Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Discover possibility and what lies beneath with Anne Knoll

Meet my dear friend, Anne Knoll:

Anne Knoll, photographer, writer, performer, director has combined these talents into her Fine Art and Portraiture work. She has been entertaining and educating young people for years. Her experience with children's theatre includes The Evergreen Players, a troupe she originated performing for children in schools, libraries and parks across Long Island. She has been involved in children's education for many years, having taught theatre and directed school performances in Illinois, Michigan, New York and New Jersey

Ms. Knoll originally targeted her writing toward young audiences with "The Sun Princess" and "The Sun Princess and the Royal Surprise," the first two books in a series concerning adoption. Both printed as private editions. In addition, she wrote a play for young audiences entitled "Mrs. Tinkerton's Toy Shop." The books and the play have been adapted and produced by Puttin' On the Ritz Theatre in Oaklyn, New Jersey, as part of its children's theatre programming. She is frequently invited to read her work in schools and libraries throughout southern New Jersey.
Her endeavors in the realm of poetry yielded two books entitled Weaving and Root Soaking. The latter, was a hand-made, numbered and signed Limited Edition of 145 copies that sold in bookstores and galleries in Vermont and New Jersey.

On stage, her work has included such roles as Elizabeth/The Crucible, M'lynn/Steel Magnolias, Stella Mae/Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Ma Allen/Dark of the Moon, Ms. Prism/The Importance of Being Earnest.

You can see some of Anne's gorgeous work HERE.

Once again, this is not a quick sound byte. This is a nice long, delicious, juicy read so grab a cup of green tea, settle in and enjoy. Anne and I reference ACN, the Artist Conference Network, several times. In the founder, Beverly Cassell's words: "The Artist Conference Network is a kind of miracle space for gifted fools. It is a safe place to take on doing things you don't know how to do. It is a structure for living your dreams. It is an environment of informed generous acknowledgment, where making up stuff precedes the production of results, and there's a bunch of folks there who know what it took and celebrate with you..."

As usual you catch Anne and I in mid conversation:

AK: I’m very concerned about the future of creativity in our world. For some kids the spark will just rise to the surface but many kids need to be exposed to it to know that they like painting or playing an instrument or whatever it might be that speaks to them.

KV: Were you creative as a kid, did the spark rise to the surface for you?

AK: Yes. For me, creativity became my salvation and it did just surface. It came out of a kind of self conscious desperation. I lived in a very dysfunctional family. My dad was an alcoholic. Later in life he he took the road of recovery and became an important part of my life and my children's lives. However, during my childhood he was still struggling and my mom was busy dealing with all of that so as a result my house was a creative wasteland.

I’ve spoken to other people and they talk about when they were little there were books in the house and their parents took them to museums and plays and they always had crayons and paper and paint. I had none of that. My mother liked to listen to Mitch Miller - that was the extent of my creative exposure at home.

I remember when I was about five, I was so alone. My sister was six years older and was off to school so I needed to occupy myself somehow. I have no idea where this came from - I made theatres. I made all different kinds of theatres as I imagined them because, of course, I had never actually been in one. My mother sewed all of my clothes so I made my theatres out of scraps of fabric I’d get from my mother and from old shoe boxes and newspapers. I made so many of them over the years. I wish I still had some of them today.

I would also “play” theatre. We had an unfinished basement in our home and I remember I found an old army blanket down there. I clipped that old blanket up and it would function as a curtain or a backdrop. So, then, I had a theatre. I was everything. I played all the parts. You know what’s astounding - when I took my bow I could truly hear the applause. Only a kid can do that.

KV: Did you find a creative outlet in school?

AK: In elementary school I went to a four room school. We didn’t do plays, we didn’t have music class. There was nothing theatrical. So, to think, I started out in my basement and then went all those years with nothing. I pleaded with my mother to let me attend the public high school but she said, “no.” So, I went to what was then Sacred Heart High School. I went to school as a secular day student with the postulants and novices who were studying to be nuns. Once a month a nun came in, played the piano and we sang some songs - that was music. We saw her eight times a year.

Gratefully enough they did decide to do one act plays my freshman and sophomore years. All of a sudden, I was alive again. Then, my junior and senior year they actually did full length plays. What a time!!

I went off to college hoping to be a theatre major but at the end of my freshman year my mother said, “You can’t be a theatre major. You will NEVER get a job and you need to get a job.” So, I sadly changed my major to English. I tried to stay as involved in the theatre department as I could. Initially, I had decided to do a double major but it became more than I could handle. I wound up being two courses short of the double major.

Once I graduated I started teaching and ironically every teaching job I ever held I was hired for my theatre work. I taught speech and theatre and directed the plays at school. Once again I was involved in theatre. It was in a very different way than I ever expected but it was very fulfilling and I loved it. I loved watching the kids love it.

I believe there is passion and indescribable magic in every single person. There is never anyone who is ever born into this world who doesn’t have that inside them and along with that passion and magic they have a driving desire to share, even if only for a moment, what lies beneath in them. It’s this concept that has become a mantra for me. It has become the way I live my life, it has become the way I see people. I think that it allows me to relate to people differently and it’s also what allowed me to take the portraits I took as a photographer. I didn’t want to show the natural beauty of a person on film. I wanted to capture something, if I could, that went beneath.

I’ve always known, even as a child, that I had a particular gift of allowing people to “be” with me, whether I was a teacher or a director or a photographer. I’ve had people tell me that I have an aura of safety about me. When I get that from people it’s very humbling because they will give you parts of themselves that they normally don’t let people see. I look upon it all with a boundless sense of gratitude. I think almost every creative thing I’ve ever done has been without intention. That creative process led me, I didn’t lead it, and it took me where I was meant to be.

KV: That leads me to one of my questions. I was there when the poetry started coming to you. You didn’t go in pursuit of it, it just came to you. I’m wondering if all of your creative endeavors have followed this same pattern.

AK: They have. I learned from ACN that so many of us who are artists hit our greatest roadblocks when we are attempting to make art happen. Our best work will ALWAYS, not sometimes, not frequently, but ALWAYS be generated by allowing it to happen.

ACN was a gift to me. I was creatively on fire in ACN. I say this with a great deal of humility because it was almost overwhelming to me. You see, ACN was a safe space and I didn’t know what a safe space was. All my creativity up until ACN was despite my surroundings. When I hit ACN and found myself in a place of no criticism and no judgment - !! Those were the rules at ACN - no criticism, no judgment and recognizing your stories. We learned to identify our stories and our place in them so we could move beyond them. That is a gift I will never, ever be able to repay.

You see, you can live in this space where all of this “stuff” is - thinking, feeling, emotions, judgment, criticism, joy, happiness - ALL of it. You’ve got to get from there to HERE, which is where choice and possibility live. Nothing else is there, just choice and possibility, because possibility is based on NOTHING. It isn’t based on education, talent, circumstances - nothing! When you learn how to get from point A to point B, it is astounding what happens because you don’t encumber yourself as an artist with the eight million stories we tell ourselves that stop us so often. As a result of being in this space of possibility I accomplished so much creatively and the very soul of who I was as a creative person was not only alive but validated.

KV: The concept of letting go of my stories has been very helpful to me, too. Could you elaborate on it a bit more.

AK: Yes. Being able to get out of my stories has been invaluable to me. It is almost impossible for me to put into words how that has impacted my life as a creative person - and as a person in general. Throughout the day I constantly ask myself: is this a “story,” who am I being is this story, did I make that up ( yes, I did). Who or what do I need to be to get out of this story?

Since the chapter of ACN I attended closed, which has been over six years ago, I have never quite had that same grasp. So much of that is because I no longer have that utterly supportive community to meet with twice a month.

Over the past two years it has felt like I’ve been in a creative wasteland. I’ve been saying to myself, ”Just be calm & it will come. Whatever it is I’m meant to be doing will come.” So, I guess what I’m meant to be doing is baby-sit my grandchildren because that is what has entered my life. And, just recently I had an email from a friend who has asked me to be his mentor as he begins his first foray into directing. I am so thrilled, honored and excited to take this journey with him.

KV: That’s wonderful. It will be great for both of you . You can help him create a safe place such as ACN was for you. I wonder if you find that many of us aren’t just reacting to outside forces but are also reacting to the voices of judgment and criticism within?

AK: I think every artist does. We get negative feedback not just from family and schooling - it’s just out there. I think artists as a whole live with negative feedback. I mean, look at things now, and it’s not just due to the economy, although that’s the big excuse at the moment.

KV: I find this how many people validate art: “is it good, is it bad...”

AK: Ah! There it is. I think that’s what the vast majority of people do regardless of the art. They are instinctively, immediately judgmental. They can look at something and either like it or not like it and then place a value or no value on it very quickly. I don’t do that now. It’s easy to slip back into it but if I find myself in that place I get myself out of that story. When you love art, you have a willingness to learn a different way of seeing.

KV: One of the many things I’ve admired about you is that you carry all of your creative efforts to their fruition, at least that’s how it appears to the outside observer. Is this something that comes naturally to you or is it something you’ve learned to do?

AK: Again, I look upon that as a gift. The best way I can describe it is: I can’t not. It’s just a natural part of who I am. It’s akin to making my bed. I can’t NOT make it. It’s not obsessive in any way. It’s just a calm doing because that’s who I am.

KV: Although you said earlier that you feel like you are currently in a creative wasteland, you also mentioned that you’re working on Hairspray. I’ve known you for several years now and I’m willing to bet that’s not the only thing you’re working on creatively…

AK: Well, I have been working on my memoirs. I was generated to do so because Herman and I are older and our grandchildren are very small. We will never have the opportunity to know them as adults. When that realization hit me it was difficult. I so want to know them at every single stage of their lives and there are things about my life I want them to know. There is so much about art and creativity and what it can do in their lives that I want them to know. I want them to sit with the words on the page and say, “Wow, this is how much my Nonna valued art and being creative.” Although the memoirs are not exclusive to that, a huge part will be devoted to art.

KV: As an outside observer , it seems to me that you are frequently inspired by people.

AK: (laughing)Hmmm, yes, almost totally. It was always there but it wasn’t something I consciously recognized, it was not an active thought until I picked up a camera. I was a cold January day, I had an old Minolta at my house, I had a roll of film sitting in the refrigerator (God knows how old it was). I had never taken anything but vacation shots and family shots by the Christmas tree. Now, again, something prompted me. I don’t like walking outside when it’s January and it’s freezing cold but something prompted me to take a walk outside and take pictures. Later, when I had them developed and I looked at them, I was shocked. I called my friend, Gary, who is a photographer and asked him if he had time to look at the pictures. He graciously went through them and then, went through them again. He asked me why I wanted him to see them. I told him that they had surprised me, that I found some of them really beautiful. He said, “I do, too.” I told him how I’d gone for a walk and all of a sudden I was taking photographs of things I normally would have walked by and not even noticed. How do you explain that?? You don’t. You say, “Thank you Universe.” That’s how it all started for me.

Initially, I was photographing things. That is when the concept came to me, that has been with me and will be with me until I go on my next journey, the concept of the mute eloquence of objects. Leaves in ice - they speak to us. Trees, clouds, rocks, - they speak to us. Then I went to see the play The Fantasticks. When the character of The Mute came out onstage I thought I wouldn’t be able to contain myself. It was like an implosion had happened and I thought, “My God, it’s the mute eloquence of people. That’s what it is. That’s what I need to photograph.” And, that is what I’ve done from that day to this. Everything leads to the next thing.

KV: Your photography eventually led to you to a workshop with Dennis Keeley.

AK: Yes. I, of course, went there with all of my stories because, unlike ACN, he was there to critique our work. I invented all of these scenarios in my mind where he’d single me out as the one person who didn’t really belong there. So you can imagine when he looked at my portraits and said, “I wish I could take portraits like that” my breath left me for just minute. I almost felt numb. I didn’t know what to do with what I felt. The next day he asked me to meet him at lunchtime. Right away I went in to the negative stories again, they are just so inherent. So, I met with him and he said, “I’m going to say something that will be difficult to hear.” I remember I was staring at the grass and my eyes started to well. He continued, “There is an element of genius in what you do.” What I remember about that moment was the different shades of green in the grass and that if he had told me to go home that somehow would have been easier. That’s huge. That’s how we are, unless someone unconditions us along the way and allows us to continue to learn how to uncondition ourselves to that kind of response.

It’s amazing how difficult it can be for an artist to hear good things about their work because we are so conditioned otherwise. I think somewhere in my worldly psyche I want to take that conditioning away from every creative person I know in whatever way I can. Nobody could offer you anything better than that - the freedom to be comfortable with what you create.

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