The Phoenix Rising Collective’s Artist Feature, curated by Traci Currie, interviews women artists who use their talents and creativity to fully express self-love, build self-esteem, and nurture their own authenticity while inspiring others. Creative expressions may range from performing to painting to writing to travel and everything in between. Our goal is to share how these empowered women cultivate agency, healing, and happiness through fulfilling their passion.
This Artist Feature is Shekinah Shazaam.
It’s spring, and I have the perfect artist for this blossoming season. Shekinah “Shazaam” Tapplin! Just read the name. Actually, say the name out loud. SHAZAAM! This is a special time for this vibrant, creative being. Not only is she celebrating her 23rd birthday this May, she also graduates from college with a BFA in Graphic Design and a Theatre minor. She is an up-and-coming filmmaker, photographer, actress, graphic designer and writer. Are you exhausted yet?
I decided to approach this feature differently. I wanted to match the colorful in-your-face energy she exudes. I sat down with Shekinah and said, “Let’s play a game.” Her smile told me to ‘Bring it on!’ Our game is called 23 Favorites because she is turning 23 years old. Essentially, I am asking her to share 23 of her favorite things – like the song My Favorite Things from the musical Sound of Music. This is no coincidence. I love the movie for different reasons but the #1 reason related to Shekinah is the vibrancy and joy that resides in the musical’s main character Maria. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying Shekinah is energetic and giddy every single minute of the day. I am simply saying there is a bright light in her. She makes me want to reach for the shooting stars at night. If I am lost, all I have to do is look up.
To set the stage for the game below, I want to share a few tidbits about Shekinah. She is from a small town in Michigan called Clio. When she mentioned this, she gave me the not-quite-exciting-but-this-is-where-I-am-from look, and I told her this is where the famous people are usually from – a place no one has ever heard of. She chose to attend University of Michigan-Flint because it’s a commuter school. Beyond saving money she also chose this university for the wonderful faculty in her major and minor. She explained, “I love it because I can’t NOT do it. This work is engrained in my soul. I love being able to tell the different kinds of stories in visual, oral, written and performance.” Then she left me with a phrase, “I don’t believe the world is black or white. It’s in the middle. There are so many different types of people in the world that there is no one way.” Indeed. She is willing and able to explore the possibilities without question.
So, we begin the game 23 Favorites. Her responses to the questions are her words. At the end there is a short video explaining some of the responses.
Favorite Attire: Layering in Fall
Favorite Season: Fall but Autumn sounds prettier
Favorite Film: Star Wars – It’s scifi. I love the fact that these things can be possible. It would be very ignorant for humans to assume they are the only life forms in this universe.
Favorite TV Show: BBC’s Sherlock
Favorite Music Genre: Anything electronic
Favorite Artist: That’s so hard. I have so many. I will limit it to four: (1) James Blake – He’s British. He has soul! The melodies meld together with his beautiful voice. (2) Active Child – He’s a redhead. I have a thing for redheads (as she smiles at her own red connection). He has range. The deepest deeps and the highest highs. (3) Lindsey Stirling – She is really amazing. She is a violinist who dances while she plays. She mixes in dub step with the violin. She also makes cinematic films that go along with her songs. (4) Lo Fang – He’s a recent new favorite. He has a very pretty voice that balances well with the electronic sounds beneath it.
Favorite Color: Red
Favorite Number: 13
Favorite Actor: Will Smith. Seeing his transformation from Fresh Prince to more serious roles and him embracing his children’s art and acting…I love his support and passion. And he has a laid back attitude.
Favorite Place: My room. Everything I need is right there.
Favorite Part of the Body: Man or Woman? (I say, BOTH) Woman: Women’s hips. Maybe because I don’t have them. Big womanly hips. They look comfortable to sit on and it looks like it would be easy to squeeze a child out. Man: I have two: (1) Man legs – they intrigue me because no matter the size of the man, the legs are usually small. (2) Man chest – I like when there is a little something there. When you can squeeze their moobs, they make me giggle (i.e. moobs – the male version of boobs).
Favorite Activity as a Hobby: Crafting – Do It Yourself (DIY) projects
Favorite (Ideal) Career: Filmmaking because it combines everything I love
Favorite Month: May because it’s the birthday month and it warms up then; Then September because Autumn enters the picture
Favorite Person: Though he would be surprised, my Daddy. We have similar personalities and sense of humor.
Favorite Jewelry: Rings because they are very versatile. They are chunky and you can layer. You can wear with almost any outfit
Favorite Book: I have two: (1) Trilogy: The Singer/The Song/The Finale – The Singer Trilogy. It’s written in a long poetic form, kind of like an epic. The language communicates with me personally and reads smoothly. (2) The Hush Hush Saga – It’s a fantasy paranormal romance and it features angels, one of my favorite topics to write about.
Favorite Experience: For my 20th birthday me, my parents, and three best girlfriends went to Chicago and I fell in love with the city. We saw so many different cultures living together, great amount of art, and people were friendly. Just AMAZINGNESS!
Favorite Time of Day: Evening to nighttime when the sun is setting. Things are calmer. I do my best thinking later on at night.
Favorite Word: Shazaam – I love this word because (1) it sounds good with my actual name, which is why I use it as my artist name, and (2) I love the fun way that Beyoncé used it in the Austin Powers movie. That’s where I got it.
Favorite Writing You’ve Done: Not completed but my first novel I began writing at age 13. (She couldn’t reveal the details – work in progress)
Favorite Food: Chocolate
AND FINALLY, Favorite Quote: Wishing does nothing, doing does everything. I came up with this a few years ago when I realized people were whining about everything they wanted. Instead of whining about what you want, why don’t you go out and do what you want. Hard work gets you to where you want to go.
Please support this talented up-and-coming artist; you’ll be glad you did! Check out her website: Shekinah Shazaam
About the Contributing Writer:
Traci Currie is a Communication and Visual Arts lecturer at University of Michigan-Flint, as well as a knit-crochet artist, writer, and spoken word performer. She has been a part of the art world for over 15 years as an art gallery board member; spoken word series organizer; performer, nationally and internationally; and published poet. She believes The PRC will help young women reach their highest potential. “This organization is about empowering women to take ownership of their lives, claim their identities and be the positive change they wish to see in the world they live.” Read her latest posts.
The Phoenix Rising Collective’s Artist Feature, curated by Traci Currie, highlights and focuses on women artists using their talents and creativity to fully express self-love, build self-esteem, and nurture their own authenticity while inspiring others. Creative expressions may range from performing to painting to writing to travel and everything in between. Our goal is to share how these empowered women cultivate agency, healing, and happiness through fulfilling their passion. This Artist Feature is Martina Hahn.
I had the great pleasure of sharing the stage with a phenomenal speed painter named Martina Hahn. I use the word “phenomenal” with great purpose, because she reminds me of Maya Angelou’s poem Phenomenal Woman.
(l to r) Martina Hahn, Painter, and Traci Currie, Poet at the 14th Annual Black History Month Brunch – Photo Credit: April R. Nunley
I was invited to share poems written by Maya Angelou at the 14th Annual Black History Month Brunch this February at Genesee District Library. While I recited the poems, Martina was next to me painting Angelou’s portrait. By the time I finished my 7-minute recitation Martina was done. I had heard of speed painting but I had never experienced it – definitely not in this manner. Although I was focused on myself on stage, I felt Martina’s presence next to me. I heard the movement of her hands over the canvas, splashing colors in purposeful directions to shape Angelou’s image. At some point, I wanted to STOP and focus on her the way the crowd was focusing on her. I had this odd feeling that the audience was bouncing back and forth between two artists, more so with an emphasis on her work because they were trying to figure out what she was creating. By the time I had started the last poem Still I Risethe audience and I began calling-and-responding the infamous refrain “I Rise,” at which it was becoming abundantly clear who Martina was painting. What a feeling! But this feeling is exhilarating for more reasons than you can imagine. Martina called it the “law of attraction” that brought us together.
Let me share a few things about this German born artist who first pursued a college degree in psychology. She shared the concerns her parents had about her pursuing visual arts as a college major. I suspect others can relate to this experience. I think some of us can guess what that infamous question is when expressing interest in being a professional artist: “How will you make a living?” Well, in Martina’s case she admitted to the struggles she had gone through to reach her dream. She said it wasn’t until the late 1990s (about 17 years ago) when she was given an opportunity to paint a mural, which took her nine months to complete.
At some point in our conversation Martina revealed she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2008. I told her she didn’t have to share details if she didn’t wish to, and she explained a concept her family came up with: The Voldemort Syndrome. Do you remember Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter? He’s the evil guy whose name you are not supposed to say. If you’ve never seen the films or read any of the books, this may appear foreign, but think about it like this: Never speak of anything bad or else it might manifest in some way. However, Martina explained how important it is to name the things we consider terrible. She said, “If we don’t say them they will stay with us [like a dirty secret]. I talk about the bad things because when you name them they lose their fear-factor and power.”
And so she talked about the cancer. She also talked about the domestically abusive relationship she was in and how unhealthy her mind and spirit were during this time. She started seeing a therapist who was helping her. Then two years later she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She was fortunate to learn about this in its early stages. As a result, she was able to undergo treatment that removed the cancer. A year after the diagnosis she found speed painting. Although she had seen speed painting before, she did not pursue this form of art until her son wanted her to paint the character Jack Sparrow from the film Pirates of the Caribbean. She was unable to paint the character because, she explained, she was over-thinking the process. Martina became so frustrated one day that she ended up slapping the paint onto an 8×4 piece of plywood. She found herself furiously creating Jack Sparrow in roughly nine minutes. When a friend saw this wonderment, she was asked to do it again for a fundraising event. And this time the adrenaline rush took over and she created the image in six minutes. She learned to stop over-thinking the process and allow it to flow. She has a magnet on her refrigerator that says, “Don’t take things too seriously.” Over the years this phrase has become a mantra in her life.
She says that she found her peace and joy through art. “People need to find that one thing in life that gives them joy…that calms them.”
May 2015 it will be seven years from the time she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In those seven years she has focused on healing her mind and spirit. “I believe in the trilogy of the mind, body and spirit. Over the years I have come to believe that in this western world, we focus on the body – whether it be short or tall, big or small, black or white. But there’s so much more to us. There is a soul, a mind and a spirit. We don’t give the full attention to our true bodies. I feel that these diseases like cancer are caused by our unhealthy minds and spirits.” She reinforced what I mentioned above: two years after the escape of her own abusive relationship is when she was diagnosed. Although she was unhealthy she explained how fortunate she was. Her body warned her, so to speak. She had a 6.5-inch malignant cyst removed. “The way I choose to look at it,” she said, “is that the cyst encapsulated the cancer. The cancer was actually contained so that it wasn’t spreading in the rest of my body.”
In the aftermath of her explaining her journey to me, I thought of the number seven. When I completed the seven-minute performance with Angelou’s Still I Rise it dawned on me, this poem is a part of Martina’s living truth. Upon completion I looked out into the crowd of faces, and they were in awe of the painting. I was stunned and humbled because I honestly thought her painting spoke for itself and that it was unnecessary for me to be on stage. After all, my job was done. But Martina called me over when she completed the painting with her signature. She assertively grabbed my hand and we both took a bow. Afterwards she later explained that it was important that “we” performed this together. She explained that accolades are fine, but more significant is what we displayed on stage – a communal process. Our job was to come together as one and share our gifts so that others might go home and be inspired. Also, for those not familiar with Angelou’s work, they will hopefully research her legacy and the path she has created so that we could be on stage at that very moment honoring not only the phenomenal woman she is (even in spirit), but also the phenomenal women we are, simply because we rise to the occasion every time we take a breath.
About the Contributing Writer:
Traci Currie is the Art + Creativity Contributor for The Phoenix Rising Collective. She is a Communication and Visual Arts lecturer at University of Michigan-Flint, as well as a knit-crochet artist, writer, and spoken word performer. She has been a part of the art world for over 15 years as an art gallery board member; spoken word series organizer; performer, nationally and internationally; and published poet. She believes The PRC will help women reach their highest potential. “This organization is about empowering women to take ownership of their lives, claim their identities and be the positive change they wish to see in the world they live.” Read her latest posts.
I am a storyteller. But then, aren’t we all? Some stories come out of us in the most cryptic horrifying manner while others are simultaneously flighty and invigorating. Then there are those who tell stories that put us to sleep; unfortunately, we sometimes call them teachers or family.
Gia Marie Amella, Nonfiction Video and Television Producer
However, occasionally we come across a story that actually doesn’t speak. It simply unfolds. You get to watch it live. You have the great opportunity to pay admission to its viewing – mine being a plane ticket to Italy. Once landed (if you are on the same trip), you drive to your destination, knock on the door and sit down for dinner to feed your face because you’ve been craving good food all day after a long tedious flight. Just when you are ready to take that first luscious bite, the story stops you and suddenly replaces the pasta or pesce or prosciutto con formaggio you were about to ingest. The story is sitting right next to you – vivacious, garrulous, sensitive, and willing to share.
I have met many stories this past year being in Italy. All of them have come in these wondrous packages that have entertained me more than my favorite television programs; and believe me, I love watching TV. But I am losing interest in what TV programming has to offer. I am realizing that much of the programming, in all its glamour and unrepresentative images of real life, just can’t fully capture the essence of how beauty unfolds – how it comes in a 5’8” package, thick dark curly hair, Italian American mystique who waves a magic wand to create and produce media programming for the masses. You are saying, “Get to the point! Who in the world are you talking about?”
Gia Marie Amella
Here are a few facts about this Sicilian American woman who lives in two worlds – Italy and the United States:
Born in Chicago, Illinois (like me – YAH!)
Raised in Chicago and Northern California
Identifies herself as a nonfiction video and television producer and has been working in this industry since the mid-1990s
Completed her university degrees in California and became a Fulbright Fellow
Moved to New York City and worked in commercial television
Launched the company Modio Media in 2006
Recipient of the 2011 Public Service Award from the National Immigration Council, Washington D.C.
I could continue listing facts, but I wanted to share a few bullet points and then write about Gia personally. Why? She is charming and smart. Moreover, she is working in an industry where women are not readily in the forefront. I don’t think it is a coincidence that we connected at this particular moment in time. My sister had been telling me about her media experience for a while and agreed to have a dinner that included Gia and her husband Giuseppe (November 2013). My first impression when seeing her was, she gleamed. Not glowed, but gleamed. She had a flare and spunk that was undeniable. I immediately loved her style. This could be because she reminded me of myself – casually sophisticated, classic and comfortable. Granted, I may very well be the only one who describes myself as such, but I am allowed! When we sat down at dinner there was no lapse in dialogue, uncomfortable silence, or pretense to come up with silly questions to mask any sort of weirdness in the air. Gia was fluid, quick, energetic and had stories to tell. Her mind was whizzing, and at times I felt I had to play catch up because her tongue was quick. But get this – her eyes were very intent on listening, even when she spoke. Yes, she spoke and listened at the same time. She also observed and nodded, as if anything I said actually sounded golden. I mean, SHE TRULY LISTENED. And if you were to ask me, “Well, what did you say?” I have NO IDEA. I can’t remember my words but I can remember her eyes, the two semi-vertical lines that crinkled between her brows indicating complexity, thoughtfulness and her interest in wanting to know about little brown ME.
This meeting was only the first of a few others. This led to my requesting an interview with her about the work she does and how she balances her life. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I don’t assume people will say “yes” just because my big pleading brown eyes say, “YOU MUST DO THIS FOR HUMANITY!” I was humbled she agreed, because here’s an incredibly curious woman who tells other people’s stories for a living. And she was willing to sit with me for a few hours and share snippets of her life story. However, the video I have included is nine minutes long. Nine minutes worth of wisdom that you attain through living life the best way you know how…by putting one foot in front of the other.
One last thing, I am a firm believer that certain artistic expressions are meant to be abstract while others should be obviously understood. For the purpose of this article, I want to make it abundantly clear the importance of featuring Gia. I am moving into a unique phase in my life. I am meeting absolutely astonishing women and men who are moving the earth’s axis, as far as I’m concerned. They are shaping their existence by simply operating in what they love to do. While doing this, they create balance and figure life out as it unfolds. Gia does this. She does this in a communal way by offering her skills and services on a global level (after all, media is global). She does this by teaming with her husband to create a business – I love that she and her husband are business partners and live half the year in Italy and half the year in the United States (give or take a few months). And she openly admits that she is figuring life out and it’s not easy. Moreover, it’s not even close to being done. I believe we attract what we are. And if this is a bird’s eye view to how my artistic life is unfolding simply by what I am attracting and vice versa, then my goodness, WATCH OUT WORLD!
Traci Currie is a Communication and Visual Arts lecturer at University of Michigan-Flint, as well as a knit-crochet artist, writer, and spoken word performer. She has been a part of the art world for over 15 years as an art gallery board member; spoken word series organizer; performer, nationally and internationally; and published poet. She believes the PRC will help young women reach their highest potential. “This organization is about empowering women to take ownership of their lives, claim their identities and be the positive change they wish to see in the world they live.” Read her latest posts here.
For National Poetry Month I have chosen to interview three poets whom I have had the pleasure of getting to know. I want to showcase the spirit of this art form through their life experiences. What I hope you will notice is the very unique voices that shape these women. I asked all three the same questions, but the way they chose to answer reinforces the power of how humans identify themselves as individuals, social beings, and collective forces. I also observed that the women, as unique and individually powerful as they are, spoke of similar experiences: pain, resilience, change, and appreciation.
Who are you?
I am a totally creative person – all arts, culture and entertainment, with a splash of communications. My dreams/vision for my life have never changed since I was a little girl, which means I’ve always been into poetry, singing, dance, theater, writing, video production and voice over work, but my left-brain and right-brain work in tandem, because I’m also a business owner. I have to split my time and mind between the creative and the business side. I am a woman who thrives on positivity, putting it out there and getting it back. I’m a mother of a wonderful 22-year old son who is also a creative type; I am a sister, a daughter, friend to a close circle of like-minded people; a woman who loves to laugh, and a pet owner of a sweet little 13-year old terrier mixed with poodle.
Primarily I’m a writer, as most things I do stem from the realm of writing.
Please share significant moments in your life that really defined your poetic artistry.
Click photo for more info about Andrea and Like Gwendolyn.
While I’ve always written poetry, I believe my voice was the strongest in my years of recovery from domestic abuse. In 1992, I left my abusive husband of four years, taking my, then, two-year old son with me and moved from Maryland back to my hometown, Detroit, MI. Needless to say, I wrote a lot of poems after I left; poems about abuse and its effects, and poems about my son when he’d have to leave me for long periods of time because a judge ordered that his father have visitation rights. This was a very painful time for me. My only response was to write about it. Those poems are published in my first poetry book, Like Gwendolyn, and while the entire book is not about abuse, it’s those poems and the poems about my son that tend to resonate most with people.
One of the greatest experiences I’ve had was after graduation from Oakland University in 1985. I worked on a cruise ship, the S.S. Emerald Seas, which was part of the eastern cruise line (I don’t think it still exists). I was part of the five-member song and dance act, TiChand, performing as the floor show on the cruise ship, five nights a week, two shows a night. I was the only American along with four Canadians, and the only Black person in the group. We sailed from Miami, Florida to the Bahamian Islands. I felt like it was exactly what I was supposed to be doing at that time in my life; there was nothing about it that felt foreign to me. Our contract was for six months, but because I have a minor heart condition, which flared up during my solo performance one night, my stay was only for one month. I will never forget it.
Another highlight of my life was after I left my marriage back in 1992. In addition to writing poetry, one of the things that was a great distraction from the upheaval of my life, was the opportunity to write and be the lead vocalist on a House music track called Stars, which was produced by the internationally known House music DJ/producer Carl Craig. My cousin was dating Carl at the time, and she recommended me to work with him when he needed a songwriter and a singer on his newest project. We recorded two tracks, which both became very popular in the House music scene here in the U.S. as well as in Europe. A surreal thing about that experience is, today my son is a House music DJ, and people he knows in the industry still have high regard for the music I did 21 years ago.
Do you have a favorite poet, writer, and/or artist?
(Andrea extensively spoke of many poets, writers, and artists.) Here are two:
Gwendolyn Brooks. She was one of the first African American poets I was introduced to as a child. The clarity, rawness and lyrical nature of her writing had a big impact on me. I’d met her twice in my life, once when I was 10. She autographed a copy of the book The Black Poets for my father, which I still have. And again I met her while I was in college when I attended a Master Class she conducted at Oakland University. She was a very direct and thoughtful woman.
Nikki Giovanni. One of my favorite books of hers is Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day. From Nikki I learned that poetry can be fun, serious, and well, Nikki Giovanni is just an awesome poet and woman. I’ve heard her speak twice, and it was from her that I also learned to cure writer’s block: learn more about [your] subject, read something, study something, then the words will come.
Who are you?
I am from, Bombay, India. I left India when I was 20 years old. I completed my Masters in English Literature at the University of Durham, U.K. and followed it with a Ph.D. in literature and critical theory at the University of Nottingham, U.K. where I also taught briefly. I currently teach literature and philosophy at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad. Suffice to say, I am, however, at a crossroads in my life and am soon to make a switch into the area of public health and policy fueled by a desire to make a difference in the area following the experiences that resulted from my father’s diagnosis and recent battle with cancer, which came to a close a few months ago.
How do you identify yourself in terms of your artistic craft?
As a writer, writing is simultaneously one of the most difficult things to me and the most ‘natural’ because it is through writing that life unfolds itself; it is through writing that moments of clarity, epiphany, whatever one chooses to call them present themselves to you in order for you to chase them through dark alleys, winding roads, and serpent like pathways.
It is always a hard thing to say what one’s poetry is about: life, love, disappointment, betrayal, faith, regret, pleasure, pain, ecstasy – all of these and yet none of these. For if I could capture what it is all about, I would perhaps not write at all. Writing is the very quest; it entails a process of searching and chasing, a curious struggle to articulate the unsaid, incomprehensible. And in that attempt, a hope to find at least a glimmer of understanding and of capturing. That, at least, has been my hope.
Please share significant moments in your life that really defined your poetic artistry.
Life, for me has been full of surprises and unexpected twists and turns. There comes a point in your life when everything comes to a head, when one difficult situation is relieved by another one. The past three years for me have been a testimony to this; from my own serious illness, to my fathers battle with advanced cancer and his subsequent loss, weeks on end spent in the critical care unit, and the loss of a close friend, and then my own crisis as a result of these events – a crisis of the self, a crisis of what life really means, a crisis of relationships and people. It seemed nothing would give.
But through all this, one begins to understand oneself; one begins to realize the dignity and strength of people who suffer and see the suffering their loved ones are going through; one sees a remarkable humanity and empathy that ironically shines through when people are going through the most testing times of their lives. This fantastic ability of people to pierce through, beyond their own pain and reach out to the other has been most inspiring to me. The renewal of faith in life and in people is unrivaled, stunning, magnificent and nothing short of remarkable. There is also the transience of all things in life, something I continue to battle with to understand, an urge to grasp it, to embrace it, to resist it, all at the same time.
Do you have a favorite poet, writer, and/or artist?
As far as favorite writers or books are concerned, I find myself gravitating toward them depending on where I am in life at that particular point: what experiences I am going through or have gone through, what my philosophy at that moment is. Everything is a process of metamorphosis, so it could be mountaineering books, it could be Borges, it could be Graham Greene, it could be Em and the Big Hoom. Different writers, different books touch and impact me at different points in my life.
A Poem by Shilpa Venkatachalam:
Here and There
You want guarantees,
I can offer you none.
Like a subatomic particle I exist in two different states simultaneously
I am wave
And I am particle
And come into being only for an instant that disappears before it has decided to stay.
I’m already planning to leave you before I have even met you.
I’m already preparing to destroy before I have even created.
This is my tragedy and this is my bliss
I am clothed in contradictions
Like matter and anti-matter
I am immersed in inconsistency
Before I have committed
I know I will deceive
I cannot offer you what I do not possess
I cannot possess that which you want me to offer to you.
To sustain anything is a challenge I am unable to meet
Every second explodes with a million alterations
That invade my being
And that make it quiver.
How can I offer you a guarantee
When I have never known what it means.
Who are you?
I was born in Canton, Ohio to a preacher and his wife in 1949. My mother was 39 when she had me. I have a sister who is ten years older than me, and I have a brother who is seven years older than me.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the endurance of one’s very first impressions of the world. My world was full of people who were bigger than me. They were imposing figures but nobody was quite happy. I was surrounded by people who were fairly ill at ease and who made a lot of decisions about me. I didn’t really experience the world as a place that I had control over. My job, it seemed, was to bring slivers of joy into this rather depressive unit. Apparently I used to hold my breath until I blacked out to get their attention. I remember only one of these episodes. On the other hand, I somehow felt like I wasn’t really “one of them” and so I always assumed whatever was going to happen to me would have no connection to them. I was surrounded by religion, scripture, religious music, words – and my poems have a lot of the iambic pentameter of the King James Version in them.
My family always expected catastrophe: my father’s father was killed during the Depression and his family lost their farm. My mother’s father was a traveling evangelist who was always leaving, leaving, leaving, and her mother lost her mind. I’ve gradually learned that the worst doesn’t always happen. That’s been a great relief.
To learn more about Jan and her novel, Night Blind, click the photo.
So, this avoids the question of who I am now. I am just letting go of those first impressions of the world. Not everyone else is bigger than me. It is not my job to make everybody else happy. I do not want to continue carrying my mother’s grief – she is dead. I am profoundly in love with using words – I recently used the phrase “sanctimoniously reasonable” and I love how that sounds, and how perfect it is for what I meant at the time. That kind of thing gives me deep pleasure.
I am a woman who’s learning to breathe. I’m a woman who’s gradually trusting my rhythms and my deep inclinations towards words, but I know words aren’t enough; sometimes, the body knows things – sometimes silence is best. I’m a woman trying to be in the moment, as the saying goes. I know I can’t be alone all the time, and one of my greatest pleasures is sleeping with my husband. I mean actually sleeping – the physical refuge and comfort of our conjugal bodies together. I’m a woman who doesn’t know much of anything for sure. I think the earth is spectacularly beautiful and I wish we weren’t ruining it.
How do you identify yourself in terms of your artistic craft?
See above – my ear is pretty closely attuned to the cadences of the old scriptures and hymns, even if my content isn’t always. I love working with sound; I want my poems, even the depressed ones, to be melodious. I love interesting words. I am continually touched by the “natural world,” by air and fragrance and new growth. I still generally believe in the individual ‘eye’ and ‘I’ although I know a single voice often isn’t enough. But it’s what I have to work with. Protestantism is very centered on the individual – on the individual’s private and rightful relationship to God. In my case, I’ve taken that to mean I have the right to doubt. And believe me, I do, and feel no guilt.
Please share significant moments in your life that really defined your artistry.
I was at Kent State University when the shootings happened in 1970; it was a turning point for me, making me believe the world was dangerous and sometimes short. I felt quite reckless for a time after that. Peace Corps in Polynesia shaped me in that I took myself on a giant adventure and survived it – I’ve written so much about that that I don’t have much more to say. Flint has affected me, too, of course – the continual wrestling with its troubles, my first marriage to a Flint man and poet; the deterioration and collapse of our long marriage, the ruin of the place. And then, discovering the joy, in my 50s, of a man who loves me – wow. It’s been the biggest surprise of my life, and I’m profoundly grateful. I’ve had to learn how to write happy poems.
Do you have a favorite poet, writer, and/or artist?
One of my first literary faves was the South African short story writer Nadine Gordimer. I remember reading one of her short stories when I was about 14 or 15, working as a library page in Coshocton, Ohio. I remember just standing in the stacks and reading a story where a lonely woman watched a herd of deer – it touched my heart and I thought, wow, you can write like that? I also love the poems of James Wright, Theodore Roethke, Robert Hass, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, Heather McHugh, Marianne Boruch – many, many, too many to name. I’ve recently been reading Mary Ruefle’s essay collection Madness, Rack and Honey and I’m crazy in love with it. I like poets who understand the human condition is totally complicated and exasperating, and who doubt the world and love it simultaneously.
A Poem by Jan Worth
Missiles, October, 1962
My parents said
we should get new tires
in case rubber got rationed
again. I caught the scent
of fear. Rubber burned the air,
left dismal grit
on Akron’s windowsills.
My mother went to bed,
middle of the day, sleepless,
sweating there for hours.
Rising, she seemed as tired
as before, blanket dents
on a cheek, hair flat on one side.
She left it like that.
I got my period, red splash.
Crawled into my parents’ bed,
rare day when my mother didn’t
get there first. Nestled
in the pride of new pain,
snuggling it, my own. Got
my first bra, small poking
breasts tender to the touch.
“Little missile girl,” my father
cracked, looking at me mournfully
as if I was about to disappear
in some uranium half-life.
“Stop it,” my mother said.
I didn’t believe the world
would end. There was going to be
plenty of time for me, to revel in
my vivid hurts, my lucky changes,
my charmed survival after
my mother and father were history.
Traci Currie is a Communication Studies lecturer at University of Michigan-Flint, as well as a knit-crochet artist, writer, and spoken word performer. She has been a part of the art world for over 15 years as an art gallery board member; spoken word series organizer for 5 years; performer, nationally and internationally; and published poet. She believes the PRC will help young women reach their highest potential. “This organization is about empowering women to take ownership of their lives, claim their identities and be the positive change they wish to see in the world they live.”
I fell in love with Faith Ringgold’s art years ago when I was studying quilts as a media art form. Yes, quilts as a media form. This may be hard to imagine, but the book Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad discusses the utility of these artistic blankets, far beyond keeping the family warm. The quilts contained messages, codes, maps, and stories for a specific culture; more specifically, the quilts led many enslaved African women and men to freedom. As an artist and activist Faith Ringgold talks about her artistry as a way of sharing one’s story and self-identity.
You can’t sit around waiting for somebody else to say who you are. You need to write it and paint it and do it. That’s where the art comes from. It’s a visual image of who you are. That’s the power of being an artist.
In the MAKERS documentary she said Aunt Jemima was the first Story Quilt she made. She chose to rewrite Aunt Jemima’s life story as an entrepreneur. Many people should remember Aunt Jemima if they eat pancakes – she is the woman on the syrup bottle that had a do-rag on her head, and years later transitioned to an Afro or maybe it is a Jheri curl (still to this day). Regardless, this Mammy caricature became the quintessential figure for the product – eventually selling syrup to millions of pancake lovers. Faith talks of reshaping the history of women so that we can accurately portray ourselves in an empowering light. More importantly, women can define themselves for themselves.
It is Faith’s words that led me to the feature for March, Women’s Herstory Month – Ernestine Holmes.
Ernestine is an extraordinary quilt artist, and I learned about her quilts a few years ago. I had the opportunity to see some of them during a demonstration speech. I was amazed at the detail and craftsmanship, so last December I sat down with her to discuss what led her to this rich and vibrant art form.
This 74-year old soft-spoken and gutsy artist was born in Arkansas, and she is the oldest of five siblings. She spent most of her adolescence in Arkansas until her father’s job in the automotive industry transferred the family to Michigan. While there, Ernestine was home schooled until she moved to the Midwest; she talked about her experience in the segregated school she attended, and how Black History was not allowed to be taught, but regardless, she had teachers who taught it.
Ernestine was always familiar with sewing. Her mother taught her to sew, and she credits her mother and grandmother, who both made Utilitarian Quilts, with inspiring her desire to quilt. They also made Anglo Saxon Quilts that were showcased at fairs, and regularly won ribbons. In the 1970s Ernestine received a scholarship from the Urban League to attend Academy Nvart in Southfield, Michigan. Her passion was to learn Couture Design, which she did.
However, Ernestine did not start quilting until she retired in 1992 from General Motors. At the age of 53 she decided to pursue her passion. She says she officially started quilting in 1994. Four years later she joined the African American Quilters in Flint, and then joined another group, the Michigan Quilt Network, where she started exhibiting her quilts annually.
I asked her about the messages in her quilts, and she explained that some of them tell a story while others focus on specific patterns that repeat themselves throughout the work. Ernestine also shared that her quilt that focuses on the African Diaspora was created because she specifically wanted to show how the slave trade affected cultures around the world. Out of the 200 plus quilts she has made, she stated that this one was her favorite.
Ernestine also expressed one of the challenges she has with quilting – selling her work. She is preparing for an exhibition this spring, and this is a very big deal, given the fact that she often sells quilts on commission. Selling her pieces has not been a common occurrence as there is an attachment to the art she creates. She explained that at times her challenge with people is whether or not they recognize and value the time and effort she puts into creating each quilt. And she doesn’t necessarily work on one quilt at a time; it simply depends. After looking at her extensive collection that covered her whole house, I realized how important Faith Ringgold’s words are – an artist can become the art she is creating. Ernestine says, “If you spend your time creating something you should be financially rewarded for it. When I went to Africa I wouldn’t barter with the people.” She says it was difficult to negotiate prices for the art she saw.
Finally, I asked Ernestine if there is something she does beyond quilting. She named two activities: golfing and traveling. Due to time, it has been a challenge balancing her personal interests, but her plan is to return to these two activities and continue creating beautiful quilts.
Here’s to Ernestine Holmes – a quilter, storyteller, activist, and indeed an artist!
Utilitarian Quilts – Ernestine explained that Utilitarian Quilts are made out of the old clothing, specifically created to keep the family warm.
Traci Currie is a Communication Studies lecturer at University of Michigan-Flint, as well as a knit-crochet artist, writer, and spoken word performer. She has been a part of the art world for over 15 years in many capacities: art gallery board member; overseeing a spoken word series for 5 years; performing nationally and internationally; published poet. She believes Phoenix Rising Collective will help young women reach their highest potential and pay-it-forward. “This organization is about empowering women to take ownership of their lives, claim their identities and be the positive change they wish to see in the world they live.”
You can also read about Traci’s journey to self-love, as this contributing writer was also a LYFF feature: click here.
We’re very inspired by Janine’s self-love story, so of course it’s time to share it with you! She loves herself by creating “me” time – quality time that gives her space to figure out what she requires to move in a direction that’s beneficial to growth. “The time I create for myself enables me to cater to the desires of my mind, body, and soul,” she says.
On a weekly basis, she exercises her mind with inspiring reads that support her success in life. In addition to reading, Janine takes time to express her thoughts through words or visual art, strengthening her communication skills so that she’s able to relate to others in a way that is more authentic.
She loves and cares for her body by getting plenty of rest, engaging in physical movement through dance and weight training, treating her natural hair with care and thinking well of it, consuming nourishing foods that she prepares, and enjoying sunbathing sessions. “I consider nature to be a healer of sorts. Therefore, the act of sitting outside gifts me with an opportunity to observe and become receptive to ideas and the healing calm that the quiet of nature brings,” she shares. Being in nature and relaxing outside under the sun brings comfort to her soul.
Janine’s self-care regimen creates a deeper love for who she is, and also leaves room for her to offer love to others.
Love Yourself First! Friday is a weekly self-love series created by the Phoenix Rising Collective. Beautiful, diverse women of color tell their stories of triumph, share their personal affirmations, and declare their love for their own lives! The series is meant to inspire and empower women to fiercely demonstrate self-love in action in order to build and sustain healthy, positive self-esteem. Be sure to read some of our other inspiring stories.