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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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