Ulysses and Achilles, Fidel and Che

This post originally appeared on the Cleveland Foundation website March 27, 2012

I have been amazed and enlightened by many things I have learned from the Cuban artists who have been in residence these past months as part of our Creative Fusion program. Last week, art historian Meira Marrero and visual artist Josè Toirac presented their work at a lecture in collaboration with the Cleveland Clinic at the clinic’s Glickman Conference Center. And while I’d heard these visitors speak before, this lecture took me deeper into an understanding of the role that art plays in the larger Cuban culture.

Although much of Cuban art is political, it is both revered and respected by the political establishment. I see two possible reasons for this. The world values the arts and so Cuba has invested significantly in training artists. Second, the world values the work of Cuban artists and so the prominence of these artists internationally does credit to the regime.

But there is another, more subtle and sophisticated reason that Cuban art can carry a politically challenging message while being accepted by those it is criticizing. All of the Cuban art that our visitors have presented here is based on fact. Cuban artists are telling their country’s own story and using materials and images taken from their real lives – but repurposing them to carry a message or reflect reality in a way that is deeply meaningful. If and when confronted, the artist can show that the images are merely part of what IS as interpreted through an artistic medium – not a subjective and biased social commentary by a political activist.

So Josè Toirac’s series of photographs juxtaposing current street scenes and buildings in Havana with their counterparts from 50+ years ago is fact – at the same time it comments on what Cuba has lost under the longstanding regime. One work, however, went a little too far. Josè and Meira created an exhibition of the portraits of all of Cuba’s presidents (more than two dozen in Cuba’s turbulent history – some of whom only held office for a few days) which places Fidel near the end as just one of many, followed by his brother and with an empty nail in the wall for the next el presidente. While it would be going too far to say the work was officially censored, the government used the excuse of “this is just not the right time” for the work to be shown in Cuba.

Finally, near the end of the lecture, Toirac explained that Cuba had two heroes – Ulysses and Achilles. When asked about using mythological Greeks as heroes of the Cuban people, Toirac explained that those that carry the culture of Cuba are always looking to the place where Cuban culture intersects with global culture. And in the life of contemporary Cuba, Fidel Castro and Che Guevera stand as oppositional archetypes. Fidel is like the wily Ulysses (Odysseus), always scheming to outwit fate and live for glory and fame.

The long story of Ulysses’ journey as one of the only survivors of the Trojan War bespeaks his, and by extension Fidel’s, triumph over every adversity the gods threw at him. On the other hand, to be mature in the world is to be like Che – not the man, but the symbol who, like Achilles, chose to fight and strive and die for the glory of his homeland.

I was struck by the real and deep connection these very contemporary Cuban artists were making with universal human archetypes of Western civilization, bringing a mythical but shared past into their understanding of the particular and present reality of their lives. It was quite moving.

They Make Their Own!

This post originally appeared on the Cleveland Foundation website April 6, 2012

Last week I had the privilege of previewing several sections of a new work by Bill Wade’s Inlet Dance Theater. They were in residence in Playhouse Square’s Launch program, which gives a local performing arts group the time, space, and resources to develop new work. Bill and his company had done a residency on Easter Island a few years ago. Since returning, they have been working on choreographing an evening-length piece inspired by the cultural experiences they had there. The Launch program was supporting the completion of that work.

What I saw was wonderful – original and deeply moving work. I can’t wait to see the whole piece. But what I heard, from Bill’s thoughtful, passionate recounting of his and the dancers’ experiences, was in some ways even more meaningful to me. Inlet was the first modern dance company to ever visit Easter Island. In their time there, the Americans learned much from the ancient native traditions of dance and music – unchanged over the generations. But when the Inlet dancers performed for the Islanders, the Americans got a lesson in humility and diplomacy. One Islander saw the many different kinds of movement in the Americans’ work and was puzzled about what the tradition was that generated the movement. When Bill said there was no one tradition (“We made it up ourselves”) the individual was astounded. “They make it themselves!” was repeated again and again in amazement. And the impact of this reaction on Bill was to recognize that he and his company were not just artists exchanging creative ideas, they were ambassadors for American culture. This created a sense of deep responsibility that he had not felt in quite the same way before. And it also surfaced something that we, as Americans, don’t often remember; that what makes us so different from the rest of the world is the fact that we don’t all come from a long and shared tradition. We make our culture ourselves – and it is as complex and various and changing as we are. And the freedom we have to create here makes our culture forever new, and therefore undefinable, except in the way that we relate to and share with those outside our experience.

In the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion program, we are learning that the international artists we help bring here gain a perspective on America that most of them do not get in their home countries. Almost without exception, all of the artists who have spent time here (11 to date) have said, in one way or another, “America is very different from what I expected. The people are kind and generous and they care about us and about one another.” In a way, everyone who interacts with our program’s visitors is an ambassador for American culture. Cleveland is working on many levels to reclaim its place as an important international city. If we are all part of the continual process of making our own unique American culture, it seems to me that we need to share Bill’s sense of diplomatic responsibility as cultural ambassadors – here in our own hometown.

How Poetry Heals the Healer

This article originally appeared on the Cleveland Foundation website April 30, 2012

Last week I attended a lecture and poetry reading by Dr. Rafael Campo, sponsored jointly by Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner College of Medicine and the Clinic’s Center for Ethics, Humanities and Spiritual Care. Since it was a poetry reading, you might suspect the “Dr.” indicates Dr. Campo’s terminal degree in Arts and Letters. But he is a medical doctor – a general practitioner – and a poet.

Dr. Campo is a champion for the healing power of language. And what he means by this is something far more complex and layered than just the way that writing poetry can express and thereby help relieve a patient’s experience of illness.

Dr. Campo talks so eloquently about the unfortunate “militarization” of the language of medicine – how doctors are trained to “fight” illness; that if they haven’t cured the disease they’ve “lost the battle.” This focus on the illness as an enemy of the doctor’s, rather than on the suffering of the patient, distances the doctor from the humanity of the ones who are suffering. In his poetry, Dr. Campo tries to elevate the stories of the patient through the low-tech language of poetry, and to combat (or counter attack?) the clinical and scientific language that creates a protective wall behind which doctors can hide from the reality of their patients’ pain.

When he writes, he uses the poetic meter of what he calls “the iambic heartbeat.” The “iamb” is a metrical measure of two syllables, the first unstressed, the second stressed – da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / etc., echoing the pumping rhythm of the heart. Much of Shakespeare’s most famous lines are written in iambic pentameter, (five “iambs” to the line.)* It is, perhaps, the most familiar rhythm to English-speaking people.

The reading was attended by med students, humanities students, doctors, poets, and other Clinic staff. Also present, and reading their poems, were three medical students – winners of this year’s William Carlos Williams Poetry Contest, a 40-year-old competition sponsored by NEOMED (Northeast Ohio Medical University) of which Dr. Campo was the third winner in his student days.

*If mu– / -sic be / the food / of love, / play on

 

What’s the “Green” We’re Talking About?

This article originally appeared on the Cleveland Foundation website June 18, 2012

Cristian Schmitt, a 2011 Creative Fusion artist from Chile, came back to Cleveland for the wedding of a staff member at Playhouse Square – his host organization. He got so close to the people he worked with here that he continues to refer to Cleveland as his “home,” and he remains in touch with many of us. Cristian is an architect/designer who worked with a large number of nonprofit and for-profit organizations to create a unique product for Cleveland.

When I met with Cristian last week, I asked how his seven-month residency last year has resonated with him over time. He said he learned many things that have made a positive difference for him professionally as he’s continued his work. Among them: “What you know and what you used before in developing a project can’t be counted on or taken for granted. Each situation is unique and you need to adapt to the local conditions and resources.” Cristian said the residency made him much more confident in going into unfamiliar situations and being successful: “I can approach any project now.”

But he had much to say about Cleveland and his personal experiences as well. “It’s about the people, not the city. The city is just the container for the experiences.” He admitted to having some prejudices about American culture that came from his experiences in New York and Miami. “But that’s not America. Not everyone is blind to the rest of the world.”

Cristian found Cleveland to be “much more complex than New York or Los Angeles. Nobody was doing this for the money, but for the ideas. This wasn’t a hobby for people – no eight-hour days. Everyone was willing to do more.” I took this as a testament to the authenticity of this place, its people, and the meaningful work we do here.

Finally, I asked Cristian what aspects of his culture might offer learning for us in the United States. He had some very specific ideas about his Chilean culture: “We have a way of thinking – we don’t have a lot of high tech and we are worried about our resources. We don’t waste much. If something breaks, we fix it or recycle it. Here you have IKEA. We turn off the lights. What’s the ‘green’ we’re talking about?”

On the other hand, he admired Americans’ work ethic: “In Chile, we all have nannies. They think it would be impossible to live without one. People don’t see how you work and take care of your house and children all by yourself, but in the U.S., you do.”

Now that’s a cultural tradition I wouldn’t mind importing.

The World Comes to the Heartland

This article originally appeared on the Cleveland Foundation website September 24, 2012

Last Monday, five accomplished international artists arrived in Cleveland to begin their three-month residencies as part of the Cleveland Foundation’s revised Creative Fusion program.  From now until the end of November, Sanjib Bhattacharya, Lucineh Hovanissian, Ivan Lecaros, Kapila Palihawadana, and Guillermo Trejo will be dancing, singing, printmaking, painting, and concertizing with local artists, teaching young people in and out of school, and sharing their cultures with the public.  They will also be making new work of their own while experiencing life and the arts in America’s heartland.

Creative Fusion is one of the foundation’s major initiatives.  It aims to help broaden Cleveland’s global diversity of thought and innovation and enrich the lives of its artists and residents through lively exchange with creative individuals from cultures not well represented here.  The artists, our first group under this strengthened and expanded program, hail from India, Armenia, Chile, Sri Lanka, and Mexico.  They will live and work here for three months.  Each is hosted by a local arts organization: Inlet Dance TheatreRainey InstituteMusic and Art at Trinity CathedralYoung Audiences, and Zygote Press.Though only here a week, the artists have already deeply engaged themselves with Cleveland and their work. After a walking tour of downtown and a bus tour of Greater Cleveland, Sanjib Bhattacharya has already taught several classes of Indian dance and movement to young people at the Rainey Institute.  Kapila has a master class scheduled for local choreographers through Cleveland State University, Lucineh sang in several solo performances and choral groups at the cathedral, as well as performing for her peers and their hosts, and the visual artists are in their studios beginning their work as well.

The artists have already been featured on WJW TV Channel 8 and patch.com. And see the photos at the end of this blog post and soon on the foundation’s new website.

Watch this space for news and reports of these five extraordinary artists as they give of themselves to Cleveland and receive support and inspiration from their time here in the heartland.

Deep Fusion

This article originally appeared on the Cleveland Foundation website November 16, 2012

Opera diva, folk singer, classical piano virtuoso, French chanteuse, jazz improviser, new age and sacred music composer – to say that Armenian artist Lucineh Hovanissian is a musician is to say that Niagara is just a waterfall. Rarely have so many gifts been assembled in a single creative individual. All of them were on display this week at a remarkable concert at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Cleveland. Lucineh – who is shown here with the dean of Trinity Cathedral, the Rev. Tracey Lind – has been in residence at Trinity as one of this fall’s Creative Fusion artists. While there, she has engaged in literally dozens of community events, sharing her culture, concertizing, translating ancient Armenian sacred texts, and composing music for Trinity’s choir and its magnificent pipe organ.

Last Sunday, this new work, “Quo Vadis,” had its premiere at the 11:15 service at Trinity. And on Wednesday, Lucineh gave a solo concert in the sanctuary, as part of Trinity’s ongoing Brownbag Concert series, performing á capella, accompanying herself at the piano, and singing with organ accompaniment.

The program was remarkable in the diversity of musical choices and styles, but more remarkable in the range and depth and virtuosity of the performer’s skill. The first half was comprised of sacred and popular Armenian songs – some traditional, some newly arranged by Ms. Hovanissian. Lucineh began by singing a “Song for Sunrise,” a 12th century composition with each line starting with one of the 36 letters of the Armenian alphabet. Sort of a sung ABCDarium. She accompanied herself with two handbells.

The second half was wonderfully virtuosic and contemporary; uniquely composed arrangements of sacred music by Fauré and Mozart were interwoven with ancient Greek and Armenian melodies and text, creating works of incredibly haunting beauty. She improvised on the piano with the Cathedral’s music director, Todd Wilson, on the organ. One work, “J `ai paiché” (“I Have Sinned”) combined a citation form Bach’s “Bourré” that she whistled, then sang, in French, a translated 10thcentury Armenian text from the Book of Lamentations. Soulful, passionate, and rich, it was a performance that Edith Piaf could not have surpassed.

To close her program, she played two works of her own composition – very modern, jazz and new age underscored with classical intent. “Quantum Tunnel” asked the universal question of who we are and where are we going, and the final work, “Alternating Light,” was dedicated to Nicola Tesla who, Ms. Hovanissian believes, found the answer in discovering alternating current that brings us the light that so pervades and supports our lives.

After a standing ovation, Lucineh ran to the back of the cathedral and climbed the stairs to the organ loft where she offered an encore, “My Gift to Cleveland,” a rich and powerful rendering of the African spiritual “Deep River,” again accompanied on the organ by Todd Wilson. This was a concert of deep, deep cultural fusion. We thank Lucineh for bringing so many elements of the human spirit and creativity together for us in this truly international solo concert. It is an experience I will not forget.

We are Responsible for the Audience’s Experience: Kapila Palihawadana, Choreographer

This article originally appeared on the Cleveland Foundation website September 26, 2012

Take 22 university dance students and place them in a shiny new dance studio. Now add a dynamic choreographer from Sri Lanka – and, suddenly, you have the makings of a joyous, lively, disciplined, and creative artistic and cultural exchange. That’s what happened last week when Kapila Palihawadana, artistic director of nATANDA Dance of Sri Lanka, offered a master class at Cleveland State University. Kapila is one of five international artists here for a three-month residency through the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion initiative. He is hosted full time by Inlet Dance Theatre, but will be deeply engaged in working across the community during his time here.

I got to the studio early and the students were already busy stretching and going through warm-ups. They chatted excitedly about the class to come, eager to meet this new artist and learn something they expected would be very different from their current studies in dance.

When Kapila arrived, he began by taking the class through a series of warm-ups. They began with familiar movements of shoulder rolls but the familiar morphed quickly into the exotic as he demonstrated the dynamic and fluid movements of the torso, which, he explained, were the foundation of much of traditional Sri Lankan dance movement. Hand and arm positions followed and the warm-up foot position – toes together, heels apart.

He demonstrated a number of basic movements, drilling the students on each and explaining why the thumbs reach for the ground (to draw energy up and into the body), why the arms create a precise embracing movement (so a drop of water falling on the shoulder would run down the arm and drip off the thumb – not the elbow) and why dancers should never let their arms cover their bodies – they must be proud of themselves: “We are performers. We like to show off!”  Kapila also talked at length about the dancer’s duty to the audience. “We invite them into our experience.  We are responsible for that experience.” Which is why he kept emphasizing total commitment to each movement – even if the dancer knew he or she wasn’t doing it quite right yet.  “The audience will know if you do not mean what you do and they will not have the experience.” The final part of the class was a charge to the dancers to take what they had learned, combine it with the modern dance movement they already know, and improvise a four-beat movement of their own. After some time to work on the assignments, and with lots of help and encouragement from Kapila, the students demonstrated their improvisations to each other to end the class.Then there was much bustling to get dressed, collect books and water bottles, but the students were clearly reluctant for Kapila to leave, hanging around as long as they could to talk before heading off to a much less physically vigorous part of their academic day.Kapila will be offering master classes for local dance companies and several community classes while he is here.  The foundation will post information on our website as soon as public events are finalized.

Princes and Devils: The Art of Ivan Lecaros

This article originally appeared on the Cleveland Foundation website October 16, 2012

Ivan (ee-VON) Andres Lecaros Correa is fond of saying, “If I tell you what all the symbolism is in my art, I would go to jail.” Ivan is one of the Cleveland Foundation’s 2012 Creative Fusion artists. He’s from Santiago, Chile, and he grew up under the Pinochet regime – an experience that has had a profound effect on his work as an artist.

Ivan knew he wanted to be an artist while still a young child.  His mother has saved drawings of his from the age of 4.  Some of these remain his favorites.  Two in particular he claims to be his best drawings, perhaps because they depict the subjects that remain at the heart of his work to this day – a Prince who gave up everything for his people and the Devil: social good and social evil.

Both Ivan and members of his family suffered significantly under the Pinochet government – both physically and emotionally. Ivan is a master printmaker and as he learned his craft, he quickly began to receive recognition for his work – everywhere but in Chile. He refused to go along with the government-sanctioned approach to art and he became quite an outsider in the contemporary art scene in Chile.  As a result, he suffered serious discrimination from the commercial, academic, and fine art

Ivan (ee-VON) Andres Lecaros Correa is fond of saying, “If I tell you what all the symbolism is in my art, I would go to jail.” Ivan is one of the Cleveland Foundation’s 2012 Creative Fusion artists. He’s from Santiago, Chile, and he grew up under the Pinochet regime – an experience that has had a profound effect on his work as an artist.

Ivan knew he wanted to be an artist while still a young child.  His mother has saved drawings of his from the age of 4.  Some of these remain his favorites.  Two in particular he claims to be his best drawings, perhaps because they depict the subjects that remain at the heart of his work to this day – a Prince who gave up everything for his people and the Devil: social good and social evil.

Both Ivan and members of his family suffered significantly under the Pinochet government – both physically and emotionally. Ivan is a master printmaker and as he learned his craft, he quickly began to receive recognition for his work – everywhere but in Chile. He refused to go along with the government-sanctioned approach to art and he became quite an outsider in the contemporary art scene in Chile.  As a result, he suffered serious discrimination from the commercial, academic, and fine art

Artist and volunteer Jason Lehrer has been his primary helper and supporter at Zygote and has developed a close friendship with the artist during his time here. Most of the work in Ivan’s exhibition is silkscreen prints.

There are so many wonderful stories I could tell about this seemingly shy but very funny, passionate, and socially committed man.  One thing that he has said about his experiences in Cleveland that seems to have great meaning for him: “In Chile, artists are ‘takers’— jealous of anyone better than them.  Here, artists are givers, sharing everything and always willing to teach you what they know.”  He says this is a spirit he will try to take back with him.

Ivan is teaching a “Printmaking Bootcamp” class to the students at the Cleveland Institute of Art while he is here and also working with youngsters at the Boys and Girls Club and Esperanza.

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