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Boyuan Gao

Feature Interview - Boushra Almutawakel's Lens Into Yemen

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Feature Interview - Boushra Almutawakel's Lens Into Yemen

If you live in the West, you'll probably find it difficult to believe that one of  Yemen's first women photographers first picked up a camera in the 1990s. Boushra Almutawakel is celebrated for not only breaking the gender barrier in regards to Yemeni photography, but her provocative and engaging works have yielded interest internationally, landing her in The New Yorker, Rachel Maddow's blog, The Economist, and in prestigious galleries in embassies and museums around the world.

The globetrotting mother of four spent some of her childhood and early adulthood living in the U.S. Her homebase is currently in Yemen, where she lives with her daughters and her husband. It is through the lens of her camera that Boushra most boldly negotiates her Western sensibility with her life in the Middle East, where an interesting narrative unfolds. 

What do you find compelling about images through photography? Why not painting, or some other medium?  

I was always intruiged by the arts, including photography.

I got into photography by chance, and it's something that happened over time. I wanted to learn about photography as part of a bucket list. I did not expect to fall in love with it as I did. It was like magic! Also, it started it out as just a hobby that became a bit of an obsession. Eventually, I was invited to exhibit, my work started selling, and I was hired to do some photo projects. In the 1990s I was honored along with several other Yemeni women pioneers, as the first woman photographer in Yemen. Photography is a very powerful medium in the arts, journalism, the internet, and in the media. It is instant, real (although it can also be deceiving at times), communicates in a way everyone understands, and freezes moments in time allowing the viewer to leisurely study an image over and over again. I love creating and observing photographic images. There are images that are forever burned into our psyche. Although I am a photographer, I am also interested in other art forms and multimedia. If it were up to me, I think I would have been a painter.

In the 1990s I was honored along with several other Yemeni women pioneers, as the first woman photographer in Yemen.

How long have you been a photographer? 

I have been doing photography since 1992, but professionally since 1998.

What do you shoot with?

Currently I shoot with a Canon 5d, and hope to get back to shooting medium and large format film.

Your work obviously comes from your subjectivity as a woman, but why is it that you photograph so many women subjects, including self portraits?

I have photographed many other topics, but I do love photography related to women. I am a woman, I have four girls, and so it comes most natural for me to photograph women or issues related to women. It is what is closest to my heart and what I know most about. I hope my work regarding women will generate curiosity, conversation, and debate, especially in the areas of social norms and stereotypes, and women’s rights. As women, we have sooo many issues to contend with, so many wrongs that need to be corrected, not just for women in the Middle East, but women everywhere. There is a lot of repression, oppression and misogyny--some of the things I would like to address in my work.

There is a lot of repression, oppression and misogyny—some of the things I would like to address in my work.

What type of socio-cultural-political commentary have you covered in your works so far? Especially relating to Yemen, and Islam?

I have photographed women and children in very remote areas throughout Yemen, photographing things related to education, health and development. I did a series under the title of "My Father’s House," a British Council project, where I photographed interiors of homes of different socio-economic backgrounds. Before that I photographed a series on contemporary Moslem life in Yemen, looking at the integration between religion and tradition, where one begins and the other one ends. My latest series is on the veil. It is an ongoing series that I started in 2001.

Tell me a bit about the Barbie series, where you have an Islamicized Barbie positioned in various day-to-day settings. 

Growing up, I played with the Barbie doll along with other dolls. As an adult, I was pleasantly surprised to discover Fulla a few years ago, the Middle Eastern Islamic version of Barbie. She comes with a headscarf, and abaya (a long black light coat), and permanent long underwear. You can purchase one that comes with prayer clothes and a prayer mat, and when you press her back, she chants a prayer in Arabic. I fell in love with Fulla, and bought my girls the doll. It was just nice to have another option to the blue-eyed, blonde, well-endowed Barbie. Especially a doll that was representative of my culture and religion (although I am not that religious). So I decided to photograph her. At the suggestion of a mentor/friend, I lost myself in play, taking me back to my days when I was a little girl playing with dolls. I created different scenarios, and photographed them. Slowly I started seeing snippets of my life or the life of other Yemeni women play out in these scenarios. I had such a blast. I still have a long way to go with Fulla and her adventures.

It was just nice to have another option to the blue eyed, blonde, well-endowed Barbie. Especially a doll that was representative of my culture and religion (although I am not that religious).

You went to school in the U.S. How was that experience being in a country that at the time (and still is today to a degree) anti-Muslim? 

I first went to the U.S. when I was 6 years of age, living there till I was eleven. My family and I traveled to the U.S. for our summer vacations. I later went to the U.S. to pursue my Bachelor’s degree, and later with my husband to study photography. Overall, my experience in the U.S. was very positive, and memorable. I think since I went to the U.S. at such an early age, the U.S. felt like my second home. Although I was aware of prejudice against Arabs and Moslems, mostly through the media or other’s experiences, I don’t recall being treated badly because of my race or religion. Even during a period when in college I wore the hijab, I felt others embraced my difference, and were curious. Then again I spent most of my time in the U.S. in Washington DC, which is quite international, with people from all over the world.

Was there any particular experience growing up that you now realize had a significant role in defining how you see yourself today?

I had many (both good and bad) defining moments that make me who I am today. Some of these experiences are very personal, but all I can say I learned to break out of some of the limiting customs and beliefs that I was brought up with, to break through some very real fears that were just in my mind, I learned to be more independent, about the importance of working hard and doing your best, not matter what it was.

...I learned to break out of some of the limiting customs and beliefs that I was brought up with, to break through some very real fears that were just in my mind...

What are some prevailing themes in your life right now that you would like to translate to your photography?

I have so many projects I would like to continue or start some of which are photographing key Yemeni women, women who have made it or brought about positive change, etc, as a way of honoring them, and highlighting these women and their stories to other women and girls, to possibly inspiring them in fulfilling their dreams; continuing my series on intercultural couples, which I find fascinating, and motherhood--the magic and the madness.

Where are you showing/what are you working on now?

Currently some of my work is being exhibited as part of a group exhibit titled Contemporary Middle Eastern Art and Paris at the National Museum in Sana’a, Yemen. The British Museum in London acquired my work, and I will be part of an upcoming exhibit on Photographers from the Middle East at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston.

Words by Boyuan Gao

All photography by Boushra Almutawakel

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Shira E Is Electric

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Shira E Is Electric

Shira E has this haunting kind of voice, the kind that immediately silences a room full of people in the midst of hearty conversation. There is a palpable quality to the sound that she emits through her lungs, a thick-like-molasses and indulgent vibration, lulling you into some otherworldly experience. This is what I witnessed when I walked into Launchpad during the Women Love the World Conference last month. I entered into the dimly lit room with this small silhouette of a person standing in front of a large projector, playing the Roland 404 synthesizer, and hand drumming. I was in love with whatever was going on and needed to meet this person.

We set up an interview at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, and sat on a bench under some trees, and got to chatting. Shira shared with me her beliefs about the practicality of poetry, the challenges that women face when trying to tap into electronic music, the simultaneous significance and insignificance of our existence in this universe, and her exciting new Indiegogo campaign to help her spread her awesome new album all around the country.

You mentioned that you recently relocated to NYC. What brought you here? 

I live in Brooklyn, but I swore I would never live here in the past. I was done doing all of these jobs, while writing, and doing music mostly on the side after touring for a bit with poetry. I had fed my artistic life, and eased into a place where I was mostly not doing it anymore. But then, synchronistically, I quit three jobs and then fell in love, and she lives here, and all of that pulled me to the city. I had never felt that way before in terms of a city calling me, but I felt like I wanted to put an intention into art instead of just doing it because I love it. When you make a move like that, you’re putting your pennies in a jar, but you’re actually feeding yourself what you want to be fed.

What are you currently doing in the City? 

I’m a teaching artist: I teach gay elders poetry on Wednesdays at a place called SAGE, I’m also in Queens with teenagers teaching writing and theater, I’m a mentor with Urban Word, and I teach online writing classes to individuals all over the country, which is really fun. I’m also making music.

Music-wise, what are you working on? 

I’ve been working on a record for probably a year. I’m with a new machine--the sampler. Before that I was all guitar-based and with ukuleles and stuff like that. So I’m percolating and recording and just working with people on art.

What sparked your interest in going electronic? 

I just had the desire to do it for so long, and truth be told, I just felt like I didn’t really see women doing it, and it feels kind of funny to say because now I see so many women doing it, but at the time I didn’t. I grew up playing the guitar, so I knew the ins and outs of it; It was something that was safe, that I felt comfortable with. Going electronic, it was exciting and unsafe in a way. I had just dreamt of doing it for so long, and seeing people doing and all of this cool stuff, like someone with six samplers, and one loop pedal...

Part of the intention of moving here was that I was going to buy a sampler. I had never touched one until a year ago. I had asked guy friends to help me, but there were only a few who were willing. You really need to feel a sense of encouragement with that stuff, really with anything, or any art form. Now when I’m playing, a woman will just sneak up to me over my shoulder and say, “can I see?” and I’m like, “come on! Touch it. Look at it. Take out the wires, and do what you want,” because it’s really not our turf.

Why isn’t it our turf?

Stereotypically. I even remember being in high school and being the one female rock player in a circuit of friends. I had to find them, like I made girl bands and things like that, but I guess I more so mean that for me to walk into a guitar center and ask for cables, or something like, a guitar felt way smoother and easier than going in there about gear that I knew nothing about, or felt like were more stereotypically linked to guys. When I thought of that music, I thought of Animal Collective. I couldn’t even think of groups with women before, but now I can probably name five or six.

Can you name some?

I can name Grimes. I can name Tune-yards. I feel like when Tuneyards popped up, I was like, I don’t necessarily want to make that music, but I was so excited just to see the level of intensity of skill that come with those electronics, and I think I also didn’t have an entrance into a scene where that was true. I’m sure there are cities where women are dominating the scene. I just didn’t have the entrance into that.

What was your learning process like? 

I felt so compelled that I just sat with the manual. I’m not techy at all, which is why it was so intimidating. You can even take gender out of it—I’m not techy. I just sat with it, and I would try to spend two hours just with the stupid manual to just figure things out, and then my friend Emmanuel, who’s insanely talented and in Many Mansions, I would go over to his place and he would show me stuff that I had totally intuited wrong, and would re-wire and teach me. With his loving help and just a lot of devotion—I think I was just honestly ready for a challenge. Previously, I would bend the guitar with all of these crazy tunings just to make these sounds that I wanted, and I sort of hit a ceiling, and this was definitely so out of my comfort zone. I was so excited about having so many sounds available, not just guitar, but I could put anything into that sampler, and it would just create a forest of different sounds.

What kind of a sampler do you use?

It’s a Roland 404. I’d say, it’s older, but folks still use it.

Do you now have interests in other electronics? 

Not really. The truth of it was that I kind of wanted a band. If I think that I absolutely need to have drums, then maybe I would start to synch up the sampler with the live drums or get a drummer, or something like that. Right now, that machine is still so new to me still, that I just want to get more cozy with it before I add a loop pedal to it or anything too naughty. Though I really do want to play electric guitar with it. I miss that fuzzed out, delicious, electric guitar. That’s a secret dream.

How does poetry play into music, and vice versa?

My name [Shira] means both. It means poem and song. People have asked me often, which do I love more? Or how do they affect the other? Because I have grown up doing both, I really feel like they are two arms. It’s not like one is more important, but they are just so vital. Even before coming to meet you, I was kind of in a weird mood space, so I just played for five minutes, and it just cleared me out somehow. I think with music, with both of them, there’s a way that I’m in conversation with myself. Like I know myself better because I have these tools. I can’t imagine not having them. It seems I can sit down and have a conversation with myself and then become a different Shira. That’s actually crazy ya know? They offer me similar things, but they also diverge in what they can give me beyond those similar things.

I went out with my friend Beverly, who is 94. I met her at the class I teach, and we were having drinks, and she was like, “okay, you’re in front of God. Music or poetry? And I don’t want anything bullshitty. This is really happening, which one is it?” I felt like, what am I supposed to say? Even though both are so important to me, I think there is a way that music does something--it almost includes the writing in a way, but writing can’t really include the music. It can leap and have it’s phonetic delight, but music just cuts in a different way. It doesn’t mean that a poem can’t cut the way music can, but music does something that’s not word oriented, even when I think of the sounds that we transmit, part of it is not language oriented, it’s just full body oriented, if that makes sense.

What kind of power does poetry have?

Oh my god. I really think, like how people stand up and salute the flag--I actually don’t really know because I was born in Israel, I came here at six, so I’m kind of confused about what people did at schools. If they still do that, I just wonder what it would be like if they started school and everybody had poetry time. It's like the clam that takes the dirt and makes the pearl--to be able to have that process within ourselves, and to give kids that. It’s such a tool, that refines your understanding of how to communicate with people, it refines how much you appreciate life every second. I just imagine everyone, down to the president being a poet. It actually makes me embarrassed and a little weary at how I used to look at poetry when I had idols at 18, and saw folks like Saul Williams and would freak out. Now I see poetry in a totally practical light.

When did you figure that out?

When I moved here, I was right at the age that I was fluent in Hebrew, but was learning English, and so language wasn’t a given. I heard things a different way than someone who grew up here being told, "book means book", and "cat means cat", and that’s what it is, but when you have something else to think of as a language, and you're learning new words, it just tweaks your brain a little bit to handle words differently. They weren’t just things that you would say to your mom as a kid, it’s also how you maneuver the world as someone in a new world.

I remember being in third grade, we were doing spelling, and my teacher was like, "I don’t know if she’s been in the states long enough to be in this spelling group." They gave us kids words about the season, vocab about flowers, and I remember--it sounds braggy, but it was just a fact--that I made something of the words that my mom and the teacher were both like, “whoa! Oh my god.” I think it’s that ability to really care and have love for these objects that people call words that you can move them around and express something and see what they are. You can’t take them for granted. You can do things with them that are brand new.

Does New York help or hinder your ability to find clarity through art? 

I need to make things. It’s my way of being a better Shira, which I didn’t really realize until my friends were like, “yo, you need to make something, because you’re having a hard week.” In that sense, I look at the places that I’ve lived, which are like Brookline and Boston in Massachusetts where I grew up, and I look at Northampton, Amherst, and then I look at here (NYC). I think that I always was making, but the difference here is time. I don’t know if it’s just because I'm getting older, but the constraints and limits of time, but in Western Mass, I worked less, and I could work less because I could pay for things for less, so I had more time to delve into writing. But now that means that my focus is so intense here. When I do sit down, and I’m with my sampler, I’m like, “okay, it’s you and me. We’re stuck in an elevator called tonight, and we’re just going to do this!” So there’s that. I think it’s affected my focus.

In general, the intensity of the city, asks something back, whereas the landscape and colors of Western Mass is just simple ease. It’s the word that I think of when I’m there that allows for a different style of art making, a different response.

How do the people around you influence the way you create? 

I kind of understood something early on because I played a lot of team sports and you really rely a lot on each other, and you have to be available and be kind actually, otherwise it doesn’t work. Your team falls apart. There’s a way in which I saw that, if a person, a fellow teammate could affect me so much, I had that power as well. That is ever-present in my mind. I’ve always been able to have community and people around me who challenge me, and inspire me. When I haven’t had that it’s been horrible.

Can you talk about that?

When I was at UMass I was writing from 12-4 am every night, just on my computer--work that now when I look back cannot be seen by anyone! I was trying to connect with people, but I just couldn’t really find it. In high school, I had a lot of access to very different artists, from vegan nutty nuts, to painters, to someone who was a jockey who wrote incredible essays. It was all available. To shift to a huge university where I just couldn’t really find that was overwhelming. I felt more freedom when I transferred to Hampshire College to pursue art more aggressively.

I first went to Hampshire as a UMass student and joined the five college slam team, and transferred while I was on that team. It’s kooky how it happens, when you find those people, you realize that you didn’t have that before. I had something lovely in many ways, but that type of intensive, “I can’t fall asleep until I share this poem with you. And you can’t fall asleep until you hear it.” The intensity and joy in that was different. The teammates were from all five colleges, and that community became very strong for me. The way that I feel about that community was, I’m sure that when people were around James Baldwin, they were like, “this person is a trove, an international treasure,” and there are folks that I’ve met on the team who I felt that way being around them.

What fuels your passion on a day-to-day basis?

Sometimes I'm dry. Always having my mind attuned to the fact that I might write or I might create something, just that simple fact feels exciting. Another thing that I think of is our human connection. How crazy it is that we are here in the first place? It sounds psychedelic, but it's actually crazy. If I have awareness of that fact everyday, that we are on a spinning blue dot, when I think of that, I am filled to the brim with poems. I feel so fundamentally perplexed at the thought of just being here, that I can get caught up with bills and all that stuff, but when I just take a second to just feel the weight of that and the lightness at the same time, it opens everything. I don't have to ask for inspiration. We are made of it. It's everything.

It's weird for me to think that, "I have to pay this medical bill, but I'm on that teeny tiny dot," that they are someway equally as real. I think that's at the heart of my writing, that both of those statements are true.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Original photo essay by Seher Sikandar

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Liz Maxwell: An Artmonk's Take on Social Innovation

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Liz Maxwell: An Artmonk's Take on Social Innovation

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Liz Maxwell is just one of those people who you'll meet once, and never forget. Her hearty and unselfconscious laugh, and general exuberance and joy, are kind of too contagious to ignore. You won't stand a chance. She's one of those free spirits who has done more in a few years than most people do in a lifetime. After college, she bought an around-the-world ticket, landed in Italy, fell upon a bunch of "hippies" at The Art Monastery Project where she served as the Artistic Director, and stayed for three years. I met her a few months ago at The Feast Social Innovation Conference, where she was one of the core organizers. I wanted to know how she went from a modern monastic lifestyle in an insular community, to being involved in a rapidly growing social innovation scene in one of the biggest cities in the world. This was our conversation:

How did you find out about the Art Monastery?  

I found it on Google. I’m pretty good at identifying the thing that I want in the world, and then searching the internet. [laughs]

What was your story before landing there?

I grew up in New Orleans. I went to college and majored in theater. After that I bounced around the country doing some regional theater, and then an internship in Cincinnati. I’m also a performance artist, I acted a lot in college, but I got more interested in directing in this "devised collaborative ensemble thing" around the U.S. I kind of decided that traditional regional theater was bullsh*t. I was seeking something more. As an actor, the traditional track is really laid out where you just audition a ton, and sometimes if you’re really lucky the right person sees you and puts you in a show, or you intern for years and years. It’s so hard. As a female director specifically, the track is to assistant direct enough times, probably for a good decade or two, until you get the chance to do it yourself. It's not like there's a casting call for directors. It’s all very networky.

I always imagined that I would end up in New York. When I was in my early 20s, I considered moving here, but thought, "okay, once I’m in New York, I’m going to settle in there, but before that, I want to see the world!" So I saved up a bunch of money and went on an around-the-world trip. Before I left, I was just looking for different opportunities and alternative ways to travel, and found this great website called Workaway, which I highly recommend to travelers, because you can find work/trade arrangement where you can live and eat for free, or whatever the arrangement is. The Art Monastery was listed on that, and it seemed pretty cool, and we set up that I would go there for a week to volunteer, a few months into my trip. I did, and I never left. I showed up for that week, and I ended up there for three years. I entered the organization at the right time, as they were at this particular stage of growth. They had a really small team, and I quickly became more involved on every level with what they were doing, like programmatic initiatives, and then eventually becoming Artistic Director.

How did you go from being a volunteer to the artistic director? 

The Founding Artist Director couldn’t come back to Italy the second year and I was next in line, so I just stepped up. It was exciting and I learned a bunch by just doing, almost immediately. I became so deeply involved in so many ways.

What is the concept behind the Art Monastery? 

The Art Monastery Project is dedicated to personal awakening and cultural transformation through art, contemplation, and community. So those are the three really big pillars. We investigated all kinds of questions relating to "art," "monastery," and the idea of a "project." We really examined those three words. It’s a real monastery, and there’s a deep connection with the old world there, looking at what it means to be a monk today, such as what does contemporary monasticism actually mean? We threw out the traditional monastic vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, and created our own: Gratitude, Resourcefulness, and Fidelity as our three Artmonk vows. Those may change in the future, but at the time when someone joined the monastery, we asked them to take those vows with us.

What kinds of people are involved with the monastery? 

All kinds of people: travelers, international volunteers who were just passing through,Many professional artists from a variety of disciplines and international backgrounds, and then the core team who happened to be are all Americans. A lot of them were from San Francisco. We had our own network of artists who had heard about Art Monastery, and the word just kind of grew. The project was in Italy for 5 years. Now we shut down all Italian operations and are now back in the U.S. to figure out what the next stages look like. There are some core concepts and values that we’ve identified, but the idea is to spread the Artmonk values in a more decentralized, organic way. That’s the next phase.

What did the programs in Italy look like? 

In Italy we ran residency programs, short term and long term. Short term artists would come for one week to do their own thing. For all residents, we all ate together. We had a monastic schedule that we would try to keep together. We sang Gregorian Chant together and would try to keep some of the monastic rituals together and active. The experiment was to see how that would affect the creative process and the products that came out of it. In the shorter programs, the artists would share their work with the Italian village that we lived in, which was often stuff that they had already developed. Residents who stayed three-months would work with the core team and create projects in that setting. That’s when we really got to dig in the monastic stuff. The whole time you’re living with one community, where you have a lot of people, and a lot of opinions. There were between 5 and 25 at any given time. The summer was when we could host the most people because it was pretty outside, and people would camp on the grounds.

Going by the monastic schedule that you created, what results did you see?

For instance, I’m a theater director, but because I lived with a composer, a visual artist, a writer, etc. for years, we would naturally build things collaboratively. The show we did at the end of last summer (Ad Mortem) had this electronic rock score that utilized this live looping, which is not artistically where I would have thought to bring it, but that’s what the composer was experimenting with at the time. That’s just an example of what happens when you are living in a rich community together. Just over breakfast, you would hear, “listen to what I created last night.” And it totally affects you in this cellular way, it affects your deep roots of creativity. And the contemplation: it was something that we struggled with because of religion. We’re not a religious organization, we're secular. There was always a large percentage that kind of self identified in the category of Buddhist, but wasn't ever officially incorporated into our values. The Gregorian Chants are of course from Christianity, and in Latin. They were really beautiful, but when you start to really translate the words, none of us--in that space--really believed that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, but it’s still really beautiful. I grew up in the Catholic church, I have love and respect for it, but I don’t consider myself Catholic.

That ends up affecting the content too. We did a lot of chant concerts, and we were in conservative rural Italy, so, we often were asked to sing in church on Easter Sunday. We always thought, "we are a bunch of weird experimental hippies, but sure." They didn’t know how radical or experimental our conversations got, but there was a balance of engaging with the local community there. It was a balancing act and a challenge. We were just so far from any major city that no one spoke English. The core team learned Italian bit by bit, and we had lessons together. It was the only way to survive out there, outside of our little bubble.

How did the Art Monastery start? 

It was founded by a two Americans, Betsy McCall who is a visual artist, and a synchronized swimmer, and she’s in San Francisco now. Christopher Fulling is another founding member, he’s the Founding Artistic Director who’s a ritual theater director and a classical tenor, and he now lives in LA. We don’t say this on the website, but it also very much grew out of the Burning Man community as well.

Why did the founders pick Italy, and such a rural obscure part of it, at that?

It’s where it was possible to happen. That wasn’t necessarily the ideal location. It turned into the ideal location. When the founders first started the project, they didn’t know a lot of people in Italy or connections over there. They went over with a friend who ran tours in Italy, that was her job, and she introduced them to a lot of people. For the first two years, they were in a different small Italian village outside of Rome. The deal there, they were always looking at the monastery to be renovated, and asked them to be there and produce events in the town. They were given a place to live nearby. The place never finished getting renovated, and finally that became too much. At that point, we already had an extensive network in Italy, and we put the word out, and a friend of a friend knew of the mayor in Labro.

How did you sustain your programs? 

The Art Monastery ran on a remarkably small budget, but continued to work for a really long time because so much of it was built on trade, and sharing. We survived off of that. Where we were in Labro. There's a monastery, called Colle di Costa, it was a monastery for a thousand years, and now has been renovated into a four star hotel, so it’s a funny place. It has a special vibe to it because of it’s ancient roots, but you feel like you have to dress up a little bit to be there. They never really wanted us to live in the monastery. I totally understand. No one wants the experimental hippies to live there all year round. For a while we lived there next door, but they would give us space for residencies. But then they let us stay because we produced cultural events. There’s a European value on culture, where I’m not sure that an exchange like that in the U.S. would work like that.

What were some of the great things that you witnessed while being there? 

About two years ago, the Art Monastery got looped into a wonderful partnership with about seven other organizations from around Europe, called the Lifelong Learning Partnership, and we got funding for all of the organizations to go visit all of the other ones, and I got to see a lot more of Europe that way. There’s an organization in Budapest that we got plugged into, and this is how I got connected to the social innovation scene. We produced the  first ever ChangeMaker’s Festival in Sweden that July. That partnership of all of the organizations is still living on. It’s now called the International Partnership for Transformative Learning (IPTL) and they are doing the Change Maker festival again next year.

Why did you leave after so long? 

I still have very strong ties with everyone there, but I was part of an intentional community for so long, and I now have to step away to find my own identity again a little bit. I’m pretty happy to be a solo artist now, but I definitely want to have a company some day. At this point, I’m in New York seeing a lot of other people’s work, following people, and developing my own style. At the moment, I'm really loving the social innovation scene, and became involved with The Feast--the annual social innovation conference--for the past few months.

How does your newfound interest in social innovation relate to your experience at the Art Monastery? 

It's exciting to me because I’m interested in how for-profit companies can do good in the world and have a positive impact on society. I believe in that. The Art Monastery is an American non-profit. We did the "ask for donations thing" for years, we did Kickstarter, we cultivated our patrons and donor database and all of that, and I kind of just got bored of it. I think the model is broken and unsustainable for any organization in the long term. I think it’s very old world, and sets up a system in which some people have a lot of money and they generously give it to those who are less fortunate, who will always be the artist, and we gratefully take it and do some things with it. But I’m more interested in a mutual exchange, such as you should give me money because I’m going to give something back to you and the world that’s really of sustained value. That’s the thing that I’m thinking about before I start my company; I want to have really concrete answers to that, like what is the value that artists produce in the world today, and how do we articulate it in a way that the world is excited and wants to fund? We’re in a capitalist system right now, but how can we create the sharing model of: what can I give you that you need, and you give me that I need so we can both sustain?

What have you learned about that in the social innovation scene so far? 

I’ve only been in New York for a few months, and I feel very lucky to have so quickly gotten involved in another amazing and small team of really passionate people who are really doing something very meaningful in the world. Most recently at The Feast, I was helping to develop their Worldwide initiative. What’s really interesting to me is that my life is just all funneling into itself with all of these different projects where it feels like what I was getting paid to do at The Feast, was really the same thing that we were trying to address with the Art Monastery. The ChangeMaker festival is similar: how can a global community centered around these ideas self sustain and create things all year round that really serve these communities? Getting to answer those questions at The Feast, that was really valuable to me after leaving the Art Monastery.

What were those questions specific to The Feast

To me, it seems like The Feast is all about talking + action, and how do we create a hub to gather a community around specific challenges and shared values and agree that something needs to be done in an area and actually do something about it? It’s about making connections between people and not necessarily managing projects from a top-down perspective, but matching people together who can really collaborate.

What similar processes were present at both? 

No one has anything figured out. Everything is a work in progress. You can always change it. A wonderful woman recently said this amazing thing to me, which was: “the word ‘organization’ comes from the same root as ‘organism’ and ‘orgasm.’” Organizations aren’t fixed, static things but have to live, breathe, grow, be alive like anything else.

There are things that I think are so clearly the future: sharing, collaboration, innovation, and all of these things that are buzz words right now, but it’s incredible to me that the old corporate structure doesn’t see that, or even if they do, don’t know how to activate it.

What would you attribute to your ability to finding work that’s completely aligned with your passions, aside from Google?

The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition is a book about the process of acting and theater making that was developed by Anne Bogart, co-founder of the SITI companyin New York. At the most basic level, this company puts forth that the Viewpoints are a way to categorize Space and Time. They say that at any given moment on stage, there are a few different ways you can look at it, and they’ve identified nine. Some examples are: you can break down Time into Tempo (how fast or slow something is moving), Duration (how long things last), Space can be seen through lens of architecture (what else is on stage, props, etc). So all of these things are present all the time, and this is the philosophy for making work for an actor in a play, or for creating new work. I think this philosophy doesn’t just apply in the theater, but in our everyday reality in life--as a performance art piece--these things apply.

From the nine big Viewpoints, the other philosophy is embedded as well, such as: in improvisation something will always happen. Picture a blank room and two actors will enter the stage. This is how a lot of devised collaborative work is built, through putting some people up there to do something, then I, as the director will cut and shape that, rewind, and do it again. When I was training with the SITI company a couple of years ago, they ask you to trust yourself, trust that something will happen, where you make the next motion, and then the next motion. It’s really important that you not think too far ahead, because if you are planning too far ahead, and the other person is planning too far ahead, you’re not actually in the moment and responding live to what’s happening, and the whole work looks like a mess. You can tell when people are present together, or planning a thing at the end of the improv. It’s very apparent when you watch. I think that applies as a philosophy in your life, and it’s totally difficult to put into practice! I love to plan ahead and strategize and map things out, but actually you don’t know. You can make all of the plans in the world, and you have no idea. I mean everyone knows that, but you just do the best that you can.

What are the biggest lessons you learned while at the Art Monastery? 

When I was in Italy, we never had any money, and everything was really hard to do, we had a really small team, and we were always trying to push forward. We had a really great core community of friends along the way, but because we were faced with such obstacles and moving mountains together, we got really close. So you learn how to do big things and learn how to do it together, and I think it’s important to remember the struggle & the success - and to hold both equally. I mean I also have this gift now of being new in New York, and I feel like I’ve been reborn in some way, and I can look back and tell the story of Italy like it was so amazing. I have perspective on it now, and some of it is really impressive, and I see areas where we totally could have done better, but we did the best we could. I also think that everyone is doing their best. No one knows what they are doing.

People pretend that they have the answer, but no one really does. Experimentation is totally part of the future--people admitting that they are just f*cking around. I feel hyper aware of how I tell the story now. It’s such a privileged position. We romanticize the past a lot. We should romanticize the present, man! It’s way more important.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

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Jennah Bell: Visceral Music

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Jennah Bell: Visceral Music

Hailing from Oakland, California, Jennah Bell's stripped down and raw sound, her thoughtful lyricism, and unique fashion sensibility are hard to place.  A hint of a distantly distilled deep south twang in her guitar strumming, carries her hardened lyrics through a sweet throat. The honeyed voice, coupled with saddened melodies and melancholic lyrics, will be certain to kill you softly. I was engrossed with her "Live at Mother NY" album that Okayplayer put out earlier this year, and replayed song after song the same way that I plucked through each track on Joni Mitchell's Blue back in high school, wholly ingesting each word and note. Similarly, Ms. Bell's album breaks the monotony of internet singles, and breaking news, and gives listeners a certain stillness that we didn't even know we yearned. 

I met up with Jennah Bell at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe to pick through some classics (her preferred reading), and some old records. With our resident photographer Seher Sikandar there to hang and also document, Jennah told us about her newfound collaborators, Charly & Margaux--the violin + viola duo who we featured a few months ago--who are her busking partners. She also expressed to us her feelings about being categorized as a folk artist, the categorization of music and human identities in general, and the need for visceral music. 

You are such a thoughtful and deliberate storyteller. Do you ever fear being so vulnerable or exposed?

Yes. But I feel like when--maybe this is just me, but when you find what you love, what you really love, and you make an investment towards it, there's always an initial fear that you're going to be vulnerable, because you're going to have to work towards it in a way that you've never worked on anything before. And I think the nature of what I'm trying to do puts the writing as more public than for a lot of writers. It doesn't have to be this way. I've made it a conscious choice to expose myself, and that's scary because I feel like my personality is the antithesis of that. I'm very introverted most of the time. I like being by myself, I play well by myself, but I think that's where it balances out. I can get up there, and I can be vulnerable, and I can be quiet for a very long time too. I think that if I couldn't do that, I would be making even more of a risk of exposing my feelings in such an obvious sort of way.

What do you think the reward is?

I get to listen to myself talk, but much later, like listening to a conversation you had ten years ago, where at the time, you try to be conscious of what you are saying, but you can't hear what's coming out of your mouth. I go back and listen to songs that I wrote even five years ago, two years ago, and I can listen to where I was, and that's as invaluable as a human being trying to grow, and I think that listeners experience the same thing. You identify with a song because you know how it feels, and that same song—especially with songs that you listen to over the years—the meanings change, so you might be in that same place in a different way. Songs are just markers of growth, and I think it benefits everybody to know where they are. Since I made my passion communication, I feel like I'm able to help people to know where they are. That's a great feeling.

...when you find what you love, what you really love, and you make an investment towards it, there’s always an initial fear that you’re going to be vulnerable, because you’re going to have to work towards it in a way that you’ve never worked on anything before. And I think the nature of what I’m trying to do puts the writing as more public than for a lot of writers. It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve made it a conscious choice to expose myself, and that’s scary because I feel like my personality is the antithesis of that...

Regardless of your personal preference of music, you’re of the hip-hop generation. How does that identifier play into your work?

It's funny because I've been doing a “Big Poppa” [Notorious B.I.G.] cover at shows. I think that throws people off, because they're like, “you don't make music like that,” but it's the very same thing that you're saying. I'm of the hip-hop generation, and I grew up during The Blueprint [Jay-Z] era. It's very relative to how I think about rhythm and lyrics. I had a friend ask me, “how do you get better at timing in music?” I told her to take her favorite rap lyrics and learn it word for word, rhythm for rhythm, until it's not a thing and you don't think of it twice. And mine was “Big Poppa”, so I learned it word for word, rhythm for rhythm. It's like Dave Chappell who learned that Thelonius Monk song because it's relative to comedic timing.

Tell me about busking. Many people are spectators or witnesses of busking, but most people don’t understand that side of it from the perspective of the performer.

From the spectator, everyone wants to know about something, everybody wants to be a connoisseur. People like to speak from a place of knowing. So when they see me on the subway, all of a sudden they are like, "I know music. I saw Carrie Underwood on American Idol. She sings country. This girl sings country, so therefore I'm qualified to be a judge." It takes them 30 seconds to decide whether or not they are not going to tip based off of what you are singing, how you are singing, and where you are standing. These are all the very intricate parts of being a subway or street musician. It's really crazy.

Sounds like there’s a science to it.

In the morning—the people on their way to work—they don't want to hear anything too abrasive or too much talking. Charly does really well in the morning, because it's the violin—it's all very soothing. For the masses who are transitioning from waking up in the morning to going to work, voice is less conducive to that environment then being a violinist. That's when we play more instrumental stuff. I would say that in the afternoon we do better if I'm singing, and singing top 40s at that. How long have you been playing with Charly & Margaux?

For a few months now. I did it a couple of times on my own with my guitar, but I also don't have the kind of voice where I belt. Well, I can belt, but I don't really like doing it. Once you start doing it, you loose the kind of sensitivity of your talking voice. Your talking voice is at a register where you don't have to use your diaphragm, so when I'm singing in the train station, I have to become a different singer. I don't always like to get my Whitney Houston on, but you have to sing ballads or people don't get it. It's much harder to attempt to do a Joni Mitchell song at the train station than it is to sing Kelly Clarkson. I think it has a lot to do with what people “know” about vocalists from shows like American Idol and X-Factor as I mentioned before.

In our interview with Charly and Margaux, they mentioned that a passerby once said “black and so talented?” as though it was unheard of for two black women to play so well, and to play classical music at that.

You know what's sad about that? At least they said it. For instance, if you are at 59th street or above, like the Upper West Side, people give you a dollar without even listening to anything, and you can almost tell what it is out of. At least someone had the balls to walk by and say, "hi, I'm ignorant," rather than put a dollar and be like, "ah black girl playing the violin,” or “another black girl who sounds really folky." Music is still segregated like that, and black people still "can't play folk" and that's just what it is. There are still gates on those kinds of things, so it’s still crazy to people who wonder how I can play “that kind of music.”

Do you ever get the sense that people are more excited with your music because of the seeming novelty of you being a 'black girl playing folk'?

I think I confuse people most of the time. I think people like being confused. I think anything that's not inside the realm of “I know what's about to happen”, just gets people excited. And I don’t mean that I am consciously thinking, I'm black and I like folk music and country to be different.” I grew up in an environment where all of those things were accessible. A lot of times, people don't play that music because it's not accessible. Oakland is very different than a lot of places and cities in the world.

What do you mean by that?

You can go get Thai food from the Thai temple and be from the block—like straight from the block. There’s an accessibility in the way that Oakland is set up—it's just different. I grew up in a Muslim household, and went to a French Catholic school, but had mostly Jewish friends. To me, I never thought about that until I tell it to someone else, then I think to myself, what kind of environment did I actually grow up in? Who were my friends? Was it relative to an economic background? Most of it was economics actually. I didn't think about how different the Bay Area was until I moved. When did you move?

When I was 17, and then I moved to Boston, and it became very apparent that everywhere else was very different.

What brought you to Boston?

I went to Berklee College of Music.

You said earlier that people like to be confused or challenged. Right now popular music is pretty predictable and void of real risk taking. What do people actually want?

I think people do like a sense of mystery and being confused. I think at the same time, everything has its place. I don't reject music or popular culture, because it's just as relative and useful as anything else. I just think that when things are off balanced, that's when things that are left-to-center, end up coming out more to the forefront, so a lot of what I’m talking about is timing. For me it's a good time for me to do what I'm doing, not because it's so different, but because things have been one way for so long, it seems so different to everybody, but when you think about it, Richie Havens was doing this back in the 60s. I'm not really doing anything new. I study people who I admire, and try to move in that vein, but it's a lot of timing. It took three or four people before Joni Mitchell for Joni Mitchell to sound like she did, because she was ready, and time was conducive to her. Right now, people have been dancing for the last twelve years in the club, and people are tired--naturally. It's going to be a little less dancy for a while, or a little more still and reflective. I love pop music, but frankly, every time I turn the station, it's the same song over and over and over and over again, and I think no matter how resilient you are, and no matter how much you like to dance, you still need to grab a cup of water. Do you consider yourself a folk musician?

No. I don't consider myself much of anything. But I do know that folk has apparent acknowledgment of lyrics—acknowledging the writing aspect of music—and I say ‘folk’ in terms of these things. In that respect, I do think about what I am writing and that side of music, but that's as much as I think about it.

Right now, people have been dancing for the last twelve years in the club, and people are tired—naturally. It’s going to be a little less dancy for a while, or a little more still and reflective. I love pop music, but frankly, every time I turn the station, it’s the same song over and over and over and over again, and I think no matter how resilient you are, and no matter how much you like to dance, you still need to grab a cup of water.

I ask this because I have no idea, but what exactly is soul music? Bluegrass is the soul of the mountains, gospel is the soul of the church, jazz is the soul of the so-called "sinners". It's no different, it's just people talking about where they are from. I have an interest in where people are from so I sing all kinds of music. The problem with categorizations is like this: Corinne Bailey Rae, when she came out, she was the comparison to Tracy Chapman. After Corinne, there's Michael Kiwanuka, who's the comparison to Richie Havens (he's black and he plays guitar). And then Lianne la Havas came out, and now she's the new comparison to Corinne Bailey Rae, who's the comparison to Tracy Chapman. But what nobody thinks about, is that to take race out of that, it all becomes very very different, and then nobody is anybody except for just doing what they love. I have been told, “you're like Adele, but black." I'm like, what does that mean? That sounds like a pseudo compliment about your individuality.

Or in some cases it means you're very particular. You are set apart from “others like you”, which is even more offensive because, like I said of the whole folk music implication, it requires a whole consciousness of literature or of education. People are like "oh you're educated," like that’s something otherwise unheard of. I don't think our generation has much to say about folk music. Either you think of Appalachia--or like you mentioned before--Joni Mitchell. Those are two extreme sides of the spectrum.

Right, they are so different. If you want to make real comparisons, you would have to know a whole lot more about music, and I don't think people have as much an investment as musicians do. When I hear certain artists, like Lianne la Havas’ record and "Elusive" came on, I was just like, that's a cover of a Scott Matthews song, which I loved. His fingerprints are all over a lot of her records. You have artists of different races and different genres doing covers of each other’s work all of the time in music. What kills me is when people see me with natural hair, and they know that Solange has natural hair, so they assume that our music is just alike on that alone. I’m just like, I don’t know what you are talking about--

I don’t think they do either—

--It just comes out. It's just diarrhea of the mouth. I get this a lot from folks in the train stations, "I have this youth organization, and you can come in and just like ummmph ummmmmph" [riotous laughter]. I mean, I rarely do any ummmph ummmmmphing, but I might be able to help [shrugs]. For some reason it's always youth organizations with "minorities" or "underprivileged youth" involved, because they assume I’m underprivileged. At the end of the day, it's all some big ignorant misunderstanding.

If you want to know my story, ask me. Don't assume anything. Sounds like an interesting social experiment in the least.

Back to the earlier topic on soul music, is the only necessary requisite authenticity?

The writer in me wants to say something really corny right now. Soul music for me is when I am the least happy. When I am so reckless with my feelings that there is no filter, and most of the time when you are blissfully depressed is when you can't decide what to say. It usually shows in your face, or in your posture, or body. I've often written from those places, and haven't been able to help that I felt that way. There is no analytical aspect of my writing when I'm sad. It's just—I'm sad—and this is what's coming out. That's where my soul is the most raw. I think for soul music on a wider case or spectrum, Gospel is soul music. It's written out of passion, I should say. I have a passion for passion. When I say Bluegrass is the soul of the mountains, every culture has been impoverished in some way—whether you're working in the mines, or in the mountains, and songs are written out of that—a lot of it is written in deprivation and a massive sort of cultural sadness. I guess that's the way that I think of soul. It's a reflection of a spectrum from the bottom to the top. If you hear Ralph Stanley's "O Death" from O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000), all of the music are from traditional mountain hymns that fiddle players play. If you hear that song, regardless of whatever kind of music you like, you're just feel it viscerally. It's got a grip on some very deep sentiment of interpersonal or massive sadness. I don't know why people understand sadness more than they can understand happiness, but I don't really relate to happy music all the time, because it's a bit more worked on. Happiness is something that you work towards, so when lots of songwriters say they can't write when they are happy, I understand that.

When I say Bluegrass is the soul of the mountains, every culture has been impoverished in some way—whether you’re working in the mines, or in the mountains, and songs are written out of that—a lot of it is written in deprivation and a massive sort of cultural sadness. I guess that’s the way that I think of soul. It’s a reflection of a spectrum from the bottom to the top.

words by Boyuan Gao

Photos by Seher Sikandar

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Scooter LaForge's ETs and Witches and Bears. Oh My!

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Scooter LaForge's ETs and Witches and Bears. Oh My!

Scooter LaForge creates wildly imaginative paintings and installation art that marry your most preverse fantasies with your favorite childhood cartoon icons.  It really shouldn't be a surprise then that his clientele ranges from the likes of Nicki Minaj to the Barney's flagship store. Seeing his work (especially life-size) is like stepping into an adult horror amusement park. His work is jarring, fun, and visceral, but his motive is not just to shock and awe, or even to be ironic. No. Scooter's work is born out of punk counterculture, his lived experiences through vicious homophobia, the nostalgia of hopping from city to city, and the fictitious childhood friends of his era's manufactured pop culture. Our resident photographer, Seher, and I met up with Scooter in his Chinatown art studio to snap some candids, rap about his work, and to see how he gets down in his creative space.   

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in New Mexico in the desert.

I hear it’s a really ethereal place, I’ve never been there. But I feel like people from there have a special quality. Do you agree?

Oh yeah. You can feel it from people born and raised there. There's no state like that in the entire country. There are amazing and beautiful landscapes that you'll never see anywhere else.

How did that affect you visually?

It was beautiful. Mexican paintings--Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera paintings were everywhere. In Santa Fe there was lots of Georgia O’Keeffe. My mother had books and posters of them all over the house. I got introduced to those kinds of artists as a young kid because my mom was friends with a lot of painters, performers, and artists. She was a singer/songwriter. There were always art people around. I would always love looking at all the paintings and wanted to do that in my life at a very young age, but my parents were very afraid for me to go into that industry, because it’s a struggle--a dog’s life--but there was nothing I could do to stop it.

They wanted me to get into accounting. I had applied to all of these art and fashions schools, but they shot that down for me and made me go to this state school, The University of Arizona. They forced me to get into accounting, and I was like, 'there’s no way'. I started getting into graphic design, and majored in painting. I used to flunk out of my classes in high school, with D's and F's, but when I got into college taking creative classes, I started getting straight A's.

It’s interesting that your parents were creative people, but shot down your own creative pursuits. How did that make you feel?

I hated it.

Were you resentful?

Oh yeah. I felt really stifled, and really combative inside because I really looked up to them and wanted to impress them, but it was going against every single grain in my body to do what they asked of me. I’m so right brained, I’m dyslexic, I’m not good with numbers--

And they wanted you to go into accounting?

I hate math. It took a while for them to see me succeed at what I’m doing and to accept my lifestyle. I never had to ask them for money so they are very supportive of it now. Both of them are, but it took years and years and years.

Then you landed in the Bay Area, and then NY?

Right after college I went to San Francisco for like eight years, and lived there and worked as an artist, but I worked in a shoe store as well as painting. I had some success there, but I had always wanted to come here to New York, so I just packed everything up in September of 2001, and moved here by October 2001. I came to New York for a job later in life in my 30s. My job was in Soho. The store that I was going to work at closed down because it was below Houston Street*, you could really smell of the burning sensation of the building. It smelled like burnt sugar, or burnt electric fire.

Later I won a fellowship at Cooper Union. That's what really pushed me into a full painting career and when I decided that 'I'm giving up my life', as far as what I was doing before, and going into and devoting 100% to art.

* Scooter moved to NY right after 9/11 and the attack of the Twin Towers that affected the downtown area

What were you doing before dedicating your life to art 100%?

I was in the fashion industry. I was working for Marc Jacobs and then for Jimmy Choo. I was also doing the windows at Barneys and I ended up doing a big in-store installation for them. At Marc Jacobs, I was a sales person. Robert Duffy--he's the business partner at Marc Jacobs, the money behind the brand and backed the Marc Jacobs line before he left for Louis Vuitton. I was randomly painting portraits of my coworkers, and Robert Duffy was like, "oh why don't you do a window?" He wanted me to paint every single person in the company, and do an installation. Eventually I ended up quitting that job, and quitting Jimmy Choo, and doing this full time, and now I have a t-shirt line exclusively for Pat Fields. That's been going really well. It's all punk rock looking.

Where did the punk influence come from?

I've always been influenced by that style. I've always been punk rock in high school and college, and then into being an adult. Vivenne Westwood is probably my biggest influence. It translates into the work that I make, the clothes, the t-shirts. The t-shirts are all hand painted. I don't really consider myself a fashion designer, even though I made these pants [points to his polka dotted hand-made windbreakers] right before you guys got here. I was like, 'I want to make a cute outfit', so I made them in like half an hour.

With my shirts, they are my paintings on t-shirts. After I quit my job at Jimmy Choo, I was like, I need to make money. I started making these. They took a while to take off, but they did and I started getting better at it, then they started selling, and I was able to pull in some income.

You have some frequent customers don't you? Who are they?

Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Iggy Pop, Miley Cyrus when she got all punked out. Remember she was this blond with long hair, and she went to spiky short hair. Right when she got her haircut, she came in and bought a bunch of my stuff.

You have some reoccurring characters in your work. Can you talk about them? It's like pop culture meets erotica meets childhood fairytale characters?

I love the sweetness with the sick. I like the really sweet stuff, and I like to make them really sick. I like to paint bears. My favorite fairytale is Goldilocks and the three bears. I collect everything, every book that has to do with that. It's a totally reoccurring theme, as well as this cat that I often paint. Also ET, I've been painting him a lot.

What's the fascination with ET?

I think it's the pop culture. That's the stuff that I grew up with as a kid that I loved that just made me feel good to have around me. I really do it for me, so they are really self-indulgent. It's really stuff that I myself love, even though everyone loves ET.

How do you negotiate between the child friendly characters and the erotica?

I just think it's all a combination of things that I've experienced in my life, because I've had some very low low points in my life as a child, growing up being kind of an outsider, an outcast, feminine and gay. I used to put my mom's wigs on and put on her high heels. I was always very femme in elementary, middle school, high school and got picked on. I think it's a combinations of those experiences, and just the trials and tribulations that I've gone through. I used to have a bad drug problem. The new ET painting that I'm working on says "Meth Kills", so I try to bring my experience in a fun way to put onto canvass and spread a message. I just mix everything up. I try to be as authentic as I can by mixing everything up with the experience that I've really had in my life, so I don't really pretend to want to paint portraits of rich ladies, you know what I mean?

When did you begin to give yourself permission to do such honest art?

When I was in San Francisco, I used to paint super tiny using really fine paint brushes that only had like five hairs. I also used to paint really hyper-realistic, and then I went to the Cooper Union Fellowship. They made me throw all that stuff away, use big brushes, paint, and really get into it. That's when I started to say, "you know what? I'm going to paint whatever I love and whenever I feel like it, whenever it's on my mind to get it out and put it onto the canvass." Whatever you put on the canvass, there's no limit to what you can do or express. You can get all of your sick thoughts out of your brain and onto the canvass, with some oil and turpentine, and relay a message.

Often, artists are asked about their final products, which are clean, and neatly put together. What's the actual process like for you?

It's messy, it's complicated, it starts with little drawings. I keep a notebook next to my bed, and when I think, oh I want to paint a witch and a bear and a cat together, I'll just write that idea down. I usually write down a story in words of what I want to paint, then I'll do water color, and then it turns into a big oil painting. That's usually how it works. I also use a lot of comics for inspiration. I just think they are really cool. I read comics and I watch cartoons almost every night before bed.

My mom would love you, she’s really into cartoons.

Oh really? That’s awesome. Well, I just really love this old stuff. I just think it’s so beautiful.

You don’t really see animations like the old stuff they used to do anymore.

No you don’t, and I really get into it. I probably will paint it again about three or four times until I get it out of my system. And then I move onto another icon or something.

What do you mean ‘get it out of your system’?

I get obsessed with stuff. Like right now I’m obsessed with witches. Before that I was obsessed with bears. I was obsessed with doing still life’s of flowers. I kind of toned that down, and then I got into ET. A lot of times I go through these things and I paint them 20 times and then I move onto something else.

Going back to earlier about your experience moving to New York, how did you come into your own, art-wise?

It was hard at first. You don’t know anyone. Everything seems so intangible. It was really hard to break into any kind of art field. I would send slides to all of these galleries, I applied to graduate school three years in a row and always got rejected, and I ended up getting really depressed, but just kept painting.

I always kept going and pushing myself. And then slowly but surely things started taking off, I started going to art shows, and then I got into the Cooper Union Fellowship, and I met some people there and got more confidence. It was like the best thing that ever happened to me. I had my life before that, and then I had my life after. So it’s two different chapters.

You said that you just 'kept painting'. It sounds like despite the difficulties that you experienced, you were still very persistent. 

I was totally persistent, and getting my work out, which you have to be more creative doing that than painting. You have to market yourself. That’s where the true creativity comes in.

Talk about that a little bit.

You have to be so different than anyone else. To me that’s actually even more important than the painting if you want to be successful. I’m still the same painter. I’ll put the stuff out on my tumblr, Instagram and Facebook--stuff that I did ten years ago. People look at it now and they’re like, “oh my god, that’s amazing.” And I would have put them out 8 years ago, I would have gotten not one single word. The reason why I’m saying that is because now they’ve seen the accomplishments that I’ve had, but I had to be creative to get my stuff out there in the first place.

How do you motivate to keep going when met with so much rejection in the past?

When people see the desperation in people, that’s kind of a turn off to a lot of people. You just have to be patient and wait for people to come to you. You can’t force anything on anyone. I used to send stuff out like, “let’s do something!” It doesn’t work that way. They have to be aware of you and ask you. There are grants and things that I’ve applied to for six years in a row and never have gotten them. Sometimes it takes ten years to get them. The guy who's gallery I told you I had paintings in, on his website he has a disclaimer that says, “don’t be offended if it takes ten years for me to accept you into my gallery.”

What would you tell other artists just starting out and figuring out how to market their work? 

You have to really figure out from the inside, what you want to say to the public, and figure out a creative way to get noticed.

For me, I had painted this really scandalous painting that this one gallery owner loved, and he put it in his art show. It was a prestigious gallery, and was what put me on the map. He put that in his gallery and it sold, and then he invited me to do another show that summer, and I gave him another painting, and that sold. That snowballed into me showing at another gallery, having a solo show last year, and now I’m going to do something at the Bronx Museum, a bunch of group shows, and a show coming up in England at the end of the year.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photos by Seher Sikandar (except for Nicki Minaj, courtesy of Scooter LaForge)

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East WillyB: Michael Shawn Cordero's Hood

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East WillyB: Michael Shawn Cordero's Hood

Michael Shawn Cordero

Some months ago, I started hearing a lot of buzz about this new web series called East WillyB, and I grew intrigued. The show is set in the rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, where long time Latino residents are having increasing culture clashes with the young hipsters moving in. At the heart of the series is the show’s producer Michael Shawn Cordero, who was born and raised in Bushwick, and contributed a lot of his own experience into the development of the show. As Cordero describes below in our interview, mainstream media has made few attempts to portray the new generation of Latinos in a genuine light. Cordero talks about his involvement with the East WillyB movement flipping the game of how Latino's are portrayed in media, his boutique gallery Fresthetic in Williamsburg, and his work as a youth media educator in the community.

How was East WillyB conceived, and at what part of the development did you join as the producer?

East WillyB was created by my good friend Julia Grob and Yamin Segal. Julia approached me because she wanted to set the series in the community of Bushwick where I was born and raised, and wanted me to take part in the production, design, and artwork for the series. So I jumped onto the opportunity to represent my community and soon ended up as a producer for the show. We shot parts of the pilot season in my grandmother’s backyard and my parent’s house served as a production base.

Being a New York native and Bushwick resident, how have the transitions in the New York that you knew growing up, also translate into the themes of the show?

Well it's pretty much one of the main themes of show. It's set against the ever evolving cultural landscape of Brooklyn. It's about a community facing the change and what it means to the New York culture they grew up with. It deals with gentrification as told through the eyes of a historically latino neighborhood and how to adapt to that and the effects on their relationships, careers and family.

As the producer of East Willy B, what is your role in casting, writing, character development, and the general culture of the show?

For the new season that we raised 50k on kickstarter for, I was a fly in the writer’s room and offered insight on the direction of the characters and the authenticity of how the neighborhood was represented. I designed all the branding/graphics and website for the show and manage all the creative.

I have this affair with legacy and i’m always thinking of what i’m leaving behind for my family, my community and my culture. Art will last forever and the impact never deteriorates. Its one of the pillars of our history as people.

Is one of the characters modeled after you?

lol. I tend to see aspects of me in a lot of the characters. Manny and his big dreams aspirations of being a filmmaker, Ceasars’ protective nature towards his neighborhood and Willie’s relationship with the legacy of his father’s bar and the community.

Your personal mission is to effect positive change and leave a lasting positive impact on communities. How much are art, politics, your cultural subjectivity intersected in your artistic/creative work?

It's the foundation of everything I do. I have this affair with legacy and I’m always thinking of what I’m leaving behind for my family, my community and my culture. Art will last forever and the impact never deteriorates. It's one of the pillars of our history as people. It’s proof we were here. Our politics and culture survive through it. I strive to visually tell our stories and always want my work to be reflective of our times.

Have there been other Latino/Latina focused hyperlocal films or television shows based in New York, even if they only survived a very short blip in time?

I know there has definitely been films like I Like it like That, Hanging with the Homeboys, Raising Victor Vargas, which are like more than 10-15 years old, and more recently Gun Hill Road. When it comes to a series, something episodic, besides the reality show Washington Heights recently, I don’t think there have been any successful attempts. I don’t think networks and studios invest in really understanding the market of the new generation Latino that speaks both English and Spanish interchangeably.  They have a warped impression of Latino culture and it reflects in some of the characters that are on TV.  Especially with most studios being based in Hollywood, we don’t really see New York Latinos honestly represented on TV. I think we are very inspired by what Spike lee did for NYC African Americans and Latinos in the 90's and I feel we are trying to invoke that spirit for Latinos in this new generation and age of Brooklyn.

Willie is a very emotive or easily affected character. What do you think are the issues that stay most prevalent in his mind? What is he trying to negotiate? How do you relate?

I think Willie’s character is about preservation. I think he is scared of the change just like other members of the neighborhood but as a leader in his community he feels like it rests upon his shoulders to battle the fear openly. He is very protective of the legacy of his father’s bar that he inherited and doesn’t want his generation to be the witnesses of its possible extinction. His younger brother, who is played by Rick Gonazalez this season, got out of the neighborhood and is a big reggaeton artist in Puerto Rico, and Willie is kinda envious of that a little bit because he had his own dreams of being a salsa singer when he was younger. So he is very much trying to hold on to history and part of his development is how or if he embraces change. Even with his relationship with Maggie he is holding onto his past which is why she doesn’t see a future for them.

I can definitely relate with the legacy issue and wanting to keep my culture alive in my community, but I’m not as threatened by change as Willie. I feel more challenged to make sure we plant our roots deep in our communities.

What is the impact of the show East WillyB in your own community?

I feel like a lot of people are very excited that their story is being told by us. Julia and Yamin chose Bushwick because we are right in the middle of this culture clash that Williamsburg witnessed 10 years ago and we all saw what has transpired there and in Los Sures. But at the same time it's also about the characters that exist in a Latino community and give us a more accurate representation that is something other than a drug dealer or maid.

Who do you guys hope the show reaches? I’m sure you want to reach as many people as possible, but who would be your ideal target demographic?

Our demos are pretty broad cuz we feel like the show speaks to so many in different ways. We’re sure it will resonate with 18-34 Latinos who represent that new generation of English and Spanish speaking Latinos in the U.S, people looking for alternatives to what they see on HBO with Girls and actually see real portrayal of Brooklyn and NYC Life. Anybody living in a community affected by gentrification and a collision of cultures.

I don’t think networks and studios invest in really understanding the market of the new generation Latino that speaks both English and Spanish interchangeably. They have a warped impression of latino culture and it reflects in some of the characters that are on TV. Especially with most studios being based in Hollywood, we don’t really see New York latinos honestly represented on TV.

You’re also a youth educator. What are some of the greatest takeaways that your students leave your instruction with?

I can teach students technical aspects of design and video production like using programs and camera operations but I like to focus my work on content and make sure they are creating with purpose.

What are the most valuable aspects of working with young people in a creative context?

There are not a lot of options for students, especially underprivileged youth in NYC, to take part in creative programs that truly give them a voice and make them feel important. Historically, funding for such programs are always the first to be cut, so I feel like the value of my work with youth is tremendous and will guide our future because they are the leaders of tomorrow.

What are the most validating aspects of being a storyteller?

I think when it comes to films and even documentaries, your main tool is empathy. The closer and more involved you are with the story, the characters the better the outcome. One of the most important responsibilitie for you is making people feel--not only feelings, but a place, a time--any type of art to be honest. Thats the most validating for me, the fact that I see people are feeling what I felt or anything close to it.

I think when it comes to films and even documentaries, your main tool is empathy. The closer and more involved you are with the story, the characters the better the outcome.

Were you ever discouraged from being an artist?

Nah never, my older brothers were artists as well, as well as my father. My mom is a teacher, so discouragement didn’t really exist, my parents really provided a great space for me to follow my dreams, even to this day.

What else is on the horizon? What is your big goal for 2013 and beyond?

Hopefully we get East WillyB fully funded or picked up and we can continue the telling our stories through a couple of seasons.

Also I've got a lot great things going down at Fresthetic, my boutique gallery in Williamsburg. We have a great lineup of artists showing this year and more products. As always everyone is looking forward to this summer for our annual Makossa Brooklyn Cookout with DJ Wonway Posibul.

I'm also looking forward to what my students create this year with all the developments I have been guiding them through. Its always exciting to see youth take advantage the great resources we provide them and watching them develop and find their voice.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

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Introducing...Charly & Margaux

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Introducing...Charly & Margaux

Charly + Margaux

For some, classical music is often viewed as a staid and elitist genre, better suited for a symphony hall, the ballet, or curmudgeon university professors. Charly + Margaux, the self-described “metro-classical, cinematic chamber rock” duo kill it on the violin and viola (respectively) and in the process, completely change your perceptions about what classical music is and what it can be. As Margaux says, “classical touches me like no other music. It's such a deliberately composed piece of music. It’s almost a physical experience when I listen. I always hear people say ‘I like classical music to study.’ There's certain classical music you can't study to - it's so explosive. There are so many dimensions.”

We were (still are) pretty clueless about the genre, but Charly + Margaux’s love and passion for classical had us downloading symphonies. With their newest project, The Gallerina Suites, the pair continue to create music which embody a sense of play and boldness but can often transition into dreamy, emotive sequences. Their sound, coupled with their distinctive style, make them the kind of artists that are best seen and heard – their presence is unmistakable, their synergy: palatable. What we dig about C + M’s music is not just that they, are in their own way, challenging the status quo, but that they are natural storytellers. Their songs follows a narrative and it’s up to the listener to interpret the story it speaks.

Presented by A Love Supreme Production

Through chatting with Charly + Margaux, we discovered two grounded, intelligent, sharp women carving out a niche for themselves.  A chance encounter on a Boston street corner in Copley Square, culminated in a move to New York City where the two currently live as roommates, homies, and creative partners. We were led to Charly + Margaux’s music through our own series of serendipitous events and were intrigued by what we saw and heard. Who were these women? What were they up to? The following video touches on their creative process; our audio interview delves deeper into their thoughts on living in NYC, staying true to their artistic integrity, weirdo New Yorkers on the subway, and the type of legacy they want to leave. As Charly says, "no one knows who we are right now, but we understand that what we want to contribute is going to take a lifetime to get across. We're starting small and laying huge bricks in our foundation.”

Word. We hear that. In fact, hear more beautiful insights from the duo in our CFPH audio interview about how they met, their tips on surviving creatively on the East Coast, and their most memorable exchanges with fans:

Video + Editing by Taf Chiriga of A Love Supreme Production Art Directors: Jahan Mantin + Taf Chiriga Interview: Boyuan Gao + Jahan Mantin Photo courtesy of Charly + Margaux Original music compositions by Charly + Margaux

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Ben Rojas--The Warrior's Weapon is a Paint Brush

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Ben Rojas--The Warrior's Weapon is a Paint Brush

I met Ben Rojas sometime around 2008 at a little wellness gym called Embora in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, where we trained in ninjitsu and combative street fighting. Embora was a default gathering place for boho people-of-color--an alternative fitness joint --where yoga, dance, and other specialized classes were taught. The place naturally attracted artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs from around the way. Ben's vibrant life-sized paintings, incorporating faces of community members, adorned the mustard yellow walls of the space that overlooked us while we trained.

Ben has long employed a multimedia approach to depicting universal themes of warriorhood, resistance, colonialism, through his personal subjectivity of spirituality, ancestry, and Latin American culture. A native of the Bay Area, Ben helped found a street art collective called Trust Your Struggle, which has toured around the country, and throughout parts of Latin America, the U.S. and the Philippines.  An art teacher at New Design High School in the Lower East Side, a new husband and father, and a grad student at NYU's Art Education Masters program at the Steinhart school, Ben has integrated his many creative worlds to effect change in his community. 

Your family is from El Salvador. What made them come to the U.S. and settle down in the Bay Area?

My father’s mother was already in the Bay Area so my father followed in hope to be reunited with his mother who had left him with his father in El Salvador. My mother had an aunt and uncle already here in the States working so they applied to have my mother join them.  I am assuming they both wanted to leave El Salvador to make a better living in the U.S.

The Bay Area seems like a pretty open-minded place for budding artists. How did growing up there help support your creative development?

Artists are everywhere in the Bay Area. Most people you meet are some kind of artist, which is both great and not so great at the same time. I was introduced to that artistic world as a youth writing graffiti and being involved in Hiphop culture. Within that Bay Area culture you quickly meet so many types of artists, MCs, filmmakers, writers, actors, painters, poets, musicians, dancers you name it. So being enveloped in that world so young helped establish a strong love for the arts, not only the arts but also art that meant something, art that fought for something. It was also very DIY. Most of the painters that I learned the most from were not art school graduates, they taught themselves and hung out with other great painters.

Were there people who discouraged you from going in this direction, and to find a more conventional path?

A few, but nothing that held me back from doing the art that I wanted to do. My parents were always supportive of my art. Their biggest concern was how I was going to pay bills as an artist, which any artist could probably relate to.

You are a multimedia artist, but what medium was the one that sparked your passion first?

That’s a tough question to answer. I would have to say illustration; I have always loved to draw. I remember as a child my father stealing tracing paper from his office job to give to me and I would trace all kinds of images from the books we had at home.

How do you think your art communicates who you are?

I believe my art communicates who I am through the stories that are told. I love stories. I was a bookworm from day one and still am. My visual pieces always have stories on top of stories. I am a visual storyteller, a trickster in many ways.

You are an arts educator as well, working mostly with high school aged youth. In a culture where pursuing art is not coveted or encouraged by most people, how do you speak to your students about the value of art in society?

I don’t actually do a lot of talking regarding that subject, the young people already know of the value even if they cannot speak on it. They show me they know by their love for my class, even if they don’t “do well” in an academic sense. They are constantly comparing my class to others and they thirst for the freedom they feel in an art class in other classes. I can on my part show my thrill and love for the art by just being enthusiastic about my work and their art. I also am constantly showing them contemporary artists that are doing fresh work, that isn’t just frozen in a museum or gallery.

My murals are usually created with the surrounding communities, folks on the block. There is a very interactive element with other people. It is also a different experience in that while you work on a mural in a public space you are always being asked questions and being given feedback from the average person walking by.

A lot of your work speaks on topics of colonialism, indigenous history, spirituality, and your ancestors, etc. Can you talk about how these topics became prevailing themes in your work?

In high school I became part of student empowerment group for Black and Brown youth called ST.E.P. which placed college students of color to mentor high school students. Through that group I learned so much of my people’s history, spirituality and most importantly lit that fire that made me want to educate myself the correct way. From that point on I was basically hooked on learning as much as I could on colonialism, indigenous spirituality, and the brutal and beautiful history of Natives, Europeans, and Africans in the Americas.  Ancestors hold a powerful role in my life. I see it as a duty and an honor to place the ancestors in my art as a homage to what they have done to keep us alive.

Being a new parent, how do you pass on to your little one how she can explore her own creativity?

I am currently in NYU’s Art Education Masters program where I am reading and learning a ton on how to cultivate human development through the arts. So I am more aware of what my role should be in letting her explore and learn on her own. Play is also so powerful for children, especially toddlers for development, just letting her play, play with other children, play with different materials, basically touching all the bases for her multiple senses. My wife does a great job at taking her to classes that help with that. Also my wife usually has our daughter in her dance company rehearsals which is great.

Your wife Adia is an Afro-Haitian dance instructor. How does her cultural history— that is so prevalent in her work—intersect with yours in an artistic context, as well as a personal context?

Both of our art forms are clearly understood to be part of lives, not something separate. We are our art, our art is us. We not only share that quality but also a great love for our ancestors, which we work with in our art forms all the time.

What materials do you enjoy creating the most with?

At this moment in my life I am really enjoying working with ink, pencil, charcoal and markers. In regards to my 3D work with altars I love working with a large variety of materials, from animal skulls, knives, machetes, food and textiles.

What’s the difference in experience for you between creating life-size mural pieces in a live environment (like a mural on a wall) compared to a stationary canvas in a contained space?

Huge difference. My murals are usually created with the surrounding communities, folks on the block. There is a very interactive element with other people. It is also a different experience in that while you work on a mural in a public space you are always being asked questions and being given feedback from the average person walking by. A piece on a canvas that ends up in an enclosed space is way more personal, I can meditate and reflect on my process on an individual level.

You love doing portraits. How do you find your subjects?

I used to use other artist’s photography up until a few years ago. Now I take my own photos of friends. For the series that I’ve been working on for the last few years I focus on Brown people of the Americas and the Caribbean.

Practice people skills, learn how to speak to all kinds of people, learn the art of Code Switching. Practice speaking and writing about your art. Most of the time its how you speak about your art that makes people love your art or give you funding.

Your portraits are a bit re-imagined, not literally what you see of the person. They are placed in a different context, like what you see in your warrior series. Do you imagine the character first, or do you first depict the person and then figure out how to adorn them later?

I’ve done both. Sometimes I see the images in my head before and then adorn their bodies. Often I take a portrait of a person then add images onto their person, inspired by their personality or position of their body.

What’s the most difficult part about getting your work out there to the public?

I don’t know. I guess not having an agent or a gallery to endorse you.

What did the name Borish come from?

When I started writing graffiti as a youth my friends and I formed a crew called ISH. My intials are BOR so I just put them together. My other name Mincho is actually a kind of family name, all boys named Benjamin in El Salvador are called Mincho as a nickname. Vega is one of my family last names.

Can you speak a little about Trust Your Struggle and Trust Your Hustle?

Trust Your Struggle (TYS) is an artist collective that was formed in 2004 with myself and two other friends, Robert Trujillo and Scott Hoag. At that time we individually were part of different crews but felt that the three of us together shared a common goal of a visual art based on social justice, so we formed TYS. Trust Your Hustle was the name of two mural tours we did as a group in 2004 and 2006. The tour’s name was changed the other year when part of TYS went to the Philippines. Essentially what the tour was about was creating a network between us and communities we visited and painting as many murals as we could. In 2004 we traveled through Mexico and parts of Central America and in 2006 we crossed the US in a van from New York to San Francisco. You can view videos of our work on Vimeo or Youtube, just search under those names. On a side note our names have been used by others (clothing line named Trust Your Hustle and Urbanoutfitters using Trust Your Struggle) so just to put that out there that that isn’t us. We always thought of the slogan Trust Your Struggle to be of the People, free to use, its a state of mind not really “ours.” We always love seeing people online getting tattooed TYS, it's beautiful.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am still working on the series “Elegy” which are the illustrated portraits on paper. I am working on some new pieces which I hope will be part of a new solo show for September in Philly.

Any words of wisdom to budding young artists who are just finding their passion to pursue art professionally?

Practice people skills, learn how to speak to all kinds of people, learn the art of Code Switching. Practice speaking and writing about your art. Most of the time its how you speak about your art that makes people love your art or give you funding. Pay dues and know your place amongst elders who have been doing art before you were born. Take advantage of any free classes or studio sessions. and last, be humble in your rumble.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photos courtesy of Ben's website, Boyuan Gao, and feature photo by Miguel "Bounce" Perez

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The Unyielding Pursuit of a Travel Entrepreneur--Lessons From Evie Robbie

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The Unyielding Pursuit of a Travel Entrepreneur--Lessons From Evie Robbie

Evita Robinson_Feature

We first brought you Evita Robinson's feature interview to introduce you to the Nomadness Travel Tribe, TV series, and movement. Today we bring you juicy, profound, and practical advice from Evie Robbie--a list of insights that she picked up through the challenges and bumps in the road--trust her that it wasn't all glamour and adventure. For a community to grow and thrive as Nomadness has, the leadership had to be inclusive, forward thinking, and continuously churning out new ideas to follow the needs and desires of its membership. Evie explains her greatest lessons learned, how she fostered a groundbreaking world movement, and how she keeps her head on straight. What I love most about her insights is that it's applicable to any industry of work. Read on!  

You can't do it yourself. Build a Captain Planet-like team!

The high council is the business end of the Nomadness Travel Tribe. Right now it's five people. We're the business end of everything, whether it's a trip coordination, to a tech guru, to the person helping me with research, to the person who helps with community outreach, everybody plays a part and was picked because of what they were naturally doing in the Tribe. There was a skill set that I'm weak at that they are strong in, and that's important.

My team has been amazing at helping me build the brand, manage the Tribe, manage the trips, and keep my sanity at the same time. I need my crew that I can spaz out to and I know that it stays in a safe space. We just all let it out, and we always feel better after.

Listen to your community, and your community will reward you. 

We really listen to the Tribe and see where they would like to go on trips, and we start researching. I'm kind of obsessed with Airbnb at this time, because we don't stay at hotels. There's a family vibe in the Tribe, which is really the catalyst for folks wanting to meet offline for Meetups. It really augments in size whenever it comes to the Nomadness trips. I am big on finding a dope place. We find places that are reasonably priced, but we really zone in on the lodging. we want to bring almost a VIP experience to the average traveler within the Tribe, because Nomadness is a lifestyle brand. Our trips are pretty cheap. We haven't had a trip go over $400 for the lodging costs for a week wherever we are. We stay in some of the most beautiful places that they've ever been to in their life. We really pick the members' brains, start looking for lodging, start contacting these places, and set up the backend to get everybody there. The trips are announced by surprise. I give teasers out and from there we open up, and it's on a first come, first pay basis. The trips have become almost contest-like to even get into them. They sell out extremely fast. Our last two trips that we announced were to Rio in February, and India in March. We announced them at our one year anniversary party, and the place went crazy. We opened up buying the next day, and we actually sold out of India in 15 minutes, and Rio in 30. It's crazy.

Just get off your ass and START. 

I don't really have blocks. I just start. I find with more and more people that I know that that's the hardest thing for them. You've got to just start. You can perfect it along the way. I always say the biggest disease that people suffer from is analysis paralysis, where they will sit there and analyze something and they don't move. I think the majority of humans walking this earth probably deal with this. Luckily I'm a risk taker. I'm also an Aries, and a very type-A personality, and we kind of jump head first and think later so I think it's very good that I'm at the head of this, because there is not something at the head of this that is going to think it to death. I have people on my team who are more analytical than me, and they are like, "Let's see how realistic this is." It's always about finding that middle ground, but I am by far the biggest thinker and the quickest jumper out of my entire team, and I like it that way. If it messes up, it comes back on me, and it will be alright at the end of the day anyways.

How to truly listen to constructive criticism and use it to your advantage. 

I approach all disappointments as lessons. It's important to get feedback. It's important to get constructive criticism. I think one of the hardest lessons that I've had to learn this year is how to navigate a ton of opinions. Each member may have a different idea of what they want to see the Tribe turn into, and that may not be entirely aligned 100% with everything that we want to do, but there's got to be a forum in which you can hear back from the people to receive criticism. The key is to still keeping it so you're still in the position where you execute it, and it's still yours. I think finding that middle ground, and listening to people but not necessarily internalizing everything is good. Once you start internalizing everything and letting it get underneath your skin, you're going to start tweaks based on every elses' vision of your idea except for your own. That can be a very dangerous and damaging place to be in. It's important to get thick skin, and learn to deal with constructive criticism.

Getting through adversity means moving through it.

I had a particular experience this year that was very rough to deal with. The approach that the person used to get their point across was mean. It wasn't constructive, it wasn't divied out from a place of love and appreciation. It was just somebody spewing negative anecdotes all at one time, and it was very hard to handle especially because I considered that person close to me. There has been some rearrangements. You have to move with the ebb and flow. You have to be real with yourself. If something doesn't feel right in your gut, you got to trust your instincts and move with that. You have to figure out why. It's not going to be pretty. Friendships might end. I've had friendships made and end this year and that's just real. But you have to keep to the integrity of your vision and yourself. That's a big thing, especially for women because we're the more emotional oriented species. I may be sitting there and have to be super stern on a business email and I may be crying reading it. It happened at least twice this year. You have to play that fine line, and just be open to fucking up. You have to be open to falling on your face a little bit, and picking it up and have a sense of humor about it, and allow yourself the cushion to be able to know that you're learning. That's the biggest thing because I'm a perfectionist. We're doing a bunch of firsts, not just within ourselves, but within the entire industry. We're innovative. With that sometimes you're just going to fuck up, and you're just going to have to roll with it and fix it. 

Figure out your priorities, and be honest about what they are. 

My business is always first, because that's my child. Messing with it is literally the equivalent of somebody fucking with my child. I was actually in a relationship earlier this year. That ended by the summertime. What I found so funny about us interacting with one another was that he's also an entrepreneur. We used to defer our arguments if it affected our work at that time, and argue about it later.

You have to have people around you who get that. It is unorthodox. One of the things I say, and personal relationship-wise, the person that I get married to must be an entrepreneur. It doesn't have to be their all, but I want that passion, and I want them to have ownership of something. Those are the unwritten and unspoken values that you both share innately because you're cut from the same cloth.

Business is very much like a religion actually. If you want to talk about something that you have to have faith in, you have to bet everything on yourself, especially when you don't have much to give except for your idea, and your work ethic--that's faith.

Balance your physical, emotional, spiritual life with your business. 

I run back home and cuddle under my mother every few months. It's funny because where I grew up Poughkeepsie, I used to be like "this place is so wack." Now as an adult, I'm really grateful for the place that I grew up, because I can get on a Metro North train and an hour and a half later, I am in a place that's just quiet. It's a safe haven that is a big balance for me. When I need to freak out and scream and cry and get it all out, my mother is the person that I turn to, but my team is also there.

Find a sustainable stress reliever! 

I have to make sure that I take care of myself and get enough sleep. I have to work out. When I get a big stress build up, I'm one of those people where I'm just functioning off of pure unadulterated energy, and I need that release in a positive way. I can always tell when I'm teetering. I'm actually in this space right now because of the insane deadlines I've had recently, but I need to get back into working out. It's the biggest thing that keeps my mind and body sharp and helps release me. My sleep is better when I work out. That's a big thing for me. Also I'm a huge journal writer. Gosh, I just started my 17th journal. I have the last decade of my life on paper. That's my therapy.

Keep believing, and have faith against all odds. 

It’s interesting because we’re at that cusp. We’re at that point where everything is getting ready to blow. And I know it. And when you know it, it’s like ,“Damn, let me just be able to pay my rent this month.” I’m having these meetings with people who are professional investors, run things like hedge funds. Mind you, I’m not a business-person. I preface all of my meetings by saying, “I’m a creative that had an idea and moved on it. And it’s really cool, and it’s taken off.” I said, I am learning the business aspect of this along the way. Yesterday I just filed my first sales tax quarterly return. I said, “This is crazy.” But all of these things are just affirmations and confirmations that we’re going in the right place and the right way.

I haven’t heard one person, professional or not, say that this is a bad idea, or “you should really reroute.” If anything, I run into people who say, “Damn, I wish I could give you advice, but you are like ten steps of ahead of anything that I could tell you. Just keep going.”

Don't accept gifts from just anybody. Sometimes a gift is a burden. 

Everybody says that my biggest issue with Nomadness as we look into funders and investors is not IF we’re going to get the money, it’s who we get it from. It’s almost worse to take money from the wrong investor than not getting the money at all. For Nomadness, I need someone who is going to be passive, give me the money and let me figure this out. We don’t need somebody who wants to to be part of every move and who we need to get clearance from to do anything. We need somebody who already entrusts in me and the vision of Nomadness.

Don't be an overzealous, undirected sales person. 

These meetings that I’ve been having with people, I’m not pitching them. We talk about it, but I’m not pitching them. That’s the thing about me. I don’t want the second time that you’re meeting me in your life, to be me trying to sell you on something. Get to know me. I want that person 100% comfortable. You don’t go out on your first date with somebody and ask them for a million dollars. You have to have a sense of foreplay with the people that you want on your corner. And you have to let them know who they are.

Finessing relationships genuinely. 

I actually got pretty pissed yesterday because I wrote something about the conversation that I had with this guy and somebody had commented on my Facebook page, and they had commented and said, “Success is only when they write the check." I was just like, you are missing out on a complete facet of building relationships. I really wanted to go in on this dude. If you do not feel or think that getting large amounts of money is not directly influenced by the relationships that you have with people, you’re insane. You are insane! That’s essentially what I really wanted to put in colorful language on my page to this dude. I’m like, “If I don’t know you, I’m not handing you two million dollars.” Flip the page, and if somebody is asking you for that money, what do you want to know about them? You want to know THEM. Not just their business or what they’re selling. That’s something that I think people disconnect on that they should really pay attention to. Sure it’s about who you know, but it’s also about getting to the guts of who you are, and being okay with that.

Keep living passionately, and the right folks will come to you!

I met with an investor last night, who was a really cool guy. The conversation went from professional to candid very quickly. He told me, “You have a way of making people do shit.” He’s like, “You got me to drive all the way from where I live to come meet you, and I only met you for 5 minutes a couple of days ago.” He just looked at me at the end of it and said, “You’re going to get everything that you want. Absolutely everything that you’ve put out here, you’re going to get."

Advice by Evita Robinson, compiled by Boyuan Gao

 

 

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Feature Interview--Evita Robinson's Nomadness Travel Movement

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Feature Interview--Evita Robinson's Nomadness Travel Movement

Have you heard of Nomadness? Well if you haven't, you most definitely will soon. My boy brought Evita Robinson over to my place for a heated game night one evening over a year ago. He insisted adamantly that I talk to this woman, and upon officially meeting her over an impassioned game of Taboo, I totally got it. Evie Robbie, as her friends call her, is a goddess of world travel. In 2010 she created a travel web series, and by 2013 (at press time), she clocks in over 4000 members in her closed international travel group Nomadness Travel Tribe--a Facebook based online community for travel enthusiasts like us--and by "us" I mean the culture-curious, young adventurers who prefer off-the-beaten-path travel over big resorts. The biggest perk of being invited as a member to the Tribe is that you get dibs on the amazing trip packages that Evie organizes for the travel group to amazing destinations around the world. There is a very special bond that Tribe members get to experience when they are journeying together to foreign destinations. If you are about that life, check them outThis is a woman who walks the way she talks. By the time of this interview, she had been featured in Ebony and Clutch Magazine for Nomadness. It's near impossible NOT to believe her because her work is a reflection of her greatest passion, her truest higher self, and satisfies a huge void in the international travel community. All of that in mind, I couldn't bear to dwindle down this awesome interview because of the great take-aways that NEED to be shared.  Here I've broken it into two pieces--1) the Feature Interview below and 2) a Creative Resource piece, for budding entrepreneurs who can gain from Evie's dope advice. I promise, you won't want to miss it. 

How did you come up with the idea for NomadnessTV, the web series? 

I was out in Japan for a year. I had a year teaching contract out there, and ten months into teaching and seeing that no one from home was going to come out and visit me, I was like, "I get it.” It's a hella long flight and extremely expensive place to come visit. I then thought, I need to bring Japan to them, and decided the easiest way to do that was social media. It was cool to be able to share my experiences with friends and family, and let my mom know that I was alive. After a while of cutting little vignettes of my travel experiences, I started to touch into my actual network of people that I knew who worked in TV and media to pick their brains.

I realized when I was out there in Japan, before moving to Thailand for a little bit, there was no travel group or organization that I felt like I wanted to be part of. I thought they were dry and boring, and didn't feel like there were a lot of groups that I could relate to. There was nothing for any type of crowd that I came from, or anybody who looked like me. That was the same paradox that I was finding when I was traveling. As I was backpacking by myself, there weren't that many people of color out there. There were a lot of women traveling by themselves, which was interesting to me, because there are so many stigmas and preconceived fears of what it's like to be a woman out there traveling alone, especially backpacking. I  was learning a lot of new dynamic. Travel was something that I was interested in, but I didn't know that my entire career/life/business was going to soon be worked around it.

How did The Travel Tribe form?

I stay coming up with these crazy ideas. One day I was like, I can't find the community that I want to identify with, so I'm going to create it. I graduated in 2006, and when everybody else was looking for a job, I left. I moved to Paris, and I stayed half a summer with one of my best friends from high school. I did a filmmaking workshop with the New York Film Academy. It was really on that trip that I realized that the travel bug was in me. It bit me and lodged itself under my skin. I made a promise to myself to bridge travel with my love for TV, mass media, and my love for talking. I've always had a big mouth and an opinion to follow it. I wanted to bring those things together naturally.

The first NomadnessTV web episode aired online on February 26th 2010. I did not launch the Nomadness Travel Tribe until September 28, 2011. There was a nice buffer of time between the two, for me to think of the idea of creating a community. In the beginning, Nomadness was very me, me, me! It was very Evita oriented, which also stems from the fact of me always wanting my own travel show. Soon after, creating a community for other people became very important because it wasn't just about me, but it was about exploring the a bigger dialogue with people.

You earlier stated that other travel communities represented in the media don’t represent people like you. How would you go about defining who you are?

I was born in Albany. I Left there shortly after my parents split. I grew up in Poughkeepskie, New York, and I went to Iona college in New Rochelle. Right after graduating I dipped to Paris. I've been a Bronx resident for the last five or six years very intermittently between international travel, where I've been gone from a number of months to a year or more in a chunk of time. I've always come back to The Bronx. There's just an urban appeal that I always love. I'm apart of the hip-hop generation. I wanted to create something for people like me. I couldn't find anything that I felt was really gauging or effectively hitting that community and representing it well.

I'm educated. A lot of the people that I roll with are educated people. It's not hip-hop in the sense of your pants sagging, and you have no form of higher education. I want to represent hip-hop in a positive light. I didn't want to create "the black travel group." I tell people that all the time, and I stick by that. If anything, it's about people with an urban appeal, because I lived in Japan for a year, and I can show you urban that is very much not black. For the sake of media and a lot of entities, it all kind of gets clumped together, and I want to show that there is room for it all. There is differentiation, and there is a bigger umbrella, and I never want to pigeonhole myself. I think the demographic that we attract is natural, but I'm not trying to keep anyone out on a diversity realm. I feel like there is stuff that a lot of people from different walks of life can take from it.

Check out all of the episodes of NomadnessTV.

What is the number one factor that makes you interested in exploring different cultures?

It started right after I graduated from college. I am the only person in my family that does what I do. Most of my life I existed in a single parent household—just me, my mother, and my brother. We're not that close with my mother's side of the family, but we forged relationships with them as we got older. My grandmother is white and Western European on that side--I think mostly Irish, Italian, and Dutch. My mother's maiden name is German. My father's side of the family is African American, but there's a lot of Native American on both sides, and I just found out within the last 12 months that my grandma's last name is French, and we also have Indian in us too. I think that breeds a little--at least subconsciously--into why I'm so curious. It's a child-like quality that's never left. That fuels a lot of me wanting to see new places.

How were you bit by the travel bug? 

I went to a very affluent, very Caucasian school. I used to go to house parties and my very affluent friends would talk about how they spent the summer in Spain or Italy studying abroad, and things like that. I remember one day, I had had it. I made this silent promise to myself, and I said, "One day I'm going to be able to participate in these conversations. I don't know when. I don't know why, but I feel like I'm missing out on something." It's always funny now, because when I see those same people, they don't even want to talk about travel around me anymore. My stories blow them out of the water [laughter]. It's the little things that become your motivations.

How did your membership spread so fast and far?

I remember having conversations with one of my best friends who's in the Tribe, Stephanie O'Connor, I said, "I started this website, I want to create a social network. It's going to be like Facebook, but it's for travelers. She reminded me that, "It's just you." Again, I think grandiose. She told me, “Maybe you just want to start it as a Facebook group.” I hated Facebook groups. I only really pay attention to about four or five that I'm in. My whole thing was, I don't want just anybody in it. There's got to be some sense of exclusivity to it. That's where the whole idea of our members needing to get at least one passport stamp to even get in the group came about. We want the members to already understand the importance in it once they're invited, so they'll value it.

The Tribe started with a friend telling me that I was getting a little bit ahead of myself and to scale back a little. It ended up being a great resource, especially because my network through the web series was already fostered on Facebook.

How many countries are you represented in now?

At this point, we're approaching three dozen countries with people who are either from there, or are ex-pats and live there now. We have a huge saturation in the United States, which is probably our majority, but we have a number of people in UK, France, South Korea, Japan, and Brazil is one of our biggest hubs.

When I first met you, you invited me to a Tribe Meetup, and it was huge! Is that happening all over the world?

All over the world on a weekly basis. About four or five months ago, I was talking to the High Counsel, and we projected that it was going to get to a point where there's going to be something going on with the Tribe every single week. It's been like that for almost the last two months now. Literally there is something going on somewhere in the world at least once a week. I give them the freedom to create Meetups that are not micromanaged. There is usually a person in the region who wants to be the organizer. I think giving them that freedom, they cherish it and they really respect the movement, so they represent well.

What is it that you hope for Nomadness in 5 years?

I want Nomadness--this is going to happen this year actually--we have to get off of Facebook. The investor money and what I’m going for right now is twofold for 2013: to get us off of Facebook and into our own online entity that we are building right now, and for myself and high counsel and anyone else that comes on staff to be able to get paid for it so we’re living off of it, and it’s turning a profit. Another goal is to have the Nomadness merchandise in stores. I would love an H&M or Uniqlo placement. That’s a big thing for me, as well as television. Like I said, the Tribe is for everyone. The TV thing is a very personal goal for me, and something that I have been fighting for longer than any other aspect of Nomadness, and we’ve made some amazing headway in these first eight weeks of this year. I think we are going to have all of it by next year. I feel that 2013 is the year that Nomadness is going to blow up. I don’t want anybody ever to be able to think of travel and not think of Nomadness. Literally, we are going to flip this travel industry on its head. That’s what I’ve always wanted. It’s young and innovative. When I say young--I don’t even mean solely age. I mean energy. There’s just a youthfulness to these people regardless of age. It's the appeal of this location independent lifestyle, and people really taking back their lives.

I signed up for a lot of things with Nomadness, but what I didn’t sign up for was how many people in the course of a year put posts up talking about how inspired they are with the story that they’ve quit their 9-5 jobs and moved abroad. I’m like, I didn’t sign up for that. It’s one of those really cool side effects and I think it’s only going to get bigger, and it’s only going to get more inspiring and more powerful. I think going into 2013, we’re going to have more control, and we’re going to be in more places. That’s the goal well before 2015.

Wow. I totally believe you.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photos courtesy of Evita Robinson

Check out Part II, The Unyielding Pursuit of a Travel Entrepreneur--Lessons From Evie Robie in Creative Resources.

 

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Kiky Thomanek's World Through Sketches

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Kiky Thomanek's World Through Sketches

Kiky Thomanek has spent years city-hopping--acquiring cultural references through her senses--and fusing them into her art. When I met her through a friend up at The Pastry Shop on the Upper West Side a few years ago, I was enamored with her quirky, strongly accented Austrian humor--and later, after being introduced to her art--her clever and whimsical screen prints and illustrations. Her dark and silly characters, the rich and bold lines, and the ominous anecdotes, reminded me of early day Basquiat. The wonders of Skype chatting allowed us to surpass a few time zones and continents to talk about her globetrotting days, the many iterations of her art life, and how Francis Bacon changed her world. 

How did you get started as an artist?

I’m a late bloomer so to speak. When I came to anything graphic design related, I was 20 or 21. I had some time abroad behind me. After high school, I went to London for a year. I just wanted to get away from home and see something new. I London I worked in a night club. I came back to Austria and was totally confused and didn’t know what to do. I started business school for half a year, which was a bad call. I don’t even remember why I enrolled, I never went to class.

Sort of by chance, I was talking to a friend who got interested in this graphic design school, and he brought me a brochure. I went to check it out with him and applied.

What about it locked it in for you to be an artist? 

I took one illustration class. Actually, I think I begged the teacher to take me because there was no more space. I’m still very grateful for that decision. He gave us a lot of valuable information, but I think the most important thing was just the way that he was. He just kind of let us be.

There was one project that we did about typography, which was a real turning point for me. We had eight weeks time to complete it, and I did it all in five days and four nights, just drinking Red Bull.

Because you were so into it? I was so into it. That’s how I really found out what I am capable of, and what circumstances have to be like where I can produce something that is good, valuable, and that I really care for.

...it was sort of the first experience of just letting myself go, not fearing if I was going to make anything good, and just to go and do it.

What about that changed the game for you? 

It was sort of the first experience of just letting myself go, not fearing if I was going to make anything good, and just to go and do it. It was a big turning point for me that one project, and from then on, I just felt like I want to be an artist. I still like the work that I created then.

What did you do after you finished school? 

I was living in London with my ex-husband Peter and had a waitressing job at a pub. I tried to be creative and I was drawing a lot. That’s when I started printing t-shirts and fabrics and sewing images on t-shirts. I sold them at a market. That was in 2003.

And you lived in a few cities from that point right?

2004 I was in Berlin for a year--pretty much doing the same thing--but a little more extensively. That was the only kind of income that I had--making t-shirts and little dolls and bags. I sold them at this really nice weekly market in Berlin, and then I came to New York.

What was living in New York like for you?

I already started a silkscreening business in Berlin, so I wanted to continue doing that in New York. Right from the beginning, I started taking classes at SVA [School of Visual Arts]. I did that for all of those 6.5 years in New York. I would take those classes, at least one per semester through continuing ed. That’s what kept my creativity going.

I would walk through campus and see the art building and walk by that print shop that they have, because it’s on the first floor, and you can look in. And there was nobody there ever. Whenever I would walk by, I would never see anybody, and I would think, this is so fucked up!

Did you come to New York for an art career?

Yes, but also--Peter--my husband at the time, was coming for work. Peter was working at Columbia and he told me that since he worked there that they had a deal and relatives could study for free, but the contract that he had didn’t have that privilege. I had no idea what sort of institution Columbia was. I said "okay it sounds good, I’m going to try to do that." But when I went to Columbia with my transcript, they just said no. They also don’t offer continuing education courses, or anything that is sort of available to the general public.

I was living in that neighborhood with Peter, working at a local coffee shop, sometimes I would walk through campus and see the art building and walk by that print shop that they have, because it’s on the first floor, and you can look in. And there was nobody there ever. Whenever I would walk by, I would think, this is so fucked up! That made me really grateful for the openness of SVA.

Did that experience change your perception of art school?

In general, the whole arts school thing is—from the outside—so scary and elitist to me. In Austria, Germany, and France I hear stories about people who apply 3 times, 5 times, up to 10 times. I just don’t understand why it's made so hard for people to go to school. It's easier to get into medical or law school.

How are artists viewed in Austria?

I think that [there are] probably two major distinctions: an artist who's in the spotlight and who [is] seen as interesting and looked up to, and there are artists that are viewed as crazy, or somebody who will never make it, who will always struggle to make money.

Yet in Austria, we have a big and important artistic culture. It is valued a lot. Vienna has the greatest density of cultural places in relation to the inhabitants; whether it's the museums, or theaters, concerts, music venues, there's really a lot of stuff going on. I feel like it's not just a lot of stuff, but stuff with quality, and I don't think people really recognize that in Europe. Everyone is going to Berlin. Everything is supposedly happening there--but I think there's a lot to explore in Vienna--stuff that I haven't even seen yet.

What are some aspects of Vienna's rich history?

Austria had its heyday around the 1900s through 1920s. Famous artists like Gustav Klimt came from that time. There wasn't just visual art--there was important literature, and science--like Freud. All those people were coming together. They weren't secluded in their paintings or specific mediums. People were meeting in the salons and they inspired each other and I think that was a really important time for Austria and art, and I think it still is.

In Vienna, are artists mostly working within their own creative enclaves now as opposed to that era in your own experience? I don't really hang out in artist circles. My circle of friends is so diverse. There are people who do all sorts of things. I think that's how I was a little bit different than my other friends who are mostly hanging out with artists. They do get together and talk about things that are a little bit interdisciplinary. There's definitely collaboration going on.

What’s next for your work?

Just the other day actually, I had a friend who came over and asked me to show my artwork, and I never really get to do that. It's always funny to pull out this stuff and look at it. I realize that although I am always putting myself down or feeling like I'm not doing enough, I have so much stuff that I discovered that have been lying around for years, and I really want to make an exhibition and see what it looks like up on the walls, and have people look at it.

What materials have you been digging into lately?

I haven't printed anything since New York. What I did the last half a year in Vienna has all been on paper, I also applied to The Academy of Fine Arts this year, and I was maybe thinking too practical, and thought ahead about how I have to put this into a portfolio, and not on a canvas, but that's the wrong way to go about it. People go to the application process with huge canvasses and lots of crazy things. Actually paper is good. You feel less intimidated to ruin anything, so you can just throw it away.

Are there times where you ever feel like you don’t know what you’re doing?

It's more like, how do I find the time and space to actually organize stuff, or get myself to be creative? It's not that I feel lost about my art or anything, I feel pretty good about it, and confident actually. I'm just trying to keep it easy. You can only do as much as you can, and step by step. I have this kind of faith that even if it's going to take another 10 years for me to have my first big exhibition or whatever, I'll do it. I'm not worried about that.

I really have this romantic idea of being a painter in my secluded studio with the paints flying around in, working until three in the morning and not caring what’s happening tomorrow

What's your ultimate goal with your work?

The goal is to have a studio, and just be able to work as much as I can in there. I really have this romantic idea of being a painter in my secluded studio with the paints flying around in, working until three in the morning and not caring what's happening tomorrow, and waking up with a picture that I created and being surprised by it.

What inspired that idea?

I took a trip to Dublin two years ago. I never really knew much about the artist Francis Bacon, but I saw this big retrospective at Metropolitan Museum and I was totally smitten. It was probably the one show that I will always remember based on that feeling it gave me when I looked at those canvases. I just wanted to have that feeling again. Maybe half a year later I thought to myself that I needed to see a Francis Bacon exhibition--I didn’t care where--so I just Googled it. He was Irish so there was this exhibition there to celebrate his 100th birthday if he were still to be alive. They transferred the studio that he had in London to Dublin for the show. They had a whole group of architects and archeologists, and they took every single item in his studio and photographed it and mapped everything out, and put it back together just as it was in that gallery. It’s now a permanent exhibit.

That studio almost brought me to tears. He was known for being very messy. Francis Bacon’s cleaning lady would not be allowed in his studio. She would try to keep his living space very clean because he had asthma, so it was important not to have it too dirty or dusty, but his studio—the dust would collect and collect, and he would actually incorporate it into his paint, which would give a really special structure. One day he didn’t have money for canvas, and he just turned around an old canvas, and used that one. He found out that he liked the backside of the canvas much better, so he did that from then on. It was a really emotional experience for me. That’s what art is really about. I’m not religious, but that’s like going to church for me. If I see a good art show, there’s nothing I can compare that feeling with.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Check out Kiky's website, or reach her at ykik@gmx.at

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A Letter to All Musicians--From Meghan Stabile

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A Letter to All Musicians--From Meghan Stabile

Meghan Stabile

When I first met Meghan Stabile, I was amazed at how one seemingly reserved (emphasis on the seemingly), petite woman was behind one of the most massively growing, cutting edge, music cultures in NY. Founder of Revive Music Group, Meghan has been responsible for some of the ballsiest music mash-ups on stages all over the world as a show and festival curator. She's known mostly for revisioning traditional Jazz and hip-hop idioms in tandem. In the beginning, her ideas were highly risky concepts with sometimes high stakes involved, but through relentless work, she's one of the most reputable show producers in the city. That's why live musicians flock to her in droves, eager to play truly challenging and exciting music, but also to learn how to survive in an otherwise grueling music industry. With the increased frequency of producing Revive shows, as well as the creative machine behind The Revivalist(Revive Music Group's editorial arm), Meghan's deepest passion remains being an ally to musicians. To her, being a true ally means being pragmatic and honest in the deepest sense of both words.

As evidence of that, I approached her to do this piece because of this post on her Facebook wall that completely blew up and went viral:

In the spirit of the Facebook conversation that impacted hundreds of musicians, Meghan breaks down her advice further:

There are less labels out there, which means that you must fill the void. 

I work with mostly "Jazz" artists. There are only a few jazz labels out there that are alive and signing artists. Traditionally--and still to this day--jazz departments have the lowest budgets, obviously compared to most other genres. Nowadays, budgets are even lower, and what used to entice artists to get signed to a labels, just isn’t happening anymore. If it is, it's extremely rare. More artists are becoming independent, because they have to be.  More artists are putting out their own self-funded projects, just to get their names out there. It's either Indie or DIY. Labels are becoming extinct.

The music industry has changed, and you need to adapt.

The biggest reality check that musicians need is that we are no longer operating under the music industry’s old model, where an artist would get signed to a label, and the label would supply you with artist development, a person working on your promotional campaign, someone on publicity, another handling marketing, an art design department, folks running the studio, an executive producer. That's not the case anymore, so therefore artists need to adapt. The question is how, and what are we adapting too?

The myth of the manager—No, they will not do everything for you!

I get contacted all of the time by musicians asking for assistance and guidance. Some think the solution is getting a manager or agent. They don't need a manager at stage one or even stage five. The thought process that having a manager means that they are going to do everything for you is simply not a reality anymore. Managers and agents opt in when they see a reason too, mostly beyond what they are hearing. Even if you get signed to a label, you still have to handle the majority of the business yourself. Some managers are really great at taking on the majority of the work, however, my point is, it's a partnership that succeeds. Also, labels aren't always the solution to help you handle all of your business. They don’t always have the capacity or resources to develop you every step of the way like they used to. Either way, you must be more involved with the work.

Have realistic expectations when working with a manager.

For some, they have so many steps that they have to do before a manager is even going to want to come in the picture. If a manager is going to start from stage one, That potential manager has got to be in love with you--in love with your music, in love with you from the jump. They have to want to go through that entire process with you, through thick and thin with you. With that being said, as an artist, you have to be prepared to be on the same page with them; if they go hard, you must go hard too. Most managers will not take on a new client from stage one. You have to build yourself up, to where they take notice.

You need to build your work to a certain level before others are going to be able to help you successfully. 

Artists/musicians have to build themselves up to a point where industry professionals are going to take them seriously. As an artist, you have to come already prepared and ready to work. It's very rare that managers or agents will sign an artist without there being some kind of buzz already. The other factor that they look for is whether or not you're going to be making them money at some point. If they love you, they will invest, but they are investing in your success, which is ultimately their success. Many managers are stretched thin in this business. For them to invest their time into you, they are going to want to know what they are going to get back in return--even if it’s eventually. That's how managers and agents work. It is their livelihood to work on your behalf, and they have to see the value in your product. It sucks to even say it like that, but that’s the honest truth in how folks in the business think about it. Not all are machines, but again, when it comes to business, their are few that are in it for the art, the creative aspects, and the passion. For some, this is their JOB. Find the ones that love you first.

Creating the album is not enough.

Many artists think that after they put their work out on itunes, everyone’s going to want to buy it, and that everybody is going to know about you right away. Absolutely not. There is a level of promotion and marketing that artists need to be savvy to. Even artists signed to big labels come up with their own marketing campaigns that's later carried out by the label team. The point is, don't stop at the launch; be a part of the master plan.

Treat your music like it’s your business—because it is.

Many musicians think that all they have to do is create the music, and the audience will come. But to even be relevant in this fast pace, factory-like industry, where product is being pushed every second, treating your music like your own independent label has become more of a necessity.  Musicians have to understand that their music as a business. A lot of musicians don't even want to think about that--they want to worry ONLY about their creativity, and that’s the biggest mistake they can't afford.

Do your research—What business are you in?

You have to think ahead of the game, and not just make decisions because you assume a certain outcome will happen, based on what you think you’ve seen happen for others. You first have to know what business you are in. You have to reflect on the things that you’re doing in that business, and if they are going to make you successful based on YOUR situation, and not anyone elses. There are multiple ways, many scenarios, and more roads than one to achieve success.

Be your own director: Take your work more seriously than everyone else. 

You have to direct your own path. You’re the only one who is going to care 100% about your music and your craft. You may not know 100% how, when, who, or what--but you have to try. If you start at square one, or stage one--whatever you want to call it--then you're already on your way. No one is going to care about you more then you.  That being said, you have to oversee everything on your project. Even if you are on a label and you have a manager, the reality of the industry is that everyone is stretched thin, and every project is important. Unfortunately, your project is not the only project out there that they're going to be dealing with. You have to push some buttons to make sure people are on point, but you also must be on point. The key to that is knowing at every level what is going on. Even if you have a team of people working with you, you have to be at the center of the decisions being made to ensure that the decisions are in your best interest. However, always be open to suggestions.

Get people to flock to you.

Once you have your shit together, other people will start to come in and want to work with you because they will see the value of what you've created. You don't have to chase people down. If you know your music will speak--then let it speak, and they will come to you. If this sounds like a contradiction from everything else I've said, it's not. You still have to do all of the work.

Be open to criticism, but also be aware of who you are dealing with. 

It’s valuable for artists to seek advice and feedback, but more importantly, artists need to be open to the truth of both their limitations, and the realities of their environment. I once brought in a record to a label  years ago. It ended up being a very successful record. At the time, this label didn't think so, then it blew up. Sometimes, that's the name of the game when you work with certain labels. On a label level, there are a few people who are the gatekeepers, and well--if they don’t get it--you may not get put on. Try a different way. Don't rely on a label as your end all and be all.

Find a balance between vouching for yourself and stepping back. 

Musicians sometimes say, "I got the gig, I got the gig." That means they’ve gotten a gig that A) puts them on the road for a while and B) is their intro to the game. Often these gigs pay musicians shit money and for long periods gigging with the same artists. Most of these big gigs underpay musicians. Most musicians just starting out don't know or realize it until they've already signed on for the tour. Part of it is because they didn't know what they should be getting paid. There was nobody they could go to for advice, and they just wanted the gig. I'm not saying that if you are getting offered to play for huge artists, not to play. It's a great opportunity. You can't go in there with unreasonable demands either or you definitely won't get the gig, but at some point, don't feel you need to compromise what you deserve. You are making them sound amazing on stage and on their records. Your artistry is invaluable. They can always hire someone else that will accept the cheap check, but know that you don't have to do that. You must value your art, do the research on what’s fair pay, and negotiate when you can. It’s about finding that balance. The real gigs will demand real cats and you'll be happy in the end for not settling for anything less then what you deserve.

Business brainstorming is creative brainstorming.

I remember when my good friends Raydar, Jared, Lee and I used to sit down and come up with concepts for shows. We were in creative mode--using that other side of our brains. When it came down to business, it was a whole other story. Musicians especially need to be taught that you can do both, and through the act of doing it, you will start to deal with the business side much more comfortably. I think it would benefit musicians if they had more creative brainstorming sessions related to business strategies, like marketing. Musicians are naturally inclined to creatively problem solve, they have all types of crazy good ideas—and that can be applied to businesses. The key is to start seeing business in a creative light, because it is.

Things that you can start doing for yourself.

Musicians shouldlearn how to create strategic partnerships, and how to build a label around themselves. The tactical advice about acting as your own label is what artists need to put forth time and energy in learning. Again, that means understanding all departments, all divisions, all challenges you are dealt with, so you're able to not only understand what each thing is, but that you know how to engage each one separately, and together when needed. The time of becoming an entrepreneurial artist is NOW.

Be honest with yourself. 

I know many musicians who would never take any of this advice. They are left field--creative geniuses who won't do any of this stuff. It's just not part of their thought process. I wish I could say there are many managers, agents, and label people who will be there for you from stage one, from just hearing your demo, and who will want to go hard and fight for you. I hate to say it, but they're not out there. If if they are, there are very few, and they are stretched thin! This is a calling for more people that are willing to take risks, follow their passion, and not just the pay check. Sounds unrealistic, but I've lived it. Be honest with what you want at the end of the day. Who are you? What is your purpose and what do you want? How do you want to effect people with your music? What are you trying to accomplish. Once you have answered that for yourself, then all else falls into place with the work ahead.

To learn more about Meghan's work, visit The Revivalist, and follow Revive Music Group on Facebook and Twitter.

By Meghan Stabile, Compiled by Boyuan Gao

Feature photo by Eric Sandler

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Fly on a Wall: Community, Solidarity, and Faygo, With The Insane Clown Posse

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Fly on a Wall: Community, Solidarity, and Faygo, With The Insane Clown Posse

I've been a concert photographer for years, and have seen my share of interesting subject matters to document, especially working in New York City. One thing about me is that I like to shoot subgenre/underground things to see what's happening beneath the surface of what we think we know. Sometimes the things you learn on a shoot will really surprise you. The craziest/most bizarre photo job I’ve ever done in my entire photography career was ICP--Insane Clown Posse. Everyone knows something outrageous about Insane Clown Posse. They've been in the media for a few decades now, and usually not for anything positive. I wanted to understand why they had such a rabid following.

A friend of mine is a promoter, and he does the Rocks Off Cruises for about ten years, which are basically rock bands on a boat. He somehow fell in love with the Insane Clown Posse, and decided to host them when they came into the city one year, and planned to promote a show for them at Hammerstein Ballroom. I said, "I have to go and shoot this!" He said, "Sure. Just make sure you wear a rain coat."

We'll come back to this point later.

Upon arrival on my big night, the first thing that I noticed was that everyone was wearing some sort of makeup. Folks were in the line, scantily clad, and dressed in all types of outfits. The thing that struck me as most bizarre was that there were people of all walks of life. Most of them were clearly not from New York. You can usually tell because of their accents and the way that they carry themselves. There were also a lot of hipster-type kids, who I assumed were just there to be ironic.

There were five opening acts that were all part of the ICP crew, and they too were all wearing makeup, with a really horribly cliché barrage of girls dancing around poles on the stage. In my opinion the rap was not very good, but everyone there seemed to be really excited about that.

In anticipation of ICP performing, they brought on stage gallons and gallons of Faygo (a popular root beer from the Midwest) in preparation of spraying the crowd. The initial conversation that I had with the promoter when he told me, “Just make sure that you wear your raincoat, otherwise you're going to get wet," crept back into my head. But I was prepared.

I came equipped with my raincoat. So did all of the security in the photo pit. As the sticky, sugary liquids projectiled into the crowd, we started shooting, and people just started going buckwild and moshing all over the place. A full Faygo bottle flew through the air and hit my friend. I saw it happening, and thought, "Oh no, she's going to get hit," but I didn't move her out of the way from a flying two-litter totally intact bottle of Faygo. She wasn't badly injured, but incurred a bump, and proceeded to hide under the stage for the rest of the set out of fear. She did catch a really cool shot of the front row from underneath the stage, which was good enough of a payoff.

I was mildly afraid for my equipment, but fortunately for me, I had been in other mosh pit experiences before. It was just the surgary aspect of it that would have fucked up my shit. You had to get that shot in the middle of the Faygo fight. That was the money shot, and the sole reason for going at the end of the day.

For all of the photographers out there, here's a tip for mosh pits (should you ever find yourselves in this situation): If there are flying limbs out there, keep the camera as high up as you can, or you just make sure that you're high enough where you're not actually in the mosh pit. There are photographers who do go in the pit and get bounced around, but do it at your own risk.

Side note: "I saw my first moshpit with my mom but we thought it was a riot so we ran the hell out of there. The first actual moshpit that I saw and didn’t run away in fear of was at a Nirvana show. I know I'm dating myself as I say that. That was the first proper moshpit that I had ever seen."

For ICP, I was on the outskirts. Contrary to popular believe, there are rules to a mosh pit. People are generally pretty aware of their bodies. That is of course, until I hit an ICP mosh pit. These people really didn't know what the hell they were doing. Maybe drugs? It definitely wasn’t just alcohol. And as a result, I too sustained an injury, and got punched by mistake. They were actually quite apologetic about it and picked me up because I was hit to the ground. It wasn’t all violence however; lest me not forget to mention that amidst all of this insanity, I got a few marriage proposals.

The interesting thing about that group of audience was that they were probably so ostracized from society that they are totally loyal to each other. There are surely ICP followers with conventional professions, such as doctors and lawyers, but for the most part that's not the case. I really think that these concerts, for the fans, are really gatherings where they can really be themselves. The notable sign of a true ICPer is the adornment of ICP-style make up--but there are many other ways to show your allegiance to the Posse.

I went to the bathroom and a black bathroom attendant lady looked at me and said, "Please tell me you are not here for this show." Granted, their music is incredibly misogynistic and violent, but when she went off on a tirade about how not only was the music terrible, but they were "bastardizing our music that we started." something about that statement just really irked me. The truth is that we often take different things from many different cultures and change them as we see fit. I actually ended up defending ICP. I strongly believe that by their expression of themselves, they are not hurting anybody, and shouldn't be so harshly criticized by anyone, let alone this lady. The interesting thing to note is that despite all of this violent music, not a single fight broke out at the show, or any inkling of violence—except for the accidental ones out of people’s clumsiness more so than from malice. There was, in all actuality, so much love in that room. I didn't feel any type of animosity, or even scared of anything that went on that night. I think it was one of the most comfortable situations, despite getting punched accidentally, that I've ever had at a gig.

I thought it was going to be a bunch of drugged up, angry, violent and aggressive people moshing. There were people getting out their aggression, but it was done in a really communal way. The music was not so great, and the rhyming skills were subpar at best, but it was a positive community. The most unfortunate aspect of the event was not being able to meet the members themselves.

Words by Deneka Peniston as told to Boyuan Gao

Deneka Peniston is a New York based (mostly) music photographer, who has photographed hundreds if not thousands of bands and performers, ranging from Alicia Keys, to The Bouncing Souls. Her work is in high demand and coveted because of her consistently eclectic, energetic, and daring money shots, which were sure she's risked her life for.

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Feature Interview - El Curandero--Music of the Healer

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Feature Interview - El Curandero--Music of the Healer

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El Curandero is Minneapolis based producer/songwriter/instrumentalist Rico Simon Mendez' newest EP off of his imprint Cultura Love. I loathe saying things like that because this album is so much more than just the hotest new joint that just dropped. El Curandero is timeless, spiritual music that transcends so many cultural/genre constraints. Here are some things rather significant things that this interview + songs will make you question that will make you say "hmmm":

  • Does listening to too many artificial sounds have a negative impact on your psyche?

  • Does the camaraderie in musicians playing together actually give added benefit to the physical body?

  • What do you need to release your work and not hoard it?

Rico's play-by-play of each track will answer some of these questions.  

How did this EP happen?

This EP is kind of an awakening for myself again. It happened because I was re-acquainted with the Aztec dancers that I used to practice with before we moved to New York several years ago.

Tell me about Aztec dancers.

The Aztecs and the Mayans have traditional dances in their cultures. A lot of it is ceremonious.

One of the Aztec dancers was curating a show at the gallery, Dimensions of Indigenous. There was one day at that location to submit something.  I didn't think I would ever put these songs out, but decided to go for it. I got a listening station; a rocking chair that I put gods eyes around. I put these songs on a cd, placed some headphones up, and put up instructions that said "Please sit down. Wrap this blanket around you. Rock in the chair, and listen to my music." I made some cds to sell there, then I said to myself "what the fuck? Put out an album!" It was such a blessing. Those songs would probably still be in my hard drive if that exhibit didn't happen. The whole thing took me 3 days to put together.

Habla Indigena: Track 1

The first song is just all natural indigenous instruments from Mexico. I used to go to Mexico every year with my family, and would always see the natives play their music with clay flutes, and other instruments made of clay and skin. It was fucking dope and beautiful and would always match the environment. There was always something very healing and spiritual about that.

You're an instrumentalist, but also a producer. How did you first get into the more technical aspects of music?

I started out with a 4-track, a drum machine and cassette tape to song write and record my ideas. I got into DJing in ‘99, when this club opened up and they hired me as a DJ and a promoter. The club was based off of multimedia and I didn't even know how to use an email back then. The owner wanted me to report to him through the email, so he gave me a computer and showed me how to work it, and he ended up being my mentor as far as digital production goes.

How on this album do you negotiate between the organic sounds and the technical aspects just mentioned?

For the EP, the digital aspect of working on it was me trying to create soundscapes with lots of feeling to it, but would also match with the melody. That was my attempt to bridge those two worlds and create a balance. It seems like today, people don't really have the patience to go and learn an instrument. They want to go get a computer and have the whole world to them with sounds right there in front of them. It seems like it takes more energy from a person than giving energy to them. All of the electrical aspects of it: your screen killing your eyes, or the power--it zaps your energy, even your posture; the way you're sitting in a chair, and you're not moving. When you play an instrument or sing you're creating your own energy through your bodies, because that’s what our bodies do.

What’s your advice to musicians trying to strike a balance?

If they choose the digital path, I would tell them to just create music that is going to make them feel good, and make other people feel good, because that's what music is supposed to be about. I feel like a lot of music coming from the digital world is very harsh. They can come up with all of these crazy sounds now, but they can be really painful.

Sacred Voice: Track 2

A lot of times when you are trying to find your spirit, it's like you have to go through some shit--you find the light in the dark. This was kind of a transcendent piece--me trying to search for my own spirit where I had to do this chanting and get myself in a zone, and go through this journey to find out where I was. It’s kind of  like if you meditate, and you didn't realize how far away you were from yourself.

I made that song in the past two years, and a lot of that was due to working at The Open Center and taking the sound healing course, because I was never into chanting before. I wanted to take it to a sort of darker place to see how it would make me feel. It's kind of an experimentation, and I also brought in the Nigerian Udu drums on that track. Those are made out of clay, and are supposed to reflect water, to give the song a water balance to it.

What do you think you were you trying to overcome personally?

I don't know what specifically I was trying to overcome in the song. It could have been the chanting and the singing, because I don't sing for shit. This is my first time putting my voice out there.

Soul Luna: Track 3

I actually wrote that song for my older daughter Issa when she was first born. Her original name was Soul Luna, and then we changed it. As far as the influence of them, I really think about how music and frequencies are going to trigger one's spirit and really how it's going to make them feel. For Issa, that song was my interpretation of her coming from the divine and her whole spiritual journey to here to earth, coming through her mother Sarah, and coming out here. If that was a movie it would have been her song score.

What motivates you creatively? What’s your flow like?

It definitely changed after Sarah and I had our first baby. Before we met, it was music all day everyday. I was a full-time DJ and musician and I was always trying to work on music. Once we had the baby, everything kind of slowed down, and eight years later, my productivity kind of comes in spurts. Back in Minneapolis, I’m DJing a lot again, and doing gigs. As far as sitting down and writing, it doesn’t happen as often. When it does happen I feel like I can go a few days and just knock it out.

I love how you said it "changed" and didn't assign a judgment to that. 

My family is really important to me. When I write, a lot of times I think of how is it going to work with Sarah. We try to make our projects so that we can make a living doing it.

Shaman’s Dream: Track 4

Shaman's dream was imagined like a score. The way that I write music is like I'm scoring a movie in my head. Visually, Shaman's Dream is the shaman going on his vision quest. Rhythmically how the track starts off is--he's getting in his trance and slowly, once he is able to let go of his spirit, his spirit just soars. It's like he is flying into the sky, seeing his visions come to him. It ends out with him going back to where he came from.

Does music play a big part in your spirituality?

It's the number one for me. I feel like I actually got taken away and forgot about that, especially when we lived in New York. I was working at a digital production school. It was so technical and digital that there wasn't too much feeling in the music. They had open lab where students would come and work on their music, but everyone has headphones on. I would catch myself a few times looking around in the room and everyone is staring at their laptop and all I'm hearing are mouse and keyboard clicks. And this is music now!? I'm not sitting in a room where people are actually working together in a circle. There are no string players staring at each other trying to vibe out. Everybody is in their own little box, staring at their own screen, and it just seemed fucked up to me.

Canela: Track 5

That song is actually 10 years old.

Well it's new to everyone else. 

That's what I love about music. To me pure music is timeless. I did that song before I even met Sarah. That song was just more about gratitude to the simplest things. I used to wake up and my grandpa would always have coffee on, but it would always smell like cinnamon because Mexicans like to put canela sticks in coffee. The song is just talking about the feelings of those little things, the smell of cinnamon, eating fruit in the morning. Those things were so special to me.

How do you feel now that the EP is out in the universe?

It was really a blessing. It was also great that I was able to just make it happen, because normally I am not able to make shit happen like that.

Why not?

I'm so unorganized, and the biggest procrastinator, and I have mad fear of putting my music out there.

That doesn't sound unfamiliar to me at all, and in fact, it's brave for you to even say that. Now that you found the courage to put this out, what advice would you give to folks about putting their work out there?

I realized that I used to idolize other producers  because of their success of accomplishing and getting work out there. I would say, just do it! Dont think about it too much. Just make sure it's on point, and it ain’t sounding all shitty. Just put the stuff on Soundcloud and call it a day and share it on Facebook. That's where it's at now. Nobody is going to the store and buying a cd. It's all online. It's download nation.

Do you feel like now that you've released this work out there, you are energized to do more?

Definitely. I just don't know how I'm going to do it--like putting a new track up once a week. I noticed it helps a lot of musicians that just keep putting their work out there every week. That's how they build their name. At the same time you think of artists who have albums that you still sit down and speak about, they might have had a year or two years between albums. I think there are two different things. I think you can put your work out there all the time to help you start getting into that mentality of releasing stuff, like releasing your art. I also think there's something in taking your time and taking the patience of putting something that you are going to put all of yourself into.

Maybe it's about striking a balance?

Yeah...

Buy ElCuranderoas a holiday gift to help mellow your family out, or maybe yourself. I've used it for meditation for the past week, and it's really done me wonders. Follow Cultura Love on Facebook, andTwitter. All photos by © Sarah White for Fotosforbarcelona

 Words by Boyuan Gao

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Sheryo's Imaginary Creatures

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Sheryo's Imaginary Creatures

My boyfriend met Sheryo at our neighbor's going away party this past summer, where I made a grandma move and went to bed early. They kicked it for a while on our building's rooftop with some folks, drinking beers and sitting stale in the mid-July humidity talking about her street art exploits. "You've got to meet this girl!" he kept telling me. "Her work is ridiculously dope."

Sheryo's work is like your childhood's dream cartoon show. Her characters are blocky, bold, and off kilter. They are playful, and mischievous, and totally saturated with bright colors, and strong lines--like the kind in a really good coloring book. 

When I finally met her, it was at a North Brooklyn bar, where we ate salty tacos in the rain, and talked about each of our travel experiences in Asia. Sheryo, originally from Singapore is a pixie of a woman, and ferocious as hell. She met her Australian boyfriend while he was traveling in South East Asia. They connected over a shared interest in street art.  When he was ready to move onto the next leg of his trip to Cambodia, he asked her on a whim to go with him. Of course she did. That's the kind of person Sheryo is. By the time of our meeting, they had been together for several months, and were living in Williamsburg on work visas. 

Sheryo's art has become a traveling graffiti show, which is now a self sustaining lifestyle, sometimes supplemented by a handsome list of corporate clientele. As I write this, she's in Cambodia commissioned for the branding of a new hotel. Last I heard from her, she had managed to get herself chased down the street by a flock of angry cops for beautifying a wall, and broke her ankle on the get-away route. The self proclaimed "spirit painter" is confined by no limits, and evokes her childhood to draw up the most imaginary characters, and will stop at nothing to actualize her imagination. Here's a little glimpse into her head:

At what age did you start to become fascinated with drawing different types of characters? 

The first thing I ever drew was a squiggly apple. I remember the moment my pencil hit the paper. It was bliss. The characters came shortly after. Characters were always sorta my thing...they were like toys but even better.

You mentioned before to me that your mom doesn't really get it, and she often asks you what is going on in your head. Along those lines, where do the characters come from, and how do they relate to one another?

My mom's really supportive but she says she doesn't know where I got my drawing skills or characters from because no one in my family's an artist, and I have eight aunties haha. I just tell her it was the sunday cartoons, '90s sci-fi movies and the horror books I read. I also had a nanny and her son taught me how to draw bubble letters. I remember watching certain movies so many times, Total Recall, Robocop, The Shining, Back to the Future, Kingpin, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Beetlejuice, wrestling (WWF). I really do remember my childhood in vivid detail, but recent adventures escape me for some reason, I think these characters all came from my childhood.

Is there a certain world in your mind where they all exist and interact with one another?

Yeah, I party with them all the time.

You mentioned that Singapore is a very Westernized country. What were some of the positives and negatives of that growing up as it related to your art? 

As you can tell by now, most of my art's influenced by American movies and culture. I don't think there is any positive or negative from it, but I do hope Singapore had a stronger culture I could tap from.

You're quite the globetrotter these days. When did you start traveling heavily, and how much of it was made possible through your art?

I started travelling a lot at the end of 2009. There was just so much to see, to do, to learn and to paint! I got addicted to painting walls in new places, meeting rad artists, getting lost--everything was so fresh and fun. Last year I went on a volunteer art teaching project at the Thai/Burma border with the Little Lotus Project. It opened up a lot of things for me. I was really glad to be able to be a part of this project. I think I took more than I gave from the children and families living there. I hope to go back soon and also do more community-based projects wherever I go.

How would you describe the experience of being a woman within graffiti/street art culture, where the majority is dominated by dudes?

It's not too big a deal. It's good. Just do what you do. Put good work out. Get the boys to help move your ladder around because it's too heavy...

If someone took your art supplies away forever, what would you do?

Go batshit crayyyyzeee.

Did having bigger access to the world--through travel--change any fundamental beliefs or ideas that you previously had?

Definitely. In general, you just grow a lot more by meeting people on your travels. Some good, some bad, they mold you and make you awesome. I think material possessions are overrated. Live simple. Have faith. Always give people the benefit of the doubt. Make your life count. Do things that make you happy. You know, all that stuff you get when you google self-help related topics. LOL.

What are things in everyday life that inspire you? You mentioned cartoons that you used to watch growing up and still now, but are there other things like food, music, anything else that helps color your imagination?

Real life people on the streeets are the best.

How many hours a day do you spend "working,"and do you even consider what you do work?

Nah, I just consider it drawing. I want to make good drawings everyday. I share a studio with the Yok (another dope artist) and we inspire each other a lot.

Any last words of wisdom, or insights you'd like to share about yourself? 

I paint food.

To see more of Sheryo's whimsical characters, visit her Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitterwhere all of the photos in this article were graciously borrowed from.

Words by Boyuan Gao

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Feature Interview - Joshua Mays: Meditations on Canvas

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Feature Interview - Joshua Mays: Meditations on Canvas

It took me a few months to track down painter/muralist Joshua Mays. As I was cyber sweet-stalking him (as my colleague would say), he was in the middle of transitioning from Philly, where he had been rooted for the past several years, to his new home in The Bay Area--Oakland. 

I was initially drawn to Joshua's work after following him on Facebook for the past year or so, where seemingly like clockwork, he would release a new ridiculously dope painting pretty much everyday. His unyielding production seemed superhuman to say the least, and I wanted to learn more about his process. And so I emailed him incessantly, until he responded and agreed to an interview. 

It takes two seconds of exposure to his work to realize that he's brilliant. Joshua's now ubiquitous psychedelic and otherworldly style have been coveted and sought after by recording artists, such as Jill Scott and Jneiro Jarel for album covers. He's been commissioned to create monstrous sized murals in multiple cities, and exhibited his work worldwide.

Here's a short phone conversation we had, where he shared about his ways of avoiding creative blocks, the concepts behind his work, and how he keeps moving from city to city. 

So you're from Denver originally?

Yes I am.

What brought you from Denver to Philly, and now to The Bay?

I guess it’s pretty much just staying on the move, finding a more mature art scene, an art scene that will progress my career. When I was in Denver, the Denver scene was mostly in galleries, and if you went into a gallery, you'd see mostly Native American art or cowboy art, and not much in the realms of what I'm trying to construct. So I went to Philly and found a lot of like-minded and progressive people, and then it was time to move on...I just got to The Bay a few weeks ago.

You hit the ground running as soon as you touched down in The Bay, with the “Love and Momentum,” show. Can you explain how those two concepts came together for that?

That was a show that I had in February of this year. It refers to the idea of living a balanced life. It was focused on my personal flow--me doing the things that I love and just come naturally for me--and applying the resourcefulness that I've had to build as well as the work ethic. It’s about learning life moving in that direction--flowing, and creating work based upon that. In terms of the type of work that was created for the show, it's pretty much what I said. There wasn’t a theme flowing, that connected everything with each other in terms of everything being done within a certain span of time. There were certain group of pieces that I created specifically for the show while I was out here visiting The Bay.

I would say my spiritual orientation is that of just being open to change, which means not having much attachment to most things.

Your work is very reminiscent of the iconic Bitches Brew artist Mati Klarwein. Were you influenced by him?

I definitely know Mati Klarwein's work, to say the least. He's most certainly an influence when it comes to the way he depicts reality and psychedelia. I definitely know his work and am influenced by him. I go back and refer to his work a lot to see the solutions he utilized for certain problems.

Your work, like Klarwein’s is very ethereal. Where does that come from? Do those concepts come from a specific spiritual orientation?

I would say my spiritual orientation is that of just being open to change, which means not having much attachment to most things.  In general, I like the idea of just being an explorer, flowing in and out of different ideas. I definitely appreciate storytelling, and in general, I think storytelling is what makes art and humanity really worthwhile, and one of the things I really do love in humanity. I think a lot of what makes religion captivating as well, is storytelling--is people relating themselves to somebody else’s story, and their push through struggle. I wouldn't be surprised if a couple Millennia from now, we see religion based upon the stories of Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, based upon their stories and how time also enhances and embellishes upon the narration of people's struggles.

Are there times where you feel like you hate what you are working on, or stop enjoying the project, but continue to do it anyways?

In terms of blocks? I don't. I guess I just have moments when my flow, my inspiration, is just lower than other times, and I tend to just scribble circles across a page, and just create whatever I can out of those. But I know there's so many directions that I could go creatively. I just love drawing and painting so much, so I rarely have times when I'm not drawing or painting. 

That seems rare. Most creatives talk about getting blocked or unmotivated every now and then. What seems to be your technique from preventing blockages?

When it comes to creating an exhibit, all I can do is produce within my means. I just keep moving on, keep adding one thing to another thing, which leads to another thing. Being willing to jump from city to city as I have been over the past few years helps out: a new group of people, a new group of conversations, a new place to explore, the ability to take advantage of new opportunities--again just paying attention to myself, being open to what change has to offer.

It's definitely just about getting to a point where I'm not thinking too much about my work--not just not thinking about my work--but how other people think about my work. I can just imagine being blocked based upon thinking about those things that I can't control. That's what I see could cause a block.

I think a big part of creating is just losing yourself and not getting caught up in critiquing yourself too much, and allowing yourself to produce shitty stuff as well as the dope stuff [laughs]. And don't be too hard on yourself, and sincerely do the work because you enjoy it. I have to give myself a lot of room when it comes to that conversation.

I think a big part of creating is just losing yourself and not getting caught up in critiquing yourself too much, and allowing yourself to produce shitty stuff as well as the dope stuff.

Was there ever a time in your life that you didn’t know you were an artist? Or did you have a revelation at birth that you were supposed to be one?

I've been drawing and painting since--I’d say I started drawing I was 3 or 4 years old. and I haven't stopped at all since. But in terms of as a career path, it probably was more like I was 7 or 8 years old when someone said to me that I could be an artist for a living. I thought that would be cool at the time. I think I also thought about being a baseball player and a runner, because I liked doing those things when I was 7 as well. I didn't really play baseball that much, but it seemed like a cool thing to do. Then I eventually gave up on those other things, but kept drawing and painting. I knew my ultimate ability of enjoying myself and my work involved me creating art, and so I knew I had to be an artist. That opened up a door to a building with so many rooms. There was a lot of searching and finding, testing, until I came to the decision to become an artist. I’ve done a lot to get here, but I’m glad to be in the position that I'm in right now. 

What’s your day-to-day like in terms of producing work?

My main work sessions are at night, usually sometime between 12 midnite to 3 o'clock in the morning.

I always listen to music, and I'm almost always caffeinated. I generally try to drink green tea, and occassionally I drink coffee, but usually I get jittery from coffee, but I do love caffeine.

Where can people buy your prints or hit you up for commissioned work?

I have a website in the works. Stay tuned for that.

Words by Boyuan Gao

All original artwork by Joshua Mays (images courtesy of Joshua's Facebook page)

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