5 With: Blake Nellis

October 29, 2014

You might remember Blake Nellis from Small Art, where he memorably wore a yellow jumpsuit and matching shades and managed to transfix us all by playing with some tape. He's present and playful, and earns audience trust even when we're not sure what he's doing (see above comment re: tape). I love that Blake stumbled into the world of dance in college, after spending years as an athlete and musician. This multidisciplinary background makes his work delightfully unpredictable.

Photo by Alex Kay Potter
Describe your current creative work and how you came to this place in your career:
I am first and foremost a movement artist-- a dancer and choreographer. Who I am, what I look like, how long my beard is, they are all part of my work somehow. I revel in making dance in the moment. This ability did not hatch overnight, but through extensive training in Jane Hawley’s Movement Fundamentals curriculum at Luther College. When I began making work in college it was largely inspired by Contact Improvisation (primarily duets). As my interests and experience have shifted, I have begun designing much more, and think about the visual shape, arc and images present in my work. I strive for a balance between being creative, virtuosic and honest. I know my proudest moments of creativity have brought unexpected connections. 

What are your biggest challenges as an artist?
I have a hard time dealing with our culture’s ignorance toward dance-making. It seems like we’re still centuries behind other art forms in the way we view dance. It baffles me that people still say things like “I didn’t get it” or “So what does that dance mean?” When was the last time someone listened to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and asked the latter? I strive to be creative and at the same time reach out to an audience that still struggles to name what I’m doing. I hope that someday, in the not so distant future, that people will view my work with their guts or their childlike selves so that art can continue to transcend our culture rather than define something of the past.  

How do you balance paying your bills and making your art?
I’m currently Visiting Faculty at Luther College (in Decorah, IA). This regular salary allows me to continue my freelance work, project by project. This past year I’ve been working with Mathew Janczewski’s ARENA Dances, and two years before that I started with Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater. These companies provide income, opportunity, and a training of sorts. More and more I’m finding good jobs that are enjoyable and financially viable. When I first moved to Minneapolis in 2010 I was balancing lesser paid dance gigs with child care jobs. This worked for me because the hours were somewhat flexible, and I was still able to work with people which fulfilled and inspired me. I definitely toy with the idea of getting a white collar job, even if just for a moment, to make some serious dough and then run around the world doing Contact Improvisation. Will I do that? Probably not. 

Give some advice:
  • Learn about the art forms that support your work: For example, when I’m making a dance I like to see what the lighting designer sees, and this leads to new ways of being inspired. 
  • Pinterest is great for organizing ideas and images floating around the web.  
  • Go to real people: When I need help, I get smart, talented, patient people to help me. I have found it especially inspiring to continue studying while crafting work. Good teachers inspire me: Jane Shockley, Jane Hawley, Martin Keogh to name a few.  
  • Strive to be honest: It doesn’t matter if what you make gets you rich or famous. If you’re authentic and committed, it will pay off. 
  • Follow your bliss: People are inspired by passionate people. And find ways to laugh-- at yourself and others. Laugh at the irony and the mistakes. Laugh because you get to do what you love-- this is a great privilege.  
What's next?
I’m really excited about this piece I’m working on now called “Forgiveness Lunch.”  It’s a new solo I'll show at Luther College February 20-21. I feel like I’m headed down a new road with my choreography, adding more depth to my personal narrative and integrating my personal dance technique as I continue growing and changing as a dancer. I love blurring the lines between dance, theater, story, clowning, surrealism, memories…  I’ve always found it hard to call my work “dance” because people already have an idea of what “dance” is.  But they don’t know what I’m going to do.  

You can find Blake on twitter, read more about him here, and find more 5 With interviews here

Connecting to the Work | Final 6

October 27, 2014

[Read part one here, and part two here.]

photo by Marie Ketring for Pollen Midwest
These Connecting to the Work posts are for those of you who
  • Feel like you're in a work rut: something needs to change-- it's not exciting you
  • Want to feel like you're building something you care about, but you're not sure what it is
  • Are artists, committed to a particular field, but trying to get more specific about what you work is-- or what's next for it, or what you big long-term goals are with it
This is the last handful of suggestions that I've found particularly helpful for finding movement in times of stuck-ness.

1) Adjust Your Sense of Time: This isn't an active suggestion, but I think it's worth pointing out: all of this takes time. I think many of us leave college with an artificial sense of timing set in-- the kind that was more common in our parents' generation: you leave college, maybe you go to graduate school; you get a job, you get promoted, you let time coast by so that you can eventually retire. This sounds pretty depressing to me, actually. Jobs and people and creative work evolve over time; life experience changes us and what we make. This is good! There is no possible way I could have know what I wanted to do with my life when I was 22-- I was barely an adult. Allow space for change, recognize that it's positive, and remember that there's no such thing as a wasted life experience. I'm no longer a dance teacher, but I learned a lot about being a leader and taking creative risks in that 10 years of teaching. Everything builds towards where you are now. Trust that change will happen: it's actually impossible for it not to.

2) Get an Accountability Buddy: We all need sounding boards. It's hard to get perspective on your own jumbled brain and heart. I find it's helpful to work with a buddy who isn't in your exact creative field-- that way there's no room for weird competition. It's crucial to find someone who you respect. And, if you're going with the buddy system (not paying for advice), it's important that you feel like there's an equal give/take with the person. It'll take time to find the right fit. It's worth the wait.

3) Move Before you Think: I really don't just like dance for pretty, virtuosic movement on a stage; I like how it helps us tap into a different kind of intelligence. I promise that if you take a 20 minute walk or jump around the living room to Queen (or, music of your choice) for a half hour before trying to make a big life decision, you'll think more from your gut than your brain. When I think too much from my brain, I'm bound to get stuck. When I think from my gut, the answer feels more obvious. Try combining this exercise with Morning Pages (move first, write second).

4) Ask Yourself Big QuestionsWrite down the date and answer some big questions...
  • What do I value and want time for? How can I make this happen?
  • Where do I feel stuck? Get as concrete as possible...
  • How do I want to feel? (I know, the woo-woo one, but I swear by it...)
  • What gives me energy? What takes it away? How can I incorporate more of these energy-giving things into my life?
Briefly look over your answers. Choose 3 tangible take-aways from your writing and put them somewhere visible where you can be reminded to act. Put your writing away to consult in 6 months. It's rewarding to see how things shift over time (see #1).

5) Superpowers: Ask that accountability buddy (or a trusted friend or two) what they think your superpowers are. Don't worry: you have them! What do your friends appreciate about you? What life experiences have made you feel like the best version of yourself? How can you take a little of this personal superpower and bring it into your creative/work life?

6) Make Space: If you want to invite change into your life, you'll have to make space for it. This might mean getting rid (even temporarily) of any neigh-sayers you spend time with, or making additional time by letting go of activities that you're no longer enthusiastic about. In 2011 I started canceling as many teaching gigs as possible, and sure enough this eventually led to work that better utilized my strengths. I took on projects, like this blog, that had no real connection to my career and that my more logical brain would have viewed as a waste of time. Be impractical for a while. Come up with a sentence or two to respond to well-intentioned people who want to know what you're up to. When you change course, they'll probably feel at least a little confused. Politely ignore them. You get one life, so choose what's in it wisely.

Is there anything you'd add to these lists? How did you find your creative work?

SCINAS | Comfort

October 24, 2014

Note: What the heck is SCINAS? My little mantra that Self Care is Not About Smoothies. I introduced it here.

The highlight of my week was watching Ben make this pie. It was less about the joy of having pie to eat (though I'd eat pie & whipped cream for breakfast every day if it was available), but more about the joy of making ordinary, everyday comfort. 

When I experience crappy circumstances, or just exhaustion over life's general unpredictability, I'm aware that the things in life that comfort me most are tiny, ordinary things: Ben's mimed orchestrations of the opening credits to television shows; the sight of our cats in a sunbeam; apple pie. (Actually, a long list of foods...)

A few months ago I was at a friend's house and noticed she was keeping a jar of moments of the year that she wanted to remember-- moments to hang onto and be grateful for. For me, that's the stuff of comfort. I need to make a long list of moments and things that I love. I'll add to it that thing I read on the internet; Morrissey singing My Love Life; the last episode of Six Feet Under that slayyys me; Tiny Beautiful Things; that picture from our wedding where I was crying and laughing in the same breath; the memory of the first grilling on our patio. We need the stuff of ordinary joy. Gather it around you like armor, because that's what good comfort is. 

5 With: Elizabeth Braaten Palmieri

October 22, 2014

A common theme in these 5 With interviews is make the work you want to see in the world; don't wait for permission. I see a lot of that outlook in Liz's work. We studied theater in college together, and since then her life has included a few moves, massage school & a good amount of resourcefulness in continuing to find creative opportunities-- regardless of location. Now living in Columbia, Missouri, I was excited to see that Liz  co-founded a theater company & has been writing her own work. I'm excited by the risks she's taking & the way she's dedicated to figuring out how to Make Sh*t Happen. 

Describe your current artistic work:
I am an artistic, aesthetic and entrepreneurial slut these days, working on projects that span from my roots in live theatrical performance to film, and recently, a newly formed collective of themed, curated experiences. I am the co-founder and artistic director of GreenHouse Theatre Project, a professional experimental theatre company based in Columbia, Missouri that focuses on process and creative collaboration. My other project is a short film that I wrote, produced, co-directed and performed in last summer titled Perch. It will be premiering at the Citizen Jane Film Festival in November and will make the festival rounds this upcoming year. And my latest endeavor is a collaboration with a photographer and a fiber artist. This 'curated experience' workshop will be framed by a theme and incorporate slow food, a beautiful landscape/location and documentation of the whole production. Working with passionate, talented artists who share my aesthetic is what really turns me on.  

What are your biggest creative challenges?
Keeping my self-motivation going with independent work. Self-promoting. Trusting others with my work: I tend to be protective of my writing, and don't let anyone read my works-in-progress. Much of my work comes alive in the rehearsal processes, while workshopping and playing with material, and because of this the words look flat to me on the paper. I don't know if others will get what I see in my head until we are on our feet moving with the words.

How do you balance paying your bills with making your art?
I just had a huge fundraiser for my theatre company.  It was a success, and much of that credit goes to my board-- a group of professional, left-brained, art supporting people that keep me on track.  Otherwise, money is a dirty word to me. It is necessary, as we pay all involved in our projects, but it mucks up my idea of pure art-- art created for the necessity to live. 

Aside from my performance work and teaching, I am a massage therapist. That is where my consistent income is derived. Bodywork for me goes hand-in-hand with my work as a performer, and it keeps me stable amongst the crazy, inconsistent schedule I keep with performance.

Share some advice for other artists:
  • Brainstorm & meet with other creatives: have tea & drinks together; go on long walks in the woods and throw ideas out there
  • Find mentors: if possible write them & meet with them
  • Document: write your ideas down & collect images, writings & objects that feed your ideas
  • Find inspiration-- it's everywhere: see art, listen to music, watch movies, read 
  • Be open & avoid saying 'no' to others' ideas or your own (the #1 rule of improvisation)
What's inspiring you right now?
This past year I saw an incredible documentary film, Art and Craft about a prolific art forger. The little man was a character like no one could write: quirky, scheming, schizophrenic and lonely. I fell in love with his story and connected with the film makers. I am currently working on an original piece called The con-ARTIST, a three person, experimental piece based on his story. My company will premiere it in May, 2015 at an art gallery in Columbia. 

You can find out more about Liz's work over here and read more 5 With interviews here

Connecting to the Work | 5 More

October 20, 2014

Continuing on from this post, here are 5 more suggestions for connecting to the work you want to make-- which could mean feeling less creatively stuck or figuring out what direction you want to take a career shift. Or, remembering what you want to pour yourself into in your free time. In no particular order....

1) Learn from Jealousy: As I've written before, jealously has been a great tool for helping me get clear about what I want to make and do-- and who I want to make things things with. I'm usually jealous of the people who do things with confidence and without apology. It turns out that there's nothing stopping any of us from being one of those people. Jealousy is great for helping us figure out what we want, because it's such a strong emotion. It can be a force for motivation-- and I love this podcast that discusses exactly that.

2) Let go of Assumptions: Ben and I were chatting a few months ago and he said something really great: "When you unsubscribe from the assumptions you have about what you do or what you don't do, then you can get down to work."  
I assumed that because I'd always been a choreographer and dance teacher that my career would continue in this trajectory. I had to make space for the possibility of change, which is sometimes really uncomfortable. Before Small Art, I never considered myself a curator-- I assumed I wasn't qualified. I thought that being a good choreographer meant making work in big spaces. Both of these assumptions turned out to be false. This is where I urge you to try something new, to work in a different artistic discipline, to entertain projects and ideas that you'd usually turn down. Give yourself 6 months to try some new things.

3) Say "Yes" / Make Lots: I've talked a lot about being decisive and saying "No", but if you're trying to shake things up I invite you to says lots of "Yes" instead. Avoid being choosy and judicious; forget about whether or not this thing is going to lead your career somewhere spectacular; give yourself permission to stop thinking realistically about money for a while. The key in these stuck places is to get moving, and thinking too much works against this. Make as many things as you can for 6 months, without thinking. You can reevaluate then. 

4) Make a Mondo Beyondo List: There's a theme in these suggestions: give your rational, left brain a rest, and tap into your intuition instead. 3 years ago I took an e-course from Andrea Scher called Mondo Beyondo. Though it made me a bit uncomfortable with its woo-woo/ hippie dippy nature, taking the class was actually just what I needed. A Mondo Beyondo list is a list of improbable things you want to accomplish or experience in this lifetime. It's different than a goal list: these things are supposed to be really reach-for-the-stars kind of things. There are a couple reasons I love this list:
  • It helps you cut straight to what you want, practicality aside. And half of the challenge, really, is figuring out what you want...
  • It helps you cultivate a certain amount of faith & courage: there are things that you can do to work towards these goals, but there's also plenty that's outside of your control
  • It's awesome to make a list, put a date on it, and then consult it later and see things happen (I promise, things start to happen-- it's really a little out there).
5) Commit to Morning Pages: While I admit that I've never made it all the way through Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, I've found a lot of value in committing to her suggested Morning Pages. The exercise has you write 3 full pages at the beginning of the day, before doing anything else.  You write with a real live pen or pencil (no ipad or computer), in a steam-of-consciousness manner. The idea is just to write-- stop over-thinking or censoring yourself in any way. The goal is to get yourself moving, without worrying about where you're moving to.

I'll share a few more suggestions on this topic next week. 


October 17, 2014

It was been stunningly beautiful in Minneapolis this past two weeks, sunny and mild, and I've been watching the neighbor kids attack their raking with determination. (We could learn something from them.) I have put most practical things on hold in favor of an extra walk or at least napping in a sunbeam, and I'm confident that in a month or two I'll thank myself for soaking in this last big dose of vitamin D. 

I've been taking this transition time to do more things just because I want to, which I highly recommend. I've been perfecting my manual car driving because I donated my poor car, and I'm sick of being the person who stalls in front of you at lights. And I've been sorting through my bedroom and office closets, donating or throwing out loads of things. I have to admit that this makes me ridiculously happy, because man I like getting rid of things. I remembered that I have a library down the street and requested a few of these recommendations. I zoomed through 2 seasons of The Mindy Project, laughed my face off, and then started Call the Midwife at Laura's recommendation. Now I'm thinking that maybe I want to become a nurse in England and leave the car in favor of a bicycle. What do you think? 

I've been waiting for this space to catch my breath for quite a while, and it's pretty great. 

A couple things I recently read & wanted to pass on:

I really like this advice for artists from Austin Kleon.

The Jealous Curator's recommendations for affordable art.

Laurie Van Wieren shares the process (and the photos) behind 4x4=100 Choreographers Dancing Outside.

Ira Booker wrote another piece about Small Art, and so articulately captures why I love these events.

Happy mid-October.

5 With: Laura Brown

October 15, 2014

You might know Laura Brown from her entertaining twitter commentary or this popular ARTCRANK print or because I like to discuss her awesomeness a great deal. While I'm smitten with Laura's artistic style, I also just plain admire her work ethic and commitment to her career. Since we met in early 2012, I've watched her dig in and prepare for (and then apply to) graduate school, Doing the Work in the truest sense. She continues to inspire me and to teach me a lot about persistence and asking for what you want. This fall Laura moved to Austin to pursue her MFA at the University of Texas on a full scholarship. Though Minneapolis is certainly not the same without her, I'm overjoyed for her big career step. And, so happy to share her words here.

photo by Erik Hess
Describe your work and how you got to this point in your career:
I am a printmaker and book artist. My work explores human relationships and our relationship to time and space, and is driven by the process of translating ideas into visual symbols, taking them through the printing process. I always like the adventure of how the printing changes the final outcome of the original idea.

I got into printmaking in college, because I had a wonderful, enthusiastic professor who was really interested in students and would teach us anything we wanted to know. I’ve arrived at this point in my career just by not giving up. I think that being successful as an artist is really a lot about persistence. Persistence looks different for everybody, but boils down to a commitment to continuing to make things and make your work better, and to continuing to have a curiosity about the world and life. 

I first applied to graduate school right out of college and didn’t get in. I spent the years between then and now taking part in residencies, and gathering information about how people make art and artistic careers. I got involved with a supportive artist community, made more and more work, and figured out what my voice was-- what my work was, what I liked, and what my process was. I applied to grad school this time because I was ready for a more challenged, committed studio experience, and time to make work more intensively. I’m ready to build my career into something more than a part-time pursuit.

What's a current creative challenge you face?
Right now I’m in a new academic atmosphere, which is a little weird. I’m at a major point of reassessing why my work is meaningful, what I’m making work about, and why the world needs what I making. Grad school is a big opportunity, and I want to make the most of it.

How do you balance paying your bills and making art?
When I was working a full-time job with money, I didn’t have time or creativity for art. When I chucked the job, I didn’t have any money to survive. I think for the most part the solution has been to make enough to get by, to live frugally, and to commit my non-working time to making art, almost to the exclusion of any other pursuit. I’ve said ‘no’ to a lot of things to make this possible: dating, owning nice things, and having a car. It’s not a martyr thing-- I’ve made the choice, so I don’t get to complain about it. 

Now that I’m older, I do think a lot more about money and being practical, and what other things I want besides this romantic idea of making a lot of art and being a broke bohemian person. Going to grad school is a step towards hopefully becoming more financially stable, and being able to facilitate continued art making in the future. I needed more stability.

Share some advice:
  • Get clear about what you want and how you define success-- what do you want from your art making? It’s something that only you can decide: do you want to do it for fun? Do you want it as a career? 
  • Put yourself out there. You won’t get anything back unless you do: put your work out there, apply for things, ask for help. It was really helpful for me to join a cooperative studio at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, because I found a bunch of great people who were willing to mentor me. Regardless of your art form, there’s probably a community for you to join to get mentorship, help and advice. Take advantage of this. 
  • Keep going.
What’s inspiring you?
Some of the artists I go back to time and again are Sister Corita Kent, Helen Frankenthaler, and Anna Eva Bergman. They are like visual comfort food to me. Lately I have been digging a bunch of random stuff--grad school has a way of overwhelming you with things to look at and research. I like to keep up with printeresting.org, which is a blog that covers a wide variety of print-related media. If you are in Minneapolis, you should really take a look at my friend Kjel's work in the current MCAD Jerome Emerging Artists Exhibition (up through November 9). It's colorful and funny and smart and I love it.

You can find Laura and her work over here, and read more 5 with interviews here

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