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Creativity Q+A with Meg Staley

There has never been a straight line through Meg Staley’s career. But every experience — from sale clerk, to department store clothing buyer, to printmaker — has factored into the creative work she now does. The Leelanau County artist hand builds women’s clothing. Each piece is a composition that allows Meg, 70, to bring to it the myriad surface design techniques that make up her distinctive visual vocabulary. This is not, however, a story about fashion, but a life-long journey that uses clothing as an expressive tool. This interview took place in April 2022. It was conducted by Sarah Bearup-Neal, GAAC Gallery Manager, and edited for clarity.


Describe the medium in which you work.

Several. Textile, printmaking, surface design 2 + 3 D, and clothing design.

You don’t work in a single medium. Talk about how all the things that comprise your practice, and how they draw you into them.

I don’t know what a “normal artist” is. And, I’ve never thought of myself as an artist. Period. I would say, in terms of the visual, it’s the texture, and color, and pattern that my mixture of media makes me happy. As far as motivation, it’s practical: It was money. A way in which I could express myself that was in service of women.

How was your work “in service of women”? How did you serve women through your clothing?

Because my early work was in building clothing for women — myself, and then for others. It’s been a life-long journey. I was always, from an early age, very, very excited by clothing. And I could easily wear clothing, and found myself making it for myself. Then, as I went on, I realized women — in general — would ask me style questions. And, through my first career at Nordstrom, I was a salesperson, and I went into fitting rooms with women, helping them find something they’re happy in. I realized women have all sorts of stories about their bodies, and what they don’t like. I got good at helping women find things that made them feel pretty. I was lucky enough, in my 20s, to put together a number of different jobs, in different places, in different aspects, to begin to understand that I could do something with that skill. When I got to a point where I could apply some of my skill set in terms of sewing, and making, and building, and printmaking, and all these other aspects of what I’d learned into designing for women, I understood that I had a mission.

You said you never thought of yourself as “an artist.” Talk about that.

My older sister showed a very early talent for representational art. She could draw a picture, and it looked like the thing. And, then she studied art. That was my interpretation of what an artist was. So, my sister was the artist in the family, and you know [siblings] can’t have the same roles. Even with a sewing machine, and sewing lessons, I was the only person who had ever sewed. I learned to sew, but in those days [in the 1950s and 1960s], that was not art. That was a craft that women did. So I didn’t ever associate it with art. That was my early story I told myself about not being an artist.

Was an “artist” something you wanted to be?

I wanted to be anything my sister was. In fact, telling on myself, there was this women who lived across the street from us in Bellevue, Washington, who was a cartoonist. I copied some cartoons and took the sketches over to her, and told her I’d sketched them. She told my parents she thought I was very talented. That’s part of my story, wanting to be something that I’m not, and not being happy with who I am.

Have you achieved the level of “artist”? Have you been admitted to the club yet?

Yes — because my definition has changed. Anybody who thinks a thought, sings a song, writes a sentence is an artist. I think of myself as a creative, sentient being. If you want to call that an “artist,” great, I’ll take it.

Did you receive any formal training in visual art?

Silkscreen printing in the studio.

That wasn’t until I was lucky enough to go to Smith College, which had a great art department. I learned there that art history was something — I never knew that was a thing. I took music history. I took music composition. I found out that all these things I was interested in were things [one could] study.  Also, I took a drawing class in sophomore year — when I found all the things I thought I was supposed to study required so much reading, and I was not a fast reader. I thought I needed something I could do besides read. I had this wonderful [drawing] teacher. He was practitioner, and worked for Hallmark Cards. He was not considered a Ph.D guy — he was a practitioner. He taught me how to see differently. The following year, I took a composition course from him. He told me I had a great eye, and he thought I should pursue an art major. He was a major influence. And, he’d come from a very different background: He was not a fine artist. He was a commercial artist. He gave me a stamp of approval about the way I look at the world. I studied mostly photography and serigraphy [screen printing]. By the time I graduated [in 1973] I was a printmaker.

You use silkscreen printing in your business, Meg Staley Handmade.

During my business of 30 years, we did a ton of silk-screening on fabrics, and I collected more than 500 images that I still have. I have this library of single-color images. I could easily make new images, but I have such an amazing library that I use my favorites over and over again on fabric. I cut up the printed fabric, and utilize it on different places on a garment.

I began collaborating and making things [with her husband, Jerry Gretzinger] in 1985 [as Staley Gretzinger Inc.]. We sold the business [in 2008], and I had to come up with a different name for myself. I wanted and needed to continue practicing. I needed to make money, so I started a new label: Meg Staley Handmade. It started out being women’s clothing, and branched out to many things — home goods, soft bedding, quilts, patchwork pillows. That has grown into a lot of commission work for people who have lost loved ones. [She makes] legacy quilts, keepsakes — that’s very important work for me now. I get to work with an individual, and process with them their loss, and work with them to make something that has meaning for them. But I still make women’s clothing because it’s fun.

How did your formal training affect your development as a creative practitioner?

When I went to Smith and began to study art, I was very influenced by my peers and classmates. I watched their process. I watched them not give up. I watched them come at a problem from a different angle. I watched them permutate their work in several different direction, and realized there’s no one way to make art. I never thought I’d make a career or a profession of it. I always thought it would be relegated to something that maybe I’d be lucky enough to play around with at some point. Serigraphy requires space. And it requires equipment. All art[making] has certain requirements, but this thing that I loved had a high threshold for practicing. I thought this was something I was going to have to say goodbye to. Thirteen years [after graduating] I started silkscreening again.

Describe your studio/work space.

Blue Moon Ice Cream
Cedar Tavern

It’s very me. If color is my religion, then my studio is my chapel. My studio is four miles away [from her home] in Cedar, Michigan. It’s an old general store built in 1909. It still has all its original floor, ceiling, and the original store front windows. It’s right on the main street of Cedar, two door down from the Cedar Tavern, and across the street from Blue Moon Ice Cream. When I try to describe where I am to the locals, those are the two reference points I use. The workable space is probably1,000 square feet, and then I have a whole basement.

The studio is so many things to me. It’s a place I can be by myself with my own music, puttering without any destination in mind. It’s sanctuary that way, and a celebration. In the middle of winter in Northern Michigan, and we’re all cooped up in our homes, it’s a place for me to go that’s filled with color and memories, and objects, and things hanging, and all of my favorite toys. It’s such a luxury for me. It’s the first space I’ve ever had that was really designed for me. We put in a big slop sink, and a big commercial dryer for setting inks, and a washing machine. I have tons of table space, tons of storage. Every other space I’ve worked in has been carved out of something more important. Or, it has been a living space, and I convert the dining room table into a print table, and then back again and put it all away. This has been a huge acknowledgment for me that I’m worth it. It also makes me incredibly happy.

Your studio is on the main drag in Cedar. What’s your relationship with the public walking by?

Initially I thought I could do a little store here. And, I quickly remembered my frustration and impatience being at Nordstrom,  having people walk in the midst of me making an incredible display, interrupting my artist process, and wanting me to help them. I don’t need to do retail anymore, and I don’t want to. I have one [Leelanau County] store that carries my work [Ruth Conklin Gallery], so I can tell people who want to buy my work to go to that store.

One of the things about having this space is that there are no barriers/excuses for getting work done. I don’t have to reset it up. I don’t have to do a whole lot to get myself ready to work. I can just walk in there and work. Sometimes that is a problem. It’s a lot of pressure. I want the excuse. I get frustrated with myself because I don’t have an idea or a destination yet. But when I do, I can flow right into it. It’s a space that really supports that.

What themes/ideas are the focus of your work?

Design considerations: “You have to have a place to put your hands.”

The final product is to support women — their bodies and their spirit. The whole notion is that a piece of clothing, for a woman, is a home to live in for the time that you have it on. This means it needs to feel good on you. You have to have a place to put your hand. It can’t be a place where you feel self-conscious in your garment. The beauty, and color, and uniqueness of the person who is inside is, hopefully, expressed on the outside.

This idea is contrary to how many of us are trained to understand clothing, e.g. suffering for beauty is OK.

It’s incorrect. If you’re at ease, you feel more beautiful. It supports that process of having the inside match the outside. Choosing to be known. My clothing is not shy. It’s a conversation starter. A lot of my designs come in my interest in travel: The motifs and the colors are drawn from all sorts of global references. So, you’re communicating all the time you’re in your clothing, and my job is to make something that communicates you. The other theme is celebration. I’ve always been a person who’s attracted to several colors at once. I love a single-color message, but I also love multi. Multi for the Japanese is the color combination that connotes celebration.

What prompts the beginning of a project?

Design considerations: A single-color message.

A deadline. Even after being out of the business for so long. I designed four collections a year. I was always working toward the next show. That was in New York [City]. Jerry and I started by collaborating. He had a business designing and making women’s bags. He had a workshop, and started making one-of-a-kind clothing, which I sold for him in my [SOHO] showroom. My partner and I represented small designers working in their lofts off 7th Avenue, and one of them was Jerry. He also made a few pieces of clothing because he was an architect, and very interested in the human form. We began to collaborate behind the scenes on clothing I thought would sell well. It just ballooned, and we were in Harper’s Baazar, and Vogue. There was a heyday, which in fashion lasts about five minutes. Ours lasted about five years, and from then on it was just keeping up, and creating new things so people didn’t forget about us. At our largest, we made four different lines, and each one was sold separately. There was fall [collection], spring, summer, holiday — so we had at least four different iteration of the each label a year. I was responsible for making all that happen. Every once in a while I’d burn out and turn to Jerry for [help] with a new idea.

How much pre-planning do you do in advance of beginning a new project?

When I was in business, I was preplanning all the time. You had to think about the fabrics you’d need, and order those things well in advance of getting to design the collection. I was always working on three or four things at a time, six months in advance. Now, I get ideas and picture things well in advance. Other times, I don’t have an idea. And, I pray. A lot. I don’t have a lot of deadlines now. I like projects and I like deadlines because that gives me an endpoint to go for.

Do you work on more than one project at a time?

Not if I don’t have to. It’s such a luxury to work on one thing at a time now. I can concentrate of it. I’m not pulled in 25,000 directions. I can be pulled in directions that are creative in different ways. That’s one of the wonderful things about being semi-retired — having space in your calendar for being pulled in a different direction entirely.

Process is an organic thing. If you have time, you have space in your brain to entertain things that aren’t on the check list.

When our [four] kids were young Jerry and I were very active in their school, and would collaborate with the teachers to do art projects. Inevitably, four days before the project commences I’m cursing myself, and wondering why I ever said I’d do this. Sure enough, it would happen. A week later, I was including everything I got from that process into my process at work. Everything feeds the process, whether you like it or not

Do you work in a series?

Yes. I do. Not always. Some of them are one-offs. I’m really good at iterations, at spinning an idea out. And, I love all the iterations.

[NOTE: Meg and Jerry never outsourced their clothing to manufacturers in China. It was designed and created in their studio workspace. “That’s why we liked making one-of-a-kinds,” Meg said.]

What’s your favorite tool?

Favorite tool: a rotary cutter.

By far my rotary cutter. I do a lot cutting, and cutting is a big, big part of my work. You can make perfect curves with a clean edge. You can make imperfect curves. It’s a wonderful tool for fabric.

Do you use a sketchbook? What tool do you use to make notes and record thoughts about your work?

No. I’m not a good draftsman. I use a sketchbook for notes, and little cartoons of what I’m trying to say when I can’t say it with words. I’m not well organized, so if I have something [in which to record ideas] it has to be something all together in a notebook. Usually, I’m just working with my stitcher, Shelley. We do verbal stuff. I just show her what I want.

How do you come up with a title?

I used to name the garments when I had to. When I was making a [clothing] line, and there were 12 pieces in a line, then the ones that were the showstoppers got named because people enjoyed the names. I could communicate some humor, some excitement, some joy, a deeper meaning, or a sense of adventure. A destination comes through a name.

When did you commit to working with serious intent? What were the circumstances?

I won’t say it was a decision. I’ve always been practical in terms of: Can I make money with this? It was backwards in that I was making money, and I had my own business. I was lucky to find something I could do well. After I was a buyer with Nordstrom [Meg held a variety of positions with Nordstrom from 1974-78], I opened a showroom in New York with my friend, and we represented clothing designers to buyers — I’d been a buyer, so I could talk to them. And then, I started working with the designer on how to merchandise their ideas, how to communicate to buyers and make a collection that would tell a story on a retail floor.

Many people, when they think of a Capital “A” Artist, might not think that the business experiences you’ve described could inform a creative practice. 

I would never have said there was a through line while I as doing it. There was a point in my early 30s when I looked back, and said, “Wow, I’m using everything I’ve learned thus far.” It’s a gift of hindsight. I would not have said I was aiming toward anything consciously. All of those jobs that I’ve described taught me how to work with other people, how to talk to other people, taught me about customer service, taught me about connecting with people, taught me about organization, gave me a view into other people’s process, helped me understand that I was value-added with other artists in helping them shape their practice. And, it wasn’t until I started working with Jerry, collaborating with him on pieces of clothing to sell in my showroom, that I grasped the fact that I had a point of view that was important in this collaboration.

The second thing that really brought the whole thing full circle was when Jerry found on Crosby Street two old silk screens that were advertisement for T-shirts. He brought them to the studio and asked if I knew how to silk screen print, and could we figure out a way to use these? We threw some fabric down on the floor and screened our first piece. I thought: This is something that I learned [13 years earlier in college]. I can add something that is so dear to me.

Talk about making your own materials as opposed to sourcing all the materials for your work and cutting it off the bolt.

The main impetus for that was that we lived in a neighborhood that was filled with jobbers. Jobbers bought secondhand fabric off of manufacturers, and sold it to other people. This was an important part of the garment industry in New York. These guys had filled their buildings with fabrics. Over years. Decades. They had all sorts of fabrics that would not be suitable to use for other people — they had stains on them, they were white. But we could transform them, and they were cheap. We started dyeing fabrics, and we would print fabrics. We came up with several different techniques for printing. That allowed us to buy other people’s leftovers.

The economics of this are obvious. The other piece is that making your own materials gives you a unique, visual voice.

Over the period of time we were in business, we had so many people copy us, which was supposed to be a form of flattery. But nobody could really do what we did. We did so many different transformational things to our clothing. The clothing always looked different. That’s one of the things that kept us alive for so long — we could draw on so many different [surface design] techniques. It couldn’t really be copied.

What role does social media play in your practice?

About zero. I’m on Facebook and Instagram, but I don’t post my work. When we moved out here I made a decision I didn’t want to grow my business anymore. I didn’t have to. And, I wasn’t going to take jobs for money if I didn’t want them. If anything I had to make a decision not to have a website or have a business card. I wanted to narrow my work to that which I only wanted to do.

What do you believe is the visual creative practitioner’s role in the world?

Art is expression and communication. It’s very different for other people. All art helps people connect with their feelings, and identify with what’s going on out there. Words don’t cut it at times — although writers help me connect with my feelings. But it helps people feel their feelings by identifying with an image, or a film, a song, or a book — that’s why art is so profound, and joyful, and devastating. I don’t think many artists think of themselves as having a purpose, but they can’t help it.

What parts of the world find their way into your work?

The Honolulu Museum of Art.

I was lucky. My grandmother was a docent at the Honolulu Museum of Art when I was kid, and because of that, [she] populated our house with a lot of Japanese art. That really influenced me. My mom always says, “I’m not an artist. I don’t know where you girls got this.” And I used to say to Mom, “Mom! You taught me to look.” She was all about getting us to look at things. The National Geographic! I’d pore over that. It’s just a feast, the world.

 

How does living in Northern Michigan inform and influence your creative practice?

Fake Rock Farm: one view
Fake Rock Farm: Meg’s husband, Jerry, with their granddaughters.

That’s a really interesting question for me. When we would come out here in the summer, we’d manage to get away from the business for a month, and the whole family would come out here.  We would have all sorts of projects, which we wouldn’t finish because we had to go to the beach. I found, when I would come here, I would have these incredible surges of creativity, and I would have to find something to do with it. For three years I painted the concrete foundation of our barn, with a fake stone foundation. That’s the name of our farm now: Fake Rock Farm. I can’t attribute the location as the entire reason, but it was a place that engendered creativity for me. Also, we were living in New York. We were bombarded by stimulation there, and visual information and noise, and intense amounts of things that would compete with our basic creative urges. Coming out here gave me space to listen. In moving here, it has been an entirely different experience than coming here for bits and pieces of time. In the winter the palette is both stultifying and supportive of my need for color. I have to say also the landscape has created more nuance in my palette, and sense of patterning. Northern Michigan has given me space and time.

[NOTE: Meg and Jerry began vacationing in Leelanau County in 1988. They moved permanently to Maple City in 2021.]

Did you know anyone, when you were growing up, who had a serious creative practice?

If I did, I didn’t see it as a creative practice. We knew artsy people, but I didn’t know the practice behind [their art-making].

Who has had the greatest and most lasting influence on your work and practice?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

I talked about my teacher at Smith who waved a magic wand and told me I was a creative being, who supported my eye, and said I had a good eye. My mother always telling us to look. My grandmother had so much style. My uncle owned the first showroom in San Francisco that represents Knoll Furniture, and he had an incredible eye. My first significant boyfriend is a painter, and he painted no matter what. He now hangs in The Met, and has an amazing career. He showed me perseverance. I also have to say that Jerry taught me to work on something every day.

Where or to whom do you go when you need honest feedback about your work?

The market decides that. If I’m really stuck, I’ll reach out, but I almost never show my work to anybody until it’s done. When I had my business there was a tribunal that looked at the collection when it was all done, and made edits, and that was pure torture, but necessary. I learned you had to have a thick skin. I learned, doing that work over and over and over again, that you surrender work. You let go of it.

What is the role of the exhibition in your practice?

In my clothing work it was sales. “Exhibiting” took place at trade shows. I had my first show-show with six of my other Smith friends when we went back to Smith for our 45th reunion. We had a show of all work we done as adults in our adult careers. It was one of scariest thing I’ve ever done. And, it was one of the most joyous things I’ve ever done. It was a lot of work, and I had to explain all the things I chose to exhibit. You have conversation with yourself about how you’re not worth it. I think artists are incredibly courageous to put a piece of you up on a wall and say this is me, and open yourself up to god knows what.

How do you feed/fuel/nurture your creativity?

With everything. When you open up your ears eyes and mouth, you’re feeding yourself. If you’re listening, you’re feeding yourself. Going to museums. Travel. And, when I get to a hump in the creative process, when I have that self-talk  — I am not an artist, I can’t come up with a new idea, what was I thinking — I think of service, of doing service. If I am in service to the universe, and in fact to women, I can do anything.

What in the world drives your impulse to make?

Inextricable to my career is making money. But I had not been making art per se for 13 years. I was looking to get back to my creative self when Jerry and I started collaborating. I’d been in a creative dance with people, thinking creatively, but not in a hands-on way. What drives the impulse to make is not making for a while. It gets bottled up, and I just have to do it.


Read more about Meg Staley here.

Sarah Bearup-Neal develops and curates Glen Arbor Arts Center exhibitions. She maintains a studio practice focused on fiber and collage.

Creativity Q+A with Melonie Steffes

Melonie Steffes, 48, learned by doing. And by reading library books about practice and process. And by finding other makers to mentor her. Her paintings are filled with bears, insects, mushrooms, and other woodland influences that describe the world of the body and mind in which she lives. In both subject and presentation, Steffes’s paintings communicate an otherworldliness, a Magical Realism that charms. Like all enchanments, there’s a lot more pulsing around beneath the surface. Steffes lives in Thompsonville,  Michigan. This interview took place in March 2022. It was conducted by Sarah Bearup-Neal, GAAC Gallery Manager, and edited for clarity.


Describe the medium in which you work.

I mostly work in oil on canvas. I do do other things — occasionally I do watercolors, I’ve been thinking about getting back into them. Also, I do some sculpture, which I’m going to return to this summer. It’s better to do it outside because I use a lot of rusty metal. In the summertime I move everything out to my porch. I’d rather be outside in the natural light, with the bugs.

What draws you to oil painting?

I like that it doesn’t dry quickly. I have time to move the paint around. I like the way the paint feels, that I can make it thick or thin.

Did you receive any formal training in visual art? 

My first year-and-a-half in high school, I went to a special program — I was living down in Florida then. I had extra art classes. But that’s it. After that I moved up here, and it has been mentors, and library books, and practice.

[NOTE: Melonie attended Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, Florida,  in the late 1980, and was enrolled in the school’s artistically talented program.]

How did your formal training affect your development as a creative practitioner? Do you consider the training you got in high school “formal?”

It was really only touching on the basics. I wasn’t there very long. I didn’t get to the classes about oil paint or watercolors. There was a lot of design, a lot of drawing and printmaking. I really feel I learned so much more after I was gone.

Talk about that.

When I was in school I was learning some rudimentary things, but I wasn’t learning a lot that I didn’t already know. After I left and I was off on my own, there were a few years when I wasn’t doing a whole lot of art; it was just wanting to. When I was able to come back to it, at first I was getting books out of the library — straightforward how-to books, and poring over technique. I still do this today. I love to look at peoples’ processes, start-to-finish. I find it super inspiring. So, today, I’ll still go get books, or now, you can look on the internet. I love that. And then, I met Dan Oberschulte. He’s the one who got me painting in oil. I wasn’t using oils. I was using acrylics, and watercolors. He kept saying,”Here, try these,” and he gave me some [paints] he wasn’t using. I loved it once I got going with it. And, observing him — we used to paint a lot together quite a bit. When I say “mentor,” I mean that kind of thing: Looking at what he looks at, [specifically] the Impressionists. I love the texture and the color — I don’t paint that way myself; but I do find them very inspiring. They say that the best way to learn a language is through immersion. It’s more like that.

Describe your studio/work space.

Some fetishes who live in Melonie’s studio.

“Disaster zone.” I needed to have a room separate from the rest of the house so I could step out, and shut the door, and leave it as it is, and nobody else has to deal with it. It’s filled from floor-to-ceiling with all the different things I do: I also make clothes, I’ve got sculpture things, I’ve got painting things, I’ve got tons of books, and then I have a million knick knack and fetishes everywhere. I think it [measures] roughly 12 feet x 10 feet.

You called your studio a “disaster zone.” What’s the disaster?

The chaos of my brain. It’s a mess. It’s cluttered. There’s stuff going on every direction you look. I’ve been in peoples’ studios that are so nice and neat, and I think why can’t I be that way? I clean it up once a year, and it just blows up right behind me. I don’t have time to be cleaning. I make stuff. It’s a sacred disaster zone. It makes sense to me, but somebody else might be horrified, and wonder how I get anything done in there.

How does your studio space facilitate your work? Or, affect your work?

The messy studio that we’ve been talking about is the Winter studio. The head space is very different when I move out to the porch, and its open, and the breeze is blowing, and birds are flying around me, and the butterflies and wasps — it’s completely different. When I’m indoors and enclosed with artificial light, I’m deeper in my head, less connected to what’s around me — maybe that’s why I have so many fetishes around me, collected from summer.

The natural world is an intrinsic part of the story in your paintings. It would make sense that being outside you might feel more connected to your work.

For sure. The more that I’ve been painting outdoors, the more that [the natural world] seeps in. Indoors, its a different vibe. Right now I’m at the end of Winter, and I need some ideas for an upcoming show [at Higher Art Gallery July 6-August 6], and I’m having a really hard time. There’s not naturally coming in.

If being outside and having a direct connection to the natural world feeds your work, how do you override the fact being inside during the cold weather months cuts you off from that?

I cross county ski a lot. I still get outside, but most things are sleeping. I probably should be sleeping, too, but being human, I’m trying to work. I still try to be out there, at least for a little while. The first few paintings I’ve gotten done for this upcoming show were ideas I already had going into Winter, and I wrote things down. They were already there. I wasn’t drawing off now. I was drawing off things I had in my head. I listen to stories a lot in winter. That’s a helpful thing. I listen to them while I’m painting, and that gets my mind turning.

I always think of your paintings as full of greenery, and Spring, and light, and warmth. Your paintings don’t reflect the winter world. True?

Melonie Steffes, More Than You Can Ever Know, oil, 24″ w x 30″ h

I don’t do tons of them. I was just thinking that today I hadn’t painted any Winter scenes. At the end of Winter, I don’t know if I want to do more black and white. I want to do color. This is a good example of where my mind goes more in Winter. It’s a big painting of a woman holding open her chest, and all these frogs are pouring out. That’s definitely a Winter painting. The ones I come up with in the Winter are way more interior, like that.

Talk about all the elements of the natural world you bring into your paintings.

[Depicting] the natural world isn’t all I do. Though these days, it’s definitely more and more, but I don’t like to get too boxed in. I like to paint what’s around me. For a lot of people that would be a landscape. The paintings are really autobiographical, but it comes out in these crazy ways. I spent my summer immersed in my yard, and my gardens. Every year more so in certain places I like to go to in the forest. I rarely design something ahead of time. I can tell you this really crazy story about one of my recent paintings, with this bear.

I have a place I like to go to in the Spring and Summer, in the middle of a creek. I call it my island because it’s literally in the middle of this creek, a mound and an old tree growing out of it. It’s also a place bears go. I’ve seen their track. I’ve never actually seen the bear. I like to go there, and take off my shoes, and I walk in the creek in the mud, and I’ve literally stood in the bear’s tracks in the mud. When I’m in a place like that, I’ll be sitting there, and see a vision in my head. When I see that, I’ll go home and sketch out what I saw in my mind. I’ll try to put reference materials to help me paint it. I have to look at things to make it look as real as I want it to look. A lot of my paintings come from being out there. There’s a certain meditative place when I’m relaxed, and I’m really present. I found this wasp’s nest out there one time, that a bear had taken down from a tree. You could see the claw marks on one side, and there was only half a nest. This is the weird story: If fit perfectly over my face, and there was one hole I could see through. I sat with it like that — I could still smell the bear — losing myself out there.

Magical Realism is the term that comes to mind when I look at your work.

Twenty years ago, a friend said, “What you do is Magical Realism.” I’d never heard the term. He said it was literary. Magical Realism, I think that sums it up. A long time ago, when I was 14, I went to a Renaissance festival, and there was a painter there. He did oil paintings of unicorns and stuff, but they were very realistic. He said something that always stuck in the back of my brain: If you want to do fantastical things, and grab people, do them in as realistic a way as you can. I think that really affected me. Even if I try to be looser, I end up being realistic with the whacky, fantastical world in my head.

Realism suggests to the viewer that what they’re seeing on the canvas actually is. So, you’re playing a trick with people.

Another person told me she thought my painting are very shamanic.  Which I thought was interesting. Sometimes they feel like that to me. It feels like a journey. So when an artist creates something, especially something that’s realistic enough the viewer almost believes it, isn’t that magic? Bridging two worlds? It’s telling a good story. It may have never happened, but you draw the person in, and then they have feelings, and emotions, and, maybe, challenging thoughts. That’s a good thing artists do.

What prompts the beginning of a project or composition?

Melonie Steffes, Guardians, oil, 20″ w x 20″‘ h

In the best way, in my favorite way, it’s that lighting bolt of vision in my head. And, words can do it. Sometimes I’ll hear a phrase incorrectly. If I’m listening to a story or someone is talking, I hear it incorrectly, but what I hear is more interesting, and I visualize it, [and think] that would be an amazing painting. A nugget. I’ll write them down. I have a million little pieces of scraps of paper, and napkins that have these inspiring phrases on them. I even have things written on the wall in my studio. If I hear or think of it, and I’m right there, I’ll grab the charcoal and I write it on the wall.

How much pre-planning do you do in advance of beginning a new project or composition?

There can be quite a lot of that. It depends on how complex the picture is that I want to do. For instance, I have one that’s almost complete right now. This painting has literally been in my mind for 10 years. For whatever reason — it’s too much work, or I’m not there yet — the painting stays in my mind. Well, I’ve done it now, and thank goodness. It fit this [Higher Art exhibition] I’m trying to paint for. There’s a lot of preparation. There are quite a few animals in it. There are bubbles, which I’ve never painted before. There are a lot of landscape background. To put all that together, to what’s in my head,  first I sketch out the rough idea, and then I start grabbing [reference] photographs — it’s a Summer-Fall painting, and it’s not that now. In the Fall, I took a lot of pictures anticipating doing this painting. My camera is really important. And, I really hate to admit this, but [so, too, is] the internet. I have a love-hate relationship with tech. I‘ll gather all the visual reference together I need, and put it together into the composition I’ve sketched. I know people who can paint right out their head. I need to see the fur, and the whiskers, and the way the body twists. It feels like a little like cheating, but it works in the end.

How does it feel like cheating?

It doesn’t when they’re my photos, but when I’m using someone else’s photos … I’m not using their composition … I try to use my own photos as much as I can.

Do you work on more than one project at a time?

Yes. I will put things aside for a few days, sometimes longer, so I can’t see them, and I’ll be working on something else. I’ll go back and forth. Sometimes it helps me to take breaks, especially if I feel stuck, or I’m overworking, or some challenge in it that my mind isn’t working out, I’ll take a break and work on something else. There’s two paintings now that are in a state of almost-done, and I’ll come back to them. Sometimes I put things away for years. I just did this: I pulled one out that was done two years ago, and pulled it out to work on it some more.

Some of your paintings get put away to rest. Why?

Because I’m not ready to finish it yet. Not that I don’t want it to be finish. Maybe something I see, I’m not quite able to [translate it] to the canvas yet. Usually, that’s what it is. Or, sometimes, I’m inspired to do something else. I lose the energy and am not into [the painting] right now. And that painting may completely change later when I come back to it. When the energy changes.

Do you work in a series?

I didn’t think that I did. Well, I’ve come to realize, that in the past few years, the same characters are popping up through my work. When I put together everything I have now, I see themes. I see recurring characters and themes. I just didn’t do it intentionally. Some of these paintings have sold, and now I’m doing something that feels like it goes [with the sold work]. I feel weird about it. My bears, I’m holding onto now. I think there are more bear pictures coming. I don’t know what they are yet, but it makes me feel like I should cling to these, keep them, don’t put them out there.

What’s your favorite tool?

A kitty underneath Melonie’s favorite tool.

My camera is my most important tool. So many of the paintings are — this is the whacky part of my process; if I had neighbors who could see me, oh my gosh … I will set the camera up on a tripod in my yard, and set timer, and try to get into the positions I need. I end up taking a million pictures to get what I want.  That’s how I do most things if the [recurring ] woman is in it. Do you know how hard it is to paint a hand nicely? I have to see it.

It sounds like your camera is a tool for gathering reference information — rather than something that creates a picture you reproduce as painting.

Yes. Mostly. I do take a lot of B-roll — pretty landscapes, interesting bushes I might use at some point. I have to say that 9 times out of 10, in my thousands of photos, I don’t have what I want. So, I have to go do it again. It’s reference. Occasionally I’ll paint something directly from a picture, but very rarely.

Do you use a sketchbook? Work journal? What tool do you use to make notes and record thoughts about your work?

Sketch books for sure. Piles of them. I sketch down an idea whether I’m going to do it or not. Sometimes I go back [into the sketchbook] and realize I’ve forgotten about a great idea. It’s there, the nugget of it is there. I sketch. I write. I write notes to myself.  Sometimes I even record audio when I’m driving. [Recording on her phone] is much safer than trying to write them while you’re driving like I used to do. Inspiration comes, and you never know when, so you have to have tools around to record it.

How do you come up with a title?

That varies. Titles sometime are in my head simultaneously with the picture in my head. Or, they come as I’m doing it. Sometimes, they don’t come. It’s a struggle. Sometimes the title comes before the painting. It’s the words, it’s a phrase, and I think, “That’s beautiful,” and I see it, and the title is already there.

What’s the job of a title?

The title gives a person a reference point. I prefer that my titles be little vague. I don’t like them to explain too much. I want the person’s mind to take the story where it will. A good title leads a person a little bit in a direction, but not to much. I don’t like titles that completely explain everything. There should be mystery. I want the painting to evoke things in peoples’ mind.

When did you commit to working with serious intent?

That’s been a hard questions. I’ve always made art as long as I can remember. I was encouraged to, early on, because I showed a level of visual skill. I was drawing people with clothes when the other kids were drawing stick figures. So it was part of me, and it became also a way — when I was getting into my teens — to deal with things in my life, to get out difficult emotions, and deal with challenges. I had this wonderful tool of expression. And, I’m really thankful for that, to this day.

Melonie Steffes, The Norns, oil, 20″ w x 10″ h

I was 20, traveling, so I wasn’t doing a lot of artwork, and I met with this friend I knew in high school. He’s a classically trained guitar player. He said to me that he’d met a blues [musician in Chicago]. He asked him how he got so good? And the guy said, “It’s what I do.” That stuck with me. I always thought of myself as an artist, but I started saying it to myself: It’s what I do. It’s real. I had to start thinking of it that way. So many people talk about having a hobby. I decided that I didn’t want to think of it as a hobby. It’s such a big part of me. Somewhere in my early 20s I started to say to people out loud that I am an artist. And, I do other things to support that. I’m a maker. I need to make things. I really started to hit it hard as practice when my son was born.

When my son [Seamus] was born, I was 24. I was able to stay home with him for quite a while. It became such a priority to me to do my art work. So, he would be in his baby bassinet on the table next to me, watching me paint. He seemed very content to watch. When he’d go down for a nap I’d unplug the phone, and lock the door — he’s napping and I’m painting.  It became a huge priority — the time that I had to paint, to use it, every bit, for that. I also wanted him to learn that I’m mom, and I’m absolutely here, But I have my own identity. That was something I grew up hearing about [from her mother and grandmother], that they gave up all their dreams and identities to be moms. There was a little pressure there to not do that. My grandmother was an artist, and starting to work in the fashion world, gave it up all completely when she got married and started having kids.

What role does social media play in your practice?

Social media. It’s such a bad word to me. I have an Instagram page, but I’ve never put anything on it. I just don’t want to. I don’t think it would be helpful anymore. All these social media platforms are so crammed full of information, and you have those no attention space. It’s like: click click click. Everything’s so fast. You forget the last thing you looked at.

You said social media is a “bad word.” Tell me why.

I see whole lot wrong with it, a whole lot that’s going wrong with us as human beings because of it. There’s some cool stuff, and that what get us hooked. We feel like we’re part of something, and we feel more connected, and yet, we get together less, and not because of COVID. That was happening before COVID.  When you read or post something on a social media site about yourself, that is the edited version of you. We can sit here and talk, and all of my foibles — I’m going to say dumb things, I’m going to look cross-eyed — it’s unedited. It’s me. But I can totally put out the honed version of myself on line, and it’s never fully real. The connection aren’t fully real. The way that it’s used to condition us, to train us to think in certain directions, to pit us against each other …

It sounds like you’re a direct-experience person.

Yes. I am. I do use Facebook. I wasn’t even going to get Facebook. I have this musical duo, and the several years back people were saying that the only way people will know when you’re playing is to get it on Facebook. I resisted for a while. And then you’re in. Now you’re looking at it, and it starts sucking you in. I hardly ever go there.

What do you think is the visual artist’s role in the world?

It’s different for everybody. There are plenty of people who make things, and never show their work to someone, or show it to very few people. What is their role? Do we ever know what our role is? On a quantum level, you never know what those waves are doing that you put out there. There’s also that role, in the social world, to make a statement, evoke change. Some people paint beautiful landscapes. Does that end war or cause social change? Maybe not, maybe it does, but it’s still totally valid. If you get too involved in what is the purpose of this, what is this going to do, I know I can paralyze myself [thinking too much about it]. I do like the idea of evoking some sort of shift in a person, in their consciousness. Or, changing their mood for the day. I hear this a lot: “I hadn’t thought of that like that before”; or, “That makes me think about that creature differently,” like the bears or the wasps [in her paintings]. I do like that.

What parts of the world find their way into your work?

Other living beings. Plants to bears to lots of mushrooms. People ask me all kinds of weird questions about that. And, no I’m not eating that.

What is it about mushrooms that make them recur in your paintings?

Melonie’s yard is home to a wide variety of mushrooms, including Amanitas [pictured], Boletes, Stinkhorns, White Fairy Rings, and Morels.
First and foremost, they’re all around me. I see mushrooms all the time. They’re everywhere. Such a vastly important part of the ecosystem. The mushroom is only the fruiting body that we see. The mycelial web, the roots of the mushroom, are under our feet all the time. We’re always walking on mushrooms and fungi. They’re part of everything. I’m kind of obsessed with mushrooms, and I have been for such a long time. They’re part of my everyday mind. They come up all around my house, all kinds, and are part if everything.

How does living in Northern Michigan inform and influence your creative practice?

I am very grateful for the fact I live in the woods, and that there is so much forest in Northern Michigan, and water. I can be in the forest. I can be on the Big Lake. I’m a boat person, a sailor. I love the water. There are other places I’d like to live, and go to, but I was born here. The is my native land. You can see in the work that I do, most of the creatures you encounter are here. I don’t paint a lot of lions, tigers, and elephants.

Who has had the greatest and most lasting influence on your work and practice?

Dan Oberschulte. He put the oil paints in my hand. He also helped foster that seriousness we talked about.  Seeing somebody who was that serious about [his painting practice] was helpful to me. That thought of art-as-life, and art life. I have two people I would call, and send picture of my art, and ask them, “What do you think?” I would bring paintings to him, and he shows me his, which we do to this day. That’s the trusted feedback, him and my son. My son has become that now.

[The late] Steve Balance — I used to model for him. He became a mentor. He would give me feedback too. I do things similar that he did with his photographs. He sets scenes up. He wasn’t an on-they-fly, capturing a moment. He would have an idea in his head, and set it up. That’s what I do. I have the idea, and set up my references to make what I see in my head.

What is the role of the exhibition in your practice?

That is the part where I get to share that with the rest of the world, which I seem to need to do. There’s a lot that goes with it. I’m very introverted,  and I do spend most of my time alone, with my partner, and I want that and need that. It’s the point at which I push myself out there [believing] this thing needs to be seen by other people. There’s the validation wrapped up in it. There’s the selling, making some sort of income. There’s wanting to tell the stories, or at least put the stories out there for other people minds to start to playing with it. That makes it bigger than me. There are things on my wall that I never put out. Some of it is that’s what artists do. But I have a lot of issues around that, too. Once you start [exhibiting] in galleries, and you start putting your work into the public eye, all the voices start coming into your head. She said this, and he said that, and the gallery said I should do this or shouldn’t do that. That can be a real problem. I used to struggle with it more than I do now.

Is it hard for you to detach yourself from peoples’ responses? Or, do you take it in?

I take it in, but I feel like I’ve gotten good at … I’ve got this punk rock bone my body that wants to give everyone the bird when they telling me all this stuff. I try not to censor myself because of those voices. What I try to do is not censor myself. Make the thing. Put it out there, and it’s going to have its own life after that.

How do you feed/fuel/nurture your creativity?

Melonie Steffes, Nature Of The Beast, oil, 16″ w x 20″ l

That is so much mostly about getting outside. It’s looking at art. I do have a Pinterest problem, I think. I can go on there for so long because it keeps spitting things out.  It’s so inspiring sometimes. I see things I never would have thought of, wish I would have thought of. I love picture books. Music inspires me. I love to listen to stories. One of my bear paintings [came out of a] literal fever dream. I had this fever, and I was lying on the couch. And all I wanted was a big bear to come and read me a story. And so I grabbed my sketch book, and started drawing that. Later, when I was well again, it became this painting — that I really, really love — of this bear sitting in this big comfy armchair. The chair is outside with rose bushes behind him, and he’s got a big story book in his lap. The girl is lying on the ground, at his feet, in this white nightgown. And, then it gets a little dark, according to some people. If you keep looking behind the bear, there’s some bloody meat and bones. The woman is holding a bone. That is all very warm and fuzzy for me. The painting is called “The Nature of the Beast.” 

What drives your impulse to make?

Processing. It’s all processing the world, my immediate environment, the bigger environment. I’m creating ways to deal with it, whether it’s good or bad, and that’s why I’ve been doing it since I was a little. It’s what mankind has always done: We’ve created stories to make sense of what’s going around us. I don’t need to understand everything, but I need to process it. I don’t think we have to understand everything to benefit from it. Allowing things to move through you, being present, and then allowing whatever is there to move through you, whether you understand it or not — I think that’s really important for being in this world. When I had COVID, literally laying there, I laid on this table so much letting go of my body and going into this meditative state. It was there I realized if you can let go and let things just be, there’s so much there. There’s imagery, and there’s nothing, and silence, and it’s so healing. When I’m making anything, I don’t know I’m hungry, I’m not aware of my body any more. The creative process, my whole life, has given me time to let go of that physical weight, and that allows other things to happen.


Read more about Melonie Steffes here.

Sarah Bearup-Neal develops and curates Glen Arbor Arts Center exhibitions. She maintains a studio practice focused on fiber and collage.

Creativity Q+A Video with Linda Alice Dewey and Anne-Marie Oomen

A conversation with painter Linda Alice Dewey and poet Anne-Marie Oomen about their collaborative project On The Precipice, a small exhibition of four paintings and four companion poems on display in the Glen Arbor Arts Center’s Lobby Gallery [April 29 – August 11, 2022]. The GAAC’s exhibition, and this conversation, is an exploration of how artists collaborate, and the tradition of ekphrasis – the practice of creating a literary description of a work of art.

Creativity Q+A with Kaz McCue

Kaz McCue’s lives as an educator, studio artist, and regular-guy-walking-around-the-place blend seamlessly into one another. Everything is connected. Everything cross pollinates, whether it happens in the studio or the classroom. The 59-year-old Leelanau County resident works in many media, unconfined by a single material or technique. As a art student in the 1980s + 1990s McCue learned about being an artist-citizen, and the concept became a guiding principle. The work of a studio artist, he says, is more than “putting on your smock.” It comes with some responsibilities. This is what he lives. This is what he teaches. This interview took place in February 2022. It was conducted by Sarah Bearup-Neal, GAAC Gallery Manager, and edited for clarity.


Describe the medium in which you work.

Can’t do it. That’s one of the most basic questions for an artist, and it’s one of the hardest for me to answer. It took me a long time to realize what my place was as an artist, and that was a visual storyteller. As I was coming up through school and working as an artist … I meandered through disciplines, and it took me a long time to realize what I was about as an artist was storytelling. Sometimes my stories needed etching. Sometimes my stories needed photographs. Sometimes they would need sculptures, video. As an artist I don’t box myself into a corner with media. One of the constants through my work is my approach to the photographic image. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography, and I studied in a very traditional program at Parsons School of Design [1988]. I had very formal training there. And, I love photography. Artistically, I wanted to find more. Because of that traditional training, I was having a hard time experimenting with photography. I found my way out of that corner in grad school. I found a printmaker who was really interested in alternative photographic printmaking techniques … That opened up so many doors, and I’ve stayed on that path. Every time I got stuck, or had an idea I didn’t know how to approach, I’d turn to new media … I’ve probably spent the first half of my career putting tools in my tool box to the point now I’m skilled in a lot of different areas, and I can meander around.

How did your formal training affect your development as a creative practitioner?

I would say less so than my experiential training. From the standpoint of studying, I put myself in really good spots to learn what I was interested in learning. I was more interested in an individual path than a commercial path. My education was more about the people that I connected and studied with. At Parsons there were an incredible number of professional photographers and artists, and in the 1980s New York was the center of the art world. I was in the middle of it. It was definitely people who mentored me along. [NOTE: Read Kaz’s curriculum vitae here.]

Formal training put you in touch with people who could mentor you?

Yes.

Describe your studio/work space.

I have a parasitic work practice. I’m comfortable working in big, well-equipped workshops, and I’m equally as comfortable working at my kitchen table. I look for opportunities to do the former; but the reality is I spend more time at the latter. Through my career I’ve always found spaces to work … Every time I get a studio space, I fill it with junk. Being parasitic allows me to be a little more fluid. I have the studio at [The Leelanau] school [where he teaches] that I can use on breaks if I have a really big project — I have a 6 foot x 6 foot drawing hanging up in the studio at school right now. My studio is kind of anywhere I’m at. I’ve got a set-up here at my house here in Michigan. I’ve got the art studio at school I can use. I’ve got our house in Florida, which is where my wife [Pamela Ayres] lives and teaches. I’ve a small space down there — oddly enough, I prefer to work on the porch … With my background in material culture studies, I wasn’t working in a clean, white space, like a painter would. I was climbing into dumpsters, and junk shops, and finding inspiration all over the place. It seemed silly to take it out of context.

If we go back to the question about medium — one of the things I do spend a lot of time with is concept. My ideas and what I’m focused on come out in symbols, and concept and context. I feel like my work has a vernacular quality to it. I think it’s because I don’t need anything fancy to make it work. I can do something as simple as a drawing or complicated as a room-sized installation. And depending on the story, I’ll find the space. Right now, with the spaces I have available, I’m pretty comfortable. The shutdown from COVID, and having a lot of alone time was really studio time for me. My studio is where I make it.

Define material culture studies.

Remnants, 2020, mixed media on panels, 16” x 16”

It’s a sociological term … The study of material culture is looking at the materials and the objects that a culture uses to gain insight into that culture. For instance, we can look at a chair, and a chair can have a lot of different meanings: from very basic, functional, sitting-down to an annotation of power, or [a symbol of] missing somebody. You can read a lot into a chair … Materials come with inherent meanings that you can then start to play around with. You’ve got pieces of the puzzle that already have some meanings in them. When you recreate new relationships, it expands that. With material culture studies, there’s a pretty straightforward methodology to studying objects, to go from straightforward observation to inference, which is the educated guess you make about the culture. That methodology gave me a platform to build stories … Material culture studies also feed into [his] background in photography. At a certain point, photographs become a cultural object as well.

What themes/ideas are the focus of your work?

Well, I’m approaching 60, and a white man in a country that is incredibly confused and divided. Politics, to a degree; but I don’t like those layers to be out on the surface. I’ve been spending a lot of time, in the last 10 years, talking about migration as I’ve become more interested in my own history and background …  I’m 100 percent Irish. We came over as skilled labor [in the 1800s] … Death, obviously — I’m getting older. I had a wild path. I never thought I’d make it to this age. I’m probably 10 years shy of when my dad passed away. Maybe not death so much as mortality. I don’t trumpet themes. I inhale them and chew on them a little bit, and put them out there … The things I’m interested in discussing are buried underneath the layers. You have to peel back the layers to get to [the theme, meaning]. That goes to my own approach [to looking at art]. I like artwork that makes me think. I don’t get excited about artwork that spells everything out for you. It doesn’t mean I don’t like that stuff. It doesn’t get me as excited as something that makes my mind work; where I have to figure out what did the artist mean when he did that? Did he mean this? Did he mean that? I play that game with my own work sometimes: Did I mean that? Did I mean this?

What prompts the beginning of a project or composition?

Port Oneida Sketch #4, 2020, mixed media on board, 4” x 4”
ag dul abhaile, 2018, welded steel, 6’H x 8’L x 5’W

I see it all as a process. Ideas percolate, and come to the forefront. Other times, they just pop up and move to the back. Right now, I’ve been in Leelanau County for 10 years-plus. I really love it here: I love the seasons, the lake shore, I love Port Oneida [which is] way up there in my focus right now. I’m spending a lot of time crawling around Port Oneida, learning about its history, and thinking about what the place was and what it wants to become … This is years coming. I’ve spent a long time working on Port Oneida as a subject. If we go back to material culture — the barns and the sheds, and there’s even a conversation between the way the farms are laid out — it’s very Eastern European in some cases. I love that history. I love walking those properties, and imagining the people who lived there and made the land work. That has inspired another project, which is four years down the road. Through the process of working, I’ll do one piece that will be, like, Ooooooh, that’s really different. And, I’ll like it; but it doesn’t fit in what I’m doing now. So that piece will go over to the side … Some pieces come really fast. Some pieces come with opportunity. I had an opportunity to do an artist’s residency a few years ago at Villa Barr Art Park in Novi [Michigan]. I’d been thinking about the Irish diaspora. And, I’ve been doing theseboat forms, and all of a sudden I had this chance to explore these boat forms. I ended up doing a sculpture for the park.

How much pre-planning do you do in advance of beginning a new project?

In my mind I do a considerable amount. I’ll kind of sit on something, and think about it …. I should go back to talking about my studio practice. In my practice, I tend to binge. So, when I get time, I work intensely to the point where it’s hard to think about anything else. I give myself blocks of time …

You’re very organic about your process. One thing gets started; but there may not be a distinct end to it — you seem to stew, and germinate and muse about things.

In grad school I got to study under Noah Jemison [at Long Island University/C.W. Post Campus]. Noah was a fantastic painter. He lives in Brooklyn, has been part of the New York art scene since the 1960s. The faculty saw the opportunity — they had to have him work with some of the grads. Noah came in and worked with a lot of us. He mentored my wife and me. Noah used to drive me nuts. I was very organized. I had the studio, and I was making a lot of work, and he’d come in to do critiques, and he would never talk about my work. The conversations were, “Hey! Did you see that basketball game last night?” It used to frustrate me so much. One time I got so mad at him, I said, “Look. I’ve spent all this time making this work. The least you could do is talk about this work.” And he said, “Why would I talk about this work? I’m still trying to get to know who you are … I see that you’re making a lot of stuff that looks like art; but I’m trying to figure out if it looks like your art.” And that just messed me up. But he taught me that being an artist was more than putting on your smock and working in your studio. He taught me that being an artist was being an important member of the community. He taught me that being an artist had cultural responsibility. He taught me that being an artist meant being a leader in the arts in the community wherever you can find it. And he taught me that whole idea of being artist citizen*. That just blew my mind. My practice is organic, and it is strongly connected to my life. There’s no way I can separate my art practice from my teaching from my politics from the way I approach community. It’s all wrapped together, which is what Noah was trying to teach me to begin with: Figure out how to make it part of your life.

*Follow-up | Kaz writes: “So, Noah always talked to us about what it meant to be an artist. He would tell us that in order to be an interesting artist, you had to be an interesting person. In the United States, we have a lot of artists who study in college and are well trained; but what Noah was getting at is that it was important for artists to hold a place in the world and then express, reflect, philosophize about that world through their creative work. In other words, it was not healthy for artists to work in isolation or seclusion, and it was important for artists to be a part of whichever community they chose to exist in. Noah stressed the idea of community and how necessary it was for artist to function with the community as contributing members.

“Later, in 2004, Joseph Polisi, who was president of Julliard College, wrote a book titled The Artist as Citizen. In the book he write:  ‘Artists of the 21st century, especially in America, must rededicate themselves to a broader professional agenda that reaches beyond what has been expected of them in an earlier time. Specifically, the 21st-century artist will have to be an effective and active advocate for the arts in communities large and small around the nation. … By performing superbly in traditional settings and making the effort to engage community members through their artistry, America’s best young artists can positively change the status of the arts in American society.’ ”

Do you work on more than one project at a time?

Yes. I won’t talk to you about how many I’ve got going now. It’s hurting a little bit.

Do you work in a series?

Yes. I binge work. It seems like there’s also a dialogue between the pieces I’m doing at the same time, when I’m going back and forth. I’ll get done, and I’ll think, “That one’s really saying something. That one’s not,” and I’ll not finish it, or move it to the side. When you’re writing a story, you do edits. I’m doing the same thing … I like to feel like I’m living the postmodern life, and that’s just part of it, having all these little tributaries that you can meander down. And, if one doesn’t work, you can come back and go in a different direction …

What’s your favorite tool?

Kaz, a student, and an arc welder.

Definitely the arc welder. I love welding. I started with ceramics — very tactile. And then I went to photography. And then I went to printmaking, and sculpture. But when I got to sculpture, that practice matched my personality. I love teaching it, too. I love welding because there’s a sense of power to it, and also a sense of immediacy to it. You can have an idea, and see it right there.

It’s a high-powered gluing machine.

Yes. You have a piece of metal, you stick it on there and look at it. If you don’t like it, you can break it off. When I was working on that piece for [Villa Barr], I worked for two days straight, and I was going nowhere … I called my wife, who’s probably one of the people I get the best feedback from, [and told her], “This thing’s a disaster. I don’t like it. The form isn’t right.” And she said, “What would you tell your students to do?” And I said, “Cut it apart, and start over.” So, I cut it apart, and started over. You have that power with welding. It’s like drawing in space. I love that. You get to see something three-dimensionally, that interacts with space. And, I love that I can [make] something as big as me [5 foot, 6 inches tall], or bigger than me, and it stands on its own.

Do you use a sketchbook? Work journal? What tool do you use to make notes and record thoughts about your work? 

I’ve got them laying all over the place.

How did you think about hand work before you began practicing seriously?

I was raised in a middle class family. My sister and I had art lessons. We both went to Catholic school. Catholic schools didn’t have a lot of arts programming. It was instilled in me that I have to study hard, and be good academically, and art was fun; but it was not what was going to build my life. My mom was a corporate executive in the ‘60s [a vice president with Swiss chemical giant Ciba-Geigy], so she pushed hard for us to do well academically. So I had a different trajectory. I was going to go to school and become a veterinarian. And then my dad passed away my senior year, and that put everything in a twist and my life unraveled from there. So, for me, working with your hands — I was torn over it … My dad was a self-employed roofer, always worked with his hands, and that’s what I thought about hand work. And my mom, who was a white collar worker, who was very successful, and very powerful …

It sounds like, in your family, brain work was the highest-level work, and hand work was something that had practical usage; but it wasn’t what one should aspire to. 

Yes. Because of my dad’s work, I had access to hammers, and saws, and nails. We built tree forts. We built jumps over my mother’s azalea bushes. We built go-carts. We did all that stuff; but that was for fun …

Why is making-by-hand important to you?

Chuck Close

I’ve had the opportunity to work with kids with disabilities. They’re following careers [of disabled people] like Chuck Close, who has that terrible stroke, and came back to have a really remarkable last portion of his career. I’ve often thought about what happens if I couldn’t make anything by hand, and the thing is it’s an important part of my identity, like it was for my dad. I’ve spent a long time trying to get closer to my dad by being more like him. He was very soft-spoken. Never raised his voice. Never got mad at me, no matter how stupid I was. He was kind and sincere and a wonderful person. I hope I’ve been able to become more like him … [Making-by-hand is important] because it’s who I am. If I lost that ability, I’d be a different person. I’ve thought about it because of working with people who’ve had to deal with it, and I know I’d be able to figure it out, but I’d be a different person.

Why does working with our hands remain valuable and vital to modern life? Or, not?

[Kaz holds up cell phone and pantomimes tapping the keyboard.] This is not working with our hands. I try to tell my students that all the time. That’s working with a funny little rectangle and exercizing your fingers. There’s a reality to hand work that you just can’t replace … We have two lobes to our brain, and if we’re going to be human beings, and good human beings, we want to exercise both parts of our brain. If we live more on the left side of our brain — if we’re an accountant, or doing high-functioning math on a daily basis — we need something to put us on the right side of the brain … Brains need to be in balance, and that cross-over is really important … When I talk with my students about this, I talk about observation. When you’re sitting there with a piece of paper and a pencil, and you’re looking at something and drawing it, you’re doing direct observation. You’re observing things you can’t get in a photograph. And you can’t replace first-hand observation. You can look at an orange all you want on your phone; but until you actually peel the rind, get a little zest sprayed in your face, it’s a different experience.

When did you commit to working with serious intent? What were the circumstances?

Quarantine Series: Life + Death, 2020, mixed media on board, 8” x 10”

I’ve had two points in my career. The first was when I was at Parson, and I was working for a still life photographer in New York. Another wonderful individual who towed me along. A great guy. He took me in. I was his first, full-time assistant in his studio. We were doing ads for American Express Platinum, Scalamandre fabrics, and Shaw carpets. He did a lot of work for Interiors magazine. One day he brought his portfolio from his thesis show, and I was looking at it, and said, “You’re really an amazing fine art photographer. What made you decide to go into commercial photography?” And, it was very simple. He said what he wanted from his life was to make a nice living, get married, have a house, and have a family. He had a similar experience like mine: He worked for a commercial photographer in Chicago, gained that experience, and decided that was the direction he wanted to go in. That was my first real lesson: Make a decision. If you want to be a commercial photographer, and make money, and have things, you have to understand you’re providing a service. You’re not making art. You’re providing a service. If you’re good with that, you’ll be happy. But if you go away thinking you’re an artist, and the client thinks you’re providing a service, then you’re going to be unhappy. On the other hand, if you don’t want to work for someone else and do what they want, when they want, on their timeline, then fine art photography is great way to go. I decided, based on that conversation, I didn’t want to have anybody tell me what to do … Having the wherewithal to make that decision also meant I had to give up the semblance of making money …

And then I met Noah, and Noah taught me about community. While he’s teaching me to learn who I am so I can understand my art better, he helped me to understand who was my “audience” — and it was my colleagues and professors at in the grad program at C.W. Post — he helped me to realize I didn’t really like that audience. The people I wanted to speak to were my friends, my family, and the people who would always come to my art show, and say, “This is so amazing. I don’t understand what any of it is, but it’s awesome.” Those are the people I want to understand, to connect with, to tell stories to. That’s were material culture [studies] started to creep back in. I realized I could use objects, and that would give people a way in. Things started to fall into place.

What role does social media play in your practice?

Brownie camera, circa 1914.

Not much. My work, to a certain degree, goes against technology. One of the themes I have worked with throughout my whole career is the deconstruction or decomposition of photographic images. When I was studying in New York, there were a couple of guys who’d graduated from the School of Visual Arts, Doug and Mike Starn. They were superstars in New York in the ‘80s, and they really took the idea of a photographic image to another level. They cut it apart, taped it, and glued it, and nailed it back to boards. They didn’t care about archival-ness. So I got to see some cool stuff; but I’ve loved that whole idea of what is a photographic image? From an historic and artistic standpoint.  There’s a lot of hidden stuff to photography. A lens distorts reality. It manipulates it. And when we’re in the darkroom or working on a computer, we manipulate it some more. When we look at photographs, we tend to accept them as truthful information because of our visual culture. The thought of social media and imagery weighs on me all the time. If you get a group of 100 people together and ask how many have painted, you might get, maybe, a quarter of them to raise their hands — if the odds are high. But if you asked them if they’ve taken a picture, 100 percent of them will raise their hands. Everyone has taken a picture. What’s changing is the codification of visual imagery in our culture — because of social media. And, technology. When George Eastman came out with the Brownie camera, you paid $25 and you got this camera with 100 pictures in it, and you shot pictures of your world. You’d send it in, and they’d send it back with a new roll of film in the Brownie, and you’d start all over again.That act of bringing photography to the masses had a huge impact on our culture. Look! Here’s a picture of the new cow, let’s send it to Johnny who’s in college. Now everybody has a phone in their pocket. Everybody. And, we treat images very differently. Images are almost becoming more codified than language at this point … I’m really more interested on the effect social media is having on culture, than the social media itself.

What’s social media’s influence on the work you make?

I don’t know if I’d say it has an influence … I like looking through old books. I have a lot of old books. That’s what the sketchbooks are for: it’s a place to collect ideas and images, thoughts. That becomes a place for sourcing. This came about as working as [an educator]: We don’t talk about sketchbooks. We talk about them as source books. That terminology — at least, working with students — has given students the permission to put anything [in the sketchbook]. They can say, “I don’t sketch, so a sketch book isn’t important to me.” But, you need a place for your ideas.

What do you think is the visual artist’s/creative practitioner’s role in the world?

Years ago my friend wrote a book called Creative Options for Contemporary Art. I loved this book, and I learned a lot from it … It talks about universal concepts for creative individuals: Understanding your audience. Sourcing inspiration — where do your ideas come from? What is your artistic attitude? As I alluded to, my artistic attitude is that of a 50-something-year-old, pissed-off, American white guy. What is my approach to my work? I take the approach of an interpreter. I like to interpret, recreate relationships. One of the other things: What is your mission? It really depends upon what your mission is as an artist? Your mission may be to paint pretty pictures, and that’s a great mission. And then you figure out how you measure success against that. My mission is to be a storyteller. So I measure my success against that by how many stories I can tell that connect to people … When you making stuff, if your mission is to be a storyteller, you measure your success on how well people can engage with that story. In some cases they may just engage with it for entertainment. In some cases they may engage with it for intellectual stimulation. In some cases they may engage with it because of the material connection. There’s a lot of ways to approach that. That becomes a very individual question.

How does living in Northern Michigan inform and influence your creative practice?

I’ve been here for 10-plus years. I love it here. I think it’s incredibly beautiful year-round. That has creeped into who I am as a person, which inevitably creeps into who I am as an artist. I feel very connected to this place. I find that more and more my thoughts and ideas are wrapped into this sense of time and place. Any artist you talk to is making art to reflect the world around him. This is an important part of my world, so I spend a lot of time talking about it.

Would you be doing different work if you did not live in Northern Michigan?

Oh yeah. I know I would.

Did you know any practicing studio artists when you were growing up?

Cab Calloway
Dizzy Gillespie

No. However, my folks emphasized the arts. With my mom’s job, we were always going to art exhibitions and performances. When I was younger, I got to see Dizzy Gillespie play, Cab Calloway play, a couple of time. Storm King Arts Center is near where my family was from. Alexander Calders studio not too far away from where we lived in Connecticut. I was always exposed to the arts, but never really went into a professional artist’s studio until I met Michael Whelan. I was in my early 20s at that point. Now, my cousin got married in the old St. Patrick’s Church in New York City in the late 1960s. They had their reception in a friend’s loft, and we could see through the floor boards to the studio below.

Who has had the greatest and most lasting influence on your work and practice?

It has to be Noah. That man did so much to open my eyes, and really help me go from being lost in my work to someone who found themselves within their work. He was such an important influence. He still is. I can still hear his lessons. I still talk to him … He [also] had an influence on how I teach, and how I work with other artists, how I act as a person.

Where or to whom do you go when you need honest feedback about your work?

That’s my wife’s job. We’re brutally honest with each other. We met in grad school in 1990, and been together since. We both have similar philosophical approaches to art. We were both mentored by Noah … We’ve worked together a lot, and we’ve worked apart a lot. We have level of language and communication when it comes to art that we both trust each other implicitly with feedback. We don’t always listen to each other,but the feedback is always strong and valuable.

What is the role of the exhibition in your practice?

I could tell as many stories as I want to at home, and no one is going to hear them. You have to put the work out there. I have a mixed relationship with exhibiting. Painters’ studios are based on a 19th century model of a French painter: white walls, bright light, and the gallery is basically a white box meant to imitate a painter’s studio. My work’s not created in that way. I almost feel as though I’m taking it out of context that way. I love public art. I love when I can put art out in the public. The context is different. I’ve started doing more publications. And, I’ve actually got new twist on a photographic idea I’m working on. Even though “audience” is a theoretical idea, you have to get your work in front of viewers.

Why?

How do you know if you’re doing what your mission intends for you to do or not.  With COVID, I’ve been focusing on the work, and have made an awful lot of work. In the exhibition world, everything has been pushed back. I didn’t have anything lined up before COVID started. I’m trying to stay out of the fray for a little bit, but I am starting to think about showing my work. That’s probably going to be my next project — look for a solo exhibition for my more recent work.

Let’s talk about your day job.

I’m instructor of visual arts at The Leelanau School. This is my 11th year teaching there. I teach film, photography, studio art, graphic design, and an experiential high school curriculum.

What is “experiential” curriculum?

Cell phones: process-fighters.

At The Leelanau School we work with kids who are struggling with learning. We teach them how to learn, so our program is experiential. That opens us up to addressing different style so learning. If we can teach kids how to learn, they can learn anything. When you look at public standards curriculum, these standards are superficial, and designed to skip along the surface. They don’t address content. They don’t address practice. What we’re doing with our kids is trying to build their learning skills and process by going to a subject, and going deep, and really exploring it. It’s a very Foucaultian approach. You go into one pin point in history and then you explode that, and look at everything that was happening. So, if you want to look at the Ballet Russes for instance, you have to look at all the Modern Art that was happening in Europe. You have to look at what was happening in art history in Russia. You have to look at politics, and world conflict. One simple subject gives you an opportunity to go really deep and explore. That’s where learning starts to happen. Through that experience, we’re trying to create a scenario where the students can learn their learning skills so they can find their way through difficult subjects, for them; and then also building for the future. We are a college prep school, so our intent is to get kids ready for college. A lot of things I talked about with my practice really relates to this. My practice is very process-driven, and my teaching is the same way. My day job and my other job complement each other … [Kaz picks up his cell phone.] And again, these stupid things fight our process. We can’t tell the kids, “No, you can’t use your phone”; but they have to learn to use it properly. That experience becomes part of their learning. That’s a cool place to be. One of the reasons I feel so comfortable here is I’ve found a place where there is a strong sense of community, and we do a lot of our teaching through that sense of community. It’s not just about the academic classes. We are getting to build the whole kid, and that’s really cool. I’m able to be myself, which is incredibly valuable. Again, I chose my path not to make money, and to become wealthy. I’ve had a good life, and a lot of rich experiences, so I tend to measure my wealth in experience.

What challenges does teaching present to practicing your own work?

It’s always time. I’ve had good opportunities as an artist-in-residence. But that’s always the discussion — having the time and the resources to make art. That’s always the hard part for artist. And when you’re working a job, it’s eating into your time and your resources. If I were to go to a place where I had the time and resources, I probably wouldn’t be able to afford all the stuff I need to live my life the way I’m living it right now: the car, the tools, the cameras, the frames, all the art materials.

How is your studio practice supported by your employer? 

At The Leelanau School, creativity is incredibly important to the entire community. Our community embraces the arts. They embrace me as an artist. They put up with me, with my crazy ideas both for myself and my students. They know if I get some harebrained idea, there’s enough trust there to know it’s going to turn into something cool for our students … I feel very supported. I can use the studios in the off times. There’s a great darkroom, and room to spread out … I really feel like I’m in a place where I’m not in a rut. If I were in a rut, teaching wise, it would be very hard … The hardest part of my life right now is my wife is in Florida, and I’m here. This is our eighth year of doing that. In our 25 years of marriage, we’ve been living in different cities more than we’ve lived together. Our goal right now as we’re getting on in years and starting to look at retirement is that we’ve both committed to being here. But when you have two art teachers with similar skill sets, looking for employment in the same place — like Leelanau or Grand Traverse counties where there’s not a lot of positions to begin with — it’s a hard scenario to work out. It would be wonderful to find a patron who could support us, and put us together. That’s why I play the lottery.

How do you feed/fuel/nurture your creativity?

I’m a voracious learner. I love doing research and learning new things about old subjects. Really, my work reflects my own curiosity.

What drives your impulse to create?

Possibly, it might have something to do with my upbringing. I guess I always felt like I didn’t have a voice when I was younger. Everyone always told me what to do so I felt as though I was always pushed to the background. I found my voice through my creativity and feel like I can confidently tell stories about who I am and what I’m about.


Read more about Kaz McCue here.

Sarah Bearup-Neal develops and curates Glen Arbor Arts Center exhibitions. She maintains a studio practice focused on fiber and collage.

Creativity Q+A with Karen Anderson

Karen Anderson came “out of the womb searching for meaning.” The Traverse City writer has found it in a bowl of oatmeal, buckle snow boots, canoeing the Manistee River, and the historic neighborhood in which she’s lived for several decades — among other places and things that, at first blush, seem mundane. But it is this very ordinariness about which she writes that has spoken, clearly and loudly, to readers of her newspaper column, and now to listeners of her weekly radio essays. Karen Anderson’s love affair with words and ideas has been part of the locality since the 1970s; and continues — in spite of a college professor’s lament that marriage, motherhood and all the rest might diminish her creativity. This interview took place in January 2022. It was conducted by Sarah Bearup-Neal, GAAC Gallery Manager, and edited for clarity.


Describe the medium in which you work. What is your work?

Currently, my medium is radio, and I contribute weekly essays to Interlochen Public Radio.

How many books have you published and what are their titles, publication dates?

Three: Letters from Karen in 1978; A Common Journey in 1982; and Gradual Clearing:  Weather Reports from the Heart in 2017.

How many essays have you written and read on IPR?

I started contributing a weekly essay in 2005. So, if you do the math, it’s weekly … 52 a year times 15 -16 years, whatever that is.

How long did you published essays in the Traverse City Record-Eagle

It was a weekly column, and I did that for 30 years. I was invited to start writing a personal column in 1973, and continued until 2003. Then, Peter Payette [then News Director, now Executive Director] at Interlochen called me up and said, “Your columns could be adapted for radio. Would you be interested?” And by then, I really was interested in trying a different medium. I’d been doing the Record-Eagle for a long time. I really love IPR … I felt like this would be a new growth opportunity. And it was, and is.

What are the difference between writing for print and writing for radio?

I had to learn that, and thanks to Peter Payette, he could be my coach. When I wrote for the Record-Eagle, my columns were about 700-words-a-piece, and my essays for Interlochen are only 200 words. They slide them into a two-minute slot between news stories. That’s a big drop in words, so you have to condense dramatically. I learned a number of things. One is: You can really only include one idea per essay. You can’t really ramble around and add ideas and detours. There are no detours in two minutes. Another thing: Your sentences need to be short because people are listening. They don’t have text in front of them like when they’re reading the Record-Eagle. They’re listening. And if they miss something, or if your sentences are too complex, or your words are too big and unfamiliar, it’s going to go by them, and you can’t go back. Simplicity — both in terms of concept, and I don’t mean simplistic, [but sentences that are] straightforward, with focused ideas, short sentences, sentences that are clear, without lots of adjectives or dependent clauses. Here’s the thing I learned: I take out words; but I can add in with my voice what I take out in words. I can add inflections, and pauses, and emphasis that I can’t do in print. Even though it’s shorter, I really like being able to use my voice. It’s a way of indicating to the listener what I care about. With radio, there’s an intimacy about it. From time to time IPR gets people in from NPR to visit the station and coach the staff. I worked with a woman years ago … and she talked about how intimate radio is. It’s helpful if you think that you’re just talking to one person. You don’t imagine yourself talking to a thousand people. And, probably most people are listening alone. I like the immediacy and intimacy of radio, which is different than print.

What draws you to writing, to the written word? Why did you choose writing as a vehicle of creative expression?

Because I learned early that I was good at it. I was an avid reader, and I started writing terrible, youthful things, essentially copying The Secret Garden as if it were my own novel when I was in the 6th grade. When I was in 10th grade, the assignment was to write a personal letter, and I wrote one that I made up. I made up a family in which I had an older brother who could fix me up on dates. The teacher gave an “A” on this and read it to the class. She liked it because it had so many personal details, and it was so conversational. She seemed to think I had a talent for writing, and I think that gave me some confidence and focus about going forward in that realm. I was also in art classes, and I had a small amount of talent in visual art; but it didn’t interest me as much as writing. I was hungry to ferret out the meaning of life, and I felt like words were my vehicle, metaphors and language always attracted me. That was the path I followed.

Lord George Gordon Byron, Thomas Phillips, circa 1813.

Did you receive any formal training in writing?

I majored in English literature at U of M, [Karen received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in1966] wrote lots of papers, and went back and got a master’s degree in English literature [late 1960s]. That was some formal training. I had some really good coaching from one professor. We had to write a paper on Byron. I didn’t know anything about Byron, so I went and got a bunch of book about Byron from library. I wrote a paper quoting all the experts on Byron, and got a “C” on my paper, which shocked me. This is my major. So I went to see the professor, and he said, “I don’t want to read about what the experts think about Byron. I already know that. I want to read about what you think about Byron.” Oh my god. I didn’t have any thoughts about Byron, but he gave me permission to have ideas about something that he thought might be valuable. That was really important to me. Trust yourself.

How did your formal training affect your development as a writer?

Geoffrey Chaucer circa 1414-1422

It made me a good writer. Writing academic papers for high-quality professors is rigorous, and I learned how to express myself in a grammatically correct and beautiful way. I was taking a Chaucer class … We could write either a creative or research paper. Of course, I wanted to do a creative paper, so, I decided to make up an additional Canterbury Tale pilgrim. I made up my own pilgrim to add to the gang that was going to the cathedral. I wrote my paper in iambic pentameter rhymed couplets It was quite a few pages of single-spaced rhymed couplets, and I had so much fun doing it. My professor gave me an A+, which was thrilling. He said [I] seemed to have a gift for writing. Here’s the awful, additional thing he said. We’re talking about the 60s now. He said, “You seem to have a real gift for creative expression. I hope, when you get married and have children, it won’t dissipate your interest in intellectual pursuits,” or something like that.

How did that comment, in retrospect, influence how you went forward in the world with your writing? 

Here’s the embarrassing thing: I was so thrilled that I got an A+, and that he said I was a really good writer, that I didn’t feel sufficiently offended by his additional comment that my path to motherhood and marriage would dissipate my intellectual pursuits. I never believed that; but I wasn’t as offended as I would have been after the Women’s Movement brought to my attention the ways in which the patriarchy has shaped our world. Consciousness raising was on the horizon; but it wasn’t there. I look back on it now, and I’m just appalled that he would even [say] that; and worse, that I didn’t object; but the other messages were valuable to me.

Beyond your formal training, what are the other ways you learned about your craft?

Hilma Wolitzer

I attended the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Vermont [1977-79, 1983 as a Bread Loaf Fellow] … It’s an extraordinary experience. It was two weeks of listening to top-notch writers read from their work, and then you attend workshops on craft, and then you can have your manuscript read by writers on staff, and meet with them to get feedback. All of those things were enormously helpful to me. It was nitty-gritty writing … I remember Hilma Wolitzer saying that her editor would go through her manuscripts and circle the words she’d repeated. That’s really good advice. Read your stuff out loud to yourself, and you’ll hear all the repetitions and the things that don’t make sense. I ended up going to Bread Loaf four times. One time, after I’d published a book of columns, I was there as a fellow, which meant I got to read from my own work, which was a great thrill. And, I got to go to Bloody Mary pre-lunch gatherings with the writers. I got as much help from those experiences at Bread Loaf as I did from U of M studying formal literature. It always helps to go to conferences and workshops where there are opportunities to get feedback on your work.

Geoffrey Wolff

I had another good experience there, an ah-ha! moment. In my Record-Eagle columns I used to include a quote from a famous person at the beginning of the column, that was related to the topic. Writer Geoffrey Wolff was the staff person who reviewed my first book. He really liked my essays. He said, “These quotes you have at the beginning of each essay don’t add anything.” He said, “You’re hiding behind the quotes as if you needed an authority to prove your idea was valid. Your ideas are strong enough. You don’t need those quotes. They’re just a distraction.” I was scared to take them out, that my readers would protest. But I took them out and nobody even mentioned it.

Describe your studio/work space.

Cabbage Patch Kids dolls.

It’s nothing special. It’s my daughter [Sara’s] bedroom. When she left for college I grabbed her bedroom for my office. It’s just a bedroom with a twin bed, and the Cabbage Patch dolls are on the bed.

How does your studio/work space facilitate your work? Affect your work?

It just gives me privacy. A place where everything is available.

What themes/ideas are the focus of your work?

I write about my own experiences. Daily life. Ordinary experiences. Also: nature — I write quite a lot about doing things outdoors. I write about relationships, and often a theme is the search for wisdom, or insight about the meaning of life. That sounds grandiose. Trying to extract meaning from my daily experience is the effort, the energy behind the essay.

You’re heard weekly on Interlochen Public Radio. Characterize these essays you write and read on air.

They’re brief meditations on my experience and search for meaning. The subtitle of my book [Gradual Clearing], which was suggested to me by a writer friend, it’s Weather Reports From The Heart, which is a little corny; but does suggest what I’m after.

The Interlochen Radio essays are two minutes in length. What are the challenges to expression and writing posed by such a compact “space”? How do you craft an idea for such a compact space so that you can take the idea through its full arc?

Quickly. There’s one idea. Short sentences. Simple words. Focus. Focus. Plus, a kind of intimacy. That’s the construction of them. That content is, I’ve tried to be willing to be vulnerable, to be confused, to not have answers, to share from personal experiences in an honest way. Here’s the thing, and this is from the time I started writing columns in the Record-Eagle: When people talk to me about my columns, or now, my essays, they don’t talk about my experience, they talk about their experience. They’re really not interested in my experience except as it connects them to their own experience or insight or understanding. So, they come to me and tell me about themselves, which is wonderful. It’s like we’re more alike than we are different. And, people connect to what I write in ways I could have never predicted.

The confined spaces of your former column, and now, the radio essays, impose boundaries and limits on your writing. I wonder if these confines are humbling, if they remind the writer that every word isn’t precious?

Holly Spaulding

I don’t think they’re humbling. I think they’re challenging. Another formal and informal training that was helpful to me is writing poetry. When my granddaughters were home schooled, I offered to teach the poetry curriculum. So, every week for seven years, they came to my house. I decided I should get more serious about writing poetry, and I took a class at the [Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, Michigan] with [Leelanau County native] Holly Spaulding, and discovered how difficult poetry is to write. It’s even more distilled than my essays. It condenses things down even further at its best. That was really helpful. You find you can leave out a lot of words you thought you couldn’t leave out. It doesn’t take away, it adds to. You get right to the heart of things. I confess now that I’m very impatient with people who cannot be brief, either in writing or in speaking.

Are the essays you published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle different in any way than the ones you’re writing for and reading on the radio?

They were longer, so I had time to meander and include various additional thoughts and ideas. They weren’t as focused. When I started writing them, I was in my 20s. We’re talking not quite 50 years ago. I didn’t know nearly as much as I know now. Here’s the other thing: When I first started writing my column I was the “roving reporter.” I would write about fun activities around town, and then I might throw in one about my grandmother. The ones that people liked were about my grandmother. I learned from my audience that people really liked personal stories. My maturity level, my self-awareness, my repertoire of experiences were much less in the 70s than they are now. The goal is the same — to extract meaning from my experiences — but I think that I’m better at it because I know more about myself and about writing.

Who is your audience?

Right now, it’s the IPR listeners who are in Northern Michigan, and all over the place. When my book of essays was published in 2017, the audience expanded further. Not necessarily people who can hear me, or who have ever heard me, they discover my book … I really feel privileged, truly, honored and grateful to have a weekly audience. It’s a very precious thing.

What kinds of clues have you gotten along the way that tell you who your audience is?

I think it’s evenly men and women. I get letters, emails, comments out in the community. For example: When I was writing a weekly column in the Record-Eagle, my picture was in the paper every week, so people would recognize me when I was out around town. Now, people recognize my voice. It is the strangest thing. My husband and I were at a nursery buying a Maple sapling for the backyard, and the forester telling me about the tree said, “Oh, I know you. I listen to your essays on IPR.” He recognized my voice, which is fascinating when you think how distinctive our voices are. I have those experiences quite often … When I published my book and I went out and did readings — it was weekly, for a year I was out on the trail — there were as many men as women in the audience.

What do you do with the feedback you get from your readers and listeners?

I use it. Depending upon what it is. Knowing what they like is a good clue to themes and points of view resonate with people. If they don’t like it, I can use that, too — if I think it’s valid … I write a variety of essays. One recently was about oatmeal for breakfast. Now, that’s pretty mundane. Right? It wasn’t profound. I got more response to that oatmeal essay than I’ve had in quite a long time. People weighing in on how they like their oatmeal. It was humorous to me. I could never have predicted that, and I loved it. It’s a reminder that ordinary life that’s where we live, day-to-day, in our kitchens eating oatmeal. It reinforces my belief that ordinary experiences can connect us. And I just don’t mean describing oatmeal. Usually there’s some level of understanding or humor or insight about daily experiences. It delights me to find what people particularly enjoy because it isn’t often what I expect.

Where or to whom do you go when you need honest feedback about your work?

It depends on what I need, whether it’s the actual sentence construction or themes. I’ve always gotten good feedback from Peter Payette at IPR; from my poetry teacher Holly Spaulding, who helped me edit the essays in my most recent book. She’s absolutely relentless and fearless about taking things out. I always valued her feedback. [IPR Program Director] Dan Wanchura is the guy who produces my essays for IPR. I send him ideas before I write the essays, and he’s very honest about whether he thinks [an essay idea] has has legs, or not, or how it might grow legs. From time-to-time, I’ve had a writing group. I was in a writing group for a couple years with several really talented, regional/Northern Michigan writers, and they also helped me put my book together. I can still go to any one of them for counsel, if I need it.

What prompts the beginning of a project or composition?

A whole bunch of things. Experiences. Overheard conversations. Sometimes a memory because I write about my childhood. I recently wrote about my brother getting to wear buckle boots when he was a little boy. I didn’t get buckle boots because I was a girl. I had to wear those dorky zip-up boots with fur around the top. It was partly a meditation: I’d perceived that things were already better for boys than girls. I had so many men telling me about their memories and experiences with buckle boots. Childhood is a rich source of memories and ideas. Books that I read, conversations I have, daily life, which keeps happening. Then I try, like many writers, to quick jot down the idea. I only need the idea. I get it on paper, in little notebook, and then I can revisit it when I have to write a batch. I write about 12 [IPR] essays at a time. And, then I go tape 12.

How much pre-planning do you do in advance of beginning a new project or composition?

Not much. I’ve been doing it so long. All I need is the idea. It’s like Hemingway saying begin by writing the truest sentence that you know. All I need is an image or a sentence and then it writes itself, not always well. I don’t want to know what the end is. I don’t know where I’m going to arrive because I trust the process to take me where it needs to go. If I already have an ending in mind, I often get derailed from it, and it isn’t as strong as letting the material go where it goes.

Do you work on more than one project at a time?

Yes. I might have several essays in various stages of development. Sometimes, I will start to write and find, for whatever reason, the stars are misaligned, and I cannot write a coherent sentence today. It just won’t happen, and I could sit here all day and it just wouldn’t change. So, I leave it, and then the stars realign, and the next day the sentences come to fruition. Sometimes I just have to leave a piece, or the idea, or I can’t figure out the ending, so I just have to leave things and revisit them, so I can work on other things while I’m waiting.

What’s your favorite tool?

I just write on a PC pretty much. Computer keyboard.

You didn’t come out of the womb writing on a computer keyboard, so talk a little bit the difference between writing by hand with a pencil and paper versus the word processor/laptop.

I used to write everything longhand on legal pads. But the computer arrived, and I was working full-time in public relations and marketing at Northwestern Michigan College. That was my full-time job, and I had to learn to use the computer for my job. I soon learned how much easier it was to revise things on my computer than it was any other way. My work forced me into using a computer.

What tool do you use to make notes and record thoughts about your work?

Tools of the trade: A little notebook, and grocery receipts.

I make notes in a little notebook. And if I just have an idea for an essay, it’ll go into my notebook if I’m out and about. Or, I grab a scrap of paper, or a receipt from Meijer. It could vanish if I don’t write it down. My file of essay ideas is full of scraps of paper.

When did you commit to working with serious intent?

When I went to work at the Record-Eagle in [the early] 1970s. It was just job, like a Gal Friday. I was reading proofs, and doing grunt work in the ad department. But I approached Bob Batdorff, who was the publisher then, and I said, “You don’t have any book reviews in the Record-Eagle, would you let me write some?” He told me to write a few and I did, and they liked them, and after they’d used a half dozen he said, “You’re a good writer, would you like to write a weekly column? Just your own. Whatever you want it to be.” It was an extraordinary invitation. At that moment, I began to think how I could shape something that was my own idea, that wasn’t about somebody else’s book or life. I started writing a weekly column for the Record-Eagle in 1973. That was the beginning of taking myself seriously as a practicing writer. And they paid me.

What role does social media play in your practice?

Not very much. My essays for Interlochen are part of their website. I have my own page where they archive my essays; but I don’t Twitter, and I don’t have my own website. I’ve thought about creating one, but I just haven’t done it.

What do you believe is the creative practitioner’s role in the world?

I think of Holly Spaulding when she was teaching us poetry, and she would say, “Make it fresh.” I think our responsibility is to take whatever ideas we have, and make them fresh so that someone looks at them anew, so that they a reason to pay attention … to any concern, insight, or wisdom we have to offer them. It depends on your purpose, if you’re trying to persuade people of something, or to enrich their daily lives. The other thing I’ve talked about before: Connecting with other people. Demonstrating how we’re all more alike than different. That we can bond over oatmeal. That there are commonalities in the human experience, which are really nourishing to consider and celebrate.

What part or parts of the world find their way into your work?

A street in Traverse City’s historic Central Neighborhood district.

My neighborhood: I live in Central Neighborhood in a 100-year-old house. I love this old neighborhood. I feel at home here. And, also, the larger outdoors — my husband and I go canoeing and camping and hiking in this region and beyond. Those things also really nourish me. That whole small town thing. Traverse City is a small town in some ways, and I like that.

How does living in Northern Michigan inform and influence your creative practice?

Jim Carruthers. Photo/Gary Howe

It’s an accessible place. Even though we have a lot of new people moving in, I can still walk downtown and see people I know and chat with. I can talk with Jim Carruthers, the [former] mayor of Traverse City who bikes by my house. There’s still a sense, since I’ve lived here a long time [since 1984], of knowing people and feeling a kind of belonging and ownership in this community, not just Traverse City; but the region at-large. I feel invested in it. I belong to it.

Is the work you create a reflection of this place?

Yes.

Would you be doing different work if you did not live in Northern Michigan?

That’s really an imponderable. That opportunity to write that column — would that have happened if I was working at the Chicago Tribune? Maybe not. But because the Record-Eagle is a smaller paper and the town is a smaller place, that opportunity came to me. It was phenomenal. Would I have done the same work somewhere else? Maybe. I hope so. I think now I’d have the confidence to make that effort. I still think I’d be writing about the small things.

Did you know anyone, when you were growing up, who had a serious writing practice?

I had an 11th grade English teach named Nelle Curry who was a writer and connected to the art world. She was a frumpy, dowdy woman with frizzy hair — you would never have thought of her as a glamorous artist; but she was a writer. She invited a group of six of us to join a creative writing group. We met at her apartment, which was a glamorous, high-ceilinged [place], with lots of books. She knew various visual artists. And, she was not married. She was a single, independent woman. It was an eye-opener for me. Her life was nothing like my mother’s. I loved considering Nelle Curry a free agent who was doing creative work and living in this book-lined apartment. I think that gave me another vision of possibilities for women. All the women I knew were just like my mom. They were home, raising kids, not working outside the home. Miss Curry gave me a glimpse of myself as a writer; but also a larger vision for women.

[NOTE: There is an essay about Miss Curry on P. 42 of Karen Anderson’s book Gradual Clearing.]

 

Who has had the greatest and most lasting influence on your work and practice?

Loren Eiseley, American anthropologist.

Initially, a person who made an impact on me was Loren Eiseley. He’s really a science writer, wrote The Immense Journey, which is a collection of essays. He is such a beautiful writer. What I learned from him was the use of the extended metaphor. He would be writing about one thing but talking about a lot of other things. Sometimes people have talked about essays as a way to talk about big things and small things at the same time. Loren Eiseley taught me in The Immense Journey how to use an extended metaphor. You take a single experience, write about it accurately and then find meaning in it that can expand the significance of it. I admired that so. It seemed to me such a rich approach. He does it masterfully.

What is the role of publishing in your practice?

It was meaningful to me to have book of my radio essays published because radio is pretty ephemeral. With the Record-Eagle [essays], there’s a piece of newsprint if you want to save it. Radio comes and goes. It’s satisfying to have 120 essays between two covers instead of hoping someone might catch it on Friday mornings at 6:30 or 8:30. Publishing has given me an opportunity to reach a larger audience, and interact with that audience in ways that I don’t and can’t just by being on the radio.

Tell me about the feelings you have when you hear yourself on the radio.

Sometimes I sound better than other times. It’s always a little scary. What if it sounds terrible? But I listen because I learn. I should have read that sentence differently. I could have added more emphasis. Or: That part was good. I always listen with little fear, and a little hope.

Publishing one’s work is accepting that you’re going to be vulnerable. You’re putting yourself out there for any Tom, Dick or Harry to read. Does radio change that in any way? Or, exacerbate it?

It’s a risk. Being in any medium is a risk. Not everybody is going to like what you do for a variety of reasons. I guess you just have to learn to accept not everybody is going to love it. If possible, it’s great to engage with the people who don’t like what you’re doing, and have a conversation with them — if that’s possible. You can learn from people who don’t like what you’re doing. Sometime people will say, “Oh, why don’t you write an essay about X,” and it’s their particular passion. And I always have to gracefully say that the person who needs to write about X is YOU. You really care about it. I can only write about something I really care about. I suggest they do a letter to the editor, or a forum piece in the Record-Eagle. Get your concerns out there, they belong to you. I can’t do it as well as you can. I don’t have the passion for it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

How do you feed/fuel/nurture your creativity?

The Manistee River.

I write about my everyday life so I keep living my everyday life; but I try to live it in such a way that I have a piece of my mind open to the possibility [of an event] being the focus of an essay. I think most artists are always scanning their experiences for the possibility of turning them into art. I certainly have that additional level of awareness, and discovery going on a lot of the time, whether I’m canoeing on the Manistee or shopping downtown or walking in my neighborhood. Or, remembering. People [ask her] how can I remember stuff that happened when you were a little kid? Well, you only need a fragment of that memory — the sound of a buckle boot — and you start to write about it, and it all starts unspooling from your memory. It’s all in there. You just have to invite it back. Memories are great. Reading books might stimulate something. Outdoor experiences. Relationships. All of that.

What drives your impulse to create?

Maxine Kumin, 1974.

Two things. I’ve mentioned one, and that is: It seems that I did come out of the womb in search of meaning. It was a joke in our family: Karen wants to know what it all means. There was a sense of searching for meaning, so I went to books and poetry; and an effort to extract meaning from my own experience, not just from the experts and existing authors. The second piece is I love language. I love it. I love the way it works, I love words, I love the way words fit together and create magical combinations that nurture our souls. Playing with language, finding the right word is a joy for me. And when I feel like I’ve nailed it … When I was able to say what just what I mean in the most beautiful language I could find inside of two minutes — that’s deeply satisfying. I really pay attention to language. Whether it’s people talking to me, or using it myself, or reading it in books. Our language is so rich and beautiful. Maxine Kumin the poet said all the good words have been taken, we can only rearrange them. Isn’t that wonderful? You don’t need new words. You just have to rearrange them so that it makes the world fresh.


Karen Anderson’s essays are heard Friday mornings, at 6:30 and 8:30, on Interlochen Public Radio. Read them here.

Sarah Bearup-Neal develops and curates Glen Arbor Arts Center exhibitions. She maintains a studio practice focused on fiber and collage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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