Forward/Story or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Inner Critic

Expectations and judgment stifled me for almost three years. After my wife and I had a child, I shifted focus from making art to raising our daughter. It was love beyond belief to care for this beautiful, sweet girl, but the longer I didn’t make art, the easier it was to let fear and rules prevent me from creating.

I listened to the voices: Telling me I’m not allowed to write others’ stories. Telling me I need more formal education to succeed. Telling me success is about money.

These voices weren’t others’. They were in my mind. Not literal voices. I’m not mad. But sometimes, that screaming inner critic felt like it was pushing me to madness.

Long ago, I told someone, “I want to use my powers for good.” These powers are imagination and creativity — voices spinning stories in my head. Fiction disguised as fact. I must share the tales, or they’ll eat me inside out.

Recently, I let it all go at Forward/Story, a storyteller’s retreat/lab in Nosara, Costa Rica organized by Lance Weiler and Christy Dena. It was joy and wonder. It was spiritual. It was a breakthrough. I finally found my soul again. These aren’t hyperbole. I reconnected with my powers.

On the beach, I spoke with another artist who works in a different genre than I, from another country than I, of another race and gender than I. I learned. I grew.

In a creation session with three strangers, we synchronized, bounced ideas, and fashioned a fun experience. Harmony in work. I’d forgotten it exists. I remembered.

Feeling judged. Laser eyes piercing my body and splitting it into a million pieces. Then, I remembered it’s not about me. It’s their hang-ups. The fear isn’t real. It’s a story I’m telling myself.

Jumping off the edge of a cliff and flying through the jungle on a cable the size of my finger inspired freedom. Fears and rules will bound me if I let them. Forward/Story liberated me from rules and shed my fears, which freed me to take flight.

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Teaching Artist Needed for Digital Storytelling Class

In May, I taught a digital storytelling class with a fantastic organization named MIRA. We worked with students in Henry Street Settlement’s Project RISE Program. A few volunteers came through over the six-week course to help facilitate group work, and now MIRA is ready to hire a teaching artist assistant for our second round of classes in July with Henry Street’s Summer Youth Employment Program.

Check the job listing below. Hit up Hope Traficanti, if you’re in NYC for July and August and you want to make a difference in some young people’s lives.

Seeking a teaching artist to assist with a digital storytelling class for disengaged youth at Henry Street Settlement on Thursday mornings starting July 16 for five weeks. 

Skills required: editing with iMovie and Garage Band, social media storytelling, and teaching experience with this population.

10 hours over 5 weeks (1.5 hours prep, 8.5 in class)

Pay: $300

To apply, email Hope Traficanti ASAP at h.traficanti@mira-ngo.org

peaking at the new frontier

Sometimes, things just work out.

That’s how I felt Saturday night as I fell asleep on the red eye departing from Salt Lake City. My wife and I just completed a week vacation with her parents and brother skiing in the mountains of Utah, and we capped it off with my first visit to the Sundance Film Festival. We scheduled the vacation with short notice, and it was only after setting the trip’s dates we realized its tail end would overlap with the start of Sundance. We didn’t have tickets to any films, but I knew I wanted to visit New Frontier, the social and creative venue that showcases media installations, multimedia performances, and transmedia experiences.

First, we went to another venue to see if we could get tickets to a documentary, but it (like all the other films that day) was sold out and had a very long waitlist queue in which we would need to stand for over an hour before getting a number to hopefully be selected two hours later, when they assessed open seating and called off numbers. Needless to say, it didn’t sound like our idea of a fun day. We headed over to the New Frontier venue.

WelcomeToNewFrontierSandwiched between one of the park-and-ride lots and The Blind Dog sushi bar is The Yard, a 100,000 square foot multipurpose space that houses the New Frontier venue. Divided into three parts, the main area features a gallery-style space featuring the New Frontier artists. The other two spaces offer a theater specially designed for the venue and a bar/lounge area for press interviews and parties. I spent most of my time in the gallery and saw two short films during our visit.

We arrived at noon, which is when the venue’s doors open. Immediately, I asked for the box office because I knew Coral: Rekindling Venus screened at 1:00pm, and I hoped we could get on the waitlist. Being the first to arrive, we got on the waitlist with no problem. While we waited, the New Frontier volunteer staff helpfully explained the photographs of coral hanging nearby trigger an augmented reality app that takes you “inside” the photograph, animating it as if you are under the sea.

coral2     coral1

You can download the iOS app here or Android here and use the pictures I took to try it out. Click the thumbnails for larger images.

An hour later, we were lying down on mats and beanbags in a small planetarium, which reminded me of a yurt one might find at Burning Man. Inspired by the first collaboration among the international science community to witness the celestial transit of Venus in 1761, Lynette Wallworth’s Coral: Rekindling Venus is designed to nurture an emotional connection between a global audience and the planet’s endangered coral reefs. It has a trance inducing effect as one reclines, opening to ocean animals, including sea lions, deep sea bio-luminescent creatures, and of course, stunning time-lapse coral shots.

Prior to the screening, Evans & Sutherland, the company that created the planetarium, offered a demonstration of the numerous projects using their technology. The demo was almost as interesting as the film, for it included examples of real time, interactive tools for teachers. My mother-in-law, a retired junior high school science teacher, looked like a kid in a candy store and marveled at how this technology will change how we teach science. Way cool.

Next to the planetarium was a wall scrawled with graffiti and donning a poster of a large rock. I immediately recognized the rock as the handy work of Yung Jake. Prior to our trip to Utah, I visited the Sundance New Frontier website to check out the artists. I discovered Yung Jake’s E.m-bed.de/d, a wild, truly innovative music video that takes over your browser. Seriously, click on the link above, hit play, watch the video, and then come back and read the rest of this.

yoongjakerockAfter I found Yung’s work, I followed him on Twitter and shared E.m-bed.de/d. Yung DMed me and offered a beta test of the app he’s premiering at Sundance. It’s a trippy, 3-D, interactive music video that plays on your phone or tablet called Augmented Real. You can download the iOS app here. (No word on Android.) Point your device at the rock image above and press play.

I’m only sad we left town before Yung played his live performances. He performed a sold-out show last night. If you caught the gig, let me know how it was. He has one more show tomorrow, January 24. It looks like there are still a few tickets left. You can buy them here. According to L.A. Weekly, Yung Jake, may very well end up being the breakout star of Sundance.

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Pulse Index, by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

Pulse Index is an interactive art piece that does what I love most. It makes its audience into the art. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s installation records the heart rates and fingerprints of participants and displays them in a Fibonacci pattern. You place your finger into the custom-made sensor, and your fingerprint appears on the largest cell of the display, pulsating to your heartbeat. Your print then travels down the sequence to join those of all the others who have visited the room. The mosaic of pink prints cover the walls of the room, constantly shifting the energy of the space. It’s breathtaking.

PamChristyHundredsOfFingerprints

My wife and mother-in-law cheesing amongst the pixelated prints.

My favorite piece at New Frontier was What is He Building in There? Inspired by the Tom Waits song of the same name, Ricardo Rivera and the Klip Collective transformed the front facade of the New Frontier venue into a 3-D, projection-mapped parable. Lately, I’m a sucker for 3-D projection-mapping, and this Kafkaesque, existential concoction of live action and animation blew me away. On the surface, the building looks like the outside of a factory, but throughout the film, walls dissolve away and windows slide open, showing the never ending toil of a solitary worker building…something.

“What’s He Building In There?” Sundance 2013 New Frontier documentation from Klip Collective on Vimeo.

One of the best parts of this was when a woman approached the entrance of the building and she waited for the projection to “open the door.” When it “opened” and she tried to walk through the door, she discovered the actual door still blocked her way. A true testament to the projection’s precision.

I didn’t get to check everything out. I heard Eyjafjallalokull, a three-dimensional, audiovisual mapping, optical illusion installation inspired by the 2010 Icelandic volcanic eruption, was wonderful. We couldn’t get tickets to North of South, West of East which wraps the film around the entire room in a 20-seat theater with swivel chairs. And Cityscape 2095 placed spectators on the observatory deck of a skyscraper, where they take in an imaginary city as it glitters over the course of one day. It was super cool, but I couldn’t stand there all day to watch it change.

Cityscape 2095

Cityscape 2095 by Yannick Jacquet, Mandril, and Thomas Vaquiée

We arrived at Sundance on a wing and a prayer, and as luck would have it, we enjoyed most of the New Frontier exhibition. If you’re in Park City this week, I highly recommend checking these exhibitions out. It’s not a crowded as Main Street, the volunteers are more than happy to help you explore the interactive aspects of the art, and you might just have your mind blown.

It was definitely a high point of my week in the mountains of Utah. The only thing I’d do differently next time? Plan ahead and schedule more than one day at the festival. So little time. So much to see!

becoming our own heroes

Jim Morrison was one of my first literary heroes. I listened to The Doors for hours on end, and when Oliver Stone’s biopic opened, I allowed Val Kilmer’s method-soaked performance to wash over me. I longed to be like Jim. He died three years before I was born, and in my senior year of high school, I convinced myself I actually might be the reincarnation of The Lizard King.

Canton High School, Canton, IL September 1967 – source: jimparisandme.tumblr.com

My first creative writing teacher, Mrs. Roudebush, encouraged my writing style because she was more obsessed with Jim than I. The Doors have a special place in the mythology of our small town of Canton, IL, for they played the high school auditorium in September of 1967. Mrs. R. attended that concert, and it made a marked impression on her teenage, hormone gorged mind. She made me promise if I ever found a poster of Jim with a black dog, I would let her know.

I vowed I would.

Twenty years later, tooling around the Internet, I discovered an interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Big Think posts interviews with some of the greatest minds the world has to offer. They share snippets of wisdom. Sometimes, it is mind-blowing, and other times, they are familiar nuggets that require repeating.

In the interview, Dr. Tyson offers this reminder: “I think the greatest of people that have ever been in society, they were never versions of someone else. They were themselves.”

It was true in Shakespeare’s day, and it’s still is today.

Mimicking great artists’ work is typical. It’s how we learn. Hunter S. Thompson retyped “The Great Gatsby” word for word to get the feel for Fitzgerald’s writing. Eventually, though, Thompson found his own, authentic voice, spawning an entire journalistic movement. Great artists follow their hearts, which is typically why they are great artists.

It randomly reminded me of another influence from my childhood. The Brady Bunch.

When it’s time to change you’ve got to rearrange
Move your heart to what your gonna be

I’m thankful for my artistic heroes, but I’m my best self when I’m true to my own voice. My personal relationships and my art get better when I’m authentic and open. It’s easier said than done, but it’s sure as hell is liberating to wake up and realize you can be your own hero.

P.S. – Mrs. R., back in high school, we had no idea this thing called the Internet would exist, creating a place where we can find practically anything we want.
You can purchase your poster here.

speaking for our time

Last month, I celebrated the first year of marriage with my wife. We didn’t have a lot of money or time to plan a big getaway, so we borrowed a car and headed up to The Berkshires for an overnight stay in a Super 8 Motel. Not knowing the area, we hopped online to research what fun we might find. We discovered The Norman Rockwell Museum is in Stockbridge, MA just twenty minutes away from our motel. I was super excited at the chance to see the original paintings made famous by so many Saturday Evening Post covers.

“Coming and Going”

My wife was interested, but didn’t share my enthusiasm.

“We have to go!” I insisted.

She conceded, and we embarked upon what I can only describe as a magical afternoon.

It may seem odd that I was so insistent on visiting the museum, but Norman Rockwell is a childhood hero. My father owns Monical’s Pizza Place in Canton, IL, and when I was in junior high, my mother and he redecorated the small restaurant. They chose to cover one wall with Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post wallpaper. The pizza place was my second home, and that wall spurred me to learn about and fall in love with Norman Rockwell.

Typically, I’m not a nostalgic person. I don’t yearn for my youth. For some reason, though, Norman Rockwell turns me to a 14-year-old again. I look at his work with wonder. He had a way of capturing life that photographs don’t. Now, I was going to see his original paintings

If you look at his work, it’s not exact. Sure, the faces look almost like the photographs from which he worked, but he’s fabricated the scenarios. He was a storyteller; a curator of life, plucking people’s faces to put in his paintings and tell tales about certain times and places. Sometimes, they are iconic, like the family around the dinner table at Thanksgiving in Freedom from Want.

Other moments are highly political and charged with dissonance of the day, like The Problem We All Live With, depicting the real-life Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old African-American girl, walking to an all-white public school in New Orleans, LA on November 14, 1960. President Obama displayed it outside the Oval Office for the first three years of his presidency. That’s how important this painting is.

It all deeply impressed my wife. She’d always viewed Rockwell as an art director of magazine covers. A commercial artist who created hazy, iconic Americana. Certainly, at first glance, his oeuvre can feel like this, but the deeper you look, the clearer it becomes: He was a great artist who reflected the times in which he lived with immense passion.

Dario Fo, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1997, said, “A theatre, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time has no relevance.”

Norman Rockwell spoke for generations. His images still influence artists today. Just two weeks ago, The New Yorker riffed on The Tattoo Artist, a painting of a man receiving a tattoo where he’s crossed out his previous girlfriends and adds a new one. The satirical illustration, Skin Deep, is by Barry Blitt and featured Mitt Romney having old political positions that no longer suit his platform crossed out for new ones.

He also influences painters, like comic artist Alex Ross, who has his own exhibition “Heroes and Villains” at The Norman Rockwell Museum from now until February 24, 2013. To commemorate Rockwell, Ross painted a portrait of the master specifically for this exhibition. Unsurprisingly, he chose to portray Rockwell as an American hero, draped with an American flag.

“Norman Rockwell” by Alex Ross

Norman Rockwell’s attention to detail and subtle storytelling boldly spoke for his own time. That isn’t an easy to do. Often, I see young artists bent on portraying their own lives, which often leads to self-indulgent psychological work to which others cannot relate. As artists, we must seek truth in others and do our best to curate stories that change the way humanity sees itself. Through empathy, we can see others and, hopefully, make a better world.

All photos were taken by me on my iPhone, except for the Alex Ross image, which was found on his website: www.alexrossart.com