Finding the Art in Nature

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The Callanish Stones on the west coast of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. (This photo of Callanish Standing Stones is courtesy of TripAdvisor.)

Art and the performing arts are, at their basic level, a means of creating community and expressing our understanding of the world and ourselves. They have been interwoven with our natural world since human beings evolved to make art – our unique language of creativity that has incredible power.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, evidence for both visual arts and performing arts dates to roughly 40,000 years ago, although, quite unexpectedly, in separate parts of the world. The Stone Age cave paintings of Sulawesi in Indonesia and the bone-carved flutes found in Europe emerged concurrently. Both early artifacts record humans’ reflection in and use of nature. Nature inspired our artistic abilities, encouraging our creative minds to flourish in painting, sculpture, music and dance. Humans used art to honor animals, sacred places and celestial events. We then applied our talents to ceremony and ritual, inextricably weaving our self-expression to nature and to the heavens.

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Cave paintings on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi are among the oldest of their kind. (Photo: Maxime Aubert/Griffith University/Australia)

Not much has changed for many artists who still draw inspiration from nature and use natural themes and materials to communicate their ideas and impressions of our world. Today, the National Park Service includes an artists-in-residence program, encouraging the continuation of humanity’s vital artistic interaction with the natural world. From Isadora Duncan’s early modern dance work in nature to Asadata Dafora’s 1932 landmark Awassa Astrige/Ostrich dance that introduced traditional African nature dances to American audiences, choreographers have drawn on natural phenomena to explore dimensions of the human experience. Nature herself provided humans with a built-in instrument, the voice, which scientists argue was our first experiment with music-making some 530,000 years ago.

But, over the past few thousand years, humanity’s relationship to nature drastically changed our environment and our way of thinking about it. Art is how we see life, so as growing concerns over clean water, loss of species, climate change, natural resources and overdevelopment affect our future, many artists responded by offering art and the performing arts as part of global discussions on such concerns.

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Photo: Straz Center Instagram (@strazcenter)

In 2008, artists and scientists gathered in Europe and Asia as part of the Connect2Culture Initiative to begin talks about the intersections of art and sustainability and how the arts and performing arts can create a new way of thinking about the natural world. Around the United States, universities are offering classes in arts and the environment, and new fields of study—such as dance ecology and music ecology—specifically deal with bodies and sounds as they relate to nature. Students of these artistic-ecological meldings produce exquisite examinations of movement and sound that delight audiences and uphold humanity’s artistic origins.

Our own backyard is chock-full of people unearthing the primal visceral power of art and nature to connect us to each other, ourselves and our world. In November 2014, St. Petersburg hosted Blue Ocean, a film festival and conservation summit, and the Springs Eternal Project in Gainesville creates partnerships between advocates, artists, scientists and researchers to inspire Floridians to revere and protect our fragile springs water systems. Kuumba Drummers and Dancers, Tampa’s only African dance ensemble, continues Dafora’s work in preserving traditional folkloric African dances used to communicate between performers, audience and aspects of nature.

Attendant to the performing arts’ ability to unite with science to help propel humanity into new perspectives is the basic, fundamental power of nature’s own artistry to heal the human heart and mind. In Florida, we are privileged to experience the choreography of flight in a flock of white ibis by doing nothing more than heading to the nearest body of water. We can go further in the Florida wilderness to witness the terrific symphony of bull alligators bellowing during mating season. In our backyards, we have the great belching chorus of frogs and toads that so enriches the dramatics of a sky full of stars.

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Photo: Daffodil’s Photo Blog

We, too, flock to the beaches, congregate on riverbanks and witness, every year, a great migration of human beings to the Sunshine State. Why? Because, deep within us, lies our undeniable connection to the beat of life. We participate in the art of nature whether we know it or not, and we draw together in the many expressions of our artistic celebration of living on this earth. There are tracings of many human hands surrounding a prehistoric deer on a cave wall in Sulawesi to prove it.

Building Instrumental

 

A member of String Theory plays the Fin Harp during the opening reception. Photo by jeremy scott photography

A member of String Theory plays the Fin Harp during the opening reception. Photo by jeremy scott photography

 The Straz Center invited Los Angeles-based performance ensemble String Theory to turn the riverside corner of Morsani Hall into a working harp with 200-foot strings. This original, site-specific Fin Harp is on display with demonstrations through May 3.

Look closely at the design of the newly-installed wooden harp on the river side of Morsani’s lobby, and you may recognize the shape. Inspired by certain loveable and highly-intelligent marine mammals, Luke Rothschild, one of the founding members of the multi-genre performance group String Theory, designed this harp specifically as an outdoor art/music installation for the Straz Center.

String Theory and the Straz Center Fin Harp

String Theory and the Straz Center Fin Harp

“I knew we wanted to incorporate the Riverwalk and more community engaging work here at the center,” says Straz Center Director of Programming Chrissy Hall. “I’d met the agent for String Theory at a convention, so I asked about the possibility of an outdoor long term installment. The agent put me in direct contact with Luke, and we worked on coming up with a concept that would work out in the elements.”

“I’ve been spending a lot of time surfing, and the shape for the soundboard kind of emerged naturally,” says Luke.

His creation, the Fin Harp, takes its curvilinear shape from the dorsal fin of dolphins—perfect for this time of year in Tampa when dolphins and their calves feed in the Hillsborough River. The harp, comprised of cherry wood, red oak, maple, black walnut and shellacked like mad with boat varnish, can withstand the afternoon rains and soaring mid-day spring temperatures.

 

Stages of the Harp: Sketch, Mock Up, In-Progress, Finished

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FIN HARP one_life size mock up

 

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finished fin.s

Installation began at 10:30 a.m. on March 31st as a team effort between String Theory members and The Straz facilities department. Using several ladders and a fair amount of derring-do, the teams secured the 14 brass strings to the Straz Center roof, running them the 200 feet to the instrument bolted to a platform on the grass below. They completed the installation about 4 p.m. that afternoon.

Logistics

fin harp install w ladder

photo by jeremy scott photography

strings to Straz

photo by jeremy scott photography

Outside of the time, financial and logistical constraints of creating a unique, outdoor instrument, another challenge altogether was how to get the Fin Harp on the plane from Los Angeles to Tampa. “The harp needed to be able to come apart and fit into a very specific size keyboard case approved by TSA,” says Luke. “The base of the harp is in 10 pieces and is quite different from what I thought it would be, different from any other design I’ve done before for other harps. So, the soundboard fits into one 88 note keyboard case, the base breaks down and fits into another identical case. The brass wire, tuning blocks and tools go in a rolling case.” Voila! Ready for travel.

FIN case 1

 

The harp is played by stroking or plucking the strings with rosin-coated gloves which provide the “tooth” (grip) to create a compression wave—a vibration—which resonates in the soundboard.

During the reception, patrons tried their skill at playing the harp with rosin-coated gloves. Photo by jeremy scott photography

Patrons also tried their skill at playing the harp with rosin-coated gloves. Photo by jeremy scott photography

When our time is up to have this incredible instrument, the Fin Harp will return to Luke at the String Theory headquarters in California to be used in future performance installations. The Fin Harp is on display through Riverfest, May 3, and will return to California on May 4.

Many thanks to Luke Rothschild for the use of his personal photographs, except where noted, and his help with behind-the-scenes info for this blog.

To see a free demonstration of the harp and to hear this unique instrument, see the schedule below:

Fin Harp Demo Schedule

April 17- 7pm-9pm (before and during the intermission for Pippin)

April 18- 1pm-3:30 & 7pm-9:30pm (before and during intermission for Pippin)

April 19 – 1pm-3:30 & 7pm-9:30pm (before and during intermission for Pippin)

April 23 – 6:30pm-8pm (before Mythbusters)

April 24- 7pm-8:30pm (before TFO Pops concert)

April 25- 6:30pm-8pm (before Celtic Woman)

April 26- 3pm-4:30pm (before Tampa Bay Symphony)

May 1- 7pm-8:30pm (before Florida Orchestra)

May2- 11:30am-5pm all day for Riverfest

May 3- 11:30am-5pm all day for Riverfest

 

This Conversation Just Got Started: Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni and ONE DROP OF LOVE

Fanshen Cox: One Drop of Love

 

Teacher, performer, writer Fanshen Cox performs her show, ONE DROP OF LOVE, produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

Teacher, performer, writer Fanshen Cox performs her show, ONE DROP OF LOVE, produced by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni.

 

The performing arts have the ability to entertain, but more significantly, they provide a creative medium to challenge barriers and create a voice of civilized resistance to ideas and social systems. The performing arts question, explore, excite new ideas and, in many artists’ hopes, inspire more meaningful dialogue. Participating in the performing arts, either as audience members or as performers, allows society to see itself reflected in the mirror of the stage and, assessing that image, determine whether or not we can and should—or will—change. The performing arts are a simple vehicle to elevate the species if we choose to employ them to help us reach out to one another and express our anger and grief, joy and triumphs.

It is no small feat of courage to put one’s self on display for others, to volunteer to be the mirror, but such people are necessary to keep a society vital and grounded in the practice of emotional honesty, which is very hard to come by and, for some people, even harder to hear or watch. New voices, new ideas and new performers who bring to light troubling realities of race, power dynamics, belief systems and social evolution are often rejected and scorned for showing us what we would rather not confront. Other times, however, their courage is embraced, applauded and encouraged to go forth to more people in more communities spreading, as it were, one drop of love at a time.

This week we welcome teacher, writer and performing artist Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni whose one-woman show, One Drop of Love, tackles themes of racial identity, love, community and attempting conversation despite all obvious awkwardness. It’s funny, it’s real and we asked Fanshen if we could re-post her original blog about how and why she created the show, which is produced by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni. She agreed, and we reposted her blog below:

 

Fanshen performs multiple roles. Here, as a Census Worker in the 1970s.

 

It is an exciting time to be an actor, when the notion of ‘performance’ is taking on new meanings and has the potential to change the way we view the art form. Traditional definitions of ‘performance’ include the act of staging or presenting a play; a rendering of a dramatic role. Now scholar/activists like Judith Butler are exploring a new definition of performance, or ‘performativity‘–looking at how we use language and behavior to construct identity.

 In my solo show, One Drop of Love, I get to meld these two understandings of performance. I am an actor who portrays several different characters: my Jamaican/Pan-Africanist father, my Blackfeet-Cherokee-Danish mother, candy and fruit vendors from East and West Africa, Census Workers from the 1790s to the present, racist cops from Cambridge, MA and many others. At the same time, in taking on these roles, I explore the construction of ‘racial’ identity, and how these identities are created through speech and acts – as opposed to genetics or physical appearance.

 In 2006 I was going to marry the man of my dreams, and all I had left to do was call my father and ask him to walk me down the aisle. The thought of this call filled me with angst. I hadn’t witnessed my father interact in positive ways with ‘white’ people since my parents’ divorce in 1977.  The man I would eventually marry (much to my own surprise) is European.  After weeks of stewing, I finally convinced myself that this thing called ‘race’ was not going to get in the way of my joy. I made the call. And then my father did not attend our wedding.

One Drop of Love begins here and then journeys through time and space to examine the constructs and behaviors and speech acts that led to this moment. In the end, my father and I reach some sense of reconciliation, but questions about the influence of the one-drop rule, and how it affects our – and society’s – relationship to ‘race’ remain for me, my father, and the audience to continue to ponder. I know how privileged I am to be able to perform (in both senses of the word), and I plan to utilize that privilege to encourage complex conversations about ‘race’ and racism and use my chosen art form to create change.

The Ghost Light

People have asked us why, in theater, we leave a single cage light center stage when everyone goes home for the night. The answer is obvious:  to appease the ghosts, of course.

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The ghost light watches over Morsani Hall after everyone goes home.

 

We all know there’s no business like show business, and the old joke goes that actors don’t retire; they die. However, even death can’t keep some actors off stage, and superstition holds that every theater has its ghosts – some more active than others.

Judy Garland still appears at the Palace Theater on Broadway, for example, by the special entrance the theater constructed for her during her last performance there, and stage workers across the country report opening a theater to find mysteriously rearranged set pieces, things that go missing and reappear in odd places, apparitions, voices, strange laughter.

It is hard to get rid of the theater bug, even for those who should be walking into the light instead of tap dancing underneath it. Thus: the ghost light, a solitary pole light that has a metal cage around its incandescent bulb, placed downstage center when a theater is not in use.

In a business that competes only with sports in its reliance on the practice of superstition, the ghost light stands as a centuries-old tradition that helps illuminate a dark, lonely theater for the ghosts that linger, waiting for their chance to perform. Happy ghost actors are less likely to interfere with a live performance or sabotage an actor by making a sudden appearance before a cue. The last person to leave a theater is responsible for igniting the ghost light; the first person to arrive in the morning extinguishes it. This way, there is never an empty, dark theater, and the specters enjoy another run in the spotlight.

The Straz Center for the Performing Arts has no known ghosts – yet. “We’re not that old,” says Michael Chamoun, director of production services. “No strange occurrences. Unfortunately. But we leave on the ghost light for the same reasons – to appease any ghosts that might be here and give them a chance to perform.”

If a theater is around long enough, eventually tragedy shows its face, usually as a death on stage or the passing of a beloved (or despised) actor or theater worker. In Tampa, the most well-known theater ghost is “Fink,” the former projectionist who remains in the Tampa Theater casting shadows, creeping over new projectionists with the cold chills, or opening doors. “I’ve known a lot of projectionists at Tampa Theater,” Chamoun says, “and they all have the same stories of cold winds and such. We [at the Straz] are only going into our 26th year, so we’re lucky that we don’t have anyone to haunt us.”

Still, the three main stages – Carol Morsani Hall, Ferguson Hall and the Jaeb Theater – all sport ghost lights through the night, for two main reasons. “It’s bad luck if a theater goes dark, so we keep the light on as part of that superstition, but the reality is it’s for safety. People walk where they’re not supposed to, and the light at the end of the stage keeps people from falling off.”

The last reason explains why there is no ghost light in the Shimberg Playhouse or the TECO Theater: these two houses don’t have elevated stages, so there is no threatening precipice. Be certain though, that should the need arise, Chamoun and his electrical staff will supply these theaters with a ghost light if the Straz ever finds itself with a Fink or Casper or Judy Garland of its own.

One suspect legend of the origin of the ghost light states that a burglar stole into a theater at night and fell off the stage into the pit, breaking his leg (there is an acting joke in here somewhere), and later sued the theater—and won—for not providing adequate lighting.  Thus theaters began to leave the ghost light to avoid litigation, although the idea of ghosts holding phantom versions of vaudeville acts at 2 a.m. is more plausible than the Tale of the Litigious Thief.

Another historical speculation about the origin of the ghost light dates to pre-electricity, when theaters were heated with coal-burning gas lamps. The lamps, powered by coal gas generators, would build up gas in the lines and cause them to blow up until someone figured out that burning a lamp during the night prevented gas explosions. However, a live flame in a wood theater overnight did not prevent fire, and hundreds of theaters burned down from 1800 until Edison perfected his electric light bulb.

Somewhere between fact and fiction, fun and function, lies theater. And so it is with the ghost light as well, our solitary beacon through the night promising that, no matter what, and for whom, the show must go on.

Ghost Light A

So far,  our ghost lights seem to be doing all of their jobs. So far.