The speakers for 2015’s TEDxCharleston have about seven more days to get their talks down pat, without sounding rehearsed. But one person has fifteen talks to prepare for: the emcee. Last year that job was mine, and it was terrifying. I had to write and deliver an introduction for each amazing speaker and performer — somehow linking each one of them to the theme: Ripple Effect.
His talk was one of the highlights of the show, so the curators decided to make it a tradition of sorts and invite Vince to be the emcee of this year’s TEDX Charleston. The theme is “Embrace Chaos” and if you’re one of the smart people who bought your tickets before they sold out (in a day) you’re in for a treat. Not only are the speakers intriguing (I know because I wrote the teases for their talks. Spoiler alert — ombudsman John Zinsser is one you won’t want to miss) – so is the charismatic man who’ll be introducing you to them this year. Vince is such a compelling storyteller it will make you wonder if even his pictures could really equal a thousand of his words.
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
In interviewing both artists whose joint show opens this Thursday at the Rebekah Jacob Gallery in Charleston, it struck me how seriously Tom Nakashima and Gary Geboy take inspiration. I’m not talking about the refrigerator magnet affirmation kind of inspiration, but the demanding mistress kind that compels them both to create.
That light bulb moment most of us imagine as how artists “get” inspired — the way the light hits a pile of upended trees or the delicate symmetry of the veins in a single crinkled leaf – that’s the natural, organic part for Nakashima and Geboy. Art is how they make sense of the world around them but transforming that inspiration into paintings and photographs requires less mysterious tools.
For Nakashima, the tool is often a photograph he makes to capture the textures, details and compositional possibilities of an image. Here’s an example he shared with me for the upcoming “Organic Legacies” show:
Other times, inspiration demands that he build a still life to begin the process of transformation.
“Any fool can be happy. It takes a man with real heart to make beauty out of the stuff that makes us weep.”
Nakashima’s Treepile series got its start with a chance encounter: a huge mound of trunks and tree limbs near rural Berryville, VA. “He begins with nature – piles of dead branches silhouetted against the ground or sky,” wrote Joann Moser, Senior Curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, “and transforms them into monumental compositions redolent with meaning.”
For Geboy, the tools of inspiration include the camera and the negative itself – simply starting points for the image he sets out to create. For one collection he took digital snapshots of a different kind of still life: a museum diorama.
For some of work debuting Thursday, he’s framed both the wet glass plate collodion negatives and the final image for patrons to literally see behind the scenes.
“You might not recognize the process by name, but if you’ve ever looked at Civil War images by Matthew Brady’s photographers you’ve seen wet glass plate collodion,” says Rebekah Jacob, gallery owner and southern art historian. “Gary breathes new life into a forgotten process and preserves a part of the South that is truly universal.”
“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”
Where other photographers spend thousands of dollars on lenses and cameras, Geboy often shoots with a $20 plastic Holga. Nakashima says his favorite canvass is actually news rag.
“I really don’t have a favorite piece of equipment,” says Geboy. “Each camera I use has a specific purpose and frankly if I could get what’s in my head on a piece of paper without a camera, I’d be a happy guy.”
It’s not surprising, then, that neither artist is fussy about discussing their technique. They know it’s just a tool for expressing something only they can see.
“One eye sees, the other feels.”
There’s a Southern art exhibit opening in Charleston SC next Thursday, but don’t expect the two featured artists to drop blessed hearts or gardens and guns into their art speak. In fact, don’t expect art speak at all. Both painter Tom Nakashima and photographer Gary Geboy would rather discuss just about anything than how you should interpret their work.
It’s not that they’re shy about it. Nakashima exhibits internationally and has work at the Smithsonian and The Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Geboy’s work has shown from London and Barcelona to the CD cover of a Czech Republic country band.
“If I could put what it means in words,” Nakashima says, “I’d try poetry instead of painting.”
Actually, poetic might be the best way to describe both artists’ work. Geboy’s wet plate collodion and platinum palladium photographs are haiku: formal in their sparseness. The complexity and nuance in each work on handmade Japanese paper is evident only up personal and close – in the textures he creates as backdrops, the elegance of the shapes and the nuance of the tones.
Nakashima is more free verse: an Allen Ginsberg howl of color, collage and rhythm. He sees what ordinary people see when we pass a pile of up-dug trees, even hops out of his car and takes photos of them. But then he paints layer upon layer of interpretation, repetition and abstraction until the image is reborn as something only he could see.
Geboy and Nakashima will meet each other for the first time on February 12th, the opening night of their joint show “Organic Legacies.” Geboy lives in Beaufort, SC and Nakashima is the William S. Morris Eminent Scholar in Arts at Augusta State University. Geboy says his work is most influenced by the photographers W. Eugene Smith and Matt Mahurin, where Nakashima returns to Picasso and Matisse for inspiration. They both come from practical, 2nd generation immigrant fathers who couldn’t imagine their sons becoming professional artists and both have spent more years in Washington D.C. than the Deep South they now call home.
So why the pairing at the Rebekah Jacob Gallery in Charleston, curated by a Southern art historian who describes her gallery as focusing on contemporary painters, sculptors & photographers from the American South? Because the South is more than Paula Deen, shrimp boat docks and carefully pruned azaleas. It’s also the burning mattress from which sprung Flannery O’Connor, the muddy Mississippi that floated up William Faulkner. In Nakashima and Geboy, she found seekers of that deeper South.
“Neither artist grew up in the South so both Nakashima and Geboy tend, by default, to strip the nostalgia and find treasured, celebratory beauty in the landscape and architecture in an objective way,” Jacob says. “They highlight and preserve the natural beauty that makes the South so unique: abandoned houses, tree piles, foliage. But they do so with intellect and exploratory richness. Artists who don’t have their intellect and artistic skill-sets could never get what they get.”
In the art-buying world that translates into a shared collector base — those who have wide knowledge of art through collecting and global travels yet have some connection to the South. And most likely a sense of humor. Both Nakashima and Geboy have poked fun at what it means to be a “Southern” artist. Geboy uses quirky, dark narratives to accompany images in his decidedly unsentimental “Carry Me Home” collection.
“Some of these things actually happened,” Geboy insists. “The stories have just been changed to protect innocent names.”
And when Nakashima set out to make his first deliberately “Southern” painting, he picked a dilapidated building he imagines the Devil would call home.
“It’s a big hit in Georgia,” Nakashima says. “Smart people like to laugh at themselves.”
I’m on tour with “The Other Mother: a rememoir” – right now, from the comfort of 75-degree Beaufort, South Carolina, where I watched dolphins gliding through the creek this morning. Yes, tour – only this book tour isn’t the usual sit-near-the-bookstore-door-and-politely-tell-tourists-where-the-bathroom-is kind of tour. It’s a virtual tour, with each stop over a ten-day period “hosted” by a blogger I’ve come to know and admire. Or, in the case of a fellow writer Ann-Marie Adams – a Q&A everyday of the tour!
The beauty of blog tours is their flexibility – and not just because I can jump into online conversations in my slippers. What’s been so fun about this one is reaching out to a wide variety of bloggers to see if they’ll read the book and share their thoughts and questions with new audiences. Some are planning on posting reviews and others on challenging their readers to pose questions of their own. It is as creative as the bloggers themselves – and if this collection of writers is any indication – you might want to subscribe to their blogs now and follow them for years to come.
So here are the official blogs stops on “The Other Mother: a rememoir” tour:
Beaufort and Philadelphia readers might already know Ann-Marie Adams. She’s a study in reinvention herself – which is why I knew she’d love Byrne’s “womenism” that “there is no contract on earth, especially between a man and a woman, that cannot be rewritten.” Like Byrne, she’s taken her gift with words and illustration and segued it into a career ranging from a lobbyist for Cornell University to the Hilton Head Island Hospitality Association. Her blog “SC Mornings” kicked off the tour and every day she’s pulling quotes from the book, turning them into a provocative question and blogging my answers as well as comments shared by her readers near and far.
The only other semi-local blog stops on the tour are two of my favorites – and they couldn’t be more different.
Stephanie Hunt writes even more than I do – from Charleston Magazine (I’m still pinching myself over her November issue review) to SKIRT to her own, fascinating blog called Charleston Grit. We discovered we have a mutual friend through Byrne – one of Stephanie’s closest friends is a modern dancer who used to make the trek to Beaufort for Byrne Miller Dance Theatre master classes. The cool thing is, Stephanie’s blog tour stop will include the review she wrote for the magazine – available for the first time only on-line!
Louise Hodges is a chameleon – a very sassy chameleon. She turned a small-business incubator grant into the way-environmentally-cool Green Bug All Natural line of pesticide free bug sprays, right here on Lady’s Island. In her business blog she writes about everything from how to get rid of bed bugs to why Monsanto is the scourge of the earth. The connection to Byrne might not be obvious, but Byrne Miller’s first professional writing gig was writing for a magazine in the 1930s called Nature’s Path. But Byrne would have loved her for another reason. She can sing and hustle a tambourine with the best of them – which is handy since her husband is in a band.
The point of a blog tour is reach – so I’m also excited that several far-from-Beaufort bloggers have agreed to host a stop. Not all of these will be posting between December 1 through 10 – but start following them now so you won’t miss it when they go live with “The Other Mother” tour.
Dance fans will be twirling in their imaginary tutu’s because Heather DeSaulniers has signed on. She’s a former professional ballet dancer, now dance critic and host of her own dancer’s blog which got tapped as one of the top ten dance blogs in the country. I love her blog because, unlike dance critics in New York, she isn’t about impressing you with snarky reviews. While Byrne herself was a tough dance critic (she wrote for Jacob’s Pillow and reviewed Spoleto dance performances in The Beaufort Gazette) she would have seconded every Heather motion.
Then there’s possibly the coolest indie bookstore west of the Mississippi – Santa Fe’s Collected Works. Byrne Miller Dance Theatre began in Santa Fe, in her home studio on Canyon Road, and while I was out there doing research for the book I stumbled onto Collected Works. It’s the kind of bookstore that builds community, that author’s dream of reading at.
Only it’s too far away for an actual tour stop so I was thrilled when reviewer Christopher Johnson said he’d read “The Other Mother” and ask questions via the official bookstore blog. I can’t wait to get his questions (no pressure Christopher, I know you’re swamped) because he never falls back on the usual, pat Q&A. Check out this question he posed of poet Shaun T. Griffin “What is the difference in your mindset when you are working on a poem or a translation or a book of scholarship? Do these works all come from the same place inside of you or are they separate places?” My writer friends — commence drooling.
I knew I wanted Melanie Page to be on the tour when I read her “about” quote at Grab The Lapels. She went straight for Maya Angelou’s “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch and you’ve got to go out and kick ass.” Any blogger who writes about women writers and books about women is kick ass. Plus that quote reminds me of one of my favorite Byrne “womenisms:” – “A whim of iron simply rejects rejection.”
The final two stops on the blog tour might not be what you’d expect. They’re in the category known as mommy-bloggers and why not? The title of the book is “The Other Mother” and I’m curious to know what these modern-day moms think of Byrne’s unconventional parenting techniques (her daughters lived in a treehouse, for a spell) and the concept of other-mothering.
I’ve always believed that needing and cherishing the love of other mothers, as I did, in no way competes with biological parents. While it’s cliché now to say it takes a village – there’s a reason cultures over the world and through the ages have embraced the concept.
Now we’ll get a chance to see what hip young mom and pro-blogger Andrea thinks – I learned of her Northern Virginia Housewives blog through the friend who hosted my Other Mother Soiree last week in Washington DC. And no – she’s not in any way connected to the hot mess of the other “real housewives” of NOVA. She’s just getting the book now, so it’ll be a while before she can join in but I can’t wait.
And last but not least is Motherhood and Miscellany. Amy had me at Oshkosh, Wisconsin – which is where she blogs from. Followers of my blog know that the family that “adopted” me when I married Gary is all from Wisconsin. So when Amy said yes, I poured a glass of Leinenkugel and sent a book off to the wilds of northern Wisconsin. I especially loved her “The Mother Comparison Game” post. It reminds me of why Othermothering can be so rewarding. I admire any woman who becomes a parent in this era of labeling – if you’re ambitious you’re a “Tiger Mom” and if you’re too involved you’re a “Helicopter Mom.” I’m hoping Amy’s blog will help “Byrne” the tables and encourage women to stop judging and start loving. Let the comments flow!
A tiny microphone floated on a wire curved around my face to rest an inch from my lips – like a little moon orbiting my planet. The tag inside my new dress scratched against my sweaty skin and I wondered how long the coat of mascara expertly lacquered to my eyelashes would stay dry and put. I paced behind a slit in a heavy black curtain for a charismatic emcee to finish his introduction of me.
I haven’t been “on-deck,” ready to go out and perform a routine since I was an 18-year-old rhythmic gymnast trying for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team. I quit competing a lifetime ago when I broke my back and yet there I was, as nervous as if I was about to take the floor in front of a panel of judges. That was when I laughed – and thought of my “other mother:” Byrne Miller.
This TEDx talk wasn’t about me trying to score a perfect 10 – it was a chance to share her story with people who didn’t have the luck of knowing her in person. I could practically feel Byrne’s presence – not like a guardian angel hovering protectively, but in the front row, reveling in the attention and beaming. She once told me her secret dream was to rent out Lincoln Center and have her favorite modern dance company perform just for her but I couldn’t help thinking she would have loved this even more.
The TEDx 2013 Charleston theme was reinvention, and I was the kickoff speaker. There’s something about the story of a burlesque dancer who believes that, to build confidence, all women should have at least one affair that wakes up an audience. I talked about how I’d always been afraid to quit anything before I met her. I was afraid because I equated quitting with failing and I was raised to be a perfect daughter: an Olympic gymnast. Never mind that I hated competing and loved to dance more than anything. Quitting, especially when I was ranked 4th in the U.S. and the top 3 were going to the Olympics, was out of the question. It took breaking my back before I felt like I could quit without being a quitter and I was still trying to be the person my parents expected me to be when I met Byrne Miller.
I was drawn to Byrne because she seemed the opposite of a quitter. But in the course of researching her life for the memoir I realized she just called quitting something different: walking into another room. She reinvented herself continually and she wanted all of her collected daughters to have the confidence to do the same.
All of that, and so much more, is about to be published in the book. But I’ve never spoken to any group of strangers about this part of my life, and how it intersected with hers. I wondered if the message would resonate with a TED crowd. I wasn’t talking about a cure for cancer, or how to change the world. But it turns out that my very personal experience is actually universal.
Men came up to shake my hand and say how they tweeted Byrne’s “womenisms” throughout my talk. One dad told me he was going to talk to his kids that night and make sure they understood that even though he’s proud of them that they have the right to determine their own identity. A woman in her late 50s said she’s quitting her six-figure career of 30 years and my story gave her the reassurance that it’s okay – not crazy – to redefine herself. I gave her a card with a snapshot of Byrne and one of her favorite sayings: “Love is more disarming than logic.”
I would have been dancing on air if those were the only three people who talked to me throughout the day. But my favorite new sister-by-Byrne was a woman whose husband just got a job at the Citadel. She towered above me, as gloriously tall as Byrne once was, and said that she always thought she was too big to be a dancer. Now she leads a weekend dance “church” open to all women and children who just want to move.
At the reception I met a woman my age who had also been an elite gymnast and trapeze artist. She broke her back not once but twice before she listened to her own heart and became a clothing designer. I met not one but three daughters of immigrant parents who knew exactly how hard it is to quit anything when you’re supposed to be perfect.
I felt like everyone in that audience was already dancing with Byrne. Being a quitter never felt so victorious.
Until the winds of Hurricane Sandy made it impossible, I spent the last week trying to dry and clean up three unpublished Duncan Miller manuscripts I never wanted to see again. When a small group of Byrne Miller’s “adopted” children gathered to read them the first time, in 2009, we decided as a group that it was indeed not Byrne’s fault that her beloved Duncan’s work had never been published. Byrne had described Duncan as having “borderline schizophrenia,” and he ultimately died from complications of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. But even those of us considered part of his extended family never realized how much his mind must have tormented him until we read his manuscripts.
I won’t go into detail but nobody in their right mind would want to read what Duncan wrote, let alone publish such thoughts. Gary and I buried them in 2009 as a sort of compromise – getting them out of our house but not going as far as burning the last known copies of a man’s life work.
It turns out three years being buried in black plastic lawn bags does little to preserve typed manuscript pages that were already fifty years old when they went into the ground. Dirt I expected, but water somehow seeped through the plastic lining of the manuscripts and spores of a bright yellow mold now crust each page. The archeologist who helped us find the hidden stash, Larry Lepionka, advised me to divide the stacks into smaller piles and when they were completely dry, to take a pastry brush to every page. While I dusted off each page, on the very same porch that Duncan loved to watch the river from, I forced myself to re-read one of the manuscripts. After all, that was the whole point of digging them up again.
I am writing about Byrne and Duncan’s years in Santa Fe and “The Air-Drawn Dagger” was the first of two novels Duncan began there. Ostensibly, it’s about prejudice toward a group of people he calls “Hispanos” by which I gather he meant Mexicans of Spanish descent. But the plot doesn’t matter because you can’t get past the sexually explicit language. The vocabulary might have been a factor of the times – Duncan’s later novels would have been influenced by the beat generation and authors like Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg. But what disturbs me is more than the shock value of profane words. Duncan wrote in first person, about everything from rape to incest. I can only imagine, as I’m sure Byrne did, that these scenes came from something deep and wounding in his past. All I know of it is that he was estranged from his Charleston family and never allowed Byrne to make contact with them even when he died.
Reading the work of someone whose long-ago death means he can’t explain himself is a little like finding your father’s secret stash of pornography. You want to believe that it doesn’t mean anything, that reading nasty isn’t the same as being nasty. But you never see him in quite the same light again, and you judge his future actions, and the stories of his past, through a different lens.
What I struggle with now is how much, if any of it, I should reveal in the book I am writing about Byrne’s life. Duncan’s writing is an integral part of Byrne’s story – for the sixty years of their love-filled marriage she introduced him as a brilliant novelist. Yet after he died, she told me that her only regret in life was never getting him published. Her life included struggles like one daughter get electro-shock therapy as a young child for schizophrenia and the other daughter being killed by a drunk driver. But it was this sense of failing Duncan that kept her up at night and I think she hoped that I would find a way to remedy that after she died. Maybe I have. Perhaps through writing about Duncan and his great love for Byrne, the essential truth of him will have a voice. But deciding how much to reveal will be what keeps me up at night.