Emerging Wonder: A Shadow Ballet

There are some stories that you learn something new any time you read it, and re-reading Alice in Wonderland just before creating this piece, I found how deeply it related to the things I’ve been considering in my environmental and participatory work. While the idea of giving greater importance to nonsense has always stood out, in this reading, I paid attention to the ways that size and position alter one’s perception. 

Lewis Carroll played with time and scale throughout Alice in Wonderland in order to reframe the quirks of British culture. It’s publication in 1865 coincided with the end of the American Civil War, and despite optimistic framing at the time, vestiges of both British and American culture still contribute to inequitable systems of power. 

Carroll’s nonsense world challenged deeply rooted Victorian orthodoxy by using size to create changes in perceived importance. 

Carroll depicts not just changes in size for Alice, but the affect that it has on her psyche. As she is problem solving, trying to reach the key on the table, she eats too much cake and becomes giant, causing her fear and worry that is literally outsized, flooding the area with a sea of tears. Calming down, she continues to problem-solve, but makes herself so small that she gets washed away building a kind of empathy for the animals affected by her oversized human impact. 

When later stuck inside the Duchess’s house, she recognizes and uses the uses the destructive power of her human-ness to terrorize the residents of the Duchesses house until she finds a way to get her emotions under control.  

In Emerging Wonder, the transformation of each bug and flower into the next plays with scale. Sometimes a bee takes up the whole screen, while there is a tiny butterfly in the next image. In turn, projected at a ten foot screen, all of the bugs are larger than life, interacting with the swirl of puppets on the rotor created by participants, and audience members who stopped along the way to the nearby dance floor.  

It is always a pleasure to walk through Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and even more of a pleasure to be able to collaborate with the community with an art project geared towards participation. By taking the frame of the caterpillar and other pollinator animals, this work creates space for participants to imagine a world where we prioritize our relationship with nature. Visitors to FOOL Moon, hosted throughout downtown Ann Arbor, contributed their own shadow puppets to the installation in the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market.

I love making participatory art because my “audience” always teaches me something, and in this case, I loved watching the bugs, pets, objects, and designs emerge from the many families who stopped to create at the table. Some had luminaries, and many were dressed up with layered coats, as Michigan spring often demands. I myself was dressed as a flower garden with my Marimekko coat, purple flowered dress, and pink floral socks.  

Although it died down by evening, the wind on Friday around lunchtime was so strong that we only installed the projection screen and simplified the installation. The projector loaned to me by the Ann Arbor District Library was so much brighter than my own that it lit up the large silver rotor made of aluminum window screen. Even without curtains, it created layers of color and functioned both as the engine for the shadow ballet and a second, brilliant screen. 

In gaps between noises from the disco floor in the middle of the market, and my neighbors, the flute invited people who hadn’t yet made puppets to watch and created a performance space for each round of new puppets that added to the menagerie. The diameter of the rotor created the illusion of swirling around like on a dance floor, allowing the creatures and joys that people created to add to the story of butterflies, flowers, grasshoppers, bees, and caterpillars. 

Seeing things this size made me want to create an EVEN BIGGER projection.  Instead of ten feet wide, I want to make it fifty! Imagine 2” shadow puppets and 2cm bugs showing up on a screen bigger than people. That would really draw you into the dream of the world we live in. 

Breathe: Art Lives in Community

“This morning I have been pondering a nearly forgotten lesson I learned in high school music. Sometimes in band or choir, music requires players or singers to hold a note longer than they actually can hold a note. In those cases, we were taught to mindfully stagger when we took a breath so the sound appeared uninterrupted. Everyone got to breathe, and the music stayed strong and vibrant. Yesterday, I read an article that suggested the administration’s litany of bad executive orders (more expected on LGBTQ next week) is a way of giving us “protest fatigue” – we will literally lose our will to continue the fight in the face of the onslaught of negative action. Let’s remember MUSIC. Take a breath. The rest of the chorus will sing. The rest of the band will play. Rejoin so others can breathe. Together, we can sustain a very long, beautiful song for a very, very long time. You don’t have to do it all, but you must add your voice to the song. With special love to all the musicians and music teachers in my life.”

[Michael Moore from: https://cortarts.com/cspa-blog/2017/2/13/quote-from-michael-moore]

This quote from Michael Moore was generative both for visitors, and for me. These last several months working in person in a [small well-organized] school during the last two waves of the pandemic, I have been focused on safety and projects with my learning community rather than art and political discourse.

I took a breath while the broader community kept singing.

Finally this long weekend, Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday weekend, I have a moment to breathe in and focus on the generative installation we created together for YpsiGLOW back in October.  

In the process of making this work, I had three stalwart collaborators, my father, Jolleen Filio and Paolo de Petrillo. My dad helped me install, tie knots, carry ladders and troubleshoot. Paolo was the mastermind who created a program that automated the movement and colors, taking his evenings and afternoons both to solder and to debug. Jolleen helped me work through some of the conceptual knots, finding texts and songs for a playlist related to breath, health, and earth. She created hand-lettered signs that we hung up as inspiration for those who visited.

You can see more process photos and videos on my Instagram Highlights and a video with sound here

What did people in Ypsilanti say they did to help them breathe the last few years as we all face the crises of health, environmental, and racial justice?

The chorus of contributors to this project goes beyond my friends. On that rainy Friday night, thanks to WonderFOOL Productions YpsiGLOW festival, many passers by who stopped to watch the ten foot lungs breathe in and out took a moment to listen to the river rushing and add their thoughts to pieces of fluorescent paper that floated in the breeze. 

They shared strategies that they have used throughout the pandemic with pictures, words, and conversations with one another.

As the Omicron variant crashes over the United States, it felt urgent to share the “findings” of this arts-based community record. Perhaps their commentaries and strategies will help you, dear reader, get through the next several weeks of uncertainty.  

Pets: 9

People named their pets, cats, dogs, even a horse. One interesting note outlined and action strategy. “I snuggle my cat and sync my breathing to his. He reminds me to breathe.”  Someone also created a green cat silhouette to emphasize their attachment to their “SO and my cats.”  

Family and Friends: 9

There was a common thread of togetherness and trust in the family and friends notes. My favorite crossed boundaries a bit. A child drew a picture of having a party with their best friends. The child wrote their names, and Park Party LOVE LOVE  with a bright sun above their heads.  

Nature (various kinds): 13

Some of the nature notes just named the kind of nature, while others outlined a strategy, like the action of hiking or walking in nature.  Another strategy, perhaps emphasized in people’s minds because of the volume of water hurtling beneath the gazebo was, “Listening to the water, wind, and birds.”  

Music: 9

One person wrote, “Dancing and playing flute,” but most of the music ones were about listening to music as a way to escape, or even listening to podcasts.

Play and Creature Comforts: 7

Leisure and rest are extremely important and there were a variety of answers in this category from playing football to just playing, and someone even mentioned, “Good jokes, bad jokes, good sex, and poetry”

Action Strategies: 10

While some of these were general, there were a few specifics, focused on gratitude words of encouragement, and movement building. Someone shared a CBT/OT strategy called “Box Breathing,” in which you trace your finger around a shape and breathe in and out as you go around it.  This is a calming technique common in schools.  

Literalists (Breathing/Oxygen/Lungs etc) 3, and Random: 4

The most useful response to “what helps you breathe?” was “Keeping my mask on.” Other maybe wanted to create something but didn’t know what so they wrote “My lungs, my nose knows,” or “Oxygen.” 

There were 55 responses in all. There are a few that had multiple ideas on one paper, so the total number of items I counted is bigger. 

Art lives in communities. Are you listening to the voices and visions?

For myself, I appreciate that the desire to improve our world is held in people’s hearts alongside my own. I appreciate that others have kept singing and creating these last few months that my creative breath has been taken up with daily labor.  

As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with a federal holiday, I am thinking about how I can contribute to the dream of justice for all, both in my daily practice as an educator, and in my vocation as an artist. 

When Art lives in communities, in the voices and visions of the public, it has immense power for social change. It is past time to honor the ways that art lives outside of museum walls, outside of urban and academic elites, outside of consumerism and production.

March Spring Winds

A sequential animation with improvisational flute using a Japanese pentatonic scale.

March Spring Winds is a contemplation on tensions that coincide as seasonal change crashes into human emergence from the pandemic.  Created through a meditative practice on internal ecology, the video consists of a sequential drawn animation combined with an improvisational flute melody to evoke the interplay between complements. As plants sprout and animals emerge from hibernation, this is a reflection on how we can evoke joy and honor loss.

A swoosh of orange criss-crosses the green and blue background. A still from the video above

What has emerged?

In English, the word “emergency” indicates an urgent crisis, something that came up, an emerging need. During this year of acute slow-motion crises, this linguistic quirk of English has occurred to me more than once. In French and Spanish, a the wing of the hospital for treating trauma is Urgence or Urgencias, respectively.

As I was drawing, I watched as motifs slowly emerged, creating new layers of meaning and emotion .

Shadowy amoeba shapes on a red and gold background. A still from the video.

It made me stop to consider how with a crisis, there is potential for disruption and trauma. In my day job, which is at a school, there has certainly been a complete overhaul of our systems. There are things that are frightening about massive change, especially when it is accompanied by inequitable risks for marginalized members of our society.

However, transformation is not all bad. The acute injustices that have become visible– emergent– to more people have spurred people to push their own limits. Existing networks of care have mobilized deeper generosity and participation. Technology that seemed like science fiction when I was a child has become a broader everyday platform for education, art, and connection.

These emerging transformations have the potential to create sustainable and lasting change, but it requires everyone to make a conscious choice to continue troubling the waters of injustice.

The orange swoosh returns on multi-colored background with green zipper shapes and reddish footprints. A still from the video.

What will you carry forward?

This year has been full of barriers, pain, and sadness, but there have been moments that emerged for me that have deepened my sense of community and interconnected ness. As you watch this video, please think about how both pain and empathy have had an impact on your own life.

What challenges have you faced?

What has helped you get through this year, and how can you pay that forward to someone else?

This video was streamed through the FOOLMoon CommUNITY Facebook page, and at the Ann Arbor Art Center on April 9! Check out the event here to see some other stellar artists.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Four years ago this weekend, in the midst of concern over the potential for our country to unravel after the 2016 election, I had an opportunity at the last minute to create something at an arts festival in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

My head was a mix of fear, worry, protectiveness, hope, connection, and disconnection.

Although my own artistic vision is clear in the artwork, I created it in my role as Program Director of FLY Creativity Lab which served students in the Ypsilanti Community Schools as well as the broader community. Although it deserves more than a sentence, for the purposes of the present discourse, suffice to say that state and local policies have re-segregated Washtenaw County’s public schools, and created huge inequities between Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, and the smaller population centers in the county.

I knew that it was important to take a stand in favor of pluralism and against the divisive policies and actions we believed would be coming.

There were signs for both candidates in every neighborhood of Ypsilanti. There were people in my social circles who expressed discomfort with the candidate who won but voted that way anyway because he pretended to be “conservative.” I couldn’t fathom how they believed his farce, but they did not heed my counter-arguments.

This work of art was truly co-created. I began with a single yarn tied to the loom: that our community could resist more strongly if we collectively wove together our connections.

Participants found threads of inquiry that I hadn’t imagined. They noticed that the way the yarn was thrown made a difference in texture. They drew my attention to the patterns created by the combination of the octagonal “loom” and the choices that each child or adult made. They connected to the metaphor, finding some hope and joy in a dark moment. There have been many dark moments since, and hopefully this metaphor offered some comfort as it has for me: that we are stronger together because of our differences.

If I were to run this project again, would it hold up? What would I change?

There is no way I would have predicted the ensuing events. What has come to pass is even more dystopian and unexpected than I worried it might become.

Since the work that I create tends to be hopeful and compassionate, I think it bears stating:

I was angry then. I am still angry.

It isn’t lack of anger that moderates how I choose construct discourse in my artwork.

For years, I’ve never found much use in being angry with someone who disagrees with me, but this wasn’t always the case. My mentor at 20 years old, described me as happy-angry. When she saw how angry I would become at people who were doing things that were unjust she said, “They can’t hear you right now. You have to learn to offer an ‘out’ with your observations so that people can hear you. Even if they can’t process or understand you now, it’s possible they will remember later if you teach with compassion.”

The rips in our culture were there before 2016. The social fabric has been torn by generations of racism, misogyny, classism, homo/transphobia, xenophobia, fear, and ignorance. Whatever hopeful mending my generation grew up with in the 1990’s were just ironed on over the laborious but fraying stitches made by the BIPOC tailors of the civil rights movement. The bully of dominant culture has keeps pushing us down more and more often, tearing and fraying the labor of generations more quickly than we could keep up with for the last four years.

But we have kept on stitching, weaving, knitting, connecting to one another.

On the day of the election 2020 I made myself a mini-zine:

With all the uncertainty of the pandemic and the never ending news cycle, I knew if I didn’t occupy myself on Election Night (and for the next couple days!), I would probably not sleep or eat. I arranged with some friends to do a video conference to just “be” and not have the news on. I planned a project for us to do, although I think I’m the only one who made a mini-zine while we were on the call.

I was already thinking, like I was in2016: whatever happens, what can I do? How can I act? How can I create change?

In my mini-zine, I asked myself some questions, and tried to frame it positively, despite my pessimism. I didn’t (and don’t) have any answers. I just keep working, try to contribute where I can, and listen, and listen, and listen.

HOW TO MAKE THE ZINE. Instagram Photos

What would I add to both these projects?

There is a thread running through both my projects, and our culture which gives me hope. We really are stronger together. Every choice we make to connect to someone different from ourselves; every different way of being and moving through our country adds up to weave the counter narrative:

  • The idea of ”radical reimagining” has entered the mainstream because the Black Lives Matter movement has shaped social media, and social advocacy by young people for restorative justice.
  • The fight for re-enfranchisement by social justice advocates, led by BIPOC’s and supported by the vast majority of young, Millenial, and Gen-X people has created a drip- drip- of blue dots dyeing the map from red to blue in big southern cities, and rural midwestern nexuses like Atlanta, Austin, Marquette, and Traverse City.
  • The show of force made by protestors of every race and hue through the summer to now gives me hope that (white) people are finally coming to understand how white supremacy is damaging to our entire culture. Many men have understood that misogyny harms men and women alike, but for some reason white people struggle with how our cultural structure is harmful to them (us) too.
  • Even more hopefully, in Ypsilanti, in the 2020 the progressive anti-racist community has gotten more vocal. Protests for BLM in 2015 were less than 100 people. A silent protest organized on Martin Luther King Junior Day in 2017 by YCS High School students was 300. The biggest protest organized by the BLM movement in June 2020 was over 3,000.
  • Ypsilanti (and our whole country) are still divided. Although I live in Boston now, I spent a few months in Michigan this summer and it is still my home. There was less division in yard signs this year.
  • BUT: Many of the people who didn’t heed my arguments in 2016 have changed their minds and voted for Biden and even for Senator Gary Peters. FLY’s former board member, Eli Savit, ran and was elected to be the Washtenaw County Prosecutor on a platform that pushes for restorative justice and alternative sentencing.

My questions to myself as I consider how I will connect and weave my threads in the movements we will continue to navigate with a new president in office:

What color and texture is my path through the fabric of our culture?

What threads do I throw quickly?

What threads do I weave slowly?

How will I add to our collective strength in the next year?

I believe deeply in pluralism over dualism. We need every voice in the circle to weave strength. To knit together justice, we need to center the voices that have been silenced. What is my role in making that happen?

EDIT: Added link to archived Blog entry about the original piece 12/14/2020 15:42 EST

Songs of Urban Ecology: Cathedral of M-14 Fugue

What spaces around you do you ignore?

Stop, Observe, Listen.

The Second Song to Urban Ecology, this one was actually begun first. It was originally a photo series that I took in one of my favorite parks, located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

M-14 is an expressway that runs between Ann Arbor and Plymouth, which is an ex-Urb or Suburb of Detroit.

The “Cathedral” is the open space beneath the overpass, as it runs over the Huron River. The light on the tracery of the steel-framed bridge combined with the rhythmic organ of the traffic overhead make it a very contemplative place. Nature and City collide here, not just because of the highway, but because it the western bank of the river is skirted by an old industrial corridor where welding and manufacturing shops once dominated, though few now remain.

Although the overpass could be thought of as marring the landscape, and the noise pollution and runoff can be harmful to the ecosystem, there is something beautiful to be found in the coexistence of this massive basilica of concrete and steel, designed not for occupancy, but instead for passing over.

Re-claiming the beauty of labor normally masked by its utility, I seek to showcase the labor of the Ironworkers and other skilled trades as they contribute to our culture by re-claiming the space for something besides a pass through.

The light shines off the tracery of the steel frame. The fog hides and reveals the ugly concrete pylons. Graffiti quite literally marks people’s interest in the site. Ripples highlighted by the thin line of light between the lanes create calligraphic flourishes on the surface of the water.

In this project, I also re-claim the space beneath the bridge for the ways that nature and land shine through human imposition. I stopped there and meditated, watched, listened about once a week for a couple of years. I began to notice many small details. All the photos are of plants which grow* along the banks of the river in the natural area opposite the old industrial corridor.

Here I want to acknowledge that one person or set of people cannot truly claim the land we inhabit, whether they hold deed and title or not. In re-claiming the land, I do not claim ownership. I re-claim the right to create a stronger relationship between people and the earth. This “Cathedral” is part of a complex system for which we are each responsible, and which is affected by our actions.

Beyond that interconnectedness, I also acknowledge that Washtenaw County has its own storied history of disputes between Native Americans, French, English, and ultimately the Territorial European Americans who became “Michiganders,” like me.

The Huron River, after all takes its name from one of the several local groups of Native Americans: groups that have traversed and lived here include speakers of Anishnaabe and Wyandot, known to many Americans by their tribal names (Chippewa, Ojibwa, and Huron, Iroquois respectively) as well as other tribes from Canada and Ohio with whom they traded well into the 19th Century.**

One step, beyond acknowledging who was here first, is to think about how we can better honor the land itself. I don’t own any land that I could give back, but I can be a better steward of the earth, and advocate for more harmonious relationships and care between humans and nature.

Place Based Education: Stay at Home Workshop

Saturday May 16, 10:30 AM

Eastern DaylghtTime

Join with Google Meet: https://meet.google.com/cwg-akvj-hed

For the participatory art part of this project I am creating a workshop which will be geared to sharing some ideas about how to combine art and science to take advantage of the time we are all spending stuck at home.  

Everyone is somewhere.  But what is somewhere?  How do we know our own “where?”

Place-Based Education focuses on those questions in order to engage people.  Looking closely at the world right in front of us.  It is something that people often take for granted, but to study it, to really look at it to see things as they connect to you and to other things, takes practice.

In Making Learning Visible, the children created their own maps of the city of Reggio, for example.

Another example is a project that Lisa Voelker from Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition collaborated with me and FLY in which we created a digital installation and a mini map of the park behind the Riverside Arts Center based on a series of small projects that students did in just one week.

Place Based Learning can begin with a small moment right where you are.

Everywhere you go, there you are. Place is an easy text for anyone and everyone to begin a learning journey.   

Before the Workshop Saturday at 10:30 AM:

In this workshop we will play with taking time out of every day to look and listen by drawing and photographing something you can see near your house. Since we are all on various versions of Stay Home Stay Safe, I ask that anyone wishing to participate adhere to local public health recommendations and local law enforcement. If you are allowed to go to a park, do it! If not, don’t.

  • Take a picture of something you are interested in that you see nearly every day (for example outside your window).
  • Take a picture of the same thing every time you notice a change.
  • Write down or draw out things that you notice:
    • What is the same?
    • What has changed?
    • Is it only visible things? What about sounds and smells?

If you don’t have time between now and then, don’t worry, I will have some samples and give time to go out and take a picture during the workshop. You might also want some things from your recycling bin, some crayons, some water, something to stick (tape or glue) and some markers.

*With the exception of the trillium, all of the plants were photographed within a half-mile of the bridge. The trillium grow there, but mostly in very small patches. I found such a beautiful large pink patch elsewhere that I couldn’t resist cheating This particular trillium plant was photographed in Montibeller Park in Pittsfield Township.

**In some ways, Michigan’s history, with French dominance into the 1820’s means that relationships between present inhabitants and past inhabitants have been preserved. The French wanted to convert, and “save” rather than dominate like the perpetrators of Manifest Destiny. There are still Native Americans from local tribes living in Michigan, particularly farther north. This does not mean there was no harm. Forced family separations, discrimination, and damaging economic practices remain to this day. But I did learn Native American History during my second grade class, and it did include the harms and the wars in my eighth grade class, and went into staggering detail about the cruelty by my junior year of High School.