26 February 2009

Spotlight on....Kate Cusack

Kate Cusack is a multi-talented artist living in Brooklyn, NY. Part sculptor, part designer, part jeweler--she creates elegant jewelry out of zippers, designs costumes for theater and window displays. Here, she talks a bit about her process, inspirations, and her current project.

(Photo: Kate in her studio)

You wear a couple of different artistic hats, as sculptor/jeweler/costume designer. How has your career unfolded?
My career is constantly unfolding and I constantly trying to make sense of it all. I often think of my career as a braid—different pieces, influences and experiences overlapping and coming together from various directions to form one complex creative career.
These days since my artistic outlets range quite a bit, I am trying to come to terms with the idea that I can be more than just one thing—more than just a costume designer, more than just a window designer, and more than just a jewelry designer—but an artist who does many things. The through-line that ties my work together is the association with the body (as in jewelry or costume) and the love for unusual materials.

(Photo: model wearing zipper necklace & bracelet © 2009 Julia Pogodina, Styling by Dina Yassin, hair by Jamal Hodges, make-up by Aldys Minaya)

Before getting to the point where you are today- Did you have some part-time (or full time) day jobs?
I have been very lucky to have jobs that have always related to what I was creatively interested in at the time. I think the most influential job was working at a costume shop called Parsons-Meares. They build costumes for broadway and a lot of Disney-on-ice costumes as well. That shop is known for incredible craftsmanship as well as creative solutions to complex costume needs—like a lot of the elements from the Lion King, and they also worked very intensely on some of the costumes from Wicked, among many others. When I worked there, it was like I was being paid to learn. There was so much to learn regarding technique, materials, protocol and designer/costume shop relations. I met some very important designers and also realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life working in a costume shop creating other people’s ideas.

What outside interests feed you creatively?
This is the toughest question of the group, somehow. I think most of my interests are intertwined with each other and with my creativity, so it’s hard to think of any as “outside.” Interests that feed me creatively are:
-eating good food either at restaurants or at home
-shoe shopping
-going to museums
-going to theatrical events
-riding the subway and seeing all of the different kinds of styles in NY (this is not so much an interest, more of a necessity, but it definitely feeds me creatively)

What inspires you?
I am always inspired by raw materials. Whenever I see one thing repeated, I begin to think about what it could be turned into. When I was in high school and college, I really enjoyed going to 99 cent stores. I ended up with a lot of q-tips and toothbrushes and big plans that never happened. When I see a product or a material is a big quantity, I start to see it in its very basic visual form—as shape, color and texture. I had a teacher at MICA (undergrad) named, Annet Cowenberg (fiber artist) who taught a class in which she told us that any material can be either a line or a plane and from that you can make anything else. For an assignment, we had to make a list as long as we could of materials that fell into the category of a line or a plane—for example a piece of spaghetti can be a line, and a piece of paper can be a plane. It is very freeing when you can let your imagination and your creative eye tell you what to do.

Do you have a daily ritual that gets you ready to go to work in your studio?
My studio is in between my bedroom and the rest of my apartment. So just the act of getting out of bed gets me into my studio. I get ready in the morning, make tea, while the tea steeps, I get dressed and then sit down at my computer. I answer my e-mails, and then figure out the plan for the day. I am a big believer in lists, so if I am confused about where to begin, I either consult an existing list or begin a new one. Just writing everything down in my sketchbook gets it out of my brain and leaves room for other thoughts.

Do you collect source material? If so, what? and how do you use these materials?
I often collect images that are inspirational to me and I put them in my sketchbook. Sometimes those images are from ads, or catalogues, or given to me by friends and family. It’s usually looking back on these images and through the pages of my sketchbook that I realize how I was inspired by them, or following a common thread of design.

What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on developing a body of Zipper Jewelry to be shown through the Snyderman Works Gallery at a big event called Sculptural Objects Functional Art (SOFA). This is an expo held in NYC around late April/early June and in Chicago in October/November.

(photo: Zipper Necklace)

How do you get through artist's block?
I usually end up doing a lot of writing and some drawing. I spend a lot of time talking with my friends and my family and they are usually able to steer me back on track and remind me that I am moving in a direction that is not typical and that’s OK, and even exciting.

Did you ever have a project that stumped you as to how to do it, make it, fabricate? How do you figure it out?
Most projects present dilemmas or problems throughout the process of creation. I usually have to give it some time and in that time I often talk to my friends who are artists and to my parents. (They are also artists.) Whether or not the solutions they offer are useful, just the act of explaining whatever the problem may be plus the added creative mind usually solves the problem.

What words or philosophy do you live by?
There are a few catch phrases that I live by:

-be hard on the problem, soft on the people (from my mother)

-manage the expectations (from my father)

-if it’s shiny, buy it (personal philosophy)

-spend and god will send (from my grandmother)

-trust your instinct (general rule of thumb)

Kate Cusack earned her BFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2001 where she began working with everyday materials and creating unique costumes and head-dresses. She studied theater history, traditions and practices at the Yale school of Drama and received her MFA in 2006.

Currently, Kate lives in Brooklyn where she compliments her collaborative work in the theater with intense independent studio work creating jewelry from zippers. The Zipper Jewelry is sold across the country in galleries and museum shops and has been featured in various publications both online and in print.

Please visit Kate's website, blog, and shop to learn more about her unique work.

Thanks Kate!!

25 February 2009

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I figured that since I praised the talk given by Elizabeth Gilbert a few posts back, I would read her book. I found it at the library- and have been devouring it for the past 3 days. It is laugh out loud funny, heartbreaking, passionate, bittersweet, dreamy, brave, mouth-watering, adventuresome and wonderful.

I am loving this book.

I have little pieces of odd shaped papers sticking out of this book upon which I copied down quotes, ideas, and a couple of Italian words and translations. Such as:
bel far niente-- the beauty of doing nothing, or
l'arte d'arrangiarsi-- the art of making something out of nothing.

This is the kind of book that I love to read because I am propelled through it with a yearning to know what will happen next but I also don't want to get to the end-- because I don't want it to be over.
This is an amazing and inspiring story.

22 February 2009

lately looking at Assume Vivid Astro Focus (AVAF)

Every once in a while this artist/collective pops up and I see something somewhere and I always take note. I love the bright psychedelic flat colors, , the intricate details, the jumble of images and references- it's like the subconscious laid bare.

20 February 2009

Spring, where art thou?

It's about that time of year when I start dreaming of a tropical island getaway. In this dream, I'm sucking down a fruity drink with an umbrella stuck in it, wearing a giant straw hat and even more giant sunglasses, lounging in a bathing suit with a steamy romance novel. I look to my right and see miles of white sandy beaches and blue ocean gently lapping at the shore, a few palm trees blowing in the breeze, and small villas in the distance. I look to my left, and what is that I see?- ah, a hot man in a white suit with a parrot on his shoulder bringing me a refill for my fruity drink on a silver platter. Ahhhhhh.

19 February 2009


Spotlight on... Patti Roberts-Pizzuto

(Forgotten History of Indeterminate Identities, Mixed Media on handmade paper)

I met a wonderful artist and friend in Patti Roberts-Pizzuto when we were both artists-in-residence at the Vermont Studio Center in 2006. In just 4 weeks in Vermont she transformed her studio into a space of tranquility and creativity that I loved to go and visit! I was and still am totally in awe of her calm approach to her art. She is an amazing person who projects total peace with her artistic process. Patti makes amazing, delicate, celestial works on handmade paper using painting, drawing, embroidery and beadwork.

Here she shares some of her insights.

What are your interests? (outside of your artistic practice)
Reading (fiction and non-fiction), the New Yorker. I like to read books, articles that open up new worlds for me, as they expand my horizons in terms of my world view and the possibilities for making art. I love the New Yorker, because every issue always has something to read that's a total surprise and relates to something I either didn't know about or didn't realize I was interested in. It helps that everything in the New Yorker, fiction and non-fiction, is so well written! Good writing is important to me--no matter what the style. I will often put down a book (as in stop reading) that others have raved about if the writing doesn't resonate with me. I also like film, but again I'm pretty selective and have a hard time with movies that are just mindless entertainment.

Do you have a daily ritual that gets you ready to get to work in your studio?
Not really--I'm just in there every chance I get, if I'm not reading. Those two activities are sometimes at odds with one another. Reading is food for being in the studio. My husband and I have recently begun doing yoga in the mornings before we do anything else (just working with DVDs) and that has helped reframe my attitude about other aspects of my life and helps me to feel more in balance. If I don't have enough time in the stuio, I get kind of cranky!

You have such a calm, zen approach to making your work, this is something we have talked about a little bit because I am the exact opposite. How do you maintain such calm and patience? What does it feel like to be inside your mind when you are working?
I think in some ways it may be cyclical--the work that I do is slow, meditative and requires a calm, zen-like approach. It wasn't always this way--for many years I was searching for myself as an artist--what was my work supposed to be? What was it about? What was my style? etc. These are all the questions that we ask ourselves continually in the struggle to make a life in art. I think it was about the time I turned 40 and we built a house where we both had studio space of our own, that things began to come together and I began making the work I am making now--it just evolved as I began working in drawing on handmade paper. After a time, I realized I understood that the work was coming from the inside out and not the outside in (the answers for me don't come from outside) and that the artwork was the vehicle through which I questioned and began to understand the world and my place in it. I began to relax and to trust that the process would eventually yield the work. I still struggle, but ultimately I trust the place that work comes from and if I find myself trying to make "art" I step back and begin again with play, which comes from the inside and not the outside. The work continues to evolve and I find that I can't imagine my life without making work, as it keeps me aware of what I know and don't know...it keeps me in touch with the yearning. Being inside my head while making the work, means that I think through my hands. I find that there is a real connection between keeping the hand moving and a meditative state and slow revelation. I can't describe it any other way!

What does your artwork mean to you? What words do you use to describe it?
To others who ask what it is that I do, I say that I make mixed-media drawings on hand-made paper, which is such a broad definition that it doesn't really say anything. I think I've already said what it means to me. I think that there are people who get their energy and their self-image from outside of themselves, from their interactions with others and with events. I get mine from inside and it is only after the experiences that I have filter through my pysche and often through the making process that I understand things of any signficance. I am definitely not a truly outgoing "people" person--a little goes a long way for me and then I must retreat. It's the difference between being an introvert and an extrovert.

What is your process? Do you get an idea and stick to it-- or do you play with your materials and see what happens?
I definitely do not get an idea and stick to it--for me that always spells disaster. There are times when I'd love to be able to work that way, but for me, I've finally learned to trust my own process and it has to evolve, often changing entirely from the beginning stages. If I'm honest I know when something is not working and even though I may like parts of it--the piece isn't resonating or I feel detached and don't yet know what it's trying to tell me, so I must let go and forge ahead in the destructive, constructive play. Often during the beginning stages of any piece, as I wait for the work to tell me what it is about and what I am thinking, there is a real struggle, but at a certain moment, I "know". And in that moment and it is often a real "moment" of knowing--I know exactly what the piece is about and exactly what needs to happen to finish it and what it looks like finished. It doesn't always happen exactly that way, but often. The moment of "getting it" is very satisfying and then I settle in to the finishing, which is often a very long process if there is a lot of embroidery!

How do you get through artist's block?
Play. Quit trying to make art. I long ago answered this question for myself, but I think it is very important to be honest with yourself when you ask this:
If no one ever saw what you made, would you continue to make art? Make art as if no one will ever see it. And perhaps stop trying to make "Art." That's what works for me, but everyone is different.

What are you inspired by?
Reading, gardening, the bittersweet, fragile unfolding of the universe...the overlooked moments...the accumulation of history.

What are you currently working on?
In addition to my current pieces (I work on several at a time which are at different stages of development), I am working on an altered book. At the library where I work, we are hosting an altered book exhibtion, which will open next month. I decided to start with a book and started blocking out with white paint all the words that don't begin with the letter "a". Once I knew that I wanted to approach an altered book through blocking out text, this idea came to me and also the realization that I would make 26 books, one for each letter of the alphabet! So, the total work will be the shelf of 26 books--I'm starting with a book written in 1916--a scientific treatise on animal behavior. I found once I started painting out words with my small brush and my white paint, this proces was entirely suited to me. It is slow, meditative and pretty obsessive compulsive!!! I must admit, the process is so addictive that I force myself to go back to my "regular" work!
It's been a couple weeks since I began and I'm on page 211 (out of 266!). Because the text is justified and the pages are a cream color, the words painted out (but still fairly visible beneath a thin layer of white acrylic) and those "a" words left, make a beautiful pattern. It is also a process that lets you read....very slowly, as you work line by line seeking the "a" words. Reading a scientific treatise from 1916 is a reminder to me that knowledge is always changing and that perhaps we, in 2009, ought not to be so sure of ourselves in terms of what we know. So, that's what I'm working on now...along with all the other pieces I'm working on to get ready for a big show in Sioux Falls this summer!

What's on your reading list?
We just finished watching the John Adams HBO series (on Netflix) and now I'm reading the book John Adams by David McCullough. I am fascinated by the early history of this country, as the whole thing was so fragile. The "founding fathers" didn't know what they were doing exactly, but forged ahead one step at a time, figuring things out as they went. It makes you appreciate all the more, that the United States actually succeeded and held together, as the outcome was anything but certain. Off the top of my head at this moment, I can recommend Somserset Maugham, the autobiographical work of Nabokov and my favorite, W. G. Sebald! For my reading future, I'm not sure--still several hundred pages to go in John Adams!

What is your dream project?
I don't think I have a dream project--I think I am doing it, which is a really wonderful thing to be able to say....and I am very thankful that I am in such a place.

What words do you live by?
Hmmm. I can't thinking of anything that can be boiled down to a saying. Perhaps, in the end what I can say is that my approach to life is to watch for and express the unexplainable through my work. This thing we call life is so immense, so vast that I can only urge people to realize it's all so much bigger than we make it out to be. It's a good thing to keep in mind, when we try to boil things down, when we look for easy answers and when we think in black and white. There is room for so many different ways of being and seeing the world.

Patti Roberts-Pizzuto attended art school at Ringling School of Art and Design (now Ringling College of Art and Design). After receiving her B.F.A. in painting, she took what she thought to be a temporary job in the library at Ringling, but found that the work suited her temperament and cataloging books fed her artistic and creative life.

After twenty-five years working in the library, where she served as the cataloger and curator of the artist’s books collection at Ringling, Patti relocated to South Dakota in 2005 with her husband, Johntimothy Pizzuto. Currently she is working as a part-time cataloger in the I.D. Weeks Library at the University of South Dakota while she continues to pursue making and exhibiting her work nationally.

Most recently, she was the focus of an article entitled, "Meditations in Mixed Media" by
Lynn Cornelius Jablonski, published in the April/May 2008 Fiber Arts Magazine. Patti’s
work is also published in the Gallery Issue (September 2006) of Surface Design: The
Journal of the Surface Design Association and in the Fiber Arts Design Book Seven

She is finding much inspiration in the history and spirit of the land of South Dakota and
the Midwest, which continues to inspire new and evolving works of art. She and her
husband have just completed a new home on the banks of the Missouri River and she
looks forward to the works that will follow. Take a look at her website!!

Thanks Patti!!

13 February 2009

Spotlight on...Laurie Trok

In addition to being a talented emerging artist, Laurie Trok is also my studio mate and sometimes collaborator, an awesome jewelery maker, my fashion icon, and an all-around great gal. Here, we talk about her artistic process and influences.

Tell me about all of the different interests you have.
I am very interested in the way things are perceived and understood. I am fascinated with language, especially the visual language we find ourselves in constant dialogue with. I like to play with shapes and arrange parts of things to invent new meaning, or to find it within something.

Your artwork is a mix of collage, construction, graffiti and doodles. Can you talk about all the different artists and processes that influence what you do? What inspires your work?
Wow. I love looking at art. I can spend a whole day on the Internet or reading art magazines about new work being made. I think it's important to have a rich sense of where we come from as artists in contemporary society. This means my influences range from Matisse (specifically his cutouts) to Swoon.
Other influences at the moment are Andy Goldsworthy, Diana Cooper, Kara Walker, Ray Johnson, Robert Rauschenberg and Mark Bradford. I am inspired by the artwork I see on the street on a daily basis. I love looking at zines, comics, posters...(check out PaperRad) I am also greatly influenced by my artist friends. I love to see their processes and work, and watch as we steal from one another shamelessly. Especially you, Lauren, and my friend Todd Scalise.

What is your creative process?
I like to think my process is something that is ever-changing and growing. In my two-dimensional work, I like to begin with blind contour drawings (drawings done without looking down at the page) and use the marker bleeds on the opposite side of the page to begin the transformation of the work -- breaking it down into shapes. These shapes are constantly being cut into and out of my collages, and appear in my three dimensional work as well. I am pretty much lost without a pair of scissors or an exact-o knife.

How does music influence your work?
Oh, boy. I studied classical music for most of my youth into college, when I turned toward the visual arts. I think it's because of my music training that I work so abstractly. I think in music and in shapes. I like to listen to music while I work. I am not interested in representing things literally. I am interested in creating reality. Music is the highest form of this idea.

You use a lot of interesting materials-- found, thrown away, recycled. Can you talk about how these materials shape your work and why you are drawn to them?
There are several reasons why I work in recycled and found materials. One is strictly financial. I want to work, now. I can't afford art supplies, and I don't think I need them. Not today. With the excess around us, I feel responsible for this waste. I feel it is necessary to use the images that fall all around us, and build something new out of them. To order the chaos, so to speak.

Your artwork seems to be moving off the wall and becoming more sculptural--do you think you will be creating sculpture in the future?
YES. I love working three dimensionally. One of the reasons I want to go back to school is to learn how to use more materials so these three dimensional sketches can be realized. I enjoy playing with materials that don't go together, finding new meaning. This has naturally brought me to a more 3 dimensional sensibility. I am really excited to explore the possibilities.

What is your dream project?
Right now I am applying to a residency program in the Grand Canyon. I dream and hope that I'll get it, so I can work with the raw materials that the environment provides. It will be a literal breath of fresh air from my manic paper-cutting.
I guess on a larger scale my dream project would be some kind of installation of cut paper, filling a space that can be inhabited. People that spend time there could interact with the work, add to it, etc. As time goes on and material filters in and out of the space, the work evolves. That would be cool. I just thought of that.

You have a day job, how do you balance your job with your creativity?
I wouldn't take my advice on this one. I am struggling with that right now. Ideally my answer would be that I am able to take things from daily life straight to my studio and that since it pays the bills and helps me achieve balance, I see it as a stepping stone toward a future of art-making as a full-time career. It takes nothing away from being an artist, it only adds dimension. While I believe that, I struggle to practice it. I harbor a lot of bitterness about the ways I feel forced to spend my time. Like I said, its something I'm working on....

How do you get through artist's block?
I mainly feel blocked by time and material/financial constraints. This has taught me to work resourcefully and spontaneously. I feel as if there is no time to waste, and have become accustomed to working with whatever material I can get my hands on. When I feel blocked, I go back to the drawing board. I look at a lot of art during my down times. I go to museums, I walk outside. I copy art that I like. I continue to work, even if I feel I am producing very little. It's strange what comes out of these times. It makes it all worth it.

What are you working on now?
I have a few projects in the works. I am going through a sort-of boring but necessary phase right now of cataloguing all my of work up to the present. I've been really lazy about it, but I am learning more and more that organization in this area leads to opportunity.
I have been drawing a lot, too, in anticipation for the weather to break so I can realize some of these drawings on a large scale in my studio. Lauren and I are planning to exhibit this spring together with a two-wall, multi layered installation. All the drawings in the cold and scraps of paper cut will end up a part of this work.

(Above: Vinyl and collage on window panel)

Laurie Trok is a working artist in the Penn Avenue Corridor in Pittsburgh. She recently exhibited her collages and vinyl collage windows at Garfield Artworks.
Laurie studied Music Performance and Studio Art at Duquesne University and is currently working toward a residency program in the Grand Canyon. She plans to return to school in the fall to continue her studies.
To see more of Laurie's work and for contact information, please visit her Pittsburgh Artist Registry page.

Thanks Laurie!

11 February 2009

Ted Talks: Elizabeth Gilbert, OLE

If you have 20 minutes and are interested in creativity, you MUST listen to this talk given by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love.
She is an incredibly articulate, engaging, down-to-earth, funny speaker and story-teller.
She talks about hitting a milestone in her career and realizing the possibility that her greatest success is now behind her. A very scary realization to anyone pursuing a creative art form.

TED stands for technology, entertainment and design and is an impressive compilation of talks from some of the world's most interesting and innovative thinkers...... check it out. But first listen to the talk below!

Spotlight On....Marcus Stevens

Marcus Stevens is one smart cookie. He acts, he writes, he sings. He recently moved from Pittsburgh to NY and is attending the BMI Musical Theater Workshop. He is definitely one to watch!

Can you tell me about your interests outside of theatre?
I’ve always been interested in history. I’m drawn to reading biographies and nonfiction. I don’t know if this is an interest, but I love food. I love trying new foods (especially desserts!) and I’m hooked on watching the food network. Chefs fascinate me. I think because cooking is such a strange and specific art form, and it’s something I could never do.

What are you inspired by?
This is a tough question because it changes from day to day. As a writer, I’m inspired by good stories and good storytelling. I’m inspired by everyday things that reveal something surprising about our humanity. I’m inspired by things that make me laugh. As an actor, I’m inspired by projects that scare me. If I face a project that seems daunting, that’s usually good. And as a person, I’m inspired by good friends and all the cool stuff they’re doing.

What is your creative process? Do you have a ritual that gets you ready to write?
Not really…unless you count pacing as a ritual. I pace a lot before I write. Usually when I’m starting a project I spend a long time just thinking about it before anything goes on paper. I walk around my apartment, my neighborhood, anywhere just thinking. Then when I’m ready I write an outline or a rough sketch.

What are you currently working on?
Well, I’m working on a one act musical with Douglas Levine about a college girl with confidence and weight issues. It’s going to be directed and performed by college students, so I think that’s cool. I’m also in my first year at the BMI Musical Theater Workshop. It’s a training program for lyricists and composers, where you’re paired with a new collaborator for each assignment. Some of the things I’ve worked on so far are a song for Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (everyone who has ever been in this workshop since it began in 1961 has done this assignment), a charm song for It’s a Wonderful Life, and a comedy song for Tony Kushner’s Angel’s in America. As an actor, I’m preparing to do a production of Forbidden Broadway at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia this spring.

You recently moved to NY from Pittsburgh…how is NY inspiring you?
Well, there’s something about being in a city where so much is happening. It can be scary, but it’s very exciting. It makes you feel like the possibilities are endless (ask me if I still feel that way in a few years and we’ll see!). Being in the BMI workshop, surrounded by really talented people who are all doing the same thing as I am is also very inspiring. I have people to talk to about what interests me about musical theater. We give each other feedback on our work. It’s really terrific.

You are a writer and an actor who is quite accomplished in both pursuits-- do you enjoy both equally? Do you find that acting and writing complement each other or are they 2 totally different processes for you?
I think they do complement each other. As an actor, it’s my job to get inside the character I’m playing—to think like that person and live in their shoes. As a writer, I have to do the same thing. In fact, I have to be even more engrossed in the character because I have to provide the words that he or she says. And to add to that, I’m not just playing one character when I write, but all of them. So I think it’s very similar. The only huge difference for me is that acting is always done while surrounded by other people and writing is very solitary. When I’m in a play, there’s a director and other actors to communicate with. As a playwright, I’m usually sitting in my apartment, staring at a laptop. I wrote a show called Eastburn Avenue that I also acted in this past May. It was really eye opening to create a character on paper and then have to create him as an actor too.

What is your dream project?
I don’t really have a specific project I’ve been dreaming about. A dream project for me is working on a story that I feel very passionate about, with a collaborator who’s…well, collaborative (sometimes they’re not)…and of course whatever it is, it has a role in it for me…if it were on Broadway, that wouldn’t be too bad.

How do you get through writer's block?
This is going to sound bad, but I procrastinate. I actually find that it helps. Sometimes when I’m stuck I just have to walk away. I can’t force it. So I watch TV or go to lunch (that’s my favorite form of procrastination) or I work on something else. Then later, when I’ve had some distance, the ideas often come back.

What are you currently reading?
It’s called The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. Daniel Mendelsohn, the author, recounts his search for truth behind his family’s tragic past in the Holocaust. It’s part memoir, part reportage, part mystery. The information he digs up is amazing, but more amazing is how he finds it. The man literally went to the ends of the earth to discover the truth about his lost family members. I just recently wrote a play about the nature of family, memory and history, so reading this is fascinating to me.

What words do you live by?
When I was in high school, I guess, was when I saw Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George for the first time. It’s about the artist’s personal quest to create. When George, our hero, has completely lost hope that he’ll ever break through to something truly original, his life-long muse gives him this advice…
Let it come from you
Then it will be new
Give us more to see

Marcus Stevens
earned a BFA in Theatre Arts from Point Park Conservatory of Performing Arts in Pittsburgh , PA. He is a proud member of Actors’ Equity Association, AFTRA, and the Dramatists Guild. As an actor, Marcus has worked in many of Pittsburgh ’s premiere regional theaters, including The Pittsburgh Public Theater, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, City Theatre Company, The Pittsburgh Playhouse, Jewish Theater of Pittsburgh and Bricolage Production Company. His work as the title role in Adam Guettel and Tina Landau’s Floyd Collins and as Gordon Schwinn in William Finn’s A New Brain earned him accolades in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for “One of the Year’s Best Performances” of 2002 and 2003, respectively. Other major roles to date, include Jamie Wellerstein in the Jewish Theater of Pittsburgh’s production of The Last Five Years, Sparky in the Civic Light Opera’s long running production of Forever Plaid, Jed (alongside Tim Hartman) in The Big Bang and Mandy Patinkin, Harvey Fierstien, Colm Wilkinson and many others in Forbidden Broadway. Marcus has taught musical theater at Point Park Conservatory and has taught and directed many high school and college students at Upper Darby Summer Stage for the past eleven years.

As a writer, Marcus is the recipient of the 2005 Richard Rodgers Award for his musical Red, co-written with composer/lyricist Brian Lowdermilk. Red was also a finalist in the Eugene O’Neill Festival for New Musicals and for the TAMS New Voices Prize. Marcus has also written the book and lyrics to Elliot and the Magic Bed and Eastburn Avenue, which had its world premiere with the Pittsburgh Playhouse Rep. Company in May of 2008.

Thanks Marcus

09 February 2009

Spotlight on.....Nancy J. Parisi

In this interview, I talk to multi-talented Nancy J. Parisi about photography, her annual Red Dinner and her positively radiant personality!

(photo at right: Self Portrait by Nancy J. Parisi)

You make your living as a commercial photographer and you also make photographs as your art. Do you approach the commercial work in a different way than your artwork?
I approach both my commercial and art work in the same way, with a sense of discovery and openness to possibility, you should never presuppose that you have all the answers to a situation. You’re carrying into any portrait/event/art situation a set of tools and knowledge, but there might be something in the room that can be used as a prop, or something there that’s unexpected. I balance knowledge with curiosity, a goal with chance.
How do you balance the two?That’s the great challenge of my world, trying to balance being a commercial photographer and artist. I usually find that artwork is last on my list. I get to a point when I know I must make some artmaking time, without that I can get very frustrated. A lot of what I do is documenting the accomplishments of others, that’s a talent that I have, but I have to remind myself sometimes that I’m an artist too.

How did you get your start in photography?
I fell in love with photography when I was very young, at seven years old. I would make photographs with my father’s camera, until I received my own camera. When I was a young teenager I took a photography class with an artist at a neighborhood community center with a neighbor who was also interested in photography. My friend had a great interest, and not that much passion for the craft. Later, when I was 17 and entering University at Buffalo, that artist was teaching a couple of classes at UB and encouraged me to continue with it, and I did. It was her prompting that got me going – I thanked her years later for her encouragement. I borrowed my neighbor’s father’s old 35mm rangefinder, a beauty, a Zeiss from the 40s. After that I worked to save my money to buy my first 35mm camera, a sturdy and dependable (and inexpensive) Pentax K1000. I wish I still had it, I’m not sure what happened to it. After that camera I became an ardent Nikon user. I’ve collected other, non-Nikon cameras along the way. I’m an equipment geek.

What are your other interests?
I’m also a writer, a journalist. Gardening is a lifelong passion. I love to watch westerns. I'm a Francophile, I love Japan/Japanese culture/art. I like to read biographies, even shorter pieces about historical figures, or celebrities - politicians moreso than pop culture people. I do like to read about rock lore, too. I follow political events, political work is one of my specialties and I love to be immersed in political events.

What is the annual Red Dinner all about?
I started my annual Red Dinner as a sit-down dinner party for a large group of friends. Since I’ve lived on my own I’ve always loved holding parties and feeding people. I sought to, with Red Dinner, make Valentine’s Day a festive occasion for everyone, turning it into a big event rather than a romantic couple’s holiday. I started Red Dinner in 1997, at least that’s the earliest I started documenting the party. I cook all-red food, guests come dressed in red, and I have all-red utensils, plates, and lighting in my home. It’s gotten much bigger over the years, this year I sent out about 100 invitations. This is also the time of year when there’s not that much going on socially – the holidays are a dim memory and everyone is eager for winter to be finished. I hear from people throughout the year that they’re anxious for the party, and have acquired something new and red to wear to it. One thing I always make for the party are my nearly-famous Red Deviled Eggs: deviled eggs mixed with red caviar. It turns the egg yolks a vivid pink and they’re absolutely delicious.

I feel like you have a lot of Buffalo love! Does Buffalo have a starring role in your pictures? Would you live anywhere else?
One ongoing body of artwork is the images that I make of and around grain elevators that are near where my building is located. I never made images of the grain elevators or Buffalo’s industrial landscape until I lived down in the part of the city. I documented the iron bridges before they were demolished, and HO Oats before that was torn down to make way for the inner-city casino. So, yes, Buffalo does have a bit of a starring role. I’ve made work in New York City, when I was in graduate school at Parsons School of Design, and I think it’s easier to make work in Buffalo in some ways. In Buffalo there’s more of a feeling of possibility, there are fewer parameters. But in NY there are more opportunities to be inspired daily, by the energy on the streets, and the amount of arts events. I was between NYC and Buffalo for about four years which seems to have confused some people in Buffalo who knew I’d gone to NYC for school. There was a lot of presumption that I’d relocate to NYC. I was drawn back into Buffalo full-time because of my work in Buffalo, my friends, and family.

What projects are you working on right now?
I’m always working on two photo series – of Buffalo’s industrial spaces, exteriors, as well as a body of still life work. That latter work happens in my studio and in many instances involves small objects that I find out in the city, as well as organic forms that I acquire for the shoots, like flowers of certain significance. I’m also entering this next incarnation of Beyond/In Western New York, which has a theme this year. I’m also always making work for various members’ shows and for arts organizations’ benefit parties like Artists & Models, and Squeaky Wheels’ Peep Show. Those are interactive pieces that involve revelers, and are more complex. But those public interactive works are approached just like any other arts project – with a set of goals that are very intricately thought through but again I’ll be open to change or having to modify an idea if the space or situation necessitates it.

What is a typical week like in your life?

What is your creative process?
I do a lot of sketching of ideas, I also love to draw. If I can’t get to the studio to make some artwork I’ll make sketches so I won’t forget ideas that popped into my mind.

What inspires you?
I’m always looking at artwork by other people. I take frequent trips to NY to get inspired, it’s a must for me, to spend days going from show to show and I take notes on what I see as well as what ideas come to me when looking at others’ work. I get ideas when I’m walking, looking through magazines, and talking to people.

What books, teachers, other photographers, mentors, etc., have had the most influence on you as a photographer?
All of my photo teachers, profs have inspired me. I studied at UB with Marion Faller, Tyrone Georgiou, Nathan Lyons. At Parsons I was most inspired and encouraged by my mentor Jim Ramer. I like to share thoughts with some other artists as well as photojournalists. Sometimes I’m more excited to speak to other photojournalists, we share ideas and tips more readily, as well as exchange information about VIPs, venues, and situations that we were in.

I have always experienced you as an exuberant and positive person, do you have a philosophy of good living you can share?
I think it’s important to embrace gratitude, gratitude for oneself, one’s talents, friends and family. I wake up every day and say to myself “Attack the day with joy.” I’ve had hard and dark times but am even grateful for them as they made me stronger and tested who I am. I believe it’s better to give than to receive, my nature is to be joyful and generous. I have learned to spend more time with those who are positive and loving, it doesn’t make sense not to do that because life is precious and brief. I’m always feeling that I need to do more, that I need to accomplish more, and push myself more. I like to always talk to people because I believe everyone has a story to tell. There isn’t enough listening in the world.

What is your dream project?
I’m happiest when I’m on the move, my dream project would be to be commissioned to make portraits of people in a historically or politically charged or changing place. A place that needed to be documented to help with a cause. And to be asked to document because someone recognized my talent and would be hands-off about letting me tell the story. I’ve done a bit of this type of project but would like to do more: shooting and writing while traveling.

What does photography mean to you?
I believe photography is one of the most important human inventions, and I think it’s magical in the way that it works (analogue and digital), and the power that it has. Given a choice, I’d always prefer to look at photographs over any other medium.

Nancy J. Parisi has been a practicing, full-time photojournalist, and journalist for over two decades, specializing in events, political work, and portraits. She’s a regular contributor to Buffalo Spree magazine and writes biographical and lifestyle features. Nancy attended University at Buffalo where she crafted an arts management curriculum via Black Mountain College II, while earning an Honors English Department B.A. and an unofficial photography minor. In 2005 she completed a Masters of Fine Arts degree at Parsons School of Design (a division of New School University in Manhattan), as part of their first-ever class earning that degree at the school. For fifteen years, Nancy created a photo essay column, What Has Happened, centering on Buffalo’s cultural life, for Artvoice, where she was photo editor. When not working on deadlines, Nancy works on three ongoing bodies of work: green spaces in Manhattan, the industrial landscape of Buffalo, N.Y., and intimate studio portraits of lush organic objects with or without models. She also draws, and writes poetry.

Thanks Nancy!

06 February 2009

Lately Looking At..... Mary Heilmann

Mateo, 1996
Surfing on Acid, 2005

I first read about Mary Heilman's work in Vogue magazine a couple of years ago. Annie Leibovitz shot pictures of Heilman's home, her artwork, and a portrait of her. I really liked the spread because Heilmann's home in Bridgehampton, NY was decorated with the same colors and vibrancy imbued in her work. Also, it's very cool that she makes her own furniture and ceramics in addition to painting.
I am drawn to this work because it's so bright and happy and unfussy. The paint is splashed on but controlled. It's loose and liquidy. The work is graphic both in its jewel tones and references to geometry and the grid.
Heilmann was born in 1940 on the west coast. You can see the influence of sun, sand and surf in how she approaches her work. I read that she is also a fan of some very hip pop music that she often uses to inspire titles for her paintings.

04 February 2009

Spotlight on.......Douglas Levine

I'm so happy to be able to share this interview with you! This person really inspires, encourages and supports me on a daily basis. His name is Douglas Levine. Once, I overheard him with a piano student saying, "Don't practice like a farm animal. You're hitting your head against the wall like a cow." I wrote that down in my sketchbook, and have a good laugh at it every so often.

(Photo: Douglas on the tiny plane during our trip to Belize taken by Lauren Braun. (He had a band-aid on his thumb.)

How do you maintain such intense focus on your work?
For me, nothing focuses creativity like a deadline. Collaborating also helps coral that sometimes elusive rascal, Mr. Focus. When I’m only beholden to myself and without a deadline—like just trying to work on ‘my own stuff,’ focus is much more inconsistent.

Do you ever get bored with what you're doing? How do you work through it?
One nice thing about having many creative hats (composer/arranger/performer/music director/teacher) is the necessity of changing it up with regularity. Nonetheless, drudging and uncreative projects present themselves. Like having to reduce an orchestral score for a smaller production. Or transcribing someone’s music from a CD or audio file. With luck, it pays well AND a deadline is looming.

What is your daily creative practice?
I used to make sure to practice the piano at least an hour a day, come hell or high water. Alas, this no longer seems to happen, as my focus has shifted to the writing. Writing is tough and slow, for me. Though I’ve been at it for over a decade, I’ve yet to find a consistent routine. It varies from project to project. I’d love to have a block of 4 hours a day to write.

Who/What inspires you?
I’m inspired by anyone who commits to the daily grind of being a creative artist, and manages to stick with it for the long haul. Nobody else can make your art, so if YOU don’t make it…a little trite, but true.

Who/what have been your greatest mentors, muses, influences or champions?
I’ve had some wonderful teachers, but didn’t find a mentor until my mid-20’s, in my graduate school piano instructor, Ralph Zitterbart. Grad school marked the first time I felt confident and settled in my choice to make music my life. That’s when Ralph came along…I wasn’t ready for a mentor prior to this.

What is your dream project?
I simply hope to always be working on a new music, dance or theater work that is actually in the pipeline for a production. To someday make respectable $ doing so is, I suppose, where the dream aspect filters in.

What has been your greatest reward, creatively?
To collaborate with the talented Marcus Stevens on the 3 year journey of writing and performing the new musical Eastburn Avenue. A second production (or new commission) will be the next greatest.

How do you feel about the music you create after it's all finished and being played?
I’ve had very few experiences with being able to listen to my own music being performed. The vast majority of my projects have included me as a performer. The times I’ve gotten to be a listener have, in recent years, been more fun and gratifying than when I was younger, and the self-critic would get the upper hand.

What is the best compliment someone could give you?

A couple of times I’ve received compliments to the effect of, “It’s not really my cup of tea but I came (to your production) anyway, and it really affected me.” It’s nice to know that your art can impact people at an emotional level.

By contrast, sincere compliments from artistic peers are also reassuring. I once hired a serious jazz drummer for a children’s musical I scored that had a swing and funk influence. During the first rehearsal I overheard him say at one point, half under his breath, “hip.” It warmed my heart.

What project(s) are you working on now?
Presently I have a healthy mix of projects, musical directing a big conservatory production for Point Park University, writing a new one-act musical, and preparing for two upcoming cabaret concerts.

Douglas Levine stays busy in his hometown of Pittsburgh as a piano soloist and accompanist, composer, arranger, musical director and teacher. He has written original music for companies including City Theatre, Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre, Attack Theatre, Gateway to the Arts, Pitt Repertory Theatre, The Playhouse Repertory Company, Dreams of Hope, Renaissance City Women’s Choir and Pittsburgh Musical Theater. He composed the scores for the new musicals Eastburn Avenue (Playhouse REP,) Colorfast (Pittsburgh International Children’s Theater Festival) and Shakespeare Street (Playhouse Junior.) In 2005 Doug released Kromatica, his debut recording of original piano compositions and arrangements.

Thanks Douglas!

Cafe Press

My friend Lisa (and her band, Shady Grove) printed my tree drawing on their band t-shirts and other merchandise!! It's very cool to see one of my drawings on somebody's t-shirt, plus I got a complimentary one. The Shady Grove website is also using the tree.

"Just keep making your stuff and they can’t ignore you forever"

Important words for any creative person to keep in your back pocket! That's a quote from this interview with Chicago artist, Heather Mekkelson on the Chicago Artist Resource website, or CAR. Even though I am not a Chicago resident, I think this website is a fantastic compilation of ideas, inspiration, opportunities and information. I have sent the folks at CAR email extolling the virtues of their good work, twice! And they even wrote me back, twice-- which made me happy and cemented their high status in my book of cool organizations. Which brings me to my newest task for this blog-- to compile a list of places on the web to go to when in need of a little extra oomph and a daily dose of inspiration.

I wish I was one of those people who is eternally optimistic and focused on accomplishing what needs to be done. In reality however, I sometimes forget the little steps I need to take to get me where I want to go. Some days, I feel sunny and exuberant and other days, I feel like a total failure- like nothing is working out, blah blah blah-- my brain just runs circles around itself and I have to try to pull myself out of that rut that I create.

Then, I blog about my blues and feel better.

03 February 2009

Spotlight on.....Mika Johnson

I'm pleased to present an interview with film-maker, Mika Johnson.
Mika is currently working on a feature film, Amerika: a notebook in three parts. We have never met, but I've heard great things about him and his creative work from our mutual friend and collaborator, Honey Lapcharoen.

Can you tell me about your interests?
I’m an avid fan of the cinema, devoted mainly to the poets and visionaries. I also have a strong interest in photography, mostly for works that blur the distinction between truth and illusion or fantasy and reality. I like real scenes that appear artificial or set ups that appear real. Other interests include miniatures, optical illusions, and collages, all of which relate to my love for Surrealism. I’m more interested in making music than in listening to it and I enjoy reading books, mainly fiction but also history, psychology, and spirituality. I’m very interested in ritual, synchronicity, dreams, and time.

Can you talk about your travels and living abroad? How did those experiences shape your vision as an artist/film person?
After college I spent five years living in Japan, Germany, and the Czech Republic. I left two days before 9/11, and this gave me an outsider’s perspective on America and everything that happened afterward. Were it not for that experience, I wouldn’t have written my first feature, which in the end was my attempt to both understand America and re-mythologize it from a foreigner’s perspective.

As an artist, living abroad was a struggle, but a fruitful one. I went from teaching English, to supporting myself in Tokyo, to completing two short films and landing a job at Barrandov Studios, Prague. I spent all my free time either scriptwriting or studying European Cinema, un-enrolled at FAMU - a film school where some of my favorite directors attended, including Milos Forman, Vera Chytilova, and Jan Nemec. Since European schools tend to treat film making as an art form, I saw in their cinema a mirror of my own desire to make films that tackle philosophical and spiritual questions. During the three years between Prague and Berlin, I also completed two music albums with the Berlin-based group VOCO. I sang and played guitar.

I want to make sophisticated films, with artistic integrity, in America rather than Europe, where even independent cinema is entrenched in the values of commercialism. Not wanting to compromise this vision, my solution was to create a production company, based on the model of non-profits, and to make films that could be self-distributed over the Internet. I started
Arcanum Productions with these goals in mind. In November Arcanum uploaded a 20-minute short film that I directed and photographed in the Czech Republic titled “Yonder,” which viewers can now watch for free on our site.

What is a typical week in your life like?
I work as a freelance photographer, videographer, and editor; everything depends on the work that comes my way. When I have free time, I’m always working on the promotional aspect of trying to launch a feature film. I also love to spend time at photo libraries, like the International Center for Photography, or the image library at the Mid-Manhattan library. In the evening, I watch films with my wife Kaori and our two cats. Or I play the guitar. If it’s Friday we go out to a museum.

You are currently in the midst of developing a feature film... Can you talk about it? How did it come into being? Where are you in the process, what happens next?
AMERIKA: a notebook in three parts begins with a young Japanese woman named Kat, who is trapped in her job as a hostess in Tokyo. To escape, she leaves for America. This character grew out of my wife’s experiences, and conversations I transcribed in 2004. Kaori temporarily worked as a hostess and had intimate knowledge of that world. Imagine a situation where a man pays $500 to $2,000 to sit down, drink alcohol, and talk to beautiful women. That would almost never happen in America, unless it included sex. Something very different was at play in these Tokyo clubs that combined wealth, fantasy, and a psychological exchange. It never occurred to me that a Japanese hostess would make an interesting protagonist until Kaori described how these women often lost their identities through decadence and self-destruction. I regarded this self-destruction as a mirror of the commentary I wanted to make on American identity, history, and culture.

(Kat in Ohio still from Part II of AMERIKA: a notebook in three parts. Photo: Mika Johnson)

After Kat leaves Japan, her journey begins to overlap with America’s historical evolution, as she heads west and finds herself on this multi-dimensional road-trip; all the archetypal energies of America’s history rapidly unfold like a bizarre dream spiraling toward an apocalyptic conclusion. Kat eventually makes a sacrifice that symbolically turns back the clock. It’s an event of rebirth and reversals. I refer to this as “re-mythologizing.”

All our principle actors are cast and we have a solid crew of international artists from America, China, Japan, Iceland, and Germany. We also have our locations scouted and recently sparked a collaboration with Colleen, a French composer whose music resonates with the dream-like quality of our story. Now we’re waiting for an angel to step in and say, “I’m here to fund your film.”

How did you become interested in film?
When I was 13, my father got me a job at a local store, which also rented movies. Besides my meager pay, I could borrow movies for free. In junior high, my brother bought a video camera and we started making short films. But it wasn’t until I started college, and saw the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, that I really felt the drive to be a filmmaker. From that moment on I wanted to be a filmmaker and create poetic films with spiritual themes. Ten years later, I still feel the same way.

What is your creative process?
It’s always different. AMERIKA began as a script, which I began writing in cafes in Berlin. I needed that social environment. When we moved to Prague, I began collecting hundreds of images from photo books at FAMU that I would copy, print out, and hang up on the wall, where they began to tell the story from a visual perspective. I began casting and recording actors. My goal was to integrate each person’s real identity with the character on the page. When I began collaborating with writer Honey Lapcharoen, we tightened the narrative by removing what didn’t need to be there and adding things that were missing. It was all very organic. By the time I began taking promotional photographs for our website’s gallery, the vision completed itself.

(Kat's notebook from Part I of AMERIKA: a notebook in three parts. Photo: Mika Johnson )

What books, mentors, teachers, films, etc. have had the most influence on your development as a creative person?
It all started with my father, who is a natural performer. I was more talented behind the camera. When I think of the people who’ve influenced my development as a creative person, there are really a few that stand out: my former professor, Tim Scholl, who continues to teach and inspire me; my friends Bonnie Huie and Peter Hlinka, who I made my first short films with; and then there are those people in my life right now, who continually support, inspire, and push me to develop. These include my friends Robbie Schneider, Honey Lapcharoen, and Kaori. I’ve taken most of my lessons from my favorite filmmakers, such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Bunuel, Sergei Parajanov, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Federico Fellini, Aleksandr Sokurov, and Bela Tarr. These are the people I study.

What are you currently reading?
The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky. It’s good, especially in the bathtub.

What inspires you?
My wife’s drawings. Our cats. Recently, archival films. And for the last two years, the museums here in New York City, especially the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My favorite sections are the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas and a reconstructed room, in the American Wing, which I know to be haunted.

What is your dream project?
I am currently completing my second feature script, which combines the genres of classic noir and sci-fi, as it follows a detective who is attempting to solve a bizarre murder in a dystopic version of America, where pharmaceutical drug companies have come to control consciousness. My dream project would be to make this film interactive, so that viewers could choose their way through the story, like a narrative labyrinth. I can foresee multiple endings, hidden scenes or texts within scenes, etc.

What words do you live?
“A sincere belief that anything is so, will make it so.” William Blake

“Wishes are recollections coming from the future.” Rainer Maria Rilke

How do you get through artist's block?
I find that working on multiple projects helps. When one isn’t flowing, I turn my attention to another. In time they all grow up.

Ohio native Mika Johnson is an accomplished filmmaker/photographer and holds a B.A. in Film and Religious studies from Oberlin College. Having already directed a documentary (Lake Street USA) and two independent short films while living in Japan and the Czech Republic (The Mountain of Signs, Yonder), Mika anticipates directing his first feature length motion picture AMERIKA: a notebook in three parts, a film loosely based on his wife and collaborator Kaori Mitsushima. He currently lives and works in New York City as a photographer, videographer, and video editor.

Thanks Mika!