Monday, December 12, 2016
This year’s Goldfarb Family Fund Fellowship recipient was acclaimed novelist and Emerson College creative writing professor Mako Yoshikawa who has recently expanded her practice beyond fiction. Established in 2000 through the generosity of writer, literary agent and former VCCA Board member Ronald Goldfarb, he fund sponsors a fully funded two-week fellowship and is given annually to the top creative non-fiction applicant. This residency is awarded each year during the fall scheduling period.
While at VCCA, Mako worked on a memoir about her father. Begun shortly after his death in 2010, she has been working steadily on it ever since. She is now nearing the end, wrapping up the final chapter and about to begin the editing process.
“It has been a real journey to write such a personal piece and also to learn a new genre. Writing a memoir is such a different experience from writing novels. I like being accountable and having this emotional honesty.” While at VCCA, Mako met another Fellow, also from Cambridge, MA, at work on her own memoir. It turns out the two memoirs are very similar. “We’re both delving into family histories and we had many wonderful discussions. My father and mother were both Japanese—very Japanese. They moved to the U.S. in their twenties and a lot the memoir deals with race and nationality; the other Fellow, Dolores Johnson is also writing about race. That was such an unexpected gift. Our conversations were so productive for my work."
Mako’s father kept his Japanese passport and nationality all his life. “I think of my parents as accidental immigrants. Despite a stable and eminent position in the U.S., there was always this idea they would go back.” They did return when Mako was in second grade, but Mako and her mother and sisters all hated it and they came back to America after two years.
A brilliant physicist, Mako’s father was also bipolar. After a prestigious fellowship at MIT, he went on to teach and work at Princeton, the “temple of physics.” His field was fusion energy. According to Mako, it was a dream position. At the time, fusion energy seemed very plausible. Her father was a major figure in the field, but because of his mental condition, he alienated a lot of people. Eventually, his career, marriage to her mother and relationship with Mako and her sisters derailed. “It’s a really complicated story that I had wanted to write about for a really long time, but I couldn’t while he was alive.” Adding to the complication was the fact that after Mako’s parents divorced when Mako was a teenager, she rarely saw her father. They would occasionally exchange cards and once every five years or so they would meet. Her mother remarried and Mako became very close to her stepfather. When Mako got married in 2010 she wanted him rather than her biological father to walk her down the aisle. So she didn’t invite her father to the wedding. When he died the day before, she was filled with guilt.
At his memorial service, his colleagues talked about how wonderful he was citing his idealism, his generosity. “I felt stirred and proud and all those things and I also felt guilty about our relationship. I now believe they were whitewashing him in that way that one does in a eulogy. But hearing it, I thought I have to learn who my father is.”
Mako has written two novels One Hundred and One Ways (1999) and Once Removed (2003). For the first one, Mako drew on family history. “A lot of stories about my grandmother and my great-grandmother (whom I turned into my grandmother) in that novel, and my mother’s life too, are woven into the story. I’m writing about the same things in the memoir as well except of course without the veneer of 'fiction.' It's been interesting to revisit the same events in this other genre.”
Mako’s mother, to whom she is very close, is also a writer. She’s been very helpful serving as a sounding board and corroborating facts. “Memory is unreliable and there is this kind of self-doubt that happens. My mother’s really great; she tells me all these family stories and she also says she doesn’t have to read the memoir, which is a relief because it’s hard to write about someone when you know they’re going to read it. I often send her things to check on so I think of it as a collaborative work.”
The process of exploring family history has been challenging. “Some of it’s been so painful. It’s been freeing too, but hard. And messy. I think I have a grasp on something that happened in the past and then I think more about it, it transmutes, transforming into something else and I realize I hadn’t really understood it.”
While working on the memoir Mako has published five essays. “This has been really helpful because I’ve gotten feedback and the essays have served to break the ice, which is crucial. You feel so vulnerable writing a memoir, recounting something that actually happened and where the “I” is actually me."
“Residencies are so valuable. It’s wonderful to be surrounded by people who want to do nothing more than work. There’s a great quote, I think it's usually attributed to Noel Coward: ‘Work is more fun than fun.’ Not many people think like that. Artists feel this way and it’s so inspiring to be surrounded by those sorts of people in a place that honors that and which makes it possible.”
Thursday, November 17, 2016
While in residence at VCCA, Vincent Pidone built an automatic drawing machine that he hopes to program to draw using animation software. Normally, with stop motion animation, you would make drawings and then photograph those drawings individually putting them together to form an animation. It’s a laborious process when you consider that Vincent’s animations are composed of 300-400 individual drawings on file cards to yield about thirty seconds of animation. That’s why Vincent is attempting to get the animation software to do the drawing for him. Ideally, he will end up with a short animated film and a stack of physical drawings that are essentially one-offs.
“I’m basically grabbing the tail and wagging the dog instead of doing it the way it’s typically done,” says Vincent. “What I’m doing is very challenging. If it were easy, someone else would have done it by now. This is why I need a few weeks to work on this stuff.” The VCCA residency funded by the NEA for military veteran artists finally made it possible for him to do something he’s wanted to do for a couple of years, but never had the dedicated time and space to do it. Vincent works full time at R & F Handmade Paints in Kingston, NY. They were very supportive of his taking the time off to come to VCCA.
Vincent came to drawing as an adult. “I’m self taught, but not naive. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at art, so I’ve got a pretty good idea of what works.” This explains his sophisticated minimalist style. He uses silverpoint, which he discovered years ago while working in a factory where silver rod was used for welding. The shop floor was littered with little pieces of the silver rod. One day, he happened to pinch one between the machine he was moving and the melamine top of a table leaving a mark, which he found interesting. He started drawing on the plastic tabletop with the rod fragments and then researched how to translate the medium to paper.
Unlike drawing in graphite or ink, the silverpoint mark is very faint. Pressing down on it doesn’t make it any darker, but repeated trips over the same line, darkens it. That’s where the automatic drawing machine comes in. “The computer is much better at this than I am; it doesn’t care how many times it does it.
“I want to get me out of the process. The mechanical elements are pretty well under control, but I’m banging my head against the level of coding that’s necessary to get the software to work like I want it to. Eventually, it will make a little bit of a drawing, stop, pull the drawing arm out of the way, take a picture, bring the drawing arm back, do more of the drawing and then, repeat.”
The path the silverpoint follows is not programmed; its shape is dictated by the shape of the drawing arm, which holds the silverpoint stylus. However, Vincent tells the motor to turn this way and that at a particular moment. When he moves the motor, the pattern changes just slightly.
Vincent has made the machine intentionally loose. “If I made it tighter and more precise, the drawings would be a lot less interesting. You need that wobble in there. If everything were made like a German machinist had made it, the drawings would be dull. Part of what I’m doing is to get computer results without a computerized look.”
Once Vincent’s gotten all the various parts integrated to work, his plan is to find a drawing he likes, teach the animation software to make that particular shape, altering it ever so slightly between photographs so that he ends up with an animated film. It will start with a white screen and then the drawing will start to appear out of nowhere, becoming progressively darker until it is fully realized.
In a bit of synchronicity, an animation he created recalls a murmuration of starlings darkening the sky. During his residency he experienced the phenomenon. Every evening hundreds of birds flocked outside the Studio Barn around 5:30. There would be 500 to 1,000 of them chirping en mass. Suddenly they would all stop and fly off creating those distinctive swirling patterns in the air. The dotted line in this animation, which suggests individual birds, is achieved by speeding up the machine so that the line becomes choppy. Vincent was determined to record the birds for the soundtrack on the animation. This proved challenging as the birds didn’t flock in the same place or at the same time each evening. Eventually, he was able to assemble three minutes of useable track from nearly four hours he recorded. He also plans to incorporate into the soundtrack, the high-pitched tone the drawing arm makes.
Vincent uses the same animation software as Tim Burton. The software is not expensive—it’s the hardware that is. But this isn’t an issue for Vincent as he knows how to make it himself. Motors have interested him since he was a child and as a member of the military during the Vietnam War, Vincent’s training was in electronics.
“I applied to VCCA’s NEA supported veterans fellowship on the promise of what I might do, not, okay here’s my work and I’m going to make more of it. My feeling is, I can paint at home. Coming to VCCA, I wanted to do something I hadn’t done before. And it is better than nice to have gotten the support to try something new that I might not have been able to deliver on.”
Tuesday, November 8, 2016
VCCA offers an opportunity for VCCA Fellows to work in the beautiful village of Auvillar in Southwest France at its Moulin à Nef Studio Center. This residency program provides a private studio, a private bedroom and one meal each week for four Fellows at a time.
VCCA Fellow and poet Susan Gubernat was in residence in Auvillar just last month. Of her residency, she says, "I had a wonderful experience at Moulin à Nef–not only were the serenity and many beauties of this lovely little village conducive to the solitary work of poetry, but also, whenever I needed to come up for air, so to speak, there was such a sustaining community both of VCCA staff and fellows and of the villagers of Auvillar themselves. It's a magic place."
In 2017, residencies of any length of time are available from April 10 - May 10; from June 14 - June 21; and from July 10 - December 15.
Apply for this wonderful international opportunity. The application deadline is December 1.
Monday, October 17, 2016
As I ramble down the one-lane road toward Highway 29 in Amherst, Virginia, it is impossible to miss the sign "the real world" - simple lettering on a blue cloud background, perhaps painted by one of the many artists-in-residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. This is my third artist residency , the previous two in Kentucky and Georgia; each a unique experience. How so?
Here at VCCA there are an average of 30 artists-in-residence at a time; private rooms with shared bath are in a 1970s-era dormitory that also houses communal spaces and the dining room where two of three meals are served. Lunch is conveyed to a kitchen in the Normandy-style barn that has numerous studios so that fellows - as the artists-in-residence are referred to - barely need to interrupt the day's work. Each studio is outfitted with a bed for naps or overnight sleeping or creative musing. To say that I am spoiled after 10 days here is an understatement.
What is common to each residency is the tradition of leaving one's autograph on a studio wall or door frame. Here at VCCA, I overhear one fellow effusing about her assignment to the studio where Cheryl Strayed once sat and wrote. In my studio, VA9, it appears that installation artist Bryant Holsenbeck was the latest occupant in July 2016, but I count no less than 58 names dating to 2010 on the door frame. Later, I discover a wall ledge in the back of the studio where I glimpse behind a section of peeling white paper yet more autographs. The accretion of artistic energy is palpable in all 500 square feet, from the skylight to the paint-dappled floor, and as of October 4, 2016, there are now 59 signatures on the door frame of VA9.
Writers and visual artists alike make each studio their own: moving furniture, orienting a desk toward the east or west, taping protective plastic to the walls. For VA9, it is an uncluttering in order to create space for a new Japanese-paper immersive installation, "Refugium: lily pad." But it is premature to assign a title to this work. I have come here to explore the lily pad, to see where it takes me. Long hours in the studio behind closed doors - fellows may only enter upon invitation - without daily distractions and with the support of the VCCA staff, are the perfect ingredients for a productive and insightful experience.
And then there are the evenings. On the night of the first presidential debate, all of the fellows gather around the sole TV set. night two poets, Lara Payne and Hilde Weisert, give a reading in the studio of visual artist Miriam Morsel Nathan. night a hallway is transformed into a salon with readings by two fiction writers, followed by a performance by a music theorist. evening is an unplanned event - a tornado warning forcing the fellows and staff to congregate in the dormitory's basement, followed with another reading by two fiction writers and a poet. I am introduced to new terminology: conflation, and epigenetics. With the ebb and flow of artists-in-residence arriving and departing (some from as far away as Germany and Austria), there is no lack of stimulation.
By week's end, my one-layer lily pads are now two-layered and suspended cloud-like from the overhead fishnet armature. Other suspended lily pads hover above the floor in small clusters. The open studio windows provide just the right amount of subtle air movement; the lily pads rotate in constant slow motion. During the afternoon hours on Monday, October 3, there is a steady flow of fellows and VCCA staff arriving at VA9 (at my invitation) to experience the installation. Down the hall in VA7, painter Janet Burke has also opened wide her studio doors. Among the responses to "Refugium: lily pad" are: "It's like being under water and on top of the water," "It's like walking a labyrinth," and "It's like being in a dream." Perhaps my favorite response is from a German artist (in his language the lily pad is called a "sea rose") who purses his lips and throws an air kiss toward the installation: "The aesthetic is just right."
My artist residency at VCCA is just right. The bucolic Virginia countryside, the artistic camaraderie, and the lily pad have all taken me to a new place. morning, October 4, with a gentle sigh, I prepare to re-enter the "real world" as my car rattles over the cow grate - the sound signaling a return to life as I knew it before entering the grounds of VCCA. And yet anew.