Friday July 28th, Phoenix Poetry Series presents their newest zine launch titled Unsellable Inventories. Editor Kat Hofland showcases emotions, experiences, thoughts, beliefs, and more through the power of lists. There will be readings throughout the evening, featuring an array of local writers, Tucson writers, and a few from far-away places. The event will be at Fillmore Coffee Co from 6 to 8 p.m. Click here for the Facebook event. , Li
Explore the life of renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Edith Wharton. Dr. Rivers-Norton will discuss excerpts from “Edith Wharton: When Words First Spoke,” the fourth chapter of her latest book The Demeter-Persephone Myth as Writing Ritual in the Lives of Literary Women. The talk will focus on the novelist Edith Wharton, who experiences loss, illness and confusion as a child and is mystified by the aloofness of her mother. Consequently, she feels insecure and inferior. Although destined to be a writer, Wharton is profoundly shaped by family discord and a war-torn world, and often courts humiliation and consequent exile by voicing what others in her family do not want to acknowledge. Despite these restrictions, Wharton continuously recasts painful experience as fodder for the imagination to forge a lasting literary career.
This free event will be on Thursday, June 8 from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM. Located at Arizona Humanities 1242 N. Central Ave. Phoenix, AZ 85004. For more information and to RSVP click here.
Senior lecturer of ethnic studies at NAU, Dr. Jerry Garcia, will be holding an author’s talk titled “Prisoners Without Chains: The Forced Relocation of Japanese Mexicans 1942-1945” on Tuesday, May 16th. The free event features a small group discussion (limited to 12 RSVPs) from 5:30 PM to 6:30 PM. Afterwards, from 6:45 PM to 8:30 PM there will be a presentation and Q&A. The event will be held at Arizona Humanities, located at 1242 N Central Ave Phoenix, AZ 85004. Light refreshments will be served. For more information and to RSVP to the event click here.
Explore the Japanese Mexican experience during World War II and learn how it was markedly different than the Japanese American experience in the United States. Dr. Jerry Garcia from Northern Arizona University shares how the Japanese negotiated a distinct space within Mexican culture where Japanese identity and ethnicity was maintained and rarely challenged due to a perception that the Japanese displayed markers of whiteness that were associated with western imperialism and power. Examine how the Japanese adjusted during turbulent and transformative periods in Mexican history and the over-arching policies of the U.S. regarding Japanese immigration throughout the Americas.
Dr. Garcia’s new book Looking Like the Enemy: Japanese Mexicans, the Mexican State, and US Hegemony, 1897-1945 examines Japanese immigrants in Mexico and the United States during World War II. The book focuses on the experiences of the Japanese on both sides of the borders and the similarities and differences in their treatment. You can purchase the book through University of Arizona Press here and use discount code AZHUM17 for a special offer.
Dr. Garcia received his doctorate from Washington State University and was the former Director of the Chicano Education Program and the College Assistance Migrant Program at Eastern Washington University. He is now the Senior Lecturer for Ethnic studies at Northern Arizona University. His research focuses on Chicano History, Latin American History, History of Mexico, Asians in the Americas, immigration, empire, masculinity, and race in the Americas.
On Thursday May 18 from 7-9PM, District 4 will be hosting An Evening of Nerdy Poetry, Featuring the nationally touring slam poet, The Klute. Get a head start on Phoenix Comic-con with poems themed with sci-fi, comics, video games, and more. Learn about nerd poetry history, including the Secret Nerd Poet Council upcoming at this year’s Phoenix Comic-con.
There will be a poetry reading and coffee and snacks will be available for purchase. You could also win your very own sonic screwdriver during the trivia contest.
District 4 meets on the third Thursday of each month at Jarrod’s Coffee, Tea and Gallery at 154 W Main St, Mesa, AZ 85201. More information can be found on the Facebook event here.
Arizona-raised artist Marlena Robbins is known for her tactile, self-reflexive painting style and use of color and symbolism. Our Art Editor, Regan Henley was lucky enough to ask her a few questions on her work, style and process.
Regan Henley: You’ve said you haven’t been painting for very long, but you seem to spend a lot of time dedicated to it. Is painting your primary medium? Why or why not?
Marlena Robbins: Yes, painting is my primary medium. I use it more so as a therapeutic expressive outlet. I think the brush strokes and colors help me feel my reality. The simple act of the brush strokes help settle my mind, focus and zone into my present. The colors are psychological; reds are passionate; blues and greens are calming; white is pure, black is powerful; etc. I started painting about 3 years ago; it evolved from there and became my own form of therapy. It became a way for me make sense of my reality, my experiences and what I was going through in order to bring me back to the present.
RH: You’ve collected a very interesting group of pieces. What would you say is the overarching theme in this body of work?
MR: I don’t know that there is a theme to it all; I think each piece that I do reflects what I am experiencing at that particular time in my life. If I’m learning something new. For example, a lot of my earlier pieces were political because I was taking an American Indian Studies course; so whatever I was taking in through my course was being reflected through my paintings. Other paintings were an extension of my feelings, thoughts and circumstances of the moment. What I am trying to understand about my reality. My paintings are growing right along with me; they are a reflection of me and the times that I am in right now.
RH: What is your process for creating these works? Do you begin with concepts or images?
MR: I have the concept first; for example when I say that I am painting what I am experiencing and what I am trying to understand about my life, that’s the concept. That’s me thinking about what I am going through right now in order to create. For instance, we recently had a lot of loss in our family and to try to make sense of that all the only way I could was to paint about it and try to bring closure in order to move forward.
Another important concept to me is balance: balancing myself spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically and how I represent that in my art. Making sense of balance is a lifelong journey; to sustain, nurture and accept that it is a part of who we are as individuals, as human beings. It is very much a part of our purpose.
The concepts definitely do come first, but I take images from my surroundings, the environment and my creative environment. I am very blessed to know and work with amazing artists and have great mentors who put it all out there to be respected and to inspire the people to create.
Some paintings I do start out with a plan, I sketch it first. However, lately, I’ve been mostly experimenting with the mixtures of colors; being intuitive with it and going with the flow. Not really having a plan but giving the canvas my all and the paints their own direction and free will. It’s intimidating to not know what is going to happen or how it’s going to come out because I have this canvas in front of me and I don’t want to mess it up, but at the same time there’s beauty in the unknown. I believe that is parallel with life.
RH: You’ve mentioned that many people are drawn to the three-dimensional quality of your work. Do you ever work with collage or 3D materials when creating these paintings? Your paintings have a kind of texture and warmth that makes them read like textile and fiber arts. How are you influenced by textile arts when creating these pieces?
MR: My very first collage piece was done to pay homage to the women, grandmothers and mothers who came before us. It was pictures of Indigenous women and their children from the late 1800s to mid-1900s. It shows the love that we have for our children as mothers and how that is gifted from generation to generation; the connection we must maintain and nourish with our children. There is no perfect parent; we do our best with what we have.
When I was finished with it I felt as though something was missing. I saw the beads next to me and started beading the outfits in the pictures. My very first collage was my very first beaded painting. The beads add to it, they are unique, different, offer a new texture/effect and are beautiful because it’s like painting with beads. There are very few artists that I’ve seen who bead their paintings. I haven’t seen much on it or read much about it; I know that it is out there, it’s just very unique. I first started beading about 7 years ago; my auntie taught me a very simple stitch. I stopped beading for a long time and it came to back to me when it was supposed to.
RH: Many of these paintings reference spirituality in an abstract way, from the use of patterns, stained glass and geometry; they definitely evoke these thoughts to me, personally. Can you speak a little bit more to that (Are you directly interested in these ideas or are they themes that come up naturally? Are you a very spiritual person? Etc.)?
MR: Spirituality, to me, is an intricate and delicate thought process but very simple to appreciate. It’s not overruled by any written agenda or book. It’s not confined entirely to a religion. It’s how we cope with our reality, how we understand and see ourselves, see the people around us and the world we are in.
I grew up in Window Rock, AZ on the Navajo reservation. Our family didn’t lean towards any religion. There were a lot of traditional Navajo families and Catholic/Mormon families around us. Our mother chose not to excessively influence any one form of religion, she let us understand it for ourselves, and I really appreciated that because it was less confusing. I am not too traditional but I am not religious either. I understand both because I witnessed both. It’s hard for me to respect any Christian religion as a legitimate source of spirituality based on colonialism and the fact that it wasn’t a part of our Indigenous beliefs before colonization.
The flower of life painting, for example, is a reminder to mellow out. That while we strive for perfection, nothing is ever perfect, and while we try to control every situation in our lives, sometimes that choice is not ours to make. We may think that we are making it but in the grand scheme of things we are not; by going with the flow and letting it all evolve the way it’s supposed to, we let it unfold as we go. I can plan my life out 10 years from now but still need to be happy with who I am this very moment by taking care of myself before I go overanalyzing my future. Understanding my present and being grateful for it is a part of spirituality; forgiving my past, accepting my present for what it is and acknowledging my future for what it might become.
RH: What are your biggest influences right now, artistically or otherwise (Artists, movements, styles, book, philosophies, ideas, things you’ve seen or heard, etc.)?
MR: I’ve been very blessed to be able to surround myself with very artistic and influential people in the community and throughout the nation. My mentors Carmen and Zarco Guerrero, my sister Zarina Guerrero, my good friends and accomplished artists in their own mediums: Thosh Collins, Thomas Greyeyes, and Samuel La Fountain. These very genuine people are true to themselves, their art and the world we live in. They have been inspirations to everyone they meet. I draw from their work and ideas. It helps motivate me and drive myself.
RH: What have been the biggest challenges for you in making this work?
MR: Time is the biggest challenge for me. I am the mother to a very energetic three year old. I work for two incredible organizations. I am the Assistant Director of Cultural Coalition, Inc. and am the assistant to the COO and Directors of Community Bridges, Inc. I will be attending graduate school in the fall, pursuing my Master’s in American Indian Studies–Indigenous Rights and Social Justice. I am preparing for my upcoming solo-debut show “777” this May. I am building up my collection and portfolio for the Indigenous Fine Art Market in Santa Fe this August. I’m starting a therapeutic art program at Community Bridges for our clients. And most importantly, giving my son the attention he needs and deserves to make sure he is growing in a good way.
RH: I want to ask you about your art site name, “Mello out Mella.” What’s the story behind that?
MR: Mello out Mella is a reminder for me to “Mello Out.” My nickname growing up is Mella. At times I am a control freak, I want everything to go my way. I have assumptions and expectations of how I want things to play out it and if it doesn’t it can be almost shattering for me. I had to have everything in order, organized to the T, this is how it’s supposed to go, this is how it is going to go, if it doesn’t go this way then what was the point of it all? It took a very long time to let go of that control and understand that things are not always going to go the way I want them to and I have to go with the flow and let it evolve the way it’s supposed to. Mello Out Mella is a reminder for myself and every other control freak out there, that it is ok and there are worse things that could happen, but right now we are safe, strong, happy, healthy, living, breathing and are in the present, grateful for that breathe we are taking in.
RH: So I noticed you also screen print your pieces on shirts and the like, but you’re also showing your work in galleries. Some people would consider those things as conflicting, or even find it difficult to live in both those worlds (fine art and commercial), so to speak. What are your thoughts on this, as an artist doing both?
MR: That never occurred to me. I love these paintings and wanted to share them because know I am not going to recreate them. I wanted to build a design out of it and share via t-shirts and posters. That way the design and painting stay alive. The shirts and posters help relay a message that was embedded in the painting. A lot of symbolism goes into my work; there are stories behind every painting which is a big part of my art. There is always meaning behind them, it’s never just a painting; they have feelings, energy, thoughts, prayers, etc. that go into it. I pray before, during and after I complete a painting. While these paintings are helping to heal me, after I am finished with them they are meant to heal the viewer as well. As the viewer, take in what it is offering. I hope my paintings/designs offer good energy, good thoughts, good words, good feelings and good health. They helped heal me and my intention is for them to help heal others.
RH: These pieces mark a significant period of work. Have you learned anything new about yourself during this period of time?
MR: Yes I have, painting has definitely helped me understand my reality for what it is. And accept and acknowledge parts of myself that I could never really grasp or deal with. Before I started creating, I went through a very difficult time in my life, and I am grateful for how it has helped me move forward. I see a lot of myself in what I paint and a lot of my intuition that goes into it.
RH: If you had to explain your art in 5 words or less what would you say?
MR: Healing, evolving, spiritual, embracing, balanced.
RH: Where can we see more of your work and keep up with you?
You can also reach me at Marlena.firstname.lastname@example.org.
The room is a hot squeeze: words bounce and echo with the clank of mugs, the hiss of steam, the scrape of chairs. On the walls, there is artwork for sale, nailed against galvanized metal sheets or perched on wooden shelves. Behind the counter, a chalkboard menu. This is the kind of coffeehouse that serves organic foods and homemade pies, that hangs up rotating artwork and anti-racism signs. Nestled between a grimy convenience store and a tattoo parlor in central Tucson, its most frequent customers by day seem to be students and professors from the university, or people who make soap to sell at farmers’ markets, or tattooed elites. Once a month, it stays open for this poetry slam, which is regularly packed with high school students from all over southern Arizona, their families, teachers, passersby.
I got here early, and I’m sitting in a corner. I’ve got paper, but I am not, like so many of the young people around me, scribbling inspired lines of poetry or working thumb pads overtime on my phone. Instead of spinning out poems, I am drawing details – the mood, what poets say to each other, what they slam about, how they respond to their scores. I’m writing a dissertation about these poets. It’s a study of youth discourse, art, and activism, and I argue for the poets’ use of rhetorical strategies as suggestive of a specific kind of youth coalition. It’s hard for me to write such words, to work my mouth and ear around academic terms, but this is what I try to do now.
The first time I came to this poetry slam, I didn’t listen. I looked for craft. Pristine lines. I had the MFA ear, so precious. I did not want to hear explicit teen angst. I was with my friend, a writer who is working on a mystery novel. She is a PhD student with three children who supports her family on her own, and she runs at least a dozen miles every morning so she needs to eat constantly – she totes cartons of blueberries and bags of spinach, bagels and nuts.
We are both researchers on a grant that is funding work with local youth organizations, and this poetry slam is one of them. Our interdisciplinary research collective meets in a building on campus that is far from my English department home. This is how far: I was shocked when someone suggested that I could ask for undergraduate help in transcribing and coding my research data, and then I got access to a bright, clean room with a refrigerator where I could place my lunch without admonishment from tenured faculty. In this research collective, we talk about the problems and activism of marginalized Tucson youth who have suffered from increasingly restrictive policies in Arizona, such as the ethnic studies bill, the parents’ bill of rights, and the anti-immigration law. We sit in clean white rooms with bright lights and melodramatic air conditioning and expensive technology. We sit, and we try to figure out how this room squares with all the other spaces of Tucson.
This doesn’t tell you what I am trying to tell you, which is that my friend hears what is beautiful about this space long before I do. That first time, she, also, has brought paper, but, while I listen for gems, she hears the pulse. She nods and furiously writes, transcribing as many lines as she can. We squabble over awarding points because we have been asked to judge. Before the slam, we were handed a binder with scorecards numbering 1-10. At poetry slams, judges are chosen randomly from the audience, and no one is assumed to be an all-knowing critic. Or, everyone is an all-knowing critic because poetry is supposed to be public. After each poem, my friend clutches her heart and wants to give everyone 10’s. I wrinkle my nose frequently and insist upon a lower score, but no lower than 8.5 or we’ll get a big boo from the room. Sometimes she tosses up a 10 before I can object.
The problem with me is that I cannot yet bring myself to be generous, to love what is happening here. Writing has become a cool endeavor. For years, it has been difficult for me to look at my writing, at others’ writing, and be moved. This is not meant to be a quotidian lament about MFA programs, or the “workshop story,” or whatever else is, of late, a concern in creative writing. It is meant to suggest a simple question: how can writing move you (me), again?
Long ago, a New York Times columnist came to my MFA program, read one of my essays, and informed me I could not write a sentence. His pencil crawled over every line. I had felt that my essay was poetic. It had no meaning, no direction, sure, but it was a vivid narrative with comets and cornfields and a school field trip to the planetarium. Look how I’m undermining it. And the way I bowed to that creeping pencil. The way I agreed. The way I said it didn’t bother me while other students were weeping (he had done the same to all of us chosen to work with him). The way I thought my first publication worked because my favorite professor told me it was Chekhovian, and how that was the reason I figured I would submit it somewhere. The way I fool with myself. The way I can shrug at writing I’ve spent days, or years, producing. The way I learned to pause, to sip the sentence, close my eyes, approve of its warmth. And then the way the sipping could dismiss.
A poetry slam is not for sipping. You have to chug. It took a few slams for me to begin to learn how to listen, to be open to what moves these youth poets. There’s as much posturing in professional slam as in “literary” work, but this local slam is a different space. There are so many lines here, less the kind of lines that split than the lines that flow, a river of lines, a cacophony of lines, a supernova. Lines about racial tropes, familial bonds, the ideologies of citizenry, the notion of other. Lines tracing what it means to listen, to be heard, seen, felt. Lines of what it means to be young, genderqueer, gay, brown, white, poor, suburban, defined, confused, certain. Lines that cross, squiggle out past straight, open up the possibility of multifaceted identities, temporal identifications, complex humans. They write these lines before the slam, during the pre-slam workshop, or as the slam unfolds, anticipating their turn, almost-but-not-quite getting cold feet. They come here to write, to listen. They text each other after poems they like, or poems that baffle them; they give each other post-performance hugs. It’s not like the poetry readings of literary treasure. It’s not about “mmmm” or “mmm-hmmm,” the sharp intake of breath at a precious line, the expected silence or pregnant pause that signals we all are wandering in our separate, wooded brains. These lines often call me to reconsider what it means to write and act. They write as if there were no time for anything else, as if their lives were not scrolls just beginning to unfurl.
Phoenix, Arizona is not a place that attracts serious artists the way New York City and Los Angeles do. Some might assume that artists who live there are not as serious as those who re-locate to the important art centers of the world. I admire the artists that make those moves, but at this point it doesn’t look like that will be me. Even though I am living and working in Phoenix, I am very serious about what I do. All the artists I know here are. One of the best reasons for living in Phoenix is that it costs less to do so, and that means more time in my studio. A lot of creative people believe that it is okay to live somewhere like Phoenix as long as you travel. Traveling is interesting, people who travel become interesting, and then they can live in boring place but have interesting things to talk about.
Really, I am not bored when I am at home in Phoenix. There is more to do and experience than one ever could. But spending time somewhere else helps makes things vivid. My current house sitting opportunity in Brooklyn, for an artist friend, is allowing me to experience quality time in a major art capitol.
When I go to an old city I am thrilled by period decoration combined with the patina of age. Like the manhole cover in the basement of the contemporary art space, PS1, in Long Island City.
Also in PS1, is the always-magical Skyspace by artist James Turrell. Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art has one, but each Skyspace is an individual experience. On this day the clouds are smiling at me.
Inside the American Natural History Museum there are endless dioramas. These dramatic taxidermy scenes, that blend real and fake, can be found in lots of museums. But in this museum, there are more, and they are grander. This detail shows a leopard with his peacock kill.
Something I always notice, are mound-like forms, which some very old buildings have at their edges. Usually they are situated on corners, where I assume they are meant to provide protection to the building. This one I found in an alley in the lower east side of NYC.
My last image is a small object that I photographed at The Cloisters, a museum created in the 1930’s by John D. Rockefeller Jr. consisting of re-assembled parts of 5 different cloistered European abbeys. This object is one of approximately 5,000 medieval works of art that is contained within The Cloisters. I have been to this museum before, but on this visit I especially love this object. It is strange and wonderful, but there wasn’t much information with it. It reminds me a little of The Garden of Earthly Delights, the painting in Madrid, that I have been lucky enough to see in person as well.
So I will soon return to Phoenix to continue teaching and making art. And the next time someone asks me, I will be able to say that I recently traveled somewhere important. Which might just justify that I am a serious artist living in Phoenix, Arizona.