MORE THAN WORDS: THOUGHTS ON CITY PRIDE

photo credit: CIMMYT via photopin cc

photo credit: CIMMYT via photopin cc

I’m torn. There are two conversations going on about my city. One is taking Instagram pictures of sunsets from rooftops, writing its love across the sky in the same pen and ink that has been used a thousand times over. The other is tracing its tough-love approach in the dingy windows of humming orange-hued streets, giving shape to critical messages this city hasn’t seen before.

It’s a dichotomy and yet a duality.

Surely there’s a more productive middle ground between critically tearing everything apart and blindly praising the shit out of it all. Before you pick a side, consider creating your own somewhere in the mindful middle. Take a little cheery optimism from column A and combine it with a realistic, thoughtful eye from column B.

A city’s people are the true foundation of its structure. We have the ability to affect great change–or not. It’s your choice. When the ground shakes, it’s the citizens that hold everything together.

Regardless of your preferred consistency of the concrete, don’t forget to pour it. Build something with it. Get your hands dirty. Words can be powerful tools for rousing rabbles, but if the rabbles never rouse –if all they do is recite the same racket and then relax–then all we really have here is some pretty window dressing and fragrant flowers planted around a weak foundation.

Get out there and make a ruckus, Fort Wayne. Not with only your voices but also with your hands.

A MAGIC SEED

All rights reserved by Appleseed Exhibitions, LLC.

All rights reserved by Appleseed Exhibitions, LLC.

Magic happens when creative minds get together. It’s a magic that ignites spontaneously when the right moments, conversation, and people combine like tinder and flint. You long to bottle up the inspirational flame, but it cannot be contained or duplicated. You can only sit by its fire, soaking up the heat, in the exact moment of the spark.

I wax poetic here, but as I slide back into “normal” life after such a grand weekend at Appleseed Comic Con, I find it difficult to put into words how much the experience meant to me.

The thing about the comics scene is it’s so incredibly welcoming. People from all interests, backgrounds, and levels of expertise–comics don’t discriminate. Even as someone whose knowledge of comics was significantly dwarfed by everyone else’s in the room, I felt like part of the family. That’s one of the things that sets Appleseed above all of the other comic conventions out there: the culture. I challenge you to find another con that’s as inviting and focused on the artists and fans. It’s a comic con that celebrates the art of comics–how the stories, illustrations, and characters bring people together and inspire us. I saw countless budding young artists at this show, their eyes wide with hope as they asked established artists for advice on honing their talent and starting their careers. That is what it’s all about–not making money or long lines to see a B-list celebrity and maybe get an autograph… if you have $40 to spare.

For the artists, it’s a chance to meet fans and make new ones, an opportunity to talk about their passion, and a challenge to flex their creativity as they sketch scenes on the spot. After hours, they get together over dinner and drinks, often debating their craft, the arts, and life in general into the dark of night. That’s when the ephemeral magic happens. Several artists agreed this is the true “heart of the convention” for them. Seated amongst Hilary Barta, Jim Terry, and Tom Scioli, it was an honor to witness the banter and absorb the theories swirling around our table. A few of us hurriedly jotted down notes, trying to capture anything we could for later inspiration. I’ll never forget that night as long as I live.

The entire weekend was priceless. My buddy Zack, founder of Appleseed, tapped me for an honor of epic proportion: assisting Jim Steranko. Yes, THE Steranko–musician, escape artist, and comics heavyweight. Holy shit. Was this real life? (In hindsight, it feels like a dream.) I’ve never met such a magnanimous guy. He took the time to talk to every person who came up to the booth, often engaging in long discussions about comics, jazz, movies, and more–always flashing his warm smile that crinkles at the corners of his eyes. And, oh, the stories he tells! If you ever have a chance to meet Jim, make it happen. If you ever have a chance to work with Jim, seize that opportunity with a steely grip. As we parted ways Sunday evening at the end of Appleseed, I felt like I was saying goodbye to an old friend.

That’s another part of the magic of Appleseed: the friendships that take root during that one weekend a year. Friendships that might not otherwise exist. The kind that you can go the entire space in between shows and pick up right where you left off. Old friends, new friends, friends you’ve yet to meet–that’s where the true wealth of Appleseed resides for me. The comics, art, and geekery are great, but those friendships are invaluable.

To those who made the weekend so magical, thank you from the bottom of my heart. To everyone who came out to see what Appleseed is all about, I hope you enjoyed the comic con as much as I did. And to Zack, the head magician and man-behind-the-curtain, it truly was an honor, as always. I’ve struggled with putting this weekend into words that do it justice. As Steranko would say, while pointing at his temple, “We’ll always have this moment–right here. Don’t worry about it!”

IN DEFENSE OF THE EVERYDAY

photo credit: K8monster1 via photopin cc

photo credit: K8monster1 via photopin cc

There’s something to be said for celebrating the everyday. Several writers and artists have based their works on that very idea: that there is value in highlighting the common–the ties that bind us rather than those that make us exceptional.

Why, then, are we as writers so preoccupied with chasing down the next huge story? Or worse, rehashing those stories to the point of sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher? “Wah wah wah, I covered the same story everyone else did, proving my legitimacy as a writer, wah wah waaahhh!”

Where are the stories about everyday folks? I’m not talking about the “Fort Wayne Famous” people whose names and faces fill the lime light time and time again. I’m talking about people like your neighbor, your kid’s teacher, the woman volunteering at the Embassy Theatre every weekend–it’s those stories that inspire us and reinforce our sense of community.

Reality is constructed through our representations of life in art, culture, and words. If we’re ignoring the everyday, that representation isn’t very realistic, is it?

Now, this isn’t another prescription for “Write what you know.” Rather it is a call to celebrate the stories we may not otherwise hear because they weren’t “high profile” enough. A hidden gem is still a gem, beautiful and captivating. It just takes a little work to unearth it.

(UN)MOTHERHOOD IS A CHOICE

photo credit: elizabethdonoghue via photopin cc

While poorly written and incredibly vague, this article from The Telegraph asserts that “the urge to be a mother decreases with higher I.Q.” I’ll admit it: as a woman in my early 30s who has chosen not to have children, I felt a bit of smug vindication upon reading the headline. The meat of the article is bullshit, but if the headline preaches it, it must be true, right?

As I read the comments (I’m a glutton for punishment), I noticed a vitriolic whirlpool of accusations, defensiveness, and hot tempers. People were up in arms over a woman’s decision to be a mother. Mothers took offense at the implication they were less smart than their non-mother counterparts, calling their childless peers “selfish” and stupid. Men chimed in as if they can even fathom what goes into motherhood for most women. And childless women wrote pretentious comments that only further polarized the audience.

Why the hell is this even still an issue?

We live in a time marked by redefining the word “family.” Marriage rates continue to drop. And while more women are having children outside of marriage as a result, birth rates have hit a record low, as well. Men choose other men as partners; women make lifelong commitments to other women. Single parents, adoptive parents, no parents. The old adage of “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family” really has no place in society today. “Family” is no longer trapped by traditional institutions or definitions. We make our own meaning of the word, and often, it changes as we grow.

My (very smart, mother-of-three) friend Jessica Squires said, “Women get judged no matter what their decisions are. Have kids/don’t, stay home/work, get married/stay single. The sad thing is it’s usually other women doing the judging. We’re incredibly cannibalistic as a gender.” This touches on the nerve of the issue: our own insecurities regarding the choices we’ve made in constructing our versions of “family.” Because the traditional measuring stick no longer applies, we’re all looking around at what everyone else is doing, trying to verify if we’re doing the right thing. It’s the very basis of identity management: we learn who/what we are by comparing ourselves to who/what we are not.

The unfortunate part of this process is that no one can tell a woman if she’s making the right decision to (not) have children except herself. Ladies, it takes a lot of soul searching. It takes bravery. It takes being honest with yourself. And it takes self-compassion, something many of us have to work at on a daily basis.

Growing up in a single-mother home, I contemplated questions of family very early. I saw how hard my mother worked (and appreciated it more than she’ll ever know) and wondered if that would be me some day. I learned what being an independent woman meant before the age of 10. I pondered names for any theoretical children in my future (deciding on Quinn, boy or girl). But as I entered my teen years, an incongruence emerged that would continue to plague me into the present day.

As I looked around at other girls (now women) my age, I realized I didn’t value the same things they did. I didn’t swoon at the idea of getting married or planning my dream wedding. I didn’t go ga-ga over babies, who always looked like weird, little aliens to me. I had no desire whatsoever to be a mother. Was I broken? What was wrong with me? “Oh, give it time. You’ll change your mind,” people would say.

Except, so far, I haven’t. And I’m finally getting to a place where I feel good about that.

There’s immense pressure on women–even in today’s modernity–to procreate. “It’s what our bodies are built for.” “It’s evolution.” “Only selfish women don’t want kids.” I assure you that the issue goes far beyond biology and egocentricity. The question of whether or not to have children is a complex, multi-layered one for most (bless you ladies who knew from the start that you did/did not want to be mothers). For me, it involved uncertainty over my health, what my husband wanted, my career and education, my lack of “motherness” I just mentioned, the state of the world (and its future), and other contemplations. Ultimately, it comes down to going with my gut. In my heart of hearts, I don’t have a desire to have children.

And should that change one day, maybe I’ll adopt. There are countless kids out there who need a loving home–youngsters I could corrupt with bathroom humor, teach how to drive, and pass on my love of literature. Maybe I’ll be that fun, quirky, childless lady in the neighborhood who looks out for all the kids on the block and throws the best holiday parties. Or maybe I’ll change my mind in 5 years and decide I really do want a child of my own.

Whatever may come, I choose to practice compassion–for myself, other women like me who choose not to have children, women who desperately want children but can’t conceive, and women who choose motherhood. With all of the anger and chaos in the world, couldn’t we all benefit from more compassion? Here’s to you, ladies, for all your heart, intelligence, and grit–regardless of your motherhood status.

BEYOND ROSES AND BUTTERFLIES: HOW EXECUTION IS CRITICAL TO THE IDEA PROCESS

Preface: This guest post is half of a duo (part one by AJ Motia; part two by Kit Kieser). You can read the first part here. Additionally, neither post is an attack on TED, TEDx, or any other idea symposium. Rather, they are personal reflections on the idea industry society has constructed in response to these forums. Kit Kieser’s assertions here do not necessarily represent my beliefs and vice versa.

photo credit: stewartbaird via photopin cc

photo credit: stewartbaird via photopin cc

If you ask a group of young, college art students to make work about death, love, time, or change–broad, familiar, and potentially weighty concepts, more than half of the class will, without fail, produce imagery with “blood,” roses, clocks, or butterflies. Most will not have the inclination to make work about the room where Grandma died, the place he stood when he first fell in love, the three generations of her family that live under the same roof, or a handful of coins. (A sense of humor is welcome.)

In the world of fine art, no one really gives a shit about roses or butterflies. There are several reasons why, but primarily we’ve seen that imagery in just about every variation under the sun, over and over again. It has come to have little impact on the viewer. A third generation Ansel Adams-style photograph may be beautifully executed, for example, but it will never and can never have the same cultural impact that Adams’ work did. The man was remarkably influential as a pioneer in landscape photography and environmental activism, after all.

One doesn’t expect every student to come up with brilliantly innovative concepts or new and interesting ways to look at the world. Some students won’t get past roses and butterflies for a few assignments; for some, it may be a couple years. Perhaps the more sophisticated work just hasn’t happened for him or her yet. Perhaps that work is still in the works, because it takes a great deal of rummaging through the small–often terribly bad–ideas to find the big, prodigious ideas floating around in your brain. Sure, there may be a perfectly-formed masterpiece in there, but mostly there are lots of small ideas that need to be strategically piled on top of one another to construct what sort of looks like a big idea. Even then, there’s more grunt work to be done to push the big ideas out into the world. That part takes help.

I show Idea Conference, Inc. style talks–mostly TED or high profile TEDx talks–in my classroom all the time. It’s one of my go-to teaching tools. Specifically, I show talks centering around creativity and the creative process. I can’t say for certain if sharing the talks with my students gets them to make better work. What I do know is that they enjoy the videos a great deal, they gain some new perspectives, and it gets them thinking. Students often leave class feeling uplifted, inspired, and occasionally empowered. It can be very difficult to make art when you’re feeling depressed or even subdued. So, uplifting or inspiring words from me and others is frequently part of what the students need.

Sir Ken Robinson’s talks have changed my life, or at least changed the way I think about creativity, teaching, and my identity. Elizabeth Gilbert and Brené Brown have helped me to evolve the way I think about creativity and how I talk to my students about the creative process and what makes compelling art. I go back to these talks time and time again, and I show the videos in my classes. I’m not alone in my reverence for these speakers, their ideas, and the way they deliver their messages, but talks like these have become the gold standard that many seem to want to recreate–so much so that we’ve watched Idea Conference, Inc. balloon into an idea industry as TED has become a giant corporate brand and more localized groups have hastily formed a line to ride its coattails.

Everyone seems to want to have and share their big idea, even if only for the sake of a line on their resumé. But what constitutes an “idea worth spreading?” Furthermore, what happens when we never actually implement our ideas or fail to move outside of our own community of like-minds and mutual admiration that we begin repeating ourselves, run out of ideas, or all begin to deliver the same ideas in slightly different packages? Has the proliferated idea industry reached its post-modern era?

Bear with me here. In visual art, one major idea of Postmodernism can be grossly simplified by the notion that there are no new ideas–that we have exhausted our creative possibilities. The use of collage and appropriated materials–and ideas–is often a hallmark of postmodern art. That is, an artist may borrow existing ideas or materials and piece them with other existing ideas or materials to create new ideas by recontextualizing the old ones. I assure you the full complexity of this topic is far beyond what would be useful here, but the general concept is illustrative.

We’re starting to see similar postmodern-like activity in the idea industry, especially in the smaller, localized conferences. There seem to be few new ideas being presented there. Instead, the same ideas and concepts are being embedded in topics that are seemingly different but ultimately contain the same appropriated messages. That’s not to say that this can’t be useful, but is the appropriation and/or retelling of the same ideas and the way these ideas are presented actually productive? I’m afraid the law of diminishing returns applies.

photo credit: T a k via photopin cc

photo credit: T a k via photopin cc

If a single person stands on stage to give a somewhat sage-like sermon to the group of like-minds, the ideas start to look like the same old roses and butterflies that we’ve seen countless times over. Would it not make more sense to have a panel discussion where a problem is solved or a game plan is made to implement these ideas?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m as guilty as any other “slacktivist” that likes to contemplate and deliberate over lofty ideas without ever taking consequential action. But how many times do we have to repeat the same idea, concept, or philosophy to give it legitimacy before implementation becomes the main priority? Perhaps we get a little too wrapped up with congratulating ourselves for having smart ideas with which our equally intelligent peers agree?

It’s okay that we started out with roses and butterflies. They’re integral to the process. Making bad art is a necessary step on the path to making good art, but the good art never comes if it remains an idea without execution. Our ideas can’t evolve without putting them into practice. Visual art has, in part, moved past Postmodernism, but it got there by executing the ideas such to facilitate its progression to new ideas.

On the other hand, if your ideas only ever look like roses and butterflies, that’s okay. Most students that go to art school don’t live out their lives as artists. In fact, very few of them practice art after they graduate, but there was still a great deal of value in their experience. Just because a student doesn’t have the most artistically innovative mind in the room doesn’t mean they’re not creative or don’t have something incredibly valuable to offer. And just because we don’t all have an idea we feel worthy of presenting at Idea Conference, Inc. doesn’t mean that we never will, and it doesn’t mean that we aren’t equally–if not more–valuable now for what really needs to happen: the grunt work. In order for there to be new ideas, we need to implement the ones we have, find out what works and what doesn’t, and watch new ideas grow from that process.