Conversations on Everything: Interviews Fall 2021

On Grief, Storytelling, and Building Little Altars Everywhere

When you’re in the space of death, people dying, and fragility, things become very clear. It’s a very real sacred space and I think it’s the closest we get to being truthful about life and emotion.”

STARR SARIEGO

I met Starr somewhere in my teenage years through the deep friendship she shares with my grandmother. Right away, I sensed her kind, compassionate energy and this was only exemplified when I learned about the kind of artist she is. Through following her work over the years and seeing her occasionally, I learned that our interests overlapped in quite a few areas, the most notable being photography and storytelling. It was for this reason that I decided to interview her, however it became clear pretty quickly that we had even more in common than I thought.

Over the last few years, the topic of grief has been heavy on my mind and my artistic practice. Since starting this program, I’ve especially been thinking about ways we might be able to reshape our environment to be more supportive of those who are grieving. When I told my mom that I had decided to interview Starr she asked me if I knew how her and my grandmother met and I realized that I actually did not. She told me that Starr and my grandmother had shared a chunk of time on the hospice ward, my grandmother as a social worker and Starr a volunteer. So our proximity to grief and loss became a new theme connecting me and Starr. What follows is a conversation on grief, what we keep from those we’ve lost, and how we can use art to uplift the tender humanity that is all around us. 


Olivia DelGandio: I actually just found out that you met my grandmother because of your shared time working in hospice, I had no idea. Can you tell me how you got involved there?

Starr Sariego: So I started working at hospice as a way to sort of give back in my personal family history. I lost a sister about 16 years ago to cancer. 

Olivia: Oh, I’m sorry. 

Starr: It was tough because it was my first real experience with that sort of loss. And then my second sister passed away and then my mom passed away. And we used hospice for all three of their passings. And so when I got back to Miami, I felt like, gosh, I really want to get involved. And I was not interested in being committed to one family. So the other option was to work on the unit at the hospital. The hospice there had a whole floor. So I met your grandmother, who, you know, fast became like a dear friend to me. And she made such a difference in my life because she really taught me about grief and holding space for people going through it. And I think, you know, as women, certainly culturally, we are trained to fix health. To repair. You know, I could keep going with the adjectives, but you get the idea. And I learned from your grandmother that the best thing to do here is to be an open receptacle for that person to, you know, lead the way through their grief. It was just good practice for life, you know? 

Olivia: Yeah, for sure. My grandma is really good at that, at holding grief, for sure. But I mean, I’m so sorry to hear about all of that loss. That is so much. That’s so, so heavy. 

Starr: Yes, it was. 

Olivia: Was there any overlap between your time working in hospice and your art or any overlapping interests in that realm?

Starr: It’s interesting that you ask that question because I always wanted to do a photography thing on hospice. I was already doing photography and I had done the first photography project on women with disabilities called the Bold Beauty Project. I don’t know if you looked at my website, I have all the projects there, the projects that I’ve worked on. So I think they were overlapping and I was very called to do something in hospice, but I never did because I was worried, you know, I just didn’t want to deal with all the privacy issues and all of that.

Olivia: Yeah, definitely. So what do you think a project on grief and hospice would do or challenge? 

Starr: I think that what happens is, when you’re in the space of death and people dying and fragility, things become very clear. It’s a very real sacred space, and I think it’s the closest to being truthful about life and emotion. This space of grief and handling grief, it is a very deeply truthful space. It’s as honest as you can be. You know, I think in real life, you’re out in the world and you’re distracted by your children and your friends and going out and whatever it is you do in the world. But when somebody is dying, it’s like all those facades are ripped away and it’s a very truthful space to be in. So I think it’s an amazing place. You know, I think a lot of artists do their best work when they are troubled, you know, writers, poets and musicians and painters. So yeah, it’s a great motivator for art. 

Olivia: Yeah, I agree. And you know, I’m sure you saw recently that Scott [my uncle] passed away. 

Starr: I can barely handle it. I called your grandmother. I’ve called her twice. Then she called me and I was on this trip and I haven’t called her back yet. Yeah, I mean, I can’t believe what your family’s been through. 

Olivia: Yeah, me too. But I feel called in this moment to make something about it. And so I’ve been thinking about that a lot, like the space and the truth that’s coming out of this moment. And like the ways, especially because I’m so connected to my mom and my grandma, the ways that we’re all existing in this time, in this space. So I don’t know what it’ll be yet, but I think something.

Starr: Yeah, and I think you write beautifully, I’ve seen other stuff you’ve written, and I think that, you know, maybe in speaking to them, something will come alive for you. There is this thread of connection that’s very strong between the three of you and there’s something about what gets handed down. You know, the whole idea of epigenetics, where even another generation’s emotional experiences have an impact. In fact, I was just talking to my daughter-in-law about this. She’s sitting here in the car kind of smiling because we were talking about the things that had happened in her family two generations above her. Hmm. You know, it’s like in your case, I think it’s a very strong, positive thing. And in her case, it was sort of a very negative damaging thing and the effect of how that affects families positively or negatively, especially in the grief space. 

Olivia: Yeah, for sure. 

Starr: You know, she [daughter-in-law] lost her grandfather earlier this year to cancer. But out of that loss came a lot of truths in her family. And I find that that does happen. I don’t know if there have been more stories about your mom’s family and your grandmother’s family, you know? 

Olivia: Yeah, definitely. I mean, and it’s funny, really funny that you mention epigenetics because I had a conversation with a classmate yesterday, literally about epigenetics and grief. 

Starr: It’s a huge thing, it’s a huge thing. I mean, I don’t know what’s happened in your family, but— I think I met a poet once in California who was Jewish and her parents had been in the Holocaust and survived. And what trauma came to her even though she wasn’t in that trauma? 

Olivia: Yeah, I’ve been wanting to read about ancestral trauma and such. I’ve been thinking about that because my mom’s grandparents on her dad’s side fled Germany during the Holocaust. And so wondering, yeah, how that’s been passed down, for sure. 

Starr: Very interesting. And then interestingly in your family, like how intensely cancer has ravaged your family. And in my family too, not to the extent of yours, but definitely, you know, in my immediate family, it’s like, wow, yeah. And then my mom’s whole line of family all died of cancer. So it’s very interesting.

Olivia: There’s a lot there that I want to read about and learn about. It’s definitely a field and theme that I don’t know enough about. So I want to do some reading.

Starr: Well, you have plenty of time in your life. The universe will just give you those life lessons. 

Olivia: Oh yeah. Okay, let’s see what other questions I have for you. So you work mainly in photography and storytelling and I’m wondering what experiences, moments, or memories led you here, to the way that you tell stories. What were some influences on your practice? 

Starr: So interestingly, every project I do gets birthed out of my own personal experience. I don’t know if that is true for a lot of artists, but I think in my personal experience I have to have a deep emotional connection to the subject matter. So with the women with disabilities project, one of my friends had a disabled daughter, but I didn’t have a lot of experience with a lot of other people with disabilities. Even deeper than that, I think it’s really underrepresented in communities, you know, they aren’t seen, generally, or understood in our cultural lives. And so I think women with disabilities are really infantilized, and I did this project and I found out these women were sexual and had relationships and children and had big jobs and had been through tremendous trauma. And then the women in prison, the same thing. It was like this deep dive into the other and the disenfranchised, in a way. Recently, I started therapy again, and I think that a lot of my interest in that comes from my own feelings of having been “other” in my life. And instead of like seeing that, I’ve been looking for it outside of myself.

Part of the Bold Beauty Project, a visual arts exhibit that featured women with varying disabilities. Digital photograph. 2016. Miami, Florida, United States. Photo by Starr Sariego.

Olivia: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Well, it makes for some really beautiful work. 

Starr: Oh, thanks, honey. Thank you. 

Olivia: Actually, the program that I’m in had a project at a prison in Portland, Oregon, and I’ve been thinking about that a lot and maybe wanting to get involved in something like that. What was your experience there like?

Starr: Oh, it was very crazy. I mean, the biggest takeaway is that, since the 80s, the population of women in prison has risen 700 percent. 

Olivia: Wow. 

Starr: And of all the women in prison, like almost 90 percent, I think the number is 88 percent, have been physically or sexually abused by the time they’re 18. So when you go into that population and you meet these women and there are a lot of white women, more white women than you would expect, you realize these women could be my sister, my neighbor, my auntie. You know, somebody that you would know, except for this event that had happened to them. So, you know, that was my experience. But for me, you know, you were asking about the narrative portion. I really think the story, along with the image and the person telling their own story, has such tremendous power. Yeah, it’s like, This is how I want to be seen in the world. This is the story I want you to know about me and how I got to where I am. See my humanity. That’s my thing. I want people to see that humanity, you know? To remove the otherness, maybe.

Olivia: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. I saw on your website that you said you’re mainly self-taught. Can you tell me about that?

Starr: Yes, yes. I came to photography really late. I think I’ve always been visual and creative and artistic at home, or whatever. I like my environment being pretty in a way that suits me, not to suit another person or somebody else’s idea. In fact, I think my space is kind of a little quirky. 

[Daughter-in-Law jumps in]: Yeah, your space matches your soul. You select things that are beautiful to you. Things you love to touch, you love to look at. Right? 

Starr: Right, right. I like to talk about everything on my wall. Yes, and everything in my home has a story; the thread of meaning and the value things hold. It’s like the emotional core value that Little Altars Everywhere came from. When I was stuck at home by myself during the beginning of the pandemic, I realized I really cling to emotions, the past, and ideas from the past. I’m really working on evolving from that. The narrative, I think for me, is always important to the story of a thing, of a human, of an ornamental object. I always tell people I have a lot of dead people’s things in my house.

From Little Altars Everywhere, a pandemic photographic project by Starr Sariego featuring family talismans, vintage photos, Starr’s body, and natural treasures discovered on dog walks. This photographic exercise became a way of processing feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Digital photograph. 2020. Miami, Florida, United States. Photo by Starr Sariego.

Olivia: Oh yeah, me too. 

Starr: Not in a morbid way. But I’m comforted by having those things around me. 

Olivia: Yeah, me too. Yeah, for sure. I just made a little altar and I put, you know, photos and I have all of these little objects and stuff. So, yeah, totally. 

Starr: Take a photo with your phone and text it to me.

Olivia: Yeah, definitely. 

Starr: My whole house is sort of like little altars everywhere. 

From Little Altars Everywhere. Digital photograph. 2020. Miami, Florida, United States. Photo by Starr Sariego.

Olivia: I love that. Yeah, I love that phrase.

Starr: Yeah, and it’s true. I have little collections and things everywhere. I have this wooden angel and underneath it, it’s like my offerings to her, little bits of mica I find on hikes and beautiful leaves. 

Olivia: Oh, that’s so good, 

Starr: If I remember, I’ll take a picture and send it to you. 

Olivia: Yes, please. 

Starr: Yeah, it’s like honoring the beauty and little things you stumble across every day. 

Olivia: Definitely. So what’s one of your favorite things in your space like that right now?

Starr: Oh gosh.

Olivia: Or maybe not one of your favorites. Just tell me about one. 

Starr: Well, I value this portrait of my grandmother that was painted in 1942 and it’s a very beautiful, very sort of bougie, antique looking portrait. It’s like a classic vintage portrait of somebody that you would hang on your main wall and be like “this is my great grandma who built this house.”

Olivia: Yeah, that’s so cool. 

Starr: That’s very meaningful to me. And then I have two portraits of my children, if you text me and remind me I’ll send you photos of them because they’re quite lovely. Ok, well, so those things are very important to me and some furniture that my dad had made for me. 

Olivia: Oh, that’s beautiful.

Starr: Yeah, that I cherish. 

Olivia: That sounds like a lovely space. 

Starr: Oh, thanks, honey. Well, honey, if you think of anything else, you can always just text or call me tomorrow, OK? 

Olivia: I actually have one last question. Maybe kind of random but are you someone who remembers your dreams at night? 

Starr: I do sometimes, and sometimes I don’t. I was getting ready for this trip and I was having a lot of anxiety about it. I had a very specific dream. I’ll tell you my Halloween dream, which is really crazy. Ok. You know, I photographed a lot of LGBTQIA folks for my latest project. And so I had been photographing drag queens. And so in my dream, I was with a friend in a drag queen’s studio or shop that had amazing dresses. And I had eaten a hamburger, which I never eat red meat, but I had a hamburger recently, like maybe two days before the dream. And in my dream, the friend I was with found the most beautiful gown, cut out to the stomach with just thin strips of fabric that showed her beautiful, flat stomach. And she looked gorgeous. But I couldn’t find a dress that fit me. Every dress I put on, I couldn’t pull the zipper up. It was like an anxiety dream. Finding the right costume in the shop of the drag queen. And I was worried about my belly. So there you go. 

Olivia: That’s so funny. 

Starr: It was very specific. I do sort of remember some of my dreams. 

Olivia: I’m just asking because lately I’ve been thinking a lot about dreams and using dreams in artistic practice. So I’m just always curious about people and their dream life. 

Starr: Have a dream journal next to your bed, perhaps. 

Olivia: Yeah, I do. I write them down. I actually made my grandma start doing that because I want to write down my mom’s,  my grandma’s, and my own dreams at this point in time. So she’s been telling me her dreams lately. 

Starr: Oh, that’s so amazing. Wow. If that doesn’t suggest a project… 

Olivia: Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking about. And actually, last week, all three of us had dreams about dogs for like a week straight

Starr: Oh, that’s so funny. 

Olivia: So it’s just on my mind.

Starr: It’s so strong, the connection between the three of you, you’re even dreaming in triplicate. 


Olivia DelGandio (she/her) is a mixed media artist interested in human connection, what it means to be tender, and the joy/sorrow dichotomy. She graduated from New College of Florida with a degree in Sociology/Gender Studies and is currently working on her MFA in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. She finds solace in creating through and for grief and is currently thinking about how grieving can become more of a community practice. She likes to create books, photos and videos for and about the people she loves. The hope for these projects is to make intimate moments and connections more visible. You can find more of her work here and find her on Instagram here.

Starr Sariego (she/her) is a native-born Miamian and now calls Asheville, NC home. She is a passionate and mostly self-taught photographer. With over 15 years in photography, she’s found that her interest lies in photographing people. Whether it be a family portrait, a headshot, a business client or an event, making that human connection to bring out the best in subjects is her superpower. She is committed to getting the most out of every photo shoot for the benefit of the subject and the cause. You can explore more of her work here.


The Art We Value

I have this eye for things.”

MICHELLE GRIMES

I have been reflecting on how this time two years ago, I wrote about the Jantzen Beach RV Park —a community that I still live in today— in the 2019 SOFA Journal: Exchange issue. I was new to both the RV lifestyle and the Pacific Northwest, and very preoccupied with getting acclimated to a new culture and way of operating in graduate school. My first interaction with a resident when I initially pulled into the park was with Michelle Grimes, my next door neighbor. She has been a huge influence on my time here and taught me how to look out for other neighbors and to be a better listener within my artistic practice. 

Because I am a sentimental person, It’s only natural that I begin my final year of graduate school with an interview with Michelle and her granddaughter, Cece, to talk about art and what we value within our lives and our tiny homes.

The scope of my practice has scaled down to my individual relationships with my neighbors, and cultivating conversations of exchange, for survival. My neighbors and I lived through toxic forest fires that required us to keep within our small confines, ice storms that left many of us without power while tree limbs shattered our windows, and finally within a global pandemic that shut down programs and businesses that we rely on within Hayden Island.(1) We have relied on each other as support systems whenever someone needed help— wandering out of our RVs to lend a helping hand. 

In October 2021, I initiated a project called “The Art We Value,” a project where I ask my neighbors to share a piece of themselves by selecting an item from their house to talk about using the lens of art. I take their picture and then draw them together with that item. When I approached Michelle to participate in the project, she was interested, but only to have a portrait done of her granddaughter. For the almost three years I have known her, Michelle has lived through so much stress and grief with her family; I wanted to convince her to get a portrait of both of them together. I argued that it would be a valuable thing to look at and reflect on for years to come. 

She loves to see my dogs (and they her), so we found many great opportunities to chat in passing. Michelle would share her passions for teaching herself about stocks and NFTs, or finding great deals on groceries or artwork at garage sales. While talking about the project and setting up times, she would casually ask me for permission to spray out the leaves in my driveway, or clean up my garden box, both of which I’ve neglected over the last few months. Since the death of a parent figure in my life in February 2021, I had slowly pulled myself from my passion of gardening and allowed things to go wild. Since we live so closely together and her kitchen window overlooked the jungle of vines and leaves I left while I was healing my broken heart, she asked me to allow her to help. I agreed if she allowed me to draw her.

We set up a time when I could come over to her place for our photo shoot and a brief conversation.The conversation ended up being three hours; we talked, laughed, and she pulled out notes and artwork she usually keeps tucked away. We’ve continued the dialogue since that time we spent together, and have decided that once the portrait is completed, I’ll turn it into a non-fungible token (NFT) for her. We agreed that she could receive royalties on her likeness every time it was traded, much like a stock, in hopes to support herself and her family in the future. 

Left: Michelle Grimes & Cece with the items they value. Right: Michelle Grime’s living room. 2021.
Hayden Island, Oregon. Photo by Shelbie Loomis.

Shelbie: Okay. Tell me a little bit about the piece that you selected that I’m going to be drawing you with. 

Michelle: The piece I selected is a photo I took of my son, my daughter-in-law, and my granddaughter. She was maybe two, two and a half, and we were walking in downtown Portland, Oregon. And something just tells me like, Hurry, you know, take this picture because this… you know…

Shelbie: So it looks like it’s a candid picture. They didn’t know that you were taking it. It’s like this perfect moment where Cece is just learning to walk. And you guys are out on a family outing. And so you had it printed in black and white. So tell me about that.

Michelle: I actually do a lot of black and white. I think there’s something about bringing them here [into my house]. There’s something about black and white. It’s timeless. 

Shelbie: So you, I’m just noticing that you have a lot of artwork in here.

Michelle: I have a lot of artwork! Yes.

Shelbie: So tell me a little bit about how you select the artwork you keep, because this [gestures to the living room] is curation. You’re a curator.

Michelle: Right? So that’s— I don’t know, what do you call those, caricatures?— Anthony [husband] and Alex [stepson]. And then those are pictures that Alex drew when he lived with us. He actually drew those freehand. He’s very talented. You know, he also made that whole boat picture thing over there that you could go look at, if you want. Yeah, there’s tons of artwork.

Shelbie: What I’m interested in is when you live in an RV, you have to be very selective with what you put in the space. And then you have to justify the value right now. You and I, we don’t move our RVs, right? So we don’t have to think about it like some people who are travelers.

Michelle: Snowbirds, like Gary and Jeanie, right, yeah.

Shelbie: Right! So the towing capacity is different for us. But yeah, I’m interested in how you keep your space and how you select the art that you have. 

Michelle: So there’s a story behind those two pieces. If you want to go look at that one on the floor, you can take pictures of the one back there. We have to move. I have tons of art and I hope someday [it brings value]. But to be honest with you, Shelbie, I’m very “art like” but I can’t draw, like, stick people. I can’t draw anything. [However], when I go thrift shopping or something, I have this eye for things. Like I have a $165 Italian wallet that I paid $1 for. [I just have] this weird eye about things.

Shelbie: I definitely agree with you. I’ve noticed just by the way that you even work through the yard. It’s like you have an eye for form. You see the way that things kind of transition, and so, you’re kind of curating, I just feel like you’re a curator. If I were to give you a title, I think it would be a curator.

Michelle: What is the actual definition of a curator?

Shelbie: I define a curator as a person who makes visual or artistic decisions on how to place things, or directs how to place things together. 

Michelle: Yes, so yes, if I had to do life over again, I’d probably be something like an archaeologist. Or, believe it or not, in the last six weeks I’ve been learning the stock market and cryptocurrency. I have notes on my bed and watch both TVs blasting. I have the stock market on all day and I can’t believe how much I’ve learned and taught myself. 

Shelbie: We need more people who know the stock market and the financial world. It’s actually that we need more women.

Michelle: It’s hard to figure it out. And so I was trying to find it for myself. I re-downloaded my Twitter, so I could follow things on Twitter. I read all these notes because I did go to college. I mean, notes from hell. One of the Bitcoins is on the real stock market now. It was the first Bitcoin EFT and of course, then this guy comes on, he’s like, Yeah, well, you know, they, the old school people of stock market, need to learn that it’s crypto currencies, really a big deal. 

Shelbie: Yeah, it’s really interesting because you have a lot of people that are older… Older investors who want to keep gold as a standard wealth investment. 

From Michelle’s collection. Left: “Untitled,”  a woodcut print by Marcia Brown. 2021. Photo by Shelbie Loomis. 
Right: Stone Soup, by Marcia Brown. Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. Originally published 1947.  Image courtesy of New York Times.

Michelle: What is that I have? Oh, there was a story behind it [image above].  Her name is Marcia Brown. Looks like this is an anonymous woodcut…So like I told you, I just have this weird eye or whatever. This [artwork] was in Goodwill in Wilsonville, probably four years ago, before I moved here. [These woodcuts] were numbered. They were [by] the same person, blah, blah, blah. And I’m like, I’m just buying them. So then I go home and I Google all this stuff. Well, come to find out this lady here is famous. She is. I can find all this stuff. I have notes everywhere. I remember. She was a children’s book… What do you call that? An illustrator? Yeah. She also has, there’s the Marcia Brown Museum in New York. I don’t know where my notes are. I don’t know where the big note is where I wrote it down, you know? Right here, University of Albany, New York Department of Social Special Collections.

Shelbie: So she has been collected by the University?

Michelle: Yeah, they actually have a museum there because she was a famous children’s books illustrator.

Shelbie: Interesting! 

Michelle: And because you’re artistic, you caught those in my house, which nobody ever does.  

Shelbie: Really? 

Michelle: Yeah. And I’ve been meaning to call them for like three or four years. Yeah. And then I’m like, but I like them. But then I want [them] to go to the museum.

Shelbie: Well, here’s the thing. You could at least have them appraised, because what you could do is, you still have ownership over them. But depending on if they’re looking for this special collection, for example, you could send them to be a part of a show. Or they can just appraise them, so that you know where they are and how much they’re worth.

Michelle: I like to watch Antiques Roadshow all the time. I get really upset when there’s like this 200 year old, you know, Cherokee blanket that belonged to some tribe, I feel it needs to go back to the tribe. Sure. That’s how I feel. Sure. So if this lady has a museum in New York, and this can be hung in that museum, and there’s something about her, that’s why I want them to go back.

Shelbie: I can understand that!

Michelle: And that’s another thing. Another reason why I don’t get rid of some of my stuff, you know, is because my son wants to throw everything away. Cece’s dad and I had this really big picture in my room at their house. I told them I don’t give two shits about you throwing away my mean uncle’s barbecue or all that stuff, [but] you are not going to get rid of that picture up there, ever. Right. One thing I’ve learned about watching Antiques Roadshow, almost every single episode, 99.99% of the time, oh, somebody in their local hometown appraised it and didn’t know what it was worth. They came to find out, it’s worth half a million dollars. Right. And you know how pissed I would be if something I had and dropped off at Goodwill was on an Antiques Roadshow special? I would lose it. You know? Yeah. So that’s probably why I just hide it all over.

Shelbie: Well, I think it would be kind of cool for you to know what you have, and create an inventory list.

Michelle: Well, I have so many health problems now and I’m sick all the time and everything. If you don’t see me outside [it means] I’m sick, you know. And just, yeah, the bills, the stress, you know, life— something always breaks our income. I just gotta figure something out. You know, try to make money. Yeah. [Looks at Cece] Grandma’s been addicted to the stock market thing.


Footnotes:

(1) Hayden Island: an island that is between Vancouver, Washington (South) and Portland, Oregon (North)


Shelbie Loomis (she/her) is a socially engaged artist and illustrator. She makes projects and drawings with communities and participants about complex grieving, alternative housing, and exchange culture through times of crisis. Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico she now lives in Portland, Oregon.

Michelle Grimes (she/her) is originally from Los Angeles. She loves to cook, garden, and clean and spend as much time with her granddaughter by taking her everywhere and doing things with her. 


Healing in Practice

“I think about joy being something that doesn’t come from the outside and joy is not something that we assume is permanent. It’s something that we are trying to be aware of. I think that recognizing that the possibility for joy exists within me changes my focus. Because I’m looking less directly at how I can succeed, how can I win? I think that’s a really useful way to think about it.”

DARRELL GRANT

The Black Box Conversation Series (BBCS) is a podcast and radio project launched in 2020 in response to the pandemic. BBCS aims to create a safe space where people of color can hold meaningful conversations centered around their human experience. My practice often uses conversations and storytelling as primary tools to connect us. I’m interested in co-authoring work that centers the need for reparations to address the injuries inflicted on the African American community. For SoFa journal, I’m sharing a conversation about healing with PSU jazz professor and composer, Darrell Grant. This interview originally aired on Portland State University’s radio station, KPSU, on November 11, 2021. 


Black Box Conversations Series flyer. Portland, Oregon, United States. 2021. Photo by Hiroshi Iwaya, courtesy Darrell Grant. 

Kiara Walls: Hello everyone, my name is Kiara Walls and this is the Black Box Conversation Series. The Black Box Conversation Series aims to create a safe space where people of color can hold meaningful conversations centered around their human experience. Today, I will be speaking with professor Darrell Grant, and we will be talking about healing. So to kick things off, I will let Darryl introduce himself and then we’ll go into some of the questions.

Darrell Grant: I’m Darrell Grant. I’m a jazz pianist, composer, and a professor of music at Portland State University where I’m entering my 25th year of teaching. I’m also associate director of the School of Music and Theater at PSU. I direct a new program in the College of the Arts, it’s called the Artist as Citizen Initiative, which is an interdisciplinary pathway/intersection between the arts and social justice.

Kiara: Awesome. I’m super excited to be talking with you today. We’ll just jump right in. The first question is, what does healing feel and look like to you?

Darrell Wow, well, let’s start with the easy question. The first thing that I think of is self-knowledge, because I think without that, it’s really difficult to approach the idea of healing. Self-knowledge, for me, has meant coming to understand myself as a Black person, coming to appreciate the unique experiences that I have had, and both the challenges and the successes. I think then coming to see that it’s okay for me to be uniquely myself, both, you know, as an individual, but especially as a Black person in America. That has been a big part of the healing is, you know, self knowledge and then self acceptance. After that comes the process of sort of working through all the things that come up, trying to find contentment and satisfaction. I mean, happiness is kind of a big ask. It’s something that comes and goes, but I’m feeling like this way of feeling content, you know, sort of content with my lot in life, with my path in life. So those are the kinds of things I think about when I think about healing.

Kiara: Thank you for that. I just want to touch back on how you’re talking about being content versus being happy, because happiness is fleeting. There’s this idea that the main goal is just to be happy, and happiness is an emotion that comes and goes. What I think about is joy, and being able to cultivate joy. It doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to anything that you’re working towards, but something like a framework that you create every single day. You find joy in the little specialties of life, you add value to that, versus something that’s external and also something that takes a certain amount of work to get towards. Then the idea is that you’ll be rewarded with feeling. In my opinion, healing is also tied to happiness. Before I had a better understanding of what healing was for me, I used to think that it was more about when you get to a certain point in your journey that you no longer deal with any bad things.

Darrell: Right! Like nothing goes wrong, it’s all good. You have finally crossed over!

Kiara: I’m just like, WOW, that’s a really tall order. I think it’s also not sustainable. I mean, to be human is to make mistakes.

Darrell: Yeah. It’s to be imperfect. I mean, that’s nature, you know, it’s really funny. I was just watching Oprah’s interview with Will Smith, and he has just written a new memoir where he talks a lot about this idea of joy. I know a lot of African Americans, especially artists in my field who are always aspiring, always reaching, always stretching, and always trying to get to someplace. On the outside, a lot of that looks like success. Some of it looks like security. I think about joy being something that doesn’t come from the outside and joy is not something that we assume is permanent. It’s something that we are trying to be aware of. I think that recognizing that the possibility for joy exists within me changes my focus. Because I’m looking less directly at how I can succeed, how can I win? I think that’s a really useful way to think about it.

Kiara: Right. It’s about giving yourself that agency to experience that feeling, you know, giving yourself that power versus always having external validation, because I feel like external validation is nice, but what happens when you don’t always have that type of energy around you? Not to say it doesn’t feel good when you get the external validation, but it’s not going to be a situation where it’s around you all the time.

Darrell: Or you wear yourself out constantly seeking it. That’s what I think is interesting hearing Will Smith talk about it in reflecting on that myself, that there’s this really interesting and insidious way where you keep chasing accomplishment. It’s never quite enough, you get it, but it’s not. It’s just, Oh, but if I could just get that, oh, this is nice, but if I could just get that one thing. I always thought I’m not really chasing money or I’m not chasing things that are considered vain. It looks like I’m really trying to do good things, right? But if I’m still seeking that validation, then I’m ignoring the times when I really need to be stopping and doing nothing, just sitting, just restoring myself for the thing that I’m really supposed to be doing, rather than doing this one other little thing to try and get the validation. I’ve noticed this act of chasing your tail a bit.

Kiara: That also makes me think about the energy that one puts into their work. When you aren’t chasing external validation, you’re truly creating the work because it’s coming from your heart and your soul. There’s a level of transparency and an organic element to it that is seen within the work.

Darrell: I don’t know though. I mean I hear what you’re saying, but I also feel like it won’t necessarily be perceived outside of yourself. Do you know what I mean? Because I think that one of the things that we get good at when we are seeking validation is, we get good at doing things that get the kind of recognition that we’re looking for. Right? And if you desire to be validated for being selfless, you get really good at doing work that is admired for being selfless. The problem is if you’re really supposed to be doing something else, like if your own path to joy or fulfillment involves something else, other people may not recognize that because you’re not hitting those buttons that they’re used to seeing. I think that as an artist, I find that especially true. It’s like, sometimes you really do have to go inside and when people ask you what you’re doing, you got nothing to show you can’t say to them I’m trying to figure some stuff out. I’m just working on some stuff. Because they’re like, “When are you going to play a show? What are you going to do?” And then I say, “I’m not sure because I’m really trying to work some stuff out.” This kind of dialogue does not get a lot of validation. So I think it can be lonely. So that’s when I think what you said about the joy, finding the joy and doing it for those reasons, is really necessary because it can be a dark lonely place sometimes.

Kiara: I totally understand. It’s funny because people can’t always see the work that you’re doing or the work that you’ve been up to and all of the things that you’re processing. So it just boils down to giving yourself that validation, and allowing yourself that space to process things and not be worried about what anyone else is saying or their expectations. With that said, what are the expectations that you have for yourself? Can you meet those expectations and call it a day? Can you describe any day-to-day rituals you practice that contribute to your self-care?

Darrell: Wow. I wish I could. To be absolutely honest with you, I need to embrace more of that. I am a jazz improviser, and my dream for myself has always been to have a life that was completely absent of routine. It’s interesting because there’s a certain number of things that you can get done in one big gesture. But oftentimes if you’re trying to do something that’s really large, you have to break it up into pieces, which means you have to go at it for many days at a time. I just premiered an opera in September (Sanctuaries) that I’ve been working on for four years. It took four years from start to finish, from the conception of the idea to acquiring the commission. Then it was delayed a year and a half by COVID, which I just took as an opportunity to rewrite it. I thought, I can make it better, and in that there was a need for this regularity. I’ve worked a lot over the course of my life trying to become a person who can embrace doing things incrementally, and more so now, iteratively. I’m realizing now this is just the first draft, get it done, throw it away and then start on the second. Once I get to the second, good; fix it and get to the third. I’ve become more of that person, but I still, in my heart of hearts, I just love surprises. I love not doing the same thing or at least feeling like I’m not doing the same thing. It’s been hard to cultivate rituals because rituals by their very nature are things that you repeat that you do on a regular basis and that you focus on. 

I think one of the things that I’m doing now, actually that’s fairly recent, or at least my sort of returning to, is just breathing. Really taking the time to notice my breathing. My wife is reading this really cool book called “Breath,” which talks about the science of breathing. I just realized, Oh, that’s something that I can just do. What’s useful about it is that it counteracts knowing exactly when I have to do it. For example, I turn on NPR and then the radio comes on and I start to get this tightness on my chest as they start talking about how terrible the world is. It’s like, Okay, let’s breathe. Now. This is good. I recognize this is the time. That’s something that I’m looking at cultivating. I think the next thing I probably need to cultivate is a ritual around sleep and rest because all my life I have resented the need to sleep. If I didn’t have to sleep, I would never ever sleep. You can’t do anything when you’re sleeping. Needless to say, I’m missing the whole fact that your unconscious is processing, your brain is resting and your body is recuperating. There’s a lot that’s happening when you’re sleeping. But in my impatience I’m like, Nah, I want to do something. I want to do stuff. I don’t want to retreat to bed. I’ve gotten to this age now, 59, where it’s like there is such a thing as the end of your energy. There’s such a thing as wearing it out entirely. The machine starts to break it down and it ain’t going to recover like it did when I was 30 or 40. So now I think it’s time to cultivate some rituals around rest.

Kiara: Right. I’m just curious, how many hours of sleep would you say you get at night?

Darrell: To be honest?

Kiara: Yeah, to be honest.

Darrell: I would say mostly around six, sometimes less than five. If I do a couple of days of less than six hours of sleep, like I have been the past few days, I start talking to myself and getting a little loopy. I’ve also noticed that I’ll get brain fog and I can’t remember names. The conflict I’ve always had is that I thought that to be an artist it required those kinds of sacrifices. For example, artists can’t sleep or artists don’t eat…they just do the work. They do the work all the time and, you know, that’s romantic. I think it can be true but what they don’t actually talk about is the consequences of that. It’s like: yes, that is true and sometimes if artists do that for too long they get sick and they die just like everybody else who does that. I didn’t really think about that part. I’ve got to change this attitude towards sleep. I’ve actually got to change because I can’t just make myself go to sleep. I always found that when you want to change a habit, you have to care about something else more, and have to find something else to care about more. So I need to find something else to care about more than staying awake.

Kiara: That definitely makes sense. What would be your definition of self-care? If you could form your own definition using the practices that you’re already doing, do you feel aligned with self-care?

Darrell: Oh, man. Now we’re moving into therapy. Okay, Doctor, I’d love to talk to you about this.

Kiara: [Laughs]Sorry, just trying to ask the right questions!

Darrell: That’s a good question. I feel like you got a little Oprah on here. [Laughs]Well actually Kiara, what I really need to do is… My definition of self-care…well… it’s a big question. I feel like self-care can start anywhere. I think the first place I would have to start for myself is being honest with myself. Right. Your body changes as you age and you have different needs. I keep feeling like when I was 20, I could live on ice cream sandwiches and ginger snaps for weeks. I didn’t have to eat food. I didn’t get sick. I didn’t gain weight. When I was 30, I was totally skinny and didn’t have to do anything. As you get older, I think this idea of being honest with yourself about what you need [is] the first thing. Then once I come to terms with that, then I’m faced with the fact about being honest about who I am. That’s the first step to me in self-care, is honesty. It’s funny… I mean, it seems strange to think about the idea of being honest with oneself, because you think, well, if you can’t be honest with yourself, who’s making you lie to yourself, but in some ways that’s the hardest thing, right? 

I noticed this in two things in the Will Smith interview. And I also watched a film about Magic Johnson and how he would talk about Magic like it was a third person, His name is Irvin Johnson. So in the film he would say “Irvin was this, but Magic required this.” I just thought to myself, This is so strange. He’s living this external persona. He is a prisoner of this persona that he created. What he thinks the world expects of him and inside him, there’s this kid, that’s Irvin, that was before all the fame happened. It’s funny, Will Smith said the same thing. So I thought, okay…so being honest with oneself in part is like, what am I doing? Because the world thinks that’s who I am, and what am I doing? Because that’s who I think I am and who I really want to be. And I think to myself, that’s the root of self-care because once I can come to terms with that, then I can say, well, what does that person need? What does Darrell need that’s separate from what the world expects me to be doing?

Kiara: That’s a very powerful way to look at it. It makes me think of this concept of the “inner child”, we all have our inner child that we’re trying to nurture and heal. I think that’s also a part of self-care is recognizing your inner child.

Darrell: I’ve heard that idea; t’s been around for a long time. Our parents are always trying to get us to grow up and we’re just trying to be adults or act like an adult, grow up, be mature. Right? How is it that we’re supposed to be paying attention to our inner child when they keep on trying to get us to not be that person and to be a grownup person, you know? I have an appreciation for the authenticity, the individuality, and the joy and all of those things that were inherent in that. I might not call it my inner child. I might call it my real self, you know what I mean? I was closer to that real self in many ways earlier on when I was younger.

Kiara: I think about the action of unlearning and getting back to that essence, like who you are at your core. How do you cultivate sacredness in the spaces you inhabit?

Darrell: Hmm. Another fantastic question. Dr. Walls. Wow. So I’m in the process of activating this space in Northeast Killingsworth that used to be the Albina Arts Center(1) way back in the 1960s. I didn’t know [ the history of the space,] when I walked into the space, but I felt something that was so amazing. I’m not a person who just skips down the street, but I’m telling you when I closed the door and I had the key to that place, I was skipping around inside it. I was thinking to myself, This is not like me. I was talking to somebody about it and they said, “You were feeling the spirits of all the children that had gone through that place in this year.” I would say an element of sacredness is history… knowing and honoring the history of who came before. That is something that I feel, I mean I’m not going to start a religion around it or anything, but it’s so important to me that I would say that it’s a core principle. You have to honor and recognize the history of what came before and those who came before. A lot of the work that I’ve done in my time here at PSU has been this sort of discovery of and uncovering and then trying to represent past history, whether it was the jazz scene on Williams Avenue or the the Black jazz musicians who were, you know, the old cats in the scene way back in the 1950s and 1960s and sort of trying to find a way to see them honored. That’s one of the ways that I try to honor spaces is to know about them and represent their history.

Kiara: That makes me think about Sankofa(2) and looking at your past to inform your future. Learning your own history or learning the history of your ancestors or whatever spaces you’re inhabiting. That’s definitely a way to activate the space and you’re also paying homage and giving them their flowers, you’re recognizing them. I’m super excited about that project too.

Darrell: Thanks. It keeps on growing. I’ll have to send you the list of things that are happening. I didn’t bring my Kwanzaa on Killingsworth postcards.

Kiara: It’s all good. I’ll give you a shout out next week. Where do you see yourself on your healing journey?

Darrell: Hmm. Wow. Where do I see myself on my healing journey? I think I have some degree of self-awareness. I think that I’ve learned some things. I think that I’m fortunate in that I’ve inherited a lot from my parents and my family. My father was the youngest of 12 children. My grandfather was a sharecropper in Arkansas and he worked his whole life to get his family out of the South and move them up North. My dad was the first in his family to go to college. I have a master’s degree and a teaching job. I started with a strong foundation in thinking and a strong moral background. I also believed that I was and could be okay and that I was worthy. There’s a lot that I brought to the table. There’s still a lot for me to learn. I have this idea of being my true self and not being so susceptible to the patterns from my past or from the outside culture sort of running me in a particular direction,that aren’t necessarily in my longterm best interest or that don’t feel authentic to me. I’m happy with that. I’ve done many years of therapy and counseling. I’ve had the privilege of having access to that and taking advantage of those. I’ve also been around some really amazing people who’ve taught me a lot and have been good friends. So in a way I feel like I’m pretty evolved, but I still see all the ways in which I’m like, I’m clueless. I thought I had that together, clearly I’ve got a long way to go, even in terms of attitudes and perceptions. I feel lucky. I feel very fortunate and blessed in my life. But I also feel that I’ve got a lot of work to do. Some days I feel optimistic about doing that work and other days I feel like I’m never going to get it. 

Kiara: Thank you for the transparency. There’s this idea that I’ve been thinking about, the yin and yang symbol. You can be on your healing journey feeling really good and at the same time, still have this other stuff that you’re dealing with. Those two experiences can happen at the same time. That doesn’t mean that you’re not evolved or like you’re behind or anything, it just means you have momentum and are moving in the right direction. But realistically you still have these things going on at the same time, which is normal and human. I think a lot about grace.We want things to be all good, all the time, but that’s not how life is, right? In life there’s a balance. There’s definitely a balance. It’s also about the perspective that you have and choosing to focus on the good that you have in your life and not necessarily let the bad outweigh that, you know?

Darrell: Also I think gratitude, you know, being grateful to be…I’m grateful to be on the path. That’s what makes me feel good. I still have the opportunity to learn. And you reminded me that I have this habit of setting an alarm for things that I want to remember on my phone. Most of them don’t go off anymore, but when I’m setting new alarms, I’m scrolling through and seeing them. Some of these have actually been on my phone for many years. I started this habit when I was trying to be a better parent to my son and remind me of stuff that I wanted to stop doing. And so I was just looking at my 8:20AM alarm and it said, “Shut up and listen, stop pushing half faith every day”. My 8:34 alarm says, “Increase my willingness to accept suffering.” And that’s on every day. 8:35 is, “Consider the possibility of not worrying about the future.” 8:45 is, “it’s okay, Darrell, there are others who are well-equipped and well-prepared to do this task. You can focus on your own activities.” 9:45 says, “Can I embrace self-care with intentionality as an act of resistance?” That’s been going on for a good year. 3:00PM: “How do I eliminate the guilt and anxiety of not having things done?” 8:00: “Seek out and delight in opportunities to learn every day.” It’s just reminders to keep staying on the path and checking in.

Kiara: You’re checking in with yourself and I think that’s amazing. I might actually start using that because I love it. I have a coworker that has an alarm set for something, I don’t remember exactly what it said, but it was something very optimistic, like “Keep going,” or “Things aren’t that bad,” or something like that.

Darrell: I mean, if you’re going to have a phone, it’s a good use of your phone.

Kiara: Yeah. I feel like that’s an appropriate use. That’s healthy. We’re onto our last question. What advice would you give to someone who is seeking to heal their past traumas?

Darrell: Well, I think you already said it. I think grace is the thing that you have to keep. You can always come back to it. It’s not like it’s not a continuous linear thing. Just to be able to forgive yourself and give grace to yourself, I think that’s probably the most important thing because you know, it’s an ongoing journey. So I think that’s the thing I would say mostly.

Kiara: Thank you so much, Darrell, I appreciate your voice and your perspective around this topic.

Darrell: Thanks for asking such great questions. 


Footnotes:

(1)  Albina Arts Center was a “historic art and culture hub that was a touchstone of Portland’s African American history.” It is now a resource center called the Center for Advocacy and Community Involvement, run by the police accountability group Don’t Shoot Portland to assist community members with social equity-related causes. (Portland Tribune, 2020)

(2)  Sankofa is a word in the Akan language of Ghana that translates to “go back, look for, and gain wisdom, power and hope.” It implores for Africans to reach back into ancient history for traditions and customs that have been left behind.” (Wikipedia)


Kiara Walls (she/her) is an arts education administrator, originally from LA but now stationed in Portland, Oregon. Her work is centered around increasing awareness of the need and demand for reparations to repair the injuries inflicted on the African American community. This interpretation is seen through many forms, including story-telling, site specific audiovisual installations, and the Black Box Conversation Series, a monthly interview series on Portland State University Radio. http://psusocialpractice.org/kiara-walls/

Darrell Grant (he/him) Since the release of his debut album Black Art, one of the New York Times’s Top Ten Jazz CDs of 1994, Darrell Grant has built an international reputation as a pianist, composer, and educator who channels the power of music to make change. He has performed throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe in venues ranging from Paris’s La Villa jazz club to the Havana Jazz Festival. Dedicated to themes of hope, community, and place, Grant’s compositions include his 2012, Step by Step: The Ruby Bridges Suite, honoring civil rights icon Ruby Bridges, and The Territory, which explores Oregon’s landscape and history. Since moving to Portland, Oregon he has been named Portland Jazz Hero by the Jazz Journalist Association, awarded a Northwest Regional Emmy and MAP Fund grant, and bestowed the Governor’s Arts Award. He is a Professor of Music at Portland State University where he directs the Artist as Citizen Initiative. https://www.darrellgrant.com/


Process, Pop, and A/Temporality

“Without one another we don’t have the context that makes our sense of self meaningful—to accept distortion and accept mutation is to accept one’s place in the world.”

ALEX OLIVE

Alex Olive, or Olive, is a visual and sound artist based in Oakland, California. I am particularly interested in her experimental sound practice and how she uses and manipulates field recordings. I think that there is something really special in getting to listen to artists talk about their work and their processes, especially artists I admire.

Olive and I spoke about her practice and process, her upcoming album, and what excites her about making music. I’m really interested in starting to make experimental sound art a part of my practice, including the use of field recordings, and I’m really excited about the possibilities that could come out of using sound as material. I’ve been thinking a lot about temporal intimate spaces, both physical and emotional, and I wanted to talk to Olive about how her practice and process explores those concepts. 


Alex Olive: So what were we talking about?

Luz Blumenfeld: I started recording because our conversation felt related to something I learned in class this week when I did my presentation on my practice, which is: the way I was previously thinking about documentation in social practice art was really limited. I thought you could take a picture or a video, or show an object that was a part of the work, and that was pretty much it. But everyone in my program was like, No, there’s actually a lot of different ways to document a project. So then I was thinking about how I’ve used voice memos on my phone as a tool for recording for a long time and how I usually don’t have an intention behind that beyond the feeling of, Ooh I need to record this right now. But I have this collection of moments in time, and I was thinking about what you were saying about the beginning of recorded music aiming to just capture that moment.

Olive: The history of pop music or popular music as a specific form is really interesting to me. The way that it’s developed has been sort of like, inseparable from economic relations and from social relations, like interpersonal relations. The beginning of pop music, I mean, in a certain way is like Tin Pan Alley type shit where it’s like, people were just banging out sheet music for songs every single day. Just like creating endless amounts of songs for people to take home and perform for one another. 

Luz: That’s really cute.

Olive: Yeah, and like, for the longest time, reproduced and manufactured music was like, you know, sheet music that people would play in their parlor to entertain their guests or their family, and so people were cranking out tunes every single day for people to go home and play. But then after a certain point that stopped being the relation of like, one of us is going to perform something for a group of people, to someone in another part of the world has performed something outside in a field or in a room specifically designed for this. And then we can listen to the fact that somebody has played music. 

Luz: That’s honestly really cool as a concept. Just the fact that we can listen to someone play music in a field far away. 

Olive: Yeah. It’s far away in space and also in time, moreso all the time.

After a certain point, technology and technique sort of made it even further divorced from the original moment of performance or the original moment that is being documented, where you have overdub technology where you record one part and then play another part over it. And so what ends up being recorded is not one performance of a song, but like a curated selection of various people performing it at completely different times. And then you get mixing, which makes it even more complex, and then sampling and using Mellotrons and other instruments.

Luz: What’s a Mellotron?

Olive: Oh, it’s like a keyboard instrument. It looks like a piano, but it’s loaded with tape loops inside of it of different instruments playing a single note so that you can switch it to something like a violin or a flute. And then when you hit the keys, it plays basically a tape of a flute playing those corresponding notes.

The Arturia Mellotron. Courtesy of Arturia.

Luz: That’s like my childhood memory of what a keyboard would do. Not a piano, but like a keyboard.

Olive: Yeah, totally. That is extremely similar to how the MIDI [Musical Instrument Digital Interface] works now, where you can just put in… I mean, maybe it’s a bit more similar to a player piano where you can just put the notes that are supposed to be played and then you just plug it into whatever instrument or thing is supposed to interpret that.

Luz: Player pianos are fascinating to me because they’re really similar to early looms.

Olive: Yeah, because they’re similarly, like, computerized sort of.

Luz: Yeah, well they relied on this punch card system with holes in different places and the same is true with the player piano. I used to have a sheet of player piano music that I got for free at somewhere like the Depot(1) at some point and I just hung it on my wall because I thought the pattern was pretty. It was just a really thin sheet of paper that had a pattern of holes in different places.

Player piano roll being played, 2019. Photo by user Draconichiaro, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Olive: That’s really, really fucking cool. But yeah, I think the way that I use the MIDI is very similar to a Mellotron. I typically sample either like found sound shit or a lot of times, well, not even just me, but a lot of people use sound fonts. They’re most commonly associated with, like, video game soundtracks. With sound fonts, you can download all of the instruments that were used to make a specific game soundtrack, and then you can use them as your own, basically. And I’ve only really recently started using sound fonts but they definitely help with what I’m trying to do in terms of like, melodic sensibility and maybe even just like, emotional presence. Video game music has been hugely influential in how I approach music, in part because it’s supposed to create an environment. You’re supposed to go into a level, area, or environment and then the specific loop of music is supposed to be playing indefinitely.

Luz: And it has to feel different from whatever space you were in before, but also still on the same theme so that you’re still in the same world.

Olive: Yeah, it’s like score music, but also looped, which I think is interesting because if it’s looped indefinitely and specifically connected to a place, that implies that the passage of time in the piece of music doesn’t matter because it just goes on forever, which means that it ceases being a composition unfolding across time and becomes in itself a sort of place-state or like, an aspect of place that also isn’t real at all.

I grew up playing video games a lot and my immersion in them was to the extent that I remember having to write a “What I Did for Summer Vacation” paper in the third grade and just writing about playing Pokemon but as though it was real, essentially because all I had done that summer was beat Pokemon Gold.

And, I don’t know, for some reason synthetic and artificial spaces were way more close and emotionally accessible, and real to me as a kid [more] than anything that was happening in my physical life. And I think that I’ve only really been able to appreciate the real world through my relationship to synthetic worlds. And I think that’s kind of part of why I use a lot of like, sound font type shit. 

Luz: That’s really cool, that makes sense.

Olive: Yeah, and a lot of my music, even though it changes composition and the arrangement sounds really different at one point in the song than it would in another point in the song, I attempt to use the same chord progressions with the same few pieces to sort of like, imply a similar place-likeness where it’s just one thing looping for a really long time. But what you’re getting is these different layers and different interpretations of what that is or could have been.

That being said, there is a certain school of thought against world-building in art that I do more and more sort of agree with.

Luz: What is that?

Olive: Basically I think the sentiment is that when our attempts to be a world-building thing beyond the scope of its medium, like, I don’t know. You see this all the time where people put out albums and they’re like, “It’s not just an album, it’s a whole world,” you know? Or like, you have an ARG [Alternate Reality Game] experience to promote the thing or there’s the implication that engaging with this piece of art is somehow going to, like, transcend the boundaries of real life.

Luz: Yeah, it reminds me of— and I didn’t actually watch this, I just saw it get memed a bunch– but like Mark Zuckerberg announcing the metaverse thing, like it feels like that.

Olive: Yeah, it feels very similar. And there’s also, like, the theme park-ification of museums and shit.

Luz: Oh yeah, that’s a whole other thing I could talk about for so long.

Olive: Yeah and I think that also what frustrates me about world-building or like, obviously world-building is part of the narrative arts if you’re doing fiction or even non-fiction, but like, in terms of making a piece of art and saying, “This is a total experience, a total work of art,” I think is dishonest and undesirable, because nothing is total, art is necessarily inseparable from the context in which it was made. And to say that it’s its own thing that transcends the boundary of experience is, I think, really silly and also just disengages from what is important about the arts.

Luz: Yeah, it feels like a marketing technique and like a promise to be better than something else, and that feels weird to me in an art context because it feels really far away from the thing that made you excited to make that work. I think it’s cool when that’s still somewhat visible.

It doesn’t have to be the entire thing, but you can still have traces of why you made this and what was interesting about it. To attempt to make something entirely divorced from the context of its creation feels silly to me.

Olive: Yeah cause also it’s like, if you feel the music or painting or whatever has the capacity to communicate something in excess of what it is—which is true, that is how art works, that is how perception works, then isn’t that the value of the medium and the value of the work you’re making? And isn’t it sort of insisting that that be like, totalized into a whole other like, separate world sort of insisting that art is primarily a form of escapism? Which is a notion that I try to rail against really hard, even though I’m making pop music.

When I do stuff that is really similar to video game soundtracks and more specifically, JRPG [Japanese Role-Playing Games] soundtracks in my work, I try to do it through a lens of it being distorted or feeling half remembered or buried under processing of some kind, so that it feels untrue and inaccessible, but also like, a nice memory, a nice thought.

Luz: I’m interested in the untrue and inaccessible part.

Olive: Yeah, I don’t want my art to be interpreted as just like, Wow, this reminds me of when I was a kid playing video games, it’s so awesome to be a child! I want it to be like, your emotions are still real, your memories are still as happy as you can imagine, but also your memories of childhood have been scrubbed of all context, they’re completely divorced from the reality of that— especially idealized ones about how awesome it was.

Luz: Yeah, or like the stuff that makes you weirdly nostalgic, and you’re like, I hated being that age, but when I hear this particular soundtrack for this thing, I feel like I’m just blissed out about it. Weird.

Olive: Yeah, and I think there’s a sort of cultural precedent to be like, Oh, well this made me feel safe as a kid, which is, I think, very valuable to be like, This is something that meant alot to me during a difficult time. But even still, at some point, there’s life outside of your best memory, there’s endless potential for the world to be happy.

This goes along with the theme of anti-escapism pop art shit, but my favorite, I think, work of art ever is fucking ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’, and one of the big takeaways from that as stated in the movie ‘The End of Evangelion’ is–I think the line is like, “Anywhere can be heaven as long as you choose to live.” And I think that is very true. Basically I think the broader implication of that is that the world we live in and are materially a part of— that we have to make choices to be a part of— is the only place that we can access happiness and intimacy and all of the things that make life beautiful, but it is also necessarily a place where all of the pain you will ever feel exists as well. And so, if you really truly believe in accessing the beauty that you felt as a kid, or the things that made you feel safe, then you have to accept that you are a part of a world that is also not very simple and you have to do right by the positive emotions and continue living in the world.

Still from the animated science fiction film, “Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion,” 1997

Luz: Yeah, I think the part that I appreciate about what you were saying, what you’re trying to do with your music– I feel like I’m getting better at describing this because for a long time I wasn’t super into music, like, you know, I had songs and artists that I liked for some reason, but I didn’t—having no understanding of how music is produced or anything, I think, changes the way you hear things a lot.

Olive: Oh, absolutely.

Luz: And having any sort of artistic, medium-specific connection to it really changes the way you experience it. But yeah, I think something I really like is when I can pick out different sounds within a track. There will be something that reminds me of something else, but it’s not the whole thing. I guess that’s what intrigues me about using field recordings and stuff is that you can kind of pop it in for a little bit, but then it goes away and other things keep happening, and I like the way that makes you experience time.

Olive: Yeah, totally, because that means that the recording of the initial thing is edited and is inserted in a way where it makes you aware that it’s edited and it makes you aware that it’s like a memory, as opposed to a total experience.

Luz: Maybe it’s because I’ve recorded so many voice memos over the years, but whenever I can pick out a field recording in something that I’m listening to, it does feel like a memory, but not my memory. I think that it’s the person who recorded or, I mean, I guess people use other recordings that they didn’t make themselves, but in my head I kind of imagine that it’s the artist who has this, you know—I’m thinking of that Grouper track with the owls field recording.

Olive: Oh yeah, I’m certain that was probably done by her.

Luz: Yeah, so then I think it’s cool to get to feel the complexity of someone else’s memory of that experience and then the memory of recording that and then all those layers and just hearing the one sound is really exciting to me.

Olive: Yeah, totally. It reminds me a bit of Caveh Zahedi’s whole theory of film being like capturing God essentially; where you’re capturing the sort of unfolding of an embodied moment in a certain way, and that, in so doing, you’re capturing the essence of the divine because the divine permeates all things and unfolds across time, so if you are recording time, you are sort of making a recording of like, the face of God essentially. And that’s a very broad paraphrasing of Caveh Zahedi, but that’s kind of generally what I seem to be getting from his work. But yeah, I think using field recordings and found sound is increasingly something that I want to do. Something else that I am thinking a lot more about is improvisation in music and irreplicability and wanting to make things that, even if they are recorded, they may not be replicable in the sense that they are completely improvised. And I think noise music and other types of experimental music are pretty ready to be used to that end, and that’s definitely something that I want to push harder in future projects.

Luz: Yeah, that interests me a lot too, and I think a lot about––especially in regards to social practice art–– what it means for something to only exist in this one time and place. I mean, if you record it, you have that documentation of it, but it’s removed and it’s different and it’s not the same as having that experience of being in that space at that particular time. And I like that, I like the idea of doing that and not recording it and it only living on as documented in people’s memories.

Olive: Yeah, I mean, I think in some ways that may even be preferable to something like a video recording just in the sense of something like a video recording does give you the illusion that you’re experiencing it as closely as you could be, but aspects of actual presence and embodiment and the affect and the sequence of the unfolding of the thing and how that makes you feel as an immediate observer in the place, in that specific time, are intangible and unreportable.

Luz: Yeah, and unrepeatable.

Olive: Yeah, exactly.

Luz: Two things I’ve been thinking about in connection to that is: one is that rave we went to last week and all the intention behind it. I would honestly love to talk to the people who organized that about what they had in mind for what they wanted it to feel like for everyone there, and maybe talk to other people who were there about what it felt like for them.

And the other thing is, I was talking to Alex [a mutual friend] yesterday about a memory of a very specific part of Telegraph Avenue [in Berkeley, CA] and I remembered I had a picture of myself in that exact spot when I was like, 15, so I tried to find it. I went through my external hard drive and instead of finding that, I found an entire folder of photos and videos from a Nikon Coolpix camera of Live105’s BFD(2). The videos— it’s like me shaking in the crowd and you can hear me singing along and it’s very weird to hear your teenage voice, but I was thinking about what my intention was when I was recording that as a teenager. I think I wanted to remember it, but I probably never looked at the footage until I found it just now.

Still from video of performance by band Street to Nowhere at Live105’s BFD festival, Mountain View, CA,  circa 2005. Photo by Luz Blumenfeld.

Olive: That’s crazy.

Luz: Yeah, but I feel like there’s something interesting there about recording performances and I guess feeling this compulsion to record and you don’t really think about why. I’m thinking about that in connection with intentionally not recording something and having it exist as a one-time event, but also it lives on in people’s memories and the conversations they have and the way it informs their practices and whatever they end up doing too, which is also really cool.

Olive: Yeah, totally. I also have been told about things— pieces of art and stuff that are so amazing when people are telling me about it, and then when I experienced it for myself, I mean, it’s probably still pretty good but it doesn’t have the charm of my friend’s interpretation of it.

Luz: Yeah, I also feel like there’s so many works that I’ve heard people talk about that I’m like, “Oh shit, I love what you got from that,” and I don’t end up ever looking at the actual thing they referenced because maybe it doesn’t exist anymore or whatever.

Alex Olive’s home studio set up, including her mixer, midi keyboard, and a handful of old and broken guitar pedals, Oakland, CA, 2021. Photo by Alex Olive.

Luz: There are certain parts of your album you have shared with me that incorporate field recordings. You’ve told me where some of those field recordings originated and I wonder about the intention to use those specific sounds even though someone may not be able to pick them out and be like, Oh that’s what that is. Why use those sounds? And what does it mean to not be able to recognize them?

Olive: I think there are a few moments on the album where I use field recordings that are very legible and people can pick up what they are, but I think for the most part that’s not the case and I think that my thought there is that it’s all memory. The way that I feel about consciousness or the soul is that it is essentially an experience of memory, but not as a linear, sequential thing of like, This is everything I’ve experienced in my life, but as specific moments, one at a time, that themselves contain an entire network of everything you’ve ever experienced. So my thought is that by using processed, prerecorded, materials, it’s a similarly endless jumble of half-remembered, distorted, or idealized memory sort of fighting for a place in one’s experience of any given moment.

And there are points at which that becomes more part of a theoretical arc of the album—it does start out as a more idealized and cogent conception of identity that should be defended by self-actualization, and then, after a certain point, flips to being about that distortion of memory and the distortion of even the notion of a static identity of sense of self. And that, that is actually in and of itself possibly more empowering than saying, “I am this one way forever and you all have to fuck off,” because I think that intimacy and connection with people, connection with the world around you, is inherently sort of mutative. It’s only through connection and presence that you can really access what it is to be alive, which in turn requires relinquishing control of the possibilities of who you are and what your life can be. This is the connection we have to offer each other and that can be beautiful. Without one another we don’t have the context that makes our sense of self meaningful—to accept distortion and accept mutation is to accept one’s place in the world. 

Luz: I love that. Do you want to tell me more about your album?

Olive: My album is called Here Are My Tears of Joy, and it is basically half an experimental pop record and half a more broadly experimental record. I feel a little bit as though this is the last thing that I wanted to make, in the way I’ve approached it for the specific reasons where it has a sort of emotional arc to it and it has things that it’s trying to do formally and communicate lyrically that I think were born out of an experience of art and music that was about listening to things in headphones alone and trying to really divine meaning and communication from other people’s work and wanting to do that the same way that I no longer really have a lot of faith or stock in. But I think that, it’s in the form of a pop album and so that’s like, the idiom that I’m working in: communicative songwriting and attempts at communicated abstraction. 

The album is a lot about the stuff I was talking about a second ago in regards to self and identity, but I really think I should preface any discussion of my art being about the self or about identity by saying that, even though I’m transgender, my work is not about being transgender. (laughs) 

Luz: (laughs) Isn’t everything about being transgender?

Olive: Yeah, everything is about being transgender. Everything that is about being transgender should only be about how fucking awesome identity is and how important and supreme it is over all other types of experience or discourse (laughs).

But, no, I do think that being trans and being neurodivergent and being raised in a really insular religious community certainly has given me a specific analysis of the relation between culture, power, and an individuals’ identity. My work isn’t about being trans, but it is about the formation of one’s sense of self and the idea of the true self that one holds as a future possibility that they’re always working towards; this higher being that they will become, you know, if they work really hard and are really good. This sort of seems to me like a suicidal pathology that you see in a lot of ways. I know from being raised in that community, that everyone in it holds the future as the thing, and that when Armageddon rolls around, they’re going to be granted new, true, perfect bodies, and live forever living the life that they’re supposed to have been living this entire time. And I see how that fucks up people’s lives in that context, and now –outside of it, as an adult– I see that in the culture surrounding various political projects, and I see that in myself in a lot of ways. What that essentially amounts to is a hatred for oneself and a hatred for the world, and the idea that the goal of living is to sort of perform an absolute negation of oneself and an absolute negation of the world and basically attempt to escape. Before all else, one has to want to escape, and that seems really fucked up to me.

But at the same time, I think there is a less static experience of identity out there; the particular experience that you are special, that everybody is special but only for reasons that are largely out of their control. And that lack of control, is, like I said earlier, the collective process of creating the world, of being a part of the world that is being created from all directions, from the entirety of history up until now. There’s a lot of horrible, awful, evil shit that can and must be overturned, but everything that is good and everything that is you is given to you. That strikes people as being horrifying, especially in a world where individuality is considered to be of the highest value. But it is, in fact, both beautiful and not optional to have inherited the world, in a certain way. You have a built-in connection to the world. You’re never really alone in the way that people imagine they are alone, and I think that’s a positive thing.


Footnotes:

(1) The Depot, or The East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, is a donation based craft supply resale store that I’ve found a ton of cool materials at. Although, I feel I should mention that every Oakland artist I know is still boycotting them because they fired their entire staff during the pandemic, so maybe don’t go there.

(2)  LIVE105’s BFD (Big Fucking Deal) was a music festival in the Bay Area that ran from 1994-2018. The alternative rock radio station featured acts like Green Day, The White Stripes, etc; as well as hundreds of local bands. 


Luz Blumenfeld (they/them) is a mixed non-binary gay artist from Oakland, CA. Their work is often intimate and concerned with self-documentation and memory. Luz is a first year in the Art and Social Practice Program. They are currently interested in creating temporal intimate experiences using karaoke and playing with experimental sound art. You can see some of their work here, and you can follow them on instagram at @dogsighs__.

Alex Olive (she/her) found God while standing directly in front of a big speaker at a Merzbow show. She makes elegiac computer music from a mixture of field recordings, no-input feedback mixing, and MIDI. Work on her album, Here Are My Tears Of Joy, is currently being finalized for release in 2022. You can listen to her music here.


The Tapes, Conversation I

“…There was that fear: What if I don’t have full parental rights, just because I’m not the biological mother?’”

MARTI CLEMMONS


Public Domain image by Renee Comet acquired from National Cancer Institute.

Tomatoes, with little tomato seeds, and tomato flesh dripping with tomato juice. Growing up, my grandmother and my mother were always exchanging tomatoes. Tomatoes that they either grew, or found at local farmer’s markets. They would give these tomatoes to family members, friends, co-workers, and each other. Although, the conversation you’re about to read has nothing to do with tomatoes. The conversation you’re about to read has everything to do with closed objects, restricted audio tapes(1), lesbian mothers, and custody trials during the 1980s. In the 1980s, my grandmother left her second husband to live alone in her own home, after her children had grown. In the 1980s, my mother graduated from high school, studied medical assisting and married my father. She also gave birth to my brother and then to me. My mother would later divorce my father in the 1990s, the same time she began working nights for the United States Postal Service.  

“Ain’t I A Woman” newspaper, February 1973 print, pages 16 and 17. Experimental text layout, showing larger text that reads, “beginning to struggle among ourselves” and “a lesbian mother speaks’. The newspaper is housed in the Women’s Studies collection at the Special Collections and University Archives at Portland State University. Photos taken by Rebecca, courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives at Portland State University.

About a month ago, Marti Clemmons [an archivist, now friend and collaborator, who I met through my research assistant position with Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice Archive] shared with me a collection of restricted audio tapes. I wasn’t able to listen to them, but I was able to look at them in a box. These audio tapes were given to Portland State University’s archive from the feminist bookstore, In Other Words, after it closed a few years ago.(2) The tapes contained personal accounts of lesbian mothers in the midst of custody trials during the early 1980s. Their husbands or ex-husbands didn’t want the women to have custody of their children because of their sexual orientation.

Written in Marti’s handwriting on a small piece of paper: “Gilah Tenenbaum, Attorney on Tape, PDX, July 1981.” Photo courtesy of Marti Clemmons.

Having history as a single mom, who has had my own experience with lawyers, guardian ad litems, counselors, and such, I’ve developed a personal interest in post-separation abuse, coupled with the use of family court as a tool for abuse. Marti, being a queer single parent, has their own immense connection to the tapes. I told Marti that I would do whatever I could to help find the women on these tapes— to ask for permission to share their stories. We ended up locating a Gilah Tenenbaum. Gilah is a retired lawyer who was recorded on one of the tapes. Gilah doesn’t have children, but was active during the time of these trials and very much a part of the lesbian community in Multnomah County, Oregon. I reached out to Gilah and asked if she knew anything about the audio tapes. Maybe she could help Marti and I locate the people on the tapes so that we could get their permission to  share these recorded stories. Marti had digitized the audio tape that Gilah was on.(3) We planned to meet with Gilah over Zoom while Marti was at the university’s archives so we could have her listen to the recording. Unfortunately, at the time of the meeting— as it goes with the life of parents— Marti was stuck at home caring for a sick child, so we weren’t able to listen to the recording. The closedness of the tapes, the remaining lack of access to the actual content of the tapes, adds more power to them.(4) And, consequently, for me, added more meaning to our dialogue about them. My hope is to document a succession of conversations in relation to these tapes from In Other Words, as we move through the process of searching for the people who are recorded on them. The following is the conversation of our first meeting, between the three of us: (Marti, Gilah, and myself).


Rebecca Copper: Marti, if you don’t mind going over some of the things you do and maybe give some context for these tapes, that might be a good introduction.  

Marti Clemmons: Yeah, I work in the Special Collections and University Archives at Portland State University. I’ve been there for nearly 12 years, off and on. Now, full-time as an Archives Technician. I process a lot of the collections: I look through things, I throw away the things that don’t have significant historical context. I get collections ready for the researcher, or the user— patrons, students. We acquired a collection a few years ago from In Other Words, a feminist bookstore and collective. They were located in Northeast Portland. I think it was about five boxes. One of these boxes, it was offset, was a collection of about 70 cassette tapes. The custody tapes were of mothers who came out in ‘81— well, probably came out before that, but a lot of the tapes are labeled from 1981, 1982, and 1983— mothers that came out to their husbands, and therefore, their husbands took them to court for custody of their children. So, lesbian custody tapes, I guess is a broader way to describe them. I’ve only been able to listen to a few of them, they aren’t digitized. The only information on the tapes is a name and a date, sometimes initials. There’s no release forms. There’s nothing else.

Gilah Tenenbaum: Is there a name of an interviewer or an interviewee?

The box of audio tapes from In Other Words within Special Collections and University Archives at Portland State University.
Rebecca holding one of the tapes. Both photos taken by Rebecca, courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives at Portland State University.

Marti: Usually, it’s just the interviewee. A lot of the time on the cassette tape, it might just have initials. I’ve noticed a few that have the same initials. Some of these tapes also take place in Los Angeles. I don’t know what that connection is, either. In an oral tradition or practice, the interviewer would state their name, who they’re interviewing, place, date and so on. I haven’t been able to listen to all these tapes, so some might say the names as they’re introducing. I know on your recording, specifically, it gets cut off, the interviewer’s name gets cut off. 

I don’t think Rebecca told you yet— I think I recognize the other voice, the interviewer, which is even stranger. I took an oral history capstone class, from a person named Pat Young, who is a historian in Portland [Oregon]. I swear it’s her voice, but I haven’t made that confirmation. She has a very specific laugh, and it would make sense that she would be doing these tapes. I know that she did have some connection with, I think, Katharine Williams, who’s also mentioned on the tape.

Rebecca:  Gilah, there is a Katharine that you mentioned. You said I should reach out to Katharine English. Is that right? 

Gilah: She was one of the first, if not the first attorney, to win a lesbian custody case in Multnomah County. She educated the judges, she really put in a lot of effort. It came to be that you could go to court in Multnomah County, and you weren’t going to lose just because you were a lesbian. This was a long time ago, but I think the circuit court generally, in Multnomah County, not just this one judge, came around to deal with these cases the same way, whether or not they personally approved.

Marti: I’ve listened to bits and pieces of your interview and I’m sorry that I’m not at work, I had planned to share a snippet with you— but, you do mention different judges, and just the way that it works. How you would walk in, almost having to expect to lose. I feel like these women, you know, with every inch of their being, they wanted to fight for the custody of their kids. Going into court, it’s traumatizing and scary. And, on this recording, you had a lot to say about that and the different judges, not necessarily by name, but what to expect.

Rebecca: Marti is at home with a sick child. That’s why we can’t share the tape you’re on, we totally planned to have audio for you to hear.

Gilah: I was looking forward to it. 

Rebecca: It’ll happen, though. I’m sure we’ll get it to happen at some point. 

Marti: The recording is about an hour and fifteen minutes, it’s a long conversation. The snippets of the other tapes that I’ve listened to, it’s devastating. It’s their life stories and what they’re trying to accomplish while going through court. It’s really nice to have your tape. Not as someone who is going through a custody battle, but someone who has a different, outside perspective. I think you say on the tape that you were also community support during this time, so it was affecting you as well.

Rebecca: Gilah, you were just talking about how you weren’t sure how much insight you’d be able to give, considering that you weren’t a mom going through one of these cases. But you were a lawyer, you were a lesbian, and part of the communty. Because I’ve been through court custody-processes myself, when Marti showed me these tapes I was interested in the conversation about family court used as a form of abuse or control. So, there’s that way that I connect to the tapes. I wasn’t born until 1989. I wasn’t even alive when these tapes were recorded. But, you were the name Marti had. Then, I tracked you down. And you were there, you were physically there. To me, it’s valuable how the three of us are connected to these tapes. Also, how some of what was happening in 1981, is essentially, in some ways, still happening today. 

Gilah: Oh, yeah.

Rebecca: I was hoping that maybe we could connect in a dialogue over that and maybe some of your experiences. I don’t have any prepared questions. 

Gilah: I’m happy to help in any way I can, given all the caveats, you know. I have a vague memory– really vague. Maybe I even created the memory once we started talking; that I was once involved in something with interviews, but you know, I don’t remember a whole lot.

Rebecca: What do you remember?

Gilah: Just that it happened. Not any specific incident. I’m trying to think if I was in a conversation with Pat Young. Was she in a position of having to go through this? Or, were she and I talking as people who were providing support? 

Marti: She was in the position… I’m going to pull up my email… Actually I think it is Katharine English, not Williams, now that I’m thinking about it. Let me just pull this up really quick. There are records that say that Pat was working with and doing this type of oral history interviews during that time.

Gilah: And she spoke about Katharine English?

Marti: I’m going to pull my email up, really quick. I remember asking Pat about this a couple years ago. She didn’t say whether she remembers or not, she deferred the question. I am trying to pull that email, I have to scroll because it was a couple of years ago. [laughter]

Gilah: While you’re doing that, Rebecca, how did you find me? It shouldn’t have been hard.

Rebecca: Um, yeah, no. It took me maybe a few hours on the internet. I learned, weirdly, quite a bit by googling your name. Actually, I forgot about this really cool thing I wanted to share with you. I got this booklet titled, Divorce. I printed it out through Google Books, which I didn’t know you could do, but it’s a collection of court documents and articles on divorce and its impact on children. There was a committee held in Washington, DC by the House of Representatives on June 19th, 1986.

“Divorce” is a collection of briefings, articles, and other documents of opinion on the topic of families and their wellbeing post-separation. The findings were a part of the Select Committee on Youth, Children and Families that was held by the US Congress in 1986. This copy was printed through Google Books online printing service.

Gilah: Is it a collection of essays?

Rebecca:  It’s like court documents. But, your name is in this, you submitted a letter to a representative opposing joint custody. I have it highlighted somewhere. It was wild to find this and then be able to print it in a book; to learn there was a committee the House of Representatives created to discuss this topic in Washington D.C in 1986. As I was searching for you, I found that. I was led to your contact information through the Women’s Lawyer Group of Oregon. They connected me to the Oregon State Bar who gave me your email and your telephone number.

Gilah’s name listed in this collection of opinions opposing court-imposed joint custody laws.

Marti: Nice.

Gilah: I tried to look up Katharine English through the Oregon State Bar. I didn’t know if there was a section for retired or inactive members. I resigned from the bar after I had been retired for I don’t know, three or four years— it just didn’t really make any sense to keep paying that money and I wasn’t practicing. I thought maybe I could find Katharine for you through them. But, I wasn’t able to. I don’t remember if Cindy Barrett was involved, but she’s an attorney. She’s now inactive. She certainly would have known what was going on and might have been involved at the time.

Marti: There was a Cindy in this email I’m looking for, Cindy Comfer.(5)

Gilah: Oh, Cindy Comfer! Oh, sure! I haven’t seen her in years. Yeah, Cindy probably worked on cases, maybe even with Katharine.

Marti: I found the email. Pat said, “I will forward your email to Cindy Comfer, who was a lawyer, retired now and did many custody cases along with Katharine English.”

Gilah: So, my memory is reasonably still there! [laughter]

Marti: Cindy wrote me back. This is from 2019. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know anything about these tapes. I remember Joanna from In Other Words. I did some lesbian custody work in the latter 1970s in the 1980s. But, I don’t know anything about these tapes.”

Gilah: Joanna? Did she give a last name?

Marti: Brenner? Yeah, she’s the one that started In Other Words and was active as a professor. I think she may have even started the Women Gender Sexuality Studies Department at Portland State [University]. But, that was the last time I looked into this. I was like, “Okay, you don’t remember.” And, I had so many other things to do in the archives. I got really excited… but…

Gilah: It’s possible that she knows how to contact Katharine English. She might be one of the last people that has kept up with Katharine. All I remember is that Katharine moved back to Utah. She was from Utah, originally. I think she was from a Mormon family. I don’t think she had anything to do with them. I don’t think they accepted her.

Rebecca: What was it like in the ‘80s, as a witness to lesbian mothers going through custody battles? I mean, would you be willing to share what that was like? No pressure by any means. 

Gilah: I have a few memories I can share, not tied to specific women. These cases didn’t always come up in the context of a divorce. For example, I remember that there were women who specifically did not live with their partners, to try and keep it from the ex-husband. I remember there was a case one time where the woman got custody, but a condition was that her lover couldn’t live with her and wasn’t really allowed contact with her children. I don’t know if it was in the early 80s or the late 70s, I graduated law school in ’78. I remember that we heard stories all the time about women around the country who were losing their children, so we sent money. Those of us that could help pay for lawyers. It was just crazy. You know, just misogynist, homophobia.

Marti: Did you have that same experience, Rebecca? Well, I mean, you don’t have to go into detail. Did you deal with a lot of misogyny in court?

Rebecca: (6)

Gilah: I would highly recommend that documentary that I told you about, Nuclear Family. It shows a lot of what went on. I remembered when I was watching it, that the women couldn’t be married at the time. It was before there was any legalized gay marriage. That the non-biological mother was not allowed to have anything to do with these discussions. She couldn’t even go into the courtroom. She couldn’t be there for support for her partner. She was just left out as if she didn’t count, which is the same thing that often happened and probably still does. Like, when somebody dies, and their “blood” family comes along and says, “Well, I don’t care if you lived with them for 25 years…” and just completely excludes the partner from any kind of closure rights, whether property or whatever. 

Marti: Yeah, when my eldest was born, she’s seven now, there was that fear, What if I don’t have full parental rights, just because I’m not the biological mother? Times are different [now]. Hearing this is just like— that could have been me, 20 years, 40 years ago. I ended up adopting my kids. That’s how I have full parental rights. There are ways around it now. 

Rebecca: Even though federally, gay marriage is legalized, there’s still a lot of shit– excuse my language– happening in terms of rights. I’m thinking about conservative states and how much bias can play into a judge ruling. 

Gilah: There was at least one time that I remember where a woman moved from somewhere else in Oregon, to Multnomah County. So, when things went to court, it would be in Multnomah County because things were clearly better here.

Marti: I mean, I’m sure that there were cases like that, with people moving elsewhere to get a fair trial, or something close to a fair trial. Yeah, you mentioned [in the recording] that people actually did do that. Wow.

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s a lot. I’m in Ohio, currently, because I can’t pick up my kid and move without money to pay for a lawyer, court fees, etc. And, even then it’s not guaranteed that the judge would rule in my favor. I would have to go through the process; start a motion to move elsewhere and prove that it would be in my son’s best interest. With moving elsewhere to get a fair trial, to even do that is difficult in and of itself. Which makes me think of mutual aid and support. It seems that there is a resurgence in that kind of community-based support. 

Gilah: Just from the little that I’ve seen, it is coming back, the sense of a lesbian community is coming back around. Things have changed so much with the greater acceptance of people being gay or trans, however they identify. It’s on people’s minds more than it was in the past. I mean, with the whole craziness that’s going on with abortion, there are national, regional, and local groups that are raising money to help women pay for abortions. I don’t know if there was anything like that back then. I remember giving money, but the money was just funneled through the woman or through her attorney. I don’t remember there being any, or I didn’t know of [any]organizations that were specifically for that purpose.

Something I mentioned in our last email exchange is the Community Law Project. I’ve been trying to remember where it is, this yellowing copy of a 50 page book that was titled something like, Know Your Rights. It had chapters written by different attorneys, and I wrote something in it. [Laughter] I don’t remember what, but I know I have it. I saw it when I was cleaning out some stuff not long ago. There might be something of interest to you there. So I will keep looking for it.

Rebecca: Oh, cool! Thank you! Did the bookstore, In Other Words, close down recently? Like a couple years ago?

Gilah: Yeah. 2018, maybe ‘19?

Rebecca: Do either of you know why it closed down? Was it financial?

Gilah: I remember there being fundraisers more than once, to help keep it going. I think it was just not enough financial support from the community. I was trying to remember where the store was before it was on Killingsworth. 

Marti: I think it was on Hawthorne?

Gilah: I didn’t go in there a lot when it was on Killingsworth [Avenue]. I did once in a while. I donated books to them and money; it was also a meeting space, and a safe space for people. I think [the reason] was just basically money, though.

Rebecca: Would you mind telling me a little more about In Other Words? I’ve actually never been there. 

Marti: Yeah, it was in the Hawthorne District, originally. I only went into the Killingsworth location. It was small, you walk in, there’s a huge open area, like a gathering spot, lots of readings, lots of music, a lending library. It just felt like a safe space. I moved here from New York, where I went to Bluestockings Bookstore. It was nice to have the same type of vibe, energy and events to get connected, having moved here to Portland and not knowing anyone in the queer community, and going there and just being one with my people. I would always go there because there was a little music venue next door. If you didn’t like the band that was playing, you would just go to In Other Words and hang out. Yeah, I think it was just about the vibe and having a space that felt good.

Gilah: There was a place— I moved here in ’75, for the gay community— it was Mountain Moving Cafe. It was a cafe open for all, but it was known especially as a safe space for gays and lesbians. That closed and that was a real loss.

Marti: Yeah, I’ve come across that name many times in multiple archives. It’s like one of those places, where you think, Ahh, why can’t I time travel? That place just seemed so cool.

Gilah: It was.

Marti: There’s also the aspect with Portlandia, the show that filmed in In Other Words. I know that started off as a good connection, but it ruptured as they kept filming. There with little to no monetary support. And [the show] kind of made fun of, you know, us in the community. That left a bad taste. 

Rebecca: Gilah, I was wondering about your position as a lawyer in all of it. With your expertise as a lawyer, in a courtroom, watching as women went through such a process, and understanding the biases of the judges. I’m curious, was there anything that stood out as unconstitutional, or unlawful, for example, that you saw or that you can remember?

Gilah: I don’t remember there being anything unconstitutional. I think there was a lot of white male privilege, assumptions and ignorance about anything to do with gender or sexuality issues.

Rebecca: What would be their [the judges and opposing lawyers’] reason to prevent a gay woman from having custody of her children?

Gilah: Well, that homosexuality was a sin, and illegal in some contexts. They didn’t want the children to be influenced by this. Also that children need a mother and a father. If the children saw two women being affectionate or holding hands, it was not good for the children. The standard is always, What is in the best interest of the children? Under that rubric, lawyers can argue whatever they want, and as you pointed out earlier, they would tear women apart. “Did you have a shoplifting conviction when you were 16?” I mean, so, what?! They would pull out anything they could. “How many times have you moved in the last five years?” Or, whatever, really. I can’t say there was anything really “unconstitutional” other than white male interpretation of the Constitution. You know, all “men” are created equal.

I did some domestic relations. Most of the cases that I handled were settled out of court. And, I did some writing on the way you protected yourself, as a gay person— as a gay person with a partner, or without a partner for that matter, In those days you had to have lots of documents. You had contracts between you and your partner about what would happen if one of you died. Because you couldn’t be married, you couldn’t get any of those assumptions or benefits. I helped people come up with living-together agreements. Like, wills and other contracts or documents to protect their rights, vis-a-vis each other: What’s going to happen if we break up? I was the one that had the money for the down payment. Yeah, but I was the one that was bringing in the monthly income. My theory was always, yes, it’s unpleasant to put one of these agreements together, but it’s going to force you to confront your issues, and to resolve them while you’re still totally in love with each other. That’s the kind of legal stuff that I was mostly doing during that time. 

Rebecca: (7)

Gilah: I think I just remembered a judge’s name that Katherine worked on. I think it was Harlow, H-A-R-L-O-W, Lennon, L-E-N-N-O N. I’m going to double check that on my computer to see if he’s who I’m remembering. I would hate to be giving you the totally wrong name just because I happen to remember one of the judges.

Marti: Yeah, I really appreciate that. I feel like I remember you saying that name in the recording. I want to do this again, when I’m at my desk. I really do. I need to figure out if it’s Pat Young, first of all. Then, go forward with that. I don’t want to play something that no one has given permission to play.

Rebecca: Gilah, originally I was thinking we could give you a list of names to see if you recognized anyone, but we can’t actually provide a list. The archive can’t even give out names without signed release forms. Is there a way to work backwards? Like, if you think anyone you know could be on the tapes, could we check that name against the list from the tapes?

Marti: Unfortunately, that’s where we’re at, that’s the only way. [laughter]

Rebecca: I know you said you might recognize some of the names, if you saw them?

Gilah: Yeah. Oh, I might well recognize a name, but that’s not the same as coming up with it on my own. [laughter]

Marti: No pressure! [laughter]

Rebecca: [laughter]

Gilah: Offhand, I can’t think of any friends or even acquaintances who went through that. I think Katharine English had. Other than her, nobody comes to mind. It’s interesting. Katharine, physically, is a very small woman. I don’t think she’s more than five feet tall, but she’s feisty as the day is long. Articulate, and so on. I’m sure she had things to fight just because she was small in stature. It’s hard enough to get taken seriously as a woman.

Rebecca: Yeah, and I really appreciate that name, Katharine English. I’ll make sure to work with Marti, to see if we can locate her. 

Marti: Yeah, and Cindy Comfer. I have a connection with that, too. I’ll shoot Pat and Cindy an email.

Rebecca: It’s 7:32pm [EST]. I know, Marti, you have to go? 

Marti: Yeah, to pick up the other kid. 

Rebecca: I hope Ansel feels better.

Marti: You know how it goes. [laughter] Gilah, it was nice to meet you. 

Gilah: Likewise. 

Marti: Let’s chat again soon.


Footnotes:

(1)  The audio tapes are restricted because there are no signed consent or release forms on record.

(2)  In Other Words was a Portland Oregon feminist community center and bookstore and was featured in several episodes of the Netflix comedy series, Portlandia

(3)  Due to the age of the tapes, they are digitized to prevent further wear and tear on the tapes from being listened to repeatedly.

(4)  In a conversation with artist Lucia Monge, Lucia pointed out the power of a closed object.

(5)  Mentioned in an email from Pat Young to Marti Clemmons as someone who may be connected with the tapes 

(6) Redacted text

(7) Redacted text


Rebecca Copper (she/her) is currently a graduate candidate at Portland State University, through the Art + Social Practice MFA Program, where she worked in 2020 as a research assistant for Portland State University’s Art + Social Practice Archive. Rebecca’s work centers on ontology; how our being and perceptions of reality exist against one another. And, how that reality is mediated, dictated back to us in varying forms. She is deeply invested in vast inversion of imperial/masculine archetypes, power dynamics, and ideologies. And, the reduction of hyper categorical, industrialized research. 

Marti Clemmons (they/them) is an Archives Technician at Portland State University’s Special Collections and University Archives located in the Millar Library and previously worked as the Archivist for KBOO Radio. They are interested in using archives as a place for Queer activism.

Gilah Tenenbaum (she/her) was born and raised near Boston. B.A. Government and Political Science, Boston University, 1970;  J.D. Northwestern School of Law of Lewis and Clark College, Member Cornelius Honor Society and recipient of the first World Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Progress of Women’s Rights Through Law, 1978. Admitted to Oregon State Bar 1978.


We Did This

“For me the ideal would be to get the community to see itself as the artist, becoming responsible for making sure the community understands the project and uses it to its advantage. And you can leave, but the project keeps going, it’s part of the community, you can go find it.”

Jesús “Bubu” Negrón

I’ve been fascinated by Puerto Rico since I was a child. Being born in Cali, the world’s capital of salsa music, I grew up listening to plenty of music by Puerto Rican artists. Somehow, that made me feel connected with their landscapes and people’s culture, whose lives and struggles sounded very close to what living in Cali was like.

Later, when I became interested in art, Puerto Rican artists popped up again with different projects that presented an approach to art more aligned with my own interests. An art that would bring people together and generate shared memories that would make everyone’s hearts pumping with joy. An art that could happen at the beach, the neighborhood, in a fried food kiosk, or anywhere but a white cube.

In 2018 I finally had the chance to visit the island and encounter those landscapes and faces. It felt pretty much like meeting siblings you didn’t know you had. There I met Bubu. We visited his neighborhood, friends, and favorite places. Hanging out with him, I learned about multiple projects developed in such a natural manner that seemed almost magical. At that time, a term like “social practice” didn’t have a daily presence in my life, but I learned a lot about it without knowing it.

I invited Bubu to chat with me for this edition of SoFA Journal to continue learning about Puerto Rican social forms of art and the magic that sparks when people make their way together to resist oppressive structures.


Jesús “Bubu” Negrón, during an artistic residency at Kiosko, Bolivia, 2014. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Diana Marcela Cuartas: How would you describe your artistic practice?

Jesús “Bubu” Negrón: I would say that it has been a mixture of allowing myself to be carried away by the circumstances of my life and responding to those situations. I’ve never been able to be the kind of artist who goes into his studio to paint and make work every day. Instead, it’s more like I’m on a mission. They invite me somewhere and I encounter the situation, and the projects come from that. Many of those projects were created to address some specific problem that I had to experience, and the majority were communal experiences, which is something sensitive, but those are the ones I’ve enjoyed the most, where I experienced the most, suffered the most and really lived.

Object pieces often come out of those processes, but I see them more like souvenirs from the project. Because there’s this part of the art world that demands that kind of thing. Like, “Ok, cool projects, but where are the pieces?” There is a public that is like that, and if you can make that kind of artwork, why not?

Diana: Like the Colillón piece. How did the idea emerge to collect cigarette butts in Old San Juan?

Bubu: At the time, I was volunteering for other artists like Chemi Rosado and Michy Marxuach from M&M Proyectos. Spending time with them, I started to throw ideas around, which I didn’t see as art projects at the time, but they did. With the cigarette butts, I was telling them, “Damn, every day I walk around San Juan and I see all these cigarette butts between the cobblestones. It would be really cool to fill it all up with cigarette butts to make a design.” I would say it more like a joke, and they said to me, “Whoa, that’s a project, let’s do it.” And so those projects became an adventure. It’s one thing  to talk about it, but suddenly I found myself picking up butts for a month to make the piece. I wound up being a character on the streets of San Juan—the crazy guy who picks up cigarette butts. And that’s when I started to take a liking to that dynamic, not of making the piece, but of what happens in the process. That was what I liked.

People would ask me, “What are you doing?” and it made me laugh because everything could be resolved by saying, “An art project.” I mean, I can do these “crazy” things, and as long as people see it as art it gets neutralized. Eventually, I didn’t know what to do with so many cigarette butts, and there was a joke about making a big one, the colillón. That piece came out and it was neat, but I think the real artwork was actually the indirect performance that happened every night, that crazy person picking up cigarette butts. It wound up being a participatory performance, which was something else I didn’t expect. I started off doing it alone, but suddenly people wanted to help me, and it became a big activity.

All of this, as I said, was circumstantial, because it isn’t something you can plan. And I think it was the project that most led to me giving myself a kind of power, let’s say, of sharing with people outside of my orbit.

Abra de las colillas (homenaje a Angito) / Cigarette path (homage to Angito). Old San Juan, 2002. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Colillón Masculino. Cigarette butt, 2003. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Diana: So, it was hanging out with Michy and Chemi that you got interested in making this kind of art. What were they doing that caught your attention?

Bubu: Well look, obviously I was never able to get used to school, to the academy. I don’t know why I couldn’t do it.

Diana: But you went to college?

Bubu: Yeah, I studied at the School of Visual Arts in [where?]. I was always dealing with painting and drawing, like everyone else. But I left because I found M&M, and they began to support me, and if I was already doing the things I was going to school for, why would I keep studying? With them, we would do whatever projects we wanted. They weren’t worried about selling, we didn’t have to make a proposal. It was like, you’d be sitting there and you’d say, “Man, I’d really like to light a fire in that chimney,” and then Michy would say, “Let’s do it!” You didn’t have to go over a why or how much, not like the proposals you have to write to win a grant these days.

And so that really influenced me, I have to admit, because if things had been different I would be someone who makes paintings. But I was motivated by that way of taking an idea to the extreme. The motivation I got from her at the time was a catalyst, you know? Very few people will tell you, “Let’s run with it and I’ll support whatever crazy thing you want to do,” and I come from that school.

It’s not like that anymore, but that’s probably why the vision for so many of our projects was to try and create something transcendent, something that will stick in people’s memories. There are projects that people from town still mention with the same excitement as when they first happened. And those are things where you say, “Hell yeah, it was worth it,” even though you didn’t make any money. That’s the part I love to experience. I’ve always tried to make it so that the projects bring me closer to myself, to my friends, to the people, to where I come from, to we who have to make a living working in other things, like you and I right now. 



7 Days in Igualdad, 2004. Añasco, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of the artist.
For 7 Days in Igualdad, Bubu reignited an abandoned chimney from a sugar cane hacienda in Añasco, Puerto Rico. In an effort to bring visibility to a dying community, he worked with local collaborators to light the chimney twenty-four hours a day for a week. The resulting smoke signified a concerted social action and the reconsolidation of kinship, symbolically captained by the reignited chimney’s inscription “igualdad” (equality).

Diana: What was your first close encounter with the art world like?

Bubu: Well, obviously it was with M&M. At the time they had gotten really far. Michy is an incredibly visionary person and is respected in that world. I had an idea that she liked. I don’t know if you’ve seen a piece I did called Primeros Auxilios (First Aid). Well, I remember, that was the first crazy thing that they pushed me to do, because I didn’t dare.

There is a statue in Old San Juan of a boxer who is an icon in Puerto Rico. As a kind of joke, I told people in San Juan that, with all their self-importance as the capital and all that, they had to salute some guy from Barceloneta, the little town where I’m from, every day on their way home. Until someone told me the statue was broken, and I didn’t know that. So, I went to see it and there it was, it had a broken leg. I started to think, “Well shit, this guy was from my town, and if the statue is broken, the memory has been forgotten. I need to give him first aid,” and I told them I wanted to put a cast on it so that at least it wouldn’t look so bad. And their response was like, “Whoa, let’s get on it!” And they took me to a place to buy the plaster, they hoisted me up there, even though I was seeing it as a prank. That was the first piece that Michy took an interest in, and she took it to ARCO. I didn’t know what ARCO was and it turns out to be in Spain. I had never left Puerto Rico, but I won a grant and got a ticket, and that was when I started to see the glamor and the way that world works.

Primeros Auxilios (First Aid) San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2001-2002. Plaster intervention on public sculpture.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

Diana: Speaking of art fairs, can you tell me about Back Portraits?

Bubu: I remember that it was my first fair project. I was interested in these issues of the collector’s role, exclusivity, originality, price. So, I thought I would go as an artist on the lowest rung of the art world, which is the guy who sells drawings on the street. To make it different, instead of drawing people’s portraits, I drew them from behind, which was easier for me too. During the fair, what I did was sell the original pieces to the general public and the “copy” to the collector. And I realized that a lot of “normal” people go to art fairs, families and children who go because there is an event happening in their city, but they come up against the fact that everything is incredibly expensive, and they leave with this feeling of, I can’t have this. I saw it, but I will never have it. I sold them for a dollar, so suddenly they could buy an original drawing by an artist, and they went home happy. I made a photocopy of each drawing, and at the end, I made a mosaic with all of them. That was sold at a collector’s price. It was a way to force the collector to have the copy.

Back Portraits (drawings), 2002. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Diana: And how do you balance that encounter between the art world and community work in your projects?

Bubu: For example, in Bolivia, Cancha Abierta (Open Court) was one of the projects that turned things upside down in my life and made me mature. That is, when you go and you realize that you’re there as an intruder, that no one is asking you to be there, that you have a bunch of money in your hands, but people don’t have electricity or water, and you have to spend it on some stupid project that you came up with.

I was in Puerto Rico thinking about things based on what I had found through Google. But when you get there, you find a community that has nothing and you go into shock. You start to ask yourself, why make drawings when I could develop something functional that will persist? I remember I told them, “The project you chose, I can’t do that anymore,” for the reasons I just told you about. “Instead, let me clean the court,” because the town’s basketball court had been buried in mud and I wanted to clean it, and that was the project, that’s what happened.

In the end I justified it as land art, that it was some kind of contemporary archaeology for recovering the court. Everything was as if it were an archaeological discovery. There you can play your hand and meet the demands of the art world, you give the curators something to write about. But also, the people from the town realized I was trying to help them. They didn’t care if we were making a work of art. Instead, we did something functional. And I’ve always liked it when those worlds meet, the people coming together with the curator and the art world, and they can converse and they both understand the project. When you make it so that the community that you’re working with sees that this is an art project, though we’re cleaning up a basketball court, for strategic reasons it’s an art project. That’s the part I like.

Cancha abierta (Open court), Bolivia. 2014. Commissioned by Kiosko Galeria, Bolivia. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Diana: I’ve also noticed that you’re particularly concerned with the continuity of the process, with what happens after a project is completed. How do you see the possibility of long-term continuity in these kinds of projects?

Bubu: What I’ve had to recognize when working in communities is that there are two rhythms. Art goes a mile a minute, from exhibition to exhibition, right? Communities don’t. Communities go much more slowly. And that’s the dangerous part of it, when it becomes “We did something with the community, on to the next show.” Because if you really want to work with the community you have to stretch that out. It’s difficult because the gallerist doesn’t care if you’ve been bonding with them, they only care about, Where’s the photo? Where’s the video I’m going to take with me? And those are the things about the art world that leave a bad taste in my mouth, but they also made me understand that I can find other sources. For example, there are other organizations that don’t have anything to do with art but that have a ton of resources, and the people are on the mission to help a community.

For me the ideal would be to get the community to see itself as the artist, becoming responsible for making sure the community understands the project and uses it to its advantage. And you can leave, but the project keeps going, it’s part of the community, you can go find it. To me, that’s what should happen, because if it doesn’t, we aren’t developing anything.

In the case of the project Brigada Puerta de Tierra, the phenomenon I experienced was with the children. As always, they’re the most curious. I had worked with children before and I knew how to deal with it. That’s where the Brigada (Brigade) community came from. None of them cared about art, but they saw the potential. They went to see universities, they were able to travel, and all of those opportunities were built through the project. Because we’re fighting for a real cause, people can’t think of it as “Bubu’s project.” I was always trying to get across that it was Brigada Puerta de Tierra, that the community was the artist, that when a curator arrives, anyone can talk about the project. Because when you set out to work on a social project, it’s collective. It doesn’t belong to the artist because we are all the project. I’ve told curators not to put my name on that project, but they say it’s too hard to move the project without the name, and it’s messed up that that happens.

Diana: And why not use that power of the artist, if you know that having your name attached to it will give the project greater visibility?

Bubu: Because the intention was to hand that power over to the community. What happens is that you also have to learn how to empower the community. Right now, we’re making it happen. The curators know who the Brigada is, and they can go and offer them a grant. Although you’re right, if it helps to hear a name, then do it.

Now the members of the group say “Brigada Puerta de Tierra,” and everyone is impressed. When they introduce themselves, what do they say? I was at Harvard, I was in New York in such-and-such museum, I went to England to such-and-such museum, we won this international prize. And that game of taking them here and there has created a really strong CV, but it’s about using that world to their benefit. The government doesn’t understand what that is, but they see that the collective was talking internationally, was featured in a magazine, and they understand that something is happening there. But it has taken like five years to make that happen.

I’ve also learned to not be so harsh about the art world, because the truth is that it’s limited, but you can use it to turn the tables on a bureaucrat. I love that.

Diana: And what do you have to do so that people participate in an authentic way and are “empowered,” as you say?

Bubu: I think there are a lot of ways to do this, and they all involve talking honestly. Telling the truth about the limitations of the project. So, if the community sees a use for your idea, I think that things start there. I think that’s where the connection is, when they see that your project isn’t the wild imaginings of someone who came, did this, and h, what a nutcase. Instead they can get to that place where they say, “Wait a sec, out of all those crazy ideas, this person is making sense and we can use this.” Another way is by paying attention to them and using art as a mere facilitator.

In the case of Brigada, it’s much more political because it directly affects me. I live there, and although we haven’t achieved a lot of the things we wanted, if you look back, Brigada Puerta de Tierra is a social organization that is well established in the neighborhood. That’s a big achievement. At least one step has been taken.

Diana: Also, the fact that it’s a space where people can get together and hang out and share ideas, which is something that supposedly doesn’t matter but is part of what gets people out of bed so they can keep living.

Bubu: It matters to the community. At the end of the day, it’s something else they appreciate about Brigada, which brought together multiple generations. When they saw that a child could have opinions and their opinions could matter as much as those of an adult, that blew their minds. But I do believe that, in the end, the best thing you can do is to pass unnoticed. Without losing track of the idea that we’re making art but lowering the artist ego so that people can empower themselves and say, “We did this.”



Diana Marcela Cuartas (she/her) is a Colombian artist and a current student in the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University. In 2019, she moved to Portland, Oregon, where she has been working independently for the promotion and exchange between Pacific Northwest and Latin American artists. Currently, she works as a family liaison for Latino Network, serving immigrant families through school-based programs at Parkrose, Benson, and McDaniel High Schools. 

Jesús “Bubu” Negrón (he/him) is a Puerto Rican artist whose work is characterized by minimal interventions, the re-contextualization of everyday objects and a relational approximation to artistic production as a revealing act of historical, social and economic proportions. Negrón lives in the neighborhood of Puerta de Tierra in San Juan, where he is part of the Brigada Puerta de Tierra – a grass-roots community organization for the preservation and wellbeing of the neighborhood, its history and its people.


I Went Back in Time and Everybody Else Was Moving Forward

“That’s what you learn from interfacing with other people. […] You kind of cling to each other after a while because not everybody out there enjoys what you do. So when you do, you find a kindred spirit. Boy, it’s something a little bit special.”

PERRY HUNTOON

Social Practice creates a unique/nagging/obligatory need/opportunity/desire to investigate/create/document the places where people are making connections. Recently for me, this has melded with my interest in vintage aesthetics, pre-internet mediation, and self-initiated institutions. Zooming out from this mess of ideas and influences, I started to see a shape forming, and that shape was of a fan club. It’s the perfect intersection of ephemera, human interaction, rules and devotion. I started to research fan clubs that had been around a long time, long enough to still have a bit of a pre-internet history, and was pleased to find that the Guiness Book of World Records’ longest running fan club was The International Club Crosby. The club was started by fans of Bing Crosby in 1936 and is still around today. 

I was enamored by their website and particularly struck by the availability of the leadership’s contact information. There were people seemingly ready and willing to talk about the club and Crosby himself. It was a contrast from the way that many websites can feel like a barrier to talking directly to a real person (afterall, isn’t an FAQ page just a plea to not call and ask questions?). I contacted the American Vice President of the club, Perry Huntoon, who agreed to talk to me on the phone, and agreed again after I made a time zone mistake. What I found in talking with him was a personal bent toward fanaticism that reminded me of the way my own brain operates. I too am a completist, but for me this tendency has often felt isolating. In Mr. Huntoon, I saw the opportunity for special interest to become a point of connection.


Caryn Aasness: Could you tell me a little bit about Bing Crosby?

Perry Huntoon: A little bit about Bing you say? Okay. Sure. He was basically the Entertainer of the first part of the first half of the 20th century. He did it all, you know –superstar, he was big on the radio, big in the movies. And he was, far and away, the best selling record singer of the time up until probably the time of Elvis, when the rock age came in and changed music so dramatically. But he was also big in the war effort. He was very dedicated to helping out in any way he could. He was too old to be in the service, but did the USO [United Service Organizations] thing. 

It’s an amazing story, but he discovered the use of the microphone. That’s what made him so popular and before his time. People were using megaphones or whatever they did. The electric microphone just wasn’t in existence. He knew how to use it. It changed the whole style of popular singing back in the 1920s. Instead of shouting to an audience, like you might hear in an opera setting or whatever, he could hold that microphone up and croon to the audience, if you will. That captivated the world and changed the entire style of male singing. Almost every singer that came along after him in that popular vein took after his style. People forget, they don’t think of him as a movie star. Especially because I think when you go back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, you think of the Clark Gables, the Cary Grants, the Jimmy Stewarts, people like that. But in the second half of the 1940s Bing was the biggest artist in the movies. He was number one at the box office for five or six years in a row. But of course he was singing in the movies. He wasn’t particularly thought of as a great actor, but he did get an Academy Award in 1944 and was nominated again in the 50s. So you know, he had a lot of talents. But the singing is what people remember today. I’m afraid that in today’s age, what they remember best are the Christmas songs because Christmas is in the background, but he was far beyond that. He could handle almost any style— pop stuff, jazz-oriented, Irish songs, old songs from the early part of the 20th century. He could even sing in Spanish or French if he had to. He could do everything and that’s why he had worldwide popularity, he sold a lot of records. He was a comedian too, he teamed up with Bob Hope, on the “Road” pictures(1). They were spectacularly successful. And he could ad lib. He could just speak off the top of his head, make it work— audiences loved it. It was just wonderful. 

He was also a technological innovator; he decided after World War II he didn’t want to do live radio. He wanted to do it on tape where they could edit it. He’s the one that basically brought the use of tape to this country. The Germans had developed it, and he brought that to America and that became the industry standard in the later 40s. So performers didn’t have to go on live and worry that they made a mistake or go to a recording studio and cut a record and have to redo it because something got goofed up. You could cut and splice from that, it revolutionized the whole industry. So that’s a brief nutshell.

Caryn: How did you come to know about him? What’s your earliest memory of Crosby?

Perry: I came of age musically, when I was 15. Okay, probably late by today’s standards. A little behind the curve. And at that time, I’m talking 1953, he was still played a lot on the radio. Most top stations would have an hour or half hour devoted to Bing Crosby, I can remember listening to pop music on New York radio stations. From 5:30 to 6:00 on one station, that was Bing Crosby time. My older relatives had Bing Crosby records. I would hear them when I went to their homes, so it was kind of ingrained in me. I just realized this guy had the greatest voice ever. I just took right to it. Everybody was talking about Elvis or the Beatles. I was embarrassed to talk about Bing Crosby, it made me an old fogey living in the past. Now I’m kind of proud of it, you know? I have nothing to be ashamed of.

Caryn: When did you become a member of the club?

Perry: In the mid nineties. I don’t know how much you know about the club, but it originated here in the United States in 1936. Club Crosby, it was called, and that’s the club I joined in the 90s and then I found out almost immediately there was a twin club in England: The International Club Crosby. About two years later I joined that also, because they were publishing things that I was interested in— discographies, glossy magazines and things like that. And then about 2001, the two clubs merged. So we have one now: it’s the International Club Crosby, that’s the survivor, and we date back, as I say, to about 1936. It’s in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest standing fan club in the world.

Caryn: Yeah, that’s pretty amazing. How did you become part of the leadership?

Perry: Well, first I was just an innocent member doing nothing. They had an annual meeting in Leeds, England. I always wanted to attend one. And finally in 2009, I had a major trip planned and I tied that in, and I said Okay, I’m gonna go over there. That’s how I got to meet some of the people. I thought it would be a one time event, but as it turned out, I liked it so well, I went back every year. Then I started giving presentations there every year. We had an American representative that handled things over here for many years, but he had an accident. He was unable to carry on all of his chores and one of the chores was distributing the magazine to the American members. They come over from England in bulk and then we have to separate out the issues into individual mailing envelopes and mail them out. Once he was incapable of that, I volunteered to do that and I’ve done that ever since. Then when he passed on, I just took over the whole shooting match over here, so to speak, and they wanted to call me the American Vice President. That’s where I am. The problem we have is, it’s an aging membership. Bing died in 1977. The memories are getting further and further back and younger people just aren’t aware of or don’t care about him because we’re in a different musical age. So we have an aging membership and a dwindling membership obviously. But they’re very spirited, they’re very enthusiastic. I’m as enthusiastic as I was when I was a teenager.

Caryn: Is there a part of the club that is dedicated towards basically evangelizing for Bing?

Perry: Well, Facebook is one way. There are several Facebook groups devoted to Bing Crosby and our president in England posts almost every day to those groups. And, of course, he promotes the club, offering a free copy of the magazine or a PDF file. I mean this American club started in ‘36, and it was mostly young girls. I don’t think they were called Bobby Soxers back then, but that’s what they were called in the 40s. You know, they just loved certain artists and formed fan clubs. They were just infatuated with the artists and our club kind of started that way too. But it evolved into something much more serious, it’s much more male-oriented now. And people, they’re true collectors, true lovers of music, and they just want to collect it all. It’s amazing. I collect the music, but people collect all sorts of memorabilia that they can find. Whatever they can find with his picture on it or old photographs, old magazines that devote themselves to Bing, whatever. It’s amazing what’s out there. Even ice cream brands, people still have boxes, empty boxes, I’m sure, of the ice cream. So they’re more enthusiastic about doing that than I am. I just want the music; it is my focus. I have a complete collection. He recorded over two thousand songs you know, I’ve got them all, plus a lot that he had only done on the radio or TV or whatever, live performances. So it adds up to a monstrous collection. I probably have close to one hundred Bing Crosby CDs out of my 3,000 disc collection, and they get played a lot.

Caryn: Interesting. So your collection is all on CD?

Perry: Yeah, I went from vinyl records to tape to CD and that’s as far as I can go. People say it’s better with mp3 and blah blah blah, all the streaming. I have too big a collection and I don’t have the time in my life to convert it now. Which is a problem. Cars no longer put a CD player in the car and I play CDs continually. If I jump in the car I pop a CD in. I have an old Sony Walkman and that’s what I take when I do my three mile walk every day and if those things collapse on me I’m dead in the water, so I just hope it holds up for a few more years and that I can buy one more new car that still has a CD player, then I’m happy.

Caryn: That’s the dream.

Perry: It’s just too late for me to make the transition to the new technology. I’m comfortable where I am.

Caryn: I think there’s something to be said about the physicality of a CD or tape or whatever it is. Having an object and having the liner notes, the booklet and everything.

Perry: Well, if they are commercially made, they have liner notes, yeah. In the old days we would buy albums that were 12 inches by 12 inches, so you could fill the back of an album cover with a lot of notes. And I thought, Boy, with a small CD, how do you do it? Well you do it with a booklet now. That works very nicely.

Caryn: Are there other celebrities or topics that you consider yourself to be a big fan of? Have you ever been part of other fan clubs?

Perry: Oh, I have a lot of interest. We have highway groups, right? Driving the old roads, interstates, that kind of thing. And I’m very active in the Jefferson Highway Association, which is an old route from Winnipeg all the way to New Orleans, or the Lincoln Highway Association from New York to San Francisco, and looking for remnants of the old highways— old motels and cafes, and so on, that are not the standard. Every exit now on the interstate has a McDonald’s or Burger King and KFC. No! The old mom and pop places are what we love! I’ve crisscrossed the country. All the US Highways from number one to 101, I want to go from the East Coast to the West Coast and from Canada to Mexico or the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve done them all. It takes a lot of years and a lot of miles, but it’s fun, and we have groups that thrive on that kind of thing. There’s all sorts of varying interests I have, but I think right now, music is what keeps me young. I love it. And I’m compulsive. I’m a completist, you know, when I like something, I want everything of it. When [I’m interested in] an artist, I want everything they ever did. I want to ride a highway, I want to ride it all. I’m just that way, so that’s why I have all Bing Crosby. I didn’t start out thinking I wanted all this stuff. It’s not all totally to my liking, because he did every type of music you can think of, but take it all together and it’s a wonderful panorama. 

Caryn: Yeah, neat. What have you learned about Bing Crosby in the fan club that you don’t think you could have learned elsewhere?

Perry: I was focused primarily on the music, and I realized that many members of the club go far beyond that. Film was important to them. I was very casual about Bing Crosby’s movies. Now I have taken a much greater interest and there’s a historical value to it. You’re going back in time, you’re watching the evolution of an artist. That was big. His entertaining on the radio, which was mostly before my time… And I don’t care about their love affairs,  marriages, and all that. But in Bing Crosby’s case, how instrumental he was for World War II, or how instrumental he was in the technology of pioneering tape. There was a lot of resistance to that when he did that. Kraft said, No, no, we have got to do the show live. He said, I’ll go to another network, and [so he went to] the Philco show, on a different network. Within two years, all networks fell into line and almost nothing was done live anymore. So those are fascinating things. Historically, quite a bit of interest, and that’s what you learn from interfacing with other people. Because they have their own focus, they can pick up on what they like and kind of run with it. It just broadens and deepens your interest. You kind of cling to each other after a while because not everybody out there enjoys what you do. So when you do you find a kindred spirit? Boy, it’s something a little bit special.

Caryn: So special! What do you think is the role of a fan club in 2021?

Perry: I have no idea if there are fan clubs today even comparable to what they were, because I don’t know the music scene today. I mean, music of today’s age, from really from the 60s on, I know nothing. I mean, I hear some of it, but I don’t care about it. I’m not an expert on it. But back in the pop music days, in the 50s, I can remember there were lots of fan clubs for different artists, mostly younger people. And it was just a form of adulation for the most part. Our fan club is more serious, but the intent is keeping the legacy alive. The number one thing they want to do is keep it alive. They want to publicize, for example, who Bing was– a really important guy and a wonderful singer, a wonderful entertainer, and spread the word. They want to get beyond the Christmas thing and say Hey, he’s good for all seasons

I grew up on the cusp when rock just came in, you know. The biggest star of my high school senior year was Elvis Presley. And at that point I didn’t care a bit about Elvis Presley. Then, when the Beatles came a few years later, I went back in time and everybody else was moving forward. But the fan club serves the purpose by keeping the name alive. When Bing died, as opposed to when Frank Sinatra died, Bing’s family, his widow, couldn’t do much to keep that flame alive. Whereas the Sinatra people immediately took his name and capitalized on it, to keep it going, going going and twenty years ago. Oh my god, I could run around Chicago and there’s Frank Sinatra on jukeboxes— people are listening to him still, even when he’d been dead for years. That wasn’t so with Bing Crosby, and it was only much later that the estate finally realized they were missing the boat. There was a lot to capitalize on. Not that our club was the total instigator, but the fact that we existed and communicated with them and pushed the issues, I think that helped a lot. All of a sudden, they found archives that Bing had stored away. And they started making sure to do stuff with the public or they got a channel on the streaming audio systems, you know, so you can listen to Bing just like you can with Frank or Elvis. I think all that was a plus. So I think we served a little purpose. We’re here to publicize Bing Crosby and his work. To perpetuate that is our main interest in life and to enjoy it. I mean, whether it’s watching his old movies or putting on the records, in one form or another, that’s our purpose. To spread the joy, so to speak. That’s the main thing we care about.

Caryn: I know that there’s also been things written that have been pretty negative about parts of his life. I don’t necessarily expect you to speak to that, but I’m curious, what do you see a fan club’s role or a fan’s role when it comes to scandalous things or difficult issues in a person’s past?

Perry: Well, yeah, you know, like in Bing’s case, when he died in 1977, within a year, a pair of writers put out a book that absolutely tarnished, almost destroyed Bing’s reputation. The title of the book was, “The Hollow Man.” They were saying he wasn’t what the image of him was at all. They said he was terrible to his children, beat his children, blah, blah, blah, you know. And then his son, his oldest son wrote a book also and elaborated more on that. But he later retracted most of what he said. But those two books really were devastating to the image of Bing Crosby and I read those books and they just washed over me. I didn’t care what they said. I liked Bing for the talents he had and I didn’t care so much about his personal life. But I realized all of this was overstated, and Gary Giddins, the current biographer, has set the record straight on all that. But we do live in a different age today. My God, you know, I wasn’t beat with a strap, but I was sure spanked when I was a kid. Now you don’t even spank a child, let alone anything else. Times change. But I think Bing made up for it. He had a second family and all those kids idolized him, they kept the flame alive very nicely. But yeah, they’ve all grown up to be outstanding citizens as opposed to the four children from the first marriage. Two of them committed suicide, one turned into an alcoholic. It’s very sad to see it, but that’s the sordid side of his personal life. You know, every family has its bad side. Things became a little more public because of the two books that came out after he died. That very much hurt the image. People still refer to that, that he was a terrible father. Today they believe that because they read it once upon a time, and they don’t get dissuaded from it. None of which is true in my opinion. And I’m not an idolizer here, but I saw it for what it was.

Caryn: Okay, that’s interesting. You’re talking about all this information coming out and becoming public, whether or not it’s true about his life. How much information about a celebrity’s life do you feel like we’re entitled to as fans?

Perry: Well, you know, I think today, the internet age with all the cable channels and everything, people like to dig deeply. They go to the checkout counter in their store and see all the tabloid publications there that sensationalize everything. There’s a fair amount of the public that thrives on that. I can’t say that I do. Most of it is misinformation – and hyped up. But how many people are following Britney Spears’ problems, the conservatorship, and all that. I don’t, because Britney Spears means nothing to me. But there’s an element of our society that grew up with Britney. They thrive on all that stuff. I guess it’s been true throughout history. Except that it was a lot easier to hide more of that back in the day, you know, you didn’t have people on your back all the time and photographers chasing you around and all that kind of stuff. But it’s always been there. I pay little attention to it. I guess I could separate the talent the artist has versus their feelings. Elvis Presley for example, a wonderful artist, but my god there’s no reason for him to be dead at age 43. He let himself go and got bloated, got on pills, and whatever, this, that and the other thing, and it just crushed him. Does that change the image the public has? They still love him, they love him! You’re twenty?

Caryn: I’m 27.

Perry: You’re in a different musical world. And I wouldn’t expect you to know anything about the music of Bing Crosby. People almost my age don’t know more than White Christmas. They don’t remember all the big hits because they were too young. 

Caryn: Yeah, I guess I know more about him as a performer, as an actor. One of my favorite movies is High Society, and I tell people about it all the time.

Perry: I have a son who is 45 and I brought him up listening to my music at a very young age. And he knew it, he would know Benny Goodman. He would know who Bing Crosby was or whatever. But by the time he was eight or nine he was drifting off into the world that he’s comfortable with and much to my chagrin, it’s heavy metal for him. Metallica, all those groups. We go out, I mean, I’ve been to some concerts with him and I walk out and I’m half deaf!

Caryn: Have you been to a Metallica concert?

Perry: No, I haven’t been. Not the biggest names, but more second tier groups. It was always puzzling to me to walk into an old movie theater and find all the seats have been ripped out. Nobody sits there. You’re just milling around, you could smell the marijuana in the background. But it’s loud. I could get a kick out of it just for the experience, but I’m not going to run out and go play the music on my own. Yeah, and even that music if it’s at a low decibel level in the background, it doesn’t bother me at all because when I go out to the bars, people are playing stuff on the music system. But if it gets too loud, if it gets in my way where I can’t have a conversation with somebody, I gotta get out. I can’t handle that. But my music was loud. Even my favorite big bands, they were loud. But they weren’t amplifying you know, they didn’t amp it up. Because, hey, the brass section can belt out that stuff! An amplified guitar can make a lot of noise. or a drummer that’s amplified. I can remember vividly when rock and roll first came in. I thought it would be gone in a year, because the year before it was the mambo craze and the mambo came and went. I thought rock and roll would do the same thing, and here I’m stuck with it the last 60 years. The early stuff I kind of enjoy, but I don’t care if I ever hear much of it. It bothered me when we’d go to a club with pounding music where you can’t talk. You can’t hear yourself talk and it’s all highly amplified guitars and a drummer. Oh, I got to hate that. Doesn’t anybody remember how to play the trumpet or trombone? But that’s me, and a lot of people my age feel the same way, I’m sure. You adapt to the times and you finally take it for granted.

Caryn: If someone was wanting to listen to some Bing Crosby or watch some Bing Crosby, what’s your number one recommendation? What’s the first thing they should watch or listen to?

Perry: I think there are two avenues. Number one: you can watch a film. Get a sense of him visually; I think that would be important. And a film like High Society would probably be an outstanding bet because it was a later picture, in color and very carefully staged, and if you got tired of Bing, you had Grace Kelly to look at. Or, go back earlier to get the comedy. I would advise them to watch one of the Bing Crosby Bob Hope Road pictures, specifically, The Road to Morocco. That would be a wonderful film. Considered the best. And they were a classic comedy team. But also musically, I would say to seek out a Best Of. The guy had 21 gold records, pretty good sellers. An album that comprises the best of those gives you a very good background of what he was about musically. If you like some of it better you can even veer off into different categories. I like the more swinging stuff. I like stuff where he’s backed by a bigger band, or a little bit jazz-oriented. That’s my cup of tea, but I can listen to it all. And of course, YouTube has all this stuff. I have been amazed at how I could fill out an artist’s repertoire by going on Youtube! I could find the songs that I didn’t actually physically have the record of. Having the toolkit of a computer, you can access all that stuff. It’s amazing. It’s all out there!


 Footnotes:

(1) The “Road” pictures were 7 comedy films starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby released between 1940 and 1962.


Caryn Aasness (they/them) has been club secretary in every club they have ever been a part of.

Perry Huntoon (he/him) is the American Vice President of The International Club Crosby.

Bing Crosby Ice Cream, 1953. Unused container. A gift to The Museum of the San Fernando Valley from Gary Fredburg, 2012.

Credits

Editor
Becca Kauffman

Web
Emma Duehr Mitchell

Copyeditors
Becca Kauffman and Emma Duehr Mitchell

Advisor
Lisa Jarrett and Harrell Fletcher

Journal Concept
Harrell Fletcher

Contributors
Laura Glazer with Elsa Loftis

Gilian Rappaport with Ralph Hopkins

Marina Lopez with Caroline Woolard

Illia Yakovenko with Elvin Rzaev

Lillyanne Pham with Aram Han Sifuentes

Justin Maxon with Desire Grover and H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams PhD

Mo Geiger with William Padilla-Brown

Olivia DelGandio with Starr Sariego

Shelbie Loomis with Michelle Grimes

Kiara Walls with Darrell Grant

Luz Bulmenfeld with Alex Olive

Rebecca Copper with Marti Clemmons and Gilah Tennenbaum

Caryn Aasness with Perry Huntoon


Cover
Photo by Ralph Hopkins
Layout by Laura Glazer

Special Thanks
Eric John Olson

Logo Design
Kim Sutherland


The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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