About Annie Raab

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Procrastinating at your local natural history museum

ANNIE RAAB writes fiction and art criticism. Her work has been published in print and online, most frequently in Kansas City’s alt rag, The Pitch, where she was a regular contributor of arts journalism and reviews (2015-2018). She earned her BFA in Sculpture and Creative Writing at the Kansas City Art Institute, and is an MFA candidate in Fiction and Arts Leadership at Virginia Tech. Her internationally recognized art reviews and award-winning short fiction have been published online and in print.

When she’s not writing fiction, Raab works with artists, galleries, and arts organizations by writing grants and securing funds to help support the continuation and success of a healthy visual art community.

Annie is primarily interested in cultural criticism, contemporary visual art, and short stories. She currently lives in Appalachia.

Find me on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

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On Grad School: A Personal Statement

Many of you know (because many of you know me in real life) I’m on my way to graduate school in August. This is the second time I’ve applied to programs, and it’s been a wild ride up to my eventual acceptance into Virginia Tech. I was not expecting to accept an offer this year, and I had resigned myself to another year of deep reflection and artistic reevaluation. I was so fully prepared to apply again this winter, I already started my third grad school spreadsheet and decided to aim only for the highest, most funded programs. I was going to learn another language! I was going to get a famous writer to write a letter of recommendation! I was going to start applying in June! Thankfully, I don’t have to do any of those things, because Virginia Tech came through at the 13th hour (long story) and I could scrap my 3rd spreadsheet with a huge sigh of relief.

Before my eventual acceptance, I spent November to February applying to ten schools, narrowed down from about fifteen. By the time I was halfway through the applications, I was spending ten hours a day on my personal statements.

TEN HOURS A DAY.

My samples had been revised and tightened and polished so many times in the previous months in my writing group, all I had to do over my three-week winter break from work was talk about myself and my goals for an MFA program. I’ll tell you: the quickest way to realize you have no goddamn idea who you are and what you want out of a strange, risky, creative career is to write 500-2,000 words about it ten times, to ten groups of faceless strangers who hold the fate of your life and your $75 application fee in their hands. Hence the obsessive ten-hour days.

This post will hopefully help new MFA applicants write the dreaded personal statement without as much anxiety. I haven’t included the whole thing, because some of it is really specific and might be boring to non-committees, but I explain the pieces I cut out and left in the rest for a more thorough demonstration, particularly where I felt imaginative statements met a practical purpose.

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Meeper, the guardian of my insane pre-moving to-do list

 

The Opening: Origins & Ambitions

My opening paragraph came to me in an epiphany-like moment halfway through my application season, so I only got it into five or six applications. Previously, I had a hard time with the personal aspect of the personal statement. My intro was too straight, too dry, until one sparkling moment I had this new idea. I scribbled sentences in my notebook in a delusional flurry and refined the ideas in Word when I got back to my computer. This, I’m convinced, is what landed me a spot at VT, and was maybe as important as my writing sample. I had always heard one must “get to the point” as fast as possible to not waste anyone’s time on the committee, but this hook is not only a crucial part of my origin story, it’s also fun to read:

“If you were to rewind ten years, you would see me as a sculptor attempting conceptual art about communication, and as a writer attempting conceptual stories about communication. I did this by writing stories about teenagers whose only dialogue was “What?” back and forth for five pages, and by setting up big sheets of industrial felt in the middle of areas with heavy foot traffic. This messy but essential origin as a writer led me to explore language barriers and miscommunications in my fiction, inspired by the two creative disciplines bickering away in my heart.

Each time I write, I pull the thread of my thesis a little more, edging closer to some human truth that can only be represented by leaving it unsaid. I am driven to write because I am driven by questions that fuel narratives: Do these linguistic obstacles exist in children? In animals? Is it possible to understand that which has no word attached? Writing about language absence and lost translations comes from my personal journey to connect across the space between what I can say and what I can feel.”

BAM! Took me years of experience and lots of shitty first drafts, plodding introspection, and eventual satisfaction with a few short stories to come up with that opening paragraph. Your opening paragraph should give the readers a sense of where you came from and where you’re headed. Think beyond the typical “I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember” and punch it up several notches to paint a fuller picture of your rich creative life. For me, I felt it was essential to begin with a demonstration of my ambitions and early interdisciplinary origins. You also get a sense of my youthful ego in the opening line, but that segues into an honest reflection of why I do what I do and how I began to take it seriously. It’s also funny, because I know much of what I do under the pretense of living my best creative life is a little absurd. But it’s true, and it’s part of who I am and part of my creative process. Do some similar digging when building your opening.

 

The Journey/Research/Experience section

In the main body of the personal statement, I talk about my journey from visual artist to writer, and what led me to seek an MFA in creative writing. I talk about the writing courses I took at KCAI, who I studied with, and what I gained from the visual arts environment that influenced my writing. I talk about what happens when I study literature and how I keep track of my personal and academic growth in my own terms…basically demonstrating I haven’t wasted my time between degrees.

Today, I study writers who provide space for subtle details to bloom in a reader’s mind. I look for this because it is how I once approached sculpting—as a complete narrative containing moments where language could vanish, giving rise to an emotional texture I’m not sure has a name.”

This is a snapshot of my abstract thinking tendencies and ability to switch gears between visual and written work, something I have been practicing for many years. In this section, I also talk about the writers I currently study and what I admire most in their craft. I chose two contemporary American examples and one mid-century non-American example, because my work is mostly contemporary and set in America, but I have been heavily influenced by the styles and sensibilities of non-American writers. I chose writers who are recognizable to people of literature—not really mainstream examples, or anyone I discovered in high school or earlier. If you have the space to talk about writers you read or try to emulate, definitely consider what you appreciate about their style and how it informs your work. This is more than just “I like his use of language.” Instead, be concrete: “I study the character arcs of her aimless young adults to inform my coming-of-age novel-in-progress” or something equally evocative. This is a chance to show the committee you’re a worldly reader who appreciates subtle and dynamic literature, and as someone who kept reading after high school.

The next paragraph talks about my philosophy as a writer and how this developed over time. For me, it was in small press publishing, reading prose for a magazine, writing for The Pitch, belonging to a weekly writing workshop, and participating in contemporary visual art dialogue. My philosophy was developed over about ten years, so I’ve had time to think about my phrasing and presentation, summing the whole thing up in three varied sentences. If you have participated in any kind of critical/creative writing exchange, talk a little about what kind of peer you are. How do you approach writing written by other writers? What can you add to the workshop experience? How has that informed your decision to apply to this program? I applied to Virginia Tech because I have always been a cross-discipline writer, and I want to collaborate with writers in running a publication. Virginia Tech emphasizes both facets of the writing life, and I saw in the program a chance to build on my strengths.

 

The Self-Reflection section

You should also talk about your weaknesses, because ultimately, weaknesses are what get you into grad school. A brief detour: I love failing! Failure is the single best type of learning experience out there for creative people. There is no faster shortcut to creative self-reflection than crushing, debilitating, irreversible failure. I’m not saying this is fun to experience, but it’s so necessary in finding out how to direct our creative energies. For a personal statement, it’s good to recognize your shortcomings and tell the committee how you want to improve, what you’ve learned from rejection, and how you deal with criticism. If you address ways you want your cohort to help you improve, the committee can see A) that you are serious about improvement, B) that you won’t be a jerk to other writers, C) that you probably aren’t a genius (yet) and can admit to that, and D) you are capable of intense and productive self-reflection. All good things for a graduate committee to recognize in an applicant.

If your day job or professional work is of writerly importance, put it in the statement. MFA programs are not just for people who were “born to be writers” or “have been writing stories since childhood”. In fact, committees see that cliché all the time, and the truth is we live in a capitalist society that devalues or ignores creative work up until the point a creative person becomes famous. Most writers have jobs that pay the bills, and really good writers use that job to add something to their writing career—not always in the way Kafka used a job as fodder, but also as a way to grow and develop your skills in an area that will reflect in your creative discipline. For me, the routine responsibility of helping students with their writing and professional skills gave me academic experience in reading syllabi, constructing an academic plan around calendars, and articulating the creative bridge between visual art and literature. I gained research experience, worked on my chronic self-discipline problem, and recognized that I still consider myself a student of literature, even as I help students in their earlier stages of writing. I put all this in my statement.

I did not write that, as a bartender, I secretly made notes on the changing dialogue of my patrons. I did not write about my ruthless editor/mentor, who challenged me to write art journalism with greater clarity and precision. I did not write about how my time as an oyster shucker in Alaska, and a teacher in Cameroon, and a kid in the Michigan sand dunes developed my observational skills and help me imagine setting in new creative ways. But any of these personal things would have been fine to write about if I had unlimited space and attention. Choose the most effective personal experiences for the essay, and make your case for further study as persuasive as possible.

 

The Closing: Goals & Purpose

In the end, the committee wants to know exactly why you should be in their program. Talk about how you have prepared yourself for graduate level work, what self-direction you imposed on your routine, and where you see yourself headed as an artist and creative person. This is going to be different for everybody, and that’s what makes your perspective unique. If you want to get your MFA to teach, or get feedback on a book you’ve been working on for ten years, you’re not making a very convincing argument for your own capacity for growth and development. If you want to get your MFA in Virginia because you need 2-3 years to study the dialogue patterns of Appalachian natives because regional dialect is super important in your series of short stories, and this particular writer on the faculty has inspired you with their rendition of local speech etc. TELL THEM!! That example reason is much more colorful and unique to the program.

“I’ve discovered my drive to answer my creative and critical questions comes from the love of practice. I have prepared myself for graduate level work by applying this philosophy to self-directed writing, research projects, and professional activities. The more work I do, the more curious I become, the more I grow as an artist. Only Virginia Tech can pair me with resources, peers, and faculty who will embrace the interdisciplinary, collaborative essence of my trajectory. I am seeking a program with a history of educating writers who have taken artistic risks in their work—writers who have merged traditional and avant-garde ideas into a signature narrative style.”

For each statement, I found the most attractive aspects of the program I was applying to and I used that in my closing paragraph. For VT, it was their interdisciplinary curriculum and opportunity to work with two publications. For CalArts, it was the art school environment, which has proven beneficial to my practice. For Iowa, it was the understated writing tradition in the Midwest, a region I have lived in all my life. Every program I applied to (this time) had specific qualities that could improve my work and study of literature. One thing that sucks about applying: You might not know if your work fits the program or incoming cohort, but the committee knows, and sometimes even if your work is perfect for that school, it might not be the right time to attend. Rejections can say a lot about your readiness for rigorous work, but can also say a lot about the program itself.

“My goal is to emerge from an MFA program with a new body of work that continues connecting the communication ideas I started exploring in my undergrad. What I am looking for after a graduate program is a sustained relationship between art and language—a new way of writing that unveils the semantic bridge between visual and written work. After a graduate program, I want to continue to work with artists and authors to explore the collaborative grounds between creative disciplines. I will do this in a community role that compliments my fiction practice, either as editor of an experimental small-press, in publishing, or in a position an MFA from Virginia Tech will help me discover.”

I ended with this paragraph about my goals and ambitions in the coming years (to pursue the thread of my ongoing thesis) and the years that follow after an MFA (to bridge community work with writing work). Some goals will inevitably shift in August when I start the program, and they will shift again in January when I start teaching. My goals will continue to grow and shrink and change, but I’m totally open to this flexibility, because I’ll be in a supportive and engaging environment with other ambitious writers. Think about your goals as a writer and artist. What does your work look like in five years? How will you adapt to a changing job market? Will your creative work always be more important than your money-generating work? (It should be.)

In order to do all this, you need to REALLY look at what you’re writing and research the hell out of programs. I’ve applied to 18 programs in all and I’ve been rejected from 14 outright. Those 14 programs weren’t right for my learning and writing style, and that’s not always something new applicants are willing to accept. Although I’ll always be a little bummed I didn’t get into Brown or Iowa or University of Michigan, I also recognize my multi-discipline engagement might not have been a good fit for these straight-forward, traditional programs. It just took two years and many rejections to come to terms with that. The three schools that accepted me outright were The New School, CalArts, and California College of the Arts—three prestigious art colleges, not traditional writing universities. Virginia Tech is somewhere between an art program and traditional literary program, and this is totally where my work fits best. I ultimately decided on VT over the other three because it’s a three-year program with a broad focus (I can take non-fiction, digital media, and screen-writing courses), it’s fully funded and comes with a stipend for teaching, and I want to eventually relocate to the east coast. San Francisco is too expensive for my lifestyle, CalArts is great if I wanted to write for TV, and visiting The New School made me realize I don’t want to live in New York right now. Although I exchanged these hip metropolitan cities for a rural mountain community, Virginia Tech is only a few hours from DC, Richmond, the Outer Banks, Charleston, and Pittsburgh. I can scout these areas for cool internships and jobs in the summer when I’m not teaching.

Now you know how I managed to barely con my way into a program (just kidding! I don’t have impostor syndrome!! Not at all!!!) and secure the next three years for writing and studying literature. Whatever comes from this experience, I know it’s up to me to revisit my goals from the last ten years and set my sights on more challenging projects. This includes checking back on my statement of purpose and remembering the reasons I applied to school. If you’re going through this process now, or considering it this season, keep your arrow aimed straight at your target and allow yourself some flexibility when looking into programs. Make your spreadsheet, go visit schools, and write your head off!

Good luck!!

Dad-inspired budget 2-meal chicken

My dad used to be a competitive swimmer and marathon participant. He’s also the biggest penny-pincher I know. In his younger days, he was broke and really active, so he had to make his dollar stretch further and also provide enough sustenance to compete in competitive sports. Early on, I remember him describing to me how he used to buy a whole chicken and use it for several meals throughout the week. He didn’t so much as give me this recipe, but he passed on his philosophy of food and frugality through many years of excellent meals and boring lectures about fiscal responsibility. Like dads do.

dadrun

I did not inherit my dad’s athleticism

Here’s how to get several meals out of a single batch of cheap ingredients.

You will need:

One whole chicken, giblets & neck included (preferably)

Butter

Citrus—whatever you have lying around. Oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes. All good.

Sage

The holy trinity: salt, pepper, and garlic powder

Corn starch (or flour, if you don’t have starch)

 

Then you will need:

Celery

Carrots

Parsley

Potato

Garlic

Bayleaf

White onion

Egg noodles

Chicken bouillon cubes

Whatever delicious crap you have lying around

 

Process:

Preheat oven to 350

Clean the chicken and remove the neck and giblets. Set those aside for now.

Cut and juice your citrus. Squeeze the juices into a bowl and cut the rinds into quarters—not too small though–just small enough to stuff the cavity.

Stuff the citrus rinds into the cavity of the chicken and add salt, pepper, sage, garlic powder, and a little melted butter to the citrus juice in the bowl.

I like to stuff the bird with whole garlic cloves too sometimes. These can be eaten with the meal.

Make 2 or 3 cuts in the chicken skin and separate the skin from the meat with your fingers. It’s quite satisfying. Place 2-4 pads of butter at various points under the skin so it sits between skin and flesh. Rub salt, pepper, sage, and garlic to season over the whole bird.

Brush the whole outside of the bird with the juices and other contents of the citrus bowl.

Cook the chicken, uncovered, for about an hour. Every 10-20 minutes, baste/brush the chicken all over with the citrus/butter/spices mixture. Readers of these recipes know I never time myself or measure accurately. I don’t know. Go by your instinct.

 

Meanwhile…

Get a shallow amount of water boiling on the stove and add the neck and giblets. Add spices, a chicken bouillon cube, and let simmer, stirring and letting the water reduce, but not enough to boil out.

When the fat and juices start to come out, remove the bits(or crush for chunky gravy) and turn off the heat. Whisk in corn starch a little at a time until the gravy is thickened and flavored to your liking. Throw in some BBQ sauce! Red wine! Vinegar! Butter! Do what feels good! But go easy because it’s a strong flavor to begin with.

Set the gravy aside.

 

Back to the chicken…

Increase the oven heat to 375 and cook a little more. The chicken is ready to come out when you can cut into the thigh and there’s just the faintest hint of pink. The heat will still cook it when you take it out, so sometimes I undercook just enough for it to finish up out of the oven.

NOTE: By basting it all this time with butter and citrus, you are achieving a very crispy and juicy skin. The citrus inside and pads of butter under the skin ensure the bird will be extra moist. It’s done when the skin is dark and crispy, but not burnt, and the meat is juicy and white. This will all be visible.

When the chicken is finished, remove the rinds from the cavity (saving the garlic for the meal) and cut the meat off the chicken.

Once you have all the meat off, set enough aside for chicken soup tomorrow. Save all the bones and the carcass of the chicken by wrapping it up and storing in the fridge. We’ll come back to that.

Serve the chicken with your choice of side dish and the gravy you made earlier. The chicken should be juicy and the skin should be crispy.

Pat yourself on the back!

 

The next day…

Fill your biggest pot with water, maybe 2/3rds of the way. Maybe a little bit more. Get out your chicken carcass and all the bones and toss them all in the pot. Boil the shit out of it.

Once you’ve boiled the shit out of it, pieces of chicken will start to come off and stay in the broth. Remove the carcass and make sure you got all the edible pieces off. Toss those in the soup.

Sometimes I leave a drumstick bone in the soup for a fun little game I call Who Gets Boned? The prize is a bone in your soup! My partner rolls his eyes a lot.

Chop up carrots, celery, onion, parsley, potato (small cubes, but sometimes I actually skip the potato), garlic, bayleaf, and sage. Throw all that shit in there and drop in more bouillon cubes, salt, and pepper, and other spices if you’re feeling frisky. I almost never chop up my garlic. My mom used to make this soup when we were kids, leaving big pieces of unchopped garlic, which I ate with gusto.

By now your soup should be kinda huge, which is what you want. Add chicken from last night and enough egg noodles to satisfy your proportion preferences. I like lots of noodles, but they will also soak up the broth overnight when you store the soup.

Cook it all! Season and add other ingredients to your liking. Green onions are good, tomatoes can work, rice, broccoli, and corn can be good. Whatever you have lying around is fair game because this is a fail-proof recipe.

Serve with crusty bread topped with butter and blue cheese. That’s my preference, at least.

 

More notes…

So you should have a ton of soup from this one batch. When I lived alone, I would make these two meals and have food for the whole week–at least two meals a day. Like I said, the noodles soak up some of the broth overnight, so I would add a little water each time I reheated. Egg noodles don’t get soggy like other noodles, which is an added bonus when eating for the whole week.

(Bonus meal! Sometimes I take out a cup of the chicken broth before adding anything else and use this to mix with miso, fish sauce, and sesame oil for a flavorful ramen base. That gets whisked together in a low heat cast iron with some corn starch to thicken. Makes a great paste to add to ramen broth. I usually poach an egg in that one. Although I actually prefer ramen as a spin off to my shortrib recipe.

The philosophy behind this recipe should be applied to anything with a bone-in component: Where there’s a marrow, there’s a meal. Homemade stock can make or break a recipe. Veggies too! Save your carrot heels and broccoli stalks, onion helmets and tomato stems and apply the same principle–which is boil a lot and add spices to draw out the flavor.

Oh yeah, this should go without saying, but this is an excellent holiday meal if you use a turkey. Everything in the recipe is the same, although cook times will vary. I’ve cooked many Christmas meals with this recipe.

We’ll get to shortribs next, but the basic rule there is to add a little vinegar to the water, which will help soften the marrow and draw it out a little easier. Vinegar or some red wine you have lying around. Same difference.

 

Space and Sea: Some Thoughts on Not Writing

I still have the art school brain. The philosophy goes like this: every free moment must be spent in studio if you’re ever going to get better. I am forever caught between anxious labor and trying to affect the calm appearance of someone more collected than I actually am. For so long, working was a way of having fun. Real fun, like watching TV or going out, rots your brain so much that art becomes difficult or impossible. It has taken me many years to work on this art school mentality–to remind myself that writing is about observing and collecting from the world as much as it is about getting those thoughts down on paper and in stories. But if you go out into the world, you are not writing. It’s a tricky balance, and one that has everything to do with tricking yourself into some kind of healthy lifestyle. I’m terrible at this.

I believe I can stop writing anytime I want as long as I never quit. When I did stop, knowing that I had to collect and observe the world before I could produce any fiction or art reviews, it made relaxing impossible. I had to walk across a minefield of guilt just to get out of my house every day. I got so far behind on my deadlines, working on anything practical meant not working on ten creative projects, which made working on everything very stressful. Stress led to inactivity, which led to watching TV, which led to guilt, which led to work, which led to impostor syndrome, which led to inactivity, which of course repeated the whole cycle over again. This made me think one can never be truly happy if they live their lives in competition with themselves. So I came up with a temporary solution that would help me get back to a balance: I stopped doing most things expected of me, regardless of the consequences. On this list was writing, so I stopped writing too.

When I stopped writing I watched TV and read books about outer space. I couldn’t get enough of future societies forming haphazardly after a great war or societal reorganizing. I was into the civilizations that emerged. I felt, because I had lost control of something I loved to do and was a little trapped in, that the time I was living in was insufficient. There wasn’t a real requirement to the escapist programs and literature I sought in my bout of not writing, only that they take place–at least partially–in outer space. I justified my break by thinking I could stop writing if humanity dissolved into chaos, took to the skies in clunker rockets or sophisticated vessels of fiberglass and chrome. I could allow myself to stop writing only if I suddenly had to pack up and shoot off my demolished planet on a rickety DIY spaceship (the kind I would prefer, since it’s the end of the world anyway). This was the only scenario I imagined acceptable to excuse my lack of writing. I imagined the night sky sparkled eternally around me. When I looked out of a little circular window on my imagined space craft to watch a minor comet, or glowing bit of space debris shoot across the distant night, I imagined there was something so profound and extraordinary about the universe that I didn’t–couldn’t–understand, that it was OK if I never wrote again, because the truths were all suddenly different. I was no longer a writer because I was no longer on my home planet. I was in a little ship without earthly concerns. I was very OK with this.

I used to like riding in airplanes, but not anymore. Preparing for an airplane ride is an uncomfortable hassle, followed by a series of ever-tightening restrictions on the body’s natural shapes and excretions. Traveling by airplane requires too much forethought. The correct amount of fluid ounces, the easiest shoes, the emptying of all the carry-on pockets to remove stray lighters or pepper spray. It’s a too-restricted form of traveling for anyone who hopes to soak and savor messages exchanged in spaces in between spaces. One must plan for the discomfort of an airport in advance. Somewhere between boarding the plane and arriving at the next airport, brain function bottlenecks. We become essential again, primitive. Language is obstructed by growing discomfort. Etiquette lies somewhere, flattened in some rural area after being ejected from the aircraft. No matter how many times I clean my hands, my fingernails are always black after flying. But a spaceship allows for the freedom to choose what you carry, and the spaceship is designed for long distances and relies on sharp mental faculties. I had a checklist for my perfect spaceship-driven story arc. I dreamed of strong female pilots, conflicts and tensions on different planets. There should be at least one elaborate heist to get the blood pumping. Romance was a take-it-or-leave-it. Honestly, I could do without.

Before I was into outer space, I was into oceans. There weren’t enough programs on the ocean to keep me satisfied. I watched everything I could find, and then I watched them all again. This is also a bad habit of mine: I like things I’ve seen before. It was a wonderful distraction from writing! I would do it again if I could grant myself the permission. I watched all the ocean documentaries and then I watched the documentaries on life on earth. I read about giant squids and took myself to my favorite museum exhibits alone, where a winding ramp took me down through a blue display of deep ocean life and backwards into history, when ocean plants were as strange as those on distant planets. I thought, if all this doesn’t bring me inspiration, it at least will bring me pleasure, one of the rare feelings during a period of sustained creative inactivity. I was obsessed with finding either the ancestor of all life on the planet, down in the deep sea where we all emerged and became erect and walked as giants on dry land, or with imagining the future hybrids that would emerge from a fragmented society. My progression into a period of not writing was a movement from the first sparks of sentient life on earth, to contemplating an advanced, utopian society. The story of my procrastination was the story of life itself.

In time, I began to live in darkness.

The late, exhausting hours spent ignoring my deadlines and responsibilities branched out like neurons, until I was aware of every minute blinking in and out, and of the circular behavior of thought patterns. This pushed me into a premature period of writing again, and I wasn’t ready for it. At night in the oceans, coral polyps bonk around with each other (sex) while the host bodies do the dirty work waging turf disputes (conflict). They encroach on their neighbors, throbbing and clawing with their intestinal webs, devouring the hard shell of the adjacent body. I shouldn’t have forced my writing to happen during my not writing period, because during those nights, my mind turned into coral. It chewed up old ideas and turned them to dust, spitting out fragments of weak flesh and new buddings. I watched on in horror. Everything I made during the daylight hours was turned into food for the more aggressive and terrifying part of the creative brain, that insatiable, horrific critic that is most active in the evenings. This signified something important that I have taken many years to learn: when you’re not working, own it. Be the observer, the normal person, the sponge. Don’t be a writer or an artist when you are supposed to be taking a break to learn.

This was a wonderful piece of wisdom to discover, even if I have to relearn it each time. And in spite of, or maybe because of this, I turned into a night writer. Which I hate. I prefer daylight activity. I photosynthesize like a houseplant with ideas in periods of writing. But when I was finally plugged back into writing again, the days were taken over by the crushing to-do lists I had accumulated while I shirked and procrastinated my responsibilities. Nighttime was when I felt some sense of freedom from what I expected of myself, and as long as I wasn’t lying down and thinking at the same time, I discovered I could write again, just a little bit. Many nights, at a time when I would happily be headed off to bed, an idea struck my head like a book falling from a shelf, and I knew I couldn’t just lay there like an idiot. (The biggest lie I still tell myself is “I’ll remember that tomorrow”.)

What I discovered about this process seems, in retrospect, like an inevitable evolution. In the nighttime, I was closer to the color of space and the color of the deep ocean. Being surrounded by the dark, even in the light polluted city, renewed my sense of freedom from the world. At night, in my little apartment, in a submarine or a spacecraft gliding through a weightless environment, I could imagine I was free from the self-generated pressure to write and write well. Responsibility, commitments, deadlines, criticism, and self-doubt all disappeared behind me as I cruised further away from the scattering dust of earth into as much blank space as I could dream. It’s unfortunate that I am this kind of writer, who can’t snatch up and utilize free moments like acorns falling to the yard, because I need much more space and patience than any creative person should be allowed. So this is what I’m getting at: I’m writing now, and I’m going to post more finished work up on the website. I promise it won’t all be publishable work, or even work that is polished (to my obsessive Virgo standards) but it will be something.

In the meantime, if you have any recommendations for your favorite space and sea books, TV shows, or movies, I will save them in a list for the next time I stop writing.

 

 

Nightmares

AllmanRicky02.jpg

Image courtesy of Studios Inc

I’m going to tell you about my first nightmare. I walked up the stairs to my room, the first room I was ever conscious of belonging to me, of being my space in a house. There was a creature over my bed. It was a skeleton, and it was flashing colors, jerking wildly on unconnected bones, and it was making my bed. This is the first nightmare—maybe even the first dream—I remember. Of course I had this long before my natural anxiety latched on to everything plausible a naturally anxious person could be afraid of. What makes me tell you this is the eerie resemblance between Ricky Allman’s Domestic Dusk to my first encounter with oneiric fear.

For those of you who are still with me in the second paragraph: Allman’s exploration into the nightmare realm involves genetic modification, emotionally reactive technology, and colorful skeletons in impossible human poses. The paintings strike a comparison between the infrastructure of our bodies, and a city experiencing a sudden surge of technological resources. Closing in on the rich details of the paintings adds to the mounting stack of questions. Are we floating in space? What are the laws of physics in this dimension? Is that a body or a machine? Little is revealed in the minutia that cannot be grasped by taking the whole thing in at once. That doesn’t mean the details aren’t worth considering. Allman has spent enough time on them to reward the viewers approach. Every inch of the canvas is a traffic jam of information, potential opportunities to dive deeper into the microscope of Allman’s mind, to see exactly how this painting, these ideas, work at their atomic level.

Thrumming synth filled the gallery on opening night. Allman’s distorted speech joined a looping musical component, played live on keyboards and computers hooked up to pedals on the floor. A projection hit the two white walls behind the set up, dragging the audience through prairies and mountains and cloud spattered skies. The accompanying music was droney, panicked, and built complex relationships that looped and self-complicated. The more the notes repeated, the less predictable the track became. Such is the method Allman employs in his brushstroke too. Patterns are shattered by bursts of rhythmic color and sound.

On my second visit, the gallery was much quieter. The speaker between the angled walls emitted something in Italian, and then a loop of spaceship beeps that were quiet enough to tune out. Allman’s paintings and music capture a specific anxiety about the evolution of humanity and technology. (Experiencing the music and paintings combined, I couldn’t help but remember the film Koyaanisqatsi, that this is what it would would look like if Francis Ford Copalla took a bunch of acid and shot the film in 2090.)

Seven Simultaneous Sunsets must refer to the number of pieces in the show (five paintings, an installation, and the musical projections) and to Allman’s fixation on unacceptable earth phenomenon. In every piece, Allman imagines seven ways humanity could sink below the horizon of the imaginable, into the dark nightmare of the distant future, where genetic editing, technology sentience, and omniscient experience are the next stage of evolution. If we can build a better city, we can build a better body.

 

Ricky Allman

Seven Simultaneous Sunsets

At Studios Inc

Until October 14th

Wide Angle

For his first solo exhibition in the United States, French photographer Nicolas Dhervillers introduces Kansas City to monumental landscapes on the bridge between modern day and history. Big, dramatic photographs contain cinematic magic imbued in the dark light of the landscapes. These require slow—preferably solo—viewing, and are best experienced at their full intended scale. Inspired by hard-hitting landscape painters, Dhervillers channels the emptiness of Gustave Courbet, the depth of Claude Lorrain, and the gray menace of Andrew Wyeth. The eye is naturally fixated on the human subjects, but the real subject looms dark and heavy in the rest of the environment. Albert Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, “Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”

The human inability to contain the world seeps out of the images and into the viewer. It is an intuition that translates from the art into every rational being, into everyone who has ever sought to understand the elusive, chaotic heart of the natural world. In the photo series “Detachment”, Dhervillers explores the figure as he faces vast and unyielding entropy, even when it coexists with modern developments. There is fog, dense greenery in the recesses of a wooded area, empty stretches on a gray road, and a single figure caught in an uncertain moment. It often appears to be the edge of winter.

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Many of the images clearly embrace contemporary visual hooks of a fictionalized cinematic style—a cabin goes up in flames as a 70s era Citroën coupe cruises away down the winding valley road. These hooks sometimes feel too clever, but can be forgiven if only because it does not diminish the pleasure of taking it in. Period specific clothes and modern technology make some of the photographs feel exempt from time—part today and part yesterday. The two men on the side of a shattered mountain certainly don’t belong in the same frame as a yellow backhoe, but it works, because this is theater. There are narrative threads to follow in every image, and sometimes the technical digital magic can feel heavy handed, causing the suspension of disbelief to crack, just a little. In this medium, and with such an emphasis on perfectly executed stage setting, any infinitesimal flaw in the digital process won’t go unnoticed by a searching eye.

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Nature, the world and all its familiarity, can leave us to our terrible solitude without warning. There is another passage from The Myth of Sisyphus that feels an appropriate philosophical descriptor for the work in the Dhervillers exhibition. It is this: “The world evades us because it becomes itself again. That stage scenery masked by habit becomes again what it is. It withdraws at a distance from us. Just as there are days when under the familiar face of a woman, we see as a stranger her we had loved months or years ago, perhaps we shall come even to desire what suddenly leaves us so alone. But the time has not yet come. Just one thing: that denseness and that strangeness of the world is the absurd.”

Indeed it is. For Nicolas Dhervillers to take on the conceptual weight of these philosophies while achieving perfection in his craft is definitely one of the quintessential struggles of humanity.

Nicolas Dhervillers

At Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art and Cerbera Gallery

Until October 21st

Bad Bitch: Women, Autonomy, and Embracing Villainy

 

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Angela Davis

 

One day, I finished being good. Like a timer on a clock it just ran out. I was crossing the street to my car after a meeting with an energy-draining person who did not captivate my attention, but I had been too polite to adhere to my formerly imposed hour-long cap. Because I was too concerned with being polite, being liked, and ending on a positive note, the meeting lasted three hours and threw off my plans for the rest of the afternoon. Why am I like this? I wondered. What compelled me to seek someone else’s approval to such an extent, I was willing to sacrifice my own agenda for someone I didn’t even find interesting? “That’s enough, Raab,” I said to myself—a adage I had cultivated to cope with the amplified spiral of chatter my brain turns on in moments of self-criticism. “You don’t have to be good.”

In fiction, a hero is one who practices good behavior, who does the right thing, at times to the detriment of their own health, happiness, and well-being. Good behavior is selfless and just. The villain, being the antithesis of the hero, therefore must be the pinnacle of bad behavior. Villains get to be selfish, even if their selfishness harms other people, law and order, and society at large. Villains don’t let their plans and ideas be corrupted by societies expectations, whereas heroes are forever at the mercy of what society demands must be done to preserve a moral way of life. This is not to say villains don’t live by some ethical code, and in the non-fiction world, women who exercise Bad behavior often have complex moral compasses. In the context of our society, a society dominated in most areas by men, bad behavior from women translates to rejecting the norms of this condition. Women who behave badly are not women who behave poorly: they are women who behave in accordance with their autonomy. By this rhetoric alone, one would be inclined to believe misbehaving is a state of childish spite or bitchiness. But to examine the ways women misbehave on a societal level and not and interpersonal one, we must distinguish between the two concepts.

Society was built on the backs of well-behaved women. A girl on good behavior is not too opinionated, not too loud, and not too brash. Good behavior is sweet and sexy, but not slutty. Healthy and smart but not egotistical. Good behavior is letting things be explained, letting things happen, and reacting with grace. Good behavior is giving without expecting return, obeying laws that are put in place for our own safety. It is saying “OK” to things that run opposite to your own agenda or goals. Good behavior is letting others get ahead, even if it’s your turn. For years, this is how I tried to behave. I admonished myself for exclaiming my beliefs in mixed company. I endured having things I already understood explained to me so I wouldn’t bruise another’s feelings. I kept my sexcapades on the DL. The consequence of trying to be on good behavior at all times is feeling like you’re not being good enough, modest enough, or polite enough. What I was really doing was fighting against my instincts to be myself because I thought that version of me was unattractive to too many people. While others were benefiting from my good behavior, I was suffering under the weight of my own self-criticism, one I had developed from borrowed concepts of women’s expected behavior in society. Choosing to be yourself at the risk of displeasing people is, at least for women and minorities, a radical act of bad behavior.

Who benefits from good behavior, specifically, my good behavior, and the good behavior of women everywhere? The day my dutiful meter ran out was the day I really asked myself this question for the first time. But as I thought about it, a more accurate question took its place: who profits from my good behavior? My lifelong drive to please people has resulted in a certain amount of cultivated naïveté, a reaction I employ because I want to see the best intentions in people who commandeer my time. This is a learned behavior, and one I, as I approach my 30th year, am unlearning every day. That afternoon when I felt the last of my good behavior wane and disappear in a feeble poof, I knew exactly who profited. They had a name, a face I spent watching talk for the last three hours, an agenda, people to rely my information to for monetary gain (which I would not benefit from). But this person was neither the beginning nor the end of the line of profiteering entities, entities I had tried to please but was somehow always coming up short.

I woke up on November 9th, 2016 feeling like someone I loved had died in the early hours of the morning. I spent the next two weeks numbing myself against the news and glancing sideways at strangers in the same room. I felt there was nobody I could trust unless they were in my closest inner circle of friends. As a white person from a family in an average economic bracket, it was a humbling and eye-opening two weeks. For the first time, I began to experience the world I imagine people of color, transgender individuals, poor people, atypical and differently-abled people live in every single day. I have never felt so empathic, yet totally distant from the people society has crushing expectations for. Never before had I realized the full extent of who gets to decide who has rights and who doesn’t, and it pissed me off so bad, I immediately began to make changes. I doubled down on replacing judgment with empathy. I showed the people in my life I cared about them and their well-being. And I stopped trying to please people for good.

The first thing I changed when I decided I wasn’t going to be good anymore had the most immediate results: I decided I wasn’t going to step aside for men when I stepped out the door for a walk. It seems innocent enough, but I’ve been shoulder checked by a number of guys who I’m pretty sure were unaware of my existence until they ran right into me. I’ve always been a non-physical person. I don’t like concerts or crowds or touching strangers, but this silent statement declaring my due space in the world flared up more than one temper in the men who walked into me. (Even the statement “they walked into me” runs counter to the way I’ve thought of myself all my life.) I expected this to happen. I’ve been yelled at from cars, from the sidewalk, in stores, and pretty much everywhere else considered a public space in the city. I’m used to ignoring cat-callers and their increasingly agitated and sometimes violent attempts to get my attention. I know there are men out there who feel so entitled to the world around them, they won’t even step aside for someone on the sidewalk. I spent 27 years stepping aside for them without a second thought, but now, it’s my turn. The responses I get range from polite stepping aside, to muttered slurs under breath, to aggressive confrontation. The only solution for me is to keep walking, but I’m aware of the danger this puts me in. Bad behavior is knowing there could be consequences, but sticking to your moral compass even though it could upset someone else’s carefully balanced ego. I encourage safety and situational awareness for everyone who isn’t a straight white male, but the problem of social entitlement is not caused by the people in our nation who are routinely and viciously oppressed.

No one knows how old the narrative is, but society values tough men, compliant women, quiet Black people, birth gender conformity, tragic White heroes, standard beauty, and sexual agreeability. As long as we stick to these rules, our good behavior is rewarded—not with advocacy or social gain—but with tolerance. good behavior doesn’t move the needle closer to equality or understanding, it only performs the status quo. A conscious choice to behave in a way counter to these expectations results in overblown consequences that unevenly mirror what good behavior gains. I grew up with many strong and loud women who were shamed or cut off by their bosses, their mothers or fathers, and their peers. Don’t cause a fuss. Don’t raise your voice. Don’t argue. Don’t stomp your feet or ask for more or expect a return on your efforts. Do what you are supposed to do and take pride in the knowledge that you made life easier for someone else. Phrases like these have a way of sticking in our heads until we absorb them as truths, but when we embrace bad behavior, when we ask for what we need instead of wait for things to be bestowed upon us, we see these words only as tools to keep us on good behavior.

In 2014 I wrote a criticism of a young woman who had her face Photoshopped into different versions of beauty in countries all over the world. The project was meant to challenge beauty standards, but when I saw the project pop up in Harpers Bazaar, Cosmo, Elle, and other traditionally female targeted magazines, I wondered how the project rose to the challenge. In the critique, I concluded that it didn’t, that any momentum the project originally had ended as soon as the spread appeared in the entities that heavily control the feminine image-agenda. This was the first time I explored how even when our intentions are radical, women are funneled into being perceived as practicing good behavior when it comes to media presentation. The young woman agreed to have her project published in the same magazines that once published a headline that read: “Here’s How Many Calories a Day Victoria’s Secret Model Taylor Hill Eats to Look Like This.” The woman set out to explore standards of beauty throughout the world in order to challenge the status quo of today, but by agreeing to publish in such magazines, remained on her best behavior without moving the needle away from pervasive female stereotypes.

Women misbehave by being themselves. For young women, self-awareness is inextricable from self-loathing, at least at first. When I was a teenager, I became aware of myself by becoming aware of how people looked at and treated me, and these were for the most part negative experiences. I was unaware of the expectations I was meant to meet in society. As a skinny white girl, I was privileged in many ways, but some of this privilege was connected to the image of the ideal sexualized woman, and I was twelve or thirteen when this actually dawned on me. When the grown men around you start to say “you should be a model,” it’s flattering until you begin to understand how models are treated, how they treat their own bodies, and how they are expected to release their autonomy to corporate agendas. The first thing a young woman realizes about models is that she will never be one, because she will never be good enough. It’s too much responsibility for a young woman—to grow up and be self-sufficient, strong, smart, autonomous, while protecting yourself from the onslaught of beasts that expect your image to yield something that only benefits others. Good behavior is doing both: growing up and being strong, but giving yourself piece by piece to society that demands your image, your body, your beauty, be used to their exclusive gain. This makes bad behavior, villainous behavior, an attractive draw from an early age. But it is a struggle to achieve unless you are totally impervious to pain and criticism. For women of color, autonomy is a risk with consequences that are multiple times scarier than what I face as a white girl. When a woman of color started the civil rights movement, the reaction from society was violent and motivated by fear. The simple act of not doing anything when something was expected of Rosa Parks launched a battle for black women to fight for decades to come. Society expects a different set of good behaviors from them—quiet, out of the spotlight, wise only when it benefits white heroes, and above all: grateful for any slim opportunity. Young women of color have experienced the cruelest duality of sexualization and suppression by society, it’s difficult to imagine how they manage the strength to push back during a time when it’s so easy to become exhausted.

When I was growing up, under the wing of second wave feminists and part-time lesbians, I learned the power of sex. The problem was, like it is for many girls, it was not a power I discovered myself and therefore had no control. It’s a power that is not consciously operated by adolescents, like a machine with sensitive controls, but it is one that magnetizes men of all ages. There probably isn’t a single woman on the planet who could avoid this entirely during the years she grew into understanding her sexuality. My experiences taught me that young women are gifted something powerful and menacing, something they should be careful using and exercise extreme caution when wielding. I was taught sex complicates every relationship, because it is something you can never take back. It is something the men you sleep with own. Sex was about giving up a part of myself, not gaining a part of someone else. We have been teaching young men and women two completely different things about sex for so long, I still feel guilt for past sexual experiences that I should have tossed off long ago. When I wonder if the men of those moments feel the same way about it, I feel a sick and empty sense that this is a uniquely feminine guilt, that for many women, it’s so hard to let go of sexual guilt because of the way we were taught to think about using our bodies. Certainly, I can’t think about this problem without linking it to LGBT youth, who must experience the same kind of guilt and conflict at the start of their personal development. These issues are tricky to separate into male/female/straight/gay/trans/etc exclusivity, but I’m trying to say I don’t believe the way we talk to young people about sex and their bodies has traditionally been in favor of anyone besides straight cis men and their experience of intercourse and sexual prowess. I wasn’t really aware sex was something I could enjoy until I got to my third or fourth partner, but until then, I never questioned that what I did was for someone else. And this problem is not unique to my life. It’s a symptom of a culture that associates good behavior with giving without asking to receive. Women who demand to be reciprocated for what they give, or worse, expect good things to happen to them without giving anything in return, are the villains of many real life and fictional tales. This comes all the way down to basic human rights. Women who expect to be in control of their bodies, their decisions, their autonomy, even their voting rights, are punishable in the eyes of capitalism and sanctioned by the law.

In contemporary society, women are demonized for owning their sexuality. The expectation to be virginal—if not anatomically, than at least soulfully—is an unsustainable pressure on young women in particular. We see villainous women wielding their charm and sexual authority and are meant to believe it is further evidence of their immorality, of their lack of restraint when using this powerful tool. We interpret villainous sex as women who are less discerning about who they sleep with and who they wield sexual power over. Sexual contentment—whether or not the woman perceives what she is doing as sexual—is disqualifying in almost every field outside Hollywood. Sexualizing women is only acceptable if it’s non-consensual. Vanessa Williams began her illustrious career by being on her best behavior. The 1983 Miss America was pressured to forfeit her title when Penthouse published racy photos of the young model. The photographs were taken consensually and published without her authorization, causing the Miss America committee and fans to question her credibility as the crown winner. Williams returned her title and could easily have faded into the ether of shame the public projected onto her image. Instead, Williams turned her bad behavior into a successful career as a singer, author, actress, and award winner. She defied the media and public expectations of self-flagellation after the controversy, turning the tables on how young women are meant to carry themselves after this level of public admonishment. The time-honored tradition of using women’s sexuality and consent to ruin their lives and careers continues at a steady rate with the rise of social media, because shame and fear are qualities of good behavior. At the time of the backlash, Williams no doubt felt an unbelievable weight of discouragement over the storm, but her decision to own her choices, her sexuality, and her status made her the hero of her own story and a role model for bad girls everywhere. In 2011, Michelle Obama did the unthinkable: after all the backlash she received for wearing sleeveless dresses, she had the nerve to wear short shorts on vacation. Of course, the shadowy nay-sayers on the internet lashed out saying this was not appropriate attire for a First Lady. Photos of Mrs. Obama in the racy garments show the hem of the shorts about four inches above her knee—hardly what I would consider short shorts by any stretch. Nevertheless, the fact that a woman in power exposed a little more of her skin, more than 25% of Huffington Post poll voters were comfortable with, caused a knick in her credibility and image. (Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin rides around horses shirtless and is heralded as a champion for masculinity.) Femininity, specifically one woman’s ownership of femininity, specifically a black woman’s ownership of her body, has potentially damaging consequences for a woman in power. Society treats Melania Trump the same way. Although her whiteness allows her much more leniency, her clothes and body have been sexualized and celebrated or condemned before her intelligence and capabilities were even considered. Her evolution as an individual is only almost as interesting as the career of the man she is associated with. Image is praised before autonomy, and women who flip this expectation are automatically at risk of public scorn.

A villain is, above all else, familiar with rejection. She has been told no so many times in her life, she has been told she is not good enough, it no longer means anything to her greater agenda. This frees her to go on her way the way she has learned to function: without support. This might be the definitive difference between the hero and the villain. The hero is used to being told yes, while the villain is used to opportunities being withheld and has no more disillusion about why. I bring this up to address the new realities of rejection in a technological society, part of which includes online dating. Everyone gets rejected at some point, but with the rise of dating apps and other means of romantic communication, we’re seeing the phenomenon of men who have perceived themselves as heroes of their own world for most of their lives burst into flames at the first hint of rejection from a potential partner. Young women are more confident and secure than ever before, and the expectation for women to blush or contradict with self-effacement after a compliment is not as realistic as it used to be. The amazing thing about this phenomenon is we can provide evidence of male fragility to a thousand people in a second, with the press of a key. Women misbehave by being confident in their romantic lives, and not cutting themselves down for men to rebuild with compliments and words of assurance. Confidence for women is becoming, if not for the first time, at least for the largest public, self-generating. This poses a threat to individuals who rely on searching for insecurities to gain something from a relationship. The contrast between young women who fight each day for things we shouldn’t have to earn–basic respect, equal pay, access to healthcare–and young men who lose it when a woman says “no thank you” to a second date is a micro study in the social order that grew out of women being pressured into good behavior.

I could go on. I could talk about the wage gap, the fragility of masculinity, America’s prison complex, the raging political fire that is sure to grow. But bad behavior is tiring and not exactly rewarded. Young women, grown women, women of all colors, all gender and sexual identities, it’s time to consider your good behavior, the context of your manners. Ask yourself who profits from it, and are you seeing enough, or any, of that profit in your own life. It’s time to rethink your place in society. It’s time to use the power you have, not the power you’ve been allowed to wield in a designated space at appropriate times. It’s time to misbehave.

 

Counter Culture: Justin Beachler’s Babalon Working

In many ways, the late 2010’s are starting to resemble the 1960s. There is a new attitude of political distrust and a bitter sense that the country is trying to revert back to values that espouse racism, sexism, and recently, neo-fascism. While artists are busy finding ways to fight the swell of hate overtaking our country, Justin Beachler is bringing back hippie era coping mechanisms of occult magic, stoner dens, and tye-dye. His solo show, Babalon Working at Bunker Center for the Arts plays with the light and dark sides of 60s counterculture in an incense scented installation.

We met at his home studio to discuss the upcoming show at Bunker and take a look at the work in progress. “I was very interested in the 60s and psychedelic culture when I was younger. I’ve been making work about it since I was in Charlotte Street in 2013, creating Head Shop with Tim Brown from OK Mountain.”—an artist run collective in Austin. I didn’t see Head Shop, but I did see Beachler’s Old & In The Way last year at Haw Contemporary. The display of homemade water pipes made from flavored beverage bottles was congruent with Beachler’s interest in clashing colors and inelegant display. Haphazard as it looks, his aesthetic has specific origins. “When I was a kid I spent a lot of time in head shops and music stores. It was a weird capitalistic form of subculture. Everything in all the stores looked the same, with the same posters, the same weird dragon wizard holding a glass orb. And after I made the funny work, I went back to the darker side of psychedelic culture that I remember from my childhood.” Beachler sites one particular experience that awakened him to the culture of drug use. “My dad’s a biker, and I remember being in these biker houses with him, in spaces with Easy Rider centerfolds everywhere. Once, I found a medical clamp with macramé woven to the bottom, with a roach clamped on the end. ‘What’s that?’ I asked. My dad stopped bringing me after that.” Pulling from this formative memory, Beachler reconstructed what he saw that day for Babalon Working, tying his own macramé helixes and found feathers onto medical clips, now with sticks of incense pinched between the teeth instead of the last puff of a joint.

In his own words, Beachler describes his work as “frivolous and irresponsible.” Exploring the conceptual potential in consumer objects in a time of great global distress is a way of watering down the conversations we need to be having. “The concept’s I’m working with aid in nothing but distraction from the serious cultural problems currently at hand,” he says of his work. The Internet has certainly provided us fantastic tools for distractions, and Beachler uses his Instagram feed to layer hyper-colorful and erotic stimuli into images of blended meaning. These posts are flavored like a bad acid trip, shrill and lurid enough to wipe all thoughts of political outrage from your mind for a moment during the scroll. Beachler’s posts are hard to untangle on a little screen and feel more like sketches of the finer art that enters the gallery. His posts contrast the phenomenon of using Instagram to sell a twee bohemian lifestyle, as many successful accounts portray the sun flared wanderlust dreams of the flower children. Beachler’s psychedelic/occult/erotica aesthetic leans into the digital age with a well-curated false reality.

The show’s title Babalon Working refers to a “sex magick ritual” performed by L. Ron Hubbard and Jack Parsons in 1947 based on Aleister Crowley’s Scarlet Woman. The ritual was designed to manifest the liberated woman archetype, a stand-in for the Whore of Babylon. (Parsons felt he achieved this when he met Marjorie Cameron, but the second part of the ritual—impregnation—was unsuccessful.) Beachler relies heavily on myth and assumption to inform the audiences experience of his installation, which evokes a ritual recently completed in a dark area of the gallery. “Everyone has a different part of the story before they arrive at the gallery. I gave my friends one piece of information, the press another, and the gallery another. Nobody walks in with the full story.” He cites a party with the Terry Radio crew before he installed the bongs at Haw. One party-goer walked in and smiled, turned to a friend and said “We smoked out of those.”

Though the work lacks real authenticity (Beachler was born in 1981) it is palpable to an age group that grew up with the same occult culture curiosity and access to the Internet in the early aughts. “The psychedelic thing is making a comeback, and the Internet is full of it,” says Beachler, who grew up reading the classic drug experience review site Erowid.org. It’s a joke to equate a few tye-dyed tapestries and beaded curtains with any anti-capitalist and anti-consumer sentiment today, but Beachler sees this as a source of irony for today’s generation. “We’re using irony to fight a crippling sense of or hopelessness for the future. Irony is one of the only conceptual forms that feels right at this moment.”

 

First Days at Art Farm

June 2nd, 2017

I arrived at Art Farm yesterday late afternoon. I claimed my studio—a square hut at the edge of the property—and cleaned all the raccoon poop and old junk from the previous resident. My hut has no electricity or internet or water or a bathroom, but it’s a good hut. I’ve been trying to write and I realized I didn’t have any coffee this morning. I’m considering walking all the way back to drink some, but then I’ll have to walk out here again. The walking isn’t really what I’m worried about, it’s needing to use a bathroom and being so far away. Getting old is like that. I’m happy to get down to writing business again. How long has it been since I produced a complete story? A year? Six months? Too long, but the graduate school application and rejection ordeal had me thrown way off course. I thought by now I would have chosen a school and started to prepare to leave for a new city to focus all my energy on writing. But nothing is happening the way I pictured it.

I sat down to write in my hut and I listened to the birds and rabbits chirping in the grass. Women’s voices muttered outside the walls and I turned to the new residents coming to check out the hut. Nobody was there. I looked out the windows, the grass stretching for acres before meeting another landmark for civilization. I turned back to the computer and a half-baked sentence I was working with when I heard the muttering again. I stood and walked to the doorway to prepare for visitors, but again nobody was coming my way. I walked around the hut to see if there was something I had missed. Only empty birds nests, a white sheet hanging from a tree, and a machete stuck in the wood. Could it have been the wind rippling the thin metal blade? The empty gown in the tree? Was is coming from the walls of the hut?

I left to make coffee to prevent a withdrawal headache and burned my hand on hot water as I cleaned the machine. Mold grew from the filter left in over the winter, white and blooming like the cotton tufts that decorate the driveway. I ran clean water through and washed the entire thing again. There were no filters, so I tore off a piece of paper towel and tucked it in the funnel. I carried my coffee carefully back through the tall grass, the sun now burning the dew off the farm in the late morning, and sat back down at the laptop. The open door rattled against the brick I set out to prop it open and birds chattered in the tree outside my window. It is windy on the prairie. No women sang.

When the sun appears on the other side of the hut, I pack my things and head back to the farmhouse. I’m too slow to see the animals that dart off the path into the blanket of grass, but they are small and timid and, obviously, very fast. I think they might be rabbits. It gets dark in a way I’m not used to. The sky is everywhere, unbroken by buildings or tall trees or highways. When the sun goes down it takes a long time for the light to go with it. When it is finally dark, it is prairie dark, rich and infinite, the door to space flung wide. I forgot what real dark is like. It’s coming back to me. This last year I thought about Anne Boyer’s Not Writing poem a lot. What is not writing when you’re a writer? Does it make you something else, even when you spend all your time thinking about writing, and studying it, and feeling your way through it? I also thought about productivity and guilt. I have discussions with art school friends about this. When you are not in studio you are not moving forward, and when you are not moving forward you will be left behind. This was our mantra in college. Every moment of spare time, no matter what your personal environment is like or what life changes are happening, must be spent in studio making things. I am always writing, but I am not always producing great and interesting work. This is a hard ongoing reality for artists, because we compare our worst work to other artists’ best work, then admonish ourselves for not being brilliant on the first try. Does this ever change? So if I spent a year not being brilliant or attentive in the work I was making, it’s still a fairly small amount of time in the big picture. You can be not writing or not creating for as long as you need to get your thoughts in order, but it doesn’t make one not a writer or not an artist.

 

June 3rd, 2017

This morning I got up at 7:30 and had cereal. Nobody else was moving around the house until I was almost finished, then another resident came down and we listened to the news together. I walked to my hut and spent 30 minutes watching birds through the binoculars. There is a brilliant fire breasted Baltimore oriole that sits in the nearby tree. I watched a male brown-head Cowbird try and woo a female. How lucky! Then I watched three Cowbird’s try their luck at the same time, standing in a row on a T-post behind the female. They groomed themselves, puffed out, and tiptoed with backs straight and their heads tucked into their chests, and made high popping calls for attention, which I have been practicing with my cheeks to confuse the flock. When the female turned to look at them, they all pointed their beaks up and stretched up tall, flattening their wings against their iridescent bodies. She wasn’t impressed, or perhaps the mood was all wrong. When they fly, they produce an alarm clock rattle that is hard to ignore.

Starting to write again is strange–both new and familiar. I have good energy and willingness to sit down two or three times a day and work, taking short breaks for lunch and to recharge my laptop. Whatever is coming out of this is mixed, but at least I’m working those brain muscles again. Honestly, the months leading up to this have been difficult, and my energy was all caught up in not writing affairs. It’s good to have time, space, and a routine. Everyday I get up, eat breakfast, got to the hut and write, come back to the house and eat a sandwich, charge, go back to the hut and write, come back for dinner, and sometimes go back to the hut and write until the sun pierces the windows and bakes my brain.

Send good thoughts if you have some to spare. I’ll take what I write in the next two weeks to my writing group and have complete fiction up here again in no time.

Blood for Babies

The nurse marks a yellow smear of iodine on my vein and tapes the needle down. In a moment, the blood starts to flow into a clear bag. The bag rests near enough to my hand I can touch it and it surprises me by being warm. Of course it would be warm. It is the temperature of my body, of my flushed cheeks when the handsome nurse across the room runs his hand through his exhausted hair. My nurse gives me a rubber ball to squeeze and moves the blood bag away from my hand, pretending not to notice I have it pinched between my fingers. The warmth is gone. I give the rubber ball a series of pumps and feel the rush of heat trail down my arm.

“I try to do this every year,” I say to my nurse, a girl with blue eye shadow and red scrubs. She leans against the machine and crosses her arms. “My dad is a blood donor. He used to tell us about the cookies he got afterward. It made me want to donate when I was young.”

My nurse gazes up at the face of the clock. “Uh-huh. We have Oreo’s.”

There is a pretty round nurse chatting with a blonde square-headed man reclining in the chair next to mine. The man on the donation chair has a red blanket across his lap, which adds a certain sweetness to the bond between him and the nurse. Before I got to the donation center, someone—I like to think it was the nurse—tucked him in. He’s hooked up to a clunky machine that makes pops and hisses as it extracts and separates an oily yellow fluid from his blood. He and the nurse are watching a music video on her phone, I guess, to try and keep the man awake.

“My blood type is O negative,” I say.

“We’ll do a test later to determine your type.”

“I know my type. It’s O negative.” I squeeze the rubber ball again, feel the prick of the needle in my stretching vein.

“If that’s the case, your blood will go to our baby bag.”

“Your what?”

She glances down and kneads the bag, massaging into place the blood that falls evenly down, down.

“The baby bag. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Your blood will go to babies.”

“Oh.”

No more handsome nurse. I can see him in his regular clothes outside the window that faces the parking lot. He wears a messenger bag across his chest and is maybe younger than I guessed before. Twenty-eight?

“How long until I can donate again?” I ask casually. But I’m not smooth about it. She already saw me checking out the handsome nurse and gives me a dirty look.

“Sixty days,” she says. I squeeze my ball and check the blood bag. It starts looking full.

Two bags slowly fill up with the clear yellow platelets in the chair next to mine. If I saw this blonde man anywhere else, I would guess he was uncomfortably close to passing out.

“You’re almost done,” says his nurse. The man smiles, his grin a little dopey from all the extraction.

“Do a lot of babies need blood?” I ask. The donation has me lightheaded too.

My nurse shrugs. “More than you might expect.”

I don’t know what I expect. I expect babies to be healthy, to not need blood from strangers my age, who only walked in one afternoon because it occurred to them giving blood was something that must be done once in a while. Do I expect babies to need blood from other babies? It forces me to consider the age and plasticity of my blood, which has recycled itself for twenty-seven years, which I have dumped senseless amounts of toxins into an embarrassing number of times. If I have any relationship with my blood, it can be summed up in one word: careless.

“What about that stuff, the platelets?” I nod to the machine making quieter sounds now as it slows down the process.

“Spoken for at St. Luke’s General. A patient there needs this particular batch.” She seems bored with my conversation so I hold back my next series of questions. Together we watch the blood stream out of my arm and into the bag that will be transported to some babies, somewhere near us or far away.

In another ten minutes my bag is full and the nurse pulls the needle from my arm. She covers the entry wound with gauze and lifts my arm above my head. I am instructed to stay like that until the bleeding stops. When the bleeding stops, I am escorted to the snack area and given a bag of pretzels and a bottle of apple juice. The platelet man is at the table, eating a Nutter Butter, watching a cooking show. We sit there like kids, woozy, peckish, under the watchful eyes of the daytime nurses disinfecting the chairs we left behind. The small room smells like a hospital.

“How you feeling?” he asks. Without the blanket covering him, I see he’s in blue scrubs. He slurs, just a little.

“Fine,” I say. “I’ve done this lots of times.” He smiles another foolish grin and I wonder how long it takes the body to replenish the oily matter that binds our blood together. We eat and I watch the cooking show. It’s something I know how to do. Eventually, the man in blue scrubs who donated platelets gets up and wobbles off down a hall that leads to the back of the building. I sit alone a while longer and eat a second bag of snacks while the women on TV spread icing on a chocolate cake and engage in inane banter. Nobody comes or goes.