Denise and Shannon

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Shannon and Denise

It was a cold windy April evening when the FBI agent and the actress met on the patio of the Columbia Museum.  I had been invited to moderate and guide a conversation about their lives, their unique work and their passions. We started out as complete strangers who had come from different backgrounds and professions but discovered that we had a great deal in common.

 Kara Gunter was the artist that created this project to unite individuals in a dialog as she created an art project.  When the three of us arrived on the museum patio, Kara motioned us to a small table where we would talk while she prepared for the wrapping of the hands.  We found a spot under an eave that was somewhat protected from the wind but it was not enough to keep us from shivering.  I welcomed them and began our session as the sun was going down behind the buildings.  All I knew was that we had very different professions and were currently living in Columbia.  We had no clue how we were connected and very few details about why we were selected to form this trio.

It only took a few minutes for us to get acquainted since we were all extroverts. To my left was Denise, a lively FBI agent and on my right was Shannon, an actress and theatre professor. My name is Jane Zenger and I am an educator, writer and part-time farmer.  On my clipboard was a list of leading questions to get the conversation started, but it was clear from the beginning we did not need prompts to tell our stories.

As we settled in to our opening remarks, an adorable little girl was spinning around the patio and enjoying interacting with the other folks involved with the celebration going on in front of the museum. Her name was Zoe, and Shannon was her mom.  Kara took a break from her stirring and gave us our ground rules and an overview of what was about to happen. As I asked questions, Denise and Shannon would reach across join their hands in any position that felt comfortable.  I would continue an informal interview and the hands would be covered in wet gauze and white plaster-like paste that would eventually harden into a hand to hand sculpture.

I started the conversation and Kara made sure my new friends were in a comfortable relaxed position. It was important to be sure they would be able to maintain this position long enough for the mixture to set up.

As we talked, Kara went back and forth to the staging table beside us continuing to add layers and stir the mysterious muddy mixture that she used to coat the hands. All through this process we chatted about our educations, careers, family life, and what brought each of us to Columbia. Denise began the discussion. I was fascinated that this seemingly gentle woman was an FBI agent and I asked her to give us a rundown on how her unusual career began.   She was dressed in a bright green city of Columbia t-shirt and matching skirt. She had a wonderful voice and laugh that made us feel at ease. Based on her accent, I was not surprised when she explained she had grown up and trained in New York City.   She started her law enforcement career at nineteen and moved up the ranks to become an FBI agent. She went through courses and rigorous training and the inevitable moves to different locations. It was a challenge but through it all she felt that it was a great career choice. She would recommend it to other young men and women. It helped to have mentors along the way that believed in her and now she can do the same for others coming through the ranks.

Shannon filled us in on her journey to become the actor, educator, activist and director she is today. She has also been a featured Tedx presenter and let me say, that her talk is one worth checking out. Since daughter Zoe was by this time, helping Kara with the plastering process, the conversation morphed into the challenges of being a mother while juggling such rigorous and intense careers. Zoe dashed in and out throughout our discussion and offered suggestions to Kara who was lathering on the plaster.  Zoe would fly by and touch the white goo, letting us know if it was drying properly.

Both women had been a single parent at some point and they discussed what helped get them stay focused and get through the tough times.  We all agreed that friendships, especially those with other strong women were essential.  Often it was the same best friend who stayed with them through the years and sometimes it was someone in the right place at the right time.  Different friends bring particular skills to a situation and the person you call may be great for some issues and not others. You can call on that one particular friend that can bring the best support and and judgment into a situation. At times it was a true sister, or an older mentor that could serve as the “wise mother” character. Or it may be a colleague in the same office or university. Most often however they called on those lifelong enduring friends who knew and grew with them throughout their life changes.

We switched subjects and I asked if they had accomplished had what they set out to do when they first started their careers. Both Denise and Shannon expressed an ongoing love for their work and felt they had achieved their goals. They both see the future with even more opportunities and adventures to come. I wondered how they felt about living in Columbia after being in other larger or more exciting cities. They both feel very happy here and feel that Columbia is a perfect place to live at this stage of their lives.

As a last reflection, Denise mentioned that she had lost her mother when she was very young and she was determined to always be a strong involved mother for her older children. I asked her how she managed to combine the role of being a mom and and FBI agent. I imagined that an FBI agent would have to be uptight, rigid and somewhat secretive. Not exactly what most people might imagine as a mother’s demeanor.  She laughed at that and it was clear after meeting her that she was very relaxed and full of fun. She felt that being an FBI agent had offered her an interesting and satisfying career. Shannon felt the same way and that acting, teaching and being an acting coach was exactly the work she aspired to do as a young student. Columbia continues to offer her many opportunities to do exactly what she wants to do.

The plaster was finally setting up as the sun was fading behind the buildings. We were shivering from the chilly evening wind and reflected on our conversation. We thought about how many other people here in Columbia that we pass every day and never get to know. What might we have in common with so many interesting people, and what might we have to offer to others getting started in our community. The plaster was removed, the form of the clasped hands was revealed and the moment was preserved in a delicate sculpture of two hands clasped together in a lovely work of art. Cell phone photos were taken, goodbyes were said, and suddenly our time was over.

Jane F. Zenger- Moderator and Writer

 

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Christine and Joshua

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Top Photo: Kara Gunter, Middle Photo: Emily Purcell, Bottom Photo by Leslie Gilroy


She is 64, a native of Ohio who grew up in Michigan. He is 20 and a native of Columbia. They join hands across the table and prepare to have the molding putty poured out and spread over the tops of their hands, moist and cool on their skin.

 

Christine, raised in the Catholic faith, said she was an introvert as a child. “I was the only girl,” she said. “I had three brothers. I spent a lot of time in my room reading. Then I went to journalism school, where you have to approach people. It took a while to get used to it. Now I don’t care who you are. Now I am beyond curious. Now I am just plain nosey!”

 

Joshua, who was raised in a traditional Southern Baptist family, is the youngest of three children. He says he also was introverted as a child and is still somewhat quiet.

 

Christine moved to South Carolina in the 1960s, as the civil rights movement was escalating. “The first week we lived here, there was a Klan rally on Main Street,” she recalled. “There were dogs and kids and adults — all in hoods. My first impression of the South wasn’t so great. Where I lived (up North) was all Polish, all white. I never saw a black person in my town. … My parents were very open. My dad’s job was to help integrate the South.”

 

As devout Christians, Joshua’s family was decidedly conservative. “They were very private about their willful ignorance. I am more of the fighter,” he said. “I study religion. I’m a third-year student. People in the South associate religion with Christianity. That’s not my field of study. I study Islam.”

 

Joshua’s parents are working class. His father sells insurance, and his mother is an administrative assistant. They made sure all of their children knew the value of an education. In fact, they were insistent that their children get a good education. “My parents have high standards. They believe educated people are better.” he said. “I have always struggled. I initially wanted a trade degree. That didn’t happen, so I went to a four-year university.”

 

Christine and Joshua nod in unison as they agree that misconceptions about religions are rampant. Christine recalls reading a newspaper article that failed to distinguish between Catholics and other Christians. “I guess I’m a ‘Catholic Christian,’” she joked. “I have five children. People would ask me: Don’t you know what causes that? Don’t you know you can stop that?”

 

“There are many misconceptions about Islam,” Joshua said, noting that the fallacies are grounded in both politics and religion. “I won’t say that there isn’t very strong homophobia or aggression toward women. But they are not all terrorists. … I admire a lot of things about a lot of different religions. I think my interest in Islam came from my protective nature. I saw this religion being unfairly attacked, so I wanted to defend it.”

 

When he was about 15, Joshua rejected Southern Baptist doctrine and set out to explore other faiths. “When you have a bad thought, that is society’s voice speaking for you. I have always felt that I wanted to fight back against that voice,” he said.

 

So Joshua ventured out and listened to many different voices expressing different beliefs.  “I couldn’t shake my belief in God. I could get away from religion but the one thing that kept me was that nugget of belief in God,” he continued. “So I tried to find a religion that I could believe in. I was Mormon for a while, and that was a good time. I don’t try to convert people. … I am not Muslim. I am a theist. I believe in God no matter what.”

 

Next they discussed the idea of tolerance and how it seems like there has been less of it lately. “People don’t speak with wisdom anymore,” Christine said. “They don’t listen to understand. They listen to respond.”

 

“I see an increase in an emphasis on tolerance, but I don’t think people actually practice tolerance,” Joshua responded. “The appearance of tolerance seems to be more important than actually exercising tolerance itself.”

 

The age difference between the two spans decades. Could either of them have age-related prejudices? Does the younger generation have the same ambition and work ethic that older people have? “There is age discrimination, especially if you are a woman,” Christine asserted.

“I am definitely an outlier,” Joshua clarified right away. “I only date women 20 years older than me. I don’t think you are really old. Age isn’t a determining factor for old. I really don’t have a problem with old people. … Well, maybe their judgment of younger people” could be an irritant.

 

“The young people who annoy me have a complete lack of curiosity. They just aren’t interested in things not immediate to their needs or wants,” Christine said. “I hear through my children (ages 26-37) that their contemporaries don’t want to work hard or read. They are looking just to be comfortable. I don’t understand why you would want to be complacent and unadventurous in your 20s. … It’s like those who do good things when no one is watching. There has to be people like that. I don’t want to believe people are innately bad.”

 

February 18, 2017

Kristine Hartvigsen

Layne and Shirley

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Photos by David West


Layne is a young, strikingly pretty, lavender-haired dreamer. There is an approachable lightness about her, and you can sense her sincere interest in people. A fine artist, she draws, paints and sometimes works in ceramics. She loves to cook. A single mother, the center of her world is 9-year-old Jackson.

 

Shirley is a curvy, wickedly sarcastic, fiercely outspoken Filipino married to a kilt-wearing,
Godzilla-loving Celt and living in an unrepentantly red state. Completely at home on any stage, she plays piano, sings, dances, and acts. But the role she cherishes most is that of mother to 2-year-old Michael, nicknamed “Little Kaiju.”

 

They’ve never met, but there’s clearly a connection as their right hands are joined in the middle of the table and wet molding putty is poured over them. “I’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” Layne said. “As an artist, this hand is my career.”

 

“When my son was 6 months old, we had his foot cast,” Shirley said. “You know how they do those belly casts of pregnant women? I didn’t feel like I could do that, but I’m willing to share a hand!”

 

They immediately begin to tell one another about their sons. And they ponder how the current political climate is impacting their families. “I basically want to make sure my son doesn’t grow up to be an asshole!” Shirley quipped. “I want him to be able to control his emotions.”

 

Layne’s son is getting tall. It won’t be long before he is a young man. “My son’s approach to the world is blended in the way that adults or people with more life experience choose to be,” she said. “His view of the world is much more open. His relationships with strangers are much more open.”

 

In the midst of intense protests and frightening hostile divisions among people, both women feel an obligation to seize teachable moments. “Parenting made me realize there are some things I need to make sure Michael is aware of,” Shirley explained. “He is half white and half Filipino. I deliberately chose a day care with an African-American director and a diverse staff. These are active choices you have to make as a parent. I have participated in protests. I have protested the Confederate flag, but I am aware of the threat of violence. That scares the shit out of me.”

 

“I’m nailed down to the South but not nailed down to its ideals. It makes me afraid to be put in a community that is prejudiced,” Layne said. “In the last year or so, with the election, we’ve had conversations about why it’s important to accept people. You have to have an open mind about people.”

 

Shirley is still reeling from the outcome of the presidential election. Like all Americans, she comes from an immigrant family. She said she knows a first-generation immigrant who voted for the Republican candidate. “I guess self-interest prevailed. I don’t want that for my son,” she said.

 

Layne’s son, Jackson, is attending the same elementary school where she went as a kid. She was in school when she got pregnant, finished the semester, and took a break. She supported herself waiting tables in a Thai restaurant. “I have been in school as long as he has been in school,” she said. “I feel like a lifelong student.”

 

Both women believe it is especially important to give their sons enriching life experiences, to introduce them to all kinds of people from all walks of life. They are deliberate in the choices they make for their young children. “I can take my son everywhere,” Shirley said. “He has met all of my Vagina Monologue sisters. The fact that he is alive right now is a teachable moment. I answer his questions. … He sees transgender, Latina, Muslim. People fitting all descriptions have held and cared for my son. As long as I am there to help guide him, he is pretty cool with all people.”

 

This past summer, Layne took Jackson on a trip to New York City. “I painted my son in Times Square,” she said. “We did everything we could in 36 hours. We took the ferry. We got lost on the subway. We bought matching Converse sneakers. … Speaking of teachable moments, we were there during Pride Week. The Pulse Nightclub shootings had just happened. All we saw in New York was people loving one another. We walked all over New York carrying rainbow flags.”

Layne hopes to take Jackson to Italy this summer. She has studied there before. And she also would like to repeat the New York trip together in 20 years.

 

“Little Kaiju has a heart-shaped birthmark on the back of his neck,” Shirley said. “He’s only 2. He hasn’t asked questions about sexuality yet, but if my son were gay, I would be fine with that. When I was coming up, being gay was (ridiculed). Times have changed since then.”

 

Both women claim absolutely that motherhood saved them.

 

“I found out I was pregnant while I was in therapy for sexual trauma,” Shirley revealed. “Having to be there for my child literally saved me. … I realized what I needed to do for my body and myself.”

 

“Jackson saved me also,” Layne concurred. “Being pregnant, it could have been hell on wheels. But everything changed. For the most part, it was just me by myself. … My dad brought my childhood crib over so he got to sleep in the same crib that I did.”

 

As the mold continued to harden, the women thought about what life would be like if they didn’t have their hands. What would they miss the most?

 

“I would miss cooking, and making cocktails for my friends,” Layne said. “If I didn’t have my hands, I would be dead. I need them to do my art.”

 

“I would miss playing the piano and bathing my kid,” Shirley said. “We speak a language with our hands when we belly dance. The movement of the hands is so important.”

 

February 18, 2017

Kristine Hartvigsen

 

Al and Len

al-and-len-by-morrisa-bookerAl (left) was born and raised in Lafayette, IN. He is an administrator at the University of South Carolina. In 2014, he released his first poetry collection I Only Left for Tea (Muddy Ford Press). He has hosted the eclectic open mic venue Mind Gravy in Columbia, SC, since 2010. He has been married 42 years to his wife Carol, and they have four children and nine grandchildren.

Len (right) began pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature and Criticism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2016. Len is co-founder of the Poets Respond to Race initiative and Poet-in-Residence for Sumter County Cultural Commission. A Berfrois Poetry Prize finalist and a Best of the Net nominee, Len has poems appearing in journals and anthologies such as pluck! A Journal of Affrilachian Arts and Culture, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Poetry on the Comet, Fall Lines, and The Petigru Review. Poets Respond to Race exhibits literary arts and holds open forums on race and diversity to offer a gateway into tough conversations that can change communities in the South.

Photo by Morrisa Booker

Our inaugural hand-casting was atypical from what we have planned as Hands On 20170118_134359-01-01progresses, as the two participants knew each other in advance.  Len and Al have been working together as founders of a group called Poets Respond to Race.  The purpose of Poets Respond to Race is to have “tough conversations” about race; and for the past year, the two poets have toured South Carolina holding poetry readings, and engaging in and facilitating conversations with the public about a sometimes difficult to broach subject.  Through art, Al and Len are encouraging dialog, while working to open hearts and educate minds, and heal wounds of misunderstanding.
20170305_112510-01The hand-casting we completed during our casting event was used as the cover for Hand in Hand:  Poets Respond to Race.  The book was edited by Len and Al, and includes the work of 39 South Carolina poets. “Beautiful and profane, these words and the images they evoke allow the reader the opportunity to assess where we are as a culture, how far we’ve come, and how far we need to go.”

For more information about Poets Respond to Race visit: www.facebook.com/poetsrespondtorace

To purchase the book visit: https://www.amazon.com/Hand-Poets-Respond-Race/dp/194208109X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1488733783&sr=8-1&keywords=hand+in+hand+poets+respond+to+race

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Above photo by Bohumila Augustinova
Special thanks to Al and Len, Bohumila Augustinova, Morissa Booker, and Cindi Boiter for making our first hand-casting event a total success!

This is it!

The launching of a new endeavor. I hope you’ll follow along with us, here on this blog, as we forge new connections, spread a little love, and make art!

Please spread the word for us! We have a crowd-funding campaign over at GoFundMe, to help purchase materials. If you’re interested in helping out, please contact us through this page. We can use photographers and writers, as well as venues to hold our hand-casting events. If you have a skill, you think we could use, please contact us! We look forward to hearing from you.

Updates may be a little slow at the start, but I have faith we’ll be in full-swing, soon enough. Like us on facebook to stay up to date.

I’m so excited to get started. I’m so excited to meet my community!

Take care,

Kara