Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Agent of Change: Diana Knobel

It’s a beautiful day in mid-August when Diana Knobel and I finally meet at The Well on 2100 First Ave. S., where her spiritual counseling practice is located. The building is one of those charming old mansions in a neighborhood that highlights the Minneapolis of both yesterday and today. The dominant vision here is that of the neighborhood as a renewable resource, with enterprises both new and old in vibrant co-existence with one another. F.Scott Fitzgerald meets Nuruddin Farah.

Knobel invites me to explore the building’s old world charm as she fixes herself a cup of tea. Then we settle into a plush sofa in her office, which is decorated in soothing colors. The shelves are a study of Knobel’s spiritual teaching lineage, with portraits of teachers who pioneered methods in forgiveness, including notables like Mary Hayes-Greco, Edith Stouffer, and Roberto Assagioli. In addition to being a spiritual counselor, Knobel is a filmmaker and mother of three.

Drano for the Soul
Knobel’s counseling practice focuses on practical spirituality: forgiveness. Learning to forgive is done on an individual level, says Knobel, and “it’s like Drano for the soul. The effect is like burning a log in the fireplace. It’s done. The result is freedom. It doesn’t mean that you condone or allow misbehavior. It’s about understanding.”

“Let me put it this way,” says Knobel, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. You can’t expect somebody else to do something different. True freedom comes when you change yourself.”

Having struggled through what she calls, “a dysfunctional childhood,” Knobel worked hard to break out of the mistakes her own parents had made with her. She says, “I suffered horribly from low self esteem. I coasted through high school. I was dealing with the divorce of my parents. I regret not taking that more seriously. When I look back on that period – at eighteen, I was at the peak of my intellectual ability, but I had no support structure. There was no one there to channel me.”

At eighteen, Knobel began searching for “where to land” and enrolled in a Bible college, where she studied for two and a half years. “I was a bible thumper for six months of my life,” says Knobel, “I thought, ‘I’ll try this God thing because my life isn’t working now.’ I jumped in with both feet.”

Within twenty-four hours of attending North Central Bible College, Knobel entered into a “born-again experience.” She stopped smoking, drinking, and participating in sexual activity. “It felt nice to come into the city with the feeling that God was watching over us.”

After a while, the experience became almost cult-like, says Knobel, who felt that the overarching message was that, “It’s not going to be safe if you leave the protection of this circle.” Knobel started feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the born-again lifestyle and reflects now that, “You can’t put God into a box and say that spirituality includes only this and this, only what is within these four walls.”

“I’m not a fatalist in any sense of the word, but there is some thread of rhyme or reason in our lives. There does seem to be destiny and free will can sign us up for it.”

The experience was a worthwhile one for Knobel in the sense that it gave her insight into “what Christianity was meant to be and what it has become…an understanding of the Right Wing political movement and how to go head to head with that. Bible college was a part of the preparation.”

Each Choice has a Consequence
Knobel switches gears for a moment and says, “The first movie that ever impacted my life was Jewel of the Nile, with Kathleen Turner. I was a budding feminist at that time. The patriarchal hierarchy was grating on me, but I didn’t have the language to deal with it. I saw Jewel of the Nile and wanted that kind of life that Kathleen Turner’s character had.”

Knobel removed herself from the religious environment and headed for Europe, where she backpacked on her own for nine months. “God didn’t strike me down with thunderbolts, but served as a guide. There were no lightening bolts – but enlightenment.” She learned to rely on her own judgment and intuition and came to think of the experience as an exercise of faith.

While in Spain, Knobel first encountered the Englishman who was to become her husband. “It wasn’t tourist season, so we were the only blondes in Santiago del Campostello. Our heads stuck up above everybody else’s, otherwise we wouldn’t have seen each other.”

The two were married in 1985 and eventually set up residence in North Minneapolis. Knobel spent the next eight years in her near-north neighborhood, where she and her husband worked as property managers for absentee landlords. Over those eight years, they also worked to rehabilitate their own property, an effort that came in handy when they eventually traded it in for a hobby farm in Lino Lakes.

Knobel and her husband had their first child (of three) in 1989. She is grateful to her (now) ex-husband because, for him, “staying home as a mom wasn’t an issue. It was unheard of in the 80s. ECFE (Early Childhood and Family Education) was just starting. Those of us who stayed home were feeling guilty about not being real women – about not having both professional lives and children.”

Her firstborn daughter was premature and spent the first three weeks of her life in an incubator. “It was an intense birth and there was an intensity about parenting. We wanted the best of everything and made the decision that one of us would stay home.”

Years earlier, at the Bible School, a prophet had predicted that Knobel would get married, have children, develop her spiritual gifts, and eventually start her own ministry. Back then she just dismissed the thought. Now she grins and says, “I had been a feminist, wanted a professional life..but this is how it has played out. The prophecy has unfolded. Boom-Bang-Pow.”

Being a mother gave Knobel a chance to explore her gifts. It was an opportunity to “get in touch with my God-self. I listened to that voice inside. I feel like I’m an incredible mother because of trusting that intuition. I’ve worked very hard to have a gentle, loving voice and had moments where I realized, ‘Oh, it’s my job to repeat myself.’ I’ve been up front with my kids about sex and abuse of drugs. It’s important to say, ‘I don’t want this to happen to you.’”

Meanwhile, Knobel says, “Living in North Minneapolis was a trip..the high crime rates, poverty, economic injustice…After a while, you couldn’t even garden in the back yard. It was scary living there with young children, so we decided to get out.”

A good friend of Knobel’s told her about a HUD property in Lino Lakes and Knobel fell in love with the place. It was a hobby farm on five acres of land. Though the house was in terrible shape, Knobel and her husband were well prepared to do repairs. They sold off their property, made a bid on the place, and waited an agonizing three weeks to find out if they got it. “I thought, ‘It’s not OK for you God, to show me something like this and then take it away.’ When we won the bid, it was a turning point for me in trusting that the desires of our heart are not about Satan. It’s God’s way of instructing us what we should do next.”

Knobel and family moved in. The goats moved in three days later. For six years, they milked goats, made their own cheese, sold eggs and milk to whoever wanted it. “It gave me something to chew on as I was raising the kids. It was great for their immune systems, being exposed to a certain layer of germ on you all the time. My kids are all healthy.”

Whenever I feel like I haven’t found a niche, I can look back and say, ‘Well, I’ve raised three amazing kids.’” This past July, Knobel’s oldest daughter departed for a yearlong exchange program in Brazil. “I realized that I had done it. I had launched a happy, healthy human being into the world,” says Knobel.

Over the years, Knobel’s marriage had started unraveling. Issues that weren’t getting resolved in their marriage began to show in work that was not getting done around the house. I thought, “Maybe if we have one more child, that will make it work? It didn’t.”

Although she and her husband generally agreed on how to raise the children, cross-cultural differences made things difficult. Being English, her husband had been brought up with the belief that “you don’t change your status.” It contrasted with Knobel’s American ideal that, “you can be anybody and do anything.”

When Knobel announced that she wanted to go back to school, her husband said that he would not support her. Knobel felt herself being presented with a choice. “If I stayed, I would be an unsatisfied human being without the chance to develop myself more. I voted for divorce.”

“Each choice has a consequence,” says Knobel, “It’s not about reward and punishment.” It’s a method she learned a long time ago through ECFE. When avoiding a power struggle with a child, “you give them two choices and you teach them how to make a good choice.”

Agent of Change
Knobel now has a B.S. in Visual Technical Communication and The Art of Persuasion, with a minor in Leadership. As someone who strongly identifies herself as being an agent of change, Knobel is interested in the power of symbolism to harness social movements. The Peace sign, religious art in pre-Christian Europe, and Michael Moore’s documentaries are just a few examples from history.

“We’ve come to a time where society has to choose which path to go down,” says Knobel, paraphrasing an Anishabe tribe prophecy. “We can choose the scorched path, which is brown and well-traveled. Or we can choose the one that is green and lush and unknown.”

Knobel, who has stepped out into the unknown many times in her own life, says, “If there’s one gift that I can offer, it’s to send the message that it’s really ok to embrace the unknown. There are ways of doing it so that you don’t have to suffer. You don’t have to control it all the time. You don’t need to have it materialize in the world to trust that it will work out. If you can do that, things will change on a dime.”

She continues, “Right now, the physical world dominates in our society. Companies don’t treat their employees as assets. People at the top need people at the bottom working as widgets. It’s not sustainable. The emphasis on power and prestige and position has surpassed the ideal of harmony. Decisions are being made by a group of men at the top. There is no equal playing field. There’s no attention to what is happening to the environment. We are playing with our lives. We can’t make decisions without including what happens to the environment, what the economic impact will be.”

Knobel meets regularly with a water group organized by the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom. Mobilizing to conserve our drinkable water supplies, she says, is priority. If the male dominated world of politics and international business won’t pay attention, then the rest of us need to do something about it. She says, “It’s up to women to get into powerful positions, to figure out how to have voice. The patriarchal method doesn’t work. It’s women, moving in a line, creating the fabric, the network. We’re locked into a system that doesn’t support enlightenment and self-acknowledgement. We have a choice. We are not victims. Wake up or stay asleep.”

When Hurricane Katrina hit, Knobel took her message on the road to help with the relief effort. She brought her video camera and, while assisting with food and supply transport, began filming the spiritual transformations she witnessed along the way. The further south she traveled, the more she felt the seeds of social change in the wind.

“There were people who had nothing, who had lost everything. They were so spent, but filled with contentment with being alive. They understood the value of life. There were volunteers who had everything else, but were searching for meaning in their lives. There were people who were connecting with meaningful work that’s not about getting paid. The consequences of this are incredible.”

Using a massive truck on loan from the Minnesota Family Project with the words “Power to the People” prominently displayed on the back, Knobel joined up with Mission from Minnesota and other relief organzations. “On our first trip down, I trusted that everything would fall into place. We fundraised to keep the truck going. There was food stuck in warehouses. We filled the truck twenty-five times with protein, carbohydrates, water and drove back and forth, trying to distribute in a way that was fair.”

After returning from her sixth trip to the devastated area, Knobel met Jessie Buckner, a man who was looking for someone to help him organized Youth4Nola, a service program that plans to involve inner-city youth in the New Orleans recovery effort. This Thanksgiving holiday, Youth4Nola will send a team of forty volunteers down to New Orleans to pitch in with painting and rebuilding for a week.

The experience is intended to be transformative, says Knobel, and to encourage participants to ask themselves, “How do we deal with chaos in our own background? Why is it easier to go long distance than it is to look into our own backgrounds? People flock to a crisis, because of the possibility for change,” says Knobel, “but how does this happen here? No one wants to talk about racial issues in Minneapolis. There is complacency, apathy as you go further north (away from the Gulf Coast). It’s because society has forgotten.”

Now off on her seventh trip to the devastated area, Knobel has about one hundred hours of footage documenting the changes she is seeing. “Making this film,” she says, “is a way of getting the message out.” She’s hoping that people will start regarding themselves as participants in a bigger picture. “I want people to understand that if they don’t have time or money, they just have to change their light bulbs. Even changing to energy efficient light bulbs can help with global warming. Start making changes in your own personal lives that will help people who are affected by it. Take a proactive and reactive step. Don’t wait until it’s too late, until it’s mandated by the government.”

Visit Diana Knobel's Website

Photos of Diana Knobel by Valerie Borey
Credit goes to Quito Ziegler for the Minnesota Family Project truck

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Shifting Gears: Wendi Moore

Wendi Moore is the creator of Life’s Little Cheat Sheets, a series of books, writings, and programs that promote personal development. Her services include one-on-one intuition coaching, professional speaking engagements, and business consulting on female-friendly marketing. The author of Open Up and Fly, Shifting Gears, and Everyday Leadership, Moore also runs a blog from her website at

We meet at a Caribou Coffee near Moore’s Burnsville home. Dressed for the scorching Minnesota summer in a white tank top and shorts, Moore gives off an impression of warmth and approachability. She is petite, friendly, and responsive to the environment around her.

As she settles in for our interview with a bottle of water, I ask her how she had gotten into her line of work in the first place. She says, “this may sound strange, but the work found me. It’s not something I would have even thought of doing when I was in college.”

Developing Intuition

The course of events that triggered her career began in 1994, during Moore’s first pregnancy. “I had never been pregnant before,” she says, “I didn’t know how you’re supposed to feel when you’re pregnant, but I felt a communication with the soul of the child. It would appear sometimes, like if I lay down for a nap. There was a connection.”

“Then I had a miscarriage and I wanted to know what happened to that soul. That’s when I started really thinking that we are more than we appear to be, more than just our bodies. I wanted to know what happens to us when we die.” Coming from a religious background, Moore turned first to traditional religion, but was dissatisfied with the answers given her. “I’m not the type that just takes answers from people.”

Moore didn’t want someone to “hand the universe down” to her. “Don’t get me wrong - I have total respect for people and their belief systems,” she says, “but I needed to find my own answers.”

Since “religion wasn’t doing it” for her, Moore began taking intuition classes. She studied for two years with a teacher who taught her about developing her intuitive senses. Over time, more and more people started seeking Moore out for her insights until finally she was told, “You have to get out there with this.”

Asked to define the term, she says, “Intuition is not a gut feeling. It’s a knowing. It’s when there is no way you can know something, but you still know it’s true.”

As an example, Moore tells me about a reaction she had while driving to Ham Lake last year to visit a friend. “I think I was on 65, somewhere in Blaine – I’m not sure, I’m terrible with directions. There’s this restaurant I love called the Camille Sidewalk Café. The only one I know about is the one in Hopkins, but as I’m driving I start to slow down because I know that there’s a Camille Sidewalk Café over there somewhere. My kids are like, ‘What are you doing?’ and I don’t see anything, so I keep driving. Some time later, I’m going to visit that same woman in Ham Lake and I’m driving by the same place and I get that sense of knowing again. I look over and there’s a sign for the Camille Sidewalk Café.”

“Intuition is something that is developed over time, and you need to practice every day, ” says Moore, who holds her coaching clients to a high standard. After setting their own goals, clients have to follow a rigorous schedule or she will discontinue their sessions. She tells them, “You set your own goals and I will hold you to them.”

Practicing the intuitive process involves cultivating an awareness of one’s environment and matching intuitive predictions against defined outcomes. To start off, Moore says, “I may have clients pick something that they don’t care a lot about. At election time, maybe it’s something like the senate race in Fargo, something a Minnesotan might not be paying any attention to. Who does your intuition tell you will win?”

Moore has also seen coaches give their clients a covered book to hold and, without letting them open the book, have them write down their impressions about the content of that book. “Ninety percent of the time,” says Moore, “they’re right.”

Goals vary according to client and it’s not uncommon for Moore to work with individual clients for a year or more. One client, for example, came to Moore with the objective of being able to have a foot planted in two very different worlds: the earthly world, where the five sense dominate, and the energetic world, where intuition plays a role. Being in that kind of space, says Moore, “alleviates a lot of stress. You can see problems coming and ask yourself, ‘How can I get this to be not such a big deal?’”

An Energetic World

When asked to clarify what she means by energy, Moore drops her voice slightly and nods her head toward the line of people forming at the Caribou register. “Look at that line of people over there. I see them as a blob of energy. Each person has their own energy, and when one of them moves, everyone else in line shifts as well.” As she speaks, a transaction is completed at the register and an elbow-shaped kink in the line, hinged by a mother-daughter pair to one side and a woman in shorts on the other, begins to straighten itself in short bursts of movement.

“If you’re in a room by yourself with your back to the door, you can tell when someone walks into the room, even if you don’t see or hear them,” Moore says, “Just being around other people’s energy can make you feel happy or tense.”

A number of clients come to Moore complaining of energy-related problems. “Some of them want me to do something about the negative energy of a spouse or co-worker, but I tell them it’s about learning how to adjust their own energy in order to accommodate so that it won’t affect them in a negative way.”

In some cases, leaving a negative environment might be the wisest choice. Moore tells me that at one point, she had to switch physicians because of the “horrible energy” in the office. For whatever reason, a negative energy had infected the place and, as a consequence, the staff was rude and made mistakes all the time. Many of her clients are making the decision to leave corporate world for those same reasons and come to her asking, “Can you help me work with my energy?”

For those who don’t have the option of leaving, Moore helps them to shift their own energies through a combined process of meditation and visualization. She teaches them how to “expand their energy until it connects with all four walls, the ceiling, and the floor, and how to block other peoples’ energy from coming in.”

“A lot of times, sensitive people will get sick at a place like the Mall of America because of all the bad energy of people around them. I used to come home from there with terrible migraines. Now I teach people how to be around that energy without taking on other peoples’ feelings. For example, if someone is walking too close, you can shoot energy out so that nothing comes in. Or you can contract your energy and shield yourself that way.”

Self-talk is also an important component of Moore’s work. “You get what you tell yourself,” she says, “it’s about believing you can reach that goal.”

Moore’s hopes for the approaching autumn include putting together a class that will integrate self-talk and visualization methods. Her vision is that it will be like “an acting class, where [students] would play their future selves. The more you play your part, the more you become that. It’s a chance to experience that life for a while and see if it’s right for you. Students will figure out exactly what they want and come to a party as the person they want to be. They’ll ask each other questions about how they got there and where they are going from here.”

Shifting Gears
At the core of Moore’s business right now, however, are her professional speaking engagements. She has been booked all over the country for talks addressing various aspects of personal development. Though she has sometimes been called a “motivational speaker,” it is a term she balks at, saying, “You can’t motivate someone to do something. They have to motivate themselves.”

While related, Moore’s talks cover a range tailored to the specific needs of her audience. Shifting Gears is aimed at helping participants to unblock and redirect their own energies when an obstacle gets in the way. Everyday Leadership addresses the need to take responsibility for one’s own life and emphasizes a model of leadership that does not emphasize power, but rather, empowers others. These first two are more popular with her corporate clientele, while Discovering Your Magical Mindspace, is more frequently requested by women’s groups. Concerned with helping people to look more deeply into themselves and their surroundings, the talk encourages participants to look at things from a different perspective.

Moore’s target audience is female, but she is sometimes surprised to find a number of men showing up for her talks as well. “Oddly enough,” she says, “they’re usually either in their twenties or forties. Not so many in their thirties.” Many of her corporate marketing clients come from male-dominated organizations that are interested in diversifying their own client base, but need assistance in attracting women to their services or products.

Overall, Moore attributes the increasing level of male participation at her events as a positive consequence of breaking out of a 50’s conservative religious culture, where men were under pressure to be, well, manly: conflict-oriented, emotionally repressed, and short on sensitivity. “Parents are raising their children – sons and daughters - to be more open to this kind of thing. As we’re evolving, we want our children to see this. We are making the choice of raising them to be intuitive.”

Although Moore is raising her own daughter (10) and son (8) to be in tune with their surroundings, she’s not interested in expanding her practice to include working with children. “Don’t get me wrong,” she says, “I think kids are great, but I’m very careful not to interfere with the belief systems their parents are bringing them up in. Even at home. If my daughter is having a new friend over and they’re planning on goofing around with a Ouija Board, I’ll make sure to ask her parents beforehand if that’s OK with them.”

Moore studied psychology in college back in her home state of Illinois, but says that learning from experience has been priceless. Her work – influenced heavily by Taoism, she says - is for people who are “tired of being handed the answers. It’s about teaching people to look at things from a new perspective.” She tells me, “In some ways, it’s a lot like what you do – just sitting down to talk like this. It’s about listening.”

Before parting ways, we head out to the parking lot where Moore pulls a copy of her book Shifting Gears out of the trunk and hands it to me. As I climb into my own car, I flip open the cover and read the passage on the first page:
All of the fighting and the wars and the problems in this world could easily be resolved if everyone realized that it’s all based on personal belief systems. Once we shift our belief systems, all of the fighting and the wars and the problems associated with those belief systems go away because it’s not important to us anymore. – Wendi Moore
Visit Wendi Moore's Life’s Little Cheat Sheets™

Photos courtesy of

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Turning the Wheel: Al Smith

It’s a warm Thursday evening in late July. Even though the door to the Twin Cities Aikido Center is propped open, the whirring sound of ceiling fans serves to mute the sounds of the city outside. The space inside is neat and white from floor to ceiling. It’s not sterile, like a hospital - the simplicity has an organic feel to it. A thin wall divides the shoebox office from the rest of the room, which is large and uncluttered. The floor here is blanketed by a white canvas mat that absorbs both the sounds and the physical impact of bodies thudding against the ground.

This dojo (at 2390 University Ave. in St. Paul) is one of the largest Aikido practice halls in the Midwest, with classes running every day of the week. Instructors teach on a volunteer basis and beginning students are encouraged to learn from their more experienced counterparts. Classes do not follow a set curriculum, so students bring varying levels of experience with them to each class. On this particular evening, Sensei Al Smith has permitted me to come in to observe a class session geared more towards Aikido newcomers.

Turning the Wheel
About fourteen men and two women are perched on their knees in seiza position. Most of them are clad in white garments called keiko-gi. A few (Smith included) wear wide-legged black trousers called hakama, which can indicate the rank of a black-belt holder.

Students are attentive as Smith finishes demonstrating how to grip a partner’s hand above or below the wrist and deter his attack with a torqueing movement. They separate into pairs and spread evenly across the room. Looks of intent concentration creep across their faces and the hall is soon filled with a graceful choreography of seizing and falling.

Smith stops to observe a nearby pair. As one man launches into attack, his partner grabs him by the hand, stepping sideways to pull the arm up and back. He applies pressure to the attacker’s elbow, gaining enough leverage from the angle to get his attacker off balance. The attacker loses footing and falls backward onto the floor with a swift rolling motion. His back is rounded and both legs swing up automatically to bring him back to his feet.

When Smith claps his hands, all students are once again seated against the wall in seiza position and call out, “Hei, Sensei.” He takes a volunteer by the hand and, extending it outwards, shows the arc that is formed by the curve of body from wrist to waist. “I’m taking the wheel,” he says in his distinctive Southern twang, “and turning it into shape.” With a spiraling movement, Smith brings the volunteer down to the ground and shows the group how to pin the attacker by placing one knee at the short rib and one at the wrist. He then twists the attacker’s arm until a slap on the floor signals that his attacker has had enough.

Smith’s movements are gentle, but firm – reminiscent of someone trying to soothe and immobilize an agitated animal. Since the philosophy of Aikido is rooted in self-defense and non-aggression, there is no attempt to counter-attack. The emphasis is on harmonizing with the attacker’s aggressive movements by using circular motions – essentially, using the attacker’s own weaknesses to diffuse the confrontation.

Students split into pairs for practice, sometimes slipping from movement into quiet consultation with one another. They work through the actions verbally, illustrating techniques with the flat planes of their hands. One student complains to Smith that his partner’s arms are too strong to effectively manipulate. Smith jokes, “That’s why some people carry guns, you know,” then proceeds to show the student a more effective technique for bringing his partner down.

Smith claps his hands again and students reassemble in a line against the wall. “Imagine the wheel, imagine you’re holding on to the tiller of a ship – turning it, not forcing it,” he instructs, “Visualize yourself behind that wheel.”

With another volunteer, he demonstrates how to catch an attacker’s hand in the web of his own. “It isn’t a secret Masonic handshake or anything like that.” He brings the palm of his hand forward, catching the back of the other man’s hand in his own. He pulls the man down to the ground easily with a swift spiraling motion.

Smith then shows how to rapidly shift his center to avoid a direct line of attack. As the attacker charges head on, Smith shifts his weight to the side so that he is standing parallel to the other man. From this angle, he grabs the man’s arm without difficulty and swings him down to the mat. “Here,” he says, “You can grab above or below the wrist – just don’t brace the wrist with your fingers.”

There is a chorus of “thank you’s” from the students as they break out once more into pairs. From where I am seated against the wall, I can hear short eruptions of cooperative and respectful conversation between partners as they compliment, critique, and offer explanations to one another.

Directly in front of me, one student is dragged to the ground with his arm bent at an easy angle. Helpfully, he says, “Try pulling it that way,” and flicks his head to indicate a location somewhere behind him. His face reddens as his partner tries this and he rests his head briefly on the ground before slapping to show his submission. “That was good,” he says, rising to his feet.

Locating the Center
As practice continues, I allow my attention to drift away from individual moves to the pattern of movement itself. I am momentarily reminded of Bjork’s factory-centered musical number in the film, Dancer in the Dark. The film’s clutter-crash-bang cacophony of grinding machinery and rubber-soled shoes is replaced here by a much more peaceful syncopation: the whirring fan, the vinyl slip of bare feet padding against the canvas, of hands slapping, bodies thumping, and voices lowered in consultation. Smith’s resonating clap pierces through these noises from time to time, centering and reshaping them.

Class ends with a meditation. Some students close their eyes for this; others leave them open, directing their gaze toward the altar. The altar is flanked by several racks holding wooden shafts of varying lengths: the jo (walking sticks), bokken (wooden swords), and tanto (knives). A scroll at the left bears the Japanese characters ai (harmony), ki (energy), and do (the path). To the right hangs a portrait of Aikido founder O-Sensei (Morihei Ueshiba).

All bow to the portrait, then break formation to join a more informal semi-circle. One by one, each student introduces him- or herself to the group and Smith takes the opportunity to ask if there are any questions or comments. Tonight there are none, and while some students disappear to change into street clothes, others start right in on tidying up the place. To my right, one student switches on the vacuum cleaner. Another student bellies down with a cleaning rag to scrub a spot off the canvas mat.

Whereas the center of an individual is located somewhere in the gut area, the center of the Twin Cities Aikido Center appears to lie in its collaborative nature. With a 501(c)3 designation, it is a non-profit organization that is run entirely by volunteers. “It’s not a strip mall martial arts center,” Smith tells me, “No one draws a cent of salary. It’s not a business – everyone, students and instructors - pays membership dues. It’s about harmonizing.”

Appointed by the board of directors, Lynn Vongries and Cal Blanchard are the center’s co-chief instructors. As with all of the instructors at the center, they are yudansha (holders of black-belt ranks) and certified by Hombu dojo, in Tokyo. The Twin Cities Aikido Center assists students in qualifying for the nationally standardized ranking examinations, but is careful to point out that “Aikido is not a sport. There are no competitive tournaments. The Aikidoist betters his or her self without belittling others.”

Walking the Wok
After the place has been cleaned and everyone has changed into street clothes, Smith and his students invite me to join them at The Village Wok for their weekly Thursday night dinner. It’s a cozy restaurant near the center and just off the University of Minnesota campus. The staff here is clearly familiar with the group, calling members by name and engaging in light banter. We’re taken to a quieter room in the back where several tables are pushed together to accommodate the size of our group.

It’s an intimate setting and conversation flows easily at the table. The formality and focus of the classroom has been abandoned for a more light-hearted tone. A gold panel at the rear wall reveals a scene with white cranes on long delicate legs. Beneath this picture, two students joke about the cult-like nature of the martial arts in general and kid Smith about needing to find a resident cult leader for the center. Smith smiles good-naturedly and shakes his head.

From the tabletop exchange, it’s evident that many of the members (Smith included) arrived at the Twin Cities Aikido Center after sampling several of the other martial arts. From the other end of the table, someone comments, “If you wanted to learn how to fight, there’s Judo, Jujitsu….” His neighbor counters that, unless you’ve already devoted several years to studying these arts, you’re almost better off in an attack situation if you’ve had no training at all. A few chuckles skip down the table.

“In that case,” another guy adds, “a gun or a can of mace will do it.”

After the waiter has taken everyone’s order, Kevin - one of the group members - signals that he has an announcement to make. His girlfriend has been admitted to a master’s program in neurology at King’s College and, in love, he has decided to go to London with her. There are congratulations all around, as well as utterances of surprise and dismay at their departure. It is, in a sense, the response of a village to one of its members, and an indication of the communal nature of the center itself.

And, like a village, there is a range of ages reflected in center membership, as well as a relatively balanced distribution of genders. The composition of each class varies, Smith tells me, depending on individual schedules and how often a practitioner can make it every week. Though tonight’s class consisted primarily of men in their twenties and early thirties, he says that nearly a quarter of the center’s members are over fifty-five and there are usually a good number of female participants. The structure of the group is always changing.

Even the communal dinners, such as the one we are attending tonight, arise from the special circumstances of the group. The early morning classes, Smith says, sometimes go out to breakfast together afterwards if they don’t have to be at work right away. But there is no hard and fast rule – it just happens and evolves naturally, “arising from the philosophy of the group itself.”

After fourteen years as an Aikido practitioner, Smith’s approach both inside and outside of class is one of harmonizing with the nature of the things around him. He demonstrates, but does not dictate. He fields questions, but does not compete with the answers. He is responsive to situations, but does not force them.

I recognize it later when I stop to read the center’s literature, quoting O-Sensei’s reflections on Budo (The Martial Way): “True Budo is to accept the spirit of the universe, keep the peace of the world, correctly produce, protect, and cultivate all things in nature.”

Visit the Twin Cities Aikido Center

Photos by Valerie Borey

Sunday, July 30, 2006

A Landmark Perspective: Evan Hiltunen

Hints of Evan Hiltunen’s second career first arrived while visiting his foster brother in Alaska. Though he dates the start of his career in photography to March 3, 2003 (when he finally purchased a good camera), the first taste for picture taking appeared that preceding year during those four months in Alaska. Hiltunen’s sister-in-law had talked him into buying a pocket camera for the trip. He tried it out and was soon hooked.

One of his brother’s friends was a pilot who took them scud running. It wasn’t the typical aerial tour of Denali that most tourists take. The experience of shooting toward a mountain outcrop at twenty miles above the ground, then turning up at the last second was exhilarating - difficult to capture on a pocket camera, but an exercise in split-second timing.

Timing is an issue that Hiltunen is keenly aware of, as both a photographer and retired chef. Both professions require complete absorption in the moment and knowing exactly the right time to act. The timing factor is something he takes so seriously that he has deliberately opted to spend the next three to five years “living unfettered, rootless.” He has given up his house and put most of his possessions in storage, just so that he’ll be able to go off on assignment at a moment’s notice. He plans to “travel lightly,” he says, and to “do it with a purpose.”

Landmark Perspective
Hiltunen’s first career as a chef began when he left home at thirteen. He learned his way around a kitchen through what he calls, “old fashioned apprenticeship,” and at seventeen ended up being taken in by a foster family who were also “hard core foodies.” They owned a restaurant and soon Hiltunen was invited into the fold of the business.

Focusing on North Regional, Italian, and French cuisine, Hiltunen worked his way around and was eventually drawn into the fast-paced culinary lifestyle, where drink and drugs are a common way of coping with the intense pressure. By the time Hiltunen turned thirty, he knew that he was burning out and needed a change of pace.

"The higher the quality restaurant, the more extreme it is,” says Hiltunen, “there’s so much stress and people who work in kitchens tend to be perfectionists, creative, etc. At the end of the night, you’re just shaking from the adrenaline because of the pressure. There’s sometimes just a two second interval between perfection and completely destroying the food. On top of that, you’re timing and controlling what everyone else is doing…You have to have extreme focus, and a short attention span comes with that.”

After years of working in an environment where the shift progresses rapidly, frame by frame, plate by plate, it’s no surprise that Hiltunen developed a perspective that lends itself well to his art. He acknowledges that there are many artistic similarities between cooking and photography. Years of experience in the kitchen taught him a great deal about composing plates, working with colors, textures, and shapes. With photography, there may also be a mere two-second window for the perfect shot – when the sun shifts or an expression becomes veiled, the moment can be lost forever.

Hiltunen shows me a few photos that illustrate the comparison. The first is a photo of the Ferris wheel at sunset. “It took me two years at the State Fair, waiting for just the right conditions,” he tells me. The first year, he could picture the exact shot that he wanted, but it never panned out. The next year he returned to the site and waited around for a few hours until the sky hugged the massive wheel just so.

The other picture, entitled Landmark Perspective, was also the result of Hiltunen’s persistent effort to get it “just right.” Whenever he got a chance, he’d walk over with his camera and circle around the site, looking for the perfect angle, the perfect sky, and trying to minimize interference from other architectural styles in the area.

A Sense of Wonder
When asked about his artistic vision, Hiltunen responds that he’s “not making any statements about life and society” with his photography. To pursue such statements, he feels, would be akin to getting tunnel vision. Inherent to that approach is the risk of compromising the integrity of the artistic work itself. There are a lot of photographers out there “putting out aesthetically crappy stuff, but the audience doesn’t feel right about rejecting it because of the deeper meaning underlying the work. It’s like, you can’t tell someone that their baby is ugly, because the baby has meaning to them.”

On the other hand, Hiltunen says, there’s a difference between a photo that’s technically good and one that captures a certain mood or emotion. For example, you could have a picture of something like a doorknob where the lighting is perfect and the texture is well defined, but it would still be just a picture of a doorknob. The objective, he tells me, is to “bring the two things together.”

What interests Hiltunen is being able to capture a sense of wonder in the life around him. He focuses mainly on positive forms, including the synchrony of architectural lines, the human capacity for experimentation, or barometric differences revealed against the skyline. Vintage cars, breath-taking landscapes, and human forms are common subjects, but the surrealist perspective shows up from time to time as well. He enjoys working with models and appreciates the difference between those who are totally at ease in front of the camera versus those who show their authentic moments in between the poses.

Hiltunen also confesses to a fascination with photographing people who have undergone heavy tattooing and body modification, in the form of piercings and implants. He’s already got something in the works along these lines and tells me about a particular shot he’s planning out in his mind’s eye: a close-up of a man’s face with two fish hooks inserted into each cheek and stretched to eyelet holes on either side of a frame.

“I’m still learning,” says Hiltunen, “still experimenting.” Looking back at some of his earlier shows, he can see evidence of how he has progressed along the learning curve, “I would now do better printing, better framing and matting.”

Some of Hiltunen’s distinctive tongue-in-cheek terminology pops into the conversation from time to time. There’s “Guy With Camera Syndrome,” a term applied to photographers who get “right on top of” the subject. There’s also the “Mark Dayton Syndrome.” Hiltunen says, “He’s a good guy, but sometimes he just looks like he’s been caught in the headlights.”

A self-described political junkie who once also worked for the Secretary of State, Hiltunen occasionally indulges in subjects that touch on political issues. His portfolio includes visual reflections of the Native American occupation at Alcatraz (1969-1971), and shots of the “ Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence,” a GLBT group that was placed on the Papal List of Heretics in 1987.

“Hey,” he says, “I’ve got a solution to the voting problem, a way to make it more restrictive, so that it’s more of a privilege and people are motivated to get involved: mandatory attendance at a government-type meeting. If you want to vote, then you have to attend at least one civic meeting every two years – school board, city council meeting, whatever. It’s a way for people to understand the process and it’s not like it’s a huge commitment…. once every two years.” He pauses, then smiles and says, “Of course, I’d probably be one of the first to complain that I don’t have the time.”

No Starving Artist
Though a relative newcomer to the profession, Hiltunen’s drive and dedication to the craft have already earned him some impressive credits. His work has been exhibited in places such as Coffman Union (University of Minnesota), the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Minnesota Museum of American Art. In January 2005, he was named to Rake Magazine’s “Most Recommended” list, and his work has since appeared in the Art of Recover (Minnesota State Arts Board) and Utne Magazine.

Hiltunen was scheduled for a month-long exhibition this August at the Copenhagen Cultural Center in Denmark, but circumstances intervened with an unfortunate setback. While attending the St. Paul Art Crawl earlier this year, a pick-up truck parked nearby caught fire and rolled onto Hiltunen’s car. Basic insurance didn’t cover all the damage, so Hiltunen had to pay for expenses out-of-pocket. He hopes to participate next year instead.

One of the keystones to Hiltunen’s approach to the photography business is this: he is determined “not to be a starving artist.” This means not over-extending his resources and it means finding a good balance between the “meat and potato jobs” and the “haute cuisine.”

Although Hiltunen’s long-term goal is producing museum quality pieces, he acknowledges the benefits of having a steady stream of regular assignments. Things like band shoots and taking pictures of houses contribute to his bottom line and make other pursuits possible. His approach is, above all, a pragmatic one intended to secure sustainability in a profession where there are no guarantees.

Coming from a reserved, Midwestern background, Hiltunen says it’s easy to be reticent when it comes to marketing his own work. “Pimping myself,” he jokes, “is not something that comes naturally to me…I prefer to be behind the lens.” He remarks on how many good artists there are out there who never get off the ground because they aren’t able stomach the business side of the profession. The avoidant approach is something he refuses to consider for his own future.

Again, it’s a matter of finding the right balance. “Take Salvador Dali, for instance,” he says, “he produced his best stuff in the early part of his career. The later part of his career – it was mostly marketing himself, the mustache, the lobster thing. Or Andy Warhol – all marketing, but he was a genius at it.”

Still, Hiltunen would rather be at work behind the camera. His ideal would be doing something for publications such as National Geographic or Condé Nast Traveller, “I’ve always had a wandering bug.” Hiltunen has already been criss-crossing the States for work, capturing the distinctive sights he finds along the way. He’s been spending time on reservations, attending festivals, and wandering the piers looking to match the right subject to the right market. He’ll be heading out to Santa Fe in the near future and is currently considering a trip to Morocco.

Visit Evan Hiltunen's Website

Photos by Evan Hiltunen

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Hurricane Force: Mary Gray

If Mary Gray talks a mile a minute, it’s because she’s a busy woman. Her words are carried by a hurricane force momentum and driven by a purpose: to provide aid to artists suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Mary Gray is the founder and CEO of MinnesotaHelpers, a non-profit organization dedicated to emergency relief operations. MinnesotaHelpers was founded last year on Sept. 3, 2005 and received its non-profit 501(c)3 status Oct. 6, 2005.

Gray invited us into her Plymouth town home for the interview. The place has served as headquarters for MinnesotaHelpers since its inception. Her home office, corridors, living room, and garage are literally overrun with pieces of art that have been shipped from Mississippi’s devastated coastline as part of MinnesotaHelpers’ Art Share program.

Many of the pieces are created from objects found after Hurricane Katrina hit the area last autumn: window shutters, ravaged dolls, and broken violins. Others simply reflect on how the creative spirit triumphs over human suffering. “Art is healing,” says Gray, and paraphrases a favorite line from Ellis Anderson’s Katrina Chronicles: “We learned early on not to wear bright colors, because the hummingbirds would flock to us because they were starving for nectar.”

Paying it Forward
Gray’s commitment to Minnesota Helpers has been considerable. The program started off as a way for Katrina victims to seek temporary shelter in Minnesota before returning to restore their own towns and neighborhoods. In the first four weeks after starting the organization, she received over 5,000 emails requesting help or offering support.

Though shocked at the volume, Gray was determined to respond to every single email. She got a mere 2-3 hours of sleep each night before going to work in the morning. On Fridays, she’d stay up all night and work through until around four o’clock Sunday morning before crashing. It’s time-consuming work, but Gray feels it’s the least she can do. Gray, who works full time at the law offices of Robin, Thompson, and Doyle, says her employers have been supportive of her efforts. They’ve worked with her on scheduling issues and, if she needs to go somewhere to give a speech, they’re good about giving her time off.

Gray has given more than just time; she has also donated her couch, her dining room set, her television set and numerous other personal belongings to families in need. During the initial relief period, she accepted furniture donations, storing items in her house wherever they would fit. There was a two month period, she tells us, when she just had a narrow path leading from the bedroom to the kitchen; the rest was filled in with things earmarked for Katrina survivors.

This isn’t the first time Gray has sacrificed to help others. After the tsunami devastated large areas of Southeast Asia, she auctioned her own piano off on eBay and used the proceeds to buy two truckloads of beanie-babies. Partnering with a local charity called First Aid for Feelings, she arranged for a shipment to be sent to children recovering from the trauma. Gray has also been an active advocate of gun safety education, meeting with Florida Governor Jeb Bush in 2000, making trips to places like the Columbine High School and Flint, Michigan, where six-year old Kayla Rollins was shot by a fellow classmate.

Gray’s son Adam, the director of Minnesota Helpers, has his hands full with this project as well. He volunteered with a first response team and was deeply impacted by the human suffering he witnessed. Three weeks after Katrina hit, he found himself in the worst-hit sections of New Orleans, watching bodies get hauled out of houses in body bags and hearing air sirens mark the mandatory curfew. Adam now works with the MinnesotaHelpers website, streamlining donation procedures, helping to keep information current, and maintaining the photo archives. He tells us with a wry smile that he has “missed more than a few dates” trying to meet deadlines.

When asked about the sacrifices she and her son have made to help those in need, Gray says, “The Red Cross can only do so much. If something happens to me, I would like to have somebody there to help me. Have you ever heard the phrase, Pay it forward?”

Gray admits to going through moments of feeling selfish, unappreciated, even angry, but then she gets motivated and “fires back up.” On a recent tour of the coastline, she says she felt “embarrassed [when people thanked me] because I felt I hadn’t contributed enough. I felt inadequate - ashamed to have a house, a job, a car….I felt so humbled.”

If It Doesn’t Bleed, It Doesn’t Lead
Gray’s biggest frustration right now is that Katrina has become old news. “If it doesn’t bleed,” she says, “it doesn’t lead.” People aren’t interested anymore – “the controversy is over and now Iraq is more of a hot topic.” Faced with dwindling support in terms of time and donations, she says that fighting apathy is the most challenging part.

“When other people quit, you have to keep pushing,” says Gray, who just recently returned from a tour of the Mississippi coastline. “There are still cars up in trees, there. There are still people without homes, people in wheelchairs who can’t get into a FEMA trailer because they don’t have wheelchair accessibility…there are still people waiting on insurance, people who lived in what was considered a no flood zone…I have artists who are paying mortgages on a stone slab, who are now forced to carry insurance on a stone slab.”

“Katrina was the great equalizer. It didn’t matter if you were wealthy or poor. It was a wall of water thirty feet high. That’s what I told them when I gave a talk at the Rotary club – I had them look at the ten-foot ceiling. They looked at me like, ‘Where are you going with this?’ Then I asked them to imagine a wall of water three times that ceiling…”

Bringing up Hurricane Katrina now, says Gray, carries “a negative connotation.” People avert their eyes and sometimes don’t even wait until she’s out of sight before throwing her business card in the trashcan. It’s disheartening, but something she’s willing to grapple with if it brings some good to the stricken area.

Her son Adam interjects that sometimes he has witnessed attitudes that are downright exploitative or inhumane. When he was down there last, there were signs all over the area exhorting people to “Sell Your Home for $5,000.” It was like that even early on, he notes, “People were packed into cargo planes like slaves, couldn’t tell their families where they were going.” Some believed, says Adam as he shakes his head, that those areas were “meant to be wiped out.”

Art of the Storm
Before we get too deeply enmired in the politics of the past, Gray sweeps in to refocus our interview on the future. She insists that the important thing is getting the job done rather than focusing on individual beliefs and motivations. “This is not about me, not about making money, has nothing to do with my beliefs” - it’s about providing aid and comfort to those who have suffered traumatic, life-altering losses.

Since its start last September, Minnesota Helpers has evolved from an organization that provided temporary housing solutions, to supporting efforts to rebuild lives along the coast. Earlier this year, Gray’s efforts prompted the city of Wayzata to officially adopt Bay St. Louis, Mississippi as a Sister City. “They had a lot in common – both boat communities, with an artistic base.”

On her way home from the adoption ceremony, an idea occurred to Gray: Why not help Mississippi Gulf Coast artists find a way to get themselves back on their feet? USA Today once identified Bay St. Louis as among the top three best small art towns in the United States. Today, artists have been left without homes, much less studios and art materials to work with. There are no local galleries available to show their work, nor patrons who are looking to buy. Gray asked, “Who’s going to go to the town when there’s no reason to go there?”

The Art Share program was inspired by Gray’s desire to revive the community and help artists return to a self-supporting status. It would also be a way for them to express their experiences with the trauma, and to communicate that trauma to others. Gray now works with somewhere around eight art galleries in the Twin Cities area, placing art that has been shipped up from the Mississippi Gulf area. Up until a couple of months ago, not a single agency charged commission on the pieces they sold. Art Share has to date brought somewhere between sixteen to eighteen thousand dollars directly back to the artists who need those funds. Gray has been personally tracking sales and distribution so that she can let artists know exactly what’s going on with their work.

A long-time Florida resident, Gray describes how she first felt to see some of the artwork up on the walls: “I was emotionally stymied by the talent, the Southern richness..that it was hanging on the walls around me because I had asked.” It was a moment where she realized that even just “one person can really pack a wallop.”

Of course, she is not alone. Gray pulls a tremendous amount of support from her son Adam, and from volunteer Kris Stapleton, who she says, has “stuck with it and is constantly there” to help with the pick up and distribution of artwork. Invaluable assistance also comes from Ken and Mary Davidson, Cathy Gray, and Rhonda Blassingame.

Through the entire month of August, MinnesotaHelpers will be paying tribute to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina with a special exhibit at the Hennepin County Government Center. The exhibit, entitled “Art of the Storm,” will feature artwork by Mississippi Katrina survivors. Gray hopes that the event will draw attention to the ongoing plight of hurricane victims and lead to renewed efforts to assist the devastated area.

There will be a display of actual debris from the Mississippi coast, so that visitors can see firsthand the “green patina” (a pervasive mold) that has crept over the waterlogged gulf coast. Gray is also eager for a “touch table” that will allow visitors to handle actual items destroyed in the hurricane.

Artists participating in this exhibit include: Lori Gordon, Michelle Allee, Liz Schaffer, Vicki Niolet, Joe Tomosovsky, Ellis Anderson, Rhonda Blasingame, Hamilton Guenard, Megan Carney, Ken and Mary Davidson, Julie Nelson, Mary Shaw, Vathy Gray, Robert Brooks, Judi Macinnis, Mary Hardy, Don Beckmeier, Joey Rice, Ruth Thompson, Pat Odom, Brenda Randolf, and Marcel Anderson. Local artist Lisa Marik, who is working on the debris display, will also be featured.

A reception on August 18th (5-8 pm) will feature the jazz music of Envy, a special documentary, and guest speakers. An impressive assortment of government officials is expected to attend.

The Hennepin Gallery is located at 300 South 6th Street, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

“People need art,” says Gray, “80% of people will say that they’re not interested, but we all need art…Every one of us wants to enhance our environment. We decorate our cars with bumper stickers, decorate our homes..” Many of the hurricane survivors have had their immediate needs attended to, but it’s not enough – “the spirit will die. It’s about rebuilding communities, helping artists…people have got to be able to do things to help themselves.”

Visit Minnesota Helpers

Photos by Dwayne Williams

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Leading Out: Henry Allen

The sun glints off an amber pendant hanging around Henry Allen’s neck. It’s a Maori koru, a plump spiral representing continual growth and regeneration. It’s also a motif that has repeated itself in Allen’s life since his childhood abroad as the son of a foreign service diplomat. Today, as the artistic director of All of the Above Twin Cities Minnesota (AATCMN), Allen uses the symbol as a conceptual tool to organize his own life as well as tap into the creativity of those who participate in his performance collaborative and work tank.

With Joy Divine, Allen co-hosts The Divine Cocktail Lounge & Supper Show every Tuesday night at Jitter’s Martini Bar & Cabaret. It’s a multidisciplinary arts event, with gallery space and stage performances. Visual artists, from photographers to architects can mingle, display, and talk about their work. From 8 to 10pm, the Divine Cocktail Lounge showcases performance artists from comedians to belly dancers. After 10, the mic is opened up to newcomers interested in trying their talents out onstage in a safe environment.

The structure of the show, in fact, resembles the structure of Allen’s symbolic spiral. Featured artists are continually changing and growing. The morphology of featured work pushes boundaries into new territory, reaching beyond the closed circle that has traditionally divided “the Painter” from “the Dancer” and “the Singer.” From the beginning of the evening to the end, from one Tuesday to the next, there is an implicit understanding of organic growth and flux in the arts.

Rotunda of Infinite Doors
For Allen, the philosophy of spiraling beginnings has been long in the works. The son of a foreign service diplomat, he spent much of his childhood abroad. Growing up in opulent mansions in countries including Brazil, Austria, Russia, Cuba, and Peru, the influences on his own personal development were wide-ranging and at times contradictory.

On the one hand, it was a life of privilege, replete with glamorous parties during which Allen would organize troupes of visiting diplomat children to perform variety shows. They had sprawling gardens and Allen was placed in charge of a menagerie of exotic animals (monkeys, toucans, goats, and owls received as gifts from visiting dignitaries). He attended American schools (where, he laments, the teachers seemed more interested in glamour than pedagogy) and traveled the globe in a way that few children have the opportunity to do.

On the other hand, it was a life of service, with a continually shifting cultural landscape to adapt to and an extended family of household servants with whom he spent much of his time. Through these servants, who often had deep spiritual beliefs and had made the decision to live their lives in service to others, Allen began to recognize the impact of what it meant to make that choice to “do your work” as an authentic being.

Allen says he felt for a long time as if he were continually passing through a rotunda with an infinite number of doors. He’d choose to go through one door, only to find that it opened up into another rotunda with another infinite set of potential paths. Though exhilarating, it was dizzying in the sense that he felt he had no direction in his life. A wise friend suggested, finally, that he stop for a while to live in the moment, “Sit on one of the benches and look up at the ceiling. Or if that’s not comfortable, try sitting on the floor.”

Leading Out of What is Already There
At thirteen, Allen left home (then Brazil) to attend a private boarding school in Connecticut. The school had a distinctly athletic bent to it; a tradition that Allen could not fully partake in, having been diagnosed with Osgood Schlatter’s disease (similar to juvenile arthritis). Since film had long held an ongoing fascination for him, Allen turned instead to the performing arts. There was something about “holding up the celluloid. It was a sensual experience for me – the sound of film going through the gears, the smell of the light bulb.” Though little else about the school captivated his imagination, Allen was attracted to the power of live theatre and participated in nine shows over a three-year period.

While he admits that the educational institutions he attended were privileged, Allen remains unimpressed with his schooling. He considers himself to be essentially an autodidact and firmly believes in the idea of education as something that leads out of individual growth. A strong supporter of the Waldorf perspective on education, which emphasizes nurturing the creative spirit and sense of self, Allen once worked with the City of the Lakes Waldorf School in Minneapolis, where his son attended school for eight years.

“Have you seen The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie?” he asks me, and then quotes one of his favorite lines from the movie, “To me, education is a leading out. The word education comes from the root ‘ex,’ meaning ‘out,’ and ‘duco..’ ‘I lead.’ To me, education is simply a leading out of what is already there.” In response to the idea that education might involve “a certain amount of putting in,” Miss Brodie retorts, “That would not be education, but intrusion...from the root prefix ‘in,‘ meaning ‘in,’ and the stem ‘trudo’...‘I thrust.’ Ergo, to thrust a lot of information into a pupil's head.”

Today, Allen has his MFA from the National Theatre Conservatory, but the pivotal moments he references come directly from life rather than academia. One of these was an exchange he recalls having with his father during the three and a half hour drive to college. Eighteen at the time, he asked his father (whose personality he describes as a combination of Fidel Castro, Benito Mussolini, and Mel Brooks), “Do you like what you do?” His father replied, “I loathe it.” “Then why do you do it?” His father thought for a moment, then said, “Well, son, that’s the price you pay when you want your family to be proud of you…”

When he pursued the topic and asked his father what he had wanted to be as a child, the response was, “I don’t remember.” Yet moments later, tears trickled down his father’s cheeks as he recalled that he had wanted to be a photographer and reporter for National Geographic. Allen says, “It was a turning point for me in terms of career choices. My father’s failure is my triumph.”

Now Allen makes a careful distinction between “a job” and “work.” A job “is something that you can’t wait to get home from,” while work is “something that you are living for.” Since his single stab at a “job,” where he says he ultimately felt stuck, Allen has focused on doing work that is meaningful and allows him to be authentic. Invaluable experiences with organizations like the Waldorf school, Steppingstone Theatre, Wild Rumpus, and Wells Fargo have proven that it’s possible to choose a life in service and do the work out of a love for the task itself. “There are fat months and lean months,” says Allen, but in the end it’s worth it.

Labels are for Food Cans
One of the big influences on Allen’s life was a grandmother in Florida who used to say, “Labels are for food cans.” It’s a message Allen has taken to heart in virtually every aspect of his life, both personally and professionally. His response is to create bridges between categories where none existed before, positioning himself in a place of perpetual new beginnings, new stories, and new ways of thinking and doing.

Allen’s son Cameron is also a continuing thread in our conversation. Allen survived testicular cancer with a fifty percent possibility of being sterile and seems now to truly appreciate his role in life as a parent. He talks about holding his son when he was a newborn and asking himself, “What can I offer you as a parent?” The answer that came to him was not materialistic, but spiritual: “your whole self, to walk authentically in the world.”

That thought has not only informed Allen’s decision about what messages he should pass on about work, money, and materialism, but also life in a Rainbow family. Though Allen “came out” at the age of eighteen, he was married to a woman for seven years. While he accepts that labels like “gay” or “bi-sexual” are generally easier for people to understand, Allen says that, “I recognized very early that what attracted me to another being was not what’s between their legs. It’s their character, compassion, integrity.."

When Allen and his wife divorced seven years ago, their son’s attitude was positive and open, “You mean I get to have two houses? Yippee!” At eleven, Cameron isn’t troubled by the fact that his father dates other men, nor does he really question why his mother is heterosexual while his father isn’t. Because there aren’t a lot of storybooks geared towards the GLBT community, Allen improvised stories for his son about non-traditional relationships, like two princesses who fall in love. It’s a part of life, part of the human experience. “Fat people fall in love too,” Allen points out, and there aren’t a lot of storybooks out there on that subject either.

Once an actor whose weight exceeded that of those who traditionally get cast in romantic leads, it’s another boundary he’s worked to move beyond. At a maximum weight of 336 lbs, there was a time when Allen had difficulty landing the acting parts that he connected to. Neither directors nor audiences felt comfortable seeing an overweight man in a romantic role, and so he’d inevitably wind up as a supporting character. Over time, he’s lost the weight, but remains mindful of the invisible barrier in perception.

As if drawn by a “deep sense of fate,” Allen recently joined the board of directors with Outward Spiral, a theatre company whose mission is to move beyond conventional views and represent queer and outsider perspectives. The symbolism of the spiral, he tells me, is pure coincidence, but the connection is genuine.

Creativity in life and in work is what lies at the heart of Allen’s performance collaborative and work tank through AATCMN. Through an exploration of personal biographies, he helps clients tap into their creative spirits and move away from inertia and interpersonal barriers. He’s not a life coach, but more of a creative consultant who works to draw out the talents and interests that are already present in an individual. He also focuses on issues of trust, cooperation, and teambuilding in group contexts.

The emphasis in his work is on stepping out of the label and becoming an authentic human being. The mission of AATCMN is "to debut artists with integrity and passion" and to "awaken the creativity that exists in every human being, and teach how to apply it to one's life and work." Facilitating that potential for transformation in others is tremendously rewarding, says Allen, and the process itself is a magnificent thing to behold.


Photos by Dwayne Williams

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Connecting Art to Life: Elissa A. Jones

Spend a little time on the website for the Lisan Gallery of Art and Design and it won’t take you long to find the driving force behind it. “LIFE IS SHORT,” says owner Elissa A. Jones, and no matter “how corny that sounds,” she’s here to do something with hers.

With gleaming hardwood floors and vibrant walls, the gallery interior exudes warmth. Feeling that the draw of art is essentially emotional and intuitive, Jones designed the space to be “warm and fuzzy” – in other words, personal. Her business depends upon the personal network of customers and artists who contribute to the store’s bottom line.

Since its opening in January 2006, Lisan Gallery (883 Smith Ave. S., West St. Paul) has become an artery of human creativity and support. “I started with about twenty-one artists, who I mostly found on Craigslist - Craigslist is my answer to everything,” Jones laughs, “Gradually people saw that I was serious about this and started telling their friends and cousins.” Now, with around fifty artists contributing pieces to the gallery, she finds that there is some truth to the “six degrees of separation scenario.”

Connecting the Dots
Taking a sip of her strawberry colored soda at the coffee shop next door, Jones tells me that the path to here and now hasn’t been a matter of going from A to B. After graduating from high school, she went to a small bible college, which she admits, she chose for the wrong reason. “I was not ready for school at that point,” she says, “but I was expected to go to college.” Coming from an extremely liberal background, she settled on a conservative school not likely to curry favor with her parents. To her dismay, Jones soon discovered that the majority of the women were not there to get a good education, but to get a nice husband.

Jones eventually switched to Bemidji State University, where she majored in English Literature and minored in Theatre Construction. She interned at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse for a year and a half, helping with everything from set painting to costumes, and served as master carpenter with them one summer. Though she enjoyed the vitality of the theatre community, her satisfaction in school began to sputter and eventually, she left BSU.

Unsure of her direction, Jones transferred into Alexandria Technical College in 2001 primarily (she winces), because her boyfriend was going to school only forty-five minutes away in Moorhead. At the time, she didn’t have a driver’s license and that winter there were nine and ten-foot snow banks outside of her apartment. She felt cut-off from the world around her. Not long afterwards, she and her boyfriend broke up.

Jones had all but decided to quit again and move out to Texas with some friends, when she got her grades for the term. “They were the best grades I’ve ever had, so I decided to go back.” She studied interior design and became increasingly invested in the program as her studies continued. She connected with a group of friends with whom she still remains close and became something of a “Mother Hen” for her circle in the post 9-11 climate of fear. In 2003, she walked away with a degree, not to mention invaluable experience working with the National Kitchen and Bath Association and a local art gallery in Alexandria.

Things Fall Apart
Though Jones now finds herself at the center of a robust social and professional network, she is acutely conscious of how quickly things can fall apart. Just two years ago, her mother began complaining of a terrible stomachache. Her mother’s physician told her there was nothing to worry about - “it’s just gas.” The stomachache worsened, however, and she was eventually diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Jones’ mother was admitted to the hospital for a full hysterectomy. Jones, then twenty-six and working as a visual display person for Marshall Fields, remembers those days as a blur of shuttling between work and hospital, with little hope that her mother would recover. Before she died (three weeks after diagnosis), her mother said to her, “I have no regrets. I’m proud of you. But I’m going to miss seeing what you do with your life.”

Two months later, Jones’ stepfather of fifteen years had a brain aneurysm while attending a basketball game. He insisted on driving himself to the hospital, but died in surgery. Shortly thereafter, Jones’ biological father, George (whom she describes as her best friend) broke his foot and spent six weeks recovering from surgery. By this time, Jones was living with George and, going through what she called “separation anxiety.” She stuck close to make sure that he was going to be ok.

It was a devastating period for Jones and her mother’s words kept popping into her head – “I’m going to miss seeing what you do with your life.” Jones decided to quit her job at Marshall Fields and took some time off to re-evaluate. Having never contemplated what life would be like without her mother, she used her time to work through priorities, travel, and reinvest in friendships. After eight months, she was back in the Twin Cities with a plan in hand.

On her way to a friend’s house in West St. Paul one day, Jones happened to notice a vacancy notice in a business node nestled into Smith Ave. The space and area appealed to her, so she wrote down the telephone number and gave the building owners a call. Using funds from her inheritance, Jones signed the lease in October 2005 and started moving in the following month.

Making Connections
“I think of my gallery as more of a service than a shop,” says Jones. “As a general rule, artists don’t speak up for themselves, don’t know how to market themselves. I want to build something where artists are coming to me to represent them and where people from the community come to get information on art and events, etc.. I want to help make that connection between the artist and the community happen.”

The challenge, for Jones, is to nourish that connective tissue between artist and client, at the individual, community, and corporate levels. Situated at the intersection of West St. Paul, Lilydale, Mendota Heights, Inver Grove Heights, and St. Paul proper, her customers defy conforming to a single profile. Her response to this has been to create a two pronged plan that gives her the flexibility to work with corporate clients (furnishing signature pieces to retail/office spaces) while simultaneously being a “neighborhood store” where people can come to look for a gift for grandma or get help with planning their wedding décor.

Though she has worked in retail and had the word “upsell” impressed upon her since the age of fifteen, Jones is not interested in pressuring customers into a purchase; she wants them to come to that decision on their own terms and to feel good about the artwork that they’re taking home with them. “There’s a lady who come in here about once a week,” she tells me, “just to look at this one piece. I don’t want to push her into buying - I don’t want her to buy something for six hundred dollars and then later on have buyer’s remorse.”

Jones tells me a story about a teacher who was once coaxed into buying a three thousand dollar Oriental Rug while on a trip to Chicago. The teacher ended up feeling so guilty about blowing the money (without first consulting her husband) that she simply folded the silk rug up, stuck it in a bag, and left it in the back of her closet for the next four years. “Art should be a part of your life,” she says, “not in the back of your closet.”

Driving home the idea that Art is a part of Life, on July 13th, the Lisan Gallery of Art and Design will be holding a silent auction to raise money for the Three Day Walk for Breast Cancer (supporting the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the Philanthropic National Trust). Jones will be taking part in the walk, which coincides with the two-year anniversary of her mother’s death, and hopes to raise $5,000 in pledges. Talking to artists about her own mother’s experience “has opened me up to artists in a way I couldn’t have predicted. I’ve been flooded with stories and situations about their daughter-in-laws and mothers…”

Lisan Gallery of Art and Design

Photos by Valerie Borey