ICEBREAKER—WHO IS LIZ LERMAN? (21:31)
Liz Lerman is a choreographer, performer, writer, and educator. A key aspect of her practice is a collaborative process directly involving a wide variety of community members: from shipbuilders and physicists, to veterans and construction workers. Her unique approach requires extensive research and results in performances that are participatory and timely. We glance at her acclaimed career to better understand her methods, before proceeding to subsequent episodes exploring Lerman’s toolbox.
WHO IS LIZ LERMAN?
What are the tools of your creative practice? And if you don’t consider yourself an artist outright -- What outlets do you have that are creative and what then what are those tools?
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KIRSTEN WALSH Hello and welcome! My name is Kirsten Walsh, and you are listening to Podcasts on Process. This series takes a peek into the creative process of artists, and tries to pull out the tools of their work. And not the tools you might find lying around a studio or office, necessarily. Not pens, paintbrushes and sketchbooks, but the active methods for making rooted in person-to-person interactions and reflections.
Podcasts on Process is supported by Baltimore-based organization The Contemporary. And the series is also supported by the Curatorial Practice MFA program at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
So whether you found this podcast through SoundCloud or on the website, I would love your feedback. And after you listen please go to podcastsonprocess.com and leave a note. Or if you find yourself inspired by a topic or episode, use the hashtag #podcastsonprocess. We’ll be pulling from social media to help continue the conversation online. I would love to hear what you have to say and the more contributions the better!
WHO IS LIZ LERMAN
LIZ LERMAN I had decided as a part of my time at Harvard that I would joyfully demonstrate that you could show people work before it's finished—before it's perfect.
KIRSTEN The voice you just heard is Liz Lerman. She’s the spark and inspiration for this project. In this inaugural series, we will be looking at her work and creative practice. You’ll hear a lot from me over the course of these six episodes, but you are also going to hear a lot from Liz. Liz is a baltimore-based choreographer, facilitator, writer, researcher, educator— in fact her titles go on and on. She was also a 2002 MacArthur Genius Grant Fellow. If you are not familiar with the genius grant, take a look at the recent fellows list. These are brilliant minds that have show originality in both what they make and how they make it. Liz is also a published author. And her books include Hiking the Horizontal, and Critical Response Process: A method for getting useful feedback on anything you make, from dance to dessert.
I’ve been fortunate enough, in the last year, to spend a lot of time with Liz --and her colleagues and team. She gathers and hold closely an insanely talented group of people. Many of those team members you’ll hear from too when we start diving deeper to Liz’s toolkit over the course of this series.
So to back up just a little bit, let's get some history behind this artist.
In Liz’s early career she’s showed audiences the power of dance for older people. And since then, she has been challenging the assumption that only professionally trained dancers can create beautiful dances. And she’s shown that audiences want to see movement from all kinds of bodies, professionally trained or not.
Looking back at the videos and pictures of Liz’s past projects, to try and understand the arc of her career, I’ve been struck by 3 in particular. First, The Hallejuah Project. The performance was held in cities across the country, and at the core of the work was the question—"what are we in praise of?" So, in Maine for example, Liz and her dance company, along with the residents of a small fishing town, greeted the sunrise, greeted dawn together with movement.
Then there’s Fercious Beauty: Genome. This was a collaborative piece, that connected dancers with scientists, and scientists with dancers, all around genetic research. And it was based off of her time at Wesleyan University. Here’s a clip, asking, what if scientists were choreographers?
So you could imagine that the dancers would initially form themselves into these secondary structures.
In the shuffle, in the genome shuffle, the evolutionary genome shuffle, you can have an inversion, right? —right? —right?
KIRSTEN And then most near and dear to my heart, the recent run and performance of Healing Wars. Healing Wars is big, conceptually and physically. At its core, the work pairs stories and histories of the American Civil War, with contemporary stories from the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the last year, Healing Wars has shown at Arena Stage in Washington D.C., at the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech, at the University of Iowa, and at Montclair University. This piece is special to me, because its how I got to know Liz and her whole team. I was a fly on the wall for a lot of this past year’s development Healing Wars.
KIRSTEN One of Liz’s strongest personal assets is her abilities as a listener and conversationalist. We’ve had numerous conversations in the last year, but none of them officially recorded. I sat down with Liz at her home office in the end of February/early March for what would end up being 4 hours of interview.
Liz’s office is in her home in Baltimore, although she’ll be the first to admit she’s on the road just as much as she’s at home. Its a small studio/office space, and the light blue walls are absolutely covered in art. Most of the art is related to dance, women, and/or social justice issues, but all if it is very personal to Liz.
LIZ Do you know the artist Nicole Fall?
KIRSTEN Here’s Liz describing one of her newer acquisition. On one wall is the printed transfer of a child’s dress. And then on the opposite wall is a embroidered white infant’s dress, framed behind glass.
LIZ I'm so happy that I have it!
KIRSTEN And that was your mothers?
LIZ That was my mothers, yeah I framed it. I think my grandmother had it , or it might have been my grandmother's.
KIRSTEN Do you know on what occasion she might have worn it?
LIZ No, because they didn't do christenings, so I have no idea.
KIRSTEN That's the first thing that came to your mind.
LIZ Yeah my Grandmother had such incredible taste. She was really, really ... Well it's, you know, they were on the west coast, so it's this ancient Chinese thing that she must have found.
The clip you just heard of Liz describing her artwork in her studio is an example of what Liz does so naturally. She makes connections. Historical connections, like those in Healing Wars, or connections between what may appear to be completely disparate disciplines. Here’s Liz at Wesleyan University:
LIZ The very first time I came to Wesleyan, and went to a science luncheon where I was supposed to talk about the possibility of making Ferocious Beauty Genome. And I sat in there with about 30 scientists and the conversation was very high, very high level conversation. And I thought about it later and I thought, you know I'm just a mirror they probably are talking to each other almost the way they always talk to each other. But because I was there they were responding to me it was reflecting off me and back to them, in a way that they didn't usually hear or see themselves. And I went away saying it doesn't matter whatever we make, when excellence comes to excellence and is sparked, there is just nothing like that.
KIRSTEN Liz’s kernels of wisdom are difficult to keep up with at times. She’s in a constant internal process of reflecting and making, reflecting and making. She said at one point in one of our initial interviews: I’ll consider any idea, just give me 48 hours to think about it. Liz is a dancer and choreographer, so she thinks with the body, she teaches with movement. And here’s another section from that same Wesleyan video to explain that. I think you’ll enjoy this—Liz calls it embodied learning or embodied knowledge.
LIZ And that's very much at the heart of a good collaboration is your capacity to step back and then ones capacity to step forward. And that's what this has been.
KIRSTEN Before I had the chance to meet Liz Lerman in person, I listened to her recorded lecture from her time at Simon Frazer University. She spoke there in October of 2013—which was great! It gave me a wonderful framework, because we connected for the first time just a few months after that. She opens the lecture with an anecdote about "rattling around".
LIZ I really like Nobel week which we just finished, right? When the give out the prizes. Partly I like it because, I like to listen to what they say. You know they give them like 10 seconds to talk and they've of course done that work they got the prize for, for 50 years or something. And I'm always interested in how people come to the essence of what they feel their life has been. And one year I was driving, and I don't even know who the person was on the radio, but they had just gotten the Nobel Prize. And he said he had got it, 'for rattling around in other peoples universes'. Which I thought was kind of interesting— and not that I'm going to get a Nobel prize—but I do rattle around a lot in other peoples universes.
KIRSTEN We we sat down for our official interviews, I had to get her on the record for what "rattling around" meant to her in more detail. So Liz explained that anecdote with another story.
LIZ I got interested in the defense budget and didn't know anything about it and wanted to understand it. Therefore I had to go talk to people who did know. Or whether it was my mother's death and feeling like I have to find some old people, I'll go find them—I don't know where they are. There were different reasons to push me, but once I started moving out into the world with the things that I knew from dance I was so surprised by both what I had to offer, because of what I knew—not just from dance but from art from making—and I was so surprised that...
Well the image that keeps coming to me these days is: my father used to lo love to sharpen his knives before he cooked, he was the cook. And we had a knife sharpener in the, you know it's one of those like a round saber kind of thing. And he would just love to stand in the kitchen and go — fftk, fftk, fftk — and make the things sharp. And that's how I felt. I felt like being in other people's worlds sharpened me, sharpened my understanding, sharpened the things that I was interested in doing and then eventually made me more bold. I mean that took awhile, but it made me more bold when I went home. Home being at that time pretty straight forward dance worlds, that also adjusted and changed over time. But I think initially it was just the need, and then the realization that, oh wait a minute we actually know something?! We actually have things that are of value? And I guess an underlying, why aren't we sharing them more might have been a little bit of an underlying nudge to the whole idea.
KIRSTEN So how does Liz sharpen her skills? She’ll say by turning discomfort into curiosity. And then she supports that curiosity with a whole arsenal of tools. Four of which I pulled out for further investigation. And again those four tools, and therefore the next four episodes, are: collaboration, the question: who gets to make, documentation, and the finally critique.
So why these four in particular? Well, That’s a question I hope I’ll answer over the course of the series. But its also for personal reasons. I have my own curiosities. These ideas have been creeping into my practice as an emerging curator. So I naturally wanted to know how more people implementing them, to help me determine where they go in my toolbox. The next episode will explore one of the most fundamental aspects of Liz Lerman’s practice, collaboration. You’ll hear from David Reynoso, the scenic and costume designer on Healing Wars, and from George Ciscle, the director of my graduate program, MICA’s MFA in Curatorial Practice.
So in the spirit of these podcasts, I’ll have simple for you each episode. And I promise nothing terribly grand, but we are going to call them creative challenges. You’ll hear the prompt here and then it will be posted online at the website, podcastsonprocess.com But they will also be posted on the Facebook page. So take a moment to consider them, and respond.
And if you are bold and want to hear your own voice as a part of the series, please record your response. The website will have more instruction on how you can do this.
KIRSTEN So this episode's creative challenge is to consider this question: What are the tools of your creative practice? And if you don’t consider yourself an artist outright -- what’s your creative practice? What outlets do you have that are creative and what then what are those tools?
I asked the same question to a few of my classmates and colleagues. So maybe you’ll find some inspiration in their responses.
JEN MELVIN So, my name is Jen Melvin. I am 37 years old and part of who I am right now is a graduate student at MICA in the Curatorial Practice Program. I always identify first with being a person who appreciates art, in many forms. Whether that be film, music, visual art, performance, etc. In terms of my creative practice, I imagine myself as sort of D.J., a mixtape maker of art—of other people's art. I would identify my creative process as a person that acts as a megaphone, or a mediator, or perhaps a bridge between audience and artists, and the work that they create. The tools of that practice really vary. The first thing that comes to mind is people. Being with people, talking with people—whether that be artists or the audience in general is super helpful to my practice.
ASHLEY DEHOYOS I am Ashley DeHoyos, and my title right now is a 2016 Master of Fine Arts Curatorial Practice candidate. So my creative practice is something that I am figuring out right now. I am somewhere between artist and curator. Which is a great place to be because I see things artistically, and then I also see things on the other end of logistically. I have a visual memory so snapshots—when I see things I mentally take pictures. Oh, that's something that I see happening.
JENNIFER PEARL GRAY My name is Jennifer Gray—My name is Jennifer Pearl Gray and I am in the Curatorial Practice program at the Maryland Institute College of Art. And I am also an Urban Arts Leadership Fellow. My dreams, and when I say my dreams I literally mean when I go to sleep and wake up. And I remember something that has caught my attention. I pull from those things. My dreams tell me things. And so, I take that inspiration and... a cute notebook! I have this thing with notebooks. I just have to buy them if they are cute.
KELLY JOHNSON Hello, my name is Kelly Johnson. I am a curator and writer currently a student at MICA in the Curatorial Practice program. I think my creative practice is observing things for a long time and then pulling out little connections that I see between all the different things that I am observing all at once. Yeah, that's how I see my creative practice, and particularly my curating. I think everything is research, I'm always looking basically. Going somewhere different and looking. Sometimes being in the same spot and observing can get old. Going outside your perspective, I think that is a huge part of my creative toolkit.
MARNIE BENNEY So, my name is Marnie Benney and I am a curator. And what is my creative practice? I think that runs in a few different ways. I think first and foremost to being a curator, I take that more in the context of bringing people together and collaboration. So that is my creative practice—doing research, finding people, finding what people are interested in, and finding certain personalities that I think would work well together. And then bringing those people together, usually under a theme, and then being very open to the outcome and what happens from that. I think the tools of my creative practice are—its very important for me to hike and be in nature, and spend time there for reflection and thinking. Getting out of my head a little bit. Being in nature take me out of my own context and lets me see that I am a very small piece in very big, big, HUGE globe, and solar system, and universe!
KIRSTEN This episode and the whole series would not be possible without the incredible team around me. So I have to say thank you to a few folks. Thank you to the faculty of Curatorial Practice, to my extraordinary mentors, and to my support team from The Contemporary. The music you'll hear in this series was composed and recorded by the remarkable Ruby Fulton and the band, Nudie Suits. And thank you to Estelle Kline and Sean Tubbs, my audio engineer magicians. Thank you to my dear classmates and beautiful friends in Curatorial Practice and to my husband, my unwavering volunteer and MacGuyver on all of this.
And last but not least thank you to Liz Lerman, the stunning artist who graciously opened up her life and process to me.