Story Preservation Initiative®

Preserving the Stories of Our Lives by capturing the voices, words, and meanderings of artists, scientists, writers, poets, musicians, and eyewitnesses to history. Listen, learn, and be amazed! WEB: www.storypreservation.org

Posts from the ‘Writers’ category

Make Way for Sy!

AUDIO UP! on this fabulous recording.   It’s impossible to not love and be inspired by Sy!  

Photo by Paula Gordon

Photo by Paula Gordon.  Used with permission.

To research books, films and articles, Sy Montgomery has been chased by an angry silverback gorilla in Zaire and bitten by a vampire bat in Costa Rica, worked in a pit crawling with 18,000 snakes in Manitoba and handled a wild tarantula in French Guiana.

She has been deftly undressed by an orangutan in Borneo, hunted by a tiger in India, and swum with piranhas, electric eels and dolphins in the Amazon. She has searched the Altai Mountains of Mongolia’s Gobi for snow leopards, hiked into the trackless cloud forest of Papua New Guinea to radiocollar tree kangaroos, and learned to SCUBA dive in order to commune with octopuses.

smontgomery_soulofanoctopusSy’s 20 books for both adults and children have garnered many honors. The Soul of an Octopus was a 2015 Finalist for the National Book Awards. The Good Good Pig, her memoir of life with her pig, Christopher Hogwood, is an international bestseller. She is the winner of the 2009 New England Independent Booksellers Association Nonfiction Award, the 2010 Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award, the Henry Bergh Award for Nonfiction (given by the ASPCA for Humane Education) and dozens of other honors. Her work with the man-eating tigers, the subject of her book Spell Of The Tiger, was made into in a National Geographic television documentary she scripted and narrated. Also for National Geographic TV she developed and scripted Mother Bear Man, about her friend, Ben Kilham, who raises and releases orphaned bear cubs, which won a Chris award.

Sy writes for adults and children, for print and broadcast, in America and overseas in an effort to reach as wide an audience as possible at what she considers a critical turning point in human history.

“We are on the cusp of either destroying this sweet, green Earth—or revolutionizing the way we understand the rest of animate creation,” she says. “It’s an important time to be writing about the connections we share with our fellow creatures. It’s a great time to be alive.”

She speaks frequently at schools and museums, libraries and universities.

She is a 1979 graduate of Syracuse University, a triple major with dual degrees in Magazine Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and in French Language and Literature and in Psychology from the College of Arts and Sciences. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Keene State College in 2004, and an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Franklin Pierce University and also from Southern New Hampshire University in 2011.

Copy taken from Sy’s website: http://symontgomery.com

 

 

American Author and Naturalist ⎥John Hay

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A rare interview made available to us through a Friend of Story.  

Kearsarge Valley Magazine’s Library of videotaped interviews, stretching back some 25 years,  has been made available to Story Preservation thanks to the generosity of Friend and Supporter, Gail Matthews. 

Gail is the former producer and host of the Yankee Cable Network program, Kearsarge Valley Magazine.  Segments were filmed by Will James, the founder of YCN. In ways similar to Story Preservation, Kearsarge Valley Magazine featured interviews of people from all walks of life with interesting stories to tell. Many of Gail’s stories complement those in our collection.  We’re in the process of transferring the videos from VHS format to DVD.

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First up, American author, naturalist, and conservation activist, John Hay.

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Here’s some background, taken from the Brown University Special Collections Library where his papers are archived, as is the photo of one of his journals, below.  The journal is, what one would call, the real deal!

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 6.00.30 AMJohn Hay was born in 1915, ten years after the death of his famous grandfather and namesake, John Milton Hay (1838-1905), a Brown alumnus (Class of 1858), poet and diplomat. Clarence L. Hay, father of the younger John Hay, was an archaeologist who, after doing some exploration in Mexico, served as curator of Aztec and Mayan civilizations at The American Museum of Natural History in New York. He was also an amateur botanist.

Clarence L. Hay married Alice Appleton, and the younger John Hay was born at the Appleton family estate in Ipswich, Massachusetts. The younger Hay was raised in New York City , attended St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire and had the privilege of spending his summers at The Fells, his late grandfather’s estate on Lake Sunapee.

Hay attended Harvard, and on graduation worked as Washington correspondent for The Charleston News and Courier. Just before going into the army, Hay apprenticed himself to Conrad Aiken, the poet, who was then living in Brewster, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Hay divided his time in Brewster between clearing land and writing poetry. Before leaving for the service, Hay bought what he thought was 10 acres of land on the top of a nearly treeless hill, close to Aiken’s home called “41 Doors.” He spent some of his tour of duty in the Army as an associate editor of Yank, the army newspaper.

After his discharge, he and his new wife, Kristi Aresvik Putnam, settled on what turned out to be Hay’s 18 acre lot to raise their family, which eventually numbered four, on Cape Cod. Hay worked as a freelance writer and reviewer, and privately published a book of his poetry. His love of the Cape and of his grandfather’s land in New Hampshire led him to combine observation of nature with his writing skills. This resulted in a 1959 publication entitled The Run, almost immediately recognized as a classic in the field of nature writing. John Hay continued to observe and to write, but he was also an activist and an educator. He taught at Dartmouth from the early 1970’s into the 1980’s. He had previously co-founded the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History with other local educators in 1954 and helped to establish its many outreach programs. He served as the Museum’s second president and held that post for 25 years. He joined the Brewster Conservation Committee, persuading the town to take over 200 acres of salt marsh by eminent domain, to ensure that some land on the rapidly developing Cape remained in public hands. His many honors include selection as Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard in 1963, and the John Burroughs Medal in 1964, garnered for his book The Great Beach. He was named conservationist of the year by the Massachusetts Wildlife Federation in 1970. In 1991, the Orion Society established the John Hay Award, given annually to an author who excels in addressing the relationship between man and nature, environmental education and conservation, in his honor. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests named him Conservationist of the Year for the second time in 1993.

John Hay's Grandfather's Summer Home / The Fells, Sunapee, NH

John Hay’s Grandfather’s Home / The Fells, Sunapee, NH

Through his books, his poetry, his college lectures, the museum and his life, John Hay has spread the message that man is only part of nature, not in control of nature. He died in Bremen, Maine on February 26, 2011.

Other upcoming videos made available to Story Preservation by Gail Matthews / Yankee Cable Network:  Naturalist / Writer, David Carroll; Poet, Maxine Kumin; and New Hampshire’s forever favorite, Babe Sargent.  And that’s just the beginning!

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Tech transfer underway.  Check back soon for video upload!

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Support of our work comes in many forms and …

Support Matters

The Writing Life

13189_1551905251689292_4459921968315249742_nFormer US Poet Laureate Donald Hall is a friend and neighbor to many of us in New Hampshire. His latest book, ESSAYS AFTER EIGHTY was released in late 2014 to critical acclaim.

In this collection of 14 autobiographical essays he reflects on aging, death, the craft of writing and his beloved landscape of New Hampshire.

Don’s recording was the first in the Story Preservation collection and he opened the door to us to many other poets including Maxine Kumin, Wes McNair and others.
Interested in listening? Here’s the link:
https://storypreservation.wordpress.com/2011/07/09/the-mouth-joy-of-vowels-and-consonants-a-conversation-with-donald-hall/

 

Wesley McNair  Maine Poet Laureate

Wesley_McNair_1-1024x704Wesley McNair is the Poet Laureate of Maine. Poet Philip Levine has called him “one of the great storytellers of contemporary poetry.” He is the author of ten volumes of poems and twenty books, including poetry, nonfiction, and edited anthologies. McNair has held grants from the Fulbright and Guggenheim foundations, two Rockefeller grants for study at the Bellagio Center in Italy, two NEA fellowships, and a United States Artist Fellowship as one of America’s “finest living artists.” He has twice been invited to read his poetry by the Library of Congress, and has served four times on the Pulitzer jury for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Other honors include the Robert Frost Award, the Theodore Roethke Prize, an Emmy Award, and the Sarah Josepha Hale Medal, for his “distinguished contribution to the world of letters.” His poetry has been featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition and twenty-two times on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. It has also appeared in the Best American Poetry and over sixty anthologies and textbooks. His most recent books are The Lost Child: Ozark Poems, for which he received the 2015 PEN New England Award for Poetry; Lovers of the Lost: New and Selected Poems; and The Words I Chose: A Memoir of Family and Poetry.

To listen to Wesley’s talk about his life and poetry, click on links below.

Copyright Story Preservation Initiative, 2012.  All rights reserved.

Terry Tempest Williams ⎟ Seeing Beyond Our Time

TT-Williams-CREDIT-Louis-Gakumba2501-200x238“The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time.”

Author, Conservationist, Environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams has been called “a citizen writer,” a writer who speaks and speaks out eloquently on behalf of an ethical stance toward life. A naturalist and fierce advocate for freedom of speech, she has consistently shown us how environmental issues are social issues that ultimately become matters of justice. “So here is my question,” she asks, “what might a different kind of power look like, feel like, and can power be redistributed equitably even beyond our own species?”

Williams, like her writing, cannot be categorized. She has testified before Congress on women’s health issues, been a guest at the White House, has camped in the remote regions of Utah and Alaska wildernesses and worked as “a barefoot artist” in Rwanda.

Known for her impassioned and lyrical prose, Terry Tempest Williams is the author of the environmental literature classic, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place; An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field; Desert Quartet; Leap; Red: Patience and Passion in the Desert; and The Open Space of Democracy. Her book Finding Beauty in a Broken World, was published in 2008 by Pantheon Books. Here latest book, When Women Were Birds came out in 2012.  She is a columnist for the magazine The Progressive and contributed to Changing the Earth by Emmett Gowin.

Changing the Earth

In 2006, Williams received the Robert Marshall Award from The Wilderness Society, their highest honor given to an American citizen. She also received the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western American Literature Association and the Wallace Stegner Award given by The Center for the American West. She is the recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in creative nonfiction. In 2009, Terry Tempest Williams was featured in Ken Burns’ PBS series on the national parks. She is also the recipient of the 2010 David R. Brower Conservation Award for activism. The Community of Christ International Peace Award was presented in 2011 to Terry Tempest Williams in recognition of significant peacemaking vision, advocacy and action.

Terry Tempest Williams is currently the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Orion Magazine, and numerous anthologies worldwide as a crucial voice for ecological consciousness and social change.

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In the recording Terry talks about the Council of Pronghorn at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NY, seen here.

Portrait of Terry: Photo: © Louis Gakumba

 

 

Click on links below to listen to Terry’s recording: 

 

Copyright Story Preservation Initiative.  All rights reserved.  2013.

Stories Matter

The Singing Life of Birds  A Conversation with Don Kroodsma

Don Kroodsma

Don Kroodsma has studied birdsong for 45 years.

Audio UP!  

 

He has listened to and recorded bird songs from the East Coast to the West, and constantly adds to his birdsong library back home in Massachusetts, where he’s professor emeritus of biology at the University of Massachusetts.

His book The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong won the 2006 John Burroughs Medal “for outstanding natural history writing” and the American Birding Association’s Robert Ridgeway Award “for excellence in publications in field ornithology.”

Kroodsma explores the mysteries of birdsong — how birds learn to sing, why some sing and some don’t, and why songs vary from bird to bird and even from place to place. “Birds have song dialects just like we humans have dialects,” he says.

On his travels, Kroodsma enjoys listening, knowing that where a bird learned a song is just as important as a bird’s genealogy. He noticed in his travels that birds of the same species but in different states sang the same song, but with their own unique “accents.”

His field of study may be unique, but the way he goes about his research is equally unique — Kroodsma tours the continent on his bicycle, collecting bird songs along the way. He biked completely across the nation once in 2003, and in 2004 biked from the Atlantic shore to the Mississippi, lugging his recording equipment with him.

“There is no better way to hear a continent sing than by bicycle,” Kroodsma says. “You can read the minds of these birds if you simply listen… Riding a bike is just a great way to hear birds.”

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“There’s this wonderful Zen parable,” he says. “If you listen to the thrush and hear a thrush, you’ve not really heard the thrush. But if you listen to a thrush and hear a miracle, then you’ve heard the thrush.”

Don’s new book tentatively titled “Listening to a Continent Sing.  Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific,” is soon to be released from Princeton University Press.

A fun site:   http://www.wildmusic.org/animals/thrush

Check out Don’s website at donaldkroodsma.com

To Listen to Don’s recording, click on links below.

 

 

Audio copyright Story Preservation Initiative 2014.  All rights reserved.

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Stories Matter

Vivian Perlis  Preserving the Voices of American Music

Used with permission. Photographer unknown.

Perlis, Copland. Photo credit: David Walker

I have to say I am especially looking forward to sitting down with and recording Vivian Perlis.  I’ve known her personally for more than 30 years and admired her deeply since the day we met. Vivian is an historian in American music.  She is widely known for her publications, lectures, and recording and film productions.  In addition, she is a groundbreaking oral historian.

Vivian Perlis is the founder and former director of the Oral History of American Music (OHAM) project at Yale University.  OHAM is known to be the preeminent project in the field of music dedicated to the collection and preservation of oral and video memoirs of the creative musicians of our time.

Her story begins:  In 1969, while working as a reference librarian at the Yale School of Music, Vivian started a project of tape-recording interviews with those acquainted with the composer Charles Ives, a Yale graduate. Her work – thorough, methodical, and revealing – culminated in 1974 with the book: “Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History,” for which Vivian was awarded the Kinkeldey Prize of the American Musicological Society.  Hailed “a vivid memory portrait of an enigmatic American composer, told in the voices of the people who knew him best.”

Beginning with her pioneering work in 1969 and extending through to the present day (via OHAM), there are “thousands of recordings and transcripts accessible to a wide range of users including scholars, musicians, students, arts organizations, and the media.”*

From the OHAM website: Following the Ives Project, it was evident that no systematic scholarly research was in progress to document creative musical figures by means of tape-recorded interviews. Several composers had spoken about Ives, and in so doing, about themselves as well. (It is not a good idea to ask a celebrated composer to talk only about someone else.) These formed the nucleus for a broader-based project, Oral History of American Music (OHAM). Included were Elliott Carter, Lou Harrison, Nicolas Slonimsky, and Dane Rudhyar. Through the decades since the founding of OHAM, composers have continued to be the project’s primary focus.  

Perlis, Bernstein, Copland. Used with permission. Photographer unknown.

Perlis, Bernstein, Copland.
Used with permission.
Photographer unknown.

A list of interviewees can be found at: http://web.library.yale.edu/oham/major-figures

In 1984 Copland: 1900 through 1942 was published.  Perlis and Copland co-authored this “enduring record of an American maestro’s explosively creative coming of age.”  The book garnered a Deems Taylor/ ASCAP award.

A review upon its release: Aaron Copland is one of America’s most beloved musical pioneers, famous for Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, and Lincoln Portrait, as well as the movie scores for “Our Town” and “Of Mice and Men,” and numerous orchestral and chamber works. This candid, colorful memoir begins with Copland’s Brooklyn childhood and takes us through his years in Paris, the creation of his early works, and his arrival at Tanglewood. Rich with remembrances from Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thomson, and Nadia Boulanger, as well as a trove of letters, photographs, and scores from Copland’s collection.

In 1989 Copland Since 1943 was published, again to much acclaim.

In 2013 The Complete Copland was issued, combining the earlier two books into one volume.

Other works include:

Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington, co-authored with Libby Van Cleve, includes two CDs and is derived from interviews in the OHAM archive.

Among her productions are recordings of the music of Leo Ornstein and Charles Ives, and television documentaries on Ives, Eubie Blake, Aaron Copland, and John Cage.

Honors and awards received include: The Charles Ives Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1972); a Grammy nomination for “Charles Ives 100th Anniversary” (1974); the Harvey Kantor Award for excellence in the field of oral history (1984); a Guggenheim Fellowship (1987); and the Irving Lowens Award for distinguished scholarship in American Music from The Society for American Music (1991).

In 2010, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the archive, Vivian was honored at both Carnegie Hall and Yale’s Zankel Hall.  She stepped down as the director of OHAM the same year; however, she remains active and ever-influential. She continues to serve as a senior research scholar at Yale University.

TO LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW, CLICK ON LINKS BELOW. 

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Stories Matter

Poet  Author  Advocate for the Disabled  Stephen Kuusisto

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Poet, author, and advocate for those with disabilities, Professor Stephen Kuusisto, who has been blind since birth, is the author of“Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening” and the acclaimed memoir “Planet of the Blind”, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”. He has also published “Only Bread, Only Light“, a collection of poems from Copper Canyon Press.

Steve is recognized by the New York Times as “a powerful writer with a musical ear for language and a gift for emotional candor.”

A BRIEF EXCERPT from SPI’s recording of Stephen:

When I was a child it was very clear, growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, that being a person with a disability made me an outlier. Teachers didn’t want me in public school. My mother did want me in public school because she thought that I really would have a limited experience of life if I went to The Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. She felt strongly that I should live in the world. But the world was very conditional. It was long before the Americans with Disabilities Act. And so early in my life I felt a sense of ostracism and loneliness. Able-bodied kids didn’t want me to play with them. There were no sporting programs for kids with disabilities. And so my world became the world familiar I think to all artists who discover the arts early in life. It became an isolated and rather beautiful – but very private – kind of experience. Even by the age of seven or eight I had a very, very intense kind of inner life. And that inner life a lot of artists will tell you – whether they’re dancers or painters or poets – that they early on had that sense of the wonder and strangeness of being alive.

A graduate of the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, and a Fulbright Scholar, Steve holds the position of director of the Renée Crown University Honors Program at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in the Center on Human Policy. He speaks widely on diversity, disability, education, and public policy. His essays and poems have appeared in numerous anthologies and literary magazines including Harper’s’ The New York Times Magazine; Poetry; andPartisan Review.

About his memoir PLANET OF THE BLIND

As a boy he careened down the street on the bicycle his mother bought him. As a teenager he traveled to Europe and played basketball. As a young man he won scholarships, taught classes, went bird watching. And all the while, Stephen Kuusisto would not utter, even to himself, the one central truth of his life: he could not see. With 20/200 vision in his better eye, he was legally blind. Writes Kuusisto: “I see like a person who looks through a kaleidoscope; my impressions of the world at once beautiful and largely useless.”

In this breathtaking memoir, Stephen Kuusisto leads us on a vividly painted odyssey into a landscape that is both beautiful, terrifying, and magical. A work of exquisite intelligence and passionate heart, Planet of the Blind is for anyone who has viewed the world through a unique lens – and ultimately seen the truth.

“The world is a surreal pageant,” writes Stephen Kuusisto. “Ahead of me the shapes and colors suggest the sails of Tristan’s ship or an elephant’s ear floating in air, though in reality it is a middle-aged man in a London Fog rain coat which billows behind him in the April wind.”

So begins Kuusisto’s memoir, Planet of the Blind, a journey through the kaleidoscope geography of the partially-sighted, where everyday encounters become revelations, struggles, or simple triumphs. Not fully blind, not fully sighted, the author lives in what he describes as “the customs-house of the blind”, a midway point between vision and blindness that makes possible his unique perception of the world. In this singular memoir, Kuusisto charts the years of a childhood spent behind bottle-lens glasses trying to pass as a normal boy, the depression that brought him from obesity to anorexia, the struggle through high school, college, first love, and sex. Ridiculed by his classmates, his parents in denial, here is the story of a man caught in a perilous world with no one to trust–until a devastating accident forces him to accept his own disability and place his confidence in the one relationship that can reconnect him to the world–the relationship with his guide dog, a golden Labrador retriever named Corky. With Corky at his side, Kuusisto is again awakened to his abilities, his voice as a writer and his own particular place in the world around him.

Written with all the emotional precision of poetry, Kuusisto’s evocative memoir explores the painful irony of a visually sensitive individual–in love with reading, painting, and the everyday images of the natural world–faced with his gradual descent into blindness. Folded into his own experience is the rich folklore the phenomenon of blindness has inspired throughout history and legend.

LETTERS TO BORGES / Copper Canyon Press:

From their website:

1492_md“Poetry carves a topiary garden out of dust,” writes Stephen Kuusisto in his second collection of poetry, Letters to Borges. Despite blindness, Kuusisto “carves out his own garden” writing to Jorge Luis Borges, a blind writer as well, with synesthetic visuals and imaginative description. Kuusisto writes from different cities, altering and shifting them, unrestrained by time or concreteness. Each one in turn becomes his own city depicted for Borges as a traveler journaling to a distant friend. Laced amongst these artful letters Kuusisto includes fragments of his past, earnest and humorous divagations, elegies for poets, musicians, and friends while always retaining a sense of place. Kuusisto is a guide delving us into his unique and dynamic sensory world. For Kuusisto, blindness is no debilitation, but instead an opening through the unperceived.

To hear Stephen’s oral history, click on links below.  Audio is a production of Story Preservation Initiative.  All rights reserved.  

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Stories Matter

Ashley Bryan ⎥ Opening Paths to Exploration

A story of courage, ethnicity, generosity, and inspiration.

 

AshleyBryan

Renowned for the extraordinary range and depth of his talent, Ashley Bryan is an artist, a writer, a poet, an anthologist, a storyteller, and a noted scholar of African and African American folklore.

His children’s books are full of love – all embracing, inspiring, warm, colorful, joyous, and bursting with song. He works largely with Black African-American poetry and spirituals.

Ashley hopes that his work with African tales will be like “a tender bridge” connecting past to present, reaching across distances of time and space. Ashley’s numerous awards and honors include the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration; six Coretta Scott King Honors; the Arbuthnot Prize, one of the highest honors in children’s literature; and a Fulbright Scholarship.

His poetry and paintings have and continue to influence a whole generation of children.

Born in 1923 in Harlem to West Indies immigrants, Bryan’s childhood was filled with books, music, and art, even though resources tended to be scarce during the Great Depression. Second of six children, Bryan cannot remember a time when he was not drawing or painting.

One of Ashley Bryan's Sea Glass stained glass windows.

One of Ashley Bryan’s Sea Glass windows.

His first memories were of his parents sending him to Government run WPA classes which were free, and where he learned to draw, paint and play musical instruments. Ashley’s mother sang and his father played the piano.

After graduating from high school, he applied for a scholarship at a prominent art institution, but was essentially told that a scholarship would not be wasted on a colored person. Under the guidance of his high school teachers, Bryan then applied and was accepted into New York’s prestigious Cooper Union Art School. Two years at Cooper Union and Ashley was drafted into the army to serve in World War II. At the age of nineteen, as a part of the fleet that sailed to Normandy for the surprise invasion, Bryan drew whenever he could, keeping a sketch pad and art supplies in his gas mask.

From there, Bryan went on to study philosophy at Columbia University to, as he says, “understand war.”  He received a Fulbright scholarship to study art in Europe, and became the head of the art department at Dartmouth College.

Ashley's home, where the door is always open.

Ashley’s home, where the door is always open.

 

 

Ashley Bryan lives on Little Cranberry Island off the coast of Maine.

The above copy is taken from numerous sources, including Wikipedia, Reading Rockets, and Simon and Schuster author profiles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The transcription from the first section of our interview follows: 

 

Growing Up in the Bronx / Discovering the Importance of Community

I was born in New York City on July 13, 1923 of immigrant parents who had come from Antigua in the West Indies. They had six children; I was the second. I was raised in the Bronx during the Depression years. My parents provided food, clothes, and shelter but they couldn’t afford other things.

At that time there was the WPA, the Works Progress Administration. They offered free art and free music classes for communities throughout the country. My parents sent the six of us to all the things that were free that would help us to develop ourselves creatively. We worked with whatever materials we could find to recreate them, to make something of them — things that we would find on the streets – including fabrics and things from upholstery stores. My sister and I would bring them home and rework them into quilts, into skirts and jackets. We were always working with castoff materials, recreating them, bringing them into another form of life, which is a pattern that has stayed with me through life.

The good thing about growing up in tenement apartments was that we knew everyone in the house. Everyone looked after the other. My parents took care of the elders in the house. In good weather people sat out on the streets. They would bring their instruments, their music, what they would drink in the warm weather. They always had an eye out for the children. It was a different world in the 1930’s growing up in the city, which was broken down into small communities. It was that sense of community, which I’ve carried through life, which followed me to these islands off the coast of Maine. That’s what helped me decide that this would become my year-round home, because the community that I found here reminded of my New York City tenement apartment.

 

Cooper Union and Columbia University

My father was a printer but when he came to the United States, being a black man, all he was offered was a mop and broom. My dad never talked about racism. He simply said, “I knew I wasn’t going to last long in a job like that.” So, he went to the British Consulate and got a certificate from them stating that I had served in His Majesty’s Army and that he had worked as an apprentice printer as a child. That gave him an entrance into a downtown printing plant and that’s where he worked. He said it gave him a chance to be expressive in his work. And he was always bringing home extra papers from work. So I had these beautiful papers to work with.

I also had the good fortune of having wonderful teachers in elementary school. I had all white teachers throughout elementary, junior high, and high school. They all encouraged me. They always recognized my talent and gave me the materials that I needed to keep growing in my love of art.

In high school I joined the Art Club and, on graduation, I had the help of my teachers to prepare a very strong portfolio. Before graduating, they gave me the list of art schools in New York City to go to. So I went from art school to art school and was told – and this is New York City – “this is the best portfolio we have seen, but it would be a waste to give a scholarship to a colored person.” When I came back to the high school and told that to my teachers, they said, “Ashley, come back and take a post-graduate course.” They knew I was black, I knew I was black, and there was no problem. It didn’t occur to them that I would need anything beyond my talents. So they said, come back, take a post-graduate course, work on your portfolio, and in the summer take the exam for the Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering. They do not see you there. So, that summer I took the exam. At that time, in 1940, there were three exercises: one in drawing, one in sculpture, and one in architecture.

When you finished those exercises, you put your work on a tray with all the information of who you are on the platform of the Great Hall. It’s a very famous hall, where all of our presidents have lectured, from the earliest time. It was founded in1850 for the working young men and women of the country, primarily for young women working in all aspects of the garment trade and for young men in engineering, as Peter Cooper was an outstanding engineer. So, I took the exams, I put it on my tray and left. Then professors looked over all of the work, and they selected those they wanted for admission to the Cooper Union. I was fortunate in being one of them. I was the only black in my class, but I had grown up in a mixed community of French, German, Italian, and Irish.   I became close friends with the students there. We have followed each other through life. The very few, who at ninety, are still alive, I’m still very close to.

 

Interrelationships

I was never a loner. I was always with others. I was alone in my art, creating my art. All artists and composers, in whatever form, they have to be alone in developing in what they do. But I always loved being with others and sharing my work. And I always had the respect of others, because of my real love of doing my work – and my respect for what they did. I was lousy in sports. I’d be the last one chosen on any team. But they understood that and they spoke of me as the artist of the community. I was never picked on. I don’t know why that is, other than I always had such a deep respect for what other people do that it never occurred to me that there was any kind of a hierarchy. You could be sweeping a street and I would respect what you were doing and your work in that community.

My work in the community was always open to people dropping in. I drew so much from just the informal visits and what they would have to say. You know, I think that’s why I say I don’t believe in interruptions in my life. Right now, talking with you, I am creating. I am drawing, I’m painting, I’m doing my bookwork, I’m doing my puppet work, my sea glass work. There is no interruption. Everything that is happening to me I feel is significant. There is no way you can take my time. It’s the one thing that I possess. I can only offer it to you in exchange for your precious gift of your time, so remain on a level of back and forth, you see. And that is why my door is always open and people will come and go. But they come and they say, “Oh, we’re interrupting you.” No! Look! Do you want to see my paintings, do you want to see my drawings, do you want to see my sea-glass work, do you want to see my bookwork? I am always producing.

 

WWII / Looking for answers

When I came back from the Second World War I was so spun around, as veterans are, it was difficult to go on. Well, I knew when I came back (I was inducted at nineteen) that I wanted to complete my studies at Cooper Union. So, I knew my direction. I was not like veterans who don’t have a direction. After the experiences of a war, they find it difficult to adjust and go one. Very often then, because they don’t have enough services to keep following them up, they fall through. And that’s why, when they say a third of the homeless are veterans, it’s very understandable, because without help of family, friends, or a direction in life, or a medical support system that will follow them closely, it’s very hard after those experiences, to say you’re normal and go on. That’s what I experienced when I came home. I knew I wanted to complete my course study, but I also knew I wanted to understand why man chooses war. So when I graduated from Cooper Union, I did undergraduate work as a philosophy major at Columbia, to see if I could find answers. And I only found more questions. But I was so intrigued by the way man thinks, in aesthetics and ethics, in logic, and these areas, which I studied, that I stayed with it. Summers I’d come up to Maine and I’d be outdoors painting the whole time. That’s what really gave me a focus and direction. When I graduated from Columbia University, I knew I would not go any further in studies.

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Made possible with funds provided by the Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason Foundation.              

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Tom Wessels | Every Forest Has a Story

p-forest-forensics-707x346Tom Wessels is an ecologist and founding director of the master’s degree program in Conservation Biology at Antioch University New England. He is the current chair of The Center for Whole Communities (www.wholecommunities.org) that fosters inclusive communities that are strongly rooted in place and where all people — regardless of income, race, or background — have access to and a healthy relationship with land. He is former chair of the Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation that fosters environmental leadership through graduate fellowships and organizational grants. He serves as an ecological consultant to the Rain Forest Alliance’s SmartWood Green Certification Program. In that capacity Tom helped draft green certification assessment guidelines for forest operations in the northeastern United States and adjacent Canada. Tom has conducted landscape level workshops throughout the United States for over 30 years. His books include: Reading the Forested Landscape, The Granite Landscape, Untamed Vermont, The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future, and Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to reading the Forested Landscape.

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