Public Art Builds Community

"Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality" 
--Lewis Carroll. 

Public Art beautifies the landscape, but it fulfills many other goals as well. Art in public spaces can start conversations, project diverse points of view, challenge common assumptions and provide points of engagement. In this years' WonderFool Productions event, I realize public art can instigate a communal story, or a support the task of reimagining a well-known narrative. Even a fantastical one.


I’ve participated in two Wonderfool Productions events, and both experiences challenged me, stretched me, and helped me understand contemporary art and performance as dialogues.

Festifools 2021, By WonderFool Productions and associated artists.
Date: April 1, 2021. Place: Ann Arbor, MI, The TeaHaus on Fourth Ave.

With the most recent project “Painting the Roses Red” I selected a Chapter of the same title from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Caroll. Our installation theme is encapsulated by the overall festival theme “Alice in Wonderfool” that was selected by the innovative Wonderfool Productions. And there were quite a few “Alices” in the weekend-long event. Curiouser and curiouser! However a picture is worth a thousand words, so enjoy the gallery below.

Process Notes

With a preparation period of approximately 30 days, and a performance period of 4 hours, our installations and performances were fleeting, and so, ephemeral. And because I’m obsessed with research and discovery, a good portion of my practical project management time was devoted to research about Lewis Carroll, himself, and his texts.

With found and common materials, I challenged myself to create environments which would support whimsical performances. I made a series of four hand-painted fabric pieces to document the process of painting the roses red. The fibers are 100% cotton hemmed 20 inch by 20 inch squares. To literally “paint them red” to match the story excerpt I chose, “The Dancing Cards” I would need to devise a technique and strategy, and fast.

I made the first of these pieces at EMU’s Fiber studio with my artist friend Suzanne Boissy’s guidance and encouragement. The fabric has to be prepared prior to hand-painting, with dye activator and hand-application of resist applied directly onto the fabric. Then, the dye is custom mixed and painted onto the fabric. This process is somewhat similar to batik.

That forever-tardy white rabbit was popping up everywhere! I finished the remaining pieces in a race against the clock. Later I decorated the storefronts of the Ann Arbor Tea Haus with the square fiber pieces, lights, and red and white silk flowers. Now for rehearsal! Claire was finishing up a semester of ballet dance at EMU, so we could scheme about music selections before or after dance class, on campus. Claire put in a ton of thoughtful research and creative problem-solving, as a we sought to find music from Lewis Carroll’s era. Claire began rehearsing her music selections on her own, and was ready for April 1st like the professional musician that she is! One morning in late March, the performers Lisa Dietz, Claire Guilford and Ginger Ann Nelson and myself gathered at Maple Street Studios to devise our performance score, and fine-tune it. Finally, the Festival date arrived. On April 1st, we danced to a curated a multi-hour playlist, and we also were lucky to have Claire perform live on her violin. We inhabited a magical, enchanted landscape of tea, beats, and so many roses, red and pink and white.

A final word about my recent forays into large-scale, temporary public art: As the parade of several hundred people passed by the store-front, many individuals and families paused and danced with us! Many Festifools participants stayed with us, dancing with enthusiasm, for 3-5 minutes.

This was a delightful occurrence, and we didn’t anticipate the high level of engagement. What a delightful exchange! What fervor, what zeal! If this is a small proof of the leaps public art can make, sign me up for more.

https://www.wonderfoolproductions.org/artists

Kudos to BrushMonkeys for the fanciful window art. Find out more about all the artists who participated here:
https://www.wonderfoolproductions.org/artists

Current Events

“Making Worlds Local Authors’ Night” @ Booksweet.

Poetry and Performances by three artists.

I’m so, so, so excited for this in-person poetry and performance event. Friday 4/22/2022 from 7:30-9.

Follow the link for all the details.
Hope to see you there.

Shibori

How can words, fibers and performance intersect? I’m still contemplating the connections myself, but I know that creating textile/fibers pieces, for me, satisfies a specific desire to invent.

Additionally, because most dances require threads of some kind– scenery, decor, or costume,– I bet many of my pieces will end up as wearables.

I can happily report that three of my recent performance ventures have included my fiber crafting and/or shibori. In chronological order, these are the installation for “Cave” (November 2020 and April 2021, Ypsi Glow (October 2021) and a suite of liturgical pieces for First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor (December 2021.)

Over the past year, I’ve been learning Fibers from the best, Suzanne Boissy, who is a Faculty member in our neighboring School of Art and Design at EMU. Since I am also a Faculty member (teaching Ballet to non-majors) it’s just a hop, skip and a jump between the Fibers’ Lab and our Dance Studios in the Warner Building. Suzanne is also one of my best friends, so I count my lucky stars that I get to study with– and shadow, her– in full Studio Action.

If you’d like to read more about Shibori, including an approach I call “Trash Panda,” fill out a contact form and I will keep you updated when my next blog post drops.

Subscribe, like or follow me to learn more about “Trash Panda Shibori.” In 2022, I will be sure to share updates with you!

Performance Reflection: Ypsi Glow

2021 is heading out the door. As I pause to reflect on all that has transpired this year, I want to dedicate a few words to “Ypsi GLOW.”

We met on a rainy chilly evening and were painted by Professor Suzanne Boissy from the School of Art at EMU. My body painting took about an hour, and the other dancers’ painting required roughly half an hour each. What did we discover during this installation and performance?

Unbridled Optimism

Contrary to what you might expect, after loading in the installation, setting it up, and dancing for four hours, we felt energized. After playfully interacting with the “audience,” who passed by our windows, we felt joyful and connected. Some of the tiniest participants rolled by in strollers. Families and small groups of friends danced with us, laughed with us, and scanned our posted playlist with their phones. A whole school of piranha “swam by” in the rain. The colorful full-head masks on these GLOW-festers artfully conveyed a compelling grouping of these carnivorous –and awe-inspiring–fish. We danced backwards–quickly– trying to escape the potential threat of their teeth.

Public Art makes a sense of community possible. A sense of community makes optimism possible. As the pandemic, and its effects, drag on, this community festival is just what the doctor ordered!

Amy Hutchison, AKA “All Smiles,” Live Performance Dance Artist @ YpsiGLOW 2021

The Back-Story: How did we get here?

About a month prior to the performance, I submitted an Artist Proposal to create an installation and performance at Ypsi GLOW. Then, I crossed my fingers for luck. Once my Proposal for “Punk’d Up Dance Marathon” was accepted, we were off and away for a 6-week flurry of preparations. Deliverables included a short video piece in “Glow TV,” the installation itself, hosted by SPARK East Innovation Center, 215 West Michigan Avenue, and a suitcase full of hand-made fiber props, costumes and make up! Ooh, and a long playlight and custom performance.

By long, I mean four hours and one minute long. I developed the playlist on Spotify for easy sharing, and asked friends to submit song nominations. I asked “What songs make you want to dance?” About 12 friends responded with song title suggestions, and these all made it into the playlight. Next, we dancers donned several costumes and danced our hearts out, twirling fiber wands, dancing traditional American jazz steps, with other forms such as contemporary, modern and popular/club dance thrown in. Often, we were balancing all this while manipulating day-glo props. Did I mention this is a black-light installation? It was, and with the inclusion of approximately 20 black light instruments and special effects lights, we made SPARK East glow up!

SPARK East went from a chic, all-business shared office space, to a circus-like stage. Swirling lights, day-glo wands and go-go boots set us up for a rockin’ contemporary playlist that included artists as varied as Adele and Amber Mark, Laura Mulva and Mitski; Lizzo and Lil Nas X.

The Installation transformed SPARK East

Lisa Dietz, Left and Amy Hutchison, Right in front of the Window that formed our portal to the other participants. We loved laughing and dancing together at Ypsi GLOW.


This blog post would not be complete without a list of folx who made this Installation and Performance possible. Thank you to all our friends at Ypsi GLOW and FestiFools. Especially we thank the school of piranha who swam by several times. And everyone who danced on the sidewalk with us, outside our window.


Video Team: Troye Aho, John Verellen, Videography by Sidney Anderson, Make-up by Jess Aho. Sidney Anderson went the extra mile as Video Editor and is the Engage@EMU Graduate Student Coordinator.

Performance Team: Lisa Dietz, Amy Hutchison, Christina Sears.

Design Team: Christina Sears with make-up by Suzanne Boissy. Lisa Dietz provided hands-on assistance.

Special Thanks: Jennifer Goulet, Jeri Rosenberg, Trevor Stone and all the gang at Wonderfool Productions.


A quote from one of our incredible dancers:

I’m currently a senior at Eastern Michigan University majoring Nursing and minoring in Musical Theatre. I’ve danced my whole life and my favorite performance was when I was in Addams Family the Musical!

I’m so glad I got to be apart of Ypsi Glow!

Johnny Verellen

Performance brings people together

A brief video clip of my performance on 10.30.21

Working on a Poetry Collection

So, I’ve been hard at work on my poetry collection. While decompressing, I made a visual piece from my slush pile yesterday.

What’s a slush pile you may ask? (Hint: It’s not where I toss the melted popsicles and juice bars from last summer.) It’s really just a document, mostly. I find it’s easier to get my big editing shears out, and employ them, if I have a file to drop those sweet little gems of lines that just don’t fit in a particular poem.

I call it tumble tussle.

September Slushie

If you have a few moments, let me know your thoughts. Do you use a “slushie pile” too? What helps you gain distance on your work, and make those all important edits?

Intertextuality the ‘ZINE

I like to go through the zine sections of local bookstores when on the road and have found a lot of really great kind of underground stuff that way.

It all feeds into everything else.


Jeff VanderMeer, Author

Why a zine?

‘Zines are quick and snappy. ‘Zines offer writers and artists a means of production that is fairly barrier-free. ‘Zines are pretty easy to organize and range from low-cost to moderate-cost production.


Comments about the Intertextuality Process.

I undertook a few days’ research to learn about ‘Zines. I had only made one before, and that was an old-school process; with paper, scissors, copier and a special type of stapler- a saddle-type. While I am fascinated by book arts, fibers, and hand-made goods, I decided to make this inaugural edition digital.

I put out a call to approximately 100 folks I knew from my earlier career as a dance artist. I also reached out to students in the Creative Writing and Literature Programs at Eastern Michigan University, my alma mater.

Submissions trickled in at first, then built to a steady stream. I love the diversity that is represented in this first volume.

Poets, cyber-artists, photographers, musicians, ballet dancers, somatic therapists, body workers, labor organizers, and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs all have thoughts about the theme “Words on Dance.” I actually couldn’t fit in all the submissions. Thanks to all the artists and writers who trust me with their submissions.

I hope you enjoy the ‘Zine. Due to reader interest, print copies are also available. If you’d like to purchase a paper copy, they are $12, mailed via USPS, to any where in the US. International orders are $15.

Message me or respond to this blog post to order a copy, or just enjoy the ‘Zine electronically.

Donations are accepted.

My Venmo handle is: @Christina-Sears-17. If you’d like your own paper copy, remember I will need to collect your mailing address. Email that to me please and place “Zine order” in the subject line.

Intertextuality the ‘Zine

Words on Dance

Collage Image by Sarah Imhoff-Jones

Memories of Paris, Process

As a Fiber Student in Advanced Fibers study with Professor Suzanne Boissy at EMU School of Art and Design, I’ve been having a blast learning new techniques and skills. I’ve been applying these new skills to my first Project in Fibers. I consider this an extension of my multi-media journeys, as this piece includes my original poem “Monk’s Hour at the Pompidou Museum.”

I wrote the poem six years after a visit to the famed Pompidou in Paris.

The piece is made of: An upcycled Degas Print “The Dancing Class” (1874), layers of lavender chiffon, screen prints, and more. First I had to learn how to make screen prints, which I did with some success. I love the magical process of screen printing. See the materials list below for a comprehensive list.

Materials

  • Linen fabric for screen print
  • white and lavender chiffon
  • yellow wool
  • gold embroidery floss and thread
  • Vintage photographs (mine are by Parisian Photographer Yvon Guy Greff, marked Greff studios from the 1940’s.)
  • Vintage frame and backboard

Screen Printing and Stitching
Process Photos

Multimedia journeys

handmade artbook

Since September 2018, I have been studying Creative Writing @ EMU. No stranger to EMU, having been a member of faculty in Music and Dance since 2011, I’ve always enjoyed the campus and community. However, studying with Creative Writing Professors in the program has been an incredible journey. One aspect that makes the Creative Writing Program at EMU special is hybridity.

Many higher education programs (MA’s, MFA’s) direct writers into a stream of study right from the point of application. As a multi-genre Movement Artist making the leap into Literary Arts, I had a deep desire to explore it all-

Poetry, fiction, flash-fiction, Creative Non-Fiction, and hybrid forms. This blog post documents my third project in MultiMedia, the art booklet. Today I’m sharing a photo gallery of DOCuDrama of a Dream, my second artbook project. I’m discovering a whole world of art books, collage, and multimedia composition.

As a person with health challenges and some level of disability, I’ve really had to take quarantine seriously during COVID-19. Even though I’ve struggled with social distance limitations, for example having to put my band BadjaMutha on complete hold, I’ve really never been more creatively productive.

Part of the impetus has been due to my extreme thirst for creative exploration, part of it is due to having a wonderful collaborative partner/teammate and delightful community of artists to interact with/ and learn from, and part of it is slowing down and attuning to my inner rhythms and the energy of the earth.

Winter, even in the disordered climate-change version of winter, offers opportunity for peering inward, and contemplating shifts, affinities and contrasts. I haven’t been posting a lot on my blog due to demands of life, job and school-work- I hope you enjoy this December post.

In today’s blog post, I offer glimpses of my new art booklet DOCuDrama of a Dream. I used many different compositional tools, techniques and technologies to construct this piece.

First, I concentrated on harvesting and recycling images and language from my dreams. I dedicated my focus to writing as soon as I wake, no matter what the hour, for a period of about 14 nights. Later, I processed the language into edited hand-written compositions. In these compositions, I hone the text into a bi-fold article: the meaning of the text is important, but the visual element of the writing has equal weight. Therefore, instead of typing the text and applying the usual (computer-based) options to the text, I tried to really focus on the act of writing as mark-making. I’m obsessed with line!

Textual Meaning and Materiality

Style of writing gains import here. I invented a kind of block-lettering that reminded me of early computers. And by early, I’m talking about the computer technologies of the late 70’s and early 80’s- ginormous computers that had a footprint of 20 square feet. My father, Dave Sears, an engineer at Allison’s at the time- took me to visit this computer at work. Allison, a branch of General Motors, was HQ’d in Indianapolis, Indiana, where I was born.

This computer used punch-cards and binary coding to function. It was a far cry from the nanochip tech we all have access to today. But this vintage tech was an aesthetic motivator for the hand-lettering you see below.

Additionally, I fleshed out my dream-material with character names (Lisa, Jill and Arthur Robinson, Barney, etc.) and gave Lisa, a leading lady, her own enscriptive style, a loopy cursive script. I even created a signature for her. Finally, I typed up the bulk of the content on a vintage typewriter I scored of Ebay. I was absurdly excited for the typewriter and it’s accessories, two ribbons, one black and one red to arrive. Quickly, working as a choreographer does, I established some aesthetic rules.

First- due to typing on unusual paper(s) I decided to accept all mistakes as fate, and work them into the flow of the text. One reason was that the corrective technology for this mid-1960’s Coronamatic typewriter is pretty primitive. The second reason was aesthetic: imperfection proves this item is made by human hands.

My own life is full of mistakes, shortfalls, and imperfections. Why should this booklet be any different? I decided to accept the mistakes of this booklet process, and integrate them, even when errors of spelling or fact occur. This led to another interesting sidebar- Tabloid type elements.

Some of the mistakes I made were mundane, but some were early steps in my research process. For example, one day, during a hike in the woods, my partner and I were discussing the Beatles’ song: “Give Me Money.” We both had a sneaking sense that this song, is, in fact a cover. I dreamed about it later, and dreamed it is a cover of a Bill Withers’ tune. That proved incorrect. I discovered a fascinating music research line. Berry Gordy’s administrative assistant at the time, Ms. Janie Bradford, is a co-writer of the song. She also was in the Motown Offices on the day the Beatles expressed interest in covering the song, and probably took the call where the deal was sealed.

Is she appropriately credited? Yes, today she is and does receive royalty compensation for her many songwriting credits. Check out this cool blog post for more about Janie Bradford, her accomplishments in music here. However, this is not the typical outcome for musicians, especially in blues and rock-n-roll music. Even in the case of the house bands for Motown’s various labels, many of the musicians suffered from poverty and instability in their careers and lives. Thus, creative exploitation, and a specific sidebar, exploitation of women, became a thematic sub-current in the booklet. This theme can’t be identified in the photos, and likely will only come to complete fruition a the next version of the project. (Spoiler: women’s reproductive capacity and monetization of biological reproductive capacities through the practice of surrogacy, sperm and ova donorship, etc. will be a theme in future drafts.)

The booklet components lay fallow for about six weeks this past fall, while I tried to decide upon a strategy to complete them. With the aid of art found in a little free library (LFL’s) on Oak Street in Ypsilanti, MI, I generated a cover. Memories of growing-up times with my father are layered underneath the medieval lady (greeting card art) on the back cover: a jingle from a radio advertisement for Smith Brothers’ Wild Cherry Cough Drops is penned in messy gray and royal blue marker.

Front Cover

On the front cover, I include a photo I took in 2009 on a visit to the Dominican Republic. The signage in English reads “No Passage, Private Property.” According to Frederick Engels’ 1884 Book, Origin of the Family, Private Property and The State the conceptualization of Private Property, ushered in a transition from matriarch to patriarchy. Family bloodlines and the establishment of trackable paternity made monogamy and privatization of land the new system in 18th century Europe. Industrialization in the mid-19th century allowed for the development of the middle class, and the widening divisions between workers, landowners, middle class managers of industry, etc. Finally, nuclear family practice and models of patriarchal tradition formed the perfect vehicle for the transfer of white privilege through heirs and inheritance. As society continued to evolve, a centralization of wealth and familial lines through the father created a cult of domesticity for certain classes/ races of women. The fence in the sepia-toned photography, and the off-center sign speak to all of these meanings.

I choose, with great zeal and joy, to stitch the whole booklet together on a fancy modern sewing machine. This choice of technique echoes centuries of female labor and points to women’s integrations and roles in testing technology. Also, women’s roles in fashion, textile production, manufacturing garments.

I hope you enjoy this post and my booklet.

Gaga class with Ya’ara

“Art is the spirit, we can’t live without it.
It has a bigger force than any pandemic.”

On Weds. June 24th I had the pleasure of taking a dance class (on-line through zoom) with Movement Artist Ya’ara Dolev.

Photo Credit: Ya’ara’s Personal Instagram

This class was organized by the Dance Program at Oakland University. Many thanks are due to Michigan Dance Council, Associate Professor Elizabeth Katner, Gregory Patterson, Dance Department Chair and Associate Professor, for organizing and disseminating such excellent and international content for dancers in Michigan.

A special thanks is due, of course, to Ya’ara herself, whose gorgeous dancing, and generous and ferocious spirit infuse the Gaga practice. Ya’ara is a stunning artist with a long and diverse international career. Ya’ara’s accomplishments have garnered quite a list of prizes and recognitions. For more about her, visit here. 

This writer, having been a professional dancer for over 20 years, has faced many injuries and chronic illnesses, including asthma, cancer and fibromyalgia, perhaps that is why I was drawn to class with Ya’ara today. There are many days now where I am unable to dance. But today, I was able to join in and participate in 80% of the class. Therefore, this blog post is created from first-hand lived experience.

The class experience is amazingly robust. Gaga is a style of dance and a movement discipline which is physically, mentally, emotionally and imaginatively challenging. Ya’ara dances with us, and her physicality belies her grace, efficiency, and strength, even through the distancing lens of video capture. Her verbal cuing is elegant, alternatively cerebral and somatic, imagistically vibrant and welcoming.

During a portion of the class, where I needed a short rest, I danced at my desk and composed a poem, entitled “Tama,” in honor of the feelings that movement practice generated in me. See the poem- in draft form- here. This poem includes reflection on “Tama” which is a movement pattern organized around repetition, mindfulness, spine movement which echoes cranial sacral rhythmic patterns, and the loose concept of energetic reciprocity.

In this poem, these feelings are connect with the materiality of the world through cotton. Cotton is a truly international material good with an expensive past, present and future. Cotton is resource-intensive to grow and develop into cloth, and sadly has been produced with unfair to horrendous working conditions for the past 300 years or so. The project of the poem is to explore patterns of multi-geographic fiber production, and it grows from my practicing of Tama with the class cohort on June 24th. Additionally, my interest in cotton production is intersectional, but takes its strongest philosophical grounding from embodied knowing and the imperative for fair trade and respectful human stewardship of earth’s resources. However, I want to specify that the poem grew out of the experience of dancing with this group.

After the movement portion of the class concluded, we had a chance for Q & A with Ya’ara. This portion of the meet-up was informative, as Ya’ara has recovered from several extensively debilitating injuries.

Dealing with injury

Yes, dancers, musical performers and athletes deal with injuries all the time. However, during a long career, which we all hope to have, the accumulation of natural aging of tissues, and trauma, which includes past injuries, can compound. Ya’ara provides an anatomical background and lived somatic framework for the “protection instinct,” most humans have around injury:

“The body wants to protect an injured place with a blockage and inflammation. When I bring movement to an injury, it opens up the blockage. When I am/ have been injured, I would put music that inspired me on my headset, and lie down on my back in the studio, and…close my eyes, imagining inside that I am moving and, also, moving inside water.”

Ya’ara brings appreciate inquiry to life as she asks, inwardly- self to instrument:

“How can you bring more and more softness and patience to your movement? Always believe that the tissues of the body, we can heal them. We can heal it.”

She continues: “I had the craziest injuries and doctors couldn’t even believe it. And they were saying, no way. But I had an international career after that…” (conquering the injuries, and moving on.)

Greg Patterson asks, how did you come to Berlin?

Ya’ara and her husband and family moved to Berlin for a fresh start. “Okay I thought, this could be beautiful….With four suitcases and two children, we landed and set out.”

“Literally from coming with my suitcase and nothing, they have made a life and career with many different (artistic) projects. Berlin is a great place for the arts, with lots of flexibility and great atmosphere in Berlin.”

As Europe opens up from COVID-19, Ya’ara pauses to reflect on life after the pandemic: “I see projects in Berlin, its like mushrooms after the rain.”

A student dancer asks, what was your worst injury ever?

Ya’ara briefly describes spinal injuries, involving likely vertebral fracture and a slow recovery process she undertook while working.

While injured, I had to create a solo, so I was just lying on my back, imagining I could sit. And heal very fast.

Of a traumatic Knee Injury, she remembers: “It was a complete loss.”

I was working on a commercial set, jumping these crazy slow motion jumps…(on a trampoline)” It turns out the equipment set-up was not adequate, and safety precautions were not a priority for the producers. Ya’ara’s trampoline was not balanced, and there weren’t adequate mats around the set-up… She fell back and smashed her neck and right knee. 

She describes the slow progression towards healing. 

Cross ligament completely torn, knee was cracked, meniscus was completely gone. A total loss for my right knee. I did an operation there, repairing the front cross ligament. I had a physical therapist who worked with Olympic athletes, and my father (her face lights up) was a healer, a reflexologist, and after working to make the knee strong, I would rest, take reflexology.

After working to make muscles on all sides of the knee strong, it would be red and inflamed. So I would rest. Apply ice compresses, heat compresses. And work again.”

This kind of stubborn persistence, combined with kinesthetic knowledge, spiritual patience and positivity, imaging the best outcome, even while in the devastating moment of loss, characterizes several of the world’s star athletes. Ya’ara is in good company with Tennis Star Serena Williams and NYCB prima ballerina Misty Copeland. All three have rebounded multiple times from potentially career-stopping injuries. Ya’ara exhibits a super-human growth mindset, and that is a habit of mind that anyone can aspire to cultivate.

For more information on Gaga, I recommend this excellent documentary, Mr. Gaga, released in 2017, and under the direction of Tomer Heymann. This film focuses on Gaga founder Ohad Naharid’s life and work. (Image credit: still from the film, which is available for viewing now.)

Still from Heymann’s film.

Interview with Matt Seigfried, Historian

This semester I have had the privilege of studying with Dr. Elisabeth Däumer from the Department of English Language and Literature. The course finished now, and despite the Quarantine and finishing the course in lockdown, Winter 2020 was a wonderful semester, in terms of our course: Literature in the Age of the Anthropocene. My eco-criticism final project for the Course is a paper entitled “Luna Lake: EcoCriticism, History and Land Use in Ypsilanti.” There is also a conjoined hypermedia notebook in the hopper. Meet me at the River is a multi-modal creative investigation of the Huron River and my study of it over time.

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I have the pleasure of speaking with Matt Seigfried who is a self-employed historian. According to his website, Matt is a historian, writer and researcher originally from Cincinnati, Ohio who has lived in Michigan since 1996. A graduate of Eastern Michigan University with degrees in History and Historic Preservation, much of his work has been on connecting local history to broad historical moments.

Matt’s Master’s Thesis Project resulted in the publication of an impactful website. This site centers around the cultural and sociological histories of African-American Families in Ypsilanti around 1900. Matt and I spoke about the gaps in what history has been preserved in terms of land use, ethics, and social and cultural norms and practices of African-American families. Matt stated:

“If the information wasn’t collected 150 years ago, it’s not (going to be) available now…When we look at history, there is an absolute necessity to use an informed imagination.”

When I explained a bit about my project, and that several of the components in my hyper-media e-book, Meet Me at the River, are inspired by a somatic sensing of place, I wanted to get a professional impression of my research process.

As a Somatics practitioner, I have found that this work infuses everything. A somatic sensing of place allows one to collect distinct impressions of place through one’s sensory apparatus, energetic attunement, and intuitive creative visioning. I call this process of somatic attunement “Deep Time Listening.”

Due to there being significant missing pieces in Ypsilanti’s social and cultural history, there was a lot of sadness and sense of loss in this study. One particularly disturbing gap is the lack of record regarding First Peoples and this area.

The Prospect Park which marks the epicenter of this lived history project is particularly complex. What I was able to establish from historical record is that Luna Lake and Prospect Park were widely used as hunting lands by at least three tribes (bands) simultaneously. The area was plentiful with game and water, having been documented as “Swamp land,” on a platt map.

However, this area, bordered to the East by International Water Way and the Port of Detroit, to the immediate North East by the powerful Huron River, and the South by Ohio settlers and bands of people migrations from East to West, was lively and multi-cultural from the get-go. European influence came from the British and French wars, military history, fur traders and trappers from French-Canada and so on. Consider all the impact of this past, and then add “Great Migrations” of African Americans. Families travelled northward following the Emancipation Proclamation, and continued to seek better employment opportunities in through mid Twentieth century. The progressive manufacturing activities of Edsel Ford are intricately tied to Ypsilanti history. Ford used the river extensively, and hydrology and automotive history play a big part in the industrial development of the area. Additionally, Ford designated housing for factory workers, and the connections between Detroit families and Ypsilanti are hinted at in my poem, “Boys in Dress Uniform.” (DM if you’d like to read a draft.)

Of particular note, burying grounds have an important function in cultural life for all people, and land cultivation as well. In the past, Prospect Park was a burying ground for cholera victims, though these remains were exhumed (presumably respectfully?- one hopes) in 1892 as a activist efforts by local women were undertaken to “improve” the area.

Facing these complexities, during one 15-week semester, which was disrupted by COVID, was a daunting task. I imagine the possibilities of undocumented land use, in January 2020 I began a poetry series inspired by the place where I live. Most of these poems are set in the time period between 1890s-1930’s, and I have wondered how valid Deep Time Listening, combined with sociological and biological factual points of reference and poetic prompts are as literary inquiry.

How important is imagination, interrogations of place, and an examination of built structure in terms of interpreting history? Was I totally off-the-wall in my practice, which like most other points of inquiry, is multi-modal?

How does investigative traditional research, books, scouring newspaper accounts and making detailed examination of photographs, drawing, cartoons, etc. interface with the lived body? I’ve long been fascinated by oral history, especially given its mainstay as a feminist mode of inquiry.

How do conversations, news accounts, and found items play out with the experience of living in a historic neighborhood?

I floated a few questions about the research process I used during LIT 592 to Matt, during our interview. One gem from his response below:

“I do nothing but walk around and imagine what things could have been like. You have an informed understanding of the past, but you must use your imagination. All history requires imagination, in one sense or another.”

This position was reassuring to me. As a white LGBTQ+ woman, living with hidden disabilities, ethics and anti-racism are an on-going concern in my research and life. I’d been juggling historic papers, from City and Michigan State University sources, contemporary pro-Black farming studies (notably Ms. Dorceta Taylor’s comprehensive reportage on African-American farmers in Michigan and nationwide, published in March 2018) with observational study, perusing platt maps, vintage photographs, and the like.

Balancing historical traditional research, primary research and the emergent “Deep Time Listening” made for a heady stew. In order to compose my paper and create aspects of my conjoined hyper-media project, “Meet Me at the River”  I required a professional historian’s point of view. It is and was imperative to me, that the research be as immaculate as possible.

Matt conducts walking tours and considers the built and natural environment an invaluable resource. Matt shares:

“One of the reasons I do walking tours is because history is what we walk around in everyday. History is in our built environment… history navigates the… relationship of the built environment and our natural world. Roads are racially-coded, and the built environment is a really important place to understand history and how social differences are built and encoded into place.”

Visit Matt’s impressive website, which documents African-American families, neighborhoods and life-styles here. The feature image, at top, is a photo from the website, and marks an intersection of major historical import in South Ypsilanti. Similarly, the second image, a candid of Matt, shows him standing in front of a former theatre, on Michigan Ave. where Frederick Douglass spoke twice.

To contact Matt and book a place on one of his tours, or inquire about other programming, send him a note through his website. I personally hope to go on a walking tour with Matt soon, and will be sure to share a bit about it this summer.