Drone Pilot at Arcosanti: Guest Post by Cinematographer Andy Bowley

Today’s post was written by cinematographer Andy Bowley.

i can’t remember if we drank a lot of beer that night.

but i do remember parting ways with david, after a nice meal on the upper west side of new york, saying yes! drone! arcosanti!

or something like that.

a few days later, he wrote to let me know he really wanted to do it.

really?

i had a few weeks to prepare, so i bought a syma x1 quadcopter (about $35) and flew it all around my apartment.  my tweedy green chair became landing pad #1,  my other tweedy green chair became landing pad #2, and a pillow on the leather couch became landing pad #3.

lil uav, aka Mr. Droney

i practiced everyday i could and crashed and crashed and crashed.  and after a couple of weeks, found i could wing the little thing around — landing and taking off from pads 1-3 in nimble succession.  i knew i was ready for arcosanti when i could actually fly without sticking my tongue out of my mouth.

days later, i found myself standing in front of a whirring DJI phantom in the arizona desert. and now, the playground was vast.
instead of gliding from pillow to pillow, i was doing 1500′ runs thru canyons, over cliffs, and over top of paolo soleri’s glorious creation.

i couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.  which meant i pretty much kept my tongue in my mouth too.

 Andy may have been able to keep his tongue in his mouth at Arcosanti, but I was unable to lift my jaw off the floor after seeing the footage. Here’s one of the strafing shots he took of Arcosanti.
[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pIrNnlXnFFo[/youtube]
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Andy Bowley is a NYC-based cinematographer whose projects have won many national Emmys and one Peabody. He can be found here and there on this blog. Other posts by this generous man:

E-mail Andy: a b o w l e y at  e a r t h l i n k d o t n e t

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What’s A Life’s Work about? It’s a documentary about people engaged in projects they won’t see completed in their lifetimes. You can find out more on this page.

We recently ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised enough to pay an animator and license half of the archival footage the film requires. We need just a bit more to pay for licensing the other half of the archival footage, sound mixing, color correction, E&O insurance and a bunch of smaller things. When that’s done, the film is done! It’s really very VERY close!

So here’s how you can help get this film out to the world. It’s very simple: click the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute (as little as $5, as much as $50,000) and the other specifics. That’s it. No login or registration required. Your contribution does not line my pocket; because the film is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, all money given this way is overseen by them and is guaranteed to go toward the completion of this film. Being fiscally sponsored also means that your contribution is tax-deductible. So why not do it? The amount doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’re helping to bring a work of art into the world. And that, I think, is really exciting!

Questions? Email me at d a v i d ( aT } b l o o d o r a n g e f i l m s {d o t] c o m[/color-box]

Back to Arcosanti

Many years ago I worked in a record store  where I spent a lot of my time flipping through the inventory to see what I was missing. One day I came across an LP I had not seen before.

Sound Effects Death & Horror
Front cover.

 

Sound Effects Death & Horror
Track listing on back.

 

At the time I thought this was the funniest, cheesiest, most bizarre album I had ever seen. I wasn’t making films or audio dramas and I did not foresee any use for it, but still I had to have it. Plus, it was cheap, what with my employee discount and all. I brought it up to the cashier and with a laugh I said to whoever rang me up, “Who would BUY this?” As I took the money out of my wallet a lightening bolt of self-awareness struck me! I would buy it, that’s who!

Flash forward about 20 years and the release of Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, a film he shot in the jungles of Thailand.  At this point I am an admirer of Herzog and am particularly captivated by Fitzcarraldo and its companion, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, a documentary chronicling the making of Fitzcarraldo. For the purposes of this post, you need only know that Herzog had a very difficult time shooting this film on location in the Amazon jungle.

Here’s a famous clip from Burden of Dreams wherein Herzog goes all Herzogian about the Amazon.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ze9-ARjL-ZA[/youtube]

Leaving the theater after Rescue Dawn, I turned to my movie-going companion and said, “It’s amazing, Herzog finally gets a decent budget and big name Hollywood actors, and what does he do? Right back into the jungle! Crazy.”

And last month I thought about what I had said as I booked a flight to Arizona upon receiving news about my income tax refund. So tomorrow (Tuesday, April 14, 2015),  cinematographer Andy Bowley and I will be back in the Sonoran Desert shooting Arcosanti and conducting a follow-up interview with Jeff Stein, AIA, successor to Paolo Soleri and president of the Cosanti Foundation. I know, I know, I’ve said production is over about ten times. But this is it. This shoot is for the ending of the film and very very necessary. So to the desert we go.

I expect they’ll be a post when I return, maybe some photos, and eventually some footage, too.

Stay tuned.

Six Questions for Jeff Stein, President of Cosanti

In July 2012  the Cosanti Foundation, the organization that oversees Arcosanti, announced Paolo Soleri’s retirement as President, and the appointment of his successor, Jeff Stein, I was quite surprised. I’m not an Arcosanti insider by any means, but still, I just couldn’t imagine Soleri handing over the reins. But he did.

Despite having declared the end of production for A Life’s Work, my instinct was to hop on a plane to Arizona and interview Soleri and Stein. I didn’t, for various reasons. But I was recently put in contact with Stein and he graciously agreed to answer a few questions. But first, his bio.  

Jeff Stein, AIA and President, Cosanti Foundation

Award-winning architect, writer, educator, Jeff Stein, AIA, is president of Cosanti Foundation.  His first construction workshop at Arcosanti was in 1975. Since then he has spent time on the Cosanti staff; taught architecture in the Career Discovery program of the Harvard GSD; headed the department of architecture at Wentworth Institute in Boston; and was Dean of the Boston Architectural College for the past seven years. He has taught at architecture schools in the US and at the Technicum Winterthur, Zurich, and Ecole d’Architecture Languedoc-Rousillon, in Montpellier, France. Mr. Stein has written for Architecture Boston magazine and was for ten years architecture critic for the New England newspaper, Banker + Tradesman. He lectures widely about Arcosanti, energy and urban design, including at the recent Tel Aviv-Yafo Centennial Conference on Urban Sustainability, this past fall in Montreal at the 9th World EcoCities Congress and this spring at the Santa Fe Institute.

1.What’s your history with Arcosanti and Paolo Soleri?

Pretty much my entire adult life – for the past 35 years – is wrapped up with Arcosanti and Paolo Soleri. In 1974 I purchased the big black book, City in the Image of Man. MIT Press, its publisher, had a 50% sale, and when I received it in the mail, I opened it right up and spread it out – 4 feet long – across the conference table of the architecture firm where I was interning in the Midwest.  That first big white page with the single sentence, “This book is about miniaturization,” started it all.

I came to Arcosanti the next year on a construction workshop and stayed for 7 years as part of the staff of Cosanti Foundation. I worked in the drafting room, built 2SUNS arcology models, made drawings to illustrate Paolo’s books, helped to put together several exhibitions, including one that travelled to 42 colleges and universities in the early 1980’s. I also helped produce the Arcosanti Festivals and conferences, including Teilhard and Metamorphosis in 1981.

 

The ceramics apse.

At that event, the architect, writer and editor Peter Blake, spoke. Blake was an early proponent and publisher of Paolo’s work. After his talk he and I sat out on a rock by Arcosanti’s Foundry Apse and watched the Arizona sunset. “You’ll need to find your own voice in architecture, you know,” he said. “You should come to Boston, to the BAC/Boston Architectural College. We can propel you into the mainstream of architectural practice.” He was head of that venerable school at the time, and several people around Arcosanti had continued their careers in Boston through study at the BAC. I had graduated from a couple colleges by then, but had yet to finish architecture school.

So my wife, 2-year-old son, and I moved to Boston, and I became a student again for a time. I graduated, was licensed as an architect, worked for a couple firms, became a professor, headed Wentworth Institute’s architecture program, taught courses about arcology, started my own architectural practice, and for the past seven years I have served as dean of the BAC. I imagined that certain things had come full circle when this happened at BAC; but now that I’m back at Arcosanti, the circle is even more vivid.

 

2. As president of the Cosanti Foundation, what are your duties and goals?

The work is on several levels at once. Of course the main thing is to set a direction for Arcosanti’s continued development; and help to insure that we have resources and staff to pursue it. Parallel to that, we want to move ahead with the continued discussion of the idea of Arcology – architecture and ecology – at the highest levels nationally and internationally. The question out there, near the end of cheap fossil fuels and also, apparently, near the end of unprecedented personal wealth across a broad middle class in America and Europe, is, “How shall we live?” on the Earth. What pattern of development makes sense for humans and for millions of other species on the planet? The work that has gone on here at Arcosanti for more than a generation has important ideas to add to that discussion.  There is also the business of the Soleri windbells and magnificent original art works that Paolo has created, and work that our craftspeople at Cosanti and Arcosanti continue to produce. And on a more personal level, I am here to support Paolo Soleri as he continues to develop ideas and make his own transitions.

I live at Arcosanti, and travel about one week each month, speaking publicly, pursuing opportunities on behalf Arcosanti.  I am also helping to establish partnerships with institutions and governmental bodies to help foster Arcosanti’s growth as a resource for education and development globally.

I have been a member of Cosanti Foundation’s Board of Directors for the past several years, so I am current with the work that has been going on and with the issues that confront the Foundation as we move forward in a larger culture that is changing as we speak.

Arcosanti from the mesa across the way.

3. You’re filling some pretty big shoes. Was there a moment when you thought maybe you didn’t want to take this position?

When the Cosanti Foundation board suggested to me, last summer, that I was their pick, I was surprised(!), and I did indeed think twice about what it would mean. I telephoned my wife, Emilie, a painter and landscape designer in Boston. She said, “This will be important work. You need to do it. We’ll make our personal lives work out around it.” And that’s what we are doing.

Before taking the position, I spoke to Paolo Soleri at some length. When it became clear to me that he was comfortable with the idea, I agreed to it; and here I am, typing this from my apartment at Arcosanti, 10 months into the job. Carrying on this work is indeed important to me. I am doing it in a beautiful landscape, around terrific architecture, surrounded by a group of smart people, and visited on a daily basis by dozens of folks from around the globe who want to learn more about it. No more second thoughts required: we are moving ahead!

4. The times I’ve interviewed Soleri, he mentioned that he had hoped the pace of construction had been a little more rapid. At the same time, I feel like the construction of Arcosanti is very much about the journey and not the destination. Is there a way to move things along while keeping true to the idea that Arcosanti is a laboratory, a place that develops “organically.”

Arcosanti is more about process than product. It is important to the thousands of people who have helped build it so far because  – as you rightly point out – “the journey is more important than the destination.” We are indeed a laboratory, experimenting not just with building and urban form, but overlaying those forms with an understanding of “frugare” –frugality. The goal is not to build something that can gather the highest rents possible; rather it is to create architecture that produces energy and allows for a complex sociability that is accessible to all.

But a work of architecture is usually the most expensive thing anyone ever purchases: a family home, a corporate headquarters, a public government building, these things cost money. So does Arcosanti. And here we are attempting to demonstrate a way of organizing a new relationship with each other and with the earth, by means of constructing architecture rather than by just publishing books about it (though we are doing that, too – 3 new ones just this year, 2012.)

To do this costs money. Arcosanti has so far been self-funding; that is we have bootstrapped ourselves by tuition from our construction workshops, from the sale of books, from tourism, and – improbably – from the sale of the windbells. To build more, we remain interested in the prospects of serious philanthropy. And we are also interested in investors who can take on certain aspects of the project. And we are looking at our own capabilities: we are able to be design consultants to others who might be interested in this work: governments, trans-national corporations, outside interests who can already see that the ideas generated by the project could go a long way to solving serious issues of human habitat and land and energy use.

5. I’ve been struggling to find a way to phrase this question and the only way I seem to be able to do it is via an analogy. Medieval cathedrals that took generations to complete often deviated from the original plans. One can see newer elements of style and construction that were incorporated as the project progressed over the decades. Contrast this with Gaudi’s cathedral, which hasn’t deviated much from his original concept. Would you say Arcosanti leans in one of these directions more than another? (If the facts of my analogy are debatable, feel free to say so.)

I think Arcosanti leans in the in the direction of the Medieval Cathedral. You could even say it leans in the direction of a city, an entity that has a master plan, but also has plenty of room for others to add their understanding and design ideas to it over time. At Arcosanti we are constantly learning, and building as a result of that experience. And yet, the entire project is overlaid with frugality, exploring the power of architecture to perform. Here’s an example:

When tourists visit Arcosanti (and 30,000 people come here each year) among the first things they ask is, “Where are all the solar panels?” In part they ask this because the idea of making electricity from the sun is a good one on the face of it; and also because people are all using so much technology: for lighting, communications, air conditioning, entertainment, etc. that to use more of it in the form of solar panels just seems somehow natural. And while we do have some solar electricity production here, we don’t just rely on that. Instead we have tried to make our architecture work harder than yours does. The forms of our buildings are not just for beauty, though they are beautiful, too. They shade themselves in summer, and with large openings facing south, the connected buildings at Arcosanti gather light and heat in winter, when we need it the most.

We use about 1/6 the electricity of other institutions we have compared ourselves to. The needs are human comfort, light to work by, warmth in winter, cooler shade in summer. You can get that – pretty inefficiently, I must say – by making electricity; or as we do at Arcosanti, you can get it by giving buildings a form that displays itself to the sun in a way that really works.

Paolo Soleri laid the foundation for this work, this search; and he gave us the initial building forms to undertake it. As we live with these forms and learn more about how they actually work in this place, in this climate, there is a natural evolution to the architecture. New people will be able to add new discoveries to Arcosanti using new materials and techniques. But the basic ideas: architecture and ecology harnessed together, miniaturization and complexity at the heart of the urban experience, will remain the same.

What sunrise looks like at Arcosanti.

6. The question I have to ask: Do you think Arcosanti will be completed in your lifetime?

No, not in my lifetime. (And I plan to live for a long time, too!) Still, I don’t think Boston will be completed during my lifetime either, and it has been building for nearly 400 years. I do think Arcosanti, even in its current state – a fragment, really, of what it is meant to become – will begin to play a larger role in the International discussion of how we should live on the planet.

Arcosanti is here, it is not just an idea; it exists, you can visit it and stay overnight in its guestrooms, eat organic produce from its solar greenhouses, hike the high desert wilderness that it’s contained masterplan intends to preserve. And think about what its presence might mean for your own community, for your own life on Earth. Arcosanti’s presence poses some “What if?” questions:

What if we weren’t tied to cars as appliances? What if we could get to work, to school, to a grocery store without driving there, without spending that time and energy, without changing minerals into atmosphere by burning fossil fuels? Arcosanti means to demonstrate possibilities beyond the current culture; it means to allow humans to utilize space in a clearer more complex way. It means to show that, when we do reach the end of fossil fuels, when we do finally imagine that being separated as hermits in our single family houses is not the best way to live on the planet after all, that there is indeed a better, more sustainable, more fun alternative. Come visit us, I’ll show you.

Photographs courtesy of Jeff Stein.

Giant thanks to Jeff Stein for taking the time participate in this interview, special thanks to Sue Kirsch for making it happen.  

 
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What’s A Life’s Work about? It’s a documentary about people engaged in projects they won’t see completed in their lifetimes. You can find out more on this page.

We recently ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised enough to pay an animator and license half of the archival footage the film requires. We need just a bit more to pay for licensing the other half of the archival footage, sound mixing, color correction, E&O insurance and a bunch of smaller things. When that’s done, the film is done! It’s really very VERY close!

So here’s how you can help get this film out to the world. It’s very simple: click the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute (as little as $5, as much as $50,000) and the other specifics. That’s it. No login or registration required. Your contribution does not line my pocket; because the film is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, all money given this way is overseen by them and is guaranteed to go toward the completion of this film. Being fiscally sponsored also means that your contribution is tax-deductible. So why not do it? The amount doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’re helping to bring a work of art into the world. And that, I think, is really exciting!

Questions? Email me at d a v i d ( aT } b l o o d o r a n g e f i l m s {d o t] c o m[/color-box]

“I must have more shots of the military!”

I’ve been editing a section of A Life’s Work that relies on some archival footage, so I’ve been searching and watching and thinking and searching and watching and cutting. A new post about archival footage coming soon, but here’s one I wrote back in 2009. Think of it as Archival Part I.

[The title of this post if from Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.]

Edward D. Wood, Junior
Edward D. Wood, Junior

I share with Ed Wood a fondness for stock footage. There, I hope, the similarities end. In fact, I don’t even like to call it stock footage. I prefer to call it “archival.”

I think it goes back to when I was in high school and my history teacher included some AV as part of a lesson on the Great Depression: “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.” Here was a voice singing about poverty and desperation, traveling over time and space, and punching me in the gut in 1978.

And that’s how I like to use archival. It’s evident in the SETI clip and the redwoods clip. That footage of redwoods being felled (from The Redwood Saga) looked a lot differently to people in 1940 when those images were first seen than it does to people now. Then it was a sign of progress: those trees were being used to build an America that was economically growing. Watching it now it seems like a mass execution. With the Soleri clip I posted I didn’t do that, not exactly. There I wanted to show Frank Lloyd Wright’s L A R G E presence; interviews you see or read with Soleri invariably begin with an introduction that includes his apprenticeship with Wright, and in Dome House you see Wright everywhere, except, as Soleri points out, in the table.  (In another Soleri section I use archival extensively to show the passing of time.)

I also have a feeling that when I’m using archival and home movies I’m working with found objects and incorporating them into a bigger canvas. I’m repurposing, in a sense, and I like that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about archival these days because I’m about to edit some new footage–the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project sections of the sample. These sections will add about eight minutes to the sample, which will bring it in at 35 minutes. It is now beginning to look more like a film than a sample.

But how to use it to advance Robert Darden and the BGMRP’s stories, and of course A Life’s Work as a whole? What footage do I choose? Where do I place it? How much? If I use gospel performance footage, what performer(s), which song(s), from when during the golden age? Big questions. Some of them have obvious answers, others don’t.

But finding answers to those questions is an exciting part of the process, and I’m grateful that I’ll have a chunk of time to examine those questions.

More on that chunk of time in the next post.

How to Conduct an Interview, Part 2: Asking the Questions

Andy Bowley, Cinematographer

Last week in How to Conduct an Interview Part 1, I dealt with preparation. This post features some pointers once you are sitting across from the interviewee with your questions in hand. Ready? Go!

(Note: Make sure to read this post’s comment by Andy Bowley. He’s worked with some great interviewers so he knows what he’s talking about. That’s him operating the camera, and me in the corner, trying to be invisible.)

Listen

You’ve organized your questions and they have an arc and everything. That’s great. But don’t be a slave to the pages in front of you. Interviews are best when they are more like conversations. With Jeff Stein, President of the Cosanti Foundation (Arcosanti) and Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute, I’d ask one question and they’d answer it and the next few follow-ups as well. I’d then ask the next logical question without having to look at my printed questions.

Shut Up and Listen Some More

You are not there to impress the interviewee with your knowledge of their subject. You are also not there to tell them your personal history. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, when you talk to you’re saying something you already know; when you listen you might learn something new.

That being said you don’t want to be a question-asking automaton. Be friendly and personable, and judiciously share a brief anecdote  or two to show that you can relate to interviewee , but don’t go over do it.

Be Expressive and Responsive

You will not see or hear me in A Life’s Work, so it is important that I not talk while the interviewee is talking, and that includes no hmmms, ahhhs, or ooohhhs. And those interjections, under ordinary circumstances, propel a conversation.  So I nod a lot, smile a lot, frown a lot, raise my eyebrows a lot. This gives the interviewees something to respond to. You need to show you’re interested, after all, because then they’ll be excited to tell you their stories.

Silence Is Gold

Don’t be afraid of silence. There is the small silence necessary after an answer so you’re not stepping on the toes of the answer and making for difficult edits, but there is also a bigger silence. I will pause once in a while and check my page of questions to make sure I’m covering ground, and this bigger silence can lead to unexpected places. Often subjects thinks they’ve finished answering, but then something comes to mind that they want to add during that silence. This is often the real good stuff. Another reason to do this is you may want a shot of the subject sitting silently — these can be interesting shots — and these pauses can provide that.

Be Ready to Improvise

Some people are talkers and don’t need you to ask questions. David Milarch of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive is one of those people. I had the great, mind-blowing pleasure of shooting an interview filmmaker Roland Tec conducted with David Hockney and he was this way as well. They are unbridled and there is no way to control them, so you just have to let them go. When they give you a chance, sneak in a question and get out of the way.

You’re the Boss

While some folks cannot be reined in, it’s important to remember that you are still the boss. Be confident. You did the work and deserve to be where you are. There’s nothing to fear.

This is not always easy to do, believe me, I know. When I had to interview Robert Darden of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, I was very aware that I was interviewing a man who not only had been interviewed many times, as all of the subjects of A Life’s Work had been, but also a journalist who conducted hundreds, maybe thousands of interviews.

Full disclosure: The first few interviews I conducted, I had this at the top of each page of questions.
header

Rephrase Questions When Necessary

Come up with a couple of different ways to ask the big questions. The big questions deserve being asked more than once, and sometimes a simple rephrasing will yield the answer you could only dream of. Do this, too, if you feel you were misunderstood or if the answer given wasn’t deep enough for you.

Take Your Time

Don’t rush it. And if you can, conduct interviews you think will be lengthy over two days. As I’ve said elsewhere, everyone gets tired after a couple of hours. Sometimes though, you are hard pressed for time. In that case, try to take a little break, go to the bathroom, get water, stretch your legs. Talk about something unrelated to the topic, joke around.

Don’t Be Selfish

Though you are the boss, there’s no reason to be selfish. Invite the interviewee to ask you questions. I always ask the cinematographer I’m working with if s/he has any questions they’d like to ask of the interviewee. Their questions, and the subsequent answers, have been very valuable.

This has been a public service from A Life’s Work.

Was it helpful? I’d love to add to it. If you have questions or tips, please send them my way.

About the Clips

There are a bunch of original clips using footage shot for A Life’s Work on this blog. You can see a list of posts that contain clips by clicking here. If you visit the A Life’s Work Youtube Channel you can watch them without reading the text.

What’s With the Clips, Anyway?

Each time I put a clip up I have a little fear that someone will see it and think it’s part of the finished film. And then look at another clip and say, “Huh, what the hell are these two clips going to be in the same film?”

Editing at the MacDowell Colony, 2010.

Some are taken from the 36-minute sample editor Cabot Philbrick and/or I put together (“The Redwoods,” “Looking for Rare Gospel Vinyl,” “Jill Tarter on Growing Up in the 50s”), but most I edited especially for the blog. The film right now has a somewhat sturdy outline and many of those clips don’t fall within its parameters. Does that mean they won’t be in the finished film?

My Notebook

Some most definitely won’t be (“First Shots”)*, and others will most likely not be (“What’s My Favorite Tree,” though part of David Milarch’s answer and the archival footage might be). And the rest? Who knows? This blog has become a notebook for me, a way for me to focus what I’m working on and try some new things. Editing the clips makes me review footage and think of new possibilities. “Paolo Soleri Discusses Arcosanti Residents” is a good example of this. It’s quite possible that some of those shots and edits will make it in the final film, and that clip was really put together exclusively for here.

So, when you watch a clip, you might be seeing something like the birth of an idea that will be in the final film, or something that might make it to the DVD extras, or, in the case of something like “Ends,” just a favorite shot of mine that will only be seen here.

No matter where they wind up, it’s exciting for me to share them. Do you enjoy watching them? Let me know.

You can view most of the clips I mentioned and a LOT more by visiting the A Life’s Work Youtube Channel.

 

* “First Shots” and nine other clips are on Vimeo. These clips are mostly tangential, more like outtakes. They are usually just a series of shots or some weird little one offs such as this one: “Banter at the Allen Telescope Array.”

[vimeo]https://vimeo.com/21320888[/vimeo]

 

“Her Life’s Work” – By Kate Hill Cantrill, Guest Blogger

Kate Hill Cantrill - Walk Back from Monkey School
Walk Back from Monkey School by Kate Hill Cantrill, available now!

I’m reposting Kate Hill Cantrill’s guest stint because her short story collection, Walk Back from Monkey School,  is NOW AVAILABLE, and that’s how we treat our guest bloggers here at A Life’s Work headquarters.

Kate Hill Cantrill’s writing has appeared in literary publications including Story Quarterly,Salt Hill, The Believer, Blackbird, Mississippi Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Swink, and others. She has been awarded fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo, the Jentel Artists Residency (where we met), the Virginia Center for Creative Arts (where we spent time together), and the James A. Michener Fund. She has taught fiction writing at The University of the Arts, The University of Texas, and the Sackett Street Workshop. She lives in Brooklyn where she curates the Rabbit Tales Reading and Performance Series and is completing a novel. 

I want to write this about my reconnecting with my mother. I can’t write it. There are drums thumping in my backyard and a bum singing in my front; I love both on some occasions, but not all occasions. As hard as this is, as frustrating as this is, this is my life’s work, and I need to find a way to make it happen.

My mother is a brilliant sculptor. She once went depressively insane — full bodied and real — and I stayed with her for my first year after college to keep her from both blowing up herself and blowing up the block on which she lived—Brownstones in Philly tend to link arm and arm and what happens to one might happen to all—just ask Osage Avenue. The Philadelphia Fires. Just Google it.

I told her to leave — not just leave the foot of my bed at 3am when the 3am Crazies happened upon her, but just to leave. I told her to stop crying, to stop threatening death and to allow me to become my own person. She listened (or perhaps she was simply called) and flew to Scotland to an environmental and spiritual community to become at first a maintenance person (and then, I think, a student, a clown, and then the cook) for—give or take—five years.)

For the sake of brevity I will just say this: I mourned my mother and felt full body and soul that I didn’t have one anymore — a mother that is. It felt easier than one might think since she had not been there for real for many years before that. She had always had my awe and admiration, but she had not always been there to be my mother.

Why do I say this here? I know why I say this here. My mother — for the duration of her motherhood — has needed to pursue her Life’s Work. And when I write need, I mean need.

Soleri Bronze Bells by Niall David Photography

She returned to the states to care for her own mother in her final days and wanted to drive with me across country where I was to teach for the summer — I won’t even get into the details of it even though I thought at first that these details were the purpose of this essay, because we stopped at Arcosanti and smelled the soil, rang the bells — she just knew that after five years we needed to re-connect. We were both broke — we made rice and beans to have tacos on the way. We feared and therefore avoided the “gators” (the busted-blown truck tires) on the road the best we could. We listened to Moby and Johnny Cash. We slowed down when mean truck drivers got up in our rear. “It’s really great becoming a graying old lady,” she said. “I get away with this kind of thing.”

She became my friend, maybe again, maybe for the first time for real, I don’t know. All I truly know is that I had my mother back, and she had just returned from 5 years of pageantry, puppetry, cooking, and healing. And when she came back she took hold of the carving tools, the patinas, the C-grip clamps, and she went again to pursue — but closer to me this time — her Life’s Work. And I felt holy-hell proud of her for it, and I learned from it, too, once again.


Editing and Heitor Villa-Lobos

Editing: A Day in a Life

I’m editing a Soleri section of the film, and it’s giving me fits. I try this. I like it. I look at a little later and I don’t like it. I change it. I don’t like the change. I change it again. I like it okay. I eat lunch. I look at it. I don’t like it. What am thinking? What am I trying to say?

What do I want to show when Soleri says:

Looking at the bottom line is where the corporation finds its own worth and where humanity finds it own damnation, probably. Because most of the time the goal of the corporation, which is coming up with big dividends which are the top, are willing to sacrifice most of the … let’s call it the spirit of the human animal.

Do I want to keep that looooong pause in there before “let’s call it the spirit of the human animal”? Do I want the sequence to end negatively, with stock footage of a guy working on an assembly line dealing with boxes of LPs and 45s or do I end positively with footage we shot of an Arcosanti resident doing the opposite of that, sitting quietly, carving a design into a clay bell?

I don’t know.

So I Play Some Guitar

I play this piece by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Prelude No. 4.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVJXSDTFfGY[/youtube]

I’m unhappy with the middle section. I watch the video. How does John Williams make his fingers move that quickly?  I need to play faster. I search the web for advice. On a geeky guitar forum, a guitarist bucks convention. Do not practice the fast bits slowly, perfecting them and then gradually increasing the speed with the aid of a metronome. This is how I was taught. This is what I teach my students.

No! During a master class with a guitarist of some renown, the master yelled at him, “Faster! Faster!” Don’t worry about accuracy. Don’t worry if you miss 15% of the notes or 25% of the notes. The only way to play fast is to play fast! Play fast and practice speed. You will get the accuracy with more practice.

This seems like good advice. If you have certain fundamentals down, that is.

I return to the editing. Don’t worry if it doesn’t work now. Lay it down. The only way to get it done is to get it done. Go back and do it again. Eventually it will be better, or, hopefully, satisfy me.

And then I remember that two slow sections flank the fast section in that Villa-Lobos prelude. And those require delicacy and nuance. That’s the beauty and challenge of many of Villa-Lobos’ guitar compositions, they are works of contrast, and yet somehow the contrasts do not seem bolted together, their transitions are seamless. How do I bring life to those contrasts?

Back to the Soleri sequence. I like it. I don’t like it. I like it. I don’t like it. It’s a muddle. It makes perfect sense. I move this shot here. Then I move it there. Then I move it back. Then back there again. What the hell does the Villa-Lobos prelude have to do with any of this?

Thankfully, not every day is like this. But on such days … oi!

 

Guest Blogger Jessica Roth: Arcosanti and the Writing Process

[I met today’s guest blogger, Jessica Roth, at the Playa Artist Residency. While there I discovered that she had spent some time at Arcosanti, not as one of the Arcosanti “workshoppers,” but as a different kind of workshopper. I was eager to have her contribute to the blog because of this experience, but she was unsure what to write about. The stars lined up when the Liar’s League of London… well, I’ll let her tell it.]

“Mesquite”: One story’s journey from an Arizona mesa to a London pub

Earlier this month, the Liar’s League of London performed a short story of mine, “Mesquite.” It is always an honor to share my work and a thrill to know that somebody enjoyed a piece well enough to publish it.  But there is something bittersweet about seeing my words fixed on a page, too.  Publication marks a new phase in the life of a piece of writing, where dynamism and evolution are replaced by a certain inertia, or maybe an equilibrium.  The feeling this brings is what I imagine a mild case of empty nest syndrome might be like.  Because that is what I have been feeling lately, I have been thinking a lot about “Mesquite,” where it came from, and how it made its way across the pond.

Mesa across from Arcosanti
Photo by Wolfgang Held

I wrote the first sloppy pages that would someday become “Mesquite” during an especially mild January on the Mogollon Rim. I was a student at Prescott College, enrolled in a month-long creative writing workshop, and panicked because, already a third of the way into the course, I could not write. I told the professor about the long, futile hours spent at my desk and the crumpled pages that had begun to crowd my wastebasket. She suggested that I take a day off. Get outside. Clear my head. Try again. One aim of the workshop was to mimic the experience of a writer’s retreat, so for the duration of the course my classmates and I lived at Arcosanti. In the high desert of central Arizona, Arcosanti is architect Paolo Soleri’s “urban laboratory,” where his goal is to achieve an intersection of architecture and ecology that offers a sustainable alternative to the sprawling model of modern cities. Situated on a mesa beside the Agua Fria River, silt-cast concrete buildings are set against a dynamic, light-and-shadow landscape. It is beautiful, and sometimes eerie.

I took my professor’s advice and went walking. Down to the river lined with mesquite trees, whose winter-bare branches overhung a lush carpet of the greenest grass I had ever seen. Up the face of a basalt cliff to a cave where the histories of long-extinguished fires were written in soot across the walls. Towards the end of the day, I found myself on top of a mesa that rose on the far side of the scrub-choked flat that spread out below the studios. I sat on a ledge where I could watch the last light color the sky above Arcosanti. It was there that I pulled pen and paper from my backpack and felt my writer’s block begin to crumble.

“Mesquite” started as a stream of consciousness free-write. The story seemed to bubble up out of the ground, out of that place. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that “Mesquite” is rooted firmly in the landscape I encountered at Arcosanti. It is a character, in my mind, just as much as the narrator. I am transported back to that mesa every time I reread “Mesquite.” Had I not been exactly there, exactly then; had I not wandered the grounds and let the landscape sink in past my skin; had I not been falling for one of my classmates—a man whose demeanor rather resembled that of Tyler, the object of my narrator’s affection—I’d have never written that particular story.

“Mesquite” evolved differently from other pieces I had written up until that point. It developed slowly. It made me wait. Four years took place between first draft and published draft, with countless other drafts in between. It has had three separate titles and at least that many beginnings and endings.  “Mesquite” was the first piece to sell me on the process of long revision, of laying my hands on something over and over again. It demanded that I meet my work on its own time and commit to a larger process. I resisted this at first, because I am nothing if not stubborn and, at times, a little impatient. But I have since found tremendous value in this way of working. It has encouraged me to explore longer forms (including a novel-in-progress that, at the rate it’s going, I might finish before I retire from this earth), and it has allowed me to go deeper into the stories and essays that I write. These have been important lessons, and I hope that they translate into a more meaningful experience for the folks who read my work.

You can watch the performance and read “Mesquite” here.

Jessica Roth writes stories that should be poems and poems that should be stories, instead of working on her first novel. Her words have appeared in Alligator Juniper and CT Review
Would you like to be a guest blogger? Drop me a line and let’s make it happen.

Regrets? Maybe.

I remembered this exchange between Soleri and me the other day and thought, why not post it again, you know, as a super special encore presentation! Hope you like it.

I.G. took advantage of this blog’s stellar feature, Ask the Filmmaker. Why don’t you?

Dear Filmmaker,

I think I read somewhere that when you started interviewing people, you recorded those interviews audio only. Is that right? Do you listen to that now and wish you had shot those interviews?

Good luck with the film.

I.G.

Hi, I.G.

Thanks for the warm wishes and the question.

You must have read What Was I Thinking? The first interview I did with Paolo Soleri I recorded audio only on a broadcast-quality digital audio recorder, and yes, now I do wish I had used my camera. I wish I had captured one exchange between Soleri and me in particular. To put it in context, I asked him what was the projected population of the original plans for Arcosanti. Here it is:

[audio:http://alifesworkmovie.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/soleri_audio_1-2.mp3]

But, and this is a huge point, I’m pretty sure this exchange would not have happened as it did if the camera were in the room. Soleri doesn’t like cameras and he was obviously more at ease when we spoke with just the audio recorder running. So I take some solace in the knowledge that the joking that occurs in this audio wouldn’t have happened on video.

This ease was a big reason I initially wanted to record the interviews audio only. But the unease created by cameras can also lead to interesting moments, just watch any Werner Herzog documentary and you’ll see what I mean. He’s a master at letting the camera roll after a subject has answered a question. If you let people sit in silence after they’ve given an answer (especially to a question they’ve answered a million times), they will often elaborate on that answer in a fresh way, and sometimes you get something special.

Sorry I.G., got a little sidetracked there. Yes, sometimes I do regret not shooting that first interview.