Interviews – Spring 2022
Three Generations in Oakland
“Making Oakland ours and making Oakland mine wasn’t always easy, but it was very important.”YOLANDA RONQUILLO
It’s strange to not be in Oakland right now. I’m sitting on the porch swing at our AirBnb in Portland on maybe the first real spring day. I’ve been in Oakland most of my life, with the exception of three months or so when I was eighteen and I tried to go to college for the first time (spoiler alert: I came home). Aside from getting used to a new neighborhood, finding a new coffee shop to frequent daily, and adjusting to temporarily living with roommates, I’m also sitting with how it feels to not have body memory attached to each corner I pass. In Oakland, I’m the third generation on my dad’s side of the family to be born and raised in Oakland. In Oakland, I live in the house that my dad bought when he was working at the post office; the same house I was brought home to from the hospital when I was born, the house that became mine when my dad died in 2016 from stage four colon cancer.
I spoke with my grandmother, Dr. Yolanda Ronquillo, about our family’s timeline in Oakland and how it feels to move through the same places over the years. I like coming back to the same businesses after all these years and I like picturing my grandmother as a young girl in the same space we’re standing in. How does a city hold so many layers of lives? What happens when evidence of the past is not visible in the present? We practice the act of remembering when we have these conversations.
Some things that may be helpful for context
A brief and consolidated family tree which does not include my cousins:
Maria “Tita” Granados: Mother of Ophelia (my Nana and great grandmother), Alfredo, Ernestina (Big Nina), and Manuel (Tío Manuel)
Ophelia meets and marries my great grandfather, Ramón Ronquillo (my Grompa)
They have Yolanda (my grandmother), Tina (my aunt), and Raymond (my Uncle Ray)
Yolanda marries Herbert Honea (my grandpa) and they have Ramón (my Tío Mon) and Timothy (Tim, my dad)
Tim marries Judy (my mom) and they have Luz (me)
A brief family timeline with some relevant events:
Late 1930s-1940 – my great-great grandmother Maria comes to Oakland with her 4 children from El Paso, TX.
1942 – my grandmother is born in Oakland, CA
1965 – my dad is born in Oakland, CA
1987 – my dad buys a house in the Dimond District of Oakland
1992 – I’m born
2016 – my dad dies of stage four colon cancer and I move into his house
2022 – I relocate to Portland, OR for the PSU MFA in Art & Social Practice
Luz Blumenfeld: I’ve been thinking about the memory of place and how a physical place like Oakland, California or Davenport [Ave], or my house holds memory. How the presence of people who used to be there is really tangible, and we can really feel that in those places.
Yolanda Ronquillo: I think that’s very true. Especially at Davenport— in Spanish, we say, acogedora, te acoge, it takes you in, it holds you, you know, it’s always had that energy of holding, it’s a very, very wonderful place to live.
Luz: Yeah, it is. And I think because I grew up there, and dad grew up there before me, there is so much there, especially at Davenport. But really, I feel like all of Oakland, or at least the places that I think of my dad having spent time in, are places that I still feel him in. When I’m driving from my house to your house, I feel him on that drive a lot. I picture him driving down MacArthur a lot.
Yolanda: Yeah, I had an experience on the plane from New Jersey to Barcelona. It was very cramped and dark; they turned the lights off because it was a red eye. I went deeper and deeper into my sadness of missing your dad, but you know, he’s with me all the time. I felt that when he was afraid, he didn’t turn to me. You know, he resisted anyone coming close when he was trying to deal with what was going on with him. And I felt that there was such a deep feeling of why your dad has come to me so strongly; it’s to say, Mom, stay close to those you love. So I’m really glad we’re having this conversation. Whatever the interview is about, I’m for it. You know, interview me every week, interview me every day. I just really want to be part of your life and in a way, you know, that feels comfortable.
Because that feeling on the plane ride was so miserable and brought me to a kind of desperateness, the light that brought me out of it was that it really does matter—it does matter that we talk to each other, that we keep in touch with each other. Whatever we say is not important. It’s important that we stay with each other.
Luz: I was thinking about how you, Tina, and Uncle Ray chose to stay in Oakland and to raise your kids at the same time and be physically close to each other. I was wondering if you wanted to talk a little bit about that.
Yolanda: It was important and it has been important. It’s almost an unsaid importance because it’s such an intrinsic value that we hold together.
And when we had that bad earthquake, you know, when part of the bridge fell down—
Luz: In ‘89?
Yolanda: Yeah, I was at home at Davenport and stepped out onto the deck and the deck was dancing. So I drove down to your Nana and Grompa’s house and guess who was there? Tina was there, my brother was there, and Ramón was there and everyone suddenly started showing up at Nana and Grompa’s; but your dad wasn’t there. And then on the TV, they were talking about a truck driver named Tim—
Luz: Oh my God.
Yolanda: —who was stuck on the bridge and something had fallen on his truck— and of course your dad showed up and it wasn’t him. But that homing instinct to just go and be with [one another] was manifest in that earthquake. We all just did it.
Luz: And that was before cell phones, so the fact that you guys all just showed up at Nana and Grompa’s in particular is so interesting to me.
Yolanda: Yeah, and that it wasn’t a surprise to any of us that it happened.
You know, when I was little, Luz, and we moved to Short Street, I was five and Tina was three. And your Uncle Ray wasn’t even around. He wasn’t born until I was eight, but, on Short Street, we were the only Mexicans. There was one Black family down where Short Street goes around over to Allendale. The family’s name was King. We were the only people of color and it was obvious that for some people, that wasn’t a good thing that we were there. I had a little girlfriend who lived around the corner on Penniman and her father was a raging racist. So making Oakland mine, and making Oakland ours wasn’t always easy, but it was very important to your Nana and Grompa.
Your Grompa came from the Mexican Revolution and I think it’s hard to imagine what that was like for someone to be born into. It was a terribly violent time. He was born in 1909 when the revolution was in full force and he and his family had to flee with just the clothes on their back. It was a really, really hard time. They lost everything. So for him, carving out a place that was ours was super important.
And your Nana didn’t have much of a happier childhood; she was born in 1914 and her dad left when she was 6 months old and sometimes they didn’t have food. Nana and her siblings were at the effect of some very mean relatives. So when she and your Grompa got together, they were determined to have their own place. They were really good savers and they had already bought a house when I was born.
They were living on Eagle Street in Alameda, California. I think it’s pretty impressive on its own that they were already able to buy a house.
Luz: Right, and I mean, I think of Alameda now at least as more white and racist than Oakland is, so I really can’t imagine how it was back then.
Yolanda: When I was born, I think that I was born cesarean because your Nana was terrified of the whole situation. She had gone from a Mexican doctor to an American, English speaking doctor who didn’t have a bedside manner. He didn’t stay with her or talk to her, he just kind of left her on her own. And when she couldn’t birth me, they took me cesarean. But what that meant for my dad was that he had to pay for everything upfront. They had already paid for my birth, but now there were surgery costs. Well, guess how much the surgery was? 75 dollars. But they didn’t have it. So a guy came to the house with a clipboard and started writing down everything they owned that could possibly be of any value. And your Grompa was so upset. He was just horrified at this idea that people could come and take your possessions for what you owed them. He never, ever, ever wanted to borrow money again. I’m not sure I would call them far thinkers, I think they were just very determined to have a place, to put a root down. You know, in that house they had on Eagle Street, they had chickens, rabbits, and a vegetable garden in the back.
Luz: Oh wow, I didn’t know they were so planted there. Is that the place where they had to move because the freeway was being built?
Yolanda: No, no, this was before that. That was the place they had to move because Eagle Street was a very damp part of Alameda. When Tina was born and she contracted pneumonia, the doctor said, you’ve got to get her out of this damp, she can’t tolerate this damp. So they moved to Jingletown, over on Dennison Street. It was an old Victorian two-story house.
Luz: It would be so cool if our family still had that Victorian.
Yolanda: That’s the one the freeway took—on Dennison Street. You can go into Alameda and get off on that exit, where the 29th Street bridge is, and see Dennison Street. I was baptized over there in the Mary Help of Christians church, which is a Catholic mission that’s still there in Jingletown.
Luz: But the freeway took a lot of houses, right? Were many people displaced by that?
Yolanda: Well yeah, it’s the Nimitz freeway. You can drive down the Nimitz and see those houses that are left on one side of the freeway. It’s the side of the freeway where that big loft building is.
Luz: Yeah, it does always seem like a strange divide between the neighborhood, like it shouldn’t be quite right where it is because it’s so close to the buildings. It’s wild to me that you were around at a time before there was this major freeway in Oakland.
Yolanda: That’s right. You know, mija, your Aqui’s gonna be 80 this year.
Luz: Yeah, I mean, that’s part of something that I love and have so much pride in personally, is being third generation from Oakland and having our entire—that three generations of history. I’m also thinking of what you were saying about homemaking, of making Oakland your home and your place. I think that I felt very much when I was growing up there was that already, that precedent that you had established, that you specifically had established in so many communities in Oakland.
Yolanda: Yeah, I feel that it was intentional and that there’s something in the story of your Grompa bidding on that property across the street and getting that house. There was a little two bedroom, brown shingled house on the corner of Penniman and Short Street. He got the house and the lot for, I think $1,500, and he decided to build us a house, he decided to build us the house of our dreams.
So it was like that kind of optimism and that kind of pulling together. He took a swing shift so he could work on building the house in the morning, then clean up and go to work.
Yolanda: Yeah. You know, no one said, “you can build a house because you want to.” There was a guy who lived behind us at 2928 Short Street who had studied architecture, but had never gotten his degree. So he would help your Grompa make up plans for the house.
And I remember sitting at our little kitchenette table in the kitchen and I told my dad, “I want an upstairs daddy, I want to come down the stairs in the morning just like Ricky Nelson does. I want to come down and say—” you know, whatever Ricky Nelson was saying in those days. I don’t remember anymore, but I knew I had to say that when I walked down the stairs.
Luz: What did he say?
Yolanda: He said yes, and he made us a second story.
Luz: Wow, so there was already a house on the corner, like where the apartment building is? That was a house?
Yolanda: Yeah where the duplex is, there was an old shingled house.
Luz: And then, so Nana’s house is the house that he built?
Yolanda: Yes, that’s the house he built.
Luz: Oh, wow that’s so interesting. I have so many memories of being a kid at family dinner night. And for some reason I had this habit of hanging out on those carpeted stairs and leaning my head back so that I was looking at everything upside down. Just kid things, you know, but I love knowing that Grompa’s hand built that. I think that’s very special and rare. Especially as Oakland has been more and more gentrified. As the housing crisis has gotten deeper and deeper in the Bay Area, I feel totally lucky and grateful all the time that our family has property that my ancestors purposefully and intentionally set up for me, and really, for all of us.
Yolanda: That’s right.
Luz: So I think our family’s determination to stay in Oakland is really powerful to me, especially now as so many people have been displaced by the housing crisis and gentrification. I wonder about the future because I think my generation of cousins and family is less planted in Oakland. I mean, I’m somewhere else right now.
Yolanda: Yeah. I think about the trajectory of what brought us to the Bay Area. It was in the thirties that your Nana’s older brother found a job up here. And, your Grompa had been traveling, riding the rails and he lived in Sacramento for a while around that time. But it wasn’t until ‘41 that my Tío Manuel, your Nana’s older brother, took over a business called The Virginian. It was a bar on 9th and Broadway.
Luz: Oh, wow, Broadway like Chinatown?
Yolanda: Yeah, and you know, your Great Uncle Manuel was a womanizer. He was very handsome. So one day, your Great Aunt Doreen said to your Nana, “Come and stay with Manuel because the kids are sick and I have to stay home.” So your Nana went to the bar— and in those days they used to make sandwiches as part of the deal— you know, have a beer, have a sandwich. So your Nana was making sandwiches and your Grompa walked in with a date and sat at the bar, and their eyes met in the mirror and that was it.
Luz: Wow. Yeah. I feel like I’ve heard that story so many times, but I never remember the details of where it was and it’s so different there now. I mean, downtown Oakland was so different when I was growing up too.
Yolanda: Yeah. They’ve kind of fancied it up, you know, it’s part of the gentrification thing, right?
So as they talked and as they got to know each other, they realized that they knew a lot of the same people, they were from the same area. They were both from the border, El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, and they knew a lot of common people, but they had never met before.
Luz: Oh, I didn’t realize that part. That’s wild.
Yolanda: Their first date was on Treasure Island for the World’s Fair.
Luz: Oh wow, that’s a grand first date.
Yolanda: Well, they couldn’t actually say they were dating, but your Nana said if he wanted to see her, he could meet her at the coffee pavilion at the world’s fair.
Luz: Why couldn’t they say they were dating?
Yolanda: Well, I think your Nana’s mom was freaked out about her daughters; your Big Nina [Nana’s older sister] was kind of wild and so she had her on a very short leash. And then her brother Manuel, the one we were talking about, because he was a womanizer, he was really hard on his sisters, so they couldn’t do hardly anything.
Luz: Oh, I see. And at that time, Grompa was in Sacramento?
Yolanda: Yeah, he had followed the railroad and he had worked in Sacramento for a year, I think. And then he found a job with the railroad down here in Oakland. He was working for the Southern Pacific.
Luz: And you were saying Nana was here with her family—when did Nana’s family move to Oakland?
Yolanda: In 1940, her brother, Alfredo, was killed in a car accident. A Greyhound bus hit the car. They were in a car that had a window dividing the passengers from the driver and with the impact of the car, the glass came down and pierced his legs. And because he was Mexican —they were in Fresno—they wouldn’t treat him at the hospital. So he actually bled to death.
Greyhound gave your great-great grandmother, my grandmother, Tita—we called her—a $5,000 settlement for the death of her son. And with that money, your great-great grandmother bought a house in West Oakland on Adeline.
Luz: I wonder if the house is still there.
Yolanda: I tried to find it once but I didn’t have any luck, but I think I have it written down someplace.
The way her son died was so unfair, unjust, and so tragic, but she was able to then have a piece of property. So she rented rooms and, right before Tina was born, a man broke into her house robbing her and she woke up and screamed, and he beat her up. So she didn’t want to live in that house anymore. She came and lived with your Nana and Grompa at Eagle Street in Alameda.
Luz: That makes sense.
Yolanda: Yeah, so she lived with us from when Tina was born until she died.
Luz: And Tío Alfredo is also buried at St. Mary’s in Oakland, right?
Yolanda: With his mother, Maria, yeah.
Luz: Yeah. It’s so strange that there are these places that we can physically visit that our family once lived in. Something about it feels very touching to me, it just hits me in a certain way. Something about walking around a place and just living in places that have that much history that’s in your DNA.
Yolanda: It is, it definitely is the sense of place. In my PhD work, I used the methodology of phenomenology, which talks about the sense of place, and it became very apparent to me when I was doing my dissertation that when I worked in Hawaii, I found that people who live on the islands have a different sense of belonging to the land. After several years, I began to understand what that was. It was a very different sense of being connected. I think it’s very important to me, as someone growing up in Oakland, to situate myself from different landmarks. I can look up and I can see where I am. If I can see the Hills and I can see the bay and Mount Tam, you know, I know where I am.
Luz: I wonder how your sense of place in Oakland has shifted over time; like what things were landmarks to you when you were a child, when you were raising Tío Mon and my dad, and now.
Yolanda: There are some places where the actual physical place is still there, but it’s changed. On MacArthur Boulevard, there’s now a Dialysis center where we used to have a theater. That was a really important part of my childhood so just walking across there and seeing all the things that are the same and that are totally different.
When your dad and your Tío Mon were little, I used to take them to a childcare center at a church on MacArthur. It was a course where they were teaching us how to observe children. So They would have the kids in a playroom or have them do projects and we were taught to observe them and write down observations of our children. It was a very interesting kind of modern thinking. I pass that church sometimes and think about when the boys were little.
Another example of that is Studio One, right? We used to go there and they would have playtime for the kids on the bottom, and then they would have classes on the second floor. So I’d be throwing a pot upstairs while the boys were making puppets or doing something else downstairs.
When I was a little girl, Tina and I would walk to school. We would walk all the way down Penniman to High street, and then all the way up High Street to above MacArthur to our school. Part of our journey was just fantasizing about who lived in the houses we passed and imagining how they lived because we were Mexican and we lived very differently and spoke very differently than they did.
Luz: Are there neighbors around Short Street who are still there, who have been there as long as our family has, or did everyone else kind of move on?
Yolanda: There are people’s houses that were part of our original neighborhood that have now been either bought or inherited by other people, but the house itself has a history.
There was an Italian family that had a separate building outside their house for cooking spaghetti or ravioli or whatever. So there’s a history of the house itself and the people who lived there that I remember. I remember the neighborhood families that were there when I was growing up and either passed on or left their house to someone else.
Luz: And I remember you have told me before how different 38th Avenue was when you were growing up. Can you talk about that again?
Yolanda: Yeah. If you walked down from the Short Street corner on Penniman down to 38th, there was a hardware store on the right, and across the street was a grocery store with a meat market that would give you a free hot dog every time you bought anything from them. And then across the street from them was a pharmacy, and across the street from that, at the four corners, there was a Five and Dime that fascinated me as a child. I loved that store. You know, they had buttons and zippers, all kinds of stuff, everything.
Down the street from that corner was a library and then across the street from the library was a store that just sold eggs and chickens. And on the far corner down by where that Vientian Cafe restaurant is—well across from the restaurant was called Faye’s Fountain. It had
a long bar and she sold ice cream. It was really cool. And next to her, on Penniman, was a dancing school that I couldn’t go to because your Nana would not pay for tap dancing. We had to take piano and violin, but not tap dancing.
They talk about the Laurel district, but we had the Allendale district, you know, we were our own little district.
Luz: That’s so interesting. I can really imagine that street with all those things happening. It always seemed to me when I was a kid that those two or three blocks of 38th had that kind of look to the buildings that felt like a kind of abandoned Main Street like that.
I’m thinking about how there are so many stories that our family tells over and over again, and I think it could be interesting to record them in some way, I think especially as Oakland continues to change and people continue to be displaced, the stories of people who have been able to stay are pretty rare and I think should be shared.
Yolanda: Yeah. It’s the human side of it, isn’t it? It’s so interesting how people say that their lives don’t make a difference, but they really do. They absolutely do.
Luz: I always wonder how Oakland feels for people who moved there as adults, like it must feel so different to them, what each space means to them. Maybe their relationship ended on that corner or it has some significance to them since they’ve lived in Oakland. But for me, it’s those things, plus all of the stories and memories from my dad’s generation, plus yours, and Nana and Grompa’s, and it just keeps going. I feel that those layers exist in real time for me. When I’m in places with that history, I can feel it all at the same time.
Yolanda: It’s very true. Even as you say that I can see the layers, you know, like Piedmont Avenue going up to the cemetery or all those different ways that we move around and we go towards and away from.
Luz: The longer I live in Oakland, the more of those I have, but the more I feel, the more present I am in certain places. And as much as neighborhoods have changed since I was growing up, I think about how different things feel and how there’s kind of this disconnect where I think about knowing the mapping and the whole layout of how a place used to be. And having that body memory of where things are and looking around and having it be completely different. And then I multiply that by how many years it has been like that for you, and how it has changed over and over and over again. And how weird that must feel to have all those layers.
Yolanda: I think sometimes of the creeks, the creeks that run down High Street, the Hills, and they’re all covered now. I remember when I was a little girl, there would be some culverts that ran parallel to High Street and I would ride my bike through them. They were big culverts, big stone tubes. So where does the water go? We’ve hidden the water but it’s still there.
When your dad was growing up, one of our big treats was to go up to Leona Heights and go up the creek. We’d go with bags to carry out garbage and clean it up. We had our dogs and we would walk up there. I remember walking. The layers of experience and people and energies that live and are stimulated when we come into them because of our relationship to them, I think is the same with the water, that there’s water that’s trying to continue its natural path.
Luz Blumenfeld (they/them) is third generation from Oakland and the only grandchild of Yolanda Ronquillo. They are a gay, transdisciplinary artist currently living and working in Portland, OR. Luz is in their first year of the Art & Social Practice MFA at PSU.
Dr. Yolanda Ronquillo (she/her) was born in 1942 by caesarian section to Mexican immigrant parents at Herrick Memorial Hospital in Berkeley, CA. She was raised in East Oakland in a working class neighborhood, where her family and the King family down the street were the only POC. As the first born, she learned the importance of “bridging” the world of her home and that of the world outside. She internalized racial bias against Mexicans, and now sees that unlearning this negative self-image has been a great teacher.
By the age of 22, Yolanda had two sons. Raising her sons offered an impetus to right the wrongs of injustice by working in community agencies. After her sons were grown, she went on to higher education and got her PhD in Transformative Learning and Change at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA.
The Art We Value
“I had such deep feelings about a lot of things. I thought that I needed to start putting them down on paper.”BENITA ALIOTH
Benita and I became friends at the Wednesday Bingo/Luncheons. I noticed how welcoming she was when she and other women from the Jantzen Beach RV Park and Hayden Island Mobile Home community situated me to play with my bingo cards and a few pennies. During the game, she was a bit of a jokester, calling out the numbers with expression in her voice, in different ways: “Sexy Sixty!” or “Fifty-five! Five-Five!” I was drawn to her energy.
When I asked Benita if she would allow me to draw her with the art she valued, she asked, “Will my poetry work?”. The project that I was working on was an ongoing socially engaged art project called The Art We Value. I interviewed and drew twelve residents from my community with the object or artwork that they valued from their home and talked about “art” and “value”, asking each participant to define it for themselves and recording our conversations.
Before that day, I didn’t know she was a published writer. I was intrigued. When I came to her house, I noticed she was in a wheelchair. Benita explained that when she came to our Wednesday Bingo/Lunches, (A weekly community event at the Northshore Community Clubhouse in the neighborhood) she had to endure a lot of pain to stand on her feet, and at home, she sat in her wheelchair to take the pressure off. She told me: “I want to take my photograph in my wheelchair.” Reflecting now, I realized that she was making a statement to the community. She was exposing a part of herself, showing a vulnerability that many did not see. This became Benita’s special talent, her calling card.
In February 2022, I hosted a local art show to display the portraits to the public called The Art We Value Art Show: Northshore Clubhouse. I invited Benita to share her poetry publicly for a share-and-tell version of the show. I had asked people to come prepared for a social engagement however as the night went on, I had overlooked the time. Benita took it upon herself to initiate the sharing event. In that way, I feel like she stopped being a participant, and became a collaborator in the success of the project. Benita’s empowering openness shifted the environment of the show and the project with it. When you read her story, you will understand why her words carry so much weight.
Shelbie Loomis: Benita, can you tell me about your story? Then can you share what the art you value is?
Benita Alioth: In 2008, I was in a house fire and it consumed me and left me in a different way. When I came out of the hospital after 12 weeks of induced coma, one of the nurses asked me if I would like to write. They had a group coming together from an Emmanual hospital, and they asked if I would like to be in the group. It was a 10 week course on writing where they gave me prompts, and then I could share if I wanted to. The first year that I did it, I didn’t know exactly what it all entailed. I just knew that I had to do something different. I lost my career in accounting where I worked for the Housing Authority Department. I had taken time off to take care of my elderly mother when we had the fire. I was at my wit’s end and thought, What am I gonna do?. I lost all feeling and I have nerve damage in my fingers and I could no longer do a 10 key, or a typewriter, or do anything other than just using my finger to plunk on the computer. So I thought, Well okay, I’ll give writing a try and see what I got.
In December of 2009, I got a call from a nonprofit agency in Portland that was conducting these writing courses all over Portland. They said, “Benita, we have a surprise for you. We want to use your story as the title of the book.” It was my first time ever writing and it gave me so much inspiration. I had such deep feelings about a lot of things. I thought that I needed to start putting them down on paper, just to have something I could look back on to see how much I’d moved forward from where I was. That was the first inkling of thinking I could write. I’ve written short stories and poems for nine books. I love writing poems. In 2010, about two years after the fire, I wrote a poem called “Inside Out.” It’s about 11 or 12 years old. [Reads poem aloud]
Benita: [pauses, and pats Shelbie] I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry. I realized that I thought to myself, How am I going to get through this?
Shelbie: [Laughs, clearing throat, blinking tears away] I’ll cry with you.
Benita: I’m giving this poem to you.
Shelbie: Oh, thank you so much. [pauses, looking down at the piece of paper] I think that you are so inspirational. Especially just to share the vulnerability. I feel very touched. This last year, I’ve been going through a lot of grief and loss. But, you know, through our grief, we find people who are compassionate to that grief.
Benita: Another thing that helped me out tremendously is, I got involved with the burn community. So I volunteered at the hospital, and visited patients who had been burned. To me, that’s inspiring, because there’s somebody out there that has been hurt badly, and you can walk into a room sometimes, and they realize, Hey, I’m not the only one that this has happened to. That’s really important, to look at other people this way, even families. When I go to the burn center, if I see a large family in the waiting room, then I know somebody new has come in and I’ll just go in there and I’ll tell them my name and let them know that I’ve been burned and they’re in good hands. The success rate, these days, of burn victims surviving this, is tremendous. It’s really gotten to the point where they can really help burn survivors. That’s my forte, helping people when they’re in their darkest moments. I have the ability to be compassionate, and deal with it that way.
There was a time in my life when I was married to my children’s father— he was a Vietnam veteran, and he had PTSD. While I was a Nothing makes me sick, nothing hurts. I go, go go. I move on. And why don’t you? type of attitude. And I wouldn’t acknowledge that he had problems. And then he died. And since then I say, I wish I would have told him I was sorry that I didn’t understand that. Because until this happened to me, I didn’t understand what trauma could do. What’s happened to me has given me a new heart with more compassion and more love for people. That’s why I volunteer. I’ll help with whatever I can, whether I’m in a group or in the community, I want to help. I want to be a part of giving back, which is important to me. I continue to do that. I give that in the hospital and I do it also at the Northshore Clubhouse for our lunches. Even though it’s not that much, it’s part of the solution. That keeps me going. And my friends here, the people here in the park, they’re wonderful. If they don’t hear from me for a day or two, they come knocking on my door. I am one that likes being alone. I like being alone. I have lots of things to do. As you can see, I’m an avid reader.
Shelbie: That makes sense because you’re a writer.
Benita Alioth (she/her) is a volunteer in her community lunch program and burn survivors community. She has published several stories/poems through the Oregon Burn Center and Write Around Portland, and is an alumni of the Oregon Council of Humanities program, Humanities in Perspective.
Shelbie Loomis (she/her) is a socially engaged artist and illustrator. She makes projects and drawings with her communities about complex grieving, alternative housing, and exchange culture through times of crisis. Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico she now lives in Portland, Oregon.
Anyone Can Do This
“The bureaucracy has failed to provide the bare minimum for our communities.”CROSSWALK COLLECTIVE LA
In Spring 2022, an anonymous group of Los Angeles do-gooders made national headlines for painting unsanctioned crosswalks at dangerous intersections in underserved parts of the city: “Vigilantes paint own crosswalks in Los Angeles CA;” “Mystery crosswalks pop up in busy East Hollywood intersection;” “A secretive LA group has a new mission: paint untouched crosswalks.” Why were they painting these crosswalks? Because the Los Angeles Department of Transportation wasn’t. Crosswalk Collective LA (CCLA) emerged in the Twitterscape with before and after shots of their renegade handiwork, bluntly declaring, “Until City Council acts, we paint crosswalks.”
What was it about painting a few stripes on the pavement that struck the media as so sensational, or even newsworthy at all? Maybe it’s because there are agencies, bureaus, and departments who we are told “take care of that”; who authorize the upkeep and improvements of the place we live so we’re safe to move freely. It’s easy to think of our city infrastructure as something built-in, untouchable, and handled by the pros, but what if they’re…not handling it? Did you know you could just take a bucket of traffic paint, consult the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices for exact measurements, borrow a few traffic cones, and do it yourself? Why wait months or years for the change you seek, when all that stands between you and the crosswalk of your dreams is a trip to the hardware store and a couple helpful hands?
If you take a look at any Twitter or Reddit threads about the Department of Transportation (DOT) in any major city, the prevailing attitude is readily apparent: frustration over inaction and bureaucracy, bureaucracy, bureaucracy. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation, for example, is backed up with hundreds of requests for crosswalks from city residents. As the statistics for nationwide traffic violence and pedestrian deaths surge to epidemic proportions, it’s not surprising that a few fed up citizens felt called to take matters into their own hands.
I, too, was taken with Crosswalk Collective LA’s puncturing of the bureaucratic veil. I had just co-organized a rally for a crosswalk at a dangerous intersection in my own neighborhood of Ridgewood, Queens, but our method was to dialogue directly with the bureaucracy—not sidestep it entirely. While we clocked hours amassing petition signatures, attending community board meetings, and writing letters to the NYC DOT to get one crosswalk painted by the city, CCLA had painted six themselves. Their heroic outlaw approach was getting the job done.
I reached out to CCLA on Twitter as a fan, ally, and potential co-conspirator. They sent me the draft of their How To Paint a Crosswalk guide for feedback, and we arranged an off-the-record video meeting to talk about all things crosswalk—which was a satisfying thrill. To protect their anonymity, they only consented to an on-the-record interview via email correspondence.
Overcome with admiration, I admit I succumbed to a romantic outlook on the Collective’s work, but as you’ll read, Crosswalk Collective LA is not here to win anybody’s heart. They’re just here to paint crosswalks.
The following correspondence is dated May 6, 2022.
Becca Kauffman: Did you have previous experience with tactical urbanism before forming CCLA?
Crosswalk Collective LA: We didn’t. And we aren’t particularly handy, which just goes to show that anyone can do this if they do sufficient planning and research. The guide we released on our website recently, “How to Paint a Crosswalk,” is what we wished we had found when we were in the research phase. We hope it helps other groups get started.
Becca: Was there a particular incident or experience that led you to paint your first crosswalk at Romaine Street and Serrano Avenue?
CCLA: No. Just the totality of our experiences as pedestrians and cyclists in Los Angeles. It’s a beautiful city with perfect weather and should be a pedestrian paradise, but crossing the street here is a harrowing experience. The sidewalks are terrible and many of them don’t have curb cuts, so it’s a very hostile experience, especially for people with any kind of mobility issue.
Becca: How many crosswalks have you painted to date? How many are on your to-do list? And how often do you paint one? Is this your new Sunday routine?
CCLA: We have painted six. It would have been seven, but a crew from the local department of transportation happened to be driving by and called the cops on us. We have hundreds on our to-do list. We’ll just keep going until the job is done or the mayor and City Council decide to fund LADOT so they can do it.
Becca: In response to your first crosswalk on Romaine and Serrano, an LADOT spokesperson said in an official statement that any “unauthorized alteration to a street is subject to removal.” At the time of this interview, it’s been one month since you laid down those glorious white stripes. Are your crosswalks still intact? Do you expect the city to remove them, or do you suspect they’re secretly relieved someone has done their job for them?
CCLA: At this time, all crosswalks we have painted remain in place.
[Update: Three weeks after this interview, the LADOT began removing all the crosswalks CCLA painted.]
Becca: Why is street safety so important to you?
CCLA: Any injuries or deaths that result from the basic tasks of crossing the street and moving about your city to live your life are not only tragic, but very preventable.
Becca: Do you have a plan in place for what you’ll do if the LADOT actually removes your crosswalks instead of simply adding a layer of city-approved paint on top of your already perfect and professional grade handiwork?
CCLA: No, but given the public’s response to our crosswalks, we can only imagine the uproar if they’re removed.
Becca: Do you have any more actions up your sleeve? Will you be sending the LADOT an invoice for services rendered? A bill for labor and materials?
CCLA: We’re just interested in painting crosswalks. And we hope others join us!
Becca: Why do you think your renegade street projects have captured the attention of every news outlet across the nation?
CCLA: The bureaucracy has failed to provide the bare minimum for our communities. When pedestrians try to keep themselves safe, it stands out against the years of inaction by those supposedly entrusted with our safety.
Becca: In addition to being a citizen action, is this an art project?
CCLA: It is not. The reason we use a stencil and did so much research is to replicate existing crosswalks as closely as possible. Our only goal is to provide painted crosswalks for increased pedestrian safety.
Becca: Your anonymity is totally iconic. Everybody loves a do-gooder vigilante. It brings to mind artist action groups like Guerrilla Girls and Yes Men. Aside from the obvious legal protection that a secret identity provides, is there additional strategic thinking around this move?
CCLA: Not at all. We just want to be left alone to paint crosswalks.
Becca: Do your friends and family know about your membership in this secret club?
CCLA: Some do. We’re not that good at keeping secrets.
Becca: Have you had any close calls with the authorities? Is that something you’ve prepared for as a group, and if so, what is the protocol?
CCLA: Yes, we have prepared for all eventualities, whether it’s arrest or fines. LADOT did call the police on us and each CCLA member out that day got hit with a $250 fine for “injury to public property.” We were told by the police that the next round of fines would be $500 per person, then $1000 per person. We are fundraising on GoFundMe to pay for the fines.
Becca: Do you, like me, have a newfound fetish for crosswalks everywhere?
CCLA: Absolutely. We find ourselves scrutinizing them as we pass by. We think ours hold up well in comparison to official ones!
Becca: What’s your ideal outcome for this project?
CCLA: An LA where every street is safe to cross.
Crosswalk Collective LA is an anonymous group of Los Angeles residents who paint unsanctioned, professional-grade crosswalks at dangerous intersections in their city. Their motto is, “If the city doesn’t keep us safe, we keep us safe.” Follow their step-by-step how-to guide to paint a crosswalk in your area. Find them on twitter at @CrosswalksLA.
Becca Kauffman (they/them) is a social artist based in Queens, New York exploring art as a public utility through interactive performance, devised gatherings, and neighborhood interventions. A lover of strangers, they rely on chance encounters and citizen journalism to understand and contribute to the social choreography of shared public space, such as the crosswalk. Their work has taken the form of a residency on the streets of Times Square, a neighborhood rally and performance intervention for a crosswalk, T-shirts that function as conversation pieces, and a hi-visibility pedestrian parade with a group of fifth graders. A trained performer and working voice over actor, Becca is currently an MFA candidate in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University, where they are researching live action role play, tactical urbanism, and the curious phenomenon of the dancing crossing guard. You can follow their art practice @signalsfortraffic and their music/performance work @jennifervanilla.
“When I think about dreams, I think about the big picture. When I think about goals, I think more practical. What can I do today? I think you should have your everyday goals, of course, but don’t forget about the big picture and having an ultimate dream.”KENNY WALLS
The following conversation between my brother and I originally aired on IGTV on September 18th, 2020 as a part of my ongoing project, Black Box Conversations: which aims to create a safe space where BIPOC can hold meaningful conversations around their human experiences. In this episode, we spoke about adaptability as it relates to goals and dreams. Both Kenny and I have had a handful of experiences where we’ve had to adapt to major change and pivots.
Kiara Walls: Hello everyone, my name is Kiara Walls and this is the Black Box Conversation Series. Today, we will be talking about adaptability, with my twin brother, Kenneth Walls. Not many of you know that I have a fraternal twin brother, we are 15 minutes apart. I’m super excited to be talking with him today and creating a safe space. So I’m gonna go ahead and pass it over to him.
Kenny Walls: Hello, my name is Kenny. Kiara, she’s my twin. I’ve watched her develop the Black Box Experience from afar. So it’s a pleasure and honor to finally be able to be a part of it and find some time to give you guys a good discussion.
Kiara: So we’re going to start off with this question: can you share your experience with adaptability?
Kenny: At this point in my life, I can definitely see how I’ve developed. I’ve had to change directions, whether it be career or school or work. At this point in my life, adaptability is a very important key to just moving forward and trying to become successful. Most importantly, just being able to handle and deal with the things that come your way that throw you a little bit off, that forces you to adapt. Hopefully this conversation can resonate with some people.
Kiara: How do you feel your adaptability has strengthened over time? Do you feel it’s easier now, compared to when you were younger?
Kenny: Yeah, I definitely feel it’s strengthened over time. Most recently, I’ve been focusing on being able to move forward and become more adaptable and accept the things I cannot change. Then using what I’ve gained in the process as tools and growing new experiences out of that. I also think about how I am an educator, as are you, and we both have had to adapt to remote distance learning. Being able to adapt to different work environments and situations has definitely altered the social climate as well.
Kiara: What do you feel has helped you with navigating these challenges?
Kenny: I believe just being able to see the opportunity and struggle as stepping stones into the next phase. I know this sounds cookie cutter because too often people preach all day about the struggle but when you’re practicing to get through it you can start to see the fruits of your labor over time.
Kiara: Why do you think so many people struggle with staying the course when obstacles arise?
Kenny: I think part of it is just not being able to let go. Not being able to let go of a specific outcome, idea or image we have in our head and accepting what it actually is. This doesn’t mean that you stop dreaming or pursuing your goals. I think this kind of thinking mixes people up a bit. If a situation/outcome doesn’t go in their favor they just give up and stop going after it. But I think it’s very important to still pursue whatever you’re passionate about.
Kiara: In terms of dreams and goals, do you feel there is a difference between the two or are they singular?
Kenny: When I think about dreams, I think about the big picture. When I think about goals, I think more practical. What can I do today? I think you should have your everyday goals, of course, but don’t forget about the big picture and having an ultimate dream. It’s like having that North Star, even if it seems far away, it’s still within your view if you remain focused on your daily goals.
Kiara: I know, for sure. I also heard you talking a little bit about letting it go. I think a lot of people don’t realize that when you reach new heights and new levels, you have to let an old part of you go in the process, right? Because the goal that you may have in mind, or the future that you see for yourself: you have to adapt your personality, you have to adapt your habits.You have to literally adapt your entire being in order to reach that set goal. So I feel like people, including myself, just need to be more comfortable with letting things go and kind of being open to new scenarios, new situations, and new encounters with people around us, right?
Kenny: I think that the ego is important. When I say ego, I think about how we’re so strong and have a certain idea of the way a certain outcome is supposed to be. And then something comes in and throws that off and it takes you for a whirlwind. There’s a saying in tarot, they call it a tower moment: which is where your tower comes crashing down. And I think that at first those types of situations are really devastating. I’m not gonna downplay the fact that it’s painful, it hurts, and it’s hard. But if you’re fortunate enough to get through it, I think that you want to have more of those situations happen. So then you can—I wouldn’t say get used to it happening, but just be able to handle things a little bit better and more smoothly. Because ultimately, we make plans, but God laughs at us. But it doesn’t mean we stop making plans, I think we still have to do that. But it’s more so recognizing the things that we have in front of us as tools, as ways to get to where we want to go. I think sometimes we have those things, but our vision doesn’t allow us to see them. Sometimes, depending on where our headspace is at. So I think that that’s very, very important.
Kiara: Yeah, for sure. And I think we’re always challenging ourselves to adapt to a different perspective. I think adaptation really applies to all parts of life, even outside of goals and dreams. I think it applies to self care, right? Learning yourself and understanding what you need in order to grow, feel healthy,and in order to feel good. Adapting to those new tools that you need, right? So do you have any questions for me, Kenny?
Kenny: Yes, this is my favorite part here. So we do your Black Box Experience, I remember when we were putting the box together. That was the journey. And now you’ve created a platform for people to come and speak about very serious topics that they feel strongly about. And I think that’s really important because that information should be shared, no doubt. But my question for you is, how have you adapted within your schedule to accommodate the Black Box Experience as well as what you are learning? What are you learning from the feedback you’re getting from people who have watched it or people who have participated in it?
Kiara: Well, I’ll answer the first question. So as far as my schedule and the Black Box, I noticed that I’m a lot happier when I am doing my art. So when I’m not doing my art, obviously, I’m working or just doing random things. But I find it easier to include my practice into my schedule, because I also feel it’s my self care. And it’s really what keeps me going. And the feedback that I have received from viewers of the Black Box Conversations as well as participants that helped me out with these conversations has been extremely positive and also a driving force for me to keep these conversations going. The entire point of this Black Box series is to create a safe space where we can have meaningful conversations and where we can be comfortable enough sharing our experiences. So ultimately, others can view them and feel that same comfort from watching it. And I hold that really near and dear to my heart, because I just want to make a positive impact on our community. And just really create an inclusive, safe environment.
Kenny: Definitely. I think something that you said was spot on about just doing our art, whatever medium it may be. I know you’re a painter, big time, and you got me painting a little bit too. But I know this is a different medium for you. And I want to commend you, because things are looking really good. And I think what you said is really important about being able to do your art and have that place outside of your work and your everyday responsibility to contribute to your self care. I think the thing about art: it’s just raw and it’s all improvising. It’s true, you can’t fabricate it. We go to work, and you gotta put on a smile and do the whole thing, and I know as people we kind of get tired of that. So it’s important to have that outlet: our music, all forms of art; they’re extremely important. I think, to our community, even more so because storytelling is something that we’ve used for generations to really keep our ancestors alive, and things of that nature. So, when we see people of color doing art, it really resonates with me, because that’s how we communicate with each other. That’s how we communicate with the ones that came before us. And I think being able to keep that alive is really, really important. Really, really important!
Kiara: Oh, for sure. And I think touching on storytelling is really what is keeping our history alive, right? Because our history is not in the history books. This is something that has been passed down from generation to generation. That’s why I feel so passionate about my practice, because I feel I have an opportunity to really document what’s happening right now in our community. Because when people look back on these conversations, they can see what was happening, they can see the climate, and they can understand people’s perspectives. And that’s why I also want to include so many different people for so many different topics. So it’s a wide range, it’s not just one perspective on something. I want to include all perspectives and I want to talk about all topics that are affecting our community, both positive and negative.
When you were just talking about art being real, right? I was talking with my students today, and I was teaching them about this artist: Jean Arp. He’s known for his spontaneous work. He didn’t really plan out his work, it was more so just his subconscious. So we were asking the question, does the environment affect the artist’s work? Is the work a product of their environment? And a lot of my students said yes, and I agree, yes. It is the environment. As artists, I feel our responsibility is to communicate a message of whatever is going on. And it’s the viewers’ responsibility to understand it in their own perspective, because it has a message, but it’s going to sound different to everyone. And that’s the beauty, the beautiful thing about art.
Kenny: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. I think that’s the power of art, whether it’s music, writing.It forces you to create the idea as well. You become the creator of that idea. From that piece of art, let’s compare it to if you’re watching a sporting event, I think we can all agree that we’re all looking at the same thing. But if we all look at a painting, everybody can see something different. If we read a book, we can all interpret that book in a different way and create a different image in our mind. And I think that’s really what the power is; where you can get that creativity and it can be actually organic, and not in such a way where it can be influenced by the same thing that influences everybody. So I think that’s really really spot on.
Kiara: Oh, for sure. And then I think being African American, and not always having the space to be our authentic selves because we had to assimilate to societal standards, and right now with the climate and everything, we’re having the opportunity, or we’re creating our own opportunity, to be our authentic selves. And what is coming out of that is just amazing work, amazing conversations. Amazing. Courage, and fights, and optimism, and strength overall, right?
Kenny: Yeah, definitely. So too, I think we ultimately got to keep it going. I think the entrepreneurial spirit has always been really strong in our community, simply because of the fact that we’ve learned over decades— over centuries that we can’t wait on somebody to put us on. At the end of the day, we have to put ourselves on, we have to kind of sign ourselves. We are gonna have to rely on our own people, our own community, and really ourselves. And I think that’s where that entrepreneur’s spirit comes out. I think that’s why you see so many African Americans with a hustle. I think that it’s just a hustler mentality. Of course we want to be able to go and have corporations and have all these things, but I think that for us personally, we really need to be able to build that for ourselves. I think that’s where we really will see the most growth, and I know there’s a lot of great things going on. I’ve talked to a lot of people on some boards who are starting some great stuff. I think that it’s become easier for an African American person who needs an investor to find that investment from a black person or a black billionaire. I think that is important—imperative, if we really want to push this thing forward. I don’t think it’s truly about- no offense- to integration or anything, but trying to do too much merging, instead of really just building our own selves up and being able to build ourselves up without worrying about it being torn down. So I think that we’re getting there, we’re moving forward at a good pace. And ultimately, we just got to keep it going. And we got to keep conversations, the ones that we’re having, we got to keep those types of conversations going.
Kiara: For sure, and it really does tie back into adaptability. I think that also translates into momentum. There’s a strong momentum happening right now. And I feel that it’s not going to die down, I’m hoping that it’s not going to die down, and it’s just going to be consistent, or strengthened even more.
Kenny: Yeah, I believe it will. I think that we are an adaptable people, we always kind of have been forced to adapt to whatever situation, even if it’s not the prettiest. I think that’s kind of in our blood. That’s something that we’re used to. So I think that what’s happening right now is really just putting even more energy into it, and being the best version of themselves, because I think that by being the best version of ourselves, we can help people. At that point we can illuminate, at that point we can really make a difference. But it does start with yourself ultimately, it’s constant work, constant work every day.
Kiara: The pursuit of being the best version of yourself is a continuous cycle. You get knocked down, get back up. It’s a continuous cycle, but each time you get knocked down, you get up stronger. And I think that that is just a mindset that you have to have, especially when your goals and your dreams are big. Yeah. Do you have more questions for me twin?
Kenny: I just want to commend you for what you’ve done. I think that it’s extremely important and I 100% support what you’re trying to do. Whatever I can do to be a part of that, I want to see it flourish. And I think that it’s growing in the future, it’s going to be even bigger. And I’m really excited to see how that turns out. Thank you.
Kiara: Okay, so my final question to you is, what would you like to leave behind in the Black Box for viewers to understand or experience?
Kenny: Just go back to adaptability, just understand that. The battle that you’re fighting, we’re all fighting a certain battle, we’re all dealing with things that we have to overcome. And you can definitely do it. But I think that the key is to find the tools, find the gold in the struggle. Find that little nugget: the piece from the tower that crumbles that you can use to build the new wall and build the new tower. I think those are always there. But sometimes emotions can get in the way of us being able to see them. So if there’s anything I can leave behind it is to find the pieces from the rubble to start building that new path.
Kiara: Thank you so much, twin. I’m sure everyone who watches this is going to find a key point they can definitely take away with them. I appreciate your time and your support. I love you.
Kenny: Alright. No problem. Thank you for having me on. I love you too. I hope you’re doing well in Dallas, and I know I’ll talk to you soon.
Kiara Walls (she/her) is a multi-disciplinary arts educator and restorative justice practitioner currently working out of Portland, OR. Her practice explores the relationship between trauma and repair as a pathway to healing. This work is manifested through a lens of reparation, resulting in site-specific installations, conflict resolution, and conversations. Walls currently serves as the Dean of Students at Northwest Academy where she combines her disciplines to navigate and cultivate community amongst students and teachers.
Kenny Walls (he/him) is a former professional athlete, current educator, and baseball coach practicing out of Los Angeles, CA. Walls currently teaches at University High School Charter located in Santa Monica where he provides education around sports medicine to 9th-12th grade students. Walls combines his passion for health, athleticism and education to offer specialized lessons and training to his surrounding communities of color.
“If you can figure out what you really want, it’s like molding clay… You’re sculpting every step of the way.”DR. JENNIFER KLING
Dr. Jennifer “Jenny” Kling is a seed breeder who has worked on developing crops such as corn, meadowfoam, and oats. In a collaborative project, she’s working with Shannon Welsh, a textile designer and regenerative textile systems advocate, and Angela Wartes-Kahl, a farmer and organic certification specialist, to develop and distribute flax seeds with particular focus on production in the United States. They are each employing their own expertise in this work with selection and growing methods that differ from large-scale breeding programs. Flax is a crop with many uses: it produces nutritional seeds, oil, and fiber for fabric. Historically, linen was arguably the first textile woven by humans, and it spread around the world for thousands of years until very recently as industrialization, cotton, and synthetics began to change the textile industry. The flax plant requires very little irrigation and is a good ecological alternative to synthetics and cotton, but more research is required for larger-scale contemporary production.
That’s where Jenny comes in—she starts with one type of seed and combines it with other types in order to create new varieties for each of the plant’s different uses. Shannon, Angela, and Jenny are doing this work to produce seed for domestic flax linen production, which can’t happen at the moment because there currently isn’t enough seed to import. Large quantities of seeds don’t just come out of nowhere, and there is a lot to know about the process of building a crop. It involves thinking about plant systems, ecosystems, and human systems all together at once.
This interview accompanies an exhibition in the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Portland, Oregon, which opened in May 2022. It’s part of a project called One Day of Seeds, in which I learned how to plant flax test plots in Alpine, Oregon for one day along with several other people. This year’s crop was planted to overwinter in the field, which uses autumn planting and spring or summer harvest to take advantage of the region’s cool-season rains. During the activity of planting, I realized that this one day of working represented many years of preparation. In a plot 97’ wide and 73’ long, Jenny organized a grid of 2’ x 3’ rectangles which contained dozens of individual test crosses. The process to get from one initial seed to a potential standardized crop takes seven to ten years, and shaping plants for the future requires significant creativity.
After that day, I kept all of the leftover labeled seed envelopes to use as a device for storytelling — laying them out as a map in the same arrangement in which the seeds were planted in the field. I am interested in this narrative because it connects work, time, and place using a simple visual method to describe a complex and largely social process. I’m also viewing seed breeding conceptually as one example of many natural processes influenced by people’s hands for worldwide material consumption. There is much hidden activity behind the physical world we occupy every day, and relationships are intertwined with all of it.
Mo Geiger: If I didn’t know anything about seed breeding, how would you describe it to me?
Dr. Jenny Kling: Basically, you’re just trying to make new combinations of things and it’s a numbers game, because you can’t predict how things will go. You make a cross between two parents that are maybe complementary to each other. And you’re hoping to get progeny—offspring—that have the best of both parents. We keep the ones that look promising for the traits we’re looking for.
Mo: How do you think about your relationship to all these little plants?
Jenny: Oh, they’re like your babies. I do have an attachment and I can tell you, one student worker—I sent him home with some seed to work on and then I didn’t hear back from him. And it got to the point, after a couple of months, I was getting to be like a mother with a lost child! I was going to where he worked, I was calling him, and it was just that he got behind, but I got really crazy. So yes, you get very attached to your seed. It’s just a pleasure to go out in the field when they’re in full bloom and say, “Wow!” And to see something that looks really promising; it’s pretty exciting.
Mo: Totally. Since you think about seeds this way in your own work, when you’re out in a wild space where that kind of manipulation isn’t happening, how do you feel?
Jenny: Oh, that’s interesting.
Mo: Or, manipulation by humans, I should say.
Jenny: If I’m out in the wild I’m probably in a forest somewhere. And so I’m looking at big trees. I’m not thinking too much about seed.
Mo: Not too much?
Jenny: It is interesting what different seeds require, depending on how long they’ve been domesticated. Some plants have all kinds of dormancy mechanisms so that they don’t germinate at the wrong time. With domesticated seeds, the dormancy mechanisms are much less. We can harvest, then we can go in and plant, and it’ll grow. But if you were working with something that was from the wild, you might have to wait a year before it would germinate. For example, meadowfoam (a flowering plant used for oil) is a winter annual in the wild. It would drop its seeds in June and then wait until it’s cooler in the fall. There’s mechanisms in the meadowfoam seed to prevent it from germinating, even if conditions appear to be optimal. It knows from its genetic memory that it has to wait till it gets enough rain to wash out some inhibitors or something that would allow it to germinate. Pretty cool.
Mo: I like thinking about seeds and memory.
Jenny: Genetic memory. Yeah, that’s exactly what it is, really.
Mo: How do you picture that?
Jenny: Well, I think of it more in terms of the genes, because I’ve been looking at textbooks—pictures of chromosomes and that kind of thing. I think in terms of very specific genes and what happens when you make a cross. But I do have a sense, I guess, about how the plant is coping and what it’s doing to survive.
Mo: Is that understanding of memory and behavior connected to the way you look at these flax test plots when they’re growing?
Jenny: Yeah, like this year, we were sad that we got so much rain that our plots don’t look great. And it was a new field, so it had a lot of organic residue and it wasn’t the best conditions for planting. And the field is naturally pretty wet. But now, you look and you can see checkerboard out there—the plots that can take it and the ones that can’t. In the Willamette Valley, it’s not unreasonable to expect that you might get a lot of rain if you’re planting a crop in the Fall. And flax is not known for being water-tolerant. They say it does not like “wet feet,” but maybe we’ll select some that are able to tolerate wet feet. The thing about seed breeding too is: if you can figure out what you really want, it’s like molding clay—that’s what it’s like. But if you don’t know what you want, then you’re going to get whatever you get, and that’s the way it is. You’re sculpting every step of the way.
Mo: And you’re looking for?
Jenny: For whatever characteristics you think are important. You’re allowed to indulge a little bit in aesthetics, but you also have to be measuring things. And you can’t necessarily translate what you see on one individual plant into what you see in a full stand.
Mo: So the connections to the other plants are a big part of your process too?
Jenny: Absolutely. You have to learn. You have to get to know your crop and you have to know the different traits.
Mo: I want to ask you about what the process of crossing is.
Jenny: Well, we’re going to be doing some of that this Spring. That’s because I’ve planted 36 different genotypes. “Genotype” means a plant has its own genetic characteristics and genetic makeup. So different traits, different characteristics. It’s pretty easy: you go in the night before and you can tell that the little bud is about to come open and then you just take out the anthers (the male flowers). And then you come back the next morning and you get some pollen from another plant with a different genotype, and you just come and brush it right on the female (stigma). By noon or one o’clock when it’s all done, it drops petals. And if we’re lucky, we will get up to ten seeds.
Mo: For each cross?
Jenny: For each cross. But usually it’s more like five or six seeds. But even so, with five or six, you plant that out, let it self-pollinate, and you harvest that seed. And then by the time you do that a couple of times, we get to what we call the F3—three generations.
Mo: How many years are represented in these test plots?
Jenny: (points to one section) These are probably F3. And then these (points to another section) are more like F5s, so those are farther along.
Mo: Three and five years. And each one of these seed envelopes is a different cross?
Jenny: I have some checks in there, so if it’s got a name on it, those are “checks”— standard varieties. We can compare the test plants to them. We’ve got some checks that are seed (food) types and some checks that are fiber types.
Mo: So when you’re seeing all of these traits, do you think about the things that you did before and the things you might do later? And do you see a timeline in your head?
Jenny: I’m still learning, finding my way with flax.
Mo: This feels less familiar?
Jenny: You have to get to know the plant. And the more plants you’re trying to work on, the harder it gets. And the older you get, the harder it is to remember things! But I would say I’m intimately familiar with corn. I’m intimately familiar with meadowfoam. Flax—I’m getting better acquainted.
Mo: When you are in physical contact with one of the plants you’re really familiar with, do you feel that?
Jenny: Oh, yeah. Some of them are just beautiful! Gorgeous. And sometimes it just looks like grass growing—you know, really wide leaves and standing there. Or maybe the shape is just so attractive.
Mo: In getting to know the flax better, do you converse with it?
Jenny: No, no, I wouldn’t say I converse with it. With the flax, we have to be careful about how it matures. I have a lot more to learn. I was trained by meadowfoam breeders and I was trained by corn breeders, so that expert knowledge was passed down, and I’ve got bits of others’ expert knowledge on flax, but you have to understand that there’s things you don’t know.
Mo: So this is the first time that you haven’t had a human mentor?
Jenny: I didn’t have a human mentor, other than some casual conversations with a friend who sadly passed away, Daryl Aronsing. He was extremely passionate about fiber flax. He knew quite a bit about its agronomy and history. I’m not sure if he knew all the details, because he wasn’t a breeder. But certainly he knew how to grow it, as well as how it is processed. He was passionate, so I think I got a little bit of the bug from him. That’s the thing, when you’re a plant breeder, you have to have an emotional attachment to your crops. You learn from them. You have to.
Mo: Because there’s an exchange happening?
Jenny: Yeah, absolutely. So I’m looking into a few new crops, little things. Like I always like the idea of working on medicinal things. I’m pretty sure, apart from the oats, that flowers are fairly important to me. I also like things that can be grown during the winter because I don’t like the whole idea of having to have irrigation to grow a crop here.
Mo: Yeah, I was going to ask, since this test in particular is a wintered-over crop, I had to kind of retune my brain to think about the growth cycle in that way.
Jenny: I definitely have a preference in this environment for winter. There aren’t enough options for growers in winter, and they need break-crops. They need crops that all have different diseases, different insect pests. There’s a limited number of break crops in this area, and you need to have something on the field in the winter.
Mo: So your concern is ecological?
Jenny: Partly, yeah. And just making best use of the rainfall. Why irrigate when we have all of this successive rain in the winter? We shouldn’t have to irrigate fiber flax, and you don’t have to irrigate meadowfoam [a winter crop]. So that’s kind of part of my interest.
Mo: Is your interest based on this place, based on living in this climate?
Jenny: Well I got my undergraduate degree here. I was not a farm girl growing up, so I had all my classes on how to identify plants here. Looking at all the seeds and being able to identify seeds. So I know more about the ecology here, than I do in Pennsylvania where I grew up. Because I didn’t have a connection to the farm community when I was growing up.
Mo: That makes sense.
Jenny: I have an emotional attachment to this area.
Mo: And you respond to that by working with those long winter rains.
Jenny: Yeah. And I think it’s important, you know—you spend so much of your time working in your life—I do believe it’s important to pick something that you feel passionate about, even if it’s something that you’re not the best at. Like, I’m kind of spastic, you know? I’m not that athletic. My vision isn’t even that good. So I have things that would not make me the most likely candidate for being a plant breeder. But I found that it’s rewarding to me. It helps me to notice things more. I could drive the same route 20 times and still not be able to find my way. So it’s actually sort of therapeutic to be out there looking closely at things and taking notes. It does a lot for me in different ways. Does that make sense?
Mo: Yes. I’m just thinking about it, using what you’re doing to finetune your experience.
Jenny: I try to be more aware of my surroundings.
Mo: That is really beautiful.
Jenny: And one of my talents is spreadsheets. I may not be that good at hand-eye coordination, but I am extraordinary at spreadsheets.
Mo: And observation, let’s not forget that.
Jenny: I take all the measurements and there is no end to my patience when it comes to measuring the smallest detail. And then I just, I crunch it all in there into the spreadsheet and I come up with a selection. That’s part of the molding process for me.
Mo: You’re looking at the whole.
Jenny: I’m looking at the whole thing. I get all the information and I actually do a magical thing where I decide how much influence one trait will have more than another in my selection.
Jenny: And I’ve had a lot of success with it. I really do believe it’s my interest in numbers and being able to measure things and make those judgments about what’s most important.
Jenny: Yes, patterns. And by the way, I compensate for being a klutz. Like working on corn. One of the things you have to do in corn research is you plant two seeds in every hill and then thin back to just one plant. They wanted to have perfect stands, no plants missing. So the plants were about this high (lowers her hand to ankle-height), and I mean, everybody was faster than I was! I’d have a migraine at the end of the day from bending over. But, you know, it kept me going. Kept me moving.
Mo: Is that part of it too? Being outside and moving around?
Jenny: Going outside, and I want to keep mobile. But basically it’s just exciting to see, hold in your hand, you know, your little seeds that you’ve made.
Mo: And see them multiply.
Jenny: Yes, and see the change of things over time. We started at this point, now we’ve gotten to this point.
Mo: Did this number of seeds come from a very small amount to begin with?
Jenny: Each one of these crosses would have come from a single plant. Yes. By the end of the day, in my study, I start with a thousand things and then you may end up with six things. Even if we can’t do big fancy field trials, we might be able to at least give a grower two different varieties and say which one do you like better?
Mo: Keep testing it?
Jenny: Yeah. You say, here’s two things, A and B, you don’t tell them which is which, and then they tell you which one they like better. And then you do that with enough growers and you can get an idea about which ones are preferred. That’s the modification I’m making because we aren’t mechanized.
Mo: Building community out of necessity.
Jenny: Yeah, yeah. We’re not mechanized and we’re on a shoestring budget, which is like no budget. And part of my experiment is, can this work, doing it this way? I think that we’re going to get enough payoff from being in the zone—that we’ll get something out of it. Compared to taking something that was developed somewhere else.
Mo: So it starts with you and your little plant and then becomes all these millions of plants.
Jenny: I did have some that were still kind of variable, but they were a fairly advanced generation. So I gave that to Shannon and then to three different people. A little jar of seed, so that they could grow it out in a small plot and pick their favorite plants. So that’s another option: to recruit assistant breeders! There are little tricks you have to learn.
Mo: Which is where all the years come in!
Jenny: I’m still hopeful that we can do something if we have keen observation. For me, it’s also motivating to have nice people to work with! That makes all the difference. Angela and Shannon, you know, I just get a charge out of working with them. That’s why I do it.
Mo Geiger (she/her) Mo Geiger’s artwork is interdisciplinary and often collaborative. In this combined and context-specific approach, she explores how the ingredients of labor and what people “do” affect various relationships, telling stories that use tactile learning with and from others as a relational tool. She has a background in technical theater, where she learned to value collaborative processes. Her artwork has appeared in galleries, theaters, museums, public spaces, and local organizations, and she is a co-founder of the south-central Pennsylvania performance collective Valley Traction.
Dr. Jennifer G. Kling (she/her) is a Senior Research Professor at Oregon State University as well as an Agricultural Consultant. Jennifer’s current interest is in developing specialty crops for niche markets in Oregon. In 2012-2013 Jennifer was the Principal Investigator for the OSU Agricultural Research Foundation, in Breeding Dual-Purpose Flax Varieties for Emerging Textile Markets in Oregon. Jennifer G Kling has a Ph.D. in Genetics from North Carolina State University, a M.S. in Agronomy/Plant Breeding from the University of Nebraska, and a B.S. in Crop Science from Oregon State University.
Can I Borrow a Feeling?
“I force myself to find the moments where I feel positively about my form, but for the most part I am havocked by a simmering body dysmorphia.”CHARLIE BREWER
These are the questions I asked my contributors to answer for Can I Borrow a Feeling?, a project that attempts to learn more about how people feel in their bodies, the nature of confidence, and if/how I can borrow some of their confidence without diminishing it. My hope is that reflecting on their relationships to their bodies will be a positive experience for my co-authors. I asked each participant a few questions, and then I asked them to take a portrait of themself. I asked them to portray the way they feel about themself and their body. After they take the picture, they make a set of instructions for me detailing how I can recreate the portrait. I don’t look at their image before I take my picture, I take my own picture according to their instructions and reflect on what it feels like to embody them and their relationship to their physical form. I do my best to interpret and recreate my own photo according to their instructions.
I started by giving my participants the example of my own portrait and instructions, and my own answers to some of the questions. I talk about pain and dysphoria, euphoria, and illness, because those are all facets of my own bodily experience. I want my co-authors to know a little about me and also to know that this project can hold the gamut of their feelings. I have gone through the process with a few people in the month or so that I have been working on the project and will continue the process with many more collaborators until it feels complete. The working title is Can I Borrow a Feeling?, which is a phrase itself borrowed from the self-released cassette single by Kirk Vanhouten in the Simpsons.
One of my first collaborators on the project was Charlie Brewer and he answered the following questions over email:
Caryn Aasness: How would you describe yourself?
Charlie Brewer: Afraid of being seen, but wanting nothing more. Generally affable.
Caryn: Would you consider yourself to be confident?
Caryn: Do you like taking pictures of yourself or having your picture taken by others?
Charlie: Yes, greatly. But I really don’t enjoy looking at them after the photo is taken. Every once in a while someone captures me in a way I really enjoy, but for the most part it’s a rarity.
Caryn: How do you feel about having a body/How do you feel about having your body?
Charlie: I am very unaware of my body. I have a hard time recognizing when my body is in pain or needs rest. I do not enjoy my body. I force myself to find the moments where I feel positively about my form, but for the most part I am havocked by a simmering body dysmorphia.
Caryn: What is something someone else has said about your body that sticks with you?
Charlie: “If you started weightlifting you could get super big. You have the widest shoulders I’ve ever seen on someone who doesn’t weight lift.” My 50 year old coworker—a lifelong weightlifter— told me this.
Caryn: What do you tell yourself about your body?
Charlie: This is my body, there are many like it, but this one is mine. My body is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.
Caryn: Do you ever feel “grounded?” When?
Charlie: Yes, when performing labor or acts of service for others. When not working for extended periods, I tend to lose track of my sense of identity and feel existentially insecure.
Caryn: Can you tell me about the most confident person you know?
Charlie: My dad. He can talk to anyone about anything. I owe my conversational/social skills solely to him.
Caryn: Can you describe the best conversation you have ever had about bodies?
Charlie: Once, while under the influence of a drug, I had a conversation with my mom about how almost everyone in our entire family suffers from body dysmorphia in one way or another. It was extremely liberating in a way that’s hard to put to words.
Caryn: Can you describe your favorite photo of yourself?
Charlie: I am small. One or two years old I think. I am naked. My father is holding me. He has a long beard and is in his final stages of balding. He has on a pair of huge coke bottle glasses and a flannel shirt with tighty whitey underwear underneath. We are in the garage, there’s an anti-Vietnam War flag behind us. I am wearing the 1992 Michael Keaton Batman mask.
Caryn: What are your instructions for me for how to take the portrait?
Become utterly aimless for an extended period of time.
Feel trapped by passive decisions you’ve made in your hometown.
Accept an art job in Dallas, Texas.
Work for people you do not like or enjoy.
Realize the life you had back home was much more fulfilling.
Begin enjoying the time you spend in this new city with the knowledge that you will go back home with a refreshed perspective.
Start making friends with people who feel equally trapped and aimless in their hometown.
Tell them that they will have a friend when they eventually visit or move to Portland.
Sleep on the floor of a gallery that’s connected to a burlesque theater for a month.
On the second to last day of the month, get into a heated argument with the owner of the burlesque theater because he talked inappropriately to one of your new friends.
Get super drunk with your friend after he leaves.
Make fun of him a great deal, enjoy it.
Laugh very hard at your friend calling him an off-brand Mathew McConaughey.
Dance around the theater for a bit and then when your friend leaves, take a photo of yourself on the burlesque theater’s recording security camera.
Come back home and restart the process.
*If you or someone you know are interested in being part of the project, please email email@example.com, I would love to work with you to accommodate your participation.
Caryn Aasness (they/them) is an MFA student in PSU’s Art and Social Practice Program. They are originally from Long Beach California, and are currently living in Portland, Oregon. They make work about the brain, the body, and the illnesses and magic that reside within them. You can see more of their work at carynaasness.com
Charlie Brewer (he/they) is a pie baker; born in Beaverton, Oregon and now lives in Portland, Oregon.
Emma Duehr Mitchell, Becca Kauffman, and Caryn Aasness
Emma Duehr Mitchell
Becca Kauffman, Emma Duehr Mitchell, Caryn Aasness, Luz Blumenfeld
Lisa Jarrett and Harrell Fletcher
Cover Art Direction: Gilian Rappaport
Cover Art Production: Laura Glazer
Olivia DelGandio with Roz Crews
Diana Marcela Cuartas with Yolanda Chois and Michelle Szejner
Gilian Rappaport with Nellie Scott
Rebecca Copper and Marti Clemmons with Cindy Cumfer, Katharine English, Gilah Tenenbaum, and Pat Young
Laura Glazer with Melodie Adams
Lillyanne Phạm with ridhi d’cruz and Jackie Santa Lucia
Marina Lopez with Sonia Erika
Luz Blumenfeld with their grandmother, Yolanda Ronquillo
Justin Maxon and H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams PhD with Wydeen Ringgold
Shelbie Loomis with Benita Alioth
Becca Kauffman with Crosswalk Collective LA
Kiara Walls with Kenny Walls
Mo Geiger with Dr. Jennifer Kling
Caryn Aasness with Charlie Brewer
Eric John Olson