COOS' Creative in Residence Blogpost #2

COOS' Creative in Residence Blogpost #2

COOS' Creative in Residence Blogpost #2

Hello Again! Welcome back to my blogspot. In my previous entry, I shared about my motivation for applying to this residency, my background as an embodied practitioner, and laid the groundwork for what has been a journey of exploration and discovery. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, I encourage you to do so.

In this entry, I'm excited to pick up where I left off and introduce you to my capstone project, 'Belonging.' This project has been a culmination of years of reflection, collaboration, and creative visioning. I look forward to sharing more about its evolution and impact. But before we dive in, I invite you to reflect on the significance of belonging in your own life. How have you experienced it? What ways do you identify or connect to your sense of belonging? Has it shifted over time? Feel free to share your thoughts and reflections in the comments below—I'm eager to hear your insights and perspectives. 

In a city that contends with creative brain drain, I am deeply committed to fostering greater inclusivity in artistic expression. I'm passionate about designing opportunities for individuals, regardless of whether they consider themselves artists, by providing spaces for them to develop their practice. This includes access to creative tools that can inspire new ideas and foster meaningful connections. Right from the beginning of my time as Creative in Residence, COOS has offered me an opportunity to do this. My capstone project, 'Belonging,' exemplifies how my art reflects my vision of 'being.' As a designer by nature, I've organized play since childhood, exploring interactions and creating scenarios with my imagination. This includes drawing, writing in code, and nurturing my curiosity about the world around me. When presented with the opportunity to develop and be part of the curation process of a work, I was excited. The idea of bringing my imagination to life was both thrilling and overwhelming. I vividly recall thinking, 'A capstone project at the beginning of my residency?! How will I manage?' It took considerable time to grasp the concept, but through numerous conversations and planning sessions, I realized that my years of creative play laid the groundwork for the culminating vision of 'Belonging.'

Despite the current perception of the word and concept as cliché, ‘Belonging’ holds deep personal significance for me. This work began in 2020 during the quarantine. I had lost a lot of family members and loved ones, my routine and sense of self had been disrupted, and I no longer felt grounded in place. Originally from New Bedford, MA I found myself unable to go home to be with my family. Paired with my intense focus, I remained deep in thought about many things including the (brief) gift of time on this planet. Through the many disruptions around me, I began to ask the questions, what does it mean to belong to a person, to a place, to yourself? Little did I know, these questions would be the seeds of future creative explorations and offerings. 

As a choreographer, I work with a group of dancers in Boston. At the time of lockdown I had given up any ideas of making work or dancing in the ways that we had been doing for the previous 4 years. Up to the time of the shut down, I had spent almost every week of my adult life interacting with hundreds of people through dance classes and rehearsals. When everything closed, I was shaken to my core. Suddenly, I had no stimulation at all, it was jarring for me and those that I love not having access to one another physically. After a few months of dancing in my bright green kitchen over IG Live (#KitchenClasses), I needed to get back into the studio so I began trying to find ways to get together with my dancers and dig into the questions that I had been wrestling with. I had created a dance film commissioned by Emerson College’s Intercultural Affairs Department, took part in Urban Bush Women’s Virtual Generative Dancer Choreographic & Performance Lab, participated in a variety of panel conversations about place and identity, and co-created Moving Through The Budget a residency that combined fiscal education, dance, facilitating group discussions. All of these endeavors helped me to process and eventually articulate the amalgamation of my experience.  

The beautiful thing about art is that the impact of a particular piece is different for each individual. After being invited as one of WBUR’s City Space’s “Ones to Watch: Boston’s Emerging Artists,” series in 2022, I began developing the concept of a workshop that offered the audience an opportunity to experience part of my creative process through reflective prompts, drawing, co-creating an altar space and connecting with people. This was designed to precede the performance component of the show. As the audience entered the rearranged lobby, the magic unfolded. Everyone present, shared in the vulnerability of exploring the questions I proposed around belonging and witnessed my personal vulnerabilities with loss and isolation. Following this performance, I was awarded a Live Arts Boston grant from the Boston Foundation to further develop this workshop structure. Over the course of a year, I delved deeper into the concept of belonging, gaining insights into the profound work people have been doing for decades to cultivate spaces that foster a sense of belonging. I was simultaneously blown away, inspired and amazed. It has since become an interest of discovery for me. Looking ahead to the opportunity to create a capstone project at the beginning of my time with COOS, I realized that this could be the perfect moment to synthesize my years of curiosity, play, and reflection 

From the press release written in October, ‘Belonging will include “Connection Stations” with participatory driven and artist curated workshops designed to deepen one’s connection to self. “Immersive experiences that make you question, reflect, and demand your attention are intriguing to me,” Artistic Director Ashleigh Gordon shared. “With Jenny’s guidance, I see Belonging, our 11th season opening performance, as being an experience that invites our whole selves to be fully present, to be engaged on a multi-sensory level, and experience what it feels like to be centered and included.” 

How could I bring together local artists who have been working creatively with the theme of belonging and showcase a representation of what it means to belong to the Greater Boston area as an artist? My vision was to incorporate a multidisciplinary approach within the space. I was excited to include multimedia artist Crystal Bi, engineer and artist Nat Atnafu, wellness architect Jessi Rosinski, writer/poet Jacquinn Sinclair, Ga-Ewe folklore, performing artist, author and entrepreneur, Dzidzor (Jee-Jaw), guitarist Ciyadh Wells, marimbist, composer, Africana studies scholar, and cultural activist Steph Davis alongside my cast of dancers Erin Chiesa, Izzi King, Anelise Tatum, Imani Deal and Rachael Thomas to build this interactive performance art experience. The design of the space allowed attendees to choose their own adventure during the first hour, exploring each station’s offering and engaging expressively in response. The connection stations included zines, paper and pens, a phone booth that allowed you to hear a message and leave a message, a film of interviews with people talking about belonging, delicious comfort food from Zaz restaurant, ‘remote touch’ an interactive technology installation and an immersive exploration of self-belonging through breath, music, and reflection. The second hour featured seamlessly integrated dance, music, and spoken word performances, transporting the audience to another realm. 

In our fast-paced society where productivity is often prioritized, 'Belonging' offers a space for pause, reflection and acknowledgement that we are not solely defined by what we produce; rather, our existence is valuable enough. Over the years my exhibitions have received a variety of responses. Some people are moved to tears, overwhelmed by emotion, while others express surprise at experiencing art in such a visceral way. There's been a range which underscores that this work can serve as a portal to dig a little deeper into Self, to call a loved one, to reach out to a friend or neighbor, to sit in nature, etc.

When considering what it means to belong to a person, I reflect on the importance of holding space and engaging in deep listening. A dear friend of mine often speaks about the intention behind the constellation of care, and over the past four years, I've come to realize that we are all interconnected, even in times of struggle. Reflecting on my sense of belonging to a place, I think of my experiences as a Black native woman from Massachusetts. It involves spending time in nature and grappling with the complex history of Boston, which serves as the epicenter of the successful yet problematic colonial, imperialist experiment of the United States of America. This reminds me of my responsibility to my surroundings and the ongoing need to examine my relationship with them. The city itself is a physical manifestation built upon the foundations of my kin and our culture. So, what does it truly mean to be connected to a place, to be of it rather than from it? Furthermore, what does it mean to belong to myself? Again I think of my dear friend who says, “You can only meet people at the depths that they’ve met themselves.” For me it’s about maintaining my practices, spending time with my loved ones, and nourishing my body and spirit while remaining in purposeful alignment with my life force energy. Amidst the myriad struggles and genocides happening globally, bearing witness to humanity’s suffering can be overwhelming. However my prayer and ongoing work are rooted in the belief that 'nobody is free until everybody's free,' echoing the sentiment famously expressed by Fannie Lou Hamer. 

Continuing from the press release, Oliver states, “As we continue to navigate multiple pandemics and the often-transient nature of Boston, I wanted to create the causes and conditions for folks to pause and reflect on their sense of belonging through transformative art making…”
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