Issue 002: Transition

A Conversation on Art, Death, and Life with Artist Deja Stowers

Interview by Lauren Ash.

Most conversations we have with people will fade. This one won’t. As I listened to our recorded conversation again and again, I was transported. Traveling to the moments spent sharing space with multidisciplinary activist-artist Deja Stowers and photographer Nancy Musinguzi cozied together in the upper level of Capri Theatre in North Minneapolis in February. I found myself feeling full in that moment; full of the perspective of a woman who has already lived multiple lives, of raw honesty that only an unapologetic artist can deliver, of gratitude for being the receiver of such enormously deep truths. While what Deja shared with us may be, by some accounts dark, morbid and heavy, I smile because of how compelling, deep, authentic and frank Deja is about her experiences as an activist-artist, Black woman, and as a human being trying to make sense of the darkness life sometimes throws our way. How many of us can say we would share such intimate and dark truths with an audience, not for the purpose of others, but in order to truly set ourselves free from bondages we place on ourselves? I am privileged to share this conversation with you and thank you again, Deja, for sharing.

LA: So can we talk a little bit about the creative projects that you are cultivating right now? And some on the horizon, as well?

DS: When I talked to you last, I was working on a piece called Embolus. I had another show called Read My Lips. It was me, my brother Rashad and Nimo, who is a Somali-poet artist. My brother is gay. One of the men in the audience, a heterosexual male, came up to me afterwards and said, “I couldn’t really get it,  I couldn’t look passed: he’s gay. I couldn’t see anything.” And I was like “okay, so this is a 15-20 minute piece and you’re saying you didn’t get not a damn thing because my brother is gay? I don’t understand.” So, something is blocking him from receiving these messages.

So I went to him and we’re in there [talking] for like an hour and a half. And I’m trying to get through to him. To break these walls down, but, it just wasn’t getting to him. And the only thing I could think of is an embolism. So, a thrombus is like this plaque. If you don’t eat right, if you don’t exercise, there’s this plaque that builds up on the wall of your blood vessels. And an embolus is a piece of that plaque that breaks off and it goes through your blood vessels until it meets a blood vessel that’s too narrow and it gets stuck. And it’s mostly likely in the brain. It causes a stroke and and you have an embolism. I’m trying to figure out what the thrombus is in him. But something has broken off and something has stopped him from receiving messages. Something is stuck in his brain to where he’s like “I can’t receive oxygen, I can’t receive what I need to survive.” The tools of openness, accepting people, basic human nature.

LA: Empathy. He has an inability to empathize.

DS: And it wasn’t even empathy for him [my brother]. It was empathy for the subject he was talking about [in the art on stage]. So, it wasn’t actually about his sexuality. He wasn’t looking for that. So, then I created a piece that I called Embolus. And I wanted to bring all those gender roles out and just fuck them up.

LA: So, he inspired this whole new piece!

DS: Yes, he inspired that. And it was about the death of three black men in my life and how it affected me. So that’s my father, my uncle and my best friends’ abusive boyfriend. But, I didn’t tell the story. I had two males tell the story. One gay and one heterosexual. And they played the characters interchangeably. So they were my uncle, my dad, the boyfriend and me. They would change from (hard) “nigga please” to (smoothly) “giiiiiirl”. So, you start to trip up on what do I think gay looks like or hetero looks like when you see two Black men touching each other, hugging each other, looking into each others’ eyes, smiling, crying together, dancing together. You don’t see that. I said, “ya’ll can just go on stage and stand next to each other” and it would be like thank you, standing ovation (laughs). Because we don’t really see that, especially in Minnesota. So, that was something that I did and it was...it had really good feedback. And it was very emotional.

I’m going to tell you that I no longer call my shows performances. I believe that makes it minstrelsy. And that makes it like it’s for the audience. And that’s not what I want to do. I don’t know what to call it yet...let’s say every time I do my art in a space that people call a theatre or people call a stage it should be a rites of passage for me.

LA: So, it’s a journey.

DS: Right, it’s a journey. My process is...I do create a skeleton for my art. But I don’t rehearse it that much. And I don’t get into those raw emotions that much because on that stage, that’s where that rite of passage happens. That’s where that real emotion happens. When I have that epiphany, you can’t have that epiphany over and over (laughs) so I’m not going to rehearse it over and over. I’m going to say, “Ok, this is what I want to explore. I’ve got my bullet points.” and then, when I go there I will explore that. But, audience, it’s not for you. I may talk to you because you’re there. But it’s not for you. So, if you say “I don’t get it.” Ok, I don’t know what you’re going to do about it (laughs). If you want me to explain something, I can explain something for you, but it’s not for you. It’s not packaged in that way.

So, working with the two men was something special for me. It’s about going up there and doing what you feel. So we had our script, they wanted to run it over and over. My process is that we say that rehearsal is two hours, but it’s usually not. We’re usually on CP time, somebody’s got snacks, you know. And then, we’re grubbing and we’re like “daaaamn, it’s been two hours!” And we’re like “but, wait, let’s listen to this song.” We’re here twerking. And then we go to rehearsal. After that we’re still twerking and doing extra stuff. For [my piece] Read My Lips we went to a hotel. This came out of my pocket, because I’m like “this is where this happens.” That retreat made us realize how connected we really are. So when we did get on that stage. We were able to just be. The audience should feel like they’re not actually supposed to be there. They should feel like a fly on the wall.

LA: Very secondary.

DS: Right, the audience should feel very secondary. 

So back to Emobolus. It talks about the death of my uncle. I’ll start with my uncle Tony, my Dad’s brother. He died of unknown causes. All I remember about him is that he was really nice and that he talked really fast. So he was like “yeah, yeah, yeah” (speaks really fast) and I was like “yeah, Uncle Tony” (speaks fast). He was real nice, real smooth, you know? And, when he died, by that time, I was numb. I had just come back from Howard. I was 23. It was last year or the year before that when he passed away. I was so numb. My family was calling me like “are you coming to the funeral?” I was like “yeah…,” but I wasn’t gonna go. I just needed that time to myself. It was like I had a dose of novocaine in my breakfast cereal.

LA: Because you couldn’t really grapple with it, or because of other things?

DS: Kind of because of other things, too.

So, I’ll go to the next character, which is my best friends’ abusive boyfriend. (sigh) It’s actually not hard for me to talk about. It’s hard for people to hear. It’s hard for me to say to people because they start to look at me in a certain way. But, I don’t really care about that. We were friends for like 13 years. Just my everything. I love her. She met this abusive guy. He would manipulate her by saying he would kill himself if she ever left him. And she did. In my mind it was either him or here. I chose her ...Two o'clock the next morning he hung himself on a tree outside of his house. 

Now that he’s passed, she has an elevated thinking about him now. So, she’s like “he actually was a good boyfriend, you have no right to say that.” And I’m like “alright, call me when you’re ready.” I don’t know what to do with that. It’s always like you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead. So, we have never been the same since then. I’m happy she’s alive though. I’m very happy she’s alive.

The third death is my Father. He died of sickle cell anemia when I was 8 years old. He was my ace boon coon. I believe that my Dad carried me for nine months. He was the shit! (laughs) He was just so amazing. My Dad, in high school, he had a jerry curl with lil’ buck teeth. He was just the shit! (laughs) He was just so amazing. When I tell you he was my everything. Every time he changed his number, I knew it by heart. Even when he was in the hospital, I knew when he was in the hospital. I was just so enamored with him. That was my role model. I wanted to be exactly like him. He and my Mom got married in the hospital. He was sick and he called my Mom and he said “I’m just ready to do this. Come to the hospital.”

So, the video is him in the hospital bed. My Mom was wearing red lipstick, my Mom never wears red lipstick. And I’m looking at this video. I’m, like, 2 or something, and I’m all over the place. Just being. And, I’m watching this video and I’m looking at how my Mom’s hand is in my Father’s hand and he just looks very sick and just...you know...um...kind of lifeless. And my Mom is just looking there with this red lipstick and looking so vibrant. And what I saw from that is: I will be your life in your death. And she’s holding his hand and she’s like “I do” even though... Right? And my Dad died at 32. That wasn’t a long marriage. And even then he got a divorce and he left her for a white woman. So, in that, I was struggling with “but Dad I look like my Mom. So...what does that mean? Am I not beautiful? I don’t look like this woman. So, what are you saying?” And my Mom wore lipstick for you! Bump you! Why would you do that to her? To this day I don’t see her wearing lipstick, especially not red lipstick...that means you bout it, bout it with some red lipstick. So, that angered me and I blamed everything on this white woman like “You did this to him. Basically, you killed him. If he would have been with us, this wouldn’t have happened.” One day [years later] he came over, and um, my Mom said “we’re about to have an adult conversation, get out of the room.” Now you really want to know.

LA: Yes, this is an adult conversation, I’m about to hear every word!

DS: Right. They think I don’t know! So this ….and my sister and I were listening and my Dad is saying “I’m tired of this, I want to move back, I want my family back. I need to be with you guys.” And My Mom is like “okay, how are we going to work this out? When do you plan on leaving?” And my Mom was all the way down, 100% for my Dad. And me and my sister are in the room secretly partying and shit. Like “ooooh, he’s coming back?” And then, she called us out. I’m trying to hide back my smile. I’m like “okay, are you leaving now? Why are you leaving now?” I gave him a hug, it was a very long hug. And then, I just felt something from him when I hugged him. That’s him returning home. That’s him. I know he’s coming home. And I was just so happy. And the next morning we got the phone call that he died. And, for me, I guess that was his way of saying you are actually beautiful. I do love you. I want to come back to you.

LA: I just got chills.

DS: I took that as, at first I interpreted that as a loss. Like, dang he was gonna come home, just let him come home, you know?! But, then I realized he needed to say goodbye to me first. He needed to let me know that I’m here for you, regardless. I only interpreted that now. Before I didn’t interpret it that way. And since I didn’t, I started looking for love in other places. In other men. And doing really risky shit. I wish somebody would have punched me in my face (laughs). Though, that made me who I am. So, when I did find Penumbra Theatre...Before I found Penumbra Theatre, I found no value. I felt like I was absolutely everything to everybody, the center of the mother fucking’ world. And then when he passed away, I was absolutely nothing.

LA: ….because you defined a lot of yourself in relationship to him.

DS: Right, exactly. I was like that’s my partner, I don’t even have a partner no more. What am I gonna do? So, I engaged in a lot of things that weren’t for me. I don’t look like the people that I’m around. I don’t talk like them. I wanna be a performer. My Dad was the only one who sat there and watched me perform for him. Singing Brandy songs and shit. He was the one that was like “yeah, girl!” And now I don’t have that. So I was muted in a way. But then when I found Penumbra Theatre, I was like I do have something that is worth living for or worth giving to or worth conditioning and taking care of. So, that’s kind of how my art came about. So, that’s Embolus.

So, what’s on the horizon is a show called Gifts through Q Stages, it’s going to be at Intermedia Arts in May. And it’s written directed, everything by me and performed by Kenna Cottman. And it’s about the valuing and devaluing of bodies. Using the body as a commodity. And it’s all under the basis of “do you remember that time when….” because we all are like ”do you remember when?” But what I realized later, when I’m talking to my best friend now is “do you remember when….” is so horrible. Remember that time when the guy socked you in your jaw because you wouldn’t give him no na-na?! (laughs obnoxiously) But that’s not what you should be laughing about. You don’t realize the seriousness of it until you’re able to pan out and say “whoa, that’s crazy.” How much value did you have on yourself because you allowed it to happen over and over again? So, I’m excited about it. And I’m interested to see the process with Kenna. Because Kenna was, at first, my mentor. And now we’re like kinesthetic wives. So, now it’s like I don’t know how to deal with you because you used to be my mentor and now you’re like my bestie and you’re just so cool. So, yeah, I’m excited for this. That’s what’s on the horizon.  

LA: One more question. How is your process a tool for healing? What about it is healing for you?

DS: It’s simple: the fact that I just get to be myself. And I don’t have to put on any jeans for any god damn body that don’t fit. I’m there in my yoga pants. (laughs) You know? And, I’m able to just...there’s not many places -- now it is because I’ve made it my goal to be myself all the damn time. Even if I meet a professional person I’ll be like ”peace, how are you?” Co-existing doesn’t mean that I code switch for you. Coexisting means that you see that and you’re still able to see that, and you’re still able to be you!

LA: Whoop!

DS: So my process is where I get to be my true, true self. I get to cuss people out under my breath, I get to scream. I get to do all these things that I don’t get to do in many different places. It took a long time to get to be where I am, to do that piece. Like, [to say] actually I don’t want to engage with you. Thank you, but I don’t.  

One thing I have to master is so crazy...is exercise that muscle [and say to people] this place is not actually for you. Can you bounce?

his just happened after I did Reddish, which is a show about rage. I’m just saying “fuck you” basically. We had a POC dinner afterwards. And one of my friends decided to bring a white girl and I’m like “okay, let me talk to YOU first. I need you to be more cognizant when this is a safe space for people. She does not have access to this space. The same way we don’t have access to some spaces.” It’s not a tit for tat. It’s just a safety issue that we need to talk about. And he was like ”well, I can just ask her to leave” and I was like “please do.” So, that happened. But also, what I’m having a problem with is after a show. Specifically after Reddish. Because I was like [in my show]: “You fucking white people, talking about bringing our K-9’s and pepper spray to the protestors!” And a lot of white people came up to me afterwards looking for justification. And saying ”thank you for your work. It was so...it really resonated.” I don’t need you to affirm me. And, then I have a problem with “can I hug you?” But that you already touched me. And this is the hardest part for me, I have to learn how to say “actually, I don’t feel safe. Just: thank you. I appreciate you being here.”

LA: Because that can also -- not that you should have to be anybody’s teacher --- But that can teach them the parameters.  

DS: But they want to be that white person, like “she cannot be talking about me in that performance!” [It’s like] we’re cool. Let’s hug. Let’s show everybody that I know you from that one place. Because I’m a progressive, liberal person. And that I don’t know why it’s like that. Or the people that come up to you like “that was so entertaining.”  

LA: And that goes back to what you were saying about not making it a performance.

DS: Right. Once I say I’m trying to do something to you, then that’s something else. When you say “it’s entertaining” then I get angry. But if I feed myself through my art and I’m full. And I feel like my heart is welling up with tears and I feel like I’m someone new after that, it don’t matter what you say after that.

Be sure to get your tickets to attend Gifts, created by Deja and performed by Kenna Cottman, in Minneapolis on May 3, May 7, and May 9 at Intermedia Arts.

PHOTO: NANCY MUSINGUZI

PHOTO: NANCY MUSINGUZI

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER: Nancy Musinguzi is a documentary photographer, activist, and writer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Recently a graduate from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, she uses her skills in photography to engage young people in conversations about social justice, community engagement and the power of visual art in media. Nancy previously worked as a freelance photographer and writer in New York City to tell stories about subculture and art communities she lived in and traveled to. Currently, she works as an artist-in-residence at the non-profit organization, Youthprise, where she has had the opportunity to install her work in two solo exhibits. 

 

What Transition Sounds Like: An Interview with Eden Hagos, BGIO Music Curator

PHOTO: ANDRE POWER

PHOTO: ANDRE POWER

Interview by Lauren Ash

Eden Hagos. If you’re into the label that promotes good vibes only you know her name. This Eritean-born creative is on the roster with Soulection and has lots more than mixes up her sleeves. I asked Eden to produce a mix that illuminated death and transition and I appreciate the subtle way in which she did this. Have a listen. In creative transition herself, as a DJ, artist and aspiring producer, I was able to pick her brain and learn more about the ways in which she is blossoming and how she cultivates balance during this particular chapter in her life. Have a listen to the playlist she curated for us this month, and learn more about Eden from our conversation below.

EH: I think of my life in terms of chapters. Sort of like shedding skin, like a snake. This is definitely how I feel at this moment in my life. Manifesting everything I have been planning and seeing everything coming to fruition at this point. Trying to keep my eye on the goal which is DJing and to getting into production and continuing to grow musically and as a person. That’s the goal. 

LA: I love it! The first theme for our online publication was growth. It was focused on how are we growing creatively, personally and more. Can you speak to some of the ways that you see yourself growing now and how you hope to transition and take it to the next level during this next year?

EH: I’m really blessed to be surrounded by other creatives, especially my labelmates, which has influenced me the most. I think that as a creative, especially when you work for yourself, there’s so much more to risk. You have to truly believe in your vision because not everyone will be accepting or understanding of your lifestyle.

For me, it’s all about being really open to learning from those around me and soaking it in. Every encounter matters. You can always benefit from another’s experiences. Stay focused and embrace change. That’s what helps me get to the next point. 

My goal is to better my skills as a DJ and begin producing my own solid body of work. 

LA: I’ve really sensed, a lot of attention (lately) not just from Soulection, but a lot of attention toward women of color DJs in the spotlight more so in this past year than I have before. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention before, but I think there’s an energy right now.

EH: Definitely. Soulection has talented female DJs on the roster. We are a label, but we are also a family and growing together through this process. We’re all so young and passionate about what we love. The hunger is there. (laughs)

LA: I think that when you’re young, we just have so much faith for the future. I know some older people who look at me, who are like “Oh, I’m so glad you’re so enthusiastic and driven now, I’m so glad because you won’t always be that way.” And I just tell them “I’m staying this way for awhile.” 

EH: [It’s important to] find what you love and find that balance. For some of us, it’s a more traditional path. I stepped away from that and came to terms with it. [But] you can do what you love and make a living out of it. People will see the passion and heart that you put into your craft. That’s everything. 

LA: You just said something about trying to find balance. How are able to effectively juggle all these creative projects that you’re invested in right now?

EH: Being the oldest of seven children has definitely prepared me well. I’m a to-do list type of person, which helps me maintain structure. I don’t necessarily need to go with the plan, but it’s important for me to work towards a goal. That helps me … writing things down, having a tangible plan and using my time effectively. There’s always so much more to do. 

LA: You have been attracted to music and curating different music and producing music for awhile. And you are focused on that being your craft. What’s your ultimate goal - ten years where do you want to be?

EH: I realize that as I go, the dream might change a little bit. I don’t necessarily have one goal, I just want to continue to create and pursue ventures that fulfill me. 

LA: I think that’s beautiful. To be able to be open from the magic that might come up from the journey itself, the process itself.

EH: There’s so many parts [involved with] art. I have my hand in a little bit of everything. 

When you’re creative, too, it’s so important to try and nurture all the different ways you’re creative. Try it all. See what comes of it.

LA: What were some of your creatives that you included in this month's mix? And why?

EH: These are some of my Top 25 tracks actually. Lots of versatile feel good music and samples. It is a reflection of The Sound of Tomorrow. 

LA: When I listened to it, I was like, this is giving me a good vibe right now (laughs). I love it. What else would you like to share?

I appreciate the holistic vision that Black Girl In Om is pushing. I’m focusing on being more present. That’s the most important thing. No matter what I’m doing, to appreciate the moments.

More about Eden Hagos: Eritrean by way of San Diego beat lover Eden Hagos brings visibility to those future sounds that you can’t quite put your genre finger on. Deep rooted in underground hip hop, sample-based, percussion-heavy tunes and future bass, Eden’s ear for unique sounds has kept her digging since her uncle gave her her first Fugees album at age 16.

Since 2011, Eden has dropped 11 mixtapes - the third installation, Currently, caught the attention of Okayfuture deeming the young beatstress "a prophet of future sounds". The beat scene and local producers started listening and partnerships with artists, labels, and connectors in the community became plentiful.

Miss Hagos’ influences heavily come from those nearby – those who’ve given the San Diego and Los Angeles beat scenes a name – artists like AbJoMike GaoeLanGonjasufiGaslamp Killer and the Soulection movement.

Eden is poised to bring light to the beat makers in this movement while uncovering and educating folks along the way of all of the genres that exist within these future sounds. Listen to Eden on Soundcloud and follower her on Twitter @Eden_Hagos and Instagram @Eden__Hagos.

 

Eden

By Zakkiyyah

“And when great souls die,

after a period peace blooms,

slowly and always irregularly.

Spaces fill

with a kind of soothing electric vibration.

Our senses, restored, never

to be the same, whisper to us.

They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be

better. For they existed...”

- Maya Angelou (Excerpt from When Great Trees Fall)

Coincidentally, I read this poem months ago when a friend of mine shared it with me after the passing of my Grandmother late last year. Given the theme of this month’s issue I thought I’d revisit these affirming and comforting words written by the late Maya Angelou and reconsider my thoughts on death and transition, while also re-visioning what death is and how we visualize the notion of passing.

The notions of transition and death for me imply that a metamorphosis has taken place by way of a series of experiences. Whether it be physical or spiritual death or the required transitions we experience throughout our lives that rebirth us into a transformation, I trust in the end conclusion providing an opening or beginning. As Maya Angelou so eloquently noted:

“When great souls die, after a period peace blooms.”

I thought about these words and meditated on death as the ultimate Eden, a state of paradise, vibrant life, and new inceptions. Our transition into death is not an ending, but rather a signifier of a kind of blooming. 

Read more about Zakkiyah here. View Zakkiyyah's photonarrative from our first issue here.

the big chop

PHOTO: ZAKKIYYAH NAJEEBAH

PHOTO: ZAKKIYYAH NAJEEBAH

By Jamila Woods


i cut off my perm & out grew the kitchen
 
i cut off my kitchen & out grew floorboards
 
i cut off floorboards & out crawled spiders
 
i cut off spiders & out grew balls of cotton
 
i cut off cotton & out grew slaves
 
i cut off slaves & out grew cat o’ nine tails
 
i cut off the cat & out grew claws
 
i cut off the claws & out grew corkscrews
 
i cut off corkscrews & out grew grapevines
 
i cut off grapevines & heard Marvin sing
 
i cut off Marvin & listened to my grass grow
 
i cut the grass & weeds grew in
 
i cut out weeds & the neighbors
 
smiled, asked: could they touch
 
the blades?

You may hear Jamila Woods share this poetry on Tuesday, April 21st at the Museum of Contemporary Art Live for Ekphest: A Festival of At + Word from 6-7 pm. More information here.

PHOTO: Jovan Julien

PHOTO: Jovan Julien


Jamila Woods is a poet, singer, and teaching artist from Chicago, IL. She the Associate Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors and a founding member of YCA’s Teaching Artist Corps. A Pushcart Prize nominee, her poetry has been published by Poetry Magazine, MUZZLE, and Third World Press. Her first chapbook entitled The Truth About Dolls was released in 2012 by New School Poetics Press. Jamila is also a member of the Dark Noise Collective of poets & educators of color, is the front-woman of soul-duo band M&O, and is featured on the Social Experiment's forthcoming project Surf.

 

Daymaker: Irina Zadov of the Hyde Park Dacha

Interview by Lauren Ash. Photography by Shelby Stone.

How many of us know friends that are truly like family? That offer up their homes to us, no questions asked? That give what they can: food, hugs, and conversation. That provide space, resources, and room for those who can benefit from it it. I apparently know a handful, at least: I have three keys on my keyring that don't "belong" to me.

One of these keys was given to me by Irina Zadov of the Hyde Park Dacha, a live/work/create space which cultivates creative communities through dialogue, cultural production, and healing. The artist collective involved with the Dacha includes women, migrants, people of color, and LGBTQ folks committed to social transformation. Irina built upon prior conceptions of dachas in Eastern Europe and put it into radical practice in Hyde Park. Dozens, if not hundreds, of people have lived, worked, or created in this modern-day Dacha including original Dacha collective member and Chicago-based artist Dominique Boyd, and current Dacha artist-in-residence and filmmaker Jason Tompkins. It is my hope that through this interview more of us will begin to navigate the world asking (and responding) to the questions Irina asks toward the end of our conversation: How do we truly create the kinds of world that we want to be a part of? How do we really build each other and thrive together? We can begin with our homes. I'm happy to follow-up on last month's Daymaker's feature with a feature on the amazing energy of the Hyde Park Dacha.

Lauren Ash: Irina, tell us about the origins of the Dacha.

IZ: So, a dacha is a Russian word. A dacha is a concept practiced around Eastern Europe. Basically, growing up in the Soviet Union, we were essentially in public housing. We were living in this giant cement box, and people were living in very small quarters. There was a culture of surveillance. Folks were really encouraged to spy on their neighbors and rat them out. People would be taken in the middle of the night and you’d never hear from them. This happened to my family members. So, it was definitely a very intense city life. But in the countryside, there would be these government-allotted plots of land where people could build a little cottage. Granted, those are distributed by where you work, so we were in this refrigerator factory area, and I don’t want to make it sound completely romantic – it was still the Soviet Union – but there was something about it as a child I really appreciated, which was that sense of intentional community. I spent all my summers there as a child and we grew our own food and we would spend all of our days in the forest and in the lake. It was this really beautiful escape. And it’s something still very much practiced in that part of the world. It’s interesting because I think it’s also like a form of or a way to keep people pacified. People escape from certain things in the cities, too. There’s the good and bad of it too. Where it’s like “as long as we have our dachas” it doesn’t matter if the government can’t control the production of goods or the growth of food – we can have our own little canned pickles. Anyway, that’s where the concept of the dacha comes.

Moving to Hyde Park, which is this interesting neighborhood. It’s like this little island on the South Side and it has this interesting history with the university and the police force; and also the sense of surveillance. I’m thinking about what it means to live intentionally, and what is family, what is community, and how we build and cultivate that. So, I’ve really been fortunate to share this space with a lot of really beautiful people. Most folks that have lived here have done organizing and healing and art practices are people of color, migrants, queer folks, and I think that’s pretty important, given that not everyone has access to all of this. I happen to be in a position of privilege and have that opportunity to share, so I like to do that as much as possible.

LA: Dominique, when I asked Irina about this interview and said, “Who are some people that you think of that have been absolutely instrumental, ingrained in the life here?” and she was like, “Dominique was here painting the walls, she was here practicing yoga!” So share more of your history with this space, and what it’s given you and what you’ve given it.

DB: Well, I met Irina prior to the Dacha even existing. We always had just a natural connection about our visions for ourselves and for our communities and our art. I lived in Hyde Park a little before her and when she said she was moving to the neighborhood, I was just thrilled because I was like “Yes! Finally, I’m going to have someone to borrow ketchup from! I just want a neighbor!”

[Laughter}

Someone you can really count on – your Roger, your broman. One of those! I just needed that authentic kind of something. So I was just thrilled. And she invited me over and we sat in little room back there and we were just sitting on the floor and I was just like, “oh!” It was so yummy in here, and just like mature, and the wood just felt good when you took your shoes off. And it just felt like home, you know? I couldn’t understand why my body was having that kind of reaction to it. Remember, Irina? I was just sitting in the windowsill and I was like “Oh my god, the sun’s coming in.” I was just like, “This place is so rich!” I think I went into the bathroom and I saw the tile and I had another reaction. And I was like, you know, I think this is the tile that my parents had at their place, which was just down the block. Just so much of my move to Hyde Park and the South Side and Woodlawn area was very intentional. I was born on 52nd and Dorchester and I left there when I was about five years old and we moved to the suburbs, so for so long I felt so disconnected from the rest of my family, from Black people, from this neighborhood, from Chicago. So when I moved back here, essentially I wanted to get to know those roots again. Being inside of this apartment, I couldn’t go back to the apartment where I was born, but being in here was like a second chance. This feels like the kind of hallway that we had. So many of the homes in Hyde Park are built in a similar way, so the reactions that I was having in my body, those were real experiences that were coming back to the life. The patterns in the bathroom, the patterns on the wall – all of that has not changed. It’s just so beautiful to have something still existing that existed 30 years ago. It’s not the case with the neighborhood, it’s not the case with any of the places where my parents – they moved around, people moved around, so just to have that was real. It was real. I was down for whatever Irina was down for – it was her place!

She was very open – more than ketchup!

[Laughter]

More than the little things you borrow from the neighbors. She had a grand vision of being this artistic home for so many people. And I was like “that’s cool” you know? She gave us keys, and the generosity was so real. And, I never imagined it would really be all of these things. She wanted have meetings and make it really curated, and I was [at first] like “let’s just have a house party?” I’m just so glad that you had that formality with it, Irina, because it made it a real, real thing. So many people have had the opportunity to have access to it in so many ways.

I never thought it would be my home. I went through hard times this summer and it was my home. It was like, no questions about it. It wasn’t even me asking, it was her offering. And [when I stayed here] I was waiting for the day for her to just get crazy about one thing. Even the coolest roommate is gonna get crazy at some point! [But] she just never got crazy. And I was like, this is really who this woman is. This home she’s building – this is truly who Irina is, straight up. It’s really admirable and beautiful.

LA: So, Jason, you’re the artist in residence...

[LAUGHTER and fingersnaps]

LA: And Dominique spoke about this being a very artistic space, and that’s been clear for the moment I walked in with visual art everywhere. So, you as an artist, can you speak to your experience living here, creating here and mingling with other artists in this space?

JT: So, the origin story of how I ended up in the Dacha is a little bit different. I’ve been in Chicago since the summer of ‘08 and the vast majority of that time I spent living in Uptown. Very fond of that neighborhood. I had to move from the place I was living to a cheaper place in August. That initially sounded like an ideal situation, but long story short, it was kind of a sublet-down. [Laughter] I was in a situation where I needed to find a new place to live really, really quickly so through fellow Dacha Collective member Aymar Jean Christian, very good mutual friend, he mentioned the Dacha.

I’d been here before for just one of the Dacha events. But we didn’t know each other. Aymar asked, “Would you be open to moving to High Park?” and I was like, “That’s so far away…”

[LAUGHTER]

I was kind of hoping some other things would work out – they didn’t – and it was literally three, four days’ notice, if I recall correctly at best, and I was like “yeah, I do need a place to live or I’ll be out in the street.” I believe Irina was out of town [but] she responded “yeah, of course.” It was a Sunday in early October. Initially, I was like “great, I’m alive and I’m living in a place.” But as far as really as being in a space that’s so creative and that is really committed to intentionality around community, around what does it mean to organize and build art that successful and relevant to our day to day lives. It’s been incredible living here because I’ve had to think about my own latent arts practice as a wanna be, gonna be filmmaker, film producer. It’s really great to be in this space because Irina really did move me into actually creating a piece for the Dacha event back in October.

My piece was about my grandmother who actually passed away early October. It was great to me really process that experience through creative work and also try to move back into the habit of actually producing something. Not that everything has to be about production, but it really was like, “okay, I really need to get moving on things.” Since I’ve been living here, just all the events that have come through here, through relationships it’s just been great to be back in a creative community and connecting with creative folks, arts folks who are thinking about the largest context and what it means for us to be moving to really transforming the world into something that really want it to be. How can we use our creativity as tools to change that reality as opposed to a space in which we escape? That’s the kind of filmmaker I want to be, that’s the kind of producer I wanna be. It’s been absolutely amazing, living here.

LA: All of you have rich answers, which makes me so happy. [Laughter] So physical nature of this space, in terms of how you arrange things, and the art. Let’s just start with the amazing tapestry you created and have in your dining room, Irina.

IZ: So that is a piece that was created through a project called “Open Faced.” Before I moved to Chicago, I partnered with Abraham Efton, a dear friend. We took this journey that basically retraced the path of two Soviet journalists who came the US in the 1930s. So they came to New York from Moscow and they drove cross-country to California. It was after the Great Depression and it the Model T Ford and highways were all new, and these were people coming from the Soviet Union in the 1930s. They had no concept of capitalism – just the idea of marketing, and movie theaters, and highways. But also straight up racism, and Native American reservations and going to the South. It was very, very crazy, what they saw. And they published a book of essays and photographs and that became the Bible in the Soviet Union in terms of visions for America. The book is called Одноэтажная Америка, which means “One Story: America” and that really debunked the idea that Soviet people had about the US, in terms of being this space of these skyscrapers and this wealth. Granted, it was highly edited, in terms of being like anti-capitalistic so it’s hard to know what they were really feeling and thinking but they spent years here. And it was a really, really kind of epic piece of work. It was in my parents’ home; every Soviet person you talked to they knew about that book.

LA: I’m curious – was it translated right away?  

IZ: Well, what happened is Abe and I had been living in San Francisco and we’d just stumbled across this book. And it had been reprinted –

DB: Stumbled? I: Yeah! I didn’t grow up reading this text?

L: So it was there, but you didn’t really interact with it?

IZ: Mmhmm, my parents had hundreds of books, I did not read them all – I was seven years old!

[Laughter]

But this one, I called my parents and they were like, “we know it.” They had just reprinted it because the University of Michigan had an exhibition of the photographs, and they had reprinted this book and they called it “Ilf and Petrof’s: American Road trip.” And I, being from the Soviet Union and wanting to go back for my whole entire life, we felt like, “we need to retrace this journey.” So, we quit our jobs, we actually had a home theatre festival performance in our Berkeley home on May 5th, and on May 6th we drove from California to New York and we spent a month just having meals with people. We were in caves, in rooftops and parking lots and meadows and just all of these random places with mostly just strangers and we just collected stories and recipes and what is this life in America.

So that’s what the tapestry is – it’s essentially a combination of snippets of recipes that people shared with us. Honestly, I don’t read it that often but when I do, it’s really moving, cause it’s like family, friends, and strangers all over the US and throughout eastern Europe. And It’s in English, Russian, and Belarusian.

And I will say for context, not many people know or have heard of Belarus. It’s currently Europe’s only dictatorship, so the idea of doing these meals [when we went to contemporary Belarus] were actually really different and really challenging. And the dacha was the only space to really have those conversations, because in the cities it’s hard to know what’s really is happening but the KGB is still called the KGB. They have not rebranded. It’s like FBI but Soviet style. Putin was in the KGB. My Mom, when we left, told me not to talk to anybody, not to open your mouth in public, not to make eye contact with anybody, your phone will be bugged, any email that you send is gonna be read. You just never know how paranoid you can be with stuff like that – and of course, the US government does all of this too, but I think there’s something particular about Soviet/post-Soviet society. There’s such a strong strong self-policing, and even though it’s pretty homogenous in cultural and ethnic background, there’s still – just the way that people are on the street. There’s a deep-found sense of you don’t stand out, you don’t speak up, because there will be serious consequences.

So doing that kind of work there, I really serious. Even though it doesn’t feel at all subservient – we’re just sitting around a table talking – but you just never know what can happen. While we were there, there was an international incident where this advertising from Switzerland wanted to do a pro-democracy action and they launched these teddy bears from a plane over Belarus and each teddy bear had a sign “We heart Belarus, “Pro-Democracy,” “Free Speech.” It was actually very cute and saw some of pics of it on my wall on Facebook. Next thing I know the government is calling it an act of terrorism, the Ambassador to Switzerland is fired and deported out of the country, an 18 year old who posted a picture of the teddy bear on his blog is sentenced to 7 or 8 years in prison. Things escalate very quickly. And at this point, Abe and I are in our tiny little Soviet apartment afraid to post anything on Facebook. We’re afraid our phone is being tapped, we don’t know if we’re gonna be able to leave the country. And again, all of this happens here in different and similar ways, but how are we controlled? How much freedom do we have? So that’s the tapestry.

LA: I think it’s important to hone in on the tapestry because I think it’s a central part of the house. It’s something everyone notices. The other art in the room, isn't most of it from local artists?

IZ: Yeah, Adriana Rodriguez was actually one of our first artists-in-residence, and he came out here from Oakland. She’s very fierce, sex positive. She does a lot of work around migration, and environment, and environment, labor, and gender. And then Krista Franklin, who is a local printmaker-poet. Throughout the house, it’s all pretty much local art. Family, friends, people that we love, that have left things.

LA: And I just realized all of us have contributed art in one way or another to the Dacha. We all contributed in the last salon.

IZ: Well what’s really ironic about that salon is that the theme was release, like releasing the space. I feel like since then it’s become so much more active, because of the Black Lives Matter movement [and others]. It’s amazing. I can be very structured and in the beginning, we would have meetings and I would send out notes and bullet points and reminders. It was very serious. Over time, I’ve really let go and people are just making it their own. That’s the beautiful thing.

LA: Jason, what’s your favorite thing about this house, aesthetically? 

JT: Well, what immediately comes to mind is the living room. It’s a well put together space that is very simple, which I think is really awesome. But it can be a screening space, a yoga studio, so many different thing. It’s very inviting and flexible. I spend a lot of my time researching films, hooked up to the projector. It’s awesome to have a nice, big view there. There’s so many books and things to look at, it’s really lovely.

IZ: I’ll just add, because Jason’s really modest, that my film education has really quadrupled in that last three months. Every night is like a little film festival. It’s a critical race analysis of Empire or watching a series of queer shorts from Russia and Cuba. It’s also great because you have so many amazing friends who are media producers and filmmakers and we’re always having these amazing conversations and watching these amazing films. Jason is this really fabulous chef—

JT: It’s because of this amazing space that I feel compelled to get back into cooking. Then if not for sustainability reasons. It’s like “I’m broke and I live downtown” and I really shouldn’t be spending all of my money on food. I enjoy it and it’s relaxing and I cooked a meal and its good and people like it!

LA: What about you, Dom?

DB: I have a lot of spots, but I think I gravitate to where we are all sitting out here. Me always talking about planting something, maybe in the summer. When we’d put a little blanket in the back, and it was a nice night or morning to just kind of chill. I like the living room too. I like the couch. I like to put on the music every now and then and just read something. Irina and I read a few books on International Women’s Day last year, and we were just reading for that afternoon.

LA: Well, is there anything else you’d like to share? The theme of the month is transition.

IZ: I will say this, because Jason and Dominique are some of my closest friends ever, and have really been with me through a lot of transitions that have transpired at the Dacha. We’ve experienced transitions at the Dacha in so many different ways and I just wanna say how grateful I am to both of you. Really, out of anyone in Chicago, you two have been here for me. I’ve been thinking about violence and all the way its manifests, and thinking about how do we respond to harm without creating more harm. I think that’s like a really powerful question that I think about a lot. Obviously there’s so much work we’ve done around police brutality and incarceration, but there’s also so many things in our daily lives. How do we really live with a harm reduction framework, right? How do we truly create the kind of world that we want to be a part of? How do we really build each other and thrive together? Things are always gonna be problematic. In terms of love and community and family, I feel so supported here.

When I was little and I first learned the word “community,” it was like, what community? It was family and it was work. I really didn’t have [community], yet I always imagined people coming and going, and eating and doing basic daily things in life [together], and sharing friendship. Really being there for each other, holding each other down. I really feel like that’s the spirit and whether or not it’s this particular space, I hope we can [continue to] cultivate that with each other.

PHOTO: SHELBY STONE

PHOTO: SHELBY STONE

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER: Shelby Stone is a photographer, interdisciplinary artist and thinker. Having been a resident of the west coast for over two decades, and after completing her B.A. in Studio Art with an accompanying minor in Cultural Anthropology from San Francisco State University, she relocated to Chicago in 2013. She moved to fulfill a blossoming desire for travel and deeper exploration of culture, space and self. Having recognized a spiritual and purpose-based rootedness in Chicago, in conjunction with building her fine-art practice, she hopes to engage her passion for process, film-photography and the human condition. She focuses her endeavors towards building spaces that nurture the intersections of creativity, identity, self-expression, art making and education. Shelby works to further aid in developing the narratives and social values of individuals and communities in Chicago, San Francisco/Bay Area, and beyond. She currently resides in Hyde Park.

 

H(om)e: A Conversation with Children's Book Author Sarah Warren

Interview by Lauren Ash.

Sarah Warren is one of the most beautiful souls I know. When I introduce her to my friends I often fear they will love her more than me and leave me altogether (kidding, but seriously). As my “big” cousin, I’ve always looked up to her as a source of inspiration—she's a published children's book author, she's an incredible holistically-minded food artist, and has an incredible sense of humor and wit.

We lived together for a brief time immediately after I graduated college and immediately after she went through a divorce. It was during that time of transition for both of us that I truly started to reflect on the importance of home: on having a safe space. A place for healing. A base for inspiration. Fast forward about four years and Sarah has a loving and supportive partner and they have recently celebrated homeownership together. When I was able to visit her beautiful home in the Nokomis neighborhood of Minneapolis I knew I had to follow-up on last month's H(om)e feature with Sarah's home. So, last month, I enjoyed tea and conversation with Sarah along with my friend Shahar who flew in for a surprise visit from Israel just hours before (thanks for joining in on this interview, Shahar). In our conversation Sarah illuminates what it means to surround yourself with reminders of the beautiful aspects of who you are and why you exist and how happiness can indeed come after heartbreak. I hope you enjoy.

LA: When did you move here and why?

SW: I moved here last January. It was the coldest January that I have experienced in some time. It was very snowy. Neil, who I wasn’t yet married to, and I had been looking for houses and we were planning to live in sin somewhere together. [Laughter] And we were looking at places on Grand Avenue which is this really hip spot and we wanted to be hip too but we couldn’t afford any places over there. We also both had been through divorces and owned homes and lost them and so we didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew. We also didn’t have a lot of stuff felt like we didn’t feel like we needed a big place. We both lost a lot of stuff previously. With that in mind we were looking around Longfellow, we were looking all over, but we hadn’t considered Nokomis. It just seemed so far away from everything. It seemed like a sprawling, strange place.

But then we came over here. First of all it was so cold [but when we arrived] we went into the heated garage. We walked into the house and it had a heated floor. The people who lived here before totally renovated it and they received MAC [Metropolitan Airports Commission] money so they got MAC updates and they just went nuts. The windows and everything. They just did everything with love. The dude who sold it had done most of the work. He’s this German dude who led Neil around and told him how to keep everything going well and was just so proud of everything he’d done. There’s a wine nook. The dishwasher has a wine glass holder in it. You know how you usually have a bunch of fake drawers that are the illusion of a drawer? They are all real! There are no illusions![Laughter] The realtor said we wouldn’t like it because it would be too small. It’s perfect for us. Neil has his little music space downstairs and we have the upstairs that wasn’t really a bedroom, but we turned into one.

LA: When you were visiting it, they weren’t using it as a bedroom at all?

SW: No. It works really well for what we need, want, and enjoy. It’s perfect for us.

LA: I notice you have a lot of plants. I assume most are because of you.

SW: Yes. But this is Neil’s plant. He calls it crazy plant. It was a gift from our friend when he was getting divorced and he had to move to this horrible apartment. He has a really antagonistic relationship with it.

And this is from his family. This is an easter lily he gave his Grandma. His Grandma suffered from pretty extreme dementia, but she would always know Neil. And he was not a very responsible young man, but he showed up once and stopped at the grocery store and grabbed this Easter Lily. She cherished it. She died recently so his Mom gave it to us.

And I like succulents because it’s easier to not kill them.

LA: This sounds simple, but why do you have plants everywhere?

SW: I like to be surrounded by little living things, you know? I’m not very good at taking care of them, but I think it kind of adds a certain amount of...it makes you feel as if your house is growing. There’s a healthfulness to it. I feel peaceful when I look at the plants. We exist together in this space. We benefit from each other’s presence.

It’s neat to watch sometimes how they react to the sun. When I was in the 8th grade, one of the most amazing science experiments in my life, I had the hypothesis that the reason plants grow more healthfully if you talk to them is because you’re blowing out CO2 directly to them. So, I got little beans from the co-op and I planted them. One I blew on, one I talked to, and one got nothing. I watered them all equally and everything. I went to Disneyland the week before the science fair and Mr. Kramer, my homeroom teacher, was supposed to water them for me and he didn’t, and they all died. So we’ll never know!

LA: Couldn’t you try the experiment in your backyard? [Laughs]

SW: I suppose that’s true. [Laughter]

LA: So share a little more about yourself as a writer.

SW: I did some writing in college, mostly poetry and short fiction.  

LA: I want to read them all.

SW: I have them all, they’re so embarrassing! [Laughter] I really didn’t know what to do with myself as a writer after I graduated school and generally didn’t know what to do with myself. Finally, I started working with at-risk kids in downtown Minneapolis at the YWCA. I didn’t do a lot of reading during college; I read what was expected of me. And I did read a lot of poetry when I graduated. When I was working with preschoolers, I was reading picture books constantly. There was such a crossover between poetry and children’s literature, because brevity is the most important thing. You need to get to your point quickly. Your word choice is so important. Being able to be spare and vibrant and engaging are all very, very important things when you’re writing for children or reading for children. I tapped into that.

I remember very clearly the moment I realized I was gonna be a writer for life, for my life’s work. I started this thing in my classroom called “Hero of the Week.” We were doing an alphabet curriculum. And I would think of a diverse hero or leader of color or a woman – people I didn’t think were being represented, especially in biographies back then. There was a lot about George Washington and just three books on Martin Luther King Jr. books. And that was it. And they weren’t meant for young children. And young children are the perfect audience to talk with about heroes. They love super heroes because all of those virtues of a super hero are things they want to be, so badly. They feel it in visceral ways. They feel and experience justice so clearly – what’s fair and what’s not fair. So a lot of my kids didn’t get to experience people that looked like them in the books that were being read to them.

So that’s when I just started writing stories to go with the heroes I picked out – so, Amelia Earhart for A, Bessie Coleman for B, Eleanor Roosevelt and then Dolores Huerta who eventually became the book that I sold. I had this dramatic come to Jesus moment and then I just started to realize that I could do that for a living, maybe not to make any money, but it could be my life’s work! So then, I started taking classes at the loft. And I apprenticed with other women’s book writers. I earned my Master’s Degree around multiculturalism and early childhood writing for children. I thought it was really cool because it was this low-residency with funky women. All women. They were like “I wanna build a school” – they had these incredible dreams that weren’t necessarily very realistic, but they believed in them so strongly and wanted the affirmation of going to school and having to be something that could make sense and had a philosophy behind it.

Yes, so I started writing a lot of kids – mostly picture books, and all of the poetry stuff I did. It’s been really fun. The weird part about it, and the good part, is watching the diversity movement shift in the children’s literature world. Back when I was starting, there was the tolerance movement – we knew multiculturalism was important but nobody knew how to do it in a way that wouldn’t offend anybody or make anybody uncomfortable. Sometimes you’ll have teachers, in a small town in Minnesota for example, who are like, “I don’t have anybody who looks like that, so why should I have these books in my classroom?” What they would do [in children’s books during the tolerance movement], they would not make anybody who looked ethnically or racially anything look beige. And they’d be like “we can all relate to that person, maybe!” You’d see a lot of cartoon people. There’d be animals, cause can all relate to that crazy raccoon!

[Laughter]

So there weren’t a lot of realistic portrayals of people who looked like all sorts of people, which is really important because if you’ve got a seemingly homogenous child audience, you need to show lots of different types of people! And have that be normalized and celebrated!

So, I was really excited about sharing the stories of people who were specific human beings who existed in history and Dolores [Huerta], you know, exists right now and is doing this extraordinary work. The challenging aspect of that is when somebody exists in the world now and you’re writing about them, they’re still doing things and having opinions on things and there’s usually a political aspect to the people that I write about because they’re activists.

So, for example, when I first wrote Dolores’ story, unions were still considered a pretty good thing by lots of people. Since then Scott Walker has made them the devil. I didn’t have an opinion about unions. I thought unions were a good thing. I thought what Dolores did was good.

SE:  How old were you when you had that realization of what you wanted to do for your life’s work?

SW: I think I was 24, 25 maybe. The thing about it was I just got a sense of purpose. That’s all I got. Before that I didn’t really know what I was meant to do. I didn’t have a game plan. I didn’t have something that I could focus on and make the best of it work towards this thing. I didn’t have any vision. I was doing good work. I loved working with kids. I had recently gotten married. There was a lot happening in my life that was good, but I didn’t have a sense of purpose. And I remember being like “there are people who don’t have this and never get this.” To be able to know what is meaningful to you in life and to always been working towards it even if it doesn’t make you a success or a celebrity – that’s your thing [and] to have 'a thing' is so important.

And, to go back to my house. I think it is great to have little sacred reminders. Having those picture books on the wall – first of all I think they’re art, so I want them on the wall. I like art best when you can futz with and have a relationship with it. I think you need to be reminded about what you’re all about as much as possible because it is easy to distract yourself or to lose track or to lose hope. Or to love other people doing what you’re doing. I was very competitive when I started writing and was like “all these other biographies are bullshit!” and these people can’t write. And some of that was true. But also, I had to learn from everybody. But if I read something that was good, it would hurt me. It made me feel really bad about myself. And now being able to appreciate other people, other artists is so important. I think continuing to support other children’s book authors and also bringing it into my house and making it part of my life and…

LA: Looking at it as inspiration.

SW: Yes and looking at it as a community. It’s important to me. It’s funny because Neil is also an artist, and he does his music thing. He has a really good relationship with his music.

SE: [Pointing to a piece of art] This is one of my favorite artists. He has postcards and they’re really just plain, very emotional...

SW: He was the first child-like-y artist that I noticed. He makes art with cool little sayings that were kind of simple but very stirring. And that art is from Haiti.

LA: [Pointing to a painted, wooden sun] I’ve always loved that sun. I remember that sun from the old Powderhorn apartment we lived in. [Referring to Sarah’s book room] I have a question – what’s your favorite book in here? Is that too hard?

SW: No, it changes all the time. So I can tell you what it is right now. I actually don’t have it yet. It’s called We are Stardust and I need to order it. It talks about how we are all made of stardust and it’s a way to explain science to young children.

LA: And it sounds spiritual!

SW: Yeah, kind of in the way that Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about science and spiritualism without having God involved. I really like that a lot. Wait, you’re right this is a hard question! This one is very sweet. I can’t tell you.

LA: That’s okay, that’s an answer too.

SW: It’s like picking a child! This one is amazing because it’s cut paper. It’s about a little boy whose mom is died and he’s just very scared. His dad is comforting him.

LA: Is this your creation room? Is this where you write?

SW: Yup, this is my little writing space. I get antsy when I have to spit in one spot, and it helps to have the books here, I can just turn around and stare for a while. I think a lot of the books that are my favorite I wouldn’t want to read to a child. Some of the sillier books are books I would read to kids but they’re not as pretty, you know?

LA: It depends kind of on the audience.

SW: Yes, whether it’s for me or for the children. I’ve got some books here that are more informative for me, for me to get into the mindset I need to be in to write the way I want to. Having the art here, like this Smokey the Bear poster, helps me tap into the innocence, life – it reminds me of what I’m doing here. All the little things that kind of help me to feel.

LA: Sarah, this conversation will be featured in our Death and Transition issue. It fits, everything you’ve said. This is a newer space for you, after the transition of you getting married and moving into this place and finally feeling at home.

SW: So much of this started with the divorce. It started with losing. You know, you plan a life for yourself, and then losing it is such a hard painful thing. And people do that in lots of different ways, so it’s not like I’m special but I remember thinking “I will never live in a house again.” I never wanted to be tied down like I am. I felt so trapped, because we were trying to sell this house. When I lived in the house with you, it felt really fun but it didn’t feel like home cause I felt kind of frantic, and not myself. Getting married again and also getting a home with someone feels really good. We went through a really hard time – like four months ago. But it felt different, because I had a partner who was supporting to me. It was heartbreaking, it was a lot. But I knew him better, I knew how he was in a crisis situation. It made us better partners –

LA: You grew together from it – I’m sure in a very strange way, but –

SW: It made the home more of a home. When you’re grieving in a place, it feels lived in. Even though we haven’t been here that long, things have happened here and we’ve gone through things together. It’s been our sanctuary. I’m really happy.

Sarah is Black Girl In Om's Book Club Curator! Learn more about her and read her thoughts on Citizen by Claudia Rankine here.

PHOTO: NANCY MUSINGUZI

PHOTO: NANCY MUSINGUZI

Nancy Musinguzi is a documentary photographer, activist, and writer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Recently a graduate from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, she uses her skills in photography to engage young people in conversations about social justice, community engagement and the power of visual art in media. Nancy previously worked as a freelance photographer and writer in New York City to tell stories about subculture and art communities she lived in and traveled to. Currently, she works as an artist-in-residence at the non-profit organization, Youthprise, where she has had the opportunity to install her work in two solo exhibits. 

Healing in Nature: Approaching the Mountain Lion

By Lauren Nixon

The mountain lion goes by three names: catamount, puma and cougar. In photos, you’ll see a sleek, tan coat of fur and clear eyes that seem sweet and gentle if you’re looking hard enough. Apparently, they’re loners—not terribly into humans or bloodshed, unless they feel unsafe. In videos, you’ll see that they are beautiful—muscles shifting underneath their skin as they run. But they are swift, smart hunters. They are always one step ahead of you.

For years I lived with a mountain lion and didn’t know it.  Post-traumatic stress disorder feels that way—like living with an animal who cannot be tamed, who has teeth that glisten, a guttural moan, a tendency to show up out of nowhere. It is like having an irate neighbor who bangs your door down to let you know that your tree has collapsed on his car during a storm. He keeps banging and banging because there is a problem that needs fixing, but you don’t have insurance.

A trauma happens and then you live with this trauma every day, watch it repeat itself in your fears, your actions, your relationships, in your dreams at night. This is how PTSD operates. It is a difficult cycle that most people don’t understand. It is particularly hard for people to come to grips with the fact that people of color struggle with issues of wellness—that anxiety, depression and PTSD are not, and have never been, White people problems.

A few years ago, I worked at an environmental education organization in California. It was equipped with a farm and a garden and hiking trails. There were patches of fragrant lavender and yarrow, snakes and lone bird feathers at my feet. There were little streams that lapped and dribbled and lapped again, air so thick it seemed I was wearing a second skin.

For the brief time that I worked there, I taught environmental educators how to be their best selves, how to teach with confidence and spirit. At the same time, though, I was struggling to stay afloat, feeling a bit lost in the mid-20s, Black girl hustle. Things felt heavy and blurry. I was knee deep in the midst of a healing process, but didn’t know exactly what a healing process looked like.

Each day during my break, I would take my anger, my fear, and my sadness to the hills. I would let myself sob for the two or three mile hike, salty tears, chest heaving. Other times, I’d simply listen to the crunch of twigs, watch little lizards wriggle across logs, sing and hum to myself, enjoy the dense heat. I rarely ran into other people on my hikes. This was something that I appreciated and needed.

And each day, to my surprise, I would feel a little sliver of bliss, a little bit of magic that I’d never felt before. I was ripping myself open and forcing myself to take a look around to see what was what. When I was in nature, I could let go of the tame version of myself, I could let it all hang out in order to see the ugly bits and the pretty bits and the bits that I didn’t know I had. That’s when I started to put myself back together again. I started to feel good and alive, like the sweet little Velveteen Rabbit who finally understands that the gaping holes at his seams are a part of what make him so very real.

There is something incredibly healing about being a Black woman in nature. There is little safe space in this world. There are few places where I feel like I can be comfortable, unhinged, flawed, unbothered. This is not the case with nature. The thing about Mother Nature is that she doesn’t talk back, doesn’t judge you, doesn’t have ulterior motives, and doesn’t need to constantly be told how beautiful or smart she is. She knows just how beautiful and smart she is. She doesn’t have an ego, or a favorite brunch spot, or a plan to be promoted next year. She just does what she does.

She works on her own accord, shocks us, makes our jaws drop, makes us feel warm and melty with her dew, and her hot heat, and her slick wet leaves, and her soft moss. She pulses with life. Her thunder and lightning and cool rains are a testament to her vitality. She is what she is. Women of color have been in touch with nature since the dawn of time—using nature’s powers to track their moon cycles, to regulate fertility, to heal through herbs, to create divine elixirs and tonics and meals to nourish their bodies. There is something quite natural and organic about healing with nature’s rhythms. Alongside her. It makes sense that I was starting to feel so alive. This is the way that women before me had healed.

One day, in the late afternoon, I ventured into the hills for what I had imagined would be a quick two mile hike. I tended to get lost out there, though—lost in my head, lost in the act of letting myself feel and release everything that I couldn’t feel and release around other humans.

The sun started to set, and at first it was gorgeous. The moon looked heavy and dense and started to settle into a faint gray color—the way it looks in children’s books. Too beautiful to be real. Then, panic slipped up my spine and into the back of my throat. I imagined little white eyes staring back at me in the dark of the night, a swift whoosh of wind that crept up across my body as the mountain lion leapt into the air to pounce, his heavy paw on my shoulder as he began the act of ridding himself of me.  I imagined all of the ways in which I was to die that night.

And I began to run. Twigs snapping under my feet and branches snagging my shorts as I attempted to navigate the trail without a headlamp, without a lick of faith.

I made it down the hill in one piece, though. When I was safe inside my cabin, I thanked my lucky stars, and hit the hay. I was fine. It was all in my head, as usual.

The next day, I told a coworker about my little escapade in the woods. She looked at me with concern. “Don’t ever run. That’ll scare them and they’ll be more likely to attack you,” she said.

She instructed me to make a noise—to clap my hands or hum to myself in order to make my presence known. This would let them know that I was there, that they should stay back.

They’re out there. Not just the mountain lions, but your old lovers, the credit card bills that are stacking up, the fights that you had last spring, the guilt and the shame, the racist on the train, the folder full of rejection letters. There is power, though, in letting the mountain lion know that you’re out here, too—and that you’re ready. Hum to yourself. Hum so loud that you convince yourself of how real you are. It has been this dark before and you woke up the next day. You may have been sore and scared, but you woke up the next day. Let him know that you’ll make it down the hill alive, right as night falls. Let him know that you’ll sleep warm and hard despite how much your heart was pounding on the way down that hill tonight.  


An Intuitive Radish Salad

Ingredients:

-A few handfuls of radishes, sliced into coins

-A bit of crunch from raw sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, cashews, or pecans

-A small handful of dried, unsweetened fruit such as raisins, currants, cranberries, blueberries, or mulberries

-A cup or so of warm grains such as quinoa, brown rice, or millet

-A cup or so of shredded greens

Dressing:

A good vinaigrette typically involves three parts oil and one part acid.  Below are a few examples of dressings for your salad:

-Olive oil, apple cider vinegar, raw honey, salt and pepper

-Olive oil, lemon juice, mustard, a small glug of honey, salt and pepper

-Flax oil, balsamic vinegar, a touch of maple syrup, salt and a small shake of cayenne pepper

-Olive oil, lime juice, grated ginger, a touch of maple syrup, salt and pepper

-Raw, untoasted sesame oil, tamari, lime, rice vinegar, a drizzle of raw honey, salt and pepper

Directions:

Toss all of the ingredients together and top with your dressing. Eat your salad while looking out the window, or while journaling, or while wearing your favorite outfit. Have seconds, of course.  

PHOTO: SOPHIE SARKAR

PHOTO: SOPHIE SARKAR

Lauren Nixon is a Food and Wellness Educator who guides youth and adults in creating healthy, nourishing relationships with local, sustainable food through cooking instruction and educational workshops. She has had the pleasure of working with sustainable food and environmental education organizations including FoodCorps, Urban Nutrition Initiative, Raices Eco Culture Micro Farm, Johnson's Backyard Garden, Hidden Villa, and many more. Follow Lauren on Twitter @LaurenNNixon or at www.laurennixon.com

Read Lauren's article on growth through ritual in our first issue.

Transformation + Death

By Nkechi Deanna Njaka

Where there is death, there is transformation. I have felt this most profoundly in my relationships. I've had three significant relationships in my life where I was in love. The first one was a bestfriendship that ended the moment I fell in love. The second was a seven year relationship that ended the moment I realized I couldn't trust him. The third relationship was everything I manifested and it ended the moment it got real.

In each scenario, I experienced death and then transformation. Sometimes my awareness of said transformation occurred way after the fact, sometimes even years later! But invariably, when we are without and are suffering, the only thing we can ask ourselves is what did we learn? And whether it is obvious or not, there is transformation waiting on the other side of that question.

Bestfriendship. The kind where we did everything together, had the same thoughts and feelings about major things, felt the same way about everything important. Innocent daytime hangouts and rides home turned into forbidden late night hang outs with kisses that felt like mistakes. Then something happened where it didn’t feel like friendship anymore-- it felt like so much more. And by exploring that “so much more,” there was risk-- one worth taking until it meant a conversation about “us.” That was the moment when it was over. Confrontation. This particular confrontation was met with avoidance. An avoidance that lasted forever-- death. And I was forced to learn the hard way that this particular type of bestfriendship was the enmeshment kind. And by losing this friend, I was losing part of my identity. I transformed from someone who found their identity in another to someone who fiercely just needed to be herself, who ever that was.

“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.” 
― Rumi

When love appeared again in another form three years later, it was a different story. I was independent, autonomous even. So fiercely myself and about my specific plans that I moved to another country and wouldn’t let him join me. We lead separate lives so there was no room for enmeshment. We were, so clearly, two different people. He had his autonomy and I had mine. I thought: “This is what will make this relationship successful.” Seven years later, I lost. Another death. I discovered autonomy could mean two different things for two different people. This death, unlike the first death, was not a loss of identity. I learned the hard lesson that my “autonomy” was pretentious and that I wasn’t really in a relationship. I was far more concerned about the death of certain plans I had for my future than I was of losing the relationship. There was death of ego and birth of unwanted humility. 

“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”
― Rumi

I spent the next three years shaking the sorrow of that loss from my heart—it was an equation I couldn’t figure out or solve for a very long time. I just knew that I didn’t want to be in a relationship like that ever again-- one that could leave me completely undone. I fortunately found a way to be whole, but without the pretenses of being ‘fiercely independent.’ And I learned to separate my self-esteem from my relationship status.

I spent three years building my life, establishing myself in a new city, building my current business and replacing everything to build a home. I spent three years working on myself, choosing to powerfully own my life and be responsible for what happens. And let’s not forget, those three years were also spent dating (unsuccessfully). There were times that I honestly did not believe that I would ever come out of the dark—that I would always feel ruined. But right when the space cleared, the third love arrived. 

The third love I lost was the most recent. So recent that I still have some of his things in my apartment. This relationship was totally different than the first two. We fell in love so fast that we were literally floating. This sort of love was powerful; I wasn’t enmeshed nor was I pretending to be too independent.  We spent every day together because we wanted to. It was clear that what we felt was something gigantic. And sometimes we are not ready for gigantic love. This death was the most difficult to understand and yielded the most awakening transformation. The result of this love was the power of manifestation and the power of knowing that I can love authentically and I can dream authentically. I’m aware that it may not end up the way I imagine, but it doesn’t make anything invalid. 

Rumi says that our task is not to seek for love but merely to seek and find all the barriers within ourselves that we have built against love. For me it was the false sense of identity and attachment to a desired outcome. I had spent so much of my life organizing my behavior to predict certain results and to avoid other results. But through these series of relationships and their respective deaths, I have transformed to be just someone who loves herself, loves love and will welcome it when it arrives. And that love stands alone. It’s not attached to an identity or a specific outcome of a desired future. That sort of love is transformational. 

PHOTO: CHELSEA ROWE

PHOTO: CHELSEA ROWE

Nkechi Njaka is the founder of NDN Integrated Lifestyle Studio where she curates lifestyle and wellness content for brands and individuals. She is a woman of color, deeply concerned about personal and global well-being. She holistically approaches her wellness with mindfulness, movement, nutrition and style. She attended Scripps College in Claremont, CA where she majored in neuroscience and dance and went on to complete an MSc. in Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. She attended the Institute of Integrated Nutrition and holds a certification in Holistic Health and Nutritional Counseling. When not involved in NDN projects, you can find Nkechi teaching Mindful Movement or Mindful Style classes + workshops, taking a yoga or modern dance class or choreographing independent work. She creates, curates, coaches and collaborates in San Francisco, California. Read Nkechi's article on growth through meditation in our first issue. 

 

 

Grandmama's Suitcase

Visual Poem By Sierra King

Grandmama’s Suitcase is a visual poem of coming to terms with the loss of someone close to you. Whether that be a grandmother, a spouse or a friend. In the event that a person passes away they leave material things behind that are more than often placed in suitcases and never to be opened again. The suitcase is a reminder that although they have left, many of the pieces that were a part of their lives still remain. Persons who are left with the suitcase experience longing for that special someone. The visual poem ends with a closed suitcase and a photograph in the point of view looking up into the sky and trees, hopeful that this point in their life, this state of mourning the death of their loved one, will come to a close. 

PHOTO: Astrid Scheib

PHOTO: Astrid Scheib

Sierra King is currently a freelance photographer based in the heart of the south, Atlanta, Georgia. She specializes in portrait and documentary style photography. She is a recent graduate from Valdosta State University with a B.A in Art, while focusing on digital and the film processes of photography. Sierra is in the pursuit of accurately portraying the conversations and stories of her people, community and experience. She believes that not only is it important to understand where the culture began but also display the culture that is thriving, living and breathing now. You can view more of her work in her online portfolio.

 

Cache My Memory

SCREENSHOT FROM CACHEMYMEMORY.com

SCREENSHOT FROM CACHEMYMEMORY.com

Interview by Lauren Ash

I first met James T. Green several months ago at the Hyde Park Dacha when we were both involved as artists in a salon focused on growth. Gathered in Irina's kitchen, I shared of the very beginnings of Black Girl In Om and of my passion for wellness. James shared that his best friend Brian and I would have connected on many of our passions. After life forced him to deal with grief from Brian's passing, in addition to his Aunt's passing and his own nearly fatal experience, James identified and created his own way of processing grief and of honoring the mourning process. He created Cache My Memory a digital notebook of sorts. It is this beautiful project that I wanted to learn more about and share with all of you. Much gratitude to James for opening up his experience and for offering all of us another tool for productively processing death and transition of our loved ones. 

LA: Alright James, so tell us a little about you, who you are in this moment.

JTG: [Chuckles] Who am I in this very moment? That’s a really good question, I really like that. I am a conceptual artist, designer, writer, podcaster – I just like making things that – whatever idea I have, I just like to let it flow and let whatever come out come out

LA: That makes sense. I think that is illuminated in the weekly emails that I always appreciate getting from you. Because you always share projects that you’re engaged with but you also have that section where you’re like, “this is what I found interesting last week!” I think that’s important because it doesn’t limit you. As creatives, I feel we are often inspired by things that may be outside of what we do. And so, just sharing what inspires you, that’s great. So, you said you are a conceptual artists. What concepts do you typically play with and explore?

JTG: The concepts I explore include technology and how we interact with one each other. I’m really into interpersonal relationships, and sometimes technology accelerates it or halts it. And then how race intersects between those two things. If I had to look at it as a triangle, and those are the three things, it’s usually whatever’s melding in the middle between those. And that’s what my solo show that I opening up [at the Arts Incubator] on the 10th is all about. It’s talking about what’s happening in Ferguson right now, which is a melding of this real fucked up thing happened in the real world, and then people are amplifying it online and then it has a racial element that you can’t really grasp.

L: No, that’s great what you said about interpersonal relationships and technology. I think that is especially seen in the project that we’re talking about today, and its Cache My Memory. So can you speak about the origins of that project, its meaning in your life, and also how you’ve seen it impact other people who have participated in the project?

JTG: Yeah, so Cache My Memory – it came about in the middle of last year. How it came about was I had a really, really bad 2014. It was terrible. The beginning of the year I suffered a pulmonary embolism that came without warning. I passed out. I would have died if my wife didn’t find me. And found out that it was a family ailment–it’s something that’s passed along through my family. It’s a preexisting condition that I’ll have for life. A month later, I lost my aunt to the same exact thing, but nobody found her. So she passed away. And then a month later, I lost my best friend to cancer. This trio of things really hit home. It kind of put me on hold for a lot of things – making new work. I was in therapy, I was suicidal. There were a lot of things that came at me – thinking about my own mortality, thinking about what it is I should be doing with my life type thing. So, my therapist of course recommended channeling some of this frustration into what you do best. And that’s artwork. And I was like, that’s a really good idea.

LA: Thank God for therapists!

JTG: I wasn’t really known to do personal work because it scared the living shit out of me, putting your whole, whole self, you know with no curtain in front of yourself, in your art. [But] I decided to go about that. So that project came into play. The concept of it came about because right after I lost Brian, I realized he was the first ever person close to me that died that was like was sort of ingrained in our current age. For lack of a better word, he was a millenial that had so many social and online footprints on the Internet. After he passed away, there’d be so many moments where I would do something as banal as sending a text message, sending a Snapchat to another person, sending an Instagram and his name would always pop up, like “recent user, your best friend.” Facebook would say “wish him a birthday” – because he died a week before his birthday. “Tell Brian, happy birthday!” Act like he’s not gone. The ads on the site would say, “Brian liked this” or “Brian’s going to X.” And it’s like, because he used online tools as much as the rest of us, he was totally ingrained in every aspect of my life, even though he was gone physically. So it was like, a week before I did the project, I remember my wife and I we went to a wedding, and it was still fresh. This wedding happened a month after he passed and we were still not taking it well. We were drinking, and then we just caught our emotions a lot. We just started crying in the middle of the reception because we were thinking about Brain. A song came on that was his favorite and I had all this pent up energy, so I just pulled up my phone, and I opened up Facebook Messenger and I sent him a Facebook message, knowing that he wouldn’t see it but it was this feeling of having a connection.

LA: I just got chills.

JTG: As a kind of sat on that a few days later, I was like okay what if I could build a website that would allow someone to do to the same, but there’s nothing tracked on the back of it. It’s like you’re pasting text on a field of somebody you miss and then after you click it, it’s gone. I can’t see who’s been on the site, I can’t see what anybody has written, but it’s almost like a space in a digital notebook. Once you’re done, there’s no trace at all of it. No writing, no company footprint. Nothing. I still use it from time to time – I just used it a few days ago to talk to him.

LA: So what do you think is the difference between sending a message and to someone who has been lost without a trace of it versus sending it with a trace of it? So what’s the difference between sending it to his Facebook and sending it via this medium that you’ve created?

JTG: If I put it on his Facebook timeline, it’s something that I may deem as a private moment, but in the end it’s public. If it’s public other people can, of course, interact with it, like it, comment it, so on so forth and then it feeds into their database. In some ways it’s a performance. You’re publicly performing grief and memorial. It’s the equivalent of dropping flowers on a grave site, it’s a public act that other known and unknown can see and interact with. But Cache My Memory is different because it’s a very private grief where only the person can see it. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. I can’t recall it in my memory, I can’t do anything. It’s very ephemeral. It’s public grief versus private grief.

LA: In terms of your own healing – you mentioned you saw or are seeing a therapist to help with the grieving process – in terms of when you created this and you started using it, what is that experience is for you in terms of healing and your own wellness?

JTG: It definitely helps. It helps when I hear that other people are using it. I’ll get a text from somebody that says “hey, I just used your website.”

LA: That’s really great that people tell you!

JTG: They won’t’ tell me what they said or who it was to, they’ll just say “I used your website.” It helps. It’s like cleansing or releasing something pent up.  I kind of feel bad sometimes when I feel like I have something inside but I can’t let it go because it’s weird to say it aloud. So having this space, where it’s not a notebook or a file on a computer when you can write it down and stumble upon it years later. It’s somewhere where you can write it out and you won’t stumble upon it ever again. It’s like as fleeting as the public speech, but in a way it feels good to say something. It’s been really helpful, because it’s almost like talking to someone. You say it and then it’s gone.

LA: You might remember it, you might not too. Sometimes with those words that you exchange, you remember the general feeling of how it felt rather than the specifics.

JTG: That’s exactly it. And the title of the website, of course, is like a pun on cache-ing a website, and loose memory. “Cache” is meant to be temporary in a browser. It’s meant to be there for a short remembrance of something you visited but it’s meant to be cleared out to keep things going faster. Much like how I had this memory of Brian, but I know in order to move on I have to clear it out, in order to move on faster.  

LA: Now that we’re talking about this too I can see more of how this links in with other concepts of wellness. You know, the belief that there are different energy systems within the body and it’s important to make sure they are in alignment and to make sure that the energy is flowing in an appropriate way and I think relates to the concept of the site as well. In some ways, engaging with the site and sending that memory allows for--hopefully--energy to flow in a way that is more productive and just to get it out.

JTG: I agree completely. That’s what happened the last time I used it. I was just sitting in a café and just randomly thinking and gazing out the window. It was something so fleeting – the sandwich that Brian used to order at that café. And then I had all the thoughts and they just started to build and build and I was like “okay, I gotta dump this out.” And I dumped it out on this site, and then I felt good. It’s chilling, it’s really chilling.

LA: I’m excited to share this with a broader audience on our site. I think that people will use it. Thank you.

PHOTO: JAne DEMEREE

PHOTO: JAne DEMEREE

James invites you to participate in Cache My Memory and would love to hear your responses. Feel free to e-mail him or tweet him @_jamestgreen and let him know how Cache My Memory has helped you process death or transition.

Be sure to check out James' solo exhibition at the Arts Incubator now through Friday, April 24th. His exhibition exceptional/respectable illustrates his visceral output in response to respectability politics, the barrage of the 24 hour news cycle, and the conflict between contemplation and action.

Learn more about James T. Green, and interact with him, at jamestgreen.com.