June 28, 2015
*This is the final in a series of four chronicling a journey of living outside one’s comfort zone and trying to discover a new path. An artist in residency at the Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee and Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi confronted and educated while teaching acceptance.
This is my red recording chair. It sits on the backyard deck of my Refuge home. The house resides near the water’s edge with large trees hiding its contents. Unaware of its creatures, they are fully aware of my presence.
For numerous days, I documented the sounds at 6 am, noon, 6 pm, and midnight. The recordings last for 6 minutes each. I sit still not reacting to the bugs resting on my face, arms, and legs. Sometimes a snake moves through the grass, a fox prances by, frogs chirp, birds gossip, or leaves wrestle. The audio can capture my breath, a belly rumble, and an occasional slap from a persistent critter. They are real, raw, and accessible like this world.
A passage replayed in my mind during the Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee and Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge artist residency. I used it as my guide for artwork inspiration. It was from a book by H.B. Cushman titled History of the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians. In 1820, Cushman lived in the Choctaw nation in Mississippi with missionary parents. His first hand accounts are an invaluable historical and respectful account.
Cushman describes a Choctaw philosophy about life and death: “They also believed that spirits of the dead, after their flight from the top of the pole to the unknown world, had to cross a fearful river which stretched its whirling waters athwart their way; that this foaming stream has but one crossing, at which a cleanly peeled sweet-gum log, perfectly round, smooth and slippery, reached from bank to bank; that the moment the spirit arrives at the log, it is attacked by two other spirits whose business is to keep any and all spirits from crossing thereon. But if a spirit is that of a good person, the guardians of the log have no power over it, and it safely walks over the log to the opposite shore, where it is welcomed by other spirits of friends gone before, and where contentment and happiness will forever be the lot of all.”
After reading the above passage, I started to visualize how this would appear. I could see and hear his words in the Refuge’s trees, water, air, and light. This natural environment carried the energy and remnants of this history.
What would the “flight from the top of the pole” look like?:
Before leaving Mississippi, I visited the Trading Post. According to the Historical Sketches of Oktibbeha County, it was called a Choctaw Agency “…for the purpose of doing business with and keeping in touch with the Choctaws.” Steve Reagan, Noxubee Project Leader and local Larry Box provided an amazing tour. Florence Box provided photocopies of Choctaw writings ranging from a 1925 educator guide to detailed descriptions of tales and legends.
Mr. Box escorted us in an all terrain vehicle through untouched and dense forest to our location. Stepping out, we maneuvered through thorns, pine needles, crowded timber and crossed a small dam. Persistent thunder and mosquitos kept pace. We arrived at a clearing on higher ground with a large and elderly tree. This was a place of significance for the Choctaws and held secrets. At that moment, Mr. Box gave me three arrowheads from this land.
I was shocked and grateful. Experiencing this history was the gift. However, to be given physical remnants was overwhelming. This generosity was stunning.
That evening, I rigged a black plastic spoon purchased at the Dollar General during my Choctaw visit to a long stick. Raced back to the Bluff Lake Boardwalk to see if Susan O’Malley’s pin would appear in the muddy waters. This was the last attempt of several unsuccessful retrievals before leaving.
To my surprise, its metal glowed with the setting sun. Scooped it out after the third vicarious try. It had lost its bright red and green color. Now it was purple and pink with a spot in the middle. It peered like an eye similar to the energy here. Even when it appears calm, there’s an undertone of unsettled business. This was my Mississippi.
June 21, 2015
*This is the third in a series of four chronicling a journey of living outside one’s comfort zone and trying to discover a new path. An artist in residency at the Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee and Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi confronted and educated while teaching acceptance.
Finally settling in. Routine is important. Now “know” which trails work best for my skill set. How can I avoid an incident? First start at Morgan Hill Overlook and Prairie Trail, Loaktoma Lake lilies, Bluff Lake Boardwalk, Cypress Cove Recreational Boardwalk, Goose Overlook, and Woodpecker Trail if the heat allows.
A dawn and dusk walk is part of my daily prayer. It’s the best time to see the changing of the guard and nature’s drama. My “job” is to offer respect to Mother Earth for its inspiration. Irritated, I proudly picked up litter at each location. Highlights of waste on beauty becomes unacceptable and as visitor, will leave this refuge nicer upon departure.
With a cleaner canvas, I can cautiously and curiously proceed. Subtle changes in weather, temperature, light, and sound become magnified when visiting familiar destinations. A Mississippi thunderstorm resulting from a hot and humid day, sweats the imagination. These variations electrify like BB King’s guitar named Lucille.
I’m sensitive to noise and associate colors to sounds. The Blues are warm navys, rusts, olive greens, and honey yellow drop highlights. Techno music throbs with silver blues, lavender spots, bright orange bursts, and beams of white. Talking color with my husband is speaking in tongues. Why isn’t there an app for this?
Broke the routine to visit the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Numerous attempts trying to connect with liaisons resulted in no response. Venturing from California, indifference wasn’t going to ruin a positive opportunity. Time to listen to my gut and go.
The Chahta Immi Cultural Center is wedged between a Piggly Wiggly and Dollar General. Sitting behind a tall desk, an elderly woman politely requested my admission fee. Then an enthusiastic young woman named Kassie Cox declared she was my tour guide. Her aunt is Phyliss J. Anderson, the first female Tribal Chief of the Choctaws.
Driving back to the Refuge, dusk was slowly approaching. Two dogs were barking and running aside my rental car while turning back into the Southern jungle. Today was the start of truly listening and recording these vibrations. This isn’t just noise, it’s a gift and art.
June 14, 2015
*This is the second in a series of four chronicling a journey of living outside one’s comfort zone and trying to discover a new path. An artist in residency at the Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee and Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi confronted and educated while teaching acceptance.
My dawn and dusk Mississippi prayer includes sitting in silence, being present, and appreciating nature. Critters are abundant here. This city girl is experiencing stalking gators to sunbathing snakes dangling on tree limbs. Everything is new, strange, and out of routine.
As the artist residency continues at the Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee and Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge, a touch of homesickness hit. Miss my husband, golden retriever puppy, Vietnamese sandwiches, and Trader Joe’s. An invite to the Mississippi State University art galleries and department was just in time. Gallery Director Lori Neuenfeldt welcomed and provided a tour. A highlight of the current exhibit was Fatima Curiel’s Stratum and surprise on the back of a bathroom stall:
The “graffiti” here at the Refuge is surprisingly polite by lacking the vulgarity I’m used to:
On Saturday, provided an artist talk with pattern tour. Visitors were escorted on a pattern excursion on the Cypress Cove Recreational Boardwalk. They observed and listened by expressing in a sketch what the refuge meant to them. Each drawing was unique and wonderful.
All week, been wearing Susan O’Malley’s BE HERE NOW pin. On a morning walk, I stopped to take photos of the water’s patterns. The pin fell off my apron into the muddy waters. To this outsider, these waters are dangerous. Hunted down a large branch and struggled to push the pin to the edge. No success. It just went deeper, became muddier, and disappeared into the abyss.
Why wasn’t it secured tightly? How could I lose this sacred artifact in Mississippi? I was angry and disappointed with my lifelong battle with awkwardness.
This is what Susan would have wanted: to be here now. Life isn’t secure, it’s fragile, and can be lost at anytime. Accept and embrace the moment was the only option. I felt comforted and able.
June 7, 2015
Mississippi welcomed with storm clouds dragging like cypress trees and heat resembling sweet sticky rice. Driving late evening into the Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee and Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge, fireflies lit the sky gently while frogs politely crossed the road. The fog at night was mysterious and haunting like its history. I felt the Native Americans, Civil War, and its ghosts. A thunderclap represented the drumbeat of this humanity. This world was new, strange, and fascinating. The uneasiness in the air was magical and intoxicating.
Oh what did I get myself into? Everything!
For two weeks, I will be the artist in residency creating abstract pen and ink drawings inspired by its marvel. Noxubee County Historical Trail, Mississippi’s American Indians, The Red-cockaded Woodpecker at Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge, and the History of the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians books were my inflight required reading.
Steve Reagan, Project Leader, took me on a tour of the facilities and park. A three toed turtle and flying squirrels said hello. A stop at Morgan Hill Overlook and Prairie Trail was breathtaking. I was on inspiration overload.
On the way back, we turned down a gravel road. At the end was an old and small cemetery. It was divided between white and black lines. The “white” side was clean and neat. The “black” side was overgrown and unrecognizable. Creating black and white drawings seemed uncanny.
At 6:45 am the next morning, I went with biologists to observe the habitat of the red-cockaded woodpecker. The group drove deep into the Refuge in a petite all terrain vehicle that took in water and chugged over logs. The nests are located up to 50 feet off the ground. A specialized pole with a camera at the top is used to peer into the cavity. This is to protect the babies and monitor predator invasions.
In the afternoon, visited the Cypress Cove Recreational Boardwalk. Observed the tall trees in the water and listened to unfamiliar noises. Alligators played hide and seek. I was present and engaged in the moment. Then a sign from the late artist Susan O’Malley: “ALWAYS ALWAYS Remember, you. yes. you. are BEAUTIFUL.”
This was the first 48 hours into the residency…
*The above writing is part of a series of four chronicling a journey of living outside one’s comfort zone and trying to discover a new path. An artist in residency at the Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee and Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi confronted and educated while teaching acceptance.
May 31, 2015
As of today, I’ve applied and sent proposals to over 1400 opportunities. Rejections are badges of honor representing the time spent as an artist. Every day to create is a gift. I’ve received fantastic opportunities while others turned out to be “character building” moments. Regardless, the acceptance of “no thanks” has made me stronger.
One “opportunity” included paying thousand of dollars to showcase artworks in a venue that would change my career forever. Another requested a large painting donation for an auction in exchange for a cheap bottle of Vodka. One philanthropic organization wanted my art from a client’s home to give to them to fundraise. It’s been interesting!
Following my intuition has helped when something felt unknown or uneasy. Recently received an invitation to showcase artworks on scarves and clothes. I was skeptical. What’s the catch? This type of “opportunity” has presented itself in other forms and shapes but has never worked out.
What would be different? VIDA.
According to UPSTART Business Journal, VIDA: “…is backed by a $1.3 million round of seed funding from investors including Google Ventures, Universal Music Group, ‘The Valley Girl Show’ creator Jesse Draper (an early fan of Vida’s scarves), and others, all of which will be used for recruiting and product development.” This sounds great but what else?
Workers who make the VIDA products in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Latin America are provided literacy training. Umaimah Mendharo, founder and CEO, grew up in a small village in Pakistan. Her resume includes working for Microsoft and design firm West. A smart, creative, and globally responsible woman running a fabulous company? I’m in!
To some, it might be just pretty scarves and blouses. In my humble and biased opinion, they are beautiful! But to try to do good in the world using art, that means something to me. It’s worth the leap of faith. Not trying, being scared or cynical results in nothing. VIDA in Spanish means life. It’s worth engaging and giving a try…
The collection (VIDAVOICES code=20% off):
May 24, 2015
Last Saturday, I participated in a “magic hour” tour in Berkeley honoring artist Susan O’Malley. The Swell artist duo of Ali Naschke-Messing and design studio ScrapD facilitated the experience. From the KALA website: “Wear yellow in Susan’s memory – she traversed San Pablo in a yellow hat for her Print Public project. The 40-minute walk will convene at the Kala Gallery, begin with limbic exercises related to Swell’s walking practice, and then embark along San Pablo Avenue. Susan’s ‘BE YOU’ artwork marks the beginning of the walk, and her mural ‘MORE LOVE, LESS INTERNET,’ the end with meandering in observation of common beauty along the way.”
Mixed feelings overcame me prior to the outing because of Susan’s passing and personal events. I had lived in the neighborhood and experienced a flood destroying my vehicle, a pit-bull attack almost killing my dog, and neighbors fighting a building extension. The area was calling to investigate it once again. However, I was reluctant mixed with rays of resentment. These blocks provided so much pain and now it had become a beacon of my friend.
What would the “magic hour” have to offer?
Entering the KALA gallery, a sea of yellow clad individuals awaited instructions. The Swell artist duo of Ali Naschke-Messing and design studio ScrapD shared the itinerary of events: pick a stranger to sit in front of, talk for 5 minutes while they affirm in silence, answer a question from the Listening Partnership banner, switch roles, and repeat. Once finished, we walked the neighborhood twenty minutes in silence then the group was able to share positive intentions. The goal was to be more present and aware. The final destination was Susan’s mural: “LESS INTERNET MORE LOVE.”
During the expedition, an old adversary yelled at our group: “Are you my new neighbors?” No one responded. She didn’t recognize me but it was ironic. The same woman who fought my family’s presence was delighted to see people traversing her street. I felt calm and accepting. Like Susan O’Malley would say: “BE HERE NOW.”
On the stroll back, “Love” written in chalk adorns my old “home.” Like the Facebook status: “It’s Complicated.” Love inhabits this territory now. It’s shaped into a different form and meaning. Appreciating silence and forgiveness on this path of discovery can be difficult. That’s what the “magic hour” provided for me.
May 17, 2015
Soon I will be visiting Brooksville, Mississippi for an artist in residency at the Choctaw and Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge. The time spent will include investigating the patterns of the natural environment, creating artworks, and interacting with the community. Part of my family legacy is woven into the history and reconnecting with the unfamiliar will be part of that journey.
According to the Friends of the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge: “Noxubee Wildlife Refuge is located across three counties in east-central Mississippi. The 48,000-acre refuge was established in 1940 and serves as a resting and feeding area for migratory birds and resident wildlife including blue herons, white-tailed deer, alligators, egrets, ibis, beaver, and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. The refuge contains wetlands, cypress groves, prairie grasslands, and forests.” I’ve been imagining the views, textures, and smells. How will Southern light change the shadows or clarity of surfaces? The stay will confirm or expand expectations.
The refugee’s past starts and continues with the Choctaws. The United States of America government wanted lands for military purposes. From the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indian’s website: “When the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was signed, there were over 19,000 Choctaws in Mississippi. From 1831 to 1833, approximately 13,000 Choctaws were removed to the west. More followed over the years. Members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians are descendants of the proud Choctaw individuals who refused to be removed to Oklahoma in the 1830s.”
My grandfather’s mother, Nora Mae Nash, was born on the border of Louisiana and Arkansas in small town named Gillham. Her father died when she was an infant and Choctaw mother when only eleven. She then lived with an aunt performing housework. At the young age of nineteen, she met David Preston Balisle and married. Nora maintained a beautiful garden with an open gate for neighbors to take whatever they needed. According to my grandfather: “Nora Mae was a princess with dark hair and dark eyes….It was hard for her to cook anything I didn’t like.”
The residency will be personal and artistic. What patterns will be discovered? On my grandfather’s first day of school, Nora Mae instructed the bus driver: ”You better bring back Tom the same way I sent him.” Upon return, I will be the same but different just like my ancestors. The experience will define but lead to further questions.
More to follow…
May 10, 2015
It’s been over two months since Susan O’Malley passed and seven years for Juanita Lee Gibbens. Two wonderful women that touched my life and many others. Their presence was steady, secure, heartfelt, and honest. While time is used to record an absence, their legacy is stronger than ever. Why does it take loss to understand what we have truly gained?
A term to describe Susan and Juanita would be beautiful. While both ladies were gorgeous on the outside, it was their outlook and perspective of the world that was beautiful. They would engage in a moment completely, slow down, and be patient for an authentic experience.
My grandmother Juanita Lee Gibbens took me to Paris during graduate school. It was my first overseas trip and I was very excited! To this midwestern girl, it was truly magical. Part of the excursion included visiting the Louvre, Musee de O’rsay, Champ-Elysees, Palace of Versailles, and Notre Dame. We traveled perfectly together: had the same sleep schedule, ate leisurely, and enjoyed the day’s offerings. At each stop, we would patiently pause for the best in everything. According to Juanita: “A beautiful view is always worth the wait.” Her advice never disappointed.
In 2010, I asked Susan O’Malley for assistance with an exhibit at the Art Museum of Los Gatos. Over two weekends fueled by cookies and oranges, we visited the art studios of Mari Andrews, Sharon Chinen, Nancy White, Emily Clawson, Lorene Anderson, Mel Prest, Lea Feinstein, Amy Trachetenberg, Klari Reis, and Carol Ladewig. At the end of our journey, Susan declared: “Jenny Balisle, I really had a fun time with you.” Surprised, it took me aback. No one had ever said that to me. I replied with a smile, “If you give me a chance, I’m really not too bad…” We both laughed and said our goodbyes. I was so happy that she had given me that opportunity. At the Factor XX opening, Susan gently escorted her mother while beaming with pride.
With the loss of these two women, I have to strive or at least try to be better. Susan O’Malley’s posters declaring “IT WILL BE MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN YOU COULD EVER IMAGINE” highlight our physical landscape. My grandmother’s words reinforce this wisdom. Both women spoke to beauty in words and action. I was unaware at the time but am now fully conscious.
Be grateful for every moment on this Mother’s Day. While my grandmother had the opportunity to raise a family, Susan O’Malley will be doing so from heaven. Their love continues to embrace while their words provide guidance. This is the true definition of beautiful.
May 3, 2015
After many years of creation, it still feels good to get recognition. If your profession is a mother, teacher, doctor, lawyer or whatever your passion: acknowledgment warms a soul and makes one smile. I never take any opportunity for granted. This philosophy has guided me through this journey called life.
Being a Richmond Arts & Culture commissioner, I look for shows that support local communities. The Firehouse Arts Center fits that definition perfectly. According to their website: “Theater performances, arts exhibits, classes of all kinds, all develop skills and provide memorable experiences that last lifetimes. The Firehouse Arts Center, a beautiful work of art in and of itself, located in the heart of Pleasanton, serves as an inviting beacon, strengthening community image and sense of place.”
The juror of Firehouse’s current FRESH WORKS V exhibition, Philip Linhares, was former Chief Curator of the Oakland Museum of Art. Spending many years in West Oakland, I’ve admired his work. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the California College of Arts and Crafts. Linhares worked 43 years in the arts including organizing retrospectives for Joan Brown, Bruce Nauman, Leo Golub, Ruth Asawa, and Michael C. McMillen.
For the last five days in San Francisco, a big fair dominates the art scene. However, I decided to spend my time in Pleasanton. Why? Mr. Linhares picked JBD.3.15.41013, a pen and ink drawing, to be included in the exhibit. It was an honor and where I needed to be.
At the opening on Saturday, my artwork won a $250 award. Really? I was shocked. Pinch me. Did this really happen? Yes, it did. My intention to support a local arts center provided the will to continue. This feeling has no price or monetary value. Thanks for adding more fuel to the creative fire.
FRESH WORKS V, May 2- June 6, 2015, Harrington Gallery, Firehouse Arts Center, 4444 Railroad Avenue, Pleasanton, CA.
April 26, 2015
This weekend is the de Young 19th Annual New Generations Student Showcase. Friday night the museum is open late and like a proud mother hen, wanted to support students and witness the beginnings of a bright future. Being an avid San Francisco Giants fan, attending the exhibition meant missing a game. In the end, my team lost to play another day but my students won big!
Putting together a three-day temporary exhibition in a major museum is an amazing feat. There are many logistics for the institution to consider. For example, certain materials are not allowed like fur, skins, preserved insects, old wood, dried fruit, seedpods, and others that could possibly damage its collection. Artists aren’t allowed to display posters or signs anywhere on the premises. Imagine if the museum became a billboard for anyone with no rule or order. It would lose its sanctuary status and feel.
The de Young 19th Annual New Generations Student Showcase is located in the Piazzoni Murals Room. Gottardo Piazzoni lived from 1872-1945, he was an American landscape painter born in Switzerland known for his serene, beautiful, and stylized California landscapes. According to ARTINFO, Piazzoni was asked about his religion and responded “I think it is California.”
The exhibit was meticulously organized like bringing order to chaos and putting together a puzzle without prior knowledge of its parts. Curating is a delicate skill and displaying 41 pieces from 27 artists could present a challenge. However, the museum didn’t disappoint and it looked flawless.
This is a wonderful and rare opportunity for local art students. The only other museum with a similar exhibition theme is the Getty in Los Angeles. BTW, they got the idea from the de Young. If we need to improve critical, independent, and creative thinking then supporting a new generation with hope and encouragement is a start. Community outreach and art has the power to make us better. That’s a win for us all.
DIVERGENCE: EMERGING LEGACIES, 19th Annual New Generations Student Showcase, April 24-26th, Piazzoni Murals Room, de Young Museum.