The Things We Make: Julie Kesti

March 29, 2012

I wanted to hear about the things you make- what drives you to paint, write books, and make dances in the first place; what you discovered through the process of bringing your thing to life.  I'm interested in the personal stuff that probably won't make it into your grant proposal.  Maybe it's in this personal stuff that creative magic really resides.  I couldn't think of a better way to start this series out than with this writing by Julie Kesti, a Minnesotan artist and bodyworker currently living in China.  Here, she so eloquently shares her experience of using her art as a way to process through the loss of a family member.  


I made a series of drawings in somewhat of a collaboration with my sweet nephew, Matthew.  I say “somewhat” because I made these in the three years following his death, at nine years old.

The loss of Matthew is impossible to bear, but somehow I must bear it, his parents must bear it, his little brother must bear it.  My entire family and everyone who knew him must.  I think I made these drawings in part, if not completely, as a way to spend some more time with Matthew.  He was always writing stories, making lists, and drawing maps of his world as he saw it at the time.  For example, after having an “accident” at kindergarten, he made several drawings of a building in which there was nearly one bathroom for every person who might enter it, so that it wouldn’t happen to someone else.

In a similar attempt to diminish or blunt my pain, I took several of his notebooks to Kinko’s and made oversized and regular sized copies of his drawings and notes.  I brought them home, and looked at them for awhile.

It was not an easy process to begin.  Though it was a chance to spend time with him, there was no way to spend this time without also delving into the immense feelings of loss.  The first major progress I made on these drawings was during a two-day retreat I took in a domed dwelling at Clare’s Well.  I took breaks to eat lunch or supper with the nuns, marvelling at the singular and solitary lives they live.  Then I’d walk back across a path muddied early spring to my dome where the drawings and scraps of Matthew’s creations spread across the floor.

Over the next three years I worked on these images on and off.  I found rhythms with the different types of drawings at different times.  One is a really large piece, made up of a recreation of one of his maps that I blew up with a projector and redrew.  Around the edges is Matthew’s handwritten list of hundreds of Box Car Children titles.  I don’t know what possessed him to list out all these titles, and I don’t know exactly what his map signifies, but I did my best to bring to each drawing the zeal and joy and love he brought to me.



Other drawings are smaller collages of his works, and some are simply enlargements of individual drawings he made, to which I added my own color and interpretation.

December of 2011 marked three years since Matthew’s departure.  He now has a new baby brother.  All is not rosy and easy in terms of this loss, I don’t think it ever will be, and I won’t imply that sort of ending here.  But in December I’d finally assembled all the drawings into a show at Chakra Khan in Minneapolis.  It was amazing, heartbreaking, and frightening to see all the images on the walls.  I wanted to be sure his mom, dad, and brothers saw the show--yet I also had no idea how it might affect them.  I attempted to capture his spirit in these works, but at the same time I also was taking apart what he made, re-creating it, and so making something that is not him, not his original.  That still makes me sad.  It makes me sad but I also know it is what we will spend the rest of our lives doing, attempting to bring him along with us.

Candy Simmons: Asking For What You Want

March 22, 2012

These words from Candy Simmons are full of smarts; they provide a great example of what can happen when you show up and Do The Work.  When her acting career in New York wasn't moving in the direction she had hoped for, Candy started creating, producing, and touring solo productions.  This eventually led her to living in Minneapolis.  Candy's new solo show Expiration Date broaches the topic of death and dying, even offering a Health Care Directive workshop following the Sunday, April 1 performance.  The piece opens next week at the Old Arizona.  You can find out more and buy tickets here.  

from AfterLife {photo by Matthew Wells}

L: Where are you from?  

C: Well, I grew up in Alabama.  I got my Bachelors in Theatre at Florida State.  And then I moved to New York right after college, and was there for 11 years.  I’ve been in Minneapolis for just over two years- since December of 2009.

L: What were your reasons for leaving New York?

C: I love New York so much, and I think of my time there as my grad school.  But, I left because I was tired of fighting for everything- to go to the grocery store, to get into the city, to get to work.  The cost of living is so much higher, so I was having to work so much more to be an artist.  I felt like I was spinning my wheels, and I wasn’t getting cast in the work I wanted.

In 2007 I decided to create a solo show to use as a vehicle for myself.  This process ended up being so empowering.  We’re taught as actors to give our power away.  You pay $1,000 per head shot, because that’s what you do.  And then you hope that an agent picks you, so that you can hopefully audition a gazillion times to maybe get cast once, and you’re going to wait tables, and this is what your life is going to look like.  Nobody had told me that I could just create my own work- it wasn’t discussed as an option when I was in school.

L: So you toured this piece?

C: A director I worked with in New York had toured the Canadian Fringe circuit, and she thought it would be a good way to get my show AfterLife on its feet, because it’s so low pressure.  If it bombs than nobody will ever know!  But, if it goes well you get some press.  I put a tour together, and it was a massive crash course in marketing and producing.  Through touring I got really excited about producing my own work.  I wanted to live somewhere with a lower cost of living where I could afford to rent space and make work.  In 2009, when I came through Minneapolis on my second tour, there was something about the energy and community here that I fell in love with.  So, that’s how I got here.  I’m really happy- this is exactly what I needed.

L: Your new show Expiration Date opens March 30 here in Minneapolis.  Can you talk about that?

C: It’s a project that I’ve been working on and writing for a couple of years, spurred by losing a couple of good friends at young ages.  It’s been made possible by an Artist’s Initiative Grant [from the Minnesota State Arts Board], which is a huge gift.  I get a paid block of time to focus on just this project.  Expiration Date is about a woman facing her own mortality after being  diagnosed with a terminal illness at 35.  The piece comes out of 15 interviews (as well as a lot of reading) I've done about experiences with death and dying.

When my friends died, I was struck by our inability to talk about what was going on.  It wasn’t until they died that I realized that we hadn’t had a conversation about what it was like to die, or what they wanted for their last days.  We as a society are totally unprepared to deal with the topic of dying.   When I mention the show,  15% of the time people shut down and don’t want to talk about it because it’s too scary.  But, 85% of the time people just start talking.  They are aching to have a conversation about their Grandmother’s experience at her end of life, or losing a good friend to cancer.  Once you give someone the opportunity to talk about death, it’s like a dam lets loose, and so many incredible stories come out.

My goal is to make this show a conversation starter about the end of life.  Because, if you don’t know how you cope with a trauma like that- a basic experience that’s going to happen for all of us- you’re going to miss out on some pretty amazing parts of life.  Also, with modern medicine, we can be artificially kept alive much longer.  If you get into a situation where you’ve never had a conversation about end of life with your family because it’s too uncomfortable, how do they know what you want?  Actions like doing a Health Care Directive take away so much of the guess work and the fear.

from Expiration Date {photo by Aaron Fenster}

L: Are you collaborating with anyone on the show?  Do you have a director?

C: I’m working without a primary director.  Instead, I’m asking people I respect in the community to come and give feedback, so it’s kind of like a board of directors.   Tamara Ober is choreographing.  We met back when I was doing the Canadian Fringe.  She knows my work, and has been along for the ride while I’ve been developing the piece.  For this piece, I really wanted to explore integrating movement sequences and video, seeing if the whole still makes sense.  The two movement sections provide an access point to the work that exists outside of the text- that isn’t quite as scary.  I’m a bit of a perfectionist in the rest of my life, and I’m not so good at being messy.  And, that’s my goal for this project.

L: What else do you do besides acting and producing your work to financially support yourself?

C: Last year I made more money as an artist than I ever have!  That was from the touring that I did last year.  I’ve held onto a freelance gig as a graphic artist.  Corporations fly me to conferences to do that.  Other than that, I’ve had a couple of temp gigs in town.  I just live really frugally.

My goal is to figure out how to do more touring.  I love taking shows into new communities and seeing what the reactions are.  It becomes a different show.  With the type of work I make, I’m really interested in starting a community conversation.  I’d like to take the three shows that I’ve built on tour throughout the US.   For performing artists, I think that can be a way to sustain yourself.  I notice here that people are so prolific- they make lots of work, but they can only afford to put it up for a 2 week run, and then you put the show away just as you’ve gotten good at it.  I toured my solo shows for 3 months before I understood some parts of it.

L: What have you learned along the way? 

C: I’ve learned to ask help.  I’ve always felt really strongly that if I’m asking an artist for time, that I should be able to pay them what they’re worth.  But, sometimes that’s not possible.  Also, I’ve learned to ask for what I want.  Instead of deciding that someone is never going to be interested in me, or never going to give me a certain deal on performance space....I ask.  Sometimes just having enough faith in your work and its importance behind the ask is enough for people.  Sometimes being super honest and unafraid is enough.

A lot of artists apologize for themselves and are self-deprecating.  But, being self-deprecating is boring.  No one wants to hear that.  They’re either going to say yes, maybe, or no.  You can just make a new plan if they say no.  I’ve asked people for some ridiculous things that I knew I wasn’t going to get, but I got on their radar.  And next time, maybe they will say ‘yes’.  I've learned that if I’m putting my energy into the direction I want to go, it always works out.

Taxes Aren't Scary

March 21, 2012

I'm happy to announce that you still have 27 whole days to do your taxes!  YAY!

As a freelancer, my days leading up to tax day usually involve a lot of deep sighing.  This year I was reminded that the process doesn't have to be a gigantic pain in the ass.   I thought I would share what's gradually made it all easier.



1.  Getting help: I did my own taxes with Turbo Tax for five years, and I was always stressed about taking the wrong deduction or mis-entering information.  Yes, these programs are really easy to use.  BUT, if you’re like me and have 2-3 W-2 forms and another 4-6 1099 forms, and share joint finances with another self-employed person, you might want some help.  Last year I discovered Fox Tax, a Twin Cities tax company that specializes in working with artists.  Our accountant Paul is so nice, has incredibly reasonable rates, and gives really good advice.  I also like him because he doesn't condescend.

2.  Finding a system:  I’m in the process of re-teaching myself Quick Books (I did some bookkeeping work for my parents long ago), but for now I rely on three things: a envelope for receipts, a day planner that keeps track of my business activity (meetings, substitute teaching gigs, car millage), and a Word document where I try to remember to take note of any additional significant business transactions.  Remember: I am a freelancer who doesn’t make all of my income freelancing, so I’ve been able to get by with systems like these.  Ben has more detailed systems.  Bottom line: figure out what works for you.  Fox Tax has tax organizers on their website.

3.  Figuring out what I can write off:  I legitimately write off dance classes I take, performances I see, and meals I buy my cast members when we meet.  I write off millage, equipment, studio space, music I use for shows, props, office supplies, costumes, my health insurance, and part of my phone and computer.  Look at what you use.  Learn what the write-offs are.  I like this Mashable article on common write-offs for the self-employed.

4.  Knowing the rules:  The IRS wants to see that your freelancing is not a hobby-in-disguise.  They want to see growth, and that your business isn’t consistently taking a loss (making less than you spend to keep it going-- although sometimes that is legitimately the case).   There are legitimate write-offs (yay!  I have lots of them!), and then there’s the less-than-legitimate, I just don’t want to pay up write-offs (I’ve been tempted).  When in doubt, ask.

5.  Knowing when to pay quarterly:  I’ve always had at least one part-time W-2 job that I have taxes withheld for, which helps balance the untaxed income I have.  Ben started working for himself full-time last year, and about halfway through the year he realized he should have a sit-down with a tax person to talk through paying quarterly estimated taxes.  That move prevented us from owing a lot of money come tax day.  So, if all of your income is untaxed, you should probably make some plans!

6.  Improving my system: Each year, I usually figure out at least one new shortcut to the tax process.  Only recently, I realized that I don't have to take the time to organize my receipts by month.  Do you know how much time I was wasting?  So. Much.

Freelancers: what else have you found helpful?

Also: Guess what?  I'm not a tax expert!  Please consult a professional and remember that this is just my personal experience and advice.  

Springing

March 19, 2012

We’re shocked in Minnesota- it’s warm, the ground has thawed, and it’s hard to find any evidence of snow.  People are planting their seeds and wearing their summer wardrobes.  I am cleaning and enjoying the idea of Spring without any real looming stress or projects (unlike last year).  I mean, is teaching a group of 14 highschool boys who can’t move a 6-minute dance number really stress? Not really.



The spring weather is here, and it seems a perfect time to get rid of things.  It was part of the Mondobeyondo workshop: creating a clearing.  The idea is that if you want to add things into your life that make it better, you need to get rid of other things.  It makes sense.  Without getting rid of things, it's hard to find space.  Getting rid of things (shit around my house, relationships that aren't working, time-sucking habits) feels almost violent, but also totally necessary.



Suddenly, I want to get rid of all of the coffee mugs but the favorite one, and clear my closet out until I have a uniform of just three choices.  I want to scrub out my living space, and I want to take a class in something new, and I want to figure out how to make space for the things that make me really excited.  And, I want to be surprised by the new things that appear.

Winter Retreat 2012

March 15, 2012



Last night Ben won $18 playing BINGO at a small-town Wisconsin bar called The Thirsty Otter.  There is something totally lovely about eating fried food served by the nicest bartender in the world (Kevin!), while a woman in rhinestone-covered jeans calls BINGO from a fake grass hut in the corner of the room.

It was our goal to get away more often, and we're lucky to have a family cabin in Wisconsin.  I thought it would be a winter retreat where we'd walk on an ice-covered lake. Little did we know that it would be seventy degrees out.  So, it's SPRING BREAK, baby!  ...Wisconsin style.  Actually, it is Spring break at the school I'm choreographing at.  So, we packed up the cats and took work with us (Ben is editing, and I'm doing a lot of 5-6-7-8 numbers that may or may not include jazz hands).

But, the most important part of the get-away?  Space to make plans.  It's really hard to get perspective on the projects I'm working on during day-to-day life, which is pretty packed right now.  There is just enough time to take deep breaths and fit in some laundry and quality relax time.  But, big perspective planning?  Not really.



So, I'm helping Ben complete some business exercises and make goals for the upcoming year.  And he is helping me clarify my process of working with clients.  Good exchange, right?  And, in between we take breaks to make fires and take saunas and drink gin & tonics.

And the big ideas?  Well, they are making me pretty giddy.  The world feels full of possibility right now.

Michael Sommers: leaving a legacy

March 9, 2012

I first discovered Open Eye Figure Theatre at the end of last year, when their show The Learning Fairy got rave reviews.  Luckily, we got tickets.  Luckily, because we fell in love!  The performance was pure magic; it was a show for kids that adults could love even more, with catchy songs, a brightly-colored universe, and characters with so much heart my eyes welled up.  The Open Eye space is tiny, and half of my joy came from experiencing the delight of the people around me.  Open Eye is led by Michael Sommers and Susan Haas, and was founded in 2000.  Here, Michael (with a couple comments-in-passing from Susan) talks about the influence of their space on the work they make, the importance of legacy, and about finding your artistic niche.   



L:  You were founded in 2000, but you've been in this space just 5 years?

M: We made the decision to get a space, because we were itinerant before.  We were going out and setting up lights and hauling chairs and building risers for 3 years.  And it wore us out.  We talked about the pros and cons of having a space, and we just decided to do it: we’re going to have a home.

S:  This space was designed very intentionally to this scale.  In our culture we have so little opportunity to connect with one another.  The experience brought on by this size makes it very special for everyone.  Somehow it becomes more like a social activity than a play for the audience members.

M: Having the space has been great.  With every production I do I just fall in love with it more and more.  We build everything here in our shop, other than the big stuff, and everything is just the right size.  With everything I make, I consider how the space works, what it can do, and how it can live.  And, having your own space you can do what you want and when you want.  For this process (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), we were able to start rehearsals with the lighting designer, composer, and puppets in the room from day one.

L: Tell us about the work that Open Eye does.

M: We have three things that we primarily do: our main stage work, our all-ages shows, and our Driveway Tour.  We’ve been doing the Driveway Tour for 10 years, and have played to 30,000 people in backyards all over the Twin Cities.

[Note: The Driveway Tour takes original, family-friendly puppet theatre to neighborhoods all over the Twin Cities, and is also a training program for college students who want to learn about puppeteering.]

S: We take the relationship that our audiences have in our small space, and send little tiny satellites into people’s communities to create that same relationship there.  It's really about the building of community.  They’re also great shows, and it’s a fantastic training program for us.  These puppeteers gain such skill from doing it- it’s like bootcamp.  The hosts that bring us to their neighborhoods are really so appreciative.  We’ll be packing up to leave, and everyone in the audience will be thanking their host.  And, all of that good will is staying in the neighborhood.

M: For a lot of people, it’s their first theatre experience.  And, traditionally booth puppet shows are an itinerant form, so there’s this weird theatre history lesson on what the form can do.

L: I know that mentorship is a big part of Open Eye's mission.

M: A strong mentorship program is really important to me.  Historically, puppetry was passed from one generation to the next.  We formed Open Eye so that I could get money to do my weird stuff, but my legacy isn't going to be about me.  The kids [college students] who learned puppetry by doing the Driveway Tour are now puppeteering The Sorcerer’s ApprenticeKyle Loven, who plays the boy in the Sorcerer, was an intern from Augsburg College.  He was here for 3 years, and now is touring the world with his solo shows.  The students we mentor do everything from administrative work to building puppets.  They learn to make the puppet from zero, and then they get to operate it, so they have this ownership.  When I die, I know I can be really proud that Open Eye has become a place where people can come and learn, and then take what they want and use it.



L: Unlike The Learning Fairy, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a piece of traditional puppet theatre, complete with a live orchestra.  What was the process of bringing it together like?

M: I was really fortunate with this production to make a really strong creative team.  The show is about the idea of master and apprentice, and I was able to bring in virtual masters, like the scenic painter, the puppet engineer, and the lighting designer.  For The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we get to have this weird little orchestra- a mirimba, a viola, bass clarinet, clarinet, trombone.  I knew that these were the voices, and then Eric [Jenson, the composer] knew to go in that direction and I liked the ideas he came up with.  Puppets are really hard to light.  Michael Murnane lights all of my shows.  He’s really good, but he’s also taken 5 years to understand the space, the problems of the space, and how you light that scale.  Now I just totally trust him and let him do his work.  That comes with working with people over and over again.

With my work, I’m trying to get down to the essence- figuring out what is really needed.  The show starts telling you.   With The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we played with all kinds of trickery, but then figured out how to distill the idea down.  All you need is a stool.  We don’t need 10 sets.  We don't need video.  And that’s all just discovered while working the space.

L: What are you secrets to survival?  What have you learned along the way?

M: We’re really good at using what’s in front of us, you know?  We don’t have a lot of money.  For The Learning Fairy, we decided to make the whole set out of cardboard.  Or, if we have a gallon of purple paint, we use it.  We know how to use resources and how to find the right people who understand that.  A big part of our learning had to do with the dance between art and business.  This is a business.  In this market, we had to figure out what our niche is: what we are and what we aren’t.  We've fought to stay small, and we've fought to make the work we believe in.  And now the word is slowly leaking out.

I had to learn to let go if I wanted to make things work.  I really like that I’m not performing anymore, because I can really see and make choices from outside.  I had to learn that collaborating allows me to do what I’m really good at, as opposed to doing everything.  I’m the Artist-In-Residence, and  Susan is the Managing-Artistic- Producing whatever.  It's basically her vision.  If it wasn’t for her, I would still be above Chicago and Lake making crazy little things that could pee.

Last summer, we were broke.  So then we ask, how are we going to improve so that next summer we aren’t in the same position?  We’re really good at paying people well for an organization our size.  Susan says that this place is an artist-driven place.  We try to take care of people.  And, it builds a family, and the artists are excited to work here, so they do their best work.


L:  Has working in Minnesota been helpful for you?

M: Yes, I’ve had incredible opportunities here.  I got a Bush Enduring Visions Award, and funding to study Hans Christian Anderson in Denmark.  My career has been an education- I’ve kept learning as I've built these bonds in the community with other artists.  I was a freelance theatre person, and then I turned 50 and I got a job for the first time.  I teach at the University where my work is my research.  It's fantastic.  It's all worked out in some strange way.

I keep making theatre because I love the fact that you have this experience together, and then it’s gone.  My goal with the work is to create an infection.  You know, you go out for a dinner somewhere, and the next day you burp it up and remember how great it was? I really feel that our work sticks- whether you agree with it, or like it or dislike it.  People carry an image or the experience for the rest of their lives.  And that’s why I think it’s important to make all-ages work.

When I was in my 20’s, I was kind of ego-driven, and I elbowed my way forward going ‘look at me!’.  I thought I’d be a major league player.  And then I started making my work, and now I’m old and I really don't care.  Now I’m on a farm team.  And I really love it-  it’s just right.  This is incredible what we have.  I’m oddly flabbergasted that people are coming to see it.

You, too, can see it.  The Sorcerer's Apprentice has been extended through March 11.  You can get tickets here.  

Scene + Heard this week

March 2, 2012

18 days until Spring!  Enough said!

This week, I'm sending a shout-out to video publicity for arts events!

Specifically...
  • This trailer for A Beautiful Thing at Theater Latte Da (featuring my beloved Anna Sundberg's butt!).

  • This video my very talented friend Kristen Graves made in hopes of getting the attention of ELLEN.

  • This trailer for 2 Sugars, Room For Cream, featuring the witty and wonderful duo of Carolyn Pool and Shanan Custer (and shot and edited by Ben!).
In other news:

Open Eye Figure Theatre extended their run of The Sorcerer's Apprentice until March 11.  I saw this on Sunday and LOVED it!  There are puppets!  And an orchestra!  And, next week I'll be posting an interview I did with their co-founder Michael Sommers.

ARTCRANK has their Minneapolis show coming up April 14.  They combine two of my favorite things: bicycles and posters!  I have the honor of acting as volunteer coordinator, so I'm sure I'll be posting more about that.

The Walker, in collaboration with Mnartists.org, is posting a new series of essays about integrating art-making and life called The Family Business.  The first one is posted here.

The Red Eye Theater has their annual fundraiser tomorrow night!  There will be performances!  And, drinks!  And artists!

Tonight, I'm excited to go see Jon Ferguson's latest physical theatre production, A Bun For A Door Handle.  Woohoo!  Happy weekend, everyone!

Making Art Like A Professional

March 1, 2012

It's March 1!

This time last year, we had finally settled into our new living space, and were having this realization: Oh shit!  We have to make both a wedding and an evening-length performance piece in the next three and a half months!

Guess how much fun that was?  IT (mostly) WASN'T!!!!!

making a wedding is actually a lot like making theatre.

And, it wasn't, because I allowed myself to get in a truly awful head space around making the performance piece.

It went something like THIS HAS TO BE THE MOST BRILLIANT THING I HAVE EVER MADE!  In other words, I shot myself in the foot from the beginning.  Because, who can live up to pressure like that?  It was paralyzing.  For months I didn't sleep and woke up with middle-of-the-night anxiety sweats, worried that I COULDN'T FIGURE OUT WHAT THE PIECE WOULD LOOK LIKE OR HOW TO MAKE IT GREAT!  And what if this was my only chance?  Totally disembodied, creating a movement piece was very tricky.

Add to that the wedding (simple is never simple), and I was a pretty comical basket case.

Fast forward a year later, and I like life a whole lot more.  In addition to learning that putting too much on my plate is totally not helpful, I've re-evaluated my methods for making artistic work-- or, really, anything.  This was influenced by reading The War of Art (thanks, Jen Scott!), by Steven Pressfield.  And, today I want to share his advice: make art like a professional.



Pressfield says that we should think of our art like we do our paying job (if it's not already our job).  In our jobs, there's a lot less at stake than in our art: it's less personal.  At your job, you show up, you do the work, you leave.  Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not.  You don't confuse your personal value with the work you make.



So, rather than sitting awake in my bed in the middle of the night, convincing myself of my major inadequacies, I should have just committed to putting in the work, to the best of my abilities.  Everyday.  I should have prevented myself from jumping to the ending result.  By deciding that the final product was going to be a reflection of me (positive or negative), I totally self-sabotaged.  I over-identified with my work.  I decided that, if it sucked, so did I.  And, as a result, I was paralyzed.

And, cast, crew, and husband--  I'm sorry for the good dose of crazy I exposed you all to.  I think I learned my lesson.

Do you agree with Pressfield?  Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? What helped?
 

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