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Remembering Martha: art, community, and the passenger pigeon

2014-09-09 14:50:14

2014SOTB_Cover_300pxSeptember 1st, 2014, marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Martha, the sole surviving Passenger Pigeon.

Quite a few interesting, powerful, relevant articles have come out, ranging from blog post by Cornell Lab of Ornithology staff, Hugh Powell Never to Be Repeated: Lessons From the Passenger Pigeon” (it includes link to NY Times editorial by Lab of O Director John Fitzpatrick) to thoughts about “de-extinction” in a Smithsonian article by William Souder, “100 Years After Her Death, Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon, Still Resonates”.


However, for me it wasn’t until I saw the paper ‘pull-out’ from my edition of the Smithsonian Magazine, that I felt a real connection.

It was printed with the pattern to fold the paper into an origami Passenger Pigeon.

Like the origami cranes, gracefully and soulfully keeping us aware of and connected to the victims of the bombing of Hiroshima, this funny little paper art becoming a bird in my clumsy hands immediately made Martha both real and relevant. Art, especially participatory art, illuminates ideas and feelings that are not reached by the neuropaths used when we read text, and spreads a dawn of new understandings like concretized, limiting words never can.

And what might be the next step an organizer, educator, artist might do with an origami Passenger Pigeon? What if the children in your group each made one, then created a movement piece with them exploring flight or migration patterns on a map or in front of an image? What if they became a startinggirl in msk she made place for Paper Art about other losses, physical, cultural, personal, to be shared at a community center or public space? Here in Ithaca, there was a call for any visual art about Passenger Pigeons, curated and currently hosted at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. There are soooo many exciting and engaging ‘next steps’, each easily inspired by a simple folded sheet of a lost bird. Heck, just make some and brainstorm some next steps with your group! You can even become a part of the North American Passenger Pigeon Project with your art or community project! You can download an origami pattern to print for free, or order a box of 50 pre-printed ones for a whopping $12.50 at the Fold the Flock website.

Martha’s remembrances include other incredible art pieces and projects. I am including the ones near my home in the Finger Lakes region of New York State; come if you can, but if not, perhaps you will be inspired to do something similar with your own students, group, communities.

  • Audubon's Passenger PigeonThe 16 clay bas-reliefs of Passenger Pigeons by artist Anita Welch are hung on trees in Sapsucker Woods, and seem, to me, like shades of the birds of themselves as they haunt the forest.
  • The work of sculpture Todd McGrain, whose huge bronze statues of Lost Birds slowly ‘migrate’ from site to site in regions where they were plentiful. His Passenger Pigeon currently looks out over a marshland near the Lab of Ornithology’s Visitors’ Center. You can learn more about these statues and The Lost Bird Project here .
  • The sound/loss artworks of Maya Lin, especially the What is Missing? Project. To quote her website, “What is Missing?, Maya Lin’s last memorial, will focus attention on species and places that have gone extinct or will most likely disappear within our lifetime. The project exists as a multi-sited installations, as a website,, which acts a nexus for the project, and as a virtual and physical book.”

    The website includes a dynamic , moving interactive map that allows participants to learn and reflect on extinctions past, present, and future.

  • The work of Stef den Ridder, presently a Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bartels Science Illustration Intern, whose work graces the ‘cover’ of the ‘State of Birds Report 2014′ and other recent publications. This image is used with permission, ad you can read the report (and see some of her work) here  or watch on YouTube here.
  • Finally, a tribute written to/about Martha herself, an article by Joseph Stromberg, written for Smithsonian Magazine in 2011, “Martha, the World’s Last Passenger Pigeon” 

Art reaches us and teaches us.

Body in Motion, Spirit at Rest

2014-08-18 21:56:52

Summer SlingI spent part of this past weekend attending New York Summer Sling, “a 4 day stage combat workshop sanctioned by the Society of  American Fight Directors (SAFD). Classes are taught by SAFD certified fight directors and teachers from universities and theaters around the country. Class options include introductory instruction in all of our eight weapon disciplines for the stage, unique and specialized experimentation with period fighting styles, and master classes in advanced physical acting techniques” (from the Summer Sling website description).

Despite an incredible lack of sleep and profound anxiety ahead of time, I had one of the most wonderful conference experiences of my life. I am still, 48 hours later, in the throes of profound contentment and joy, brought on in part by getting out of my head for a while (which is good for everyone), in part by being in a constant state of motion (which is great for me personally), but for the most part, by being in the presence of so much … grace of heart and soul.

The people were kind and generous of spirit, all experience levels were welcomed and all attendees were welcomed and encouraged, regardless of background or challenges. There were classes for skilled experts and classes for the neophyte, classes for related skills (blood use and application for the stage, English Dancing), and classes open to everyone (such asAction and the Camera Parts 1 and 2 (Corey Pierno)>Students will experience action design as filmmakers, and will be taken through the process of breaking down a script, putting together a fight scene, camera and shot considerations, and solving unexpected problems” or “Shaolin Kicks (Michael G. Chin)>Students will be taught basic Northern Shaolin Kicks and technique including crescent, instep, round house, cutting, sweeps and spins. Students will also be taken through stretching exercises. This class is open to all experience levels, martial arts training is not required”).

These workshops are held in cities across the USA throughout the year, and you can take just one day if you want to. Obviously, if you have any interest in performing with weapons or staging fights, you would love it.

But so would most of the rest of you.

Are you writing a play or a battle-strewn novel? GO and take the open and/or novice classes, and ask to watch an advanced class in rapier or broadsword or whatever for one of your classtimes. Are you a theatre teacher? GO and take any one of “here’s a new way of staging a battle” or “how do you create realistic contemporary violence” classes. Are you a regular person who needs a total immersion get-away that can be very physical, very fun, and very supportive? GO and get rejuvenated! Bring your kindest self, and soak in the learning.

You can also find them on Facebook here.

The Importance of Theatre Education

2014-07-20 12:43:39

A Murder of ClownsBest times of my high school life.”

I just received this comment on my Facebook page after posting a PSA on how theatre transforms students’ lives. This comment does not represent a desire to goof off and party, nor is it an isolated sentiment. Theatre Education programs provide a safe place for students to be themselves, to explore relationships, to develop compassion, collaborative practices, and the idea of delayed gratification. Theatre Education programs are about understanding relationships and possible motivations behind the actions that people take.

These are the obvious take-aways.

Here’s some less obvious ones.

* Success in School. By any definition of “Youth at Risk”, the percentage of those who Song Rehearsalgraduate from high school is doubled—doubled!– when those students are coming from an arts-rich school environment. Click here to read the research study. 

At-risk students in arts-rich school environments also get better grades, have better attendance, are more likely to take upper-level classes and to succeed in them…. and on, and on, and on (more research here). For another take on how theatre education promotes success in school, watch this short (1.5 minute!) video PSA

* The business of theater is good preparation for other careers.

Here’s a short video PSA, if you prefer video, and below is an excerpt from Backstage Magazine, an article by Harvey Young (click here for the whole article).

Rahm Emanuel, the current mayor of Chicago and formerly Chief of Staff to President Obama as well as a Congressman, majored in the Humanities in college with a specialization in dance. “Value” studies would look at Emanuel and identify him as not being successful because he neither works as a professional dancer nor earns income in the field of dance. Instead of adopting this flawed logic, it is important for us to 

Fourth Grade Science Arts!

acknowledge that the skills gained through theater apply to other jobs and careers outside of the performing arts. Theater majors frequently become makers and producers oftheater but they also (and probably in equal or greater numbers) become lawyers, politicians, management consultants, marketing executives, and community educators to name just a few of the many career paths open to them.”

What Can You Do?

* Vote pro arts-in-ed.

* Find a way to support/promote arts-in-ed programs in your community

* Take a moment this week to see a performance that moves you to laughter or love or understanding or tears, or to watch a child become invested in the performance version of something otherwise challenging, or a community discovering and celebrating its voice. Then thank an arts educator.

Want to Develop your Own Skills?

There are a number of organizations that hold conferences. The New York State Theatre Education Association will be hosting its 30th Annual Educators’ Conference this year on September 19, 20, and 21, 2014 in Niagara Falls, NY. This conference is designed for anyone who uses drama and /or theatre with students – drama teachers, teaching artists, music teachers who direct shows, after-school providers, English teachers, general classroom teachers and others.

NYSTEA logoThe weekend will be full of workshops, panel discussions, and performances that will provide up to 26 hours of professional development hours and help educators and artists build on past experiences, take stock of existing standards – including the Common Core requirements, and find new strategies and inspiration for the future.


Need more convincing? Try Impact Creativity and there are more Advocacy Links at Art USA (Americans for the Arts).

I close with this quotation of Henry Miller: The arts teach nothing…except the significance of life.






Interview with a Writer: Joan Reeves

2014-06-22 15:21:47

Holly love the Texas LonghornsSo honored to be interviewing writer Joan Reeves (we talk about writing tips, inspirations, and the whys of things)! Before I share her words with you, please take a moment to cruise around on the website, and support them if you can. It’s an amazing grassroots organization with real news and in-depth cultural content, and it’s not just for Canadians :-)

June is Audiobook Month, and I personally love ‘reading by listening’. Whether I am cleaning or driving or doing paperwork, audiobooks delight me, inform me, comfort me, keep me awake…. and so much more. Also, I am honored to be an audiobook narrator, and that is how I met author Joan Reeves. Since my blogs are mostly for artists, educators, and community leaders who use arts-in-ed, we talk mostly about how, why, and the importance of writing and of her work.

Hi, Joan! I am so happy to have you with us today. Warning: I am a big fan, I have a bunch of questions!

Joan  Reeves1) Did you always want to be a writer? What was your path to become one? (Perhaps one of my readers will become inspired!)

   My mother was a reader, but she never read to me or my brothers. I remember the first book I ever read because reading made such an impact on me. I became a storyteller for my brothers and would entertain them in the evenings with stories I made up. I guess our family would best be described as lower income. I know my parents did the best they could with their financial and emotional resources. I’ve always tried to adhere to the philosophy that people deserve to be remembered by their best moments so that’s all I’ll say on that subject. In the sixth grade, I had a teacher who required much writing as class work–stories, themes, research papers. I did it all and received little blue ribbons she taped onto my papers. There was the carrot as if I needed one. For me, the reward was as much about expressing a thought so clearly that the reader would easily understand what I was saying as it was about teacher recognition. Everything probably grew from those early experiences.

2) What compelled you to write romances? Do you write other things as well?

   I write what I like to read. By the time I was in my teens, I’d had enough drama, tragedy, and emotional dysfunction to last me for 10 lifetimes. I didn’t want to read about all that or see it in movies. I’d lived it. I didn’t feel the need to see a character grow from embittered to accepting. I felt there had to be people in the world who were happy more often than they were sad, who went after what they wanted with a cheerful optimism, and who were strong, resilient, and able to endure and persist without becoming bitter, angry, and full of hate. I wanted to write about those people — their journeys from not having what they want but not being resigned to that fate. I write about hope. People need hope. Hope they can pay their bills, keep a roof over their heads, find a good job, fall in love, have babies, and live in a committed relationship with their chosen one.

   Yes, I write other things as well. I’ve written a lot of nonfiction, usually along the lines of inspiration and motivation as well as articles about the art, craft, and business of writing to help those who want to write. On the fiction side, I’ve played around with mystery and suspense while keeping a romance in the story too.

3) Part of what I enjoy about narrating your work is the strong sense of PLACE you evoke. I feel like I am actually in the tea shop with the characters, and of course I am hoping beyond hope that the vintage bar/restaurant Crimson (in Scents & Sensuality) exists so I can go there! Could you share some words of wisdom for would-be writers on how you experience a real environment, and a couple tips on making a fictitious place come to life for the reader?

   Oh, I wish Crimson (from Scents and Sensuality) did exist. It’s exactly the kind of place I’d frequent. I tend to associate music with places so when I’m constructing a setting like Crimson, I’m hearing the music they would play. Like in Romeo and Judy Anne, Roman, the hero, listens to his iPod constantly and the music he’s listening to reflects the setting in which he finds himself whether it’s the classroom in the rundown school or the no-frills house he’s renting across the street from Judy Anne, the woman he finds isn’t easy to forget.

   I draw upon my imagination and my travels too. I traveled quite a bit, especially before I had children, and lived in Japan for many years. I’ve witnessed everything from the seedy to the elegant in many places in the world. With Crimson, I envisioned it as the kind of place Fred Astaire, clad in a tailcoat and top hat, would have tap danced around or maybe Holly Golightly would be there with the in-crowd for drinks before she went to Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I always have a visual and a music background when I start.  

4) As you know, I LOVE your work. Part of what I love is that the characters are struggling with the idea that they are not good enough, not lovable, often because of social messages or negative relationships. You deal with their struggles in a realistic and sympathetic way. What draws you to write about these issues?

   Holly, you are so kind. Thank you for such lovely compliments. I write about these issues because they’re what Scents_and_Sensuality_by JoanReeves_Audiowomen struggle with most of the time. Men don’t have nearly as much insecurity about EVERYTHING in life the way we women do. It’s like the old joke about the guy who gains 10 pounds, looks in the mirror, grins, and says, “Looking good, stud.” A woman gains 10 pounds and thinks she should be stoned in the town square–and she’ll be the one to hit herself with a stone! We have all internalized the messages blasted across television, movies, music, and, sadly, from our families, until we’ve lost the ability to judge ourselves impartially whether that’s in the area of our looks, our brains, our career achievements, our gender roles, or anything else. We pay too much attention to the opinions of other people and too little to what we ourselves think and feel.

   The people in my books are damaged in some way. Even in romantic comedy, there’s a shadow over the heart–something a character may dredge up every time something goes wrong. Through the course of the book, they learn that what they thought was true, may not be. They usually have to accept that times have changed, they’ve grown, the past really is the past, what they thought was right may be wrong, and what they thought they wanted may no longer be what they want. They also learn to think for themselves and learn that to get love, they have to trust, risk everything, and be willing to open themselves to possible embarrassment, humiliation, or hurt. 

5) I also appreciate that sometimes the characters have something they have done/said/been that they need to put right, but without melodrama and without ‘miracle-grow’. The characters must learn to reach out, be responsible, and both give and accept love.

    Exactly. Epiphanies don’t happen often in life. You know, that moment of clarity when you see the decisions that led you to a certain point and the knowledge that you can, right now, change it or continue on the path and reap the consequences. Communication as well as granting the other person understanding is important to characters and to real people. I don’t write characters who hammer at each other about why they did something that the other misunderstood that caused a rift and blah blah blah. All that has been played out in scenes for the reader. In most of my books, I give the reader credit for being able to “see the big picture.” For instance, the hero may have an epiphany and return to the heroine who at the same time has resolved to reach out for the happiness she wants. When they see each other, all they want is to hold each other–not have long detailed conversations about why he came back and why she accepted him. The reader knows because the scene where the hero made the decision was played out. The heroine may say, “We’ll talk later, but for now I just want to kiss you.” This is because she’s now secure enough in her own identity to accept him back and to do it on her terms. Some readers don’t like to make those connections. They want it spelled out so I sometimes get negative remarks because of that.

6) Okay, I’m gonna bring it up. SEX. There’s sex in your books! Lovely, sweet, passionate, intense, self-discovering sex!

I recently had a conversation with a friend who has a teenage daughter. She asked me to recommend an audiobook I narrated, and I named a few, including Scents & Sensuality. “It has sex in it,” I warned, “but I think it’s actually an important book for a young woman. It deals with having strong and unexpected sexual feelings, and not being sure what to do about that. The young woman who is the main character thinks she has to look a certain way and pretend not to be smart to be liked by guys, and she’s coming out of a relationship with a boyfriend who made her feel bad about herself. She doesn’t know that sex should be on her OWN terms and be wonderful–she doesn’t even know that it’s “allowed” for her to want it to be wonderful.”

“Wow,” said my friend. “Sounds perfect for us to listen to togetherYES. Yes, yes, yes!!

Now that I’ve ranted, what are your thoughts?

   Sex is a vital part of life and of love. A real man wants to satisfy his woman, and a real woman wants to satisfy her man. By book’s end, they should be equals in bed. In my books, the woman usually ends up realizing that she controls the gates to paradise. *g*

   Some writers are uncomfortable writing about sex. Others, like me, write about the love making because it’s as much a part of the developing relationship between the heroine and hero as anything else in the plot. When characters have sex, it changes them and their relationship. There’s no going back after having sex. There have been entire reams written about the physiological implications of human touch by far more educated scholars than I, and the sex act is always the pinnacle of that human touch. It touches us physically and emotionally–whether we want that or not.

   Regardless of the dispassionate approach to sex in today’s world, I think most women long for a fulfilling sex life with the man they love. I think they would choose sex with a man they love and who loves them over sex with any guy–regardless of how sexy and gorgeous he may be–just to get off. A lot of women are in lackluster relationships and sex is not thrilling. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it does require the courage to change. Women need the courage to admit they aren’t happy in that area, and men need the courage to ask, “What can I do to satisfy you?” (I’ve always said if a man wanted to know how to make love to a woman, he should just read a well-written sexy romance novel.)  

7) Anything else you’d like to share before we say good-bye?

   Yes, I’d like to apologize for being so darn wordy! I’d also like to say that I’ve enjoyed having you as narrator on 3 of my audio books: The Trouble With Love, Old Enough to Know Better, and, most recently, Scents and Sensuality. We seem to be simpatico on so many levels, and that makes working with you such a pleasure.

Thank you so much, Joan! Readers, if you want more, you can read Joan’s article on “What is a Romance Novel?” here.

Why You Should Make Masks

2014-06-11 14:34:27

Hol-Masks-30Before launching into this week’s blogpost, I want to encourage you to support If you are reading this post on Shearwater Productions, please take a minute to go to the website, read/listen/explore, and become a supporter of this amazing grassroots organization.  If you are reading this on rabble, take a moment to read something else here and become a supporter!

And now, the blog.

I have given a bunch of mask-making workshops recently, with the adult cast of a show, for toddlers, in school settings, with tweens who have disabilities, and as part of a physical theatre performance at a museum. Each time, the group members have been surprised by the ‘newness’ of it, then cautious and worried about ‘getting it right’ as they begin, then delighted and enthusiastic as the masks/characters come into being in their hands. Too often, I think, such exploration of an alien landscape is relegated to an art class when it’s power and wonder would blossom in sooo many other circumstances. I hope this article encourages you to take on a mask-making moment with your community, classroom, eldercare folks, children, women’s group…… all of it!

I have made masks out of many materials and using a variety of techniques, from traditional (wood, leather, fabric, papier mache, feathers, etc) to 20th century (latex, neoprine/acetate) to my current favorites that others are now also choosing:

Fox mask


medical plastic (aquaplast) and believe it or not, manila folders. The Fox and the goofy pink/orange mask are examples of manila-folder masks, and I have made masks of horses and dragons that are almost three feet in length, and still light and strong. I am mad-CRAZY in love with this material!

I am deeply committed to manila-folder mask-making and spreading the love and use of this amazing material, because

  • it is so low cost (used folders are fine, and new ones can be had very very cheaply) that even impoverished schools and arts programs can use them
  • there is no need for water, so no cost there, and can be used in drought/water rationed areas
  • materials and by-products are all non-toxic, recyclable and mostly compostable
  • sooooooo easy to clean up
  • making masks like this involves creative problem-solving, geometric/architectural thinking, and artistic process!

This begs the question, why mask-making workshops? Why masks at all?

Arlecchino mask.Balinese people say that a good mask has ‘taksu’, it is a ‘spirit house’. I think that’s why people are drawn to masks—they seem to have a life of their own, their own passions, movements, intents, personalities. The better the mask, the more intensely we are excited, nervous, frightened, intrigued by them and by the idea of wearing them, performing them.

After all, why do people wear masks? To conceal identity…but that concealing is also a revealing, a taking on of a specific and ‘honed-in’ characteristics and implications. For example, the Lone Ranger and Zorro both wore simple black masks. Simple black masks, not red sequined masks with feathers or scuba masks or Scooby Doo ones. Simplicity of action and intent is part of what is implied by the mask, and the color and lack of distinguishing features implies something perhaps in the shadows. If you look at pictures of these two iconic masks, they might invoke a feeling of “strong” or “direct” as well.

Why else?

To play a specific, sharply defined character or one markedly different from oneself (as in Hallowe’en masks and Commedia dell ‘Arte masks); to play a part largely enough to be seen from farther away; to become a character beyond Mask from the Tempesthuman experience—gods, animals, trees, legendary creatures, even personified ideas. A mask also frees the self by demanding a higher level of commitment and releasing of self than other kinds of performing; the character of the mask is not only more sharply defined, but also more powerful, as the intents and emotions are amplified. Who the performer is becomes irrelevant—men, women, children of any ethnicity, language, and physical ability can become the character. It’s sort of the opposite of being a movie star, because the character has more life/importance than the performer, and different people can play the same part. How awesome is that? (Especially if the piece is political and the actor is arrested!)

There are more reasons, of course, but these are the main ones, and the ones that drew me to masked performing while growing up. I was deeply, almost pathologically shy as a child, constantly afraid of taking the wrong action, saying the wrong thing. Becoming an actor helped enormously, but exhilarating freedom came from discovering, ‘listening to’, and embodying a mask’s clear demands.

The process of making masks can be:

  • therapeutic
  • a means to connect more deeply to a cultural idea or animal legend (especially in an Elementary School Social studies or Language Arts curriculum)
  • a successful modality of expression for folks with language or writing challenges

Sky Chief's Daughter

The Arts and Arts Education are for everyone. I hope the spirits of these masks intrigue you enough to suggest a mask performance at a local school or a mask-making project as part of a social-studies unit or elder-care facility, or for yourself to take a secret afternoon and call forth a creature from your dreams, bringing it to life with the materials in your hands. And let me know if you need pointers; I have written a few “How-to” mask-making blogs, and I am happy to share!