to have it named for me. I was also glad to help raise money for 911 and was especially pleased to know that the award would celebrate other people in the future.

In 2007, 2009, and 2011, the media arts center gave the award to three outstanding people: Richard Andrews, who started as a sculptor and has gone on to provide arts leadership at local and national levels; Helen Gurvich, who provided leadership through hard work behind the scenes, crucial if often invisible work that keeps things moving; and Ed Marquand, a designer who formed a company that produces fine art books and founded an incubator for artisan businesses in central Washington.

A few years ago the media arts center closed and the award seemed put to bed with it. To my surprise, though, the award has been picked up by the Advisory Board of the School of Art + Art History + Design at the University of Washington, my alma mater. They will celebrate Beth as the first recipient of the resuscitated award later this spring. Beth reflects so many of my beliefs about leadership that I couldn’t be happier with their choice.

What does “leadership” mean?

Receiving the award in 2005 made me think hard about leadership. While honored, receiving the award also made me a little uneasy. For one thing, singling out one person can miss the crucial point that just about anything meaningful takes many more people than one, and in my experience it takes more than one even at the core of it.

Importantly, awards too often miss insightful work that quietly changes lives and takes us forward. This kind of work is done every day by people whose efforts are invisible and unacknowledged. On an NPR program recently, I heard Atul Gawande, who acknowledged that his own work as a surgeon often took heroic form, told us it’s time to recognize and celebrate what he called, “incremental heroism,” the work done daily by primary care physicians. I like this notion and can easily apply it to Beth Sellars.

Before each award ceremony I prepared remarks that, among other things, included what I was thinking about leadership. As a kid I had a fairly narrow sense of leadership. One year, I described my preconceived notion of leadership as “breast-beating, out-spoken, rapid-fire, take-charge, mesmerize-audiences leadership.” That certainly didn’t feel like me. So I wondered each time, what is it about the things I’ve done or the way I’ve done them that demonstrates leadership?

Detail AFALA award, 2005

The notes I made in advance of each award ceremony were not what I actually said. Microphones and spotlights tend to make everything in my head leak out the back. So, here are a few excerpts from notes for what I meant to say.

Leadership takes many forms. Most importantly, I believe about leadership what I believe about most things: there’s not just one right way to do it.

Exceptional leaders often show up in unlikely places, doing unlikely work. I hope this award goes after the eccentric ones and people who might not have the conventional trappings of leadership.

I like big ideas and I love the people who have them, but, the leaders I care about most take good ideas and then hunker down and figure out how to make the ideas real. Big ideas become real through real work. And then those leaders let the real work affect their big ideas. They enjoy the challenge of finding pragmatic, sometimes small, steps that move good ideas into practice.

Work is a key. In 2005, as I thought about what it meant to be recognized as a leader, I figured it must be because of the work, because of what actually got done. And for me, the work is done . . .

By believing it’s possible.
By involving other people, by being curious about and listening to them, by thinking and working  together.
By being stubborn and letting things take time, 
though impatience definitely has its place.
By trying things out and not necessarily following the rules,
or not remembering the rules,
or not having the patience to learn them,
or working on something without rules yet.

At the time, I was editing a piece by Jenny Toomey (activist, rocker, business woman) whose email tagline came from Thomas Edison: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” The same thing might be said about leadership.

Because hard work underlies the leadership I admire, at the end of the first AFALA ceremony and several times since then, I read “To be of use,” a poem by Marge Piercy that includes this stanza:

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.4 

We will need as much as we can muster of exactly this kind of determination and persistence in the years ahead.

««««««•»»»»»»

Photo notes

The 2005 AFALA award sculpture was created by Robert Teeple.

Photo of Beth Sellars by SWAE Photography is courtesy of Suyama Space.

References

1 Taryn Wiens, “The Closing of Suyama Space,” Temporary Art Review, November 18, 2016.

2 Regina Hackett, “Beth Sellars has turned Suyama Space into one of the region’s top art venues,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, October 3, 2007.

3 T.s. Flock, “’Incremental Heroism:’ Beth Sellars receives the 2017 Anne Focke Arts Leadership Award,” VANGUARD Seattle, January 18, 2017.

4 “To Be of Use,” from Circles on the Water, by Marge Piercy, copyright 1982, Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. The whole poem is available online at the Poetry Foundation here .


“Office hours” carry on in 2017

One way I’ll be “carrying on” in 2017 is through my “office hours” with Artist Trust as part of the Jini Dellaccio Project. Every month I continue to reserve the second and fourth Wednesday afternoon at 1:30 and 3:30 for these conversations. You can sign up here.

Last summer “office hours” was a fairly unformed and open-ended idea. The notion was based on amazing conversations I’ve had over the years with people who just wanted to talk and on a vague sense that seven decades of life and work experience might prove useful or at least interesting to others. I also imagined the conversations would be two-way exchanges and that I’d be a primary beneficiary.

Artist Trust and I started this experiment for real in September, and it’s proven to be just as amazing as the conversations that inspired it. The conversations have given me the opportunity to meet extraordinary people I hadn’t known before and to spend time with old friends, the kind of focused time that feels luxurious but that we give ourselves so seldom.

People – both women and men – of many ages signed up – some early in their lives, some in the middle thick of it, and others, like me, enmeshed in life’s upper layers. Some came with a specific question or project in mind, and a few said, in so many words, “I’m not sure why I made this appointment.” Regardless of what prompted it, in the end each conversation seemed to matter. Sometimes an experience from my past proved useful, many times we discovered something new or the beginning of a solution through our back-and-forth discussion, and other times it seemed that the simple chance to talk with someone who was interested and listened closely was enough. Each one took its own course, and the form remains just as open-ended as it started.

“Office hours” sounds more formal than they are, and they tend to last more than an hour. We meet at Artist Trust and usually walk down the street to a nearby coffee shop, or we simply take a walk and talk while walking. Come use me as a sounding board, pick my brain, or try out new ideas. Office hours are open to anyone.  Let’s talk!

Sign up by selecting a slot here.

 


Making it up

A spirit of making it up – of life and work as an experiment – has run through my life from the start.

twirl-image2

When I was about six, I learned to twirl a baton at the same school where I had a few ballet lessons and learned to love tap dancing. From then on until sometime after I entered college, I always had a baton around. In my world, what twiddling-your-thumbs might have done for some meant twirling just about anything twirlable. . . a tennis racket, a stick from the side of the road, an especially big serving spoon, or even a new pencil. But my best “real” baton had a thin, shiny body and was carefully balanced with a large head on one end and a smaller cap with a weight inside on the other. I think it came from Sears. Remembering it even now, my fingers start moving automatically as if its shaft were rolling through them.

One moment stands out as a marker of the last phase of my twirling days. It came a few years into my college life and several giant steps into my hippie days of long hair, short skirts, and long, roped beads. That sunny afternoon, I learned that twirling, even with a good baton, was a complicated match with my lifestyle. That afternoon, I absent-mindedly picked up my baton to fill a few minutes. With one especially vigorous twist of the wrist to send the baton into the air, the head of the baton caught in my long strands of beads – bright blue and green – and it was as though they exploded. Bright beads flew everywhere. Despite the laughter of the moment, the baton seldom came out after that.

Claremont senior high yearbook, 1962
Claremont senior high yearbook, 1962

Between age six and college, though, my baton inspired an early instance of what I mean by “making it up.” Perhaps out of a need to find friends in a new high school, I gradually convinced a group of girls to twirl with me. I don’t remember if we actually took lessons or if they had also been in twirling classes when younger or if we simply drew on what I could remember. But I made sure that we had regular practices, that we made up and learned “routines,” found recorded music to march to, created outfits, and eventually convinced the school that it needed marching majorettes at football games. Even though our school had no band, the five of us marched in patterns to recorded music, twirling and tossing our batons into the air at halftime. It was one of the things I was remembered for at my 50th high school reunion.

in-line-twirling-crop

The thesaurus contains many synonyms for “make up” that reinforce the way I’ve used the phrase to refer to what I do: imagine, invent, conceive, create, improvise, put together, put in order, dream up, whip up, wangle. The meaning shifts around – I also like fabulize, fictionalize, pretend, concoct, build castles in the air, wing it, play-act, play by ear, and just plain play. And it’s used when we take a school make-up test, put on make up, or kiss and make up. Other terms take darker turns – manipulate, fake it, trump it up, stretch the truth, falsify, fib, lie. These may be the risks that come with this aspect of my nature, of my makeup.

As an approach to life, making it up is still my way, even as I live into my eighth decade. I want to keep living an experiment, tossing possibility into the air without knowing quite where it will come down and whether I’ll catch it again this time.

twirl-image2


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