Saturday, November 9, 2013

Meeting 2CELLOS (Stjepan Hauser and Luka Sulic) in New Orleans


On October 30th at 4.30pm, I met with global cellist star duo  Stjepan Hauser and Luka Sulic of 2CELLOS at the newly-renovated The Civic theater in New Orleans. I first saw 2CELLOS perform in my hometown Osijek, Croatia earlier this year in June, and learned from them after the Osijek concert that they are to perform here.

Luka and Stjepan, citizens of my native Croatia, kindly granted a 15 minute interview, so I can ask questions related to my research on short film and child performers used in  the Special Topics course I teach at Tulane's School of Continuing Studies this Fall.  I show their viral video at the end of the course as students try to define what short film is today.


Spicmiler-Lewis (introducing herself to 2CELLOS):

I am teaching a course on "Short Film and Music Video", subtitled Cultural Landscape of Child Stardom, at Tulane University's School of Continuing Studies.  My students and I are looking at child stars and child performers starting with Diana Serra-Carey, but focusing in the first half of the course on Charlie Chaplin who mastered the art of silent short and long film, and later sound film.  Another American and globally renown child performer Michael Jackson was influenced by Charlie Chaplin's vision of short films in terms of  cinematography, choreography, and also the concept of musical composition being interwoven with  film's narrative.

Sulic:
I did not know Chaplin was also a composer.

Hauser:
You didn't know? I knew. He wrote music for some of his films. You know that song "Smile"?

Spicmiler-Lewis:
Good then, we can view this as a mutually teaching interview! It is good to be learning new things.

I was exploring these Chaplin-Jackson connections since Michael Jackson has passed away because of my interest in his terming his music videos "Short Films" and insisting they be viewed as a special genre.  I also decided to explore the Jackson legacy in relation to film because of a lack of academic material I could reference when students were asking me questions about him as an artist (or as a recognized yet often mystified American citizen) over many years of teaching subjects relating to writing and popular culture.  This research proved difficult because of the endless controversies surrounding Jackson according to both reputable and ill-reputed press channels, but became more possible as much primary documentation  became globally available through the internet, allowing for a researcher's deeper comprehension of his intent as an artist and him as a person.  I was also intrigued by Jackson's uneven reception domestically and abroad. It appeared that in US, the full acknowledgement of not only his musical and choreographic or showmanship mastery, or eclectic mixing of genre, but also of his visual, cinematic, and marketing genius was slower to come than abroad. 

Hauser:
I am a marketing genius, too.  (Sulic laughs)


Spicmiler-Lewis:
You certainly are.
So, coming from teaching this course, are my questions pertaining to your musical breakthrough with a cello arrangement of  Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" and through the viral short film that presented your dynamic number in both an effective visual, narrative, and musical statement.

I define the short film today, as used by younger generations showcasing their talent in the online media as a tool of a) self expression,  b) self promotion, and c)  interpretation.  I read your recently published book The Big Bang in Croatian and the book gave me an idea of how your video evolved as a project as not entirely authored by you.  However,  I see several of classic Jackson themes in your Smooth Criminal short film (beyond how the videographer explains his pre-recording concept) that I would like to ask you more about. 

Is there anything more you would like to say about the concept for the video that would be of interest to college audiences and that is not in the book about your musical lives, your families, and your post Smooth Criminal success?  Also, how do you view the medium  'short film' as a means of expressing what you are trying to do musically?

Sulic:
As you said before, we do view it as means of self-expression and self-promotion but also suggested interpretation.  What is your more specific question about the video?

Spicmiler-Lewis
You said that when you conceived the "Smooth Criminal" other collaborators participated and contributed ideas. But would you say that the main idea is still mostly yours, since it fits so perfectly with your musical arrangement of intense but fair competition between two masters?  In other words, emotions in your music perfectly match certain themes of the video that resonate with Jackson--competition, 'the girl is mine' type of duel, ...

Sulic:
The main concept was Kiki's (the videographer's) idea actually.

Hauser:
Yes, ...

Spicmiler-Lewis:
In that case, can we safely assume that your expert videographer may have studied several Jackson's short films (not necessarily just his famous "Smooth Criminal" number from the Moonwalker) prior to conceiving of your video? I see a little of the idea from Jackson-McCartney duet "The Girl is Mine" as well.

Hauser:
Kiki was not an expert; this was his first video.

Sulic:
But yes, the "Smooth Criminal" original video does contain elements of a battle or confrontation, it does take place in a bar, and ours is also in a bar, not as big and fancy bar as Jackson's, but it is ours, ...

Hauser:
... and cute!

Spicmiler-Lewis:
Yet beyond "Smooth Criminal," I feel that it resonates with another musical number and short film staged as a confrontation that ends well -- "Beat It"!

Sulic and Spicmiler-Lewis (in the same voice):
Yes, and "Bad" !

Spicmiler-Lewis:
So I am asking can I safely credit these Jackson references as partly your thematic intent, not just the videographer's?

Hauser:
Yes, it is a fight. But we fight through art, not violence. Art replaces violence.  In Jackson's case, the fight is through dance (and singing) and in ours, through our passionate playing, through our instruments, two cellos.

Spicmiler-Lewis:
Thank you! Also, the video suggests, physical violence or rivalry is also not cool with girls.  I am glad you say this because your other interviews rarely if at all refer to other Jackson films or songs that relate.

This leads to my next question's subject  -- your level of mastery using your talent and obviously your lifelong dedication to perfecting your skill with the instrument.  You obviously had to have the parents and families who recognized your talent, who fostered it, as we know that they have, and then also to carry you through and support you to where you are now. 

Luka, how would you describe your childhood as different than Stjepan's in the context of your family and your family's musical legacy?

Sulic:
Well, we both do come from musical families.  To both of us, family support was the most important thing. 

Spicmiler-Lewis:
Are you saying it was really helpful to you that your family members were also involved with music-making, as opposed to other families of child prodigies (musicians, dancers, actors) who may have acted only as managers of their child's talent, as in Jackson's case?

Sulic:
Of course!  It always helps. But Jackson's family was also involved with music.

Spicmiler-Lewis:
Yes, all his siblings were, but I am talking about the parents who flirted with musical careers but never pursued them once the children were brought into the business.

Hauser to Sulic:
I think Sanda means that his father was beating him (and them) and such...they were driven by the father.

Spicmiler-Lewis:
Yes, I mean that Jackson has complained on numerous occasions that he never knew his father and that his father was too much of a manger and never a nurturing presence a talented performing child would need and want also. Although both you and your parents had to subject yourselves to rigorous discipline throughout your training, do you feel like you know your parents as parents as well, not just helpers toward your careers?

Hauser:
Yes, of course. We had real parents, nothing to do with business. They were not involved in any way with that. 

Sulic:
Perhaps this is also because ours was a totally different world, a classical music world.

Hauser:
I disagree. There are known piano and violin players' parents who drove their kids to success like crazy, even broke their careers. Our parents were never like that.  My parents were never like that.

They were worried, in my case, for my health, because I was obsessively into this instrument. But they respected and understood what I wanted...

Spicmiler-Lewis:
So, you are saying that you feel happy or lucky because nothing was imposed on you; you knew what YOU wanted to do, you felt free and was happy to pursue your talents, happy with what you do...

Sulic:
...but of course, we were guided.  When you are young you have to be guided by your parents. We were guided well, so no suffering.  We were guided in a healthy way, with a healthy balance between love and work.   Nothing sick, you know.

Spicmiler-Lewis:
This seems to have also been a message behind Jackson's exposure of his father's cruelty:  it appears he wanted to invite other parents into both promoting their children's talent and loving them, being there for them, not burdening them.

Jackson also evolved in the competitive market of the music industry, where money was synonymous with success.  The classical music market in Europe seems rather competitive in a different way, more through awards and prestige, scholarships, not acquiring wealth. There are many who pursue classical music in Croatia or Slovenia and there is much talent.  Yet the two of you spring out frm that world and manage to stand out.

Sulic:
Yes, but the problem with classical music world in the west is that there is no real fan base; there is at a the certain level, but until you get there, you have to go through so many different channels, ou have to know many, different people, conductors, artistic directors, word of mouth, and alike, you know... 

So we thought, we are only two guys from Croatia with no real connections, we will never make it. The only thing that can save us, is the fan base.  And today, fan base means amount of views on You Tube, posts on social media and alike,...

Hauser:
...something that shows that people dig it.  Social media were crucial for our breakthrough.  And they still help us...

Spicmiler-Lewis:
I see another Jackson parallel question here, as I also study fan communities. I encourage students to see how fan-communities operate as an extension of an artist, in Jackson's case especially so since his passing, as fans become almost interpreters and advocates of his art, celebrators of his life, and because of the muckraker journalism that defamed him so unfairly, some fans see themselves as helping rewrite distorted history.

I learned that Jackson (and 'Jackson 5' or 'The Jacksons') has always had the most incredible and globally organized fan base, prior to social media, to some extent also due to investing in promotion and due to clever merchandizing.  However precisely thanks to social media, he also has a growing base of new fans who become that  precisely because social media allow dissemination of information otherwise not available through traditional news channels.

For instance, just one of the many Facebook organizations titled "UKlovesMJ" is of such high quality as a database organized by professional librarians or archivists. So fan base is not just an emotional, biased community that promotes the artist they love, but becomes a chronicling and educational tool that documents the wider social phenomenon of how the performing artist affects human lives on many levels.  This site for example has witness accounts of fans' encounters with Jackson, documents events misreported or distorted by the media, has testimonies focusing just on what his music has meant to them personally, how he conducted himself with fans or celebrity friends alike through other, not necessarily musical/performing encounters, and it also features different forms of art that he inspires in others (photography, drawing, painting, interior design, fashion, mural art, etc.)

 I see each such well-run website or facebook organization or You Tube collaboration videos as a  huge global scrapbook of love. 

I know that in his case, there was an organized effort within different organizations within his enterprise, to cultivate fan-merchandizing and fan-communication almost as a business, however after his death, such databases sprung up spontaneously from the fans themselves and to me show a measure of artistic impact that is just as important to witness if not more so, than the 'official' representations of Jackson's significance like how many records he set, how much money he generated, and alike. 

In your case, I wonder whether you are aware that you find yourselves in a unique position to affect countless lives with your success and life-stories, not just your music, as you have this global visibility.  You are undoubtedly inspiring very young to play your instrument, or those playing the instrument to reinvent what can be done with it.  Do you have time to think about things like cultivating and expanding your fan base in some more immediate or systematic ways other  that what you are already doing through Facebook, Twitter, and You Tube [posting new concert videos, announcing new projects, commenting on fan art, volunteering snapshots of your travels, etc]?  Or do you think that how your fan base grows is a part of random cosmic unfolding of events since your breakthrough, that you are at the center of it, but need not necessarily work to maintain it?

Sulic:
Well, our fanbase is constantly growing.  We are focused on our art and making ourselves as available as we can, performing in many different places, big and small.  We use social media to show fans how much we appreciate them.  We see that fans are connecting with each other, doing it themselves, organizing, sometimes becoming friends, doing a website like everything2cellos.com, creating and posting fan art on Facebook, posting creative videos on You Tube and alike.  We don't know what can happen, we will see.

Spicmiler-Lewis:
So, you are welcoming all those activates, even 2CELLOS fan humor.

Hauser:
Of course!

Spicmiler-Lewis:
For some people, you know, the word "fan" carries negative connotations, as in "fan-atic" or "people who don't have a life" and thus live a substitute life through an artist they adulate and follow, ...

Hauser:
...or fantasize about...[chuckles]

Spicmiler-Lewis:
Or, there is a connotation of 'fickleness' where fans may drop you from the horizon when the next more exciting art act becomes their main obsession.  But I feel that your fan base is unique in that it also attracts attention to where you come from and sparks interest in the historical region that is relatively unknown in other parts of the world (other than through its negative association with the 'Balkan Wars' of 1990-1994 when Yugoslavia fell apart). 

I am wondering: Do you feel pressured because you come from Croatia to promote a certain national image, or to be aware of that in guarding your behavior, or do you also feel free to express yourselves as individuals, citizens of the world, which you also are since some of your education and forming into young adults you are now, took place abroad?

Sulic:
So far, we haven't had any problems. What we achieved was mostly because of us and our families, teachers, not because of the country. 

Hauser:
We do feel that we owe our success to anyone or any-thing.

Sulic:
For instance, I am part-Slovenian. At a certain point, they were fighting over who 'owns' me, Slovenia or Croatia. I am proud of my mom, who is Slovenian, so I feel I belong equally to both countries. [Sulic speaks Croatian, Slovenian, Italian, some German, and English]. Yet it is still nice when you see Croatian people being proud of your success; it gives you a warm feeling.  But we would never politicize what we do and what we love.

Spicmiler-Lewis;
Yes, and you seem to expand that sense of pride in your success by association in other parts of former Yugoslavia, like Bosnia, where you are also visiting to perform and find yourselves welcome!

Hauser:
It is MUSIC!

Sulic:
But here it is different, in United States, you know?  People can have their differences and it is not a big deal whether you support Obama or another candidate or president, life goes on, peacefully and people get along despite differences.  In Croatia, the politics is still much more complex,  because of the complicated history.

Sulic:
But we would never play for just a certain political party, for money, or anything like that. Or endorsements.

Hauser [sarcastically]:
I would do anything for money.  [Hauser, Sulic, Spicmiler-Lewis laughing at the obvious joke.]

Sulic:
If we 'sold out,' we wouldn't be 2CELLOS any more.

Spicmiler-Lewis:
Exactly.  I am happy to hear that.  Since I said this can be a 'teaching interview,' I wanted to tell you just a little about my own heritage.   I have some Austrian, some Hungarian,  Rumanian-Hungarian, German, Check, and a little bit of Croatian background in my ancestry, so when Yugoslavia was falling apart and I was around 27-28 at the time, your age, it was very difficult for me for a number of years to maintain a healthy sense of my identity, explain myself to my friends here in US where I was already living at the time. When I travelled home after the war, it was almost a 'crime' to use certain words if they stemmed from other former Yugoslav languages, anything that was not whatever was considered pure Croatian, as the new government was establishing itself through this 'purged' language. 

Sulic and Hauser:
Yes, we know.

Spicmiler-Lewis:
So I refrained going home for a while, because it was just too traumatic for me to visit and experience further fragmentation in this shrunken place now called home.  Although physical war was over, each visit I felt like I was reopening the emotional and psychological wounds of war that were mining my heart and my mind and making it difficult to feel whole and also function in my life here in US.
So I focused on my work here, built a life here and now feel more comfortably belonging 'here' than 'there,' I repressed anything that culturally associated me with my former life as even music and other film were 'butchered' art forms in that sense, split between and claimed by different new countries of former Yugoslavia. I worked hard on fully acculturating here and forgetting.  But I must give the two of you credit for helping me as well...

Sulic [interrupts]:
Actually, when you come to America, when you look at this place from a distance, how life unfolds, everything looks so harmonious, and what happened there does not make much sense.  And that is what I love about America, that no matter who you are or where you come from, you can do something original,...

Spicmiler-Lewis:
...you mean you do not feel prejudged?

Hauser:
Yeah, you feel welcome.

Sulic:
And even though you are from Croatia, you also feel right at home.

Spicmiler-Lewis:
Would you also say your distinctness is celebrated?  Uniqueness is welcomed rather than quenched?

Sulic:
Yes, but if you come from another Western European country, Germany for instance, it's already different than America. 

Spicmiler-Lewis:
Identities are more classified or perceived by national origin, you would say?  You are perceived as coming from somewhere else?

Sulic:
Yes, you are seen by some preset assumptions.  But here is that wonderful feeling of being seen by what you are doing, and you know you can make it if you are good at what you do.

Hauser: 
We are aware of that, how much we mean to fans. It adds more meaning to everything we do.

Spicmiler-Lewis:
Thank you for being so candid and generous with your time.
I would like to close this interview with my gift to you, as we said we can consider it a mutually teaching interview.

As Stjepan has already hinted, music had always traditionally had that power, to unite, to transcend national, cultural, or ethnic differences, to unite across differences, possibly even generational.  Yet how this power plays itself out through each generation is different. 

What I am grateful to you for having witnessed is how through your concerts, or just hearing your music, or through short films suggesting your or your videographers'   interpretive possibilities  (be they classical or 'covers-rearrangements' of pop, rock, country, etc.) there is also still something about your performances that elates and unites through music in a new, original way.  A truly masterful musician pushes us sonically to hear and reinvent meaning in the familiar without being political in any obvious way. However for each listener it allows an individual interpretation that ties back into the core of identity. So despite your visually suggestive themes in short films, there is also room for multiple experiences of what you do.  Strictly in terms of use of your instrument, for younger classical cellists, like the once you recently invited to perform with you on stage in Florida, you are freeing them to use the instrument differently, much in the fashion of Michael Jackson's  (who also invited countless child-imitators like Jimmy Safechuck to join him on stage) reinventing dance and breaking boundaries between different musical genres, while teaching and inspiring young talent to trust their own understanding of sound, of rhythm or the visual effects of a performance.

 For me, the meaning has a more personal healing effect.  Because of the form of cultural dismemberment of my past, so to speak, when even certain songs from other areas of former Yugoslavia were not to be sung and performed because they were demonized as Yugo-nostalgia, because we were expected in war’s immediate aftermath to be only pro-censored-Croatia, it was hard for me to explain to my fellow American co-citizens here after the war, that I come from a place with rich culture and history and that my personal  past is not associated with forces imposing a narrow limited perspective of what it means to be from that region and also from a country that no longer exists politically. It was hard to explain a love for a song (or a poet, or a film) from Serbia or Bosnia and at the same time not be confusing people either there or here. For some in Croatia, or here in US, it is also difficult to understand a bi-continental existence, a life of belonging to two places at once, although America is my chosen place to fully belong to and build my future life in.

 However, since your breakthrough, I must admit that for the first time since the war, I can safely feel proud of the region I come from, which includes but is not limited to Croatia and extends to Slovenia, Serbia, Macedonia or any other parts of former Yugoslavia I may not even have been to physically. I can shares something truly positive from the Balkan region, which up to now was associated with narrow-mindedness, war, pretty coastline, and maybe a random sports celebrity.  However because you also reinterpret and perform American or British or Italian pop or rock, or a Japanese piece, you create a truly universal transcendence amongst Eastern and Western cultures, and between 'high' art of classical and 'low' art of popular music. You help me bridge all types of artificial ‘divides’ and feel whole once again in embracing my new self.  Thank you for that!

Sulic:
You are welcome.

Spicmiler-Lewis:
Back to your other fans, who must have different personal reactions to what you do, do you hear any testimonies where they attribute your work with healing, or with love you inspired in them to do things for each other, as families, and alike, or that empower them individually?  For example I met two of your fans from Louisiana through Facebook, a mother whose son is treating her to your concert for her birthday, and they are both equally excited, as if they were the same age.

 Sulic:
Yes, all the time. A day before yesterday, for instance, a lady drove her young daughter from New Mexico to Florida  just to hear us play and to give us this stone [Luka produces a small round blue lapis lazuli stone out of his shorts' pocket] and shows it to me.  The girl was five years old, just a baby, and she rode with her mom for nine hours. Can you imagine that? She's just a kid from New Mexico. And her mother drove her for nine hours, a long ride for a small kid just to see a concert.  That is amazing to me!

Spicmiler-Lewis:
Wow. Let me add to this list of 'miracles,' that my 88-year-old father walked quite a way and climbed four flights of stairs in Osijek, Croatia, just to see you play, 10 days after he suffered a minor stroke. And he is a retired actor who only goes to theater performances, not musical concerts!

 ===

At this point, the duo’s on tour drummer Dusan Kranjc is about to finish his sound check and noises from the auditorium spill into The Civic bar lounge where I interviewed Luka and Stjepan, the two casually sitting on tables that were later used for the post-concert signing event.  As the tour manager opens the door and motions, duty calls and they both spring to their feet.

Luka admits he is hungry and we agree to end our brief encounter. I thank the artists for being generous with their time and present my small tokes of appreciation--alligator Christmas tree ornaments--small mementos of their first New Orleans concert and a modest enticement for a 'home Christmas' that I wish for them after the tour.  They react with boyish glee and Stjepan promises to place his on the tree. Both also devour a package of Croatian taffy candy “Ki-Ki”  which I brought imagining they may be homesick this far into the US tour that started this fall, right after they toured Croatia, Bosnia, and Europe. I inform them they have 10 new fans in the audience by my invite, some the students from my course,  and I promise that we will dance, when they begin rocking the house, as I already know they welcome toward the end of their performances.  I also present them with Tulane University SCS t-shirts, hoping they will have a bigger following from Tulane when they return to New Orleans on their next US tour. They smile one last time, thank politely and vanish to prepare.

===

Read my comparison of two concerts in my next blog: "From Osijek to New Orleans: 2CELLOS Two Times"


For assistance with this project, special thanks to:

Michael Pidgeon who granted the interview; Monica Sill Caminita for transportation and becoming an instant fan;  Carrie Lee Schwartz and KayMcLennan for blog assistance;  Celeste Uzee for special gifts; Ms. Kardas and Ms. Papa for concert tickets.  Additional thanks to 2CELLOS fans Katerina (US), Mateja (Croatia), Chieko (Japan), and Kazumi (Japan) who have helped as online research assistants and kept me up to date on all 2CELLOS news, activities and literature in the past year.


 

 
 
 
 
 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Interview with Prof. Carrie Lee Schwartz( Artist)


Prof. Carrie Lee Schwartz:
Who are you?

Sanda Spicmiler-Lewis:
I am an educator and an explorer of what elates and torments the human spirit. Because of my faith in victory of what is best in us, I consider myself a Tireless Humanist.

I write about how people express their individualism through their art or how they react to art of others.

Carrie Lee Schwartz: 
Why is the manifestation of  the individual through the arts so important to you?

Sanda Spicmiler-Lewis:
Because it makes each voice visible and relevant:  this is essential to the realization of a free human being in a democratic society.  We need to be able to articulate our changing self in a safe way.
 
Having a voice makes uniqueness relevant and helps us become a community that can negotiate across  differences that make us unique. It requires self-awareness and heightens a sense of personal responsibility for our actions.
 
When I lived and was receiving my education in the  oppressive socialist regime of former
Yugoslavia, the way in which I felt most free was through the arts -- visual, musical, kinetic, cinematographic, or textual.

In the absence of free articulation of faith, because religious life was heavily repressed and absent from the public arena of thought and dialogue, the arts created a free space to challenge the ideology  that defined human values only in association with the regime.  I was young when I realized art could be timeless and allow me to travel across time and space, finding kinship with kindred souls across cultures, faiths, and policies. This was happening in my parents' theater where both they and my grandparents worked as actors, through film (where my family was also actively involved) but also as I navigated the endless maze of my hometown's public library, my parents' book collections, and quite ironically, fabulous domestic and foreign art exhibits that were government sponsored in both small and big Yugoslav towns.  I say 'ironic' because there was much art production and sponsorship of arts, but again little free discussion of its possible versatile meanings.

My father, Radoslav Spitzmuller, an actor in a satirical theater "Jazavac" in Zagreb, encouraged me to always read and think between the lines of what is presented to me in 'the press' of on television.  The real story is always hidden somewhere, as a puzzle, in the official story, he would say.  He found subtle ways to cultivate my inquisitive mind toward thinking creatively and outside the box, while at the same time not getting 'in trouble' with censorship.  Much later, while preparing to teach an essay for a composition course at Tulane, in US,  I read M.L.K.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail."  It made me re-appreciate as an adult, what an art form my father's parenting was: to empower the child to be open-minded in a regime where a parent could suffer a consequence for doing so was also a heroic act of resistance on his part. He was changing history through me.

Carrie Lee Scwartz:
How did you find your voice, or the expression of your thought and feeling through the arts?

Sanda Spicmiler-Lewis: 
"I wrote poetry as a youngster but also practiced film-reviews and journal-keeping, the latter two as private forms of expression not meant to be shared with an audience, but a free space for idea-recording.  I was influenced by Anne Frank's diary which I was given as a present for my 13th birthday, because it made me aware that even a child's voice can be historically powerful and relevant against a huge machinery for extermination of everything human.  Although I needed to believe that what she experienced will never be historically repeated, a part of me felt like compulsively documenting the everyday life of my youth, not just through words but through simple artifacts and mementos scrapped around my words.

I  pursued photography as another means of documentation, as I was aware of the rapid passage of time and an acute sense that the regime I was born into will eventually dissolve, or transform into something else, something hopefully better and less isolating.  What I dreaded was how the change would come about.  As a form of therapeutic escape, I also photographed what gave me solace: beautiful plants that surrounded me in our minute garden, cemetery we lived next to, facades of old buildings in much need of facelift, and other objects of interest that to me were a-political and a-historical and therefore freeing."

Finding the voice did not happen until much later when I was living in US. I came to New Orleans to pursue a doctorate at 25.  Although fluent in English, it took me a while to realize that challenging someone's opinion through writing was not only permitted but desired. I never wanted to engage in hostile or confrontational rhetoric, as much as that could be avoided.  I believed in the dialogue between the reader and writer, or  writer and critic, as a civilized discourse that mandated mutual respect. However in academia, verbal combativeness was popular between different schools of thought and I once again find language limiting rather than freeing.

Carrie Lee Scwartz:
What forms of writing are you most comfortable with now?

Sanda Spicmiler-Lewis:
After years of writing graduate school seminar papers which had to fit a certain format, and then also practicing the art of commenting on student essays, which I believe needs to take a form of a dialogue rather than 'verdict' in order to be pedagogically successful, I found writing letters a welcome return guests in my war-fractured and two-continental life. At one point, in former Yugoslavia, I used to have pen pals from different parts of the world in order to practice my English or German but also to extend beyond the borders of the country and culture without travel. When studying in US, followed letters 'home,' or rather to family and friends in the country I left in order to study here. As war escalated and resulted in an extremely erratic postal services, I gave up for a number of years. Instead of writing, I read others' war-related writing like Slavenka Drakulic's "How we Survived Communism and Even Laughed" or "Balkan Express."  I also enjoyed Dubravka Ugresic's "Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream."  I was living in US, was from a country that did not exist any more, yet was also unable to explain to others (or to myself) which is this new place of my origin, called Croatia.  The negotiating through these different identities took a number of years, and a process of writing again became instrumental to my healing from the artificial fissures in my identity and of learning to belong in a new way.

Thanks to internet and e-mail, a flood of repressed letters began pouring out of me--some to steady friends, some to friends long lost and found again, others to complete strangers. Over the years, these letters became a way of holding onto sanity in the aftermath of a particularly brutal and divisive war, but later also of overcoming artificial divisions that breaking up of Yugoslavia caused for many of us, whichever sides of the new state borders we found themselves on.  Letter-writing continues to soothe me and guide me in self-reinvention and recovery, even if some letters never get sent. It is about imagining that one particular listener, the caring emphatic ear.

Living in New Orleans also involved living through and overcoming another violent life changing-event: hurricane Katrina.  After weathering the war, Katrina was not as difficult, but still took a toll as it reorganized life plans and created new setbacks.  Yet once again, I resurfaced whole, through helping others write about their aftermath and recovery, through my own writing, and through reading.  Photography and film again played a major role in documenting, processing and sharing what we underwent as a community here, both to ourselves and to those not of here. 

What came as the most pleasant surprise was comment-writing on social media. My global identity of someone writing in English but someone not necessarily known to communities within which I comment on others' art empowered me as a writer in a new way.  As long as writing is driven from love and a position of constructive criticism, as long as I write 'from the gut' -- that is without too much premeditation, writing in the moment immediately after I experience a work of art, I find that the authors on what I comment about found it valuable and affirmative of their intention, or interesting in terms of how their work resonates with others beyond their original intent.  As a result of 'comment-writing,' I met writers who are free in the truly global sense.  Some thank me for articulating in narrative or descriptive prose what they can only conceive of in form of a painting, a poem, a sculpture or a photo montage.  Perhaps it is a new form of unpretentious criticism, not a criticism for winning the accolades of our academic peers, or for pleasing institutional arbiters of what is fashionable, but a direct and unmediated interaction between the artist and most immediate recipient, in real time.
 
 
Carrie Lee Scwartz:
What is this blog going to be about?
 
 
Sanda Spicmiler-Lewis:
I hope it will shape itself as I go along. It is my first blog.  I will write about what feeds my soul and what I find relevant to share with my students, academic community, and friends in the wider world of online learning and fellowship.


The Tirelesss Humanist




·      Child Rights
·      Child Stardom
·      Child in Literature
·      Child in Film
·      Against Abuse

·      The Jackson Connection (recommended resource links to notable Michael Jackson scholars, fan artists, and fan activists)
·      Chaplin Resurrected
·      For the love of NOLA
·      SS’s Balkan Diaspora
·      SS’s  Global Friends
·      War is never good
·      Books that built me
·      Speaking with Leaves – Photo-narrative Explorations

Joseph Vogel
Dr. Willa Stillwater




Monday, October 8, 2012