My work with artists invariably starts with sharing ideas.
I’m not trying to state the obvious… that artists have ideas. What matters is the sharing part and how they go about it.
Artists share the things they’ve learned or encountered, are vexed by or are wrestling with, and the perspective they’ve gleaned. The inspiring, enraging, unshakable things and the things that they happened to glance at and returned back to for another look. Like a blob of paint sitting on the street, or how people step off the curb with their right foot more often than their left at crosswalks. The woman always smiling, the old guy always sweeping on Tuesdays, the infuriating process of being put on hold, or how some electric lines carry different tones. In conversation, artists share what they have read, listened to, watched or went to, or have recently pulled up from some long-ago post online somewhere that required active dedication to find. What they cooked, or tried, or were left silenced by.
I’ve had the exact coordinates of a desert location shared with me so that I would know precisely where to stand during an equinox to see a momentary green flash of light on the horizon… unless I blinked.
How a puppet can be made from discarded everyday things that can come in handy when delayed in an airport with frustrated passengers. I’ve been asked if I’ve read an obscure play written in the 1400s that was never staged, but is mind-blowing, as if it were something one might readily stumble across in a café. I’ve been informed of scientific studies about redwood trees having a unique genetic makeup that affects their longevity. Weeds being able to communicate warnings to other weeds if injured. Ancient monks who found two Ginkgo seeds in an even more ancient box and — in deciding to plant one — rejuvenated the species. I’ve been shown the handwriting of a shop clerk on a scrap of paper that would become a play, the contents of a lifesaving manual from WWI that would become a song cycle, photographs of a fragment from a sacred Indonesian text that rivals all wisdom, and how bark paintings in Indigenous Australia are as vital as life itself. There have been many sketches on napkins in many cafes to better share the shape of things.
Have I been following the court case involving a Canadian farmer who fought a seven-year legal battle to protect his community against pesticides and the genetic modification of seeds, or what some physicists were researching “this very second as we speak,” or all kinds of other extraordinarily useful things that a choreographer had been poring over in journals that I had never heard of? That there are new lighting instruments that could supply every color imaginable while using a scintilla of the electricity that the currently popular stage lights did (along with a detailed explanation of how it all works)? Did I know about an egregious injustice that was happening somewhere, and what one single person did to change things, and how we can help and we must? And we do.
From conversations with artists, I’ve learned about other artists. Like the one who created a honey bee preserve on the empty land of a demolished housing project that generated income for his community with a tiny grant. Of the composer who clustered notes together in such a way as to change music for all time, while still driving a taxi. Of the brilliant horn player practicing in the subway, the filmmaker, designer, stagehand, producer or manager or music teacher, or publisher, or shop owner, or chef who fed everybody after their performances ended in her café after closing, or the usher who has worked every show at the theatre for over 40 years… the record producer who ensured legacies were recorded to share for all time, and who rarely made a dime but that wasn’t the point — the music and makers were. Of artists working on projects that won’t be completed in their lifetimes but who carry on, because others pick up where they left off, like a huge love letter continuously sent to the future and addressed to people that none of us will ever know, because that is how cultural heritage extends.
We talk about finding whoever owns that long-abandoned theater and see if we might, together, find a way to get it reopened for our community, if mounting a fundraiser down the street at a friend’s pub for an immigrant shop owner who won’t raise prices because she has a community who can’t afford it but won’t make the rent next month either, or how special Yoko Ono has always been. If there are instruments and gear we could donate for those kids who are starting a music lending library so they can play music together, with their friends who dance in the parking lot at night for the glorious feeling of trying moves that no one else has tried before, alongside their poet peers who are right up there with Ginsberg and Whitman and Rumi and Sundiata and Neruda and Angelou!? We talk about the work we have to do and how we are going to do it.
Long before the conversation turns to what an artist is working on in their process of finding form to best hold the effort, and how that can be resourced, and who they hope it will reach — are the ways of seeing and knowing and being, and always how some essentialness can be shared.
The song, the poem, the dance, the play, the film, the book or the painting in the left corner of the museum that was on the wall in 2003 in Denver that just changed everything imaginable… and yes too, that standing ovation that lasted for five whole minutes at the end of the show that can still be heard to this day.
All so astonishing. These things to be perceived, made known, fully felt, illuminated, and better cared for.
Which is to say — we should all have an artist in our lives.
Someone I have in my life and have had these exact kinds of conversations with, made projects with, and have been loyally enlisted by over many years…died of the coronavirus on April 7th (as did many others). Hal Willner was a firmament in the lives of many artists. An entirely passionate maker, producer, generator of amazing thoughts, father, husband, friend and a singular force who connected literally thousands of us across generations and worlds as if we had all been at the same room whenever something important happened (in Hal’s expansive world something always was), be that 1957, 1965, 2012, or last week.
He collected up all of our dust and light and spillage and sounds and words and ability and longing and asymmetrical shapes to build a constellation.
I am looking at it right now.
Executive and Artistic Director
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance