Stories

Another play-reading at APT, the last of this year’s Winter Words series. A beautifully written fable about the power of naming, the force of metaphor. A woman learns. She farms, she helps to birth foals, she takes labor into her own hands, she controls her name and thus uses language to define herself and her world.

A friend sends me a story and asks for feedback. In our discussion I encourage him to practice his storytelling skills. So he does, at a local story slam. He performs wonderfully, taking third place. He has written for years, has conducted interviews, and even participated in a writing workshop as he works to shape a long and complex personal story into a book. But this is his first ever outing on a story-telling stage. I guess I am now a coach.

And this week I am fresh off a professional development program. OK, not just any program. THE program in my museum world: the Getty Leadership Institute NextGen program.

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I should be elated. Of course I am thrilled that I was able to participate, thankful for the support. But I am also stunned, mostly by the sheer volume of the words that have poured down upon me over the last month. Words and ideas like wave after wave, and even two days after completing the program I still feel as if I am swamped and drowning. It almost doesn’t matter where I try to start swimming, I am too far out to make progress in any direction. One of my cohort wrote that she is still trying to figure out what in the hell happened to her over the onsite week. I inhabit this same space.

It is the space where words are not yet complete. They are forming, but they are still sharp and the ideas they communicate have dangerous edges. I tried to use some of the words today and they felt hard in my mouth, they came out rough, I had to work to make them not cut. What the hell happened? I have so much to say but no words for any of it yet.

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It’s like the bones that are excavated at La Brea. They are lifted out of their encompassing mire, then soaked and carefully cleaned. The darkened solution is strained to capture every seedpod and insect part that was caught during the same era as the bones of the animal that perished, trapped in tar. I need time to sift through that debris, to examine the minutiae, to discover what corollary life exists.

The words are the tools that scrape away the accretions, they transform a mass of tar into a trove of scientific wonders. Like knives into fowl, words transform the world. What will be found, what will be created, when the bird becomes food, when mammoth is transformed into fossil? What happens when my friend learns to be comfortable on stage telling his story, or when I get command of mi idioma, mi lengua? Necesito controlar mi lengua. Y luego, para usarlo.

 

 

The River

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Kukuli Velarde, Sta. Chingada: The Perfect Little Woman (detail), 2006. Private Collection.

Last week I attended a play-reading at American Players Theater in Spring Green, WI. Their Winter Words performances are few in number, but held in the small theater these evening events feel like super-secret meetings of an artistic Justice League—heartfelt, dazzling, and sincere. The readings are simply staged and completely engaging, as they are followed by talkbalks with the audience, cast, and director. They are a wonderful and rare experience.

This episode featured a small cast and the director Robert Ramirez presenting The River Bride, a graceful and gorgeous play by Marisela Treviño Orta. As just a reading—no set, costumes, or larger theater magic—the words and story were in the spotlight, all achingly beautiful, devastating, yet hopeful. I’m not sure if I care to ever see this play staged, as this reading by these actors has taken up residence in my mind and promises to stay for a very long time.

Driving back through the night along dark country roads, the carload of theater-goers analyzed the play. Some agreed with the director, that the main focus of the fable was the failure to seize the day and act upon dreams and desires. I was convinced that the selfishness and greed of one character drove the story, impacting all the other characters. But I have changed my mind. I see now that the heart of the drama is indeed a failure of nerve, of effort, of voice, and specifically, how such hesitation clears a damaging path for the overly ambitious.

And here is where I relate a beautiful, poetic play to a business book.

In my workplace, we have a new boss who brings contemporary management tools and techniques into a museum setting. Every day is refreshing, yet also challenging. Just one example: the staff has read and discussed a few chapters of Kim Scott’s Silicon Valley new hope rah rah manifesto, Radical Candor. Reading a management book in no way approaches the joyful aesthetic experience of hearing Treviño Orta’s play read aloud, but these texts have an important commonality: they both consider what happens when individuals seize too much, too often; the damage and destruction that result from an imbalance of power when aggression is not checked consistently—and, most importantly, the mediating potential for persistent assertiveness.

Is it wrong to hold onto the heartache that is at the center of The River Bride, to utilize a fictional loss as a spur to action, at work? To transform Helena and her hesitation into a warning about professional silence and complicity? Can poetry be combined with the dictates of management? Carpe diem? “Care personally, challenge directly” is Scott’s mantra to transform relationships, and thus the workplace. And I am beginning to see some truth there. Balancing personal ambitions with candid feedback and daily responsibilities is challenging, but actually made easier if you care about what you are doing.

A fable set in the Amazon informs activities in a midwestern office. This is the reason I work with visual art, why I see plays and movies, read poetry, and yes, even business management books: to better understand life, its conflicts, complexities, and incongruities. To drive for hours through the dark night, talking about language and people and meaning and motivation, then discover new angles on these same issues in the bright light of the workplace, the experience of the play is extended, the words sing again and again. This is on my mind as I prepare for a truly exciting professional development experience. I see that my office is on the edge of a river, filled with the calls of the birds and the clicking of the dolphins, home to much noisy, productive, difficult, and promising work.

Looking Back to Michael Kenna and the Rouge Plant

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Back in 2001 I worked on an exhibition for the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Albert Kahn: Inspiration for the Modern. I was a curatorial assistant at the time, tasked with helping the exhibition curator, who happened to be the chair of the architecture department and a transplant from England. He did not own a car, which was a serious cause for suspicion in a place like Michigan, home of the Big 3 auto makers.

My job turned out to be mostly driving the curator into Detroit for research visits. In the days before social media and smart phones, I navigated through an unfamiliar city trying to listen as the curator spun out his ideas for the exhibition. At the Kahn firm’s office we unrolled architectural plans and opened tubes of blueprints that were stored in hot closets under stairwells next to mechanical rooms. We visited the Detroit Institute of Art, looking at the Rivera murals and learning from the curators about the slim chance we had of borrowing from Mexican collections for the exhibition. We drove around looking for Kahn and Ford buildings: the General Motors and Fisher buildings, Highland Park.

The exhibition presented some technical quandries—how best to display large architectural drawings? There were logistical challenges—we had to abandon hope of including a painting by Frida Kahlo, as the loan negotiations would have been too complex and time consuming. But we were able to incorporate some gorgeous Sheeler photos, drawings, and paintings, some Lozowick prints, and some of Michael Kenna’s Rouge photographs.

Because of the work I had done for the exhibition–and maybe to make up for the unexpected driving services—I had a short essay included in the exhibition catalogue, my first published curatorial essay. I chose to write on Kenna’s images of the Rouge Plant, as they are beautiful, mysterious, and striking.

It is exciting to see that these works have been recently revived. They are the subject of a new book, Michael Kenna: Rouge, by my old boss at UMMA, now director at the Princeton Art Museum, James Steward. Princeton has the entire series of 120 gelatin silver photographs that Michael Kenna shot at the Rouge. They are on display RIGHT NOW, but if, like me you can’t get to NJ anytime soon, you can get a preview of the entire series of these small, powerful, wonderous images on their website. Check it out.

Now I just need to figure out how to get ahold of the new book…

 

 

What’s next?

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This question was asked of me the very night the exhibition opened. I sat at dinner and a gallerist I had never met, a friend of the artist, asked me, “What’s next?” Then, in what I took to be a kindly spirit, he proceeded to suggest all sorts of projects that he had been considering. I took it as a nice gesture, an attempt to be helpful.

This is an appropriate question for many aspects of my life right now, especially–as the gallerist intended it–in relation to my curatorial aspirations. It could also relate to, say, my house, or my ancient car, my general career goals, my involvement in a casual writing group, or my relationship with my romantic partner. There is a certain pressure, or expectation at least, that, with this exhibition opened (and closed), the catalogue published, the works now in transit back to their generous owners, I will know exactly what to segue into, and the steps of that move, as if I have a grandly detailed to-do list in my head and am checking off items with precise regularity. This is–surprisingly?–not the case.

Instead I have a well of a brain that holds ideas deep within its waters. These things take time, not only to form, but to develop, to grow, to complicate, to sort out and make sense of. It is a slow process mostly, but sometimes it moves suddenly, fast connections made, and then things fly.

But I’m not there yet. I’m still making a clearing, a calm space where I can peer into the depths and consider what is swimming in the cold water. I have some cleaning to do, catch-up from the last two years of focused work. 

So, first is the clearing out, including installing other amazing exhibitons. Then the quiet and the weighing of options, the balancing of plans, the plotting of activity. This deliberation takes time, it is impossible to say how long. But that’s how creative work functions, at its own speed. So for now I wait and clear the desk, so it will be ready for whatever is next.

 

Certainty and Doubt

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The exhibition was on view at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, WI from October 13, 2017 through January 7, 2018. The artist Derrick Buisch gave a lecture on opening night, and through the fall the museum hosted a discussion between the artist and Richard Shiff, a lecture by Buzz Spector, and finally, a beautiful poetry reading featuring the Bridge Poets responding to art work in the exhibition.

One more event coming up, featuring our exhibition catalogue: The Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago will host an event on Sunday, February 4th, 2018, at 3:00, for a book launch of Certainty and Doubt: Paintings by Dan Ramirez. The format is a discussion with the artist, me, and essayists Buzz Spector and–hopefully–Richard Shiff.

Hope you can join us!