Project: I Am

get ready for some reflection...
get ready for some reflection…

Sometimes you need a reminder about what matters. It’s pretty easy to get caught up in the day-to-day drudgery of work life and become convinced that some minute detail deserves front and center attention. I’ve written about social justice; I’d like to think that my work connect to social justice never falls victim to such distraction, but it does.

Let’s face it, in the work world people often become wedded to a point or idea or concept and adopt the stance that such point is the center of the universe. The sun revolves around the earth instead of the other way round. I’ve done it; the word on the page becomes the only word you can see and you forget about all the paragraphs that go around it. It also means you lose sight of your audience, and when myopia takes over, you even convince yourself that it doesn’t matter if your audience understands what you’ve written.

I’ve certainly watched others in my world of work get caught in this. I get distracted as well, arguing on principle and insisting that it must be a comma instead of a semi-colon. What I hate is how that small point suddenly takes over my life for a period of time. I become consumed by it, angered, saddened, frustrated…and the obstinate teen that still inhabits my headspace typically just wants to push the chair into a back corner, lean back with boots up and say, “whatever dude” to whomever is trying to push me into something.

Aside: that’s a funny point though isn’t it? That we find ourselves in those consuming spaces usually because there are others we are butting up against on those very detailed points. I suppose I should say that sometimes a detail does matter. But it still drives me nuts when I have to give attention to that.

Where does this ranting lead me…well as it happens too many of such points have dominated my life recently. So I am grateful for the wake-up call that was our gallery exhibit of Project: I Am. It shook me in just the right ways.

witnessMy lovely co-director and I decided to lead a workshop this spring that involved teaching counselors how to assist clients in a process of reclaiming identity from experiences of oppression. I won’t go into the theories and such here, but it boils down to 12 participants who met as a group on two separate occasions and also worked individually in between meetings. It was a learn-by-doing method; like so much of the work we do it helps to go through it yourself in order to really learn what is going on. The process results in each person creating a work of art that expresses an aspect of their preferred “self”, the self that Oppression may have tried to diminish, alter, restrict, dominate, etc.

It waI AM exhibits the first time my partner and I had attempted this workshop. While it is based on work that we’ve learned about done by many others, it is still a new thing to us – so this was one of our biggest experimental leaps yet (I say that even after attempting the film. Yikes). So we always had this background anxiety questioning if it was working, if we need to change anything, is it going to fail, etc.

As with the film experience, we found our little group starting to form their own community through the process. They talked to each other about difficult things but also about triumphs. They helped each other develop images and ideas to translate into their work. They gave encouragement and had a good laugh throughout. And that also means we got to know people in a way that, again, is a little different from a traditional classroom setting. You find out just how much talent people have through things like this; I don’t mean specific to artistic talent (although we did find many closeted artists!) but the many different talents that get revealed through the process. In short, you see just how amazing and interesting people can be.

The project culminates in a gallery exhibit of participant’s work. We managed to secure a gallery and hold a one-night show

we're making art here
we’re making art here

where participants could invite whomever they wanted to share in their exhibit. The night before we set up the space – and here is when we first started to see the “magic” that exists, that mysterious force in work like ours that definitely envelopes all that is done, but will disappear if you try to put your finger on it. You just have to let it “be.” As the works went up on the walls, you just felt it in the air, had that tingle in the spine that says, “something is happening here.” Even watching each person setting up, watching them work together, made me want to just stand back and take it in. Something had happened for these people and while I still don’t have a word for it, I can see its presence, particularly in ways different from before.

Resident Artist  - he's gonna go far
Resident Artist

The show itself was fabulous. It was also my first time seeing the completed works. I was taken aback by the commitment and passion in each piece. And the variety of media was a big surprise; everything from woodcut to painting, photograph to spoken word. Each person getting to share their work, talk about why they did what they did, and to do so in the ways they chose to, not in the ways they were required to. To have their work addressed and handled by a professional artist (our resident consultant), then displayed in a gallery, all adds a level of legitimization that I think even the participants didn’t quite realize until it was happening. It’s like the ultimate, “hey this matters; your story matters.”

And that brings me back to where I started this post. I had an emotional moment at the start of the show. Not because I was sad, but because all the shit from the past month finally started falling off my back. It didn’t happen because it was the end of the week, or because I’d checked off another “to do,” but because I was experiencing a space of camaraderie and validation, I was witnessing our group “arriving.” Something had been reclaimed and we were in the presence of it. So I shed a tear, not out of pain, but out of the relief of being reminded about what matters. I saw who our participants are, and it reminded me who I am as well. Why I do what I do and what I’ve gotten good at. And suddenly the bullshit details I’ve had to fight around became just that, small insignificant points that in some cases didn’t even add up to a whole. That inner teen finally got to fist-pump the air.

I left shouting to everyone just how beautiful they really are (no, it wasn’t just the wine talking). It’s funny, because one of the silent motivations for doing this project was the hope that it would be my parting gift. One last thing to give to them before I leave. And darn it, whether they know it or not, they ended up giving something to me too. Au revoir my friends; I’ll carry that one with me for a very long time.

until we meet again!
until we meet again!

Nerves of Steel…

…I don’t have. While I am slowly coming to accept my tendency to blindly jump into large frying pans (and that usually works out really well, truthfully), some things still make me shake down to my core. We showed the film to our first general audience – meaning an audience that isn’t composed of a university audience, or professionals who already have some level of investment in the work being presented. We were invited to show, which is different from just a group of people gathered from anywhere, but I suppose it would be similar to people choosing to say, buy a ticket for your film instead of someone else’s. Except our film was free. But I digress…

SGUUFThe San Gabriel Unitarian Universalist Church hosted the event, inviting other congregations and individuals living in the area. Our cast member, Vicki, spearheaded this effort, so we did attract an audience that had some possible connection to what was going on. I’ll grant that. But it definitely got us closer to the experience of having a “cold” audience, in that no one there really knew me, or cared one way or the other about what I think, and so on. In truth, I think I prefer it that way. Don’t get me wrong, I love praise, but really that’s an ego thing; I want to hear from those who aren’t attached to me.

(Of course I say no one knew me, but as it turned out there was someone who did – someone I actually went to high school with was in that audience. Now that makes for an extremely small world. Very weird. But not in a bad way, just a “yikes, you might remember what I looked like when I was a freshman” kind of way.)

So when the lights went down and the film started to play, I was hit with a wave of panic as it sunk in that this was indeed a general audience. And I’d invited my kids to watch the film for the first time. And I had friends there. And strangers. And a pretty good sized audience. And Christ what will they think, I’m in a church. Now I’m sweating. I can’t breathe.

A minute later I settled down, sat with my kids, answered their funny yet pithy questions (e.g. “mama, if she trained that lady how could they have fired her?” and “why would someone say those kinds of words?”) and watched the audience. Here again I noticed this interesting phenomenon where the audience began to interact with the film – gasps, laughs in the right places, shaking heads, even tears. This fascinates me. This is where I watch the art interact with the audience, and it transforms in the process. It is no longer a static “thing”, a picture on a wall, but a movement, something affected by the watcher and a watcher affected by the art. Performance, performer, observer, all become somehow intermingled and a new thing emerges.

I realize the abstraction of what I’m trying to describe, but I think it becomes more clear afterwards when the panel comes on and the lights go up. This time we had Mandi, Richard, Lance, and Vicki on our panel – that was a first for Mandi and Richard, and I learned Richard’s first true viewing of the complete film. Each panel is different and each panel session is different. I’m finding I still don’t know what to expect, but I am enjoying this panel piece. The discussions coming out of there are usually more than I can hope for. This time there was an interest in behind the scenes, why did we make this, how did we make this, and what has happened since. And our panel just went to town with those questions, and I also watched the panelists express themselves in ways that I just couldn’t have imagined 2 years ago.

That gets to the pieces again we just never saw coming, how this film experience could affect the lives of all of us involved. We thought it was just a movie, but it has become a statement, a reflection of our position to be more than we were, a symbol of our stands and our voices. And now that we know how to use those voices, we just aren’t shutting up. Now that is super cool.

Be cool
Be cool

Shopping Spree

first public screening
Lights…

I’m slightly addicted to Modcloth. No, they didn’t pay me to say that. But I have this strange compulsion to buy dresses from them, partly because they have so many cute ones, and partly because they show women who look like me wearing those dresses. So I’ve decided to buy myself not just one, but two dresses.

Why would I be writing about dresses on my film blog…Because we just had our first public screening of the film and it went GREAT. My god I was an angst-ridden ball of jelly goo leading up to the event, but now it’s over and I can finally exhale. You’d think I’d get used to showing this after the test screenings, but really I don’t think I’ll ever be truly relaxed showing this thing.

audienceWe had about 100 people, which granted in my fantasies I’ve got audiences of thousands but in reality, 100-120 is a good start. We were in a theatre that sat 400, so the place did not look empty and there was a discussion after the film. The cool part, again, was hearing people in the audience resonate with stories from the film, and ask questions, and say that the film affected them. I still expect to hear someone say, “what a load of crap,” so I still brace for impact throughout the whole discussion piece. Perhaps there are those who think that, but if so they haven’t said it yet.

Given the bashing my ego has taken after getting round after round of “no we don’t want to show your film at our festival” type news, hearing people say the film touched them really helps me bounce back a little. Ok, I’m reminded, this wasn’t a bad idea after all. Watching the people in the film again, and at the panel discussion afterwards, I see again what inspired me to make the film in the first place. (And it’s true! Everyone at this panel did at some point approach me privately to ask, “is it ok for me to say ___ in class” and every time the answer was, “yes.” And now look! You’re all in a film and you don’t need me to tell you to talk at all!)

after showingI just wish I didn’t get soooo worked up prior to showing it. But I do suspect that isn’t really going to go away. The truth is, it’s not the same as teaching or giving a speech. There’s still that aspect of this is my art, and therefore a part of me, that is on display. And yes, I cringe thinking someone is going to hurl rotten food at it, the rejections do feel personal, and darn it yes I like it better when someone says they liked it. As open-minded as I want to be, and as much as I will create room for someone to express very different opinions from mine, my childish selfish part wants to hear that someone liked it and thought it was pretty.

At the risk of getting philosophical, it has made me wonder about the personal versus the public in the creation of art. If I take photography, since that’s the only other place where I get the slightest bit artsy, I take dozens of photos just for my own sake of taking them. And some are ok and some are crap, but even some of the crap ones I like, and all my photos help me become a better photographer. But there are a few I choose to share, even if it’s just with a few people, and something changes in the act of sharing it. It isn’t just a personal, private act anymore, and somehow the art itself is transformed because it is being shared with an audience, and then the audience reacts and develops a relationship with it as well. Or I suppose maybe that is the hope, that the audience creates a relationship with it. The worst reaction I could think of would be for someone to find my work to be, well, boring. At least if they’re mad at it, worked up enough to share that dislike or speak against it, then the art has done something to inspire them, it has provoked a reaction or movement and a relationship is created. But if the work just blends into the wallpaper, then it hasn’t really done anything, and no one notices at all.

I suppose that’s the real fear then, less that someone tells me it’s ugly, more that someone will say nothing at all because there is nothing to be said. “What film? I blinked. Did something happen?”

Damn art. Fuck it. I’m going to buy another dress.

dude
yup, that’s my co-director…