Fine Folks//Creative Callings: Harper Addison, Dancer/Choreographer

Well, it's been a yearlong break from this series, and I thought it was high time we got back to it. You can read more about my intentions here, but the bottom line is this: in the midst of our chaotic world, there are good people living out (or figuring out!) their callings in intentional, innovative, and joy-filled ways. I feel lucky enough to know some of these human beings (and always love being connected to more), and thought it would be great to hear from them in their own words about what moves them to live and create the way they do. Kicking us back into gear is Harper Addison, with whom I share a hometown (ATL) and an alma mater (Davidson). Harper is an incredible dancer and choreographer, and I've enjoyed keeping up with her latest creative venture, The Iteration Project (TIP), "an online community of artists and creatives from around the world joining forces and making work." I talked with Harper about her motivation behind the project, and her thoughts on some of the challenges that artists of all sorts face today.


This first question is two-fold: 1) When did you first start dancing, and 2) when did you first begin to see yourself as an artist/creator? Did those two things begin simultaneously, or did your identity as an artist develop more over time?

I actually don’t remember when I first started dancing. Both my mom and my aunt were/are dancers and I grew up with it around me all the time. It was just a part of life. If I have a cousin who is 2.5 years older than I am and we grew up dancing together. She obviously started before me, but we were like two peas in a pod. If I had to put an age on it, I think I started officially taking classes around 3 or 4. Baggy pink tights and tiny ballet shoes. Pretty hilarious.

Even though my mother and my aunt both gave my cousin and me opportunities to create and encouraged our home productions, we never called ourselves artists. Even while choreographing at Davidson or in New York, I never called myself a creator or an artist. The term “artist” always felt so heavy and like this thing that was beyond me. It felt like you had to do certain things to claim that title. It wasn’t until graduate school that I began to realize that we are all artists in the truest sense of the word, without any of that extra fluff of what we think an artist should be, should look like, should create.

You explain on The Iteration Project website that it grew out of your move from California back east to Tennessee--in your words, "I found more space and freedom to create but less community to create within." Is this a dichotomy that you expected when you moved, or did it become clearer after you had arrived in Knoxville?

The short answer is, yes, I expected it, but it also changed and became clearer in new ways after I had arrived. I certainly expected the community to be small, and it is (definitely in comparison to San Francisco). But it is also far deeper and more vibrant in ways that I never expected. There’s also an amazing dance company, New Dialect, directed by Banning Bouldin in Nashville. I knew they were there and doing incredible things, so I thought if nothing else happens, at least I’ll have that resource a few hours away. Banning and New Dialect have proven themselves to be invaluable, but the Knoxville community has also been such a wonderful surprise and welcomed me with open arms.

The other part of the equation is that I didn’t realize was how stifled I was in San Francisco. The dance community there is pretty established. As a new member of the community, you feel you have to fit into one of the many camps that already exist. It feels like it’s hard to strike out on your own or blaze new trails because there are existing expectations from other artists and from audience members. Not to mention, it’s just hard to make work. The city is expensive and rental space is expensive. You exert an inordinate amount of energy surviving, which leaves little time and energy left to create. I never realized how much of a toll this was taking. I just thought that maybe I had already made all the good work I was going to make.

When I moved to Knoxville, it suddenly felt like this massive freedom to have no expectations, no established community, to find a small pocket of wonderful dancers that are aching to perform and make work, and to have beautiful rental space for $5/hr instead of $20. I definitely learned a lot about myself in the move: I need a lot of space, both physical and mental, I need to have enough energy to take advantage of the space, and I need to be doing the creative thing every day.

Was TIP the solution that came to you immediately, or did you think of other possibilities to find creative community?

TIP was it. The idea came to me in pieces over a relatively short period of time as I learned about what my own needs were as a creator. Of course, I dove into integrating myself in the existing Knoxville community, but I didn’t want to get isolated or insulated by it. I knew I had to stay connected not only to San Francisco but to all of my other colleagues and graduate school friends around the country.

By the time I had all of the major pieces figured out—a way to stay accountable to creating, a way to go to the studio with a purpose, a way to stay connected to others—the idea seemed so obvious I had to keep asking myself if I was missing something. Like, why wasn’t this happening already?! Had someone already done this? Maybe they have! I just haven’t found it yet.

Photo: Rick McCullough

Photo: Rick McCullough

I love the weekly prompts you send out; they're so varied and rich. Can you share a little bit about how you've come up with them (if it's not a secret!)?

It’s definitely not a secret, and I’m happy to share! I come up with them on my own from anything that sparks my interest. I personally love using literature and poetry as a prompt, but I try to keep a good mix of literal and abstract ideas so that there’s something for everyone, and everyone is challenged at some point.

When you have the task of creating prompts and you know you have to have one every week, you start looking around for ideas. The more you look, the more you see. The more you see, the more you want to keep looking. Lucky for me, it’s a positive feedback loop. It’s really just the creative process!

How has TIP created more community for you, personally, as a dancer and choreographer? And what have you heard from other participants about how it has impacted or changed their creative habits and community?

In the process of trying to grow TIP, it has forced me to reach out to colleagues and former professors I haven’t spoken to in a while. It has forced me to ask for help and really build a community for myself, so that I can work on building it for all of The Iteration Project's members.

As a member of the community, I love seeing how everyone responds to the prompts each week and finding inspiration in their individual and unique points of view. As a choreographer, you can get stuck in your habits and in your safe space. Getting to see how others move, think, and share, is so refreshing. I’ve enjoyed taking the TIP prompts into rehearsals to explore with dancers, and also using them as a jumping off point in my courses.

Lastly, artists tend to be solo creatures. The focus can be on the individual and how the individual is climbing the ranks in the larger landscape, rather than how they’re supporting it. It takes a village, and I think we forget that in the race to produce work and get our work seen. The Iteration Project is a village, and because of that it’s a continual reminder to reach out, to comment, to like, to support each other. The only other alternative is for TIP to cease to exist.

You say on the site, "The key for creativity is to continue to create, everyday." From my writer's perspective, that means consistently sitting in the chair and plunking words down, even if they're crappy to begin with. I'm curious how you as a dancer and performer approach the daily creative process. I imagine it might have some parallels to the writer's (same time each day? same space? etc.), but I'm wondering if there's anything different about the two, especially since the writer's is often more physically sedentary.

Yes, yes, yes. The same is definitely true for me and for dancers and choreographers in general. You take classes because if you don’t, you regress. You make, because if you don’t, you lose your skills. You create because it’s a practice, and you create whether or not what you make is any good. The simple act of making something is what’s important. By making something consistently, you’ll continually get better.

I personally don’t have a set time and space to make each day. But others certainly do. The physical aspect is interesting, because sometimes you just don’t feel like getting up and moving. But as dancers, that’s what we’re trained to do and so we’re used to doing it whether we feel great or horrible. I think the creative process is largely universal. You get up and you get to work. Some move, some write, but ultimately, you make.

Has TIP changed how you create, or how you work with other dancers as an educator?

It has definitely made me realize that making is not like riding a bike. You can’t just get back on after a 10-year hiatus and ride it like you did when you were a kid. Now that I know that, I know I have to do it consistently to feel comfortable doing it at all. The minute I stop engaging in some creative act each day, I feel like the mountain is too high to climb and I hesitate to start. It’s a bit like Sisyphus, in that you just have to keep doing it. You don’t have a choice. Because if you don’t keep doing it, you’ll likely walk away from it with the likelihood of picking it back up diminishing with each passing day.

A piece about The Iteration Project was featured in DANCE Magazine in April, which to me says that you are definitely addressing a need that creative minds besides your own are seeking. What are some of the conversations you've had with others (in dance or otherwise) about this need?

The conversations I’ve had with others have mostly focused on artists leaving the nation’s large art centers either because the cost of living is so high, or because the competition to survive and thrive is too great. We live in a huge country with a lot of opportunity, but for artists, those opportunities tend to be concentrated in a select few places. We have to change the landscape in order for it to be possible for artists and creators to feel like they can truly live and work in the places that inspire them.

I feel like one of the biggest barriers to changing that aspect of the landscape is isolation. As an individual, if you have to make a choice between being isolated or being in an over-saturated market, being in a known community versus uncharted territory, you’re going to choose the known saturated market. That market at least has the community, even if the resources are stretched thin. It takes a lot of work and a lot of energy to strike out on your own and build something from scratch in an unknown market. The hope is that TIP is making that more possible by meeting artists halfway and providing a community, providing inspiration. The only thing they have to do is to take advantage of it and create their own practice.

What would you say to the "closet creatives" out there, who might be nervous about submitting a prompt response, or sharing their creative gifts in general?

I totally get it and I hear you. There are days when it takes all day to muster the confidence to post or to share. But the thing is, once you do it, you realize that there is no right or wrong. There is no good or bad. There just is. If you don’t share it, how will we ever know about you? You are a gift to the community. We want to hear your voice. We need to hear your voice because without you the community doesn’t exist. You are crucial.

The beauty about a community is that it takes everyone. It takes young and old, professionals and amateurs. Closet creatives and weekend warriors. We are all better off because of you. So please share.

As you approach the one-year anniversary of TIP prompts, what are you looking forward to in your own creative life and in the life of this community you've built up? 

Yes! Almost to one year of prompts! I’m looking forward to creating more in my own life. I’m working on a full-length evening performance of my work right now. That feels pretty daunting and terrifying, but I know it’s something that I have to do if for no other reason than to learn some very valuable lessons.

As far as the community goes, every time someone new shares something, I do a little dance. I love it. I’m looking forward to the community continuing to grow. To helping people find collaborators. To building our own platform where people can share, and developing some new and exciting accountability and inspiration opportunities for members. There’s a lot in the pipeline right now that I can’t say too much about, but that I’m so excited for. I guess you’ll just have to stay tuned to see what’s next!

Fine Folks//Creative Callings: MJ Lee., Singer-Songwriter

I first knew San Francisco Bay Area-based musician MJ Lee. as my good friend Mejin Leechor. We're celebrating ten years of friendship this month, when we met at Davidson College's Methodist Fellowship group. Ever since, I have been in awe of her compassion, creativity, musical gifts, and commitment to living an authentic life. That combination has been integral to the release of MJ's wonderful debut album, The Lights Ahead, which released last week. Not only are her tunes fun and memorable, but her lyrics paint a journey that all of us can relate to: figuring out who we really are in the midst of society's messages, claiming our story, and acting on what that means for our lives. Enjoy the interview, and be sure to listen to the album after the final question! 

What role did music play for you as a child and teenager? How has that role changed as you've grown and experienced more of life?

My relationship with music began with my mother, a lifelong music lover who grew up in Korea and dreamed of playing the violin. When I was four, she enrolled us both in beginner violin lessons—she was a much faster learner than I was! Thanks to her, my childhood was filled with music: school orchestra during the day and group classes on weekends. It didn't take long for me to start spinning melodies of my own—I've been composing for almost as long as I can remember.

Getting my first taste of pop music was a revelation. It was late in elementary school; I would listen to the local pop station on my clock radio with my ear pressed against the speaker. The right combinations of words and melody hit me in the gut, speaking directly to my emotions and amplifying my feeling of being alive. I knew I wanted to write songs—to create musical experiences that could move others the way I was moved when I heard a powerful song. When I was 12, I sang my first finished song at a summer camp talent show. Songwriting became one of the primary ways I learned to express myself and make sense of my world.

By the time I was a teenager, I had a musical ambition: I wanted to rock the stage. I had a clear mental picture of myself performing the songs I had written for audiences. What I didn't have was an understanding of how to get there or people in my life who could support and direct me. At the same time, competing messages from my environment told me that music could only be a hobby and that my real ambition should be to go to college and pursue a respectable vocation, say, a doctor or engineer. I gave in. By the end of high school, I had stopped writing songs.

As I've experienced more of life, I've learned to trust my own instincts. I've returned to songwriting and music-making in adulthood with a renewed sense of purpose and conviction. It no longer matters to me what other people think. My priority is to be true to myself and to the love that drives me. 

I first knew you as a stunning violinist in college, and have loved following along as you have branched out to songwriting and performing. How did you make that transition, both technically and emotionally?

In hindsight, it's amazing that such a core part of my being was completely shut down during my college years. Many people who knew me well in college are surprised to learn that I wrote songs when I was younger.

When I came back to songwriting in my 20s, I was years out of practice. I struggled with writer's block and a harsh inner critic. I tried all sorts of writing and creativity books and classes to break through the block, but what helped me the most was cultivating my own practice: showing up to write over and over again, even if I was afraid. Especially if I was afraid.

I've found that the same is true for performing: showing up is half the battle. The other half is trust—trusting yourself and giving yourself to the music. 

You're originally from the East Coast, but moved out west a few years ago. How has that physical transition impacted you?

That's right—I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., then moved west to the San Francisco Bay Area after finishing college (with you!) in North Carolina. I absolutely love it here: I'm inspired by the landscape, the spirit of possibility, the Asian American history—everything except the cost of living, really! I love the people and community I've found, too: the ways they dream and explore and how they work to heal the world and reimagine the ways we live in it. That say-yes approach to life has been so valuable for me to witness. It helps me feel supported in being who I am and growing as a person and a musician.

From what I know, I get the sense that you are striving to live your most authentic life. A big part of that includes pursuing this vocation that gives you great joy. Was there a moment when you actively decided to live into this calling, or did it come about gradually? How does it feel to be within it now?

Two moments come to mind.

The first is the moment when I realized it was time to come back to music. It was the summer of 2011, and I was on a backpacking trip with some friends. On the third or fourth day of the trip, I had a lightning bolt realization: I was going to be a musician. The thought made little sense at the time: I had just finished graduate school and was starting a career in a field unrelated to music. I hadn't written a song in seven years and had no idea how I was going to begin again. But at an instinctual level, I felt as though I had remembered my reason for being. For the rest of the trip, my mind was flooded with song ideas. I was still some years away from developing the skills to turn ideas into full-fledged songs. But I couldn't shake the memory of that realization, wild and improbable as it seemed. 

In the fall of 2013, I finally buckled down and committed. I enrolled in a songwriting class and started showing up at open mics in San Francisco. I started writing every day. After that, the process was gradual. There were still a few upheavals ahead, including leaving a job that would've been a step forward in my not-music career. But that fall was when I found my resolve, and there was no turning back.

Living into my calling feels like being on a moving train, destination unknown. But every day, my job is the same: to show up and give all my love and sweat to bringing my vision to life. Even when I'm not sure how I'm going to get there, I know I'm on the right path. I've never felt so clear and committed to anything before. 

On the whole, what is the greatest lesson you've learned so far from striving to live authentically? I feel like this is a big concept in our culture of social media personas, fear of the other, what defines success, and on and on.

I appreciate this question. There are so many lessons to learn, but what comes to mind now is that it takes strength and courage to live authentically. Facing the world with an open heart isn't always easy or sexy or cool. It'll cost you something to live this way, and you'll probably encounter resistance in yourself and others. But persevere. Have faith and remember that you're showing love to yourself and others by being the person you are, not the person you think other people want or expect you to be. 

I feel like the questions above relate to the concept of transition, and your debut album, The Lights Ahead, relates to this as well. On your website bio, it says, "the six-song concept album tells the story of her artistic coming-of-age and the transformation of a creative vision into lived reality." Can you talk about how you came up with the creative idea for this album, and how you went about crafting the songs themselves? I don't know much about a songwriter's process, and I'm sure it's different for everyone!

When I started planning the album, I had written all but two of the songs. The theme came together quickly because I had been living it: the image of the lights ahead seemed to capture the promise and yearning that kept propelling me forward on my musical journey, even while I felt like I was still fumbling in the dark. I knew the album would be relatively short for cost reasons and because that felt like the best way to approach a debut. I used the theme to determine which of the songs I'd written did and didn't belong (no love or breakup songs, for example), and then I put them in order to create a narrative. "The Lights Ahead" and "Meant to Be" came last—I realized I needed a few more parts to make the story cohesive.

Each individual song had a unique birthing process. Some came from tinkering at the piano while others implanted melodies in my brain. I wrote the lyrics to "A Little While Longer" before setting it to music, which is a little unusual for me—I often write music before lyrics. But that's part of what I find so exciting about songwriting: each song demands to be taken on its own terms, and there are no hard and fast rules. 

From start to finish—idea to finished product—about how long did it take for the album to come to life?

I finished writing most of the songs in early 2014 and had the album idea around that time, so it's been over two years. I started recording last September. 

Wow! You've really lived with this a long time. Do you have a song that was your favorite to write? A favorite to perform?

It's tough to play favorites! But "Shine" was one of the highlights of the writing process—it felt like a pure outpouring of my heart into song. "It's Time" is fun to perform because I bring in audience participation. It's wonderful to hear people sing along and become part of the music.

"Shine" is one of my favorites on the album. I often have it in my head these days—it really feels like a song that says "Wake up! Enjoy life!" Who are some of your musical influences, on this album and in general? 

Jonsì, lead singer of the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós, has a beautiful solo record called Go Do that inspired me a lot while I was working on The Lights Ahead. His music is sheer exuberance and ecstasy, with natural and electronic elements joining in ways that make my heart flutter.

Beyond that, my musical influences are all over the map. Some people hear classical influences in my music, and that's undeniable. I listened to a lot of alternative and emo in high school, so that's in there, too. These days, I share community with other singer-songwriters in the local scene; I'm sure we learn from and influence one another.

I love the many natural, external elements you call upon in your lyrics—light, water, dust, caverns, cliffs, mountains, fog—and how they connect to your internal journey. How did those metaphors first appear to you?  

I often find myself writing and reflecting when I'm surrounded by natural beauty. There's a wildness and freedom in nature that fuses with my creativity, and the metaphors come unbidden. I wish I had a better explanation! Honestly, it feels a bit magical. I will say this: I carry a notebook with me everywhere. 

In your song "A Little While Longer," you sing, "you won't stop now that you're finally here." What does "here" mean for you right now? And you also sing, in the title song, "I've been dreaming of the lights ahead." How do you envision the lights ahead in your own life? 

For me right now, "here" means I'm beyond the point of no return. I've got a Kickstarter campaign and an album under my belt, and I'm sharing my music publicly. This isn't just a dream anymore—it's real. My "lights ahead" are my hopes and dreams of making a life in music full-time and connecting to people around the world with my songs. 

What would you say to someone who might be struggling to live authentically, or find her/his place and passion in the world?

Tune in. Listen to the truth inside of you—you know it already. Be courageous. 

Listen to MJ Lee.'s album, "The Lights Ahead." 

Fine Folks//Creative Callings: Kady MacFarlane, Craftswoman

Readers, for this edition of Fine Folks//Creative Callings, it is my privilege and pleasure to introduce my friend Kady MacFarlane, an amazing human being and artist. Kady and I grew up in the Glenn UMC youth group together, but have gotten to know each other even better in our twenties, and never fail to meet up for brunch when she's visiting from Savannah. Huge, exciting news: A piece of Kady's papercutting work is currently being featured in the Decatur Arts Alliance's Book As Art: Boundless juried show here in Decatur, GA. It's on display from now through September 30, and there's an opening reception this coming Friday night. If you're in town or nearby, be sure to head on over! You'll definitely want to after hearing and seeing more from this fantastic lady. Read on! (And check out Kady's Etsy shop!)

We've known each other for more than 15 years (!), and while I've always sensed you were an open and creative soul, I have been so amazed to discover (and benefit from) your stellar art and crafting skills over the last several years. What led you to making art in general, and when did you first start to discover this passion?

Both of my parents are artists--my mom tries her hand at just about everything and is amazing at it all and my father is a woodworker--so I grew up in a very creative house and was always encouraged to make art. My mom actively campaigned for me to go to art school, probably the only mom to ever say, "Screw liberal arts education, what you need is an art degree," but I didn't think I was actually good at anything so I never applied. 

Over the years I've cycled through just about everything artsy that doesn't require too much special equipment, mostly as a way to keep my hands busy during down time while riding the train or waiting for class to start. I was always moving while I was in school--working, classes, sports teams, volunteering--but once I finished my masters and started a regular 40 hr/week job, I suddenly had all of this free time. It was amazing, and very quickly boring. Making things is how I keep myself busy when I'm not at work, and what I like to daydream about when I am at work. 

You call yourself a self-taught artist. This is not your day job, and you didn't go to school for art. So did it take some time and experimenting for you to get really good at it? What was frustrating and rewarding about that process? And when did you start to realize, "Hey, I've got something here?"

I had, still have, an awful habit of comparing myself to other people and getting discouraged when my first try isn't as good as their ninetieth or 9,000th. Art, like anything worth doing, takes practice. It takes figuring out what your viewpoint is, what you want to say to the world, and finding the best medium to get your message across. For me, that meant finding something where I could camouflage my less-than-stellar technical drawing skills--everything looks better once it's been cut out of paper, it's a very forgiving medium. But still, it takes even more practice and refinement. There's a very clear progression from my earlier work, still hanging on display at my parents' house, to the pieces I make today. And every time I'm at my parents' house, I see something new that I would change if I had the chance to do it over again.

You've created many pieces, from quilts (like this one for me!) to papercuts (which we'll get to in a minute) Do you have a favorite project that you've done so far? 

Oh gosh. I love a lot of the things I've made. Basically every quilt I've ever made. Those take so much time and so much passion that I'd better love them, but particularly the one that's on my bed right now--a full size deep blue quilt with The Mountain Goats lyrics on it. I love my floral typewriter, I think it's probably the most impressive paper cut I've ever made, and more recently, I'm super stoked with how my small octopus turned out. It's always a crap shoot when I first cut something and pull away the template at the end, and that octopus was way better than I was expecting it to be.

Your papercutting work is being featured right now in Decatur Arts Alliance's Book as Art: Boundless juried show, which is fantastic. When I look at the incredible papercuts in your Etsy shop, I want to know what your creative process is like for projects like these. Do the idea and structure of a piece come to you in a flash, or does it come together piece by piece? Also: How the HECK are you able to make such intricate cuts? What is involved in the physical process of creating a papercut? About how long does it take?

Papercuts start as an idea. I carry a notebook with me everywhere I go. I use it for everything--work projects, grocery store lists, to do lists and sketches. I'm drawing all the time, most of it will hopefully never see the light of day, but every once in a while I'll stumble on an idea that I really like and that's when you'll see pages upon pages of the exact same typewriter, ginkgo leaf, or rib cage. Once I can reliably draw whatever I'm envisioning, I make a larger drawing of it and trace it in sharpie--any line or detail smaller than a bold tip sharpie is too small for me to cut. I usually make a copy of my template, so I can recreate it easily, and then I slap that down on top of a blank sheet of drawing paper and start cutting. Depending on how intricate and big a papercut, is it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 10 hours of me hunched over my kitchen table and Netflix marathoning in the background. (On that note, I'm always looking for new shows to watch while I work--nothing too in-depth or twisty, lots of seasons, recommendations welcome!)

I also love commissions--I've done some work for friends and a few wedding invitations--because they mean I can skip the pesky inspiration part and get right to the designing/problem solving part that I love the most.

We said earlier that this is not your day job, but I think your day job is pretty cool, too: You're a children's librarian! And I feel like both your love of literature and your, as you put it on Etsy, "feminist sensibilities," shine through in your work. Tell us about how those passions of yours get incorporated into your art. 

The first papercut I ever made was of an ee cummings poem for my mom. A lot of my work involves words and language and trying to figure out new and interesting ways to present them. I'm not a writer myself, but a lot of the time I think of my papercuts in terms of picture book illustrations, as I ask myself what message they're conveying and what edits need to be made for it to speak more clearly. 

The personal is political, and since I am a feminist, that shapes how I view and interact with the world, which in turn shapes my art.  I'm working every day to make my feminism more intersectional and to recognize both my limitations and privilege as a young, cis, able bodied white woman in the world, and I hope that as I continue to grow, my art does too.

Your papercuts have a unique voice, and a certain "edginess"--which I love, because I know you, but also because papercutting seems like it could be written off as dainty or feminine simply in terms of look. But you tackle ideas and subject matter that take away that stereotype. I know you've done quilts with curse words, and other inversions of the craft... How do you subvert expectations for what these typically feminized art forms are "supposed" to be?

One of the biggest lies the patriarchy ever told me is that the feminine is worth less than the masculine. For a long time I tried to play like I was a Cool Girl (thanks for the shortcut, Gillian Flynn!) and that girly interests or pursuits were below me. But I really love twirly dresses and romance novels and baking and sewing and delicate handwork. Most of the important relationships in my life are with women--mentors, friends and family alike--and those are the places where I draw my strength from. 

Part of my subversion of the patriarchy is to reclaim and practice traditional art forms, ones usually practiced by women or considered more feminine and delicate, that aren't always given the same credit as being "art" the way that painting, drawing or sculpture is. I think about this more consciously when I'm sewing or doing embroidery, but I think it applies to my papercuts as well. Of course, I am still me--a big, messy, broad strokes kind of gal with less patience for exactness and detail than I would like, so I have to adapt the form to my needs and skills. And that's how you end up with floral heart or the seamstress using herself as thread to sew.

If you could make any piece or type of art, what would it be?

As previously mentioned, my father is an amazing woodworker and carpenter. I kick myself constantly for not paying attention when he tried to do projects with me when I was a kid. I'd love to learn how to do what he does, I think a well made joint is just about the most beautiful thing in the world. 

If you could have dinner with any artist and/or author, who would it be?

Okay, do I go with some whose work is really cool, or someone who I want to spend an hour plus with? Because a lot of people who make really cool art are also garbage people who I would probably want to punch in the face very quickly, case in point, Diego Rivera. I meet a fair amount of authors through my day job--my library system is home to the largest children's book festival in the United States--and I can tell you without hesitation that Nick Bruel, who writes the Bad Kitty series, is the nicest man on the planet. 

All that being said, I think I'd like to have dinner with Oliver Jeffers. His picture books make me laugh and his work as a visual artist is usually pretty compelling. I think he's probably a little pretentious, but he's also very nice to look at and all the pictures of his studio that I've seen make me want to go to there. 

What would you like others to know about being a self-taught artist, or an artist in general? What would you say to adults (perhaps like me) who say, "I can't learn something new and complicated like this!"

What do you say to your writing students on the first week? Of course they can learn how to do it; just because something is new and uncomfortable now doesn't mean it'll always be new and uncomfortable. 

It drives me bonkers when people tell me I'm talented*--I'm not seven, I don't need to feel good about myself to keep making art. Talent is the biggest lie we tell ourselves. So few people are actually talented, I'm certainly not. What we call talent is usually just hard work, repetition and prioritization. If I spent as much time with Rosetta Stone as I do cutting up bits of paper, I'd be fluent in Spanish. And probably Romanian. But I choose to spend my time and energy on making things and right now I'm really lucky to be in a position where I can make that my priority, dirty dishes in the sink be damned. 

*I recognize the sentiment behind the words when people tell me I'm talented, and I really appreciate that. I'm not a monster.

Most importantly: Tell us about your papercut piece, "Simone," being featured in the Decatur show! What was the inspiration?

Simone is an art book. It's pretty sculptural, both in the atypical accordion fold I used, and in the way the paper cut itself plays with light and shadow. I've been wanting to make a paper cut book using this fold for a long time, and just never found the right project for it before now. 

The backbone of the book is an original poem, my first since, like, a 10th grade poetry unit. It's inspired by the life of Simone Melchoir Cousteau, the first wife of oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. She was an amazing woman, who worked closely with her husband and helped pioneer a lot of the scuba and underwater techniques that he's credited with. She was also the de facto medic, cook and fund raiser for her husband's work. Her oldest child died tragically in a sea plane crash and less than a year after she died, Jacques married a much younger woman, with whom he already had two pre-teen children. So the poem is kind of an exploration of women who get forgotten and the sacrifices they make in the name of men. It's accompanied by illustrations, which are more in line with my usual paper cut work. 


I dove down into the belly of a whale
to cook you dinner. Later, after the dishes
I kicked my way back to the surface
and slept alone in our narrow bed. 
To make the sea my home, I had to make you
my world. And so I spent my life treading through water, 
willing you to look behind and recognize me. 
This girl was never meant to be a string of pearls, 
a delicate gesture, a winking smile.
But when you asked, how could I refuse? A swallow of sharp edges
turned shepherd by your strange alchemy. 
I dove down into the belly of a whale
to see the depths through your eyes. A clear vision
in dark water and a path you could never walk alone. 
Even when you insisted that you had. 


Wow. I love this.

Finally, a very important question: You and I often frequent our beloved original Flying Biscuit, but our friends who have stayed with you in Savannah say you make a mean homemade brunch. What's on your menu? 

Fancy brunch is my specialty! My go to is poached egg sandwiches with all the fixings- good bagels, roasted red peppers, crispy kale, cheese etc... I also make a mean zucchini waffle. And obviously, there are always mimosas.