This Year / Hawaii

Morocco

It has been an extraordinary year.  In the course of it, I have traveled in four continents, written my book, built a partnership with a wonderful man, roadtripped with my mother, and connected with dear friends — old and new.  There have been moments in this process — following, as it does, a period of pain — when I have been stunned by life’s capacity for growth and resilience and adventure.

In February, in the middle of my book-research trip, I flew to Hawaii.  I had been to Hawaii once before, at the very beginning of writing my book.  In all the years since, as I’ve worked on the stories in my collection, I have compiled a list of archives and museums and historic sites I’ve longed to visit.  For all these years, I have imaginatively accessed World War II Hawaii, my characters wandering through its hotels and sugar cane fields and internment camps.  But it’s an expensive trip, and I never expected to be able to go back to finish my research.  I found creative solutions; I made do.

When I received my grant last fall — this grant that has changed my life — I almost hesitated to take my research trip.  I had so thoroughly accepted that I wouldn’t get to engage with this creative work, that I could not even recognize how deeply I wanted to.

In the end, I traveled from Japan to Hawaii on a long, backward-through-time, overnight flight.  As soon as I saw the land of Hawaii through the plane window, I felt in my full body the rightness of the moment.  All day as I walked through Honolulu, prepping my notes, walking through spaces that I have inhabited so long in my own book, I just kept thinking, dear life.  It is the title of an Alice Munro collection that I quite like, and that day it also felt like an unprompted prayer.  Here is where that scene takes place, here is a room I wrote about looking just as I imagined it, here is the very building where they danced in that story.  Such an extraordinary homecoming, to come home to places you have never been but so long imagined.  To come home and walk around inside your own book.  Dear life.

There have been difficult moments in the months since, times when the writing has been difficult, or when I have felt unmoored, uprooted, or times when I have felt unspeakably discouraged with myself and the progress of my life.  There have also been moments of such joy and clarity they’ve astonished me.  These, let me hold onto.

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Zanele Muholi at the Brooklyn Museum

Twice now, I have gone to the Brooklyn Museum to see Zanele Muholi’s portrait, video, and installation exhibit, Isibonelo/Evidence.  Muholi’s portraits of South African lesbians occupy one long wall of the gallery.   In the photographs, the women look straight at the camera with the full force of their individual strength and identities.  As portraits unto themselves, the work is captivating.  The photographs are displayed close together and en mass, stretching across three long, tight rows that extend almost the full length of the gallery.  They are sharp and arresting: compelling as portraiture even without their context.

But Muholi’s work derives further impact from its context, and the exhibit is as much installation as portrait gallery.  Isibonelo/Evidence evolved as a form of response to the dire and mounting instances of rape, murder and violence against lesbian women in South Africa.   Flanking the portrait wall in the Brooklyn Museum are two chalkboard panels: one with the daunting facts of violence laid out in the disturbing, orderly neatness of a timeline.  In it, Muholi records incidents of violence against South African lesbians.

On the opposite panel, handwritten messages chronicle women’s experiences of rape, beatings, and murder, the threats they face and fear they live with.  They talk about the practice of ‘corrective rape’ – based on the horrifying notion that through rape men can ‘cure’ lesbians of their sexual identity.  It’s a devastating thought, the very mention of which feels like a physical gut-punch.

In response to this violence that surrounds them, the portraits become actualized: they are in themselves radical acts of self-definition and defiance.  The women Muholi photographs look right at us. It is a challenge for action and compassion.  And it is undoubtedly also an act of courage.  By sitting for their portraits, the women have revealed their lesbian identity to an audience that may include the very men who perpetrate this astounding violence.

Muholi’s portrait project is art and it is beyond art.  It is action.  It is advocacy and protest and self-identification in its profoundest sense.

The Brooklyn Museum has a particular commitment to exhibiting art that engages with contemporary injustice.  And leaving Muholi’s exhibit, I thought about how the experience of seeing her work, and Kehinde Wiley‘s before it, feels qualitatively different from the experience of reading a newspaper, which often leaves me with a feeling of hands-thrown-up hopelessness.  Here though, I felt humbled and dazed and spent and also engaged.  I didn’t feel the hopeless resignation sparked by even some of the best journalism.  Instead I felt a heightened sense of empathy and activism in the face of pain.

There are still two more weeks to see Isibonelo/Evidence, and I highly recommend it.  The exhibit will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum through November 8.

Upcoming Readings

This has been a year of incredible progress on my first short story collection.  With the generous support of a Ruby Grant from the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, I was able to spend almost a year focused entirely on my writing.  I traveled to Seattle, Japan, and Hawaii and conducted research that caused my book to shift and grow in directions I’d never expected.   The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts then gave me a home and a community in which to write new stories for Moon Over Sand Island.

So I am beyond thrilled to finally be able to share a few sneak previews of the new stories in the collection.  This fall I’ll be giving two readings in Baltimore.  I’ll be reading at the Starts Here! Reading Series this Monday, September 21. Then on Sunday, October 4, all of this year’s four inaugural Ruby Grant recipients in literature will be coming together to give a reading at the Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore.  (See details below.)  At each of these events, I’ll be reading different stories from Moon Over Sand Island.  I would love for you to join in the fun!

STARTS HERE!

Monday, September 21
7:00 pm
Artifact Coffee
1500 Union Avenue, Baltimore

 

The Ivy Bookshop

Sunday, October 4
5:00 pm
The Ivy Bookshop
6080 Falls Road, Baltimore

Creative Getaway / Jacob’s Pillow


After months of intensive bookwriting and Kickstarting, Tim and I reached creative burnout on Thursday night.  So we did the only sensible thing: we packed up the car and drove to Jacob’s Pillow for a much-needed dose of creative rejuvenation.

I’ve been wanting to go see the summer dance performances at Jacob’s Pillow for ages.  It felt good to be in a space where choreographers and dancers were practicing and living and creating new work.  Being there reminded me of the feeling of being at an arts residency, surrounded by all these other people embarking on creative projects.  At this moment of creative burnout there was a restorative energy in being in that kind of generative environment.

Plus, Jacob’s Pillow’s has the most spectacular stage for its outdoor performances.  It backs right into a drop-down view of the tree-lined valley and the surrounding mountains, so the dancers aren’t dancing so much in the amphitheater as in the landscape.  It’s incredible the way this vista amplifies the meaning and impact of movement.

We were lucky enough to catch the Alonzo King LINES Ballet, too, and their first piece to Concerto For Two Violins was so jawdroppingly stunning from the rich powerhouse first movement to the subtle, entwined quartet of dancers in “Largo Ma Non Tanto,” that  it was one of those moments where you just sit there and think thank God I’m alive for this.

Our good friends Kate & Robert (of the amazing Oakes & Smith art folk duo), live not too far from Jacob’s Pillow, so we decided to make a night of it and sat up impressively late over wine and brie talking about Edith Wharton and artmaking and Pluto.

And then, because it’s the Berkshires — and what trip to the Berkshires would be complete without a visit to Tanglewood? — we wandered over and listened to the symphony rehearse Mozart to the intermittent peal of thunder and downpour.  During a break in the storm, we walked all through those genteel landscaped grounds and through the strains of opera practice and summer institute orchestras and the tuning of a grand piano.

After a stop at the Amherst Bookstore (where I picked up this book — so excited!) and a great visit with Judy, we wended our way back home and back to work on our own creative projects.  There really is nothing like a couple of days of art and dance and music to interrupt and reinvigorate this long, crazy last stretch of bookwriting.

p.s. Tim’s new album is almost ready!  Check out the preview title track!  (And lend a hand, too?)

Photography

Mt. Vernon Staircase

Mt. Vernon Staircase / Melissa Wyse & Tim Peck

Last year, I started working on a collaborative photography project.  I’ve been taking photos on an old Pentax SLR camera, and my partner, Tim, has been going into the dark room to develop the film.  Tim is a professional musician and composer, and so for both of us this has been a fun creative enterprise, an opportunity to experiment in a third medium while we complete major projects in our primary fields.

So far, my favorite photos from our series are the ones I’ve taken in my neighborhood in Baltimore.  One of the interesting elements of the collaboration has been that Tim never knows what will be on the film I send him, and I don’t know how he’ll choose to interpret the images once he gets them in the darkroom.  It can be a freeing experience — especially as a writer, where so little of my creative work is open to that kind of collaborative serendipity.  I really like the painterly effect we wound up with in Mt. Vernon Staircase.

Kehinde Wiley

I’ve been quiet online this month.  Partly this is a result of life and bookwriting trumping blog posts.  But also, in the wake of all that is playing out on our American stage — and my home city –, I have felt less like talking than listening.

A month ago, when I was in New York, I stopped by the Brooklyn Museum to see the Kehinde Wiley exhibit.  There’s been a lot of thoughtful discussion about his monumental botanically-inflected portraits, which showcase contemporary black American men in the poses of canonical European portraiture.  The men — who Wiley met and ‘street cast’ for his portraits on American city streets — pose in the postures of Napoleon and wealthy white merchants and aristocrats.  These are positions that assert visibility and social standing and power, and in Wiley’s portraits they insist on a rewriting of black men’s invisibility in the western history conveyed by art, and a rewriting of the ways we image black men now.

Willem van Heythuysen

There is a raw power in this project.  A power to the resulting paintings, which are loaded with dynamism, and to Wiley’s process, which had him sitting down with ordinary men he’d met on the streets, pouring together through art history books and picking poses and paintings to replicate.  What was it like to be in the room with those men, choosing image-making paintings to imagine themselves in?

Ultimately, I wound up spending a good long while in a narrow little vestibule between two larger galleries, watching the projection of Wiley’s digital video piece, Smile.  In the four-pane video, we focus closely on four African-American men’s faces as they smile until they cannot smile any longer.  The experience probes the problematic ways American black men are compelled to smile — so as to seem compliant and unthreatening, as a survival technique, in the face of oppression — and the toll.  As each man in the video loses his smile, he disappears and is replaced by another smiling face.

It was intensely painful and emotional to sit with the video and the men’s wavering, strained smiles, the corners of their eyes and lips faltering with the awful muscle exertion of holding their expressions so long.  Sitting on a little bench in front of the projection, I literally held my hands on my temples to try to keep my eyes from their repeated sympathy spasms and cried.  A few feet away, in a dark corner, hung Mugshot Study.  The piece originated in Wiley’s reflection that mugshots and wanted posters are among the most common forms of contemporary portraiture used to depict African-American men.  His exploration of this particular form of portraiture feels poignant and devastating.  The young man here is so young, and so vulnerable.

Like so many others, I have been reading a lot about policing and prisons and the deaf persistence of the confederate flag and the fraught language of terrorism and race, and trying to listen intently and with great intention to the stories of all our citizens and to our president (again).  This listening has been an important part of my practice of patriotism.

Last week I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and saw Iago’s Mirror by American artist Fred Wilson.  The black-backed Venetian mirror is a reflection on the racial dimensions at work in Shakespeare’s Othello.  But the piece draws into question not just the duplicitous Iago.  For it is the viewer who is reflected in this black glass.  We, too, are implicated in these questions of race.  And because of that, we’re called upon to listen.

Iago's Mirror

Seeing Wiley’s work felt like a way to open up this listening.

Fortunately, for those of you who live in Seattle or Fort Worth or  Richmond, Wiley’s retrospective exhibit will be coming through your cities in the next year, and so you’ll be able to invite this work into your listening, too.

Whitney

I stopped to check out the new Whitney during my New York residency.  The museum’s architecture is stunning, designed to interact with the outside space in thoughtful and provacative ways.  Walking from floor to floor through utilitarian stairways, one is confronted with panoramic, wall-sized glimpses of New York, windows that take you to disparate views of the Hudson River, the city skyline, and the Department of Sanitation.  On the top several floors, doors lead off from the galleries to interconnected outdoor spaces that function as hybrid sculpture gardens and observation decks.  There the full circumference of the Manhattan cityscape is on view right alongside thoughtful selections of contemporary art that range from your typical sculpture garden selections to video projections and Mary Heilmann’s brightly painted Sunset chairs that invite you to engage with both the art and the space around it.

And because that cityscape is being viewed from the Whitney’s new downtown location, it includes not just the iconic outlines of landmark skyscrapers (which it does, breathtakingly), but also the jumble of smaller buildings — row houses and factories and brick and concrete and glass-fronted apartment buildings that have accumulated their New York identity on top of each other over the course of these layered centuries.  The engagement with outdoor space is not just a smart move for this ideally located new space, with its prime views and Highline connection.  It’s also deeply connected to the museum’s work, so that the views don’t just feel fancy but resonant.

The Whitney’s identity is uniquely linked to its stumbling, hodgepodge collection of modern American art, which started with Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s acquisitions and grew into an examination of an American artistic identity that is as layered and disparate and cumulative as the New York skyline outside it.

And because this new location’s inaugural exhibit, America is Hard to See (which is as much a mission statement as showcase) reflects on themes of American landscape, these exterior views particularly resonate.  Stepping from the eighth floor’s 1930s depictions of gritty and grand skylines, the views out the stairwell windows feel like an extension of the work itself, an echoing across time and space, a moving between representation and living reality, a reaching forward from the past and out into our own lives.  Art won’t stay still in this new Whitney.  It’s dynamic, weaving in and out of galleries and the day-to-day of the contemporary city.  We cannot engage with it just in the circumscribed confine of the history of art; we take it with us, we carry it outside.

This fluidity is echoed in the exterior staircases which let you move from floor to floor, gallery to gallery, between movement and epoch, from the outside as well as through the interior elevators and staircase.

Architect Renzo Piano even created ways for light to infiltrate the space.  The top floor is lit in part through a ceiling-wide slant of sunlight.

And on the fifth floor, at the end of the gallery, a long couch-lined galley faces a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows.  It is a peaceful spot, filled with people and soft murmurs.  Beyond: the sweep of river, the silent progress of water taxis and ships, the distant uplift of the Statue of Liberty.  This is a museum that asks us to take our impressions and reflections and look out.



Whitney