Articles by Ira Brooker

  • Article

    New piece explores diversity in theater - onstage

    April 18, 2016 by Ira Brooker

    New piece explores diversity in theater - onstage

    Above: Cast in rehearsal at East Side Freedom Library, St. Paul. Photo Credit: LKBachman.

    The prevailing stereotype of the average American theater patron is someone of advanced years, considerable means and Caucasian heritage. Obviously that’s not an entirely accurate portrayal, but connecting with both younger audiences and audiences of color remains an evergreen challenge in most local theater scenes. Full Circle Theater Company is taking the lead in Saint Paul with “Theater: A Sacred Passage.”

    According to Full Circle co-founder Rick Shiomi, the Knight-funded performance piece, which will be onstage again April 22-24 at St. Paul’s Dreamland Arts, draws on voices that reflect their city’s ever-evolving community. “There is a growing diversity in Saint Paul,” said Shiomi. “Sometimes that has created tensions, misunderstandings and social boundaries between different groups in the city. We definitely want to be a part of the solution, meaning our work in a way is modeling the process of a diverse group of people working together creatively and organizationally to share their stories and artistry for all of us to understand each other and the challenges we face, better.”

    Originally mounted at Dreamland Arts in late 2015, the show features a collection of short pieces involving race, gender, economics, family and other issues impacting artists, written by Shiomi and fellow Full Circle members James Williams, Martha Johnson, Lara Trujillo and Stephanie Lein Walseth. The stories are performed by ten Twin Cities actors from a variety of social and ethnic backgrounds. It’s a conscious attempt to reflect both the disparate experiences of the play’s creators and the expansive range of cultures within the city.

    Cast with Youth Leadership Initiative audience members at the Wilder Center for Communities, St. Paul. Photo: LKBachman.

    Of course, putting diverse voices on the stage is only part of the battle. Getting those voices heard by equally diverse audiences is a bigger challenge. That’s why Full Circle held performances of “A Sacred Passage” earlier this month at a variety of venues around Saint Paul, most of them in neighborhoods such as Frogtown and East Side that don’t get regular access to theater.

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    Exploring art from every angle with Saint Paul’s Electric Machete Studios

    January 26, 2016 by Ira Brooker

    All photos courtesy Electric Machete Studios.

    One of the most frustrating questions artists get asked on the regular is, “So what kind of art do you do?” Even for specialists, there’s seldom a straightforward answer for that. Whether motivated by financial necessity, available resources or diverse interests, most working artists wear a variety of hats.

    For a multidisciplinary arts group like Electric Machete Studios, the question is even broader. The Knight-funded collective’s mission statement cites a focus on “the contemporary creative narrative of the Mexican/[email protected]/[email protected]/Indigenous identity and artistic style,” a tent that encompasses a variety of genres. Since opening its gallery space in Saint Paul’s West Side neighborhood last fall, the group has remained intensely active.

    “We haven’t stopped moving, thinking, dreaming and creating,” said multimedia artist Jessica Lyman-Lopez. “Since our opening in September, we have hosted two art exhibits and three art happenings.” Those events include November’s Día de los Muertos-themed Festival de Las Calaveras and December’s Muxer Rebelde, which Lyman-Lopez described as “an anti-mall holiday sale featuring local artists and vendors and a poetry reading dedicated to the power of women across the Américas.” The gallery also serves as a recording space for the weekly Latina Theory podcast, hosted by Maria Isa Pérez and Arianna Genis.

    The Electric Machete gallery is currently hosting Xilam Balam: 20 Years of Lines, a retrospective of the artist’s genre-stretching career. “We kicked off the exhibition with live tattooing and Maya Calendar readings to reflect the intensity and futurity of Balam’s work,” said Lyman-Lopez. “The exhibit brings Mayan glyph parchment drawings into conversation with modern hip-hop lyrics and pays homage to the hybrid culture that emerges between the two.”

  • Article

    Connecting communities through unexpected pairings

    September 26, 2016 by Ira Brooker

    Connecting communities through unexpected pairings
    Food Opera speaker setup, designed by Jutta Friedrichs.
  • Article

    Women of color take center stage with Ananya Dance Theatre

    October 30, 2015 by Ira Brooker

    Ananya Dance Company. Photo by V. Paul Virtucio.

    To the layperson, the concept of studying for a dance performance probably suggests doing exercises in the studio, or maybe watching videos of one’s routines. For Ananya Dance Theatre, dance research is a little more involved than that. Composed mostly of women of color, the company’s work focuses specifically on social justice themes, and founder Ananya Chatterjea’s philosophy calls for an intimate understanding of the issues they explore.

    “The creation of our work is rooted in extensive research and dialogue with our communities,” said Ananya Managing Director Gary Peterson. “Women from a variety of backgrounds are invited regularly to the studio to share their stories and to begin to express those stories in simple movement, story sharing and movement circles.” When the company performed at a benefit for an affordable housing organization this spring, for instance, dancers had conversations with homeless residents of the Twin Cities to develop a deeper knowledge of, in Peterson’s words, “individuals whose experiences of being unsafe could only be understood through deep imagination, cultivation of vulnerability, and resonance.”

    That quest for understanding doesn’t end once a production is mounted. After premiering in September in St. Paul, the  Knight-funded food- and agriculture-themed production Roktim was presented overseas to the National Theater in Ethiopia. The artists took the opportunity to educate themselves on the real-life experiences of some of the people depicted in and affected by their art. “The company's travels provide flesh-and-blood perspective for the common issues that are addressed in their dances and experienced by women across the global landscape,” Peterson said. “In Ethiopia, the dancers conducted movement workshops at a safe house for women and children who had survived abuse, and witnessed first-hand how artistic practices can directly impact those living with traumatic memories.”

  • Article

    Serving up both coffee and art in St. Paul

    December 17, 2015 by Ira Brooker

    Photo courtesy Coffee House Press.

    One of the coolest things about living in a community as artistically active as St. Paul is the chance to see art on just about every scope and scale. Sometimes it’s as expansive as a display of colors literally lighting up the night sky. Sometimes it’s as communal as a festive street parade that pulls in neighbors and strangers alike. And sometimes it’s as intimate as an everyday object that fits in the palm of your hand.

    It’s hard not to appreciate the synchronicity of indie publishing house Coffee House Press employing coffee cup sleeves as a vehicle for literature. The Coffee Sleeve Conversations project plans to emblazon around 10,000 sleeves with passages of prose and poetry from local writers of color. The sleeves will be distributed to area coffee shops, including Workhorse Coffee Bar, Nina’s Coffee Cafe and others.

    Coffee House Press Managing Director Caroline Casey said the group hopes using a utilitarian medium like coffee sleeves will get consumers reflecting on how art and literature impact their daily lives. “We believe fervently that art, in all forms, is a part of daily experience. Part of what we've done in our Books in Action programming, which this project is a part of, is to create new literary experiences for people that aren't reading. It makes that everyday presence of art and literature visible, as well as the artists. Artmaking is a particularly human occupation. It deserves celebrating in small and big ways.”

    The Coffee Sleeve Conversations will include works chosen from an online call for submissions as well as material solicited and curated by a noteworthy Twin Cities artist. “We've hired Tish Jones, a local poet and activist, to make the selections,” said Casey. “It'll be interesting to see how her priorities, aesthetic and otherwise, influence the final selections. The work will have to be effective as a short snippet, but other than that it's wide open. So I see Tish's curatorial lens as another artist contribution on top of the 20 writers whose work will be featured on the sleeves.”

  • Article

    Book art available, but you have to paddle to get there

    June 8, 2016 by Ira Brooker

    Book art available, but you have to paddle to get there
    All photos courtesy of The Floating Library. Minnesota takes a lot of pride in both its lakes and its literacy. We famously house more than 10,000 of the former and consistently rank among the national leaders in the latter. It only makes sense, then, that we’re also the home of The Floating Library, a unique intersection of books, lakes and visual art. “The Floating Library is a collection of books that are made by artists. They sit aboard a raft that has specially designed bookshelves and floats in the middle of a lake,” explained book artist and Floating Library creator Sarah Peters. “It’s conceived as a public library for boaters. People are not supposed to swim to the library, because when you’re in a boat you’re dry, for the most part, so you can read books and not damage them or get them wet.” Since its 2013 inception on Cedar Lake in Minneapolis, the library has visited lakes in Winona and St. Anthony, and even made a West Coast trip for this February’s Los Angeles Book Art Fair. This July, the project makes its debut in the capital city. “This is the first time the project will be presented in St. Paul, and that’s entirely due to the Knight funding,” said Peters, a winner of St. Paul’s Knight Arts Challenge. “Lake Phalen has a really interesting history as a lake that has been and still is host to a lot of boating tradition. The St. Paul Sailing Club is there, they have sailing lessons, there are a lot of regattas and things like that that take place there. At the turn of the last century when canoeing was a big trend for certain people of means in St. Paul, hundreds and hundreds of canoes were stored on the banks of Lake Phalen. It’s an interesting site to think about putting a boat-based art project on, since there’s a whole history there.”
  • Article

    How they did it: Reaching new audiences with art

    April 6, 2016 by Ira Brooker

    Above: Osama Esid and Mizna, STILL / LIFE / SYRIA, Northern Spark 2015, presented by Northern Lights.mn and Mizna, Photo: Ian Plant.

    An established and supportive community of arts patrons is one of the finest things a city can have, but if the art is only reaching those who know where to look for it, then it’s not living up to its potential. Fortunately, many Knight-funded projects take an eye toward reaching out to new audiences and bringing works of art to people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience them. These groups employ a range of strategies - from doing multi-disciplinary mash-ups like combining shadow puppetry and poetry, to adding modern-day twists to the classics.

    Focusing on high-quality art as the draw

    For Moheb Soliman, program director of the Saint Paul-based Arab-American arts program Mizna, reaching out to new audiences starts with establishing one basic fact: “We're here! Arab-Americans have been right here making Midwestern lives like so many diverse others, and Mizna's been here too, supporting both established and emerging artists delving into that experience.”

    Along with spotlighting underseen writers, filmmakers and visual artists, Mizna seeks to promote the idea of Arab culture as a diverse cross-section of humanity. To do that, Mizna brings the artists into everyday spaces, like parks and coffee shops. They also bring in artists who can speak to their own day-to-day experiences and put a recognizable face on the artwork.

    “We've become confident that if we can produce excellent and challenging literature, film, and other interdisciplinary work presenting Arab and Arab-American artists, then we can find partners and venues and audiences that want to engage with that,” said Soliman.

  • Article

    For one day, a city becomes a comedy improv stage

    August 9, 2016 by Ira Brooker

    Photos courtesy of Theater of Public Policy. In an instant-messaging age, when even email is dismissed as an outmoded form of communication, the notion of sending in-person, door-to-door greetings is downright antique. That isn’t keeping one Twin Cities comedy company from resurrecting the format with a contemporary spin. Theater of Public Policy has built a reputation for whip-smart, issues-oriented comedy, but the company’s Knight-funded All St. Paul’s a Stage project is an apolitical undertaking. “It’s a kind of twist on the singing telegram,” said Theater of Public Policy co-founder Brandon Boat. “Instead of a singing performance, it’s a comedy performance.” 
  • Article

    Poetry helps older writers surprise themselves

    October 5, 2016 by Ira Brooker

    Poetry helps older writers surprise themselves
    Photos and images by Naomi Cohn

    We’ve all heard artists explain that the struggle of doing what they do is worth it for the sheer joy of creation. For some artists, though, even making it to a creative space is a struggle unto itself. Naomi Cohn, founder of St. Paul’s Known By Heart Poetry, sees evidence of that every time she leads one of her poetry classes for seniors.

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    Winnebago Workshop puts young artists on the road to discovery

    November 6, 2015 by Ira Brooker

    Winnebago Workshop puts young artists on the road to discovery

    Photos via Little Brown Mushroom. Video via Kickstarter.

    Saint Paul’s Little Brown Mushroom publishing house has a history of providing young creative types with new artistic vehicles, but never one as literal as The Winnebago Workshop project. The latest venture from acclaimed photographer Alec Soth and the organization is an “art school on wheels,” a refurbished RV where teen artists from all over the world can collaborate on projects, live as a community and bring their work to people who might otherwise never see it. The Knight-funded project recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help bring in students, recruit artists and mentors, keep the engine running and otherwise get the show on the road.

    As so often happens, the inspiration for the Winnebago Workshop sprang from another artistic endeavor. “A number of years ago, I did a collaborative photography project with four other photographers and a writer in which we drove from Texas to California,” said Soth. “I ended up buying an RV for the trip. It was an incredible experience. There was so much creative energy being on the road together and I learned a ton.”

    Once Soth had the vehicle in mind, it didn’t take long for him to decide how to use it, and what kind of artists he wanted to attract. “A couple of years ago I gave a lecture at a local high school. To be honest, I sort of dreaded it. I figured the students wouldn’t be interested. But it turned out they were bubbling with enthusiasm. This experience reminded me of when I was younger, and so inspired by artists who worked on the road. So I put two and two together and came up with this idea.”

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    CULTURE explores the past and future of Twin Cities hip-hop

    November 21, 2015 by Ira Brooker

    CULTURE explores the past and future of Twin Cities hip-hop

    All photos via David Glasgow except the open wall, which is via Rogue Citizen.

    For all of the strides hip-hop has made as an art form over the past several decades, there are still plenty of otherwise in-the-know arts patrons who think of it solely as a musical genre. In actuality, hip-hop encompasses everything from rap to dance to graphic art to creative writing, with tendrils in nearly any artistic discipline you can name. As legendary rapper and educator KRS-ONE puts it, “Rap is something you do. Hip-hop is something you live.” That ethos is clearly on display in CULTURE, a Knight-funded art and music series produced by Rogue Citizen arts collective and Free Range Music Cooperative.

    Free Range’s Marcus Kar describes CULTURE as a “coalition of the willing,” with artists, musicians, dancers, activists, poets and educators joining forces to spread awareness of the Twin Cities’ hip-hop community and foster young artists trying to find a foothold. Coupling Free Range’s focus on music and performance with Rogue Citizen’s grounding in graffiti and visual art, the collaboration offers something for just about any aspiring hip-hop artist.

    The series launched in early November with an all-ages open house at Amsterdam Bar and Hall featuring performances by local luminaries Carnage the Executioner, Sean Anonymous, Maria Isa and more. “The atmosphere was incredible,” said Kar. “Artists everywhere, painting live. Kids had an opportunity to beatbox with Carnage The Executioner and dance on stage with Crunchy Kids. The energy was simply amazing.”

    “There was great energy in the room,” said Rogue Citizen’s Matt Wells. “The open, eight-foot wall - the “guest book” - was there for everyone to paint. There were little kids and grown-ups putting their mark up on a wall for the first time. The final product is great.”

    CULTURE continues with a workshop at McNally Smith College of Music Nov. 21 and an artists’ showcase featuring Desdamona, Tall Paul, Greg Grease and more at Minnesota Historical Center Dec. 1. All of the events boast a who’s who of local hip-hop talent, as showcased on the project’s newly released compilation album. Kar claims the uniting factor for CULTURE artists is a dedication to authenticity. “As a musician and singer-songwriter, I look for artists with genuine and honest voices, content that’s relatable, and performance that shows heart and passion. Duke Ellington was right in saying ‘There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.’”

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    St. Paul Classical Music Crawl brings the classics out of their chambers

    October 8, 2015 by Ira Brooker

    St. Paul Classical Music Crawl brings the classics out of their chambers

    Even in this all-casual, all-the-time era of arts consumption, classical music manages to maintain an unshakable veneer of formality. While there's something aesthetically appealing about the popular image of classical performances as high-toned events with opera glasses, tuxes and tails, in truth the form is far more accessible and approachable than the movies would have you believe.

    That's part of the thinking behind the St. Paul Classical Music Crawl, a chance for fans and novices alike to get an up-close look at what the Minnesota classical scene has to offer. The one-day event incorporates 28 mini-concerts by classical artists of all stripes at 10 locations throughout St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood, including art galleries, restaurants, theaters and more. Presented in conjunction with the annual St. Paul Art Crawl, the Classical Music Crawl invites visitors to either plan their own walking itineraries or join a tour guided by a classical music host from Minnesota Public Radio.

    Music Crawl organizer Marc Levine, an accomplished violinist and founding member of the baroque chamber music ensemble Flying Forms, says he wants the festival to showcase St. Paul’s classical scene as a thriving community. “I often feel like people are fans of individual groups or even a handful of groups, but feel they are separate entities each in their own box. I wanted people to see that there is a vibrant scene of classical music in St. Paul. If people think about things from that perspective, meaning that they see their favorite groups as part of a whole, then I think that they are more likely to find out about new groups and concerts they might not have noticed before.”

  • Article

    Plume Project lights up the night sky with art

    November 13, 2015 by Ira Brooker

    Plume Project lights up the night sky with art

    Video by Asia Ward on Vimeo. Photo by Aaron Dysart.

    The District Energy steam plume may be the most misunderstood of all of the Twin Cities’ landmarks. Many of the commuters who pass through downtown St. Paul each day assume it’s a column of smoke polluting the atmosphere over the Mississippi River. In reality, the plume is the byproduct of one of America’s most sustainable, renewability-focused heating and cooling plants. Soon it will also serve as an unlikely canvas for one of the more evanescent art projects Saint Paul has ever seen.

    Starting with a kick-off party Nov. 17, three artists from the City Art Collaboratory will project a variety of images against the plume, effectively lighting up the night sky with their art. The Collaboratory looks for intersections between art and science within St. Paul. On a tour of the District Energy facility, artists Asia Ward, Aaron Dysart and Emily Stover began discussing the plume as an outlet for their work. “The three of us all have experience using projection and programmable lights in our public artwork,” said Ward. “It seemed natural to use the steam plume as a projection surface. It is so ghost-like and ephemeral, like a cloud. Because it lacks boundaries, and because of the reflective quality of the droplets, we wanted to know what would happen it we projected onto it.”

    As a test run, the group projected images onto smoke from a campfire. They were impressed with the results and began planning a triad of science-inspired, interactive art projects. Dysart’s Solar System uses real-time NASA data to create an ever-shifting array of light and color that moves in concert with actual storms and spots on the surface of the sun. Stover’s Rumblings invites viewers to call a phone number to hear an energy-themed poem by a local poet, while the plume lights change in accord with the reading. Ward’s Plume Coloring Contest asks local residents to submit energy-related drawings and other artwork that can be magnified and projected over the city.

    The group approached the Plume Project, a Knight Arts Challenge winner, as a collaborative effort, but each artist still presided over his or her own project. The result is three unique creations in service of a shared vision. “The goal was to come up with three different types of prototype displays on the plume in order to figure out if one or all could be more of a permanent project,” said Ward. “The projects are a small part of the big picture, which would be overwhelming if we tried to accomplish it alone.”

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    Sharing an Indian tradition of art and home in St. Paul

    November 13, 2015 by Ira Brooker

    Sharing an Indian tradition of art and home in St. Paul

    Photo collage courtesy Ragamala Dance.

    Despite our reputation for "niceness," Minnesota isn't always the most neighborly place to call home. For better or for worse, the state's well-known passive-aggression sometimes keeps us at arm's length from our fellow Minnesotans. That's the antithesis of the Indian festival of Navarathri, a celebration of art and community with an emphasis on bringing neighbors together.

    While the holiday is celebrated differently from region to region, in Ragamala Dance founder and co-Artistic Director Ranee Ramaswamy's homeland of southern India, Navarathri is a nine-night festival built around friends and neighbors visiting each other's homes and sharing their art. That structure provides the framework for the first Navarathri kolu festival, a Knight-funded celebration taking place this weekend in downtown Saint Paul. ("Kolu" refers to a display of figurines that provide a centerpiece for South Indian Navarathri festivals.) Using the Landmark Center as a home base, Ragamala will invite neighbors from around the city to share and experience art and performances from India and around the world.

    "We have invited artists of all backgrounds to participate. While there will be plenty of artists performing Indian dance and music, we also have tap artists, modern dancers, poets, and musicians," said Ashwini Ramaswamy, Ragamala's director of marketing and public relations. Even the culinary arts will be represented, with Chef Raghavan Iyer providing snacks and educating attendees on the importance of food in Indian festivals and rituals.

    Ramaswamy expects the audience to include both people who grew up celebrating Navarathri and those who are experiencing the festival for the first time. "For people unfamiliar to Navarathri kolu, we have commissioned the wonderful filmmaker Caitlin Hammel to create a film that focuses on five Minnesota families celebrating Navarathri last month. It’s the perfect glimpse into a world that is foreign to many and familiar to many who will be attending."

    The event is something of a homecoming for Ragamala, which has been touring around the country for much of the past year. In keeping with the celebration's low-key, homegrown spirit, though, Ragamala will be hosting but not performing. "We wanted it to be very organic and informal, just like a real Navarathri celebration," said Ramaswamy.

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    Join in Saturday’s flamenco procession and sing-a-long in East St. Paul

    December 3, 2015 by Ira Brooker

    Join in Saturday’s flamenco procession and sing-a-long in East St. Paul

    Photo above credit Knight Foundation.

    It’s early December and we’re now ankle-deep in the time of year when “As long as I don’t have to go outside” becomes the key motivator for many Minnesotans’ entertainment choices.  But the Flamenco Christmas Procession on Payne combats the cold with a song in its step. The procession,  which takes place Saturday Dec. 5 and is presented by Deborah Elias Danza Española,  is a celebration of any number of things, including the Christmas season, the culture of southern Spain, the neighborhoods of East Saint Paul and more. “It's kind of a combination flamenco procession, performance, and sing-a-long with lots of energy, spontaneity, and festivity,” said director Deborah Elias.

    Elias founded Danza Española six years ago to share her passion for flamenco culture and history through performance and education. The Flamenco Christmas Procession, a Knight Arts Challenge winner, draws inspiration from several traditional Spanish celebrations, Elias explained. “The zambomba, where neighbors gather in the streets to sing villancicos (flamenco Christmas carols); the romería, where people process for days, singing and dancing, to reach traditional pilgrimage sites; and the coro rociero, small, lively choirs that sing traditional music.”

    The Saint Paul procession begins at Payne and Maryland with a performance at the Arlington Hills Library and moves south along Payne Avenue to Aguirre Street. The parade interweaves the traditional with the modern, incorporating various styles of flamenco dance and carols by the Coro Flamenco Street Choir. The group will also treat area businesses to a series of flash-mob style performances that Elias described as “lots of people in lots of winter clothes suddenly appearing, milling around, laughing and talking, and then breaking into song.” A sudden influx of singing strangers might sound like an impediment to a day of holiday shopping, but Elias said the Payne Avenue businesses are more than happy to play host to some semi-spontaneous performance art.