Minding the Sky || Back from Afar

Posted in Blogs, Music, Theater and Dance

July 13, 2016

I’ve been away for what feels like months—because I have been away for part of every month since March. And there is nothing like being away, to make you appreciate home, when you finally get there. Home is where I am now—in the land of green and plentiful trees and water-bright sky, and liquid sunshine and sundogs in the clouds or unexpected rainbows and eagles flying across them. All of this is home. All of this I miss when I am away and breathe in with the first gust of wind blowing up off of Holmes Harbor when I return.

Home skies overhead at last! (photo by Judith Walcutt)

Home skies overhead at last! (photo by Judith Walcutt)

Also with home come three manuscripts in various stages of incompletion. This does not include the short stories that are hiding in nooks and crannies all over the office, which is a mess again. Mortifying. I have every good excuse in the book—in several books––and, having been away for the many times I have been, my main excuse is what we call in dated techno-talk—bandwidth, and the lack thereof when you are doing a job as fully as you can with every fiber, optical or not, in your being. That’s what I’ve been doing in Kansas City. I’ve been giving my work there—the young people I work with there—my full attention, to see if some kind of difference can be made in their lives.

This is the second year I have been traveling to Kansas City, on the Missouri side of town, to teach and mentor students in Sound Arts and Audio Production at Paseo Academy, which is a public, inner-city, arts magnate school. It is hard to work there. We all pass through a metal detector to get in the building, which has some excellent facilities in various stages of falling down. The kids that are there are glad to be there, given the alternatives.

Some kids are there because they have run out of options elsewhere and have found refuge in a school which puts arts before athletics—they have a dance curriculum rather than a football team. Other students, with any sort of learning challenge, cognitive differences such as autism, hearing and/or visual impairment, gender and/or sexual identity issues are placed there for their own protection.

Drive-by shootings, gang warfare, rape, suicide attempts, small children shot through walls (accidentally, when it was their Dad who someone was aiming at)—these are the realities of that school district, the surrounding neighborhood, and the young people in it.

Making “radio” plays for the first time can be messy work. (photo by Judith Walcutt)

Making “radio” plays for the first time can be messy work. (photo by Jim Keel)

I know this because these are the subjects they chose to write about, when asked to write a personal narrative, a story about themselves, cued by a single sound. I learned a lot about their lives, the places of their hearts, their fears and the damage they have sustained already in their young lives.

The benefit of being an artist in their midst is that I can surprise them—I can shake them up out of their mind-sets because I am not a teacher in the traditional sense and I am not a parent in the expected sense. I am something “other” and, in that otherness, I can offer an alternate route, like sidebar remarks which are different in perspective than they are used to. This “otherness” can bring something life-changing to the table, in an educational environment, in a way that nothing else does.

Everyone is just GA-GA over STEM activities—More math! More science! Yay! But what about the rest of the mind and the person? Where does emotional maturity come from if not from the cultivation and maturation of the heart—and where does that come from, if not from the expression of the emotions and how is that best done? Through the ARTS, dummy! Through the ARTS!

You want people to stop shooting each other? Give them another way to express their feelings! Give them room to show their hearts and what’s in them! Give them room to transform the lead of their lives to the gold of expressions in music, words, movement, visual imagery, whatever it is. Works of the imagination are the fuel to get out from under the crush and churn of the hard parts of growing up, in any circumstance, and they provide the juice to get out beyond the breakers, in the toughest of places, the roughest of waters.

Learning to use a microphone gives voice to unheard voices. (photo by Judith Walcutt)

Learning to use a microphone gives voice to unheard voices. (photo by Jim Keel)

But when and where, exactly, does a young mind have the chance and the encouragement to “think different,” as Apple’s ad people so coined the phrase—ungrammatically indicating the kind of mind that thinks outside the box, that doesn’t care about grammar, the kind of mind that breaks set with everyone else—and comes up with something new, something different, dare I say—original?

Where does that kind of mind come from if not from the creatively inviting and imaginatively engaging process of developing modes of expression—all kinds, in any and all media. Bring on the finger paints! They are actually GOOD for you and for developing that emotional I.Q. that feels things for and with other people—that compassion thing that more and more children and adults seem to be losing altogether. Too many first-shooter games! Not enough clay!

And then there’s plain old hand-eye coordination and a whole host of tactile learning that grows synapses whose long tendrils reach out to higher level thinking processes. How do we solve the problems we are facing today which are firmly based on ignorance? Let me put it this way—if you want to overcome ignorance in all its forms, the best thing to do is mandatory art therapy, for everyone. It’s a good thing and there is no downside to it, except maybe it can get a little messy in the process.

What’s happening instead is that technology, neat and clean, is put first—young people are inundated with screens at earlier and earlier ages. The programs which are interactive story games and allegedly educational are made by other people, with other people’s ideas and thoughts played—pre-played––out for the consuming minds. They don’t have to do the thinking themselves, they can just drive around someone else’s imagination and have it done to them, for them, and without their having to lift a finger or a brain cell. And this happens to those young minds before they have had a chance to find and tell their own stories, paint their own images, before they’ve had a chance to have an idea, a thought, a concept, an Aha moment all of their own.

First thoughts and early child language acquisition kind of go hand and hand. If one is restricted, so is the other. Children who are spoken to and verbally interacted with as infants have been proven to acquire language earlier and at a higher word count than those children who are not. If we know that engaging young imaginations with some kind of real world content, with something as simple as reading a book out loud helps young children to become better thinkers, better people, better leaders all around, then why don’t we have art programs mandatory in every school?

Oh! Because art costs money?

You know, most of the really creative people I know and have known would never allow money to stop them from being creative, in whatever medium they could get their hands on. I know a child who sculpted with masking tape. Given a roll of masking tape––he created a myriad of forms and figures—I think it was five mice in a rock band complete with a drum kit. It was amazing! I have never forgotten it! What does a roll of masking tape cost? Not too much, especially in comparison to 3-D printers and CAD labs.

No, I don’t think art is cut from budgets because it costs so much; I think it is cut because it encourages free-thinking. It encourages the imagination; it encourages invention and people who “think different,” and therein lies the problem. How do you test it? How do you tell if “it works”? How do you quantify it? We can’t fund it, if we can’t quantify it, right?

So bring on the STEM content. There are yes/no answers aplenty—there are answers period. Right ones and wrong ones. It’s simple. It’s easy. No messy clean up. Except the nuclear ones.

And I am pretty sure STEM costs a lot more to run in the schools than art. These days, to have what it takes to compete in core science curriculum, you have to have CAD labs, bio labs, physics labs and computer labs. Lots of computer labs. In fact, more computers than any thing else, in any other department. That’s a lot of equipment. That’s a lot of money.

Whereas art, for the most part, can be done minimally with paper, pencil, a little scotch tape, maybe some cheap water colors. And words, just plain old words on paper—that’s REALLY cheap!

But, it can save a life. Especially the writing. It can save your life because if you can write about it, whatever it is, you can transform it, turn it into something spectacular and “different.” No matter how bad, frightening, unreal, tortuous and terrible, you can name it—and if you can name it, you can free it. Writing can save your life.

In the Green Room at the Kauffman Performing Arts Center, Kansas City, MO, the Paseo SoundPlayers get serious. (photo by Judith Walcutt)

In the Green Room at the Kauffman Performing Arts Center, Kansas City, MO, the Paseo SoundPlayers get serious. (photo by Jim Keel)

This is what I tell my young artists in Kansas City. And then I try to tell them to “listen” so that they can learn. I try to engage them in active listening, because I know this one true thing which I share with them—and so I will share it with you. If you can listen, you can learn. Conversely, if you can’t listen, how can you learn? It sounds obvious but somehow that simple fact is dissolving in the digital scatter of our every day lives—phones, screens, all the media—all the time, and we’re just not listening!

When I take my students down the road of listening—to stories, plays, sci-fi, comedy, mystery, you name it, all productions in the audio-only medium—I play it for them, so that they can reawaken something or perhaps even awaken something for the first time in the area of their brains which imagines things. I ask them to listen with their eyes closed and then just watch the pictures in their heads.

Culminating weeks of work, Paseo SoundPlayers perform at the Future Stages Festival for Young Artists at the Kauffman Performing Arts Center. (photo by Judith Walcutt)

Culminating weeks of work, Paseo SoundPlayers perform at the Future Stages Festival for Young Artists at the Kauffman Performing Arts Center. (photo by Jim Keel)

This I believe: this helps them, later, when they are reading or writing or perhaps even while doing math problems—the imagining capacity that is triggered by listening seems to me to be crucial, in a huge number of ways, to overall comprehension skills. If people are learning only visually, what is happening to that capacity to imagine, with no visual stimulus? To imagine something that hasn’t been imagined by anyone else but you?

I fear its loss and worriedly watch as it seems kind of inevitable. Still I fight back. I hope others fight back too—perhaps by spending planned family evenings listening to something together, or listening to things in the car, or just listening to sounds all around. Whether in country or city—listening helps us to know where we are. When we listen, deeply, we have a chance of understanding.

And that seems to be crucial right now. Listening and understanding.

The author as a blur, moving at the speed of sound (photo by Jim Keel)

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been working on in Kansas City and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do so. Now that I am home, I am listening to the birds, the sound of boats on the bay, the owl at night. It is quiet here and I am listening to the quiet, and so glad to be home. But I still have a few questions that plague my tranquility.

In August, the Island County Primary is coming up. It is a good time to wake up and smell the coffee. I am asking any and all candidates the same question. It is my litmus test. I want to know where he/she stands on education, funding for education, and particularly funding for the arts in education. I am asking the question, listening to the answer, and making my mind up from there. Ballots are due Tuesday, August 2.

Breathing in Paradise (photo by Judith Walcutt)

Breathing in Paradise (photo by Judith Walcutt)

Norman Corwin Award and the man for whom it is named (photo by Ken Solo)

Norman Corwin Award and the man for whom it is named (photo by Ken Solo)

Judith Walcutt does live on Whidbey Island, though she spends time in other places working with young people in the audio arts. This is her 35th year running Otherworld Media, a 501(c)(3) non-profit arts and educational media company. She just received the Norman Corwin Award from the National Audio Theatre Festivals for Lifetime Achievement in Audio Theatre.


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  1. Some 16 years ago, when I was teaching as a Creative Dance Specialist in public schools – yes, some schools actually figured out how to afford and offer Music, Art, AND Dance – one Kindergarten teacher consistently brought his class to me/my class late. We arts instructors only had 20-30 minutes, once per week with our students, so that put a big dent in MY program. He once apologized for arriving late with these 5-6 year olds in this at-risk kids school, but the reason he cited was that they had computer class just before my creative dance class and he believed that computers were more important. Thank you Judith for your endless passion and fine work (and very fine read!) If you get through to just one person, one teacher like this one, imagine how many lives will be positively enhanced!

    • Thank you for sharing that experience–It IS very difficult to get through at an institutional level, just how important the arts are to the children who go to public schools. For some of them–those are the only moments they have like that in their lives. This one moment to “express” themselves creatively, to be be invited into the magic of making things up. It’s the oxygen kids need to breath to get in and out of their mindsets, or let someone know if they have trouble at home Simple drawings with crayons have often been the first clue to revealing the hidden problems children are experiencing but have no words for. Thank you Leslie, for the time in your life you gave to those kids, you could give to. You’re right, it’s not quantity–it’s just the chance you might save one that keeps you trying!

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