Archive for the Arts and Creativity Category

Having a Voice

Posted in Arts and Creativity, Healing and Recovery, People, Teaching, Writing on April 8, 2018 by Vince.Puzick

Rob Lessig had a vision. It wasn’t too sharply focused, and it was admittedly a bit of a crazy idea, but it all centered around one idea: “stories are relevant.” He wanted to create an event that would showcase storytelling and all the different modalities through which we tell stories: film, poetry, art, music. And the Storytelling Festival was born.

Rob, English teacher at Mitchell High School and founder of Ghost Factory Press, said the idea had its origin when he took a class on “narrative theory” a few years ago. Sounds like an English teacher, right? And the idea grew to fruition.

Saturday, at the City Auditorium in Colorado Springs, high school students, their teachers, and community members gathered and moved through small auditoriums in the building to take in student-produced films, a fashion show, dance, jazz concerts, and rock and roll sessions. The theme holding the evening together was story – how do we tell them, in what genre, and with what craft?

I hung out in the halls of the City Aud to check out the student art for sale, but my main focus was on the slam poetry event. Last spring, I had the privilege and honor of judging the Slam Poetry contest featuring students from Colorado Springs District 11 high schools.

The Storytelling Festival had a twist – the Teacher Poetry Slam. Teachers from D11 schools spit their best poems in fevered three minute poems. Students and audience members snapped fingers when they were moved and “ooohhed” and “ahhhhed” at lines that particularly sung to them.

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Student hosts provide some comedy before introducing the next teacher-poet.

The Teacher Poetry Slam ended in a three-way tie!  Dan Reicks from Russell Middle School, Sarah Hook and Andrew Ziegler from Mitchell all received PERFECT scores for their performances!

I was able to catch up to only three of the teachers who participated; other participating teachers were either swarmed by their students or they had made their way to some of the other events in the Aud.

I asked Miranda Popp, a teacher and colleague of Lessig’s at Mitchell High School, what was the power of slam poetry for these students. “It’s the empowerment itself. It gives formerly voiceless people the spotlight,” Popp said. Slam Poetry often is very introspective with topics ranging from commentary on social issues, to identity, to abuse, to questions about gender. Miranda said that slam poetry is healing: “the speaker heals from saying it; the others heal from listening to it.”

Slams are competitions among poets and are judged on delivery and language use, as well as the message delivered. This isn’t your restrained “poetry reading”; slams are performance art. While some slams can be a bit aggressive (for lack of a better term) in crowd response and scoring, the teachers in D11 have done a great job to create a positive event — seen in the vulnerable topics the students choose and the supportive spirit the audience offers.

Todd Hegert, an English teacher from Palmer High, agreed. “Slam poetry is so strong on word play, in language, and in telling a story” that it sets it apart from other poetic forms or events and it is “more compelling” to the current student population. “They get to tell their story, talk about the world around them, work toward solutions.” In the long run, Todd says, these “young voices are equipped with the language to shift the political and social landscape.”

One teacher I could not interview, but all three of the other teachers mentioned, is Chris Hartman from Coronado High School. His work with students and his efforts in creating the student Poetry Slam competition are recognized by students and teachers, alike.

“I love how this night showcased students and the arts,” Popp said. “Arts are so important to our students, and show that our students are human beings. This is more important than the standardized assessments” that are so much part of their educational world.

 

Lessig agreed, saying that once the expenses are met, the rest of the proceeds from the evening will be donated to arts education in our community. He reminded me that all the events tonight – the films, music, art, dance – were student created.

“The arts build community,” he said. And, as the program for the night’s event stated, “Stories create our world.”

 

Coming Home

Posted in Arts and Creativity, Healing and Recovery with tags , , on March 19, 2018 by Vince.Puzick

ca-thar-sis / the transformative power of art

The HomeFront Theater Project’s adaptation and performance of Sophocles’ Ajax and the conversation which followed on Sunday afternoon was an emotionally cathartic experience whether attendees were veterans, active duty, or civilians. The event, held at the ENT Center for the Arts on the UCCS campus, was both performance and dialogue where attendees moved from audience to participants as they reflected on the wounds of war and “coming home.”

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The 30-minute reading of the play highlighted the challenge of returning from war as experienced by Ajax, Achilles’ brother, and an honorable and distinguished warrior in his own right. Ajax presumes that he will be awarded Achilles’ armor, as was custom, but he is slighted when two generals bestow that honor on Odysseus. The abridged version of the play reveals Ajax’s struggle with the dishonor through conversations with his wife, Tecmessa, and his emotional outcries to the gods. While Ajax reveals the anguish and despair of his return from war, Tecmessa provides a reflective voice on the meaning of war, war’s impact on Ajax, and what his imminent suicide will mean for both her and their son.

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The small cast of four (Robert Rais/Ajax, Carmen Shedd/Tecmessa, Jordan Matthews/Teucer, Raphael Siag/Chorus) delivered a terrifically moving reading of the condensed play. While they did not “perform” the play with costumes or staging, their individual and collective voices expressed the pain, confusion, and agony endured and suffered by all those impacted by war.

But the most impactful aspect of the night was the nearly hour-long conversation that happened following the reading. Dr. Max Shulman, who initiated the HomeFront Theater project upon his arrival at UCCS, facilitated the discussion which was kicked off with a panel of three from the Colorado Springs area: Dr. Phillip Morris, Director of the UCCS Office of Military and Veteran Affairs; Dr. Tom McGuire, USAFA, Ret., Associate Professor of English, USAFA; Erin Fowler, Clinical Therapist at the UCCS Lane Center, Veterans Health and Trauma Clinic.

Following their brief remarks, many of the 50+ participants revealed through their comments what a cathartic event theater, specifically, and art, more generally, can be.  It is a testament to the healing power of the creative arts.

Comments moved between insights on the play to reflections on personal experiences of those in the audience. As an aside, it is difficult to call this an audience. At this point in the evening, we were all participants in the event. The reading engaged us in an emotional experience that then gave us a way into and through our own experiences. The performance, in other words, was a catalyst into a conversation that otherwise may not have happened or, if it had, may not have reached the emotional and intimate depths that it did.

The dialogue among audience members started with a comment that Ajax, in his “prearticulate expression” of his anguish, wanted public recognition, wanted his story told, but could not fight through his pain and his isolation for either to happen. 2500 years ago, Sophocles captured the emotional and moral dilemma of the returning soldier: the desire to tell his or her story (in his/her own terms and timing), the isolation that prevents the telling, and the inability of the civilian friend, spouse, or child to understand the warrior’s experience.

Two of the wounds of war – the feeling that one is a burden on others after his/her return and the isolation veterans may experience – are what many veterans bear when they return. One veteran participant talked about the moral injury that veterans may feel. Beyond the physical trauma some may experience – PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury, for instance – some veterans may experience a moral injury, the damage done to the soul, to their moral compass when there is a transgression to their own moral beliefs and ethical values.

As one veteran mentioned in the evening, “we may not be able to process it when you say ‘thank you for your service.’ We may not be proud of some of the things we did when we served. Sometimes we just need to hear ‘thank you for coming home.’”

Other veterans, from Vietnam Veterans to those who served in Operation Desert Storm, echoed similar sentiments about their return. The history of how we perceive and honor U.S. veterans changes with each war: the “greatest generation” of WWII veterans, the soldiers who fought the Korean War (“the Forgotten War”), those who returned from Vietnam and changed into civilian clothes before they deplaned in San Francisco lest they be spit on, and the soldiers who fought “an unwinnable war” in the Middle East, in a land that we understand so little.

Each war seems to have its own cultural and historical context; each veteran has his or her own personal frame in which their experience is situated. Each soldier, one of the veterans reminded us, has their “own narrative and that narrative is evolving. “

A veteran who served her country for 22 years and who recently arrived in Colorado Springs movingly told of her experience coming home. Her story revealed some of the tensions that can happen between family members and the returning veteran, between current service members and veterans, and the veterans themselves as they struggle to transition into civilian life. Her eyes welled up with tears, as did many in the theater, as she spoke.

Colonel McGuire from the Air Force Academy expressed what we were all probably feeling when she finished: “You told us your story, and I cannot help but honor you.”

And that, in essence, captures the importance of the evening.

It is through story-telling that we begin to understand, to empathize, to forge a relationship with others. Whether it is the veteran telling her story to another (or to a theater full of people), whether it is a civilian listening to a veteran’s story without judgment but with compassion, the act of telling our stories that gives us a chance to heal.

Thank you for coming home.  Thank you for telling your stories.

 

Creative Forces Community Summit

Posted in Arts and Creativity, Healing and Recovery, People, Writing on February 19, 2018 by Vince.Puzick

Let’s start with the stories.

A panel of four veterans ended Day One of the Creative Forces Summit by telling part of their story. Staff Sergeant Cory Sandoval, First Sergeant David Griego, Sergeant Curt Bean, and Lieutenant Colonel Walter Ernst shared their experience coming home and reintegrating back into the civilian life following their combat duty.

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“Whatever you come back with has no cure,” LT. Col. Ernst told the approximately 200 attendees at the Summit. “It’s part of the culture of combat. You don’t come home the same (as when you went in).”

The others told parts of their stories – because the stories are all unique to the veteran yet common themes run through – that echoed those sentiments. “I deal with a lot of guilt each day,” SSgt Sandoval reflected. They also commented on the “15 Things Veterans Want You to Know” which was really informative for a civilian like me to hear.

The Summit, part of the network of Creative Forces initiatives happening throughout the country, was the launch of the community efforts to help veterans heal from the trauma of their combat experiences. The Colorado Springs region – with its military presence here – is one of eleven sites in the NEA Military Healing Arts Network.

The Network brings together the 3 Cs for creative arts therapies to foster the healing process: Clinical (Medical Research, Creative Arts Therapies, and Telehealth services), Community (State, Regional, and Local Arts Organizations, Veterans Networks), and Capacity Building (Training & Education, Digital Resource Centers, and Medical Research). These three components put creative arts therapies at the core of patient-centered care.

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Held at the beautiful ENT Center for the Arts on the UCCS campus, the Summit brought various local arts organizations together with military representatives to hear the clinical support veterans receive and to hear the work of the arts organizations that currently provide community support for our veterans. The Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region (COPPeR) in conjunction with the Colorado Creative Industries will serve as the administrative lead for our community’s local Creative Forces initiative with support from, among others, the National Endowment for the Arts, Americans for the Arts, and Fort Carson to spearhead these efforts.

A panel of local arts organizations presented on their efforts to provide art therapies to veterans. We heard reports from the following local arts organizations:

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The creative arts therapies allow veterans to tap into ways to “identify, name, and process their trauma.” That trauma may manifest itself in Traumatic Brain Injury, PTSD, or chronic and debilitating pain. The creative arts therapies give them multiple ways “in” that other therapies may not tap into. Through music, visual arts, movement, or writing, veterans are able to use the resources they might learn in their clinical sessions – tools like mindfulness, socialization strategies, expressing feelings, ways to enhance reasoning and thinking skills. The combination of clinical approaches and the community arts organizations allow veterans to treat the wounds of war and come home whole.

The invisible wounds of war, wounds that have a physical, emotional, and economic impact on the veterans, are healed through connection (engaging the veteran), communication (controlling their own narrative), and creativity (veterans want to help and serve and the creative arts allow them to tap into what they can create).

The keynote speaker on Day Two for the culmination of the Summit was a presentation by Stacy Pearsall. Pearsall, combat disabled and retired from military service, served as a military photojournalist during three combat tours in the Middle East. She is the founder of the Veterans Portrait Project which arose out of her desire to turn her photography into art and capture the portraits of veterans to honor their service. You can view Pearsall’s work on the Veterans Portrait Project website.

Attending the Creative Forces Summit was a very humbling experience. To hear the veterans’ stories, to move toward understanding the process of healing their combat trauma, and to hear their own perspective on their experience was completely enlightening. More than one of them said that they didn’t want pity or sympathy from their community, and they encouraged us to think of those soldiers who lost their lives as the real “heroes.” What I heard from them was that they want to heal the wounds that we cannot see and that we might barely be able to understand.

And it is through the arts that makes that healing possible.

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